The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail QUIZ--Study Guide

1.  What is the controversial historical event involving the United States in 1970 that serves as the emotional and political backdrop for Lawrence and Lee's play?

2. Be familiar with the excerpt from "Civil Disobedience" that we discussed in class.  The entire essay is online.

3.  Know what Thoreau thought of railroads, the post office and the telegraph.

4.  Know the attitudes of Sam Staples, Thoreau's mother, Lydian Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson--
     toward Thoreau.
5. Know how Ulysses S. Grant felt about the Mexican War.

6. Know how a certain young congressman from Illinois felt about the Mexican War.

7.  What happened to John Thoreau?

8.  What were Thoreau's many occupations as he described them to Sam Staples?

9.  Did Thoreau want to leave jail or did he wish to stay?

10.  Know the basic tenets of Transcendentalism.

11. Know what the Lyceum Lecture circuit was.

12.  Know why Thoreau and Emerson had a huge argument. Know the nature of their argument as representd in dialogue in this play.

13.  Know the basic biographical facts of Emerson and Thoreau's lives. These have been discussed in class and are based on cursory info in the literature book, but can also be found online.

14.  Be aware of Thoreau and his family's involvement with the abolitionist movement.  You are responsible for the brief info below.

1840-1845: White Abolitionism in Concord. By the 1840s, Concord was a center of reformist thought and action. The town's Lyceum (or adult education center) in its first years debated topics including "Is the Union threatened by the present aspect of affairs?" -- "Would it be an act of humanity to emancipate at once all slaves?" - and "Is it ever proper to offer forcible resistance?" (Thoreau and his brother defended the affirmative. 
Before retiring to the shore of Walden Pond, Henry Thoreau served as an officer of the Lyceum in 1842-44, seeing to it that audiences absorbed abolitionist principles from Ralph Waldo Emerson  Theodore Parker, Horace Greeley, and Wendell Phillips, among many speakers.
The town's Female Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1837, had an outspoken early member in Henry's mother Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau, among other progressive townswomen. Her family's continuing activism in the underground railroad, and that of Henry Thoreau, are well documented.

Part I. Slavery and Civil Disobedience

1846: Rejecting the law of the land. In July 1846, Thoreau's stay at Walden Pond was interrupted by his famous one-night imprisonment in a whitewashed jail cell in the town of Concord. Opposed to slavery, Thoreau had protested for several years by refusing to pay his poll tax. (He paid other taxes willingly.)
A Wave of Protest. Thoreau's individual resistance was part of a mounting wave of reform activism that had begun in the 1840s.
  • The idea of tax refusal as a protest tactic was being raised in free black communities. Declaring "No privileges - no pay" as early as 1841, Massachusetts antislavery activist Charles Lenox Remond "anticipated Thoreau's 'Civil Disobedience' and argued that African Americans should be willing to go to jail rather than pay taxes to institutions that discriminated against them." 
  • Also, radical abolitionists were beginning to view the Constitution, which supported slavery, as an invalid document. Some who preferred individual protest instead of organized activism had already seized upon the practice of conscientious refusal to pay the poll tax. Three years before Thoreau, his close friend Bronson Alcott, philosopher and educator, had been arrested by the same Concord constable for exactly the same act of protest.

Thoreau's motive. By refusing to pay the government, Thoreau intended to stay in jail and set an example to his community. (When the constable, Sam Staples, offered to personally lend Henry the amount owed, Thoreau refused.) This plan backfired when the debt (and future taxes) were paid by a relative (probably Henry's Aunt ) - freeing the angry Thoreau the very next morning. Surely, only one night in jail fell far short of Thoreau's heroic intention.

15.  You are also responsible for knowing the information about Thoreau and  John Brown, which is discussed in an entry further down on this webpage.  Please scroll down and carefully read about Thoreau and John Brown.

"The woman writes as if the devil was in her. . ."

Nathaniel Hawthorne had harsh criticism for women writers in the mid-nineteenth century. In a letter to his editor, he referred to them as “the damned mob of scribbling women,” upset at the possibility that their work might cut into his market for selling novels. However, after reading Fern’s book, Ruth Hall, he wrote his editor, praising Fanny Fern's writing:

"In my last, I recollect, I bestowed some vituperation on female authors. I have since been reading “Ruth Hall,”and I must say I enjoyed it a good deal. The woman writes as if the devil was in her; and that is the only condition under which a woman ever writes anything worth reading. Generally women write like emasculated men, and are only distinguished from male authors by greater feebleness and folly; but when they throw off the restraints of decency, and come before the public stark naked, as it were—then their books are sure to possess character and value. Can you tell me about this Fanny Fern? If you meet her, I wish you would let her know how much I admire her."

Learn more about "this Fanny Fern" by clicking on the links below.

RHETORIC--Unforgettable, Inspiring Language!

What is RHETORIC? Convincing language that carries lasting power. Good rhetoric elicits an emotional response from the reader or listener. Rhetoric is words used effectively-- in a powerful way to challenge, to refute, to reason and argue, to persuade—and most of all—to inspire.

The Power of  Great Rhetoric

Consider the rhetorical strategies, the use of parallelism, repetition, antithesis, rich imagery with emotional appeal, in the examples below.

We have a place, all of us, in a long story—a story we continue, but whose end we will not see. It is the story of a new world that became a friend and liberator of the old, a story of a slave-holding society that became a servant of freedom, the story of a power that went into the world to protect but not possess, to defend but not to conquer.”
--2001 Inaugural Address of George W. Bush

The above sentence is a historical summary, but it is made eloquent by repetition of "a story" and meaningful by juxtaposing opposing ideas (antithesis), careful parallel phrasing, and the use of words with noble connotations.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
--1961 Inaugural Address of John F. Kennedy

The above sentence which opens with a dramatic antithesis (well or ill) is not just a list—but a pledge, a promise. The use of simple verbs such as pay, bear, meet, support, oppose gives each short phrase great punch. But the direct objects that follow these action verbs show tremendous courage and determination: price, burden, hardship, friend, foe. The final phrase sings out the strong commitment to liberty and democracy during the Cold War struggle. Parallel structure keeps all these ideas lined up and clear--resulting in a very powerful, unforgettable statement.

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan - to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."
-- Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, 1865

Abraham Lincoln provides a magnificent example of antithesis--opposing ideas placed side by side--in his opening phrase.  Malice is the opposite of charity, or love. None and all are direct opposites. These striking juxtapositions make clear Lincoln's point:  Americans must unite in love and blame no one for this war. Lincoln is also a master of parallel structure, of metaphors, and rich imagery. Each phrase is a carefully chiseled syntactical masterpiece. He portrays the nation as a wounded soldier in need of healing and consolation for loss. The words "widow" and "orphan" convey the deep tragedies being felt by both sides in the Civil War.

Repetition and Syntax“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
--1933 Inaugural Address of Franklin D. Roosevelt

Simplicity. Syntax is the key to this phrase’s power. The positive statement— is underscored by the repetition of “fear itself.” This phrase became famous not just because of syntactical simplicity, but because it embodies the spirit of confidence and the candid truth that fear can traumatize people so they do not think clearly and take wise actions. (Remember that in 1933, the depths of the Depression, one quarter of Americans were in danger of starvation.)

Good rhetoric is about saying something in the strongest way possible. Consider this phrase: My fellow Americans, don’t ask what is my country going to do to help me? You should ask, instead, what can I do to help my country?

The above words are clumsy. They are not compelling or noble or even memorable.  But, look at the following famous line:

“And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”John F. Kennedy, 1961

This famous line uses a reversed syntax, sometimes called antimetabole, a clever grammatical structure in which the first clause or phrase is followed by a clause or phrase that is reversed, often repeating the same words. Kennedy’s words became unforgettable, not just because they carried great meaning, but because the idea was presented with powerful syntax.


"Please," said the frustrated teacher, "place commas and periods INSIDE the quotation marks."


"Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still. Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life so. Aim above morality. Be not simply good -- be good for something."

Henry David Thoreau, writer, naturalist, and philosopher, was born in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1817. When he graduated from Harvard in 1837, jobs were scarce, as a great economic downturn had taken hold of the country. Thoreau was lucky to find a job teaching at the Concord Center School, but he resigned after just two weeks because he disagreed with the school's policy of using corporal punishment on its students. Thoreau began to make a name for himself as a poet and writer after establishing a friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson. Through Emerson, Thoreau became involved in the transcendentalist movement, a discipline promoting self-education and the development of the individual. Although regarded by some as being somewhat vague and dreamy in their thoughts, transcendentalists pursued aggressive stances on social, political, and intellectual reforms. Thoreau's journey of self-discovery led him to Walden Pond, just south of Concord, where he built a cabin and lived for two years. He believed that the cultivation of one's self and the cultivation of the soil have much in common, and while at Walden his garden and the surrounding wilderness took on great metaphorical significance.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

During this time Thoreau wrote the first draft of "Walden," one of his best known works. Although isolated, Thoreau had not retreated from society or the issues of the day -- especially slavery. Initially an adherent to non-resistance (as promoted by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison that one should not resist force with force), Thoreau would later take a more radical stance. In July of 1846, Thoreau spent a night in the Concord jail for nonpayment of his poll tax. This experience would prompt Thoreau to write the influential essay, "Civil Disobedience." In it, he argues that the individual is never obliged to surrender conscience to the majority or to the State. If a law "is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another," he writes, "then, I say, break the law." In 1854 he denounced the Fugitive Slave Law in his powerful "Slavery in Massachusetts" speech, stopping just short of advocating violent disobedience.

In John Brown, Thoreau was pleased to find an avid practitioner of civil -- if not outwardly violent -- disobedience. He had been introduced to Brown through his friend, Franklin Sanborn, who was attempting to drum up support for Brown's continued antislavery campaign in Kansas. Brown was full of exciting stories of his Kansas battles. (He omitted any mention of his involvement in the Pottawatomie massacre.) Brown said that he too hated violence, but accepted it as God's will. Thoreau was impressed by Brown's determination and the strength of his convictions. Thoreau would write; "I do not wish to kill or be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both of these things would be unavoidable." Perhaps the time had come for violent resistance. On October 19, 1859, Thoreau heard the news of John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry. While most in the North were quick to condemn Brown, Thoreau spoke in his defense. On October 30, he presented his essay, "A Plea for Captain John Brown," to the town of Concord. Thoreau took the high ground. He did not defend Brown's actions or his character, but the principle under which he acted. He called John Brown a "transcendentalist above all, a man of ideas and principles," who dared to risk his life for the liberation of slaves.

Is it not possible that an individual may be right and a government wrong? Are laws to be enforced simply because they were made? Or declared by any number of men to be good, if they are not good?

While Thoreau's defense was being circulated in the press, John Brown was addressing the court at his trial in Virginia. His memorable words would further humanize and ennoble his actions. By the time Brown was hanged, he was well on his way to becoming a martyr.

Thoreau would write of his death: "Some 1800 years ago, Christ was crucified. This morning, Captain Brown was hung. He is not Old Brown any longer; he is an angel of light."

Thoreau would only live a few years longer himself. While studying trees one day, he caught a cold that quickly deepened into bronchitis. In 1862 he died from tuberculosis. He was 44 years old.


The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail is a play in two acts, with several shifting and interpolated scenes from the real and imagined life of Henry David Thoreau (1817-62), the eccentric and compelling nineteenth-century American author and poet-philosopher. The play is a dramatic representation of an important moment in our history, in which the 29-year-old Thoreau’s refusal to pay taxes—in protest to the United States government’s involvement in the Mexican War (and his disgust with slavery)—landed him in jail in his home town of Concord, Massachusetts.

OK. One night. How lame is that? Someone came and paid the tax so Thoreau could be released. Even the sheriff who arrested him offered to pay the tax. But, Thoreau insisted on going to jail to dramatize his objections.

1. Was Thoreau a man of principle, a man with the spine to suffer for his convictions?Or, was his one night in jail a clever publicity stunt?

Read the play and decide for yourself.

Playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee wrote The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail in 1970.

2. What was happening in the United States at that time that might have influenced their interpretation of Thoreau’s life and work?
3. This play clearly shows the special bond shared by Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Write the details of events that pulled the two men together and speculate how the ideas of Transcendentalism and nonconformity made sense to both of them.

4. How do you think Thoreau would respond to the following controversies in America today?

--The War inAfghanistan

--Air and water pollution destroying the environment

--Energy Crisis (addiction to oil)

--Economic Collapse (Unregulated Greed, Irresponsible lending and buying)