From Apathy to Political Prisoner
Although Thoreau would become one of Massachusetts’ most outspoken political thinkers, Henry never concerned himself with politics until he was almost thirty years old. Thoreau wanted to have nothing to do with the government and he wanted the government to respect that wish.2
In keeping with, or perhaps because of, this, he was a transcendentalist. Transcendentalism is the belief, championed by Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson, that there is a reality or truth that is greater than anything empirical or observable.3 This truth cannot be found with science or the senses, but only by following one’s conscience and intuition. This is a very active process. One’s own truth cannot be accepted from others. If one is to find their true calling, it must be found through a mental and spiritual journey. This is what Thoreau was referring to when he said “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”4 The path of one is never the same as the path of another. Thoreau heavily resented those who would try to divert him from the path he was attempting to follow. Quite simply, Thoreau wanted to live as he wished with as little outside interference as possible.
Thoreau’s later political involvement and fight against injustice is easy to understand given a transcendental context. If transcendentalism is the belief that all should be allowed to find the truth by exploring their own potential, then it was a grave injustice to prevent a person from exploring themselves. Thoreau would later state in “Civil Disobedience” that “if I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting on another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too.”5 He believed that no one had the right to limit the potential of another human being. Although he might not have known it at the time, this belief would very clearly bring him into conflict with the United States government.
Eventually, the government attempted to interrupt Thoreau’s spiritual journey. In 1846, Thoreau was arrested. Not long before, President James Polk had declared war on Mexico. The United States had annexed the Republic of Texas, whose independence was never recognized by Mexico. Polk believed the border was the Rio Grande River, while Mexico believed it was further north, at the Nueces River. The inevitable clash occurred after both countries sent troops into the disputed area. Polk used the skirmish as a pretext to seize the coveted California and New Mexico Territories.
Thoreau and others of Whiggish persuasion derided the Mexican-American War as a Southern plot to extend slavery and establish a slave-state majority in the US Senate.6 Thoreau knew his taxes were going towards the prosecution of a war he hated and the support of a state that “buys and sells men and women and children at the door of its senate-house.”7 Therefore, Thoreau refused to pay his poll tax.8 For whatever reason, the local authorities chose Thoreau to arrest, and in doing so, created a formidable opponent to blind allegiance and injustice.