Talk about virtue-signalling! Henry David Thoreau (he changed it for no apparent reason from David Henry when he graduated from Harvard) was against the Mexican War (1846--1848.) Lots of people were. It gained the US much of the southwest, which had been Mexico's so it's hard to look back now and evaluate the war. Anyone living in Albuquerque must count his blessings daily that he isn't living in Mexico. But it wasn't outrageous to consider it an unjust war.
So Bronson Alcott and a couple of other Transcendentalists in Concord, Massachusetts, refused to pay their taxes in protest. A fellow townsman paid them instead and kept the objectors out of jail. These were the days before income tax and it was not a large amount of money.
It was the principle of the thing.
A couple of years later Thoreau refused to pay but he got caught up in a last-minute tying up of loose ends when the town jailer was about to leave office and happened on Thoreau as he was on his way to the cobbler to pick up a repaired boot. It was late in the day and so Thoreau spent the night in jail before his aunt paid the $1.50 or so in tax and he was freed. It is thought that she continued to pay the tax thereafter until the end of his life.
But meanwhile Thoreau had demonstrated his willingness to go to jail (or at least to stay in the town jail overnight) to protest the war.
He worked up a speech for the town lecture series and then he wrote an essay about civil disobedience. Thoreau got a lot of mileage from that night in jail.
I'm reminded of all this because I've been reading a new biography of the man by Laura Dassow Walls. As you can easily discern, I'm not much of a Thoreau fan. But I was willing to read this even-handed re-examination, ostensibly to see better the whole picture of his life and work and perhaps change my negative views. In reality, I was probably looking for evidence to reinforce my opinion as so many of us often are when reading something about an issue or a person to which/whom we have taken a dislike.
It is no surprise therefore that I'm not seeing a lot of enlightening new positives about the man. He can be lumped in with Bronson Alcott, another Concord citizen who was stunningly self-indulgent and who also failed to support his family. Alcott sat around and philosophized while his wife's relatives supported him and his wife and children until his young daughter, Louisa, began writing her fingers to the bone to bring in the money the pater familias was unwilling to work for.
Thoreau, with a Harvard degree, chose to work as a handyman for about a dollar a day while his ageing father continued to support everyone. Thoreau eventually made a name for himself. He realized that anti-slavery was the coming thing in New England intellectual circles and he joined his sisters, who for years had been working to bring the issue of slavery to public attention and helping to conduct a station on the Underground Railway.
The upshot is I'm learning a lot about Thoreau and coming cautiously to admire his engineering skills and his sincere love of nature if not a lot else. His family made quality drawing pencils and he devised a way to grind more finely the graphite for the "lead" which made Thoreau pencils the best you could buy outside of France in the mid-19th century. He designed and built that sturdy little house on Emerson's land by Walden Pond. And he surveyed the pond, which is a group of three glacial "kettles" and deeper than most of the thousands of such ponds in New England.
And although his ideas were almost entirely Emerson's he did know how to turn a phrase. The biography is excellent. It is evenhanded so if you admire Thoreau you will enjoy it as much as do those of us who disdain him.