The Tax Resistance of Amos Bronson Alcott Influenced Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau was famously arrested for refusing to pay his poll tax in , an experience he drew on for his essay Resistance to Civil Government (Civil Disobedience).

But , another resident of Concord, Massachusetts, Amos Bronson Alcott, was arrested for the same reason. He doesn’t get the fame, but he did set the precedent.

His lesser-known story is briefly told in Frederick C. Dahlstrand’s Amos Bronson Alcott: An Intellectual Biography (Associated University Presses: ):

Alcott and [Charles] Lane… talked openly of rejecting any governmental institution, and on Alcott was arrested for refusing to pay his poll tax. The tax was not particularly oppressive even for the impoverished Alcotts — a dollar and a half each year, assessed on every male over sixteen by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for revenue purposes — but Alcott obviously wished to make his position a public issue. He had refused the same tax but had not been arrested, presumably because no one enforced it. This time the constable came to the cottage with a general warrant and escorted the nonresisting Alcott to the jailhouse. The jailer’s absence prevented his being locked up, and he waited patiently for two hours while the constable went off to find the jailer. By the time the jailer showed up, Judge Samuel Hoar, “the very personification of the state,” had generously paid the tax and the costs, much to Alcott’s dismay. “Thus,” said Abby [May], “we were spared the affliction of his absence and he the triumph of suffering for his principles.” However, Alcott and Lane did get the publicity they wanted. Lane wrote a dramatic article for the Liberator explaining this outrage against the sovereign individual. It was matter of individual judgment, Lane declared, whether or not a person should support the government.

Thoreau’s arrest, though it came later, was also, I believe, based on his refusal to pay the poll tax in , and he wrote to Emerson at the time about Lane’s arguments against taxpaying, so this wasn’t just coincidence. (See Carl Watner’s Charles Lane: Voluntaryist for more details about the mutual influence of Lane, Alcott, and Thoreau on this issue.)