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Literature

From Concord’s Jail – An Address by H. D. Thoreau

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Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau

[Originally published September 25, 2008]

Introduction: On July 23rd, 1846, Henry David Thoreau, protesting slavery and the ensuing Mexican war (1845 – 48) chose incarceration rather than paying his $1.00 poll tax. From this experience came the essay CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE which directly influenced Mohandas K. Gandhi in his efforts to free India from British rule and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., head of the civil rights movement in the 1960’s.

The following monologue is the author’s fictionalized attempt to portray Thoreau’s state of mind shortly after the incident and the areas of consideration leading to his momentous essay.

Setting: July 24th, 1846, Concord – H.D. Thoreau is invited to speak at the Concord Lyceum about his recent act of civil disobedience. The lyceum was a place where relevant topics of the day were presented to the public.

Note: H. D. Thoreau did, in fact, speak at the lyceum about this matter, but it was not until two years later in 1848 and later published CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE.

I have only lately come from Concord Jail. I went, you see, because my government, like some ruffian, has gone to war with Mexico. And yet it comes to me to pay for this villainy. My conscience would not let me pay a penny for the privilege of sacking my neighbor. But I am told to hand some portion of my earnings over or else be promised with a bullet or barred windows!

I reasoned I am safer behind bars. At least, there is no uncertainty as to where the villains are, being as they are let loose about the country side and further to do their black mischief.

I will not be counted as one of a hoard of Huns sweeping down from the Russian Steppes to conquer. Therefore, I reasoned, I must make the jail my boarding house until freed by good sense and a peaceful world.

Indeed, I had to go even though my garden wanted hoeing and the wood thrush had an aria for me to listen to. But who, with any conscience, could let such injury go unmet? And so I turned myself from my engagements to defend Mexico.

And having roused myself, I now am angry for having been thrown out of jail. Yes, thrown out of jail! Because some good intentioned busybody paid my poll tax. Though the sum be small the principle is vast. And now there is no purpose for my being there. The government has gotten what it wanted! I have been dismissed for my one dollar has been counted.

My government would have me for a weapon: aiming a gun or cash on the barrel. It makes no difference. One is as deadly as the other. And it must have either or both if I can be persuaded or coerced.

This government is the snake oil salesman urging my faith in his remedy. If I do not buy he says some disadvantage will befall my life or limb. Methinks he wants me to believe I have been cursed. And how can I not be suspicious since he spells the curse and sells the cure? Here it is, I would pay him to protect me from himself is what he means. There is a sordid business in the marriage of greed, guns and promises. Plainly, like a lifeboat of survivors, we will not survive unless we work the oars together. I cannot steer or row with any accuracy if I must watch my back or have my rations stolen.

Imagine! That I can authorize myself to come into my neighbor’s house and steal his wares. I cannot see myself relenting to a similar mistreatment by some other Concord citizen. Surely, I would barricade my doorway and exhort the trespasser that there will be some price to pay for all his greed and gorging.

And I ask, what document my mark is put to authorizing me to vivisect my southern neighbor? I need go only so far as my own mind to reason that such a trespass upon my person by another would cause a misery if not a call to arms. What woe must a man feel to be maneuvered into self-defense by some other who means to take away his sense of harmless safety!

Yet, our Congress schemed to annex Texas as long ago as 1844. But I have not yet cast my vote to take what is not mine. And still this crime continues in my name. My government murders Democracy in its cradle. I must be vigilant. Is it not an instinct to throw one’s self between calamity and a child?

To avert the eye and let the devouring begin is a canker at the root of society that soon enough will invade the whole plant. It is a gangrenous wound in the soul’s organization, which it consumes in its waking hours, nay, even in its dreaming.

I put this question to myself, where is the good in all this taking? Clearly, the lands of our red brothers and sisters are not enough for these United States. It now must have Texas and California and New Mexico! Here is an arrogance, ignorance and folly of so much magnitude. Eating up the world until there be nothing left, not even for him who gluts upon it. In the end even the fat man starves.

Is this what we call civilization? There is nothing so uncivil as oppressing a person or a people. And Mexico, so recently escaped from Spanish, English and Russian hands, knows well what ill intentions these United States are plotting. For by coaxing men to settle in a land that is not theirs a confrontation has been provoked, and General Zachary Taylor marches in, to which Mr. Polk declares that American blood is spilling in our territory. So with a lust for annexation Congress, like a pack of jackals, rushes to appropriate ten million dollars to carve up Mexico’s body.

This government courts its own and my destruction with its ethics decayed and confiscation as its impulse. This then is our advertisement to the world, as citizens we say that this is who we are. We go about our voracious business paying our dollars. Like so much cattle we are led to the barn to be milked then turned out to chew up the pasture for yet another milking, while a disbelieving world looks on.

It is not enough that we expropriate what in not ours. Shamelessly we turn away our anonymous faces, endorsing the murdering of a another culture and its people no less than our own young who we send out to do this nefarious business. Yet, at this late date of 1846, our elected president Mr. Polk and legislators have asserted this privilege.

It is an insult and outrage to the educated man and laborer alike that his government assumes him to be so venial in his moral constitution. The self aware man, knowing he is thought so vilely of, would watch his government as closely as a rabbit would wary of the lion.

Why all this wanting to be the only bull in the pasture? All well and good say I, but not in mine. We each have been allotted our particular portion. I have no want of yours. I have enough as I see you do too. But my government would have me put aside my moral fabric and go carelessly to the feeding trough certifying that I can consume some other creature’s feed. It will take care of everything it says. All that is required of me is to send my dollars or if I be of a young stock to donate my limbs, nay, even my body to the taking of my neighbor’s house. The plague of locusts that I am asked to be is eating up my good name as well as my neighbor’s good will and sense of well being.

Would that such were done to me, and quicker than snatching my finger from the flame, I would find some solution to so unfortunate a circumstance as having to feed myself with an army at my doorstep.

Who alive is not susceptible to his own preservation as our Mexican friends have so bravely proven this 30th of April past at Palo Alto and the siege of fort Texas? Better still to be susceptible to our sense of fairness and the good of all. Here is true preservation, together working not warring.

What profit do common folk procure from carnage? Their meager wages taxed, their hardships enlarged, whereas the arms-man knows no disadvantage. Indeed, he has much to gain by selling killing devices, for in war both sides buy his wares. It is a cunningly clean equation.

Warring brings a defamation not soon put aside. It wastes a man’s time, nay a whole generation’s when its mind and talents can be put to better purpose than devising ways of devastating lives, destroying crops, killing animals and mutilating the countryside. When do we sicken of the carnage? Are not our maimed children enough to make us stop?

Yet we are convinced of the notion that those fallen on the field must not die in vain. But who would know better than the dead man that that which is in vain is to continue the killing? He has forfeit his life so we might see how no good can come to any who would keep company with war. Let the men who strategize the warring be the first to lead the charge and let the rank and file be comprised of their own families.

This is my government, preying upon another country no less than myself. Honest men are they that make an honest government. Anything less will beget less. I do not need someone to convince me that it is dry outside when I am standing in a puddle. Though twenty people would have me believe otherwise, I am not deaf to the whirlwind raging against my window. If my government is taking bread from my mouth or the mouths of others, then there is no need of such as it is. I owe no allegiance to a way of being that recoils my conscience. It is demanded of me that I resist!

Let those be taxed who have more than they need. If I have two apples and you have none, would it not be a simple matter to offer you one? What misfortune and in what dungeon-like realm dwells the man who would watch his neighbor diminish? Surely, this is not a man to whom I would give the keys to my larder. Rather, he is the man to be governed not to be governing. Let such a one be relegated to the place that he may do the least amount of harm. If I am seen beating my horse my neighbor would be the greater fool for putting his own in my care and be not surprised should his animal befall some calamity.

It behooves those who would administer to be schooled in ethics and their civic duty. They are elected to do our bidding! Being false they founder the ship of state and drown its people. Such a politician is no less a pirate than he who lures the vessel to her drowning, gutting her hull of cargo while she swallows the sea. And has not many a pirate been hung or perished in the conflagration of his own ship?

Though the government be death dispensing and cold hearted as Winter, the brute will be vanquished, at last, when Spring will toddle forth from the wreckage. Before too long the bells will toll.

Sooner or later, as history has told, the wandering and the frightened, with nothing left to lose, become a force to tear down the opulence and put the manor to the torch. Sooner or later there rises up a Nat Turner, Simon Bolivar or Tecumseh to lead his people from their misery. It is as inevitable as rain after drought. Nature herself shows that any obstacle is only temporary. Not even a rock can stop the root from reaching.

And what of those afflicted by this gluttony of Empire? Does no one speak for them? What person would welcome a boot to his neck? the lot of a slave? or be a fugitive in his own country? What people would hail their conqueror as savior? I see no hurrying to take the chains. What spider would change places with the snagged fly? How quickly would the man who holds the whip change places with the prisoner?

Yet, we have become our own jailers! For what more dismal jail is there than the one I condemn myself to when I hand my sense of what is right over to one who would only do it wrong?

But we are of more moral stuff than this. It is at our center, say what you will. We know what is true. Who has not experienced being hostage to unfairness? Which of us have had no intercourse with good intentions? Who has not had an intimate interview with his own grief? Is loss foreign to any of us? Who has not slept with worry or heart ache? Is there man or woman cold to the pain of their children they love? Has happiness never come calling? We know what is true. Even the brutes and birds of the woods are tender with them selves and play.

Who of us is not acquainted with suffering? And if not acquainted with joy, at least acquainted with the longing for it? Therefore, let him who casts a covetous eye upon his neighbor’s good fortune first contemplate his own, and then consider deeply the wound sustained should it be stolen from him.

Rather, tap at my door where I may grant you entrance. And what have you to bring to me? I ask. Perchance you may have nothing, not so much as a carrot or potato to throw into my stew. Still, it behooves me to ladle out a portion of my own into a bowl for you. Now I have made an ally and together we can double our endeavors to build brotherhood.

Otherwise, we will be enemies, anon. For having sent you out into the world with an empty belly you may fill your heart up with vile wishes for me and fain would break into my house to have what I would have, and not a portion but the lot of it.

What greater hunger is there than the fear of thinking there is not enough even though there is? The penurious mind is a position on the compass where no things thrive. It is a barren isle where starvation is the menu of the day. Far less gloomy and wretched the dwelling place where a man has to scrimp but is better assessed of his state, and can employ his genius to change his circumstances.

However, the miser can never be refreshed. Imagine? this was once a child! What missteps sent him to his inhospitable land? Once he was as fresh as dawn and now, corrupted in his reason, a scourge upon his fellows, holed up in a dusty heart, fearing those that he has stolen from. One well may try to hold a star in the hand as hold peace in the mind when cheating someone of his livelihood.

It is an immense irony that men and scholars cherish books wherein are cited passages whose ideas are bearers of freedom, peace and happiness. These honorable wisdoms from near and far and times present and past are quoted and conversed upon. We repeat them with a longing that our world and we might be as wise. Yet we do not move to take it up and make it ours. We do not seize the moment to embody what we know as true.

Oh perhaps tomorrow or some future time will I devote my efforts to more enlightened enterprises. Tomorrow never comes. There is only today and though a string of them course on into my future soon enough my future will be past, and I will be the man who, unknowingly, has had a hole is his pocket from which all his coins were funneled out into the dust. I find that I am become a vagrant, spiritually bereft and now must be carried on the backs of those who have been diligent. Though a Good Samaritan one may be, I would wager that to walk without the weight of another would be one’s druthers.

Nature’s perfect economy would have nothing of waste. She is a tidy housekeeper. Frugality is stored in her pantry along with her herbs and grains. Her efforts are to encourage and create for eons. Unlike Mr. Polk’s present government pilfering a people’s future, making a man a slave to the need to make wages so he might pay this government to let him live in peace. Tax me, says the citizen, that I may be let alone. I will forget that this was why we waged a revolution and the despot George was written from our ways of being.

Who can ever buy peace who throws his taxed wages into the coffers of any current corruption in power? Servitude is certain so long as there is always some threat or crisis wanting money.

If I am to be a taxed let me tax myself on every mean thought I possess. Let me require of myself two compassionate thoughts for every mean one. Every mean imagining takes up a portion of my heart allotted for peace and charity. Fear has snatched away Peace, as in a child’s mind when a monster is under her bed and reaching up to pull her under. Disquietude such as this will devour her rest, nay, her whole heart.

What is it in a man or his country that wants to make a bully out of him? If he is strong then let him put his size and strength to some good purpose to see to it his neighbors are safe and fed. He will be the happier man when the town folk take him upon their shoulders with a loud hurrah, than he whose memory is recorded as anathema in their history.

What madness to be a villain, to vandalize my neighbor, to burn the barn or smash the window panes with winter coming? It is a violent and feeble mind that digs the dagger in his side or poisons his own well. Even a beast has wit enough to keep clean his den. After I kill the chickens there are no eggs. I can slaughter the cow but once. I have just so many dollars in my purse and credits to my name. It behooves me not to squander either.

I would be better served to avail myself to benevolent enterprises. I ask myself, what happy advantages may I bear upon an ailing world? He is a hero who brings succor and comfort to others. He would be a lighthouse above a reef, and those whose hearts have been dulled to a collected blackness would be the bleak firmament in which our hero’s deeds would shine all the brighter; wherefore, the good and faint of heart would see and emulate him. He would be a hero of an age. What sailor would not see such brightness in a turbulent night and bless his good fortune?

And should I have the good fortune of more than what I need, perhaps I might send dollars to my Mexican friends. Perchance my neighbor needs to build a barn, then there may I donate a portion of my wage or labor. I would sleep a restful sleep to send a gold piece to the woman lately widowed or woolen frock to some frightened orphan.

The moral mind always keeps in mind the good of all. This is right because it is ethical. In truth, when I am happy I am disinclined to war upon my neighbor. If I cradle freedom in my heart I fain would keep it safe and sound. If I am at peace with myself I am not quarrelsome.

It is not in the constitution of a peaceful, free and happy man to visit misery upon another. One may as well dwell in some desert lurking with scorpions and vipers. This is not our inclination. I am the animal bewitched by Paradise. It is both memory and faith to me. Thus, I remember and anticipate, driven as surely as seed to sunlight towards the brilliant knowing of Enlightenment.

I beseech, nay, I demand an end to all this vice and gluttony! For day in, year out this calls upon my integrity and ingenuity to navigate this world. I have need of sharp wits, a steady hand and a large measure of courage. It is imprudent of a person or a government to make my passage more taxing than it well may be. Such a burden upon my vessel will only serve to sink me and also him who clutches me. Where is the prosperity for the man who, having all the lands of Mexico, finds himself at the bottom of an ocean?

Let the force we call the army be a force for good. Let us educate the military mind to help not harm. Each of us must plant the thought of cooperation in the loam of our minds. The future begins at this moment and what will come to pass some hundred years hence is intended at present. For I am today what I intended yesterday. Belief is the beginning step to a fruitful harvest. Let us inculcate the belief that guardianship not guns makes a safe and peaceful world. Put down the weapons say I and wield a tool! Together we must band! Our neighbor’s field has fed a pestilence! Let our army re-sow the seed! The earth has widened and swallowed down a town! Let our armies build! The melting winter floods my cellar! Let the hands of many help me salvage what I may. There are tasks aplenty to keep one thousand armies busy for a thousand generations.

Let us therefore be at peace. This house belongs to everyone. There is our common room where we may sit by firelight come some winter storm. And each is blessed to have some private place for sleeping. Much is in the larder and should a member of the house be indisposed there are plenty hands at kitchen to prepare a nourishment or poultice.

This world, from attic to cellar, is the house of our ancestors. As they took care to keep it weather-worthy and comforting, we must do no less or else invite the insects in to undermine the beams and have it fall about our heads, taking our children with us.

Here then might I proffer one last idea? Let us see how many good deeds we may do for one another’s sake. And at day’s end convene beside the pond where we will hear the crickets making madrigals through midnight. There we may speak about these woeful times as in some arcane mythology that once we read about, when we were frightened of each other, when Freedom, Peace and Happiness seemed so distant that the mind could barely grasp the thought. Then having reminisced and heady with brotherhood, give ourselves a blessing for a restful sleep and anticipate our shared and cheerful breakfast in the morning.

About Nathan Smith

Poet Nathan Smith, illustrator and author of Temple Sonnets, lives with his life-companion and fellow Bioneer Mari in a small, green, off-the-grid home in western Mass. where they have begun the process of developing an old growth forest and wildlife sanctuary for future generations. His poetry uses the images and cycles of Nature as metaphors for spiritual and psychological ways of being.

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