American author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) refused to pay poll taxes for six years because he objected to any money going to support the Mexican-American War or slavery. In July 1846, he spent a night in jail. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), an essayist and philosopher and Thoreau’s friend, is said to have visited him and to have asked Thoreau why he was in jail. Thoreau is said to have asked Emerson why he wasn’t in jail.
The account has been cited in print since at least 1865—after Thoreau’s death, but during Emerson’s lifetime.
Wikipedia: Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862) was an American author, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, historian, and leading transcendentalist. He is best known for his book Walden, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings, and his essay Resistance to Civil Government (also known as Civil Disobedience), an argument for disobedience to an unjust state.
On July 24 or July 25, 1846, Thoreau ran into the local tax collector, Sam Staples, who asked him to pay six years of delinquent poll taxes. Thoreau refused because of his opposition to the Mexican-American War and slavery, and he spent a night in jail because of this refusal. (The next day Thoreau was freed when someone, likely his aunt, paid the tax against his wishes.) The experience had a strong impact on Thoreau. In January and February 1848, he delivered lectures on “The Rights and Duties of the Individual in relation to Government” explaining his tax resistance at the Concord Lyceum.
Wikiquote: Talk:Henry David Thoreau
What about the exchange between Thoreau and Emerson when Thoreau was in jail for refusing to pay taxes:
“David, what are you doing in jail?""Ralph, what are you doing outside?”
It was cited by Emma Goldman in her 1917 address to the jury, so if it’s not authentic, it has been in circulation for a long time. ABehrens (talk) 16:29, 20 May 2013 (UTC)
July 1865, The Christian Examiner, “Thoreau,” pg. 105:
When his friend sees him in Concord jail, whither the tax-gatherer has taken the body of the recusant, and addresses him, “Thoreau, why are you here?” he receives for reply, “Why are you not here also?”
29 September 1866, Springfield (MA) Semi-Weekly Republican, pg. 1, col. 2:
Thoreau’s new book I have not yet had a chance to read, though some of it I recognize as having been printed years ago. His account of his imprisonment, for not paying his taxes, is interesting. I have heard that when Mr. Emerson visited him in Concord jail, and asked him why he was there, he retorted “Why are you not here?”
(From “Warrington,” a Boston correspondent.—ed.)
14 March 1870, Springfield (MA) Daily Republican, “A New England Socrates: Bronson Alcott at the West,” pg. 2, col. 4:
He spoke, for example, of Thoreau’s imprisonment in Concord jail for refusing to pay his taxes to a government that upheld slavery and war; and in the course of the relation this anecdote came out: Mr. Emerson went to see his young friend in the jail and said to him when he found him there: “Henry, why are you here?” “Why are you not here?” was the reply.
29 April 1870, Lowell (MA) Daily Citizen & News, pg. 1, col. 6:
Thoreau once went to Concord jail rather than pay his taxes to a government that upheld slavery and war. Mr. Emerson went to see his young friend in the jail, and said to him: “Henry, why are you here?” “Why are you not here?” was the reply. That might be called a Yankee answer.
December 1873, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, “Editor’s Drawer,” pg. 160, col. 1:
Mr. Emerson, like Socrates, prefers to obey bad laws, under protest, rather than to defy his government. His friend Henry Thoreau, another of the Concord philosophers, believed that it was his duty to disobey bad laws, and so in the days of slavery he refused to pay his tax, and was sent to jail. Emerson, who had paid his taxes under protest, called at the jail, and, seeing Thoreau, said,
“How does it happen, Mr. Thoreau, that I find you here?”
Thoreau, a little petulant, because Emerson had taken the easier way of squaring his conduct with his conscience, replied, “How does it happen, Mr. Emerson, the I don’t find you here?”
19 March 1909, Dakota County Herald (Dakota City, NE), pg. 2, col. 2:
Thoreau was once in prison for disobedience to a law which he considered infamous. On visiting him in Concord jail, Emerson said: “Henry, I am sorry to see you here.” “Waldo, I am sorry not to see you here,” was Thoreau’s reply.
Anarchism on Trial: Speeches of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman before the United States District Court in the City of New York, July, 1917
By Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman
New York, NY: Mother Earth Publishing Association
Emma Goldman’s Address to the Jury (July 9. 1917—ed.)
When Thoreau was placed in prison for refusing to pay taxes, he was visited by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Emerson said: “David, what are you doing in jail?” and Thoreau replied: “Ralph, what are you doing outside, when honest people are in jail for their ideals?”
A Historical Guide to Ralph Waldo Emerson
Edited by Joel Myerson (Carolina Distinguished Professor of American Literature, University of South Carolina)
New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc.
“Henry! Henry!“ the Left supposes Emerson to have asked. “What are you doing in jail?” To which Thoreau supposedly retorted, “Waldo! What are you doing out of jail?” To Emerson’s activist detractors it is beside the point that this episode never happened.
Joyce Carol Oates
Emerson to Thoreau: “What are you doing in jail?”
Thoreau to Emerson: “What are you doing out of jail?”
10:39 AM - 12 Jun 13