Thoreau popularized the idea of peaceful protests, but his political ideas were certainly influenced and shaped by people in his community. Three years prior to Thoreau’s night in jail, a Concord tax collector arrested Bronson Alcott. In 1838, Alcott helped to start the New England Non-Resistance Society, an abolitionist organization founded as a response to the murder of Elijah Lovejoy. William Lloyd Garrison, the New England Non-Resistance Society’s leader, called for nonviolent protest. By 1840, Alcott brought the idea of peaceful resistance to Concord, refusing to pay his taxes. Although tax collectors ignored Alcott for several years, in 1843, Sam Staples finally took him to the Middlesex County Jail. In December, a fellow abolitionist and another friend of Thoreau’s, Charles Lane, refused to pay his taxes and was also sent to the Middlesex County jail.
In addition, the entire Thoreau family was actively involved in the abolitionist movement. Thoreau’s mother and sisters were all a part of the Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society. Additionally, the Thoreau household was on the Underground Railroad. In Thoreau’s journal, he gives several accounts of helping fugitive slaves reach their freedom.
By surrounding himself with people who aimed to agitate the state, Thoreau developed the philosophy that people should show their dissent against the government through acts of transgression. Thoreau believed that, through civil disobedience, one could resist perpetuating an unethical government. Thoreau’s refusal to pay his taxes was his nonviolent protest. By not giving money to an institution that was funding the Mexican War and slavery, Thoreau was living by his own ideals and acting against a morally unjust system.
Unlike Thoreau’s family and friends however, many people in Concord were not activists. Thoreau believed that too often, people in his community opposed certain actions of the government, but were afraid to act against it and advocate for what they believed to be morally correct. As such, the government could act unethically without dissent from its citizens. Thoreau felt that people were being too complicit. If somebody opposed slavery, but paid their taxes, that individual was playing a role in slavery’s perpetuation. Thoreau thought that people were not acting for themselves or supporting the movements they wanted to support. Instead, the people in his society were merely supporting the government. As such, Thoreau believed that one had to actively oppose the government.
Beyond resisting the government when it acts unjustly, Thoreau also had particular beliefs for what the government should look like. Fundamentally, he did not want the government to have a large presence in life. In his journal, he writes, “That certainly is the best government where the inhabitants are least often reminded of the government” (Written August 21, 1851, in his Journal, vol. IX, p.3). Thoreau disliked the idea of a large governing body that enforced what its constituents opposed. He felt that nobody should be forced to buy into a system they do not personally support. As such, Thoreau thought that a smaller government with less power was a better one.
In “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau famously writes, “I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.” While having no government and instead living in a society that is always fair and just would be ideal in Thoreau’s eyes, he recognized that the concept is impossible. Instead, Thoreau pushed for a government reformation. Thoreau was very aware of the injustice in the government. He states, “What makes the United States government, on the whole, more tolerable,—I mean for us lucky white men,—is the fact that there is so much less government with us” (A Yankee in Canada p. 148). Thoreau knew that he did not live a life in which he was profoundly impacted by the government. He did dislike the government’s perpetuation of a capitalistic society with its construction of railroads that brought noise to Concord. However, when calling for a smaller and more reformed government, Thoreau did not necessarily mean a government that would affect him differently. Rather, he meant a government that would affect those it oppressed differently, specifically enslaved people in the country.
Ultimately, Thoreau’s family and friends helped make him into the highly politically engaged person that he was. Thoreau made the peaceful protest famous and called upon the people in his life to engage in acts of civil disobedience as well. He believed that, if one does not act against governmental injustice, then that individual is complicit in its perpetuation. Furthermore, Thoreau envisioned a smaller and more reformed government, a government that reflected the ideals of its entire people. Thoreau believed that the best government would be the one that allowed all to live with liberty.