Was It Legal? Thoreau In Jail

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In all probability, however, the question was not even raised. It seems likely that neither Staples nor Thoreau was aware of the law. Rural officers of those days—and often nowadays too— tended to consider themselves the law; they had no legal training. Staples’ own previous training was that of a barkeeper. He probably assumed that any violation of the law was to be answered by arrest. As for Thoreau, since he knew Alcott had been arrested for the same offense, he too probably assumed that incarceration was the legal punishment for nonpayment of taxes. Certainly for his own purposes arrest would have been preferable to a public auction of his books. Martyrdom of the protester is one of the essential elements of the theory of civil disobedience. The reasoning is that if a protester is willing to suffer martyrdom, he is much more likely to win a sympathetic ear from his fellow man for his cause. The loss of one’s books is hardly likely to be considered a very dramatic basis for a claim to martyrdom, whereas incarceration is. Thus had Sam Staples known his statutes of Massachusetts and abided by them, we might never have had an essay on “Civil Disobedience” or a guidebook for some of the great reformers of our century.

One other interesting question about Thoreau’s arrest can also be answered. It has often been wondered why it took Sam Staples three years to get around to arresting Thoreau. Staples was not only the constable for Concord, but also the tax collector (and, as a matter of fact, the jailer, too). The office of tax collector was neither an appointive nor an elective office; it was open to the lowest bidder. In 1842 Staples won the office with a bid of collection charges of one cent on the dollar, a rate he had raised to one and a half cents by 1845. In 1846 he resigned his office. According to the law he had to clear his books before he resigned his office or he would have been out-of-pocket any uncollected taxes. Thus his belated anxiety to collect Thoreau’s long-overdue tax. Of such trivialities are some of the great events of history made—a constable’s misunderstanding of his own job, a tax collector’s decision to resign his office.