Henry David Thoreau's 196th birthday occurred this past Friday, July 12. Thoreau was a member and major figure within the "Transcendentalist" philosophical movement in American culture during the antebellum period of the 19th century. A major tenet of the philosophy is a firm belief in the individual, and Thoreau embodied this not only in thought, but in spirit — to which his excursion at Walden pond is a testament.
In 1846, Thoreau was imprisoned for refusing to pay a poll tax. In his mind, the poll tax funded a war which he opposed (the Mexican-American War), but also — and more importantly — he saw the tax as funding the institution of slavery. Thoreau had a deep, moral opposition to slavery and his refusal to pay the tax was the manifestation of this belief.
During his imprisonment, Thoreau wrote what is arguably his most important work: An essay on Civil Disobedience. In this short essay, Thoreau beautifully argues for the legitimacy of opposition to the State in questions of injustice as well as a commentary on the legitimacy of government in general and democracy in particular:
After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule, is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest. But a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it.
...Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.
In other words, obeying the law represented consent towards the practice of slavery which was too much for Thoreau's conscience to bear.