Excerpts from H.D. Thoreau’s journals (1852)

This is part four of a collection of excerpts from the journals of Henry David Thoreau concerning law, government, man in society, war, economics, duty, and conscience. This part covers Thoreau’s journals for . For other parts, see:

This collection of journal excerpts is also available as a book: The Price of Freedom: Political philosophy from Thoreau’s journals.

These are based on the journals transcribed by Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen in their The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau (1906).

Footnotes are mine unless otherwise noted. I mostly stuck by the transcriptions used in Torrey & Allen, occasionally omitting brackets when they were used to insert some obvious missing article or end-quote, or when the intended addition seemed unnecessary. I sometimes used ellipses to omit material without distinguishing these from ellipses used by the editors of the transcribed journals or by Thoreau himself.

Contents:

The Governor, Boutwell1, lectured before the Lyceum2 . Quite democratic. He wore no badge of his office. I believe that not even his brass buttons were official, but, perchance, worn with some respect to his station. If he could have divested himself a little more completely in his tone and manner of a sense of the dignity which belonged to his office, it would have been better still.


We have heard a deal about English comfort. But may you not trace these stories home to some wealthy Sardanapalus1 who was able to pay for obsequious attendance and for every luxury? How far does it describe merely the tact and selfishness of the wealthy class? Ask the great mass of Englishmen and travellers, whose vote alone is conclusive, concerning the comfort they enjoyed in second and third class accommodations in steamboats and railroads and eating and lodging houses. Lord Somebody-or-other may have made himself comfortable, but the very style of his living makes it necessary that the great majority of his countrymen should be uncomfortable.

In an account of a Chinese funeral, it is said the friends who attended “observed no particular order in their march.” That seems a more natural and fitter way, more grief-like. The ranks should be broken. What must be the state of morals in that country where custom requires the chief mourner to put on the outward signs of extreme grief when he does not feel it, to throw himself on the ground and sob and howl though not a tear is shed, and require the support of others as he walks! What refuge can there be for truth in such a country?


I see that to some men their relation to mankind is all-important. It is fatal in their eyes to outrage the opinions and customs of their fellow-men. Failure and success are, therefore, never proved by them by absolute and universal tests. I feel myself not so vitally related to my fellow-men. I impinge on them but by a point on one side. It is not a Siamese-twin ligature that binds me to them. It is unsafe to defer so much to mankind and the opinions of society, for these are always and without exception heathenish and barbarous, seen from the heights of philosophy. A wise man sees as clearly the heathenism and barbarity of his own countrymen as those of the nations to whom his countrymen send missionaries. The Englishman and American are subject to equally many national superstitions with the Hindoo and Chinese. My countrymen are to me foreigners. I have but little more sympathy with them than with the mob of India or of China.

All nations are remiss in their duties and fall short of their standards. Madame Pfeiffer1 says of the Parsees, or Fire-Worshippers, in Bombay, who should all have been on hand on the esplanade to greet the first rays of the sun, that she found only a few here and there, and some did not make their appearance till 9 o’clock.

I see no important difference between the assumed gravity and the bought funeral sermon of the parish clergyman and the howlings and strikings of the breast of the hired mourning women of the East.


  1. Ida Laura Pfeiffer. She relates this experience with the Parsees in A Woman’s Journey Round the World.

When Madame Pfeiffer1 arrived in Asiatic Russia, she felt the necessity of wearing other than a travelling dress, when she went to meet the authorities, for, as she remarks, she “was not in a civilized country, where… people are judged of by their clothes.” This is another barbarous trait.

There is the world-wide fact that, from the mass of men, the appearance of wealth, dress, and equipage alone command respect. They who yield it are the heathen who need to have missionaries sent to them; and they who cannot afford to live and travel but in this respectable way are, if possible, more pitiable still.


Thoreau reworked these paragraphs into a paragraph of Walden.

  1. Ida Laura Pfeiffer.

Last spring our new stone bridge was said to be about to fall. The selectmen got a bridge architect to look at it and, acting on his advice, put up a barrier and warned travellers not to cross it. Of course, I believed with the rest of my neighbors that there was no immediate danger, for there it was standing, and the barrier knocked down, that travellers might go over, as they did with few exceptions. But one day, riding that way with another man, and reflecting that I had never looked into the condition of the bridge myself, and if it should fall with us on it, I should have reason to say what a fool I was to go over when I was warned, I made him stop on this side, merely for principle’s sake, and walked over while he rode before, and I got in again at the other end. I paid that degree of respect to the advice of the bridge architect and the warning of the selectmen. It was my companion’s daily thoroughfare.


A receipt was made out from Thoreau to the Town of Concord on for “inspecting the Stone Bridge, on the Main Stream.” I don’t know whether this is the same bridge, or what the purpose of the inspection was.


…I observed two large ants, the one red, the other much larger and black, fiercely contending with one another… It was evidently a struggle for life and death which had grown out of a serious feud.… Looking further, I found to my astonishment that the chips were covered with such combatants, that it was not a duellum but a bellum, a war between two races of ants, the red always pitted against the black, and frequently two red ones to one black. They covered all the hills and vales of my wood-yard, and, indeed, the ground was already strewn with the dead, both red and black. It was the only war I had ever witnessed, the only battle-field I ever trod while the battle was raging; internecine war; the red republicans and the black despots or imperialists. On every side they were engaged in deadly combat, yet without any noise that I could hear, and never human soldiers fought so resolutely.…

I should not wonder if they had their respective musical bands stationed on some chip and playing their national airs the while to cheer the dying combatants. (Whose mother had charged him to return with his shield or upon it.) I was myself excited somewhat, even as if they had been men. The more you think of it, the less the difference. And certainly there is no other fight recorded in Concord in that will bear a moment’s comparison with this. I have no doubt they had as just a cause, one or even both parties, as our forefathers, and that the results will be as important and memorable. And there was far more patriotism and heroism. For numbers and for carnage it was an Austerlitz or Dresden.1 I saw no disposition to retreat.

Which party was victorious I never learned, nor the cause of the war. But I felt for the rest of that day as if I had had my feelings harrowed and excited by witnessing the struggle, the ferocity and carnage, of a human battle before my door.2

To record truths which shall have the same relation and value to the next world, i.e. the world of thought and of the soul, that political news has to this.

History used to be the history of successive kings or their reigns — the Williams, Henrys, Johns, Richards, &c, &c, all of them great in somebody’s estimation. But we have altered that considerably. Hereafter it is to be to a greater extent the history of peoples. You do not hear some King Louis or Edward or Leopold referred to now by sensible men with much respect.


  1. The Battle of Austerlitz and Battle of Dresden were among Napoleon’s military triumphs.
  2. Thoreau retells and embellishes this battle of the ants in Walden.

Methinks the town should have more supervision and control over its parks than it has. It concerns us all whether these proprietors choose to cut down all the woods this winter or not.


1 February 1852

The recent rush to California1 and the attitude of the world, even of its philosophers and prophets, in relation to it appears to me to reflect the greatest disgrace on mankind. That so many are ready to get their living by the lottery of gold-digging without contributing any value to society, and that the great majority who stay at home justify them in this both by precept and example! It matches the infatuation of the Hindoos who have cast themselves under the car of Juggernaut.2 I know of no more startling development of the morality of trade and all the modes of getting a living than the rush to California affords. Of what significance the philosophy, or poetry, or religion of a world that will rush to the lottery of California gold-digging on the receipt of the first news, to live by luck, to get the means of commanding the labor of others less lucky, i.e. of slaveholding, without contributing any value to society? And that is called enterprise, and the devil is only a little more enterprising! The philosophy and poetry and religion of such a mankind are not worth the dust of a puffball. The hog that roots his own living, and so makes manure, would be ashamed of such company. If I could command the wealth of all the worlds by lifting my finger, I would not pay such a price for it. It makes God to be a moneyed gentleman who scatters a handful of pennies in order to see mankind scramble for them. Going to California. It is only three thousand miles nearer to hell. I will resign my life sooner than live by luck. The world’s raffle. A subsistence in the domains of nature a thing to be raffled for! No wonder that they gamble there. I never heard that they did anything else there. What a comment, what a satire, on our institutions! The conclusion will be that mankind will hang itself upon a tree. And who would interfere to cut it down. And have all the precepts in all the bibles taught men only this? and is the last and most admirable invention of the Yankee race only an improved muck-rake? — patented too! If one came hither to sell lottery tickets, bringing satisfactory credentials, and the prizes were seats in heaven, this world would buy them with a rush.

Did God direct us to so get our living, digging where we never planted, — and He would perchance reward us with lumps of gold? It is a text, oh! for the Jonahs3 of this generation, and yet the pulpits are as silent as immortal Greece, silent, some of them, because the preacher is gone to California himself. The gold of California is a touchstone which has betrayed the rottenness, the baseness, of mankind. Satan, from one of his elevations, showed mankind the kingdom of California, and they entered into a compact with him at once.4


Thoreau reworked these reflections on the California Gold Rush for Life Without Principle.

  1. California Gold Rush
  2. Juggernaut
  3. Jonah
  4. See Matthew 4:8–10

The national flag is the emblem of patriotism, and whether that floats over the Government House or not is, even in times of peace, an all-absorbing question. The hearts of millions flutter with it. Men do believe in symbols yet and can understand some. When Sir F. Head1 left his Government in Upper Canada2 and the usual farewell had been said as the vessel moved off, he, standing on the deck, pointed for all reply to the British flag floating over his head, and a shriek, rather than a cheer, went up from the crowd on the pier, who had observed his gesture.3 One of the first things he had done was to run it up over the Government House at Toronto, and it made a great sensation.

Read the Englishman’s history of the French and Indian wars, and then read the Frenchman’s, and see how each awards the meed of glory to the other’s monsters of cruelty or perfidy.4

We have all sorts of histories of wars. One omits the less important skirmishes altogether, another condescends to give you the result of these and the number of killed and wounded, and if you choose to go further and consult tradition and old manuscripts or town and local histories, you may learn whether the parson was killed by a shot through the door or tomahawked at the well.


  1. Francis Head. Thoreau had been reading his book The Emigrant.
  2. Upper Canada was a province of Canada from that covered the Great Lakes region.
  3. In The Emigrant, Head clarifies what is not so clear here: that this “shriek” was an approving one (“their sudden response to my parting admonition was, I can truly say, the most gratifying ‘Farewell!’ I could possibly have received from them.”)
  4. Thoreau takes up his own challenge and reports on what he found: see and .

Who will not confess that the necessity to get money has helped to ripen some of his schemes?

The historian of Haverhill1 commences his account of the attack on that town in 1708 by the French and Indians, by saying that one of the French commanders was “the infamous Hertel de Rouville,2 the sacker of Deerfield,”3 that the French of that period equalled, if they did not exceed, the Indians in acts of wantonness and barbarity, and “when the former were weary of murdering ‘poor, helpless women and children,’ — when they were glutted with blood, it is said that M. Vaudreuil,4 then Governor of Canada, employed the latter to do it.” He then goes on to describe the sudden and appalling attack before sunrise, the slaughter of women and infants and the brave or cowardly conduct of the inhabitants. Rolfe and Wainwright5 and many others were killed. The French historian Charlevoix6 says of Rouville that he supplied his father’s place worthily and that the Governor, Vaudreuil, called him one of the two best partisans in Canada. He tells us that Rouville made a short speech to the French before they commenced the attack, exhorting them to forget their differences and embrace one another. “And then they said their prayers” and marched to the assault. And after giving an account of the attack, and of the subsequent actions almost totally different from the former, not having said a word about the barbarities of the savages, he proceeds to enumerate the “belles actions” of some officers who showed humanity to the prisoners on the retreat.


  1. Benjamin L. Mirick (or possibly John Greenleaf Whittier), author of The History of Haverhill, Massachusetts
  2. Jean-Baptiste Hertel de Rouville
  3. Deerfield massacre
  4. Philippe de Rigaud Vaudreuil
  5. Rev. Benjamin Rolfe and Captain Simon Wainwright.
  6. Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix

The French historian1 speaks of both French and Indians as “our braves (nos Braves).” The village historian takes you into the village graveyard and reads the inscriptions on the monuments of the slain. Takes you to the grave of the parish priest, his wife, and child, which is honored with a Latin inscription. The French historian, who signs himself de la Compagnie de Jésus, who was at the waterside in Montreal when the expedition disembarked, and so heard the freshest news. To show the discrepancies, I will compare the two accounts in relation to one part of the affair alone.

The Haverhill historian2 says, “The retreat [of the French and Indians]3 commenced about the rising of the sun.” “The town, by this time, was generally alarmed. Joseph Bradley4 collected a small party, … and secured the medicine-box and packs of the enemy, which they had left about three miles from the village. Capt. Samuel Ayer,5 a fearless man, and of great strength, collected a body of about twenty men, and pursued the retreating foe. He came up with them just as they were entering the woods, when they faced about, and though they numbered thirteen or more to one, still Capt. Ayer did not hesitate to give them battle. These gallant men were soon reinforced by another party, under the command of his son; and after a severe skirmish, which lasted about an hour, they retook some of the prisoners, and the enemy precipitately retreated, leaving nine of their number dead.

“The French and Indians continued their retreat, and so great were their sufferings, arising from the loss of their packs, and their consequent exposure to famine, that many of the Frenchmen returned and surrendered themselves prisoners of war; and some of the captives were dismissed, with a message that, if they were pursued, the others should be put to death. Perhaps, if they had been pursued, nearly the whole of their force might have been conquered. … As it was, they left thirty of their number dead, in both engagements, and many were wounded, whom they carried with them.”

One Joseph Bartlett,6 a soldier who was carried away captive but returned after some years and published a narrative of his captivity, says that after the retreat commenced, “they then marched on together, when Capt. Eaires [Ayer], with a small company, waylaid and shot upon them, which put them to flight, so that they did not get together again until three days after.” His party, says the historian, had nothing to eat for four days “but a few sour grapes and thorn plums. They then killed a hawk and divided it among fifteen — the head fell to the share of Mr. Bartlett, which, he says, ‘was the largest meal I had these four days.’” The historian concludes that between thirty and forty New-Englanders in all were either killed or taken prisoners.

Now for Charlevoix’s account, who happened to be at the waterside at Montreal when the French party disembarked and so got the most direct and freshest news. He says: “There were about a hundred English slain in these different attacks; many others … were burned (in the houses), and the number of prisoners was considerable.” (This was before the retreat.) “As for booty there was none at all, they did not think of it, till it had all been consumed in the flames.” Speaking of the retreat, he says, “It was made with much order, each one having taken so many provisions only as was needed for the return. This precaution was even (encore) more necessary than they thought. Our men had hardly made half a league, when, on entering a wood, they fell into an ambuscade, which seventy men had prepared for them, who, before discovering themselves, fired each his shot. Our braves met this discharge without wavering, and fortunately it produced no great effect. Meanwhile all the rear was already full of people on foot and on horseback, who followed them closely, and there was no other course to take but to force their way through those (que de passer sur le ventre à ceux) who had just fired upon them.”

“They took it without hesitating, each threw away his pack of provisions, and almost all his apparel (hardes), and without amusing themselves with firing they came at once to a hand-to-hand contest (with them) (sans s’amuser à tirer ils en vinrent d’abord aux armes blanches). The English, astonished at so vigorous an assault made by men whom they thought they had thrown into disorder, found themselves in that condition (y, there) and could not recover (themselves). So that, excepting ten or twelve who saved themselves by flight, all were killed or taken.”

“We had in the two actions eighteen men wounded, three savages and five French killed, and in the number of the dead were two young officers of great promise, Hertel de Chambly,7 brother of Rouville, and Verchères.8 Many prisoners made in the attack on Haverhill saved themselves during the last combat.”

The English did not come here from a mere love of adventure, or to truck with the savages, or to convert the savages, or to hold offices under the crown, as the French did, but to live in earnest and with freedom. The French had no busy-ness here. They ran over an immense extent of country, selling strong water, and collecting its furs and converting its inhabitants — or at least baptizing its dying infants — without improving it. The New England youth were not coureurs de bois9.

It was freedom to hunt and fish, not to work, that they sought. Hontan10 says the coureurs de bois lived like sailors ashore.11


  1. Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix
  2. Benjamin L. Mirick (or possibly John Greenleaf Whittier), author of The History of Haverhill, Massachusetts
  3. The brackets are Thoreau’s.
  4. Joseph Bradley ()
  5. Samuel Ayer ()
  6. Joseph Bartlett’s narrative of captivity can be found as an appendix to Sketch of the History of Newbury, Newburyport, and West Newbury, from () by Joshua Coffin
  7. René Hertel de Chambly ()
  8. A brother of Marie-Madeleine Jarret de Verchères
  9. Literally: “runners of the woods” — a term used to refer to fur poachers in Canada.
  10. Louis Armand de Lom d’Arce Lahontan
  11. Thoreau expands on these last two paragraphs in A Yankee in Canada.

The French respected the Indians as a separate and independent people, and speak of them and contrast themselves with them, as the English have never done. They not only went to war with them, but they lived at home with them. There was a much less interval between them.


Thoreau expands on this in A Yankee in Canada.


It is a mistake to suppose that, in a country where railroads and steamboats, the printing-press and the church, and the usual evidences of what is called civilization exist, the condition of a very large body of the inhabitants cannot be as degraded as that of savages. Savages have their high and their low estate, and so have civilized nations. To know this I should not need to look further than to the shanties which everywhere line our railroads, that last improvement in civilization. But I will refer you to Ireland, which is marked as one of the white or enlightened spots on the map. Yet I have no doubt that that nation’s rulers are as wise as the average of civilized rulers.


Thoreau expands on this in Walden.


But this points to a distinction between the civilized man and the savage; and, no doubt, they have designs on us in making (of the life of a civilized people) an institution in which the life of the individual is to a great extent absorbed, in order, perchance, to preserve and perfect the race. But I wish to show at what a sacrifice this advantage is at present obtained, and to suggest that we may possibly so live as to secure all the advantage without suffering any of the disadvantage.


Thoreau expands on this in Walden.


Kings are not they who go abroad to conquer kingdoms, but who stay at home and mind their business, proving first their ability to govern their families and themselves.

The law requires wood to be four feet long from the middle of the carf to the middle of the carf, yet the honest deacon and farmer directs his hired men to cut his wood “four feet a little scant.” He does it as naturally as he breathes.


We are told to-day that civilization is making rapid progress; the tendency is ever upward; substantial justice is done even by human courts; you may trust the good intentions of mankind. We read to-morrow in the newspapers that the French nation is on the eve of going to war with England to give employment to her army.1 What is the influence of men of principle, or how numerous are they? How many moral teachers has society? This Russian war is popular. Of course so many as she has will resist her. How many resist her? How many have I heard speak with warning voice? utter wise warnings? The preacher’s standard of morality is no higher than that of his audience. He studies to conciliate his hearers and never to offend them. Does the threatened war between France and England evince any more enlightenment than a war between two savage tribes, as the Iroquois and the Hurons? Is it founded in better reason?


  1. For instance, “England and France. Prospects of War. Defensive Condition of Great Britain.” from the New York Times, which began “It is generally admitted now that the chances of aggression from the Government of France — for her people have no longer a voice in the matter —” (the Republic had been taken over by Napoleon ) “have fearfully increased… [Louis Napoleon] is the army’s slave. He bough it with money, he holds it by bribes, and he can continue to retain it by pandering to its wants, its instincts, and its passions. Those wants are promotion — those passions are war.” The war was delayed, however, and ultimately France and England allied to fight the Crimean War ().

The gold-digger in the ravines of the mountains is as much a gambler as his fellow in the saloons of San Francisco. What difference does it make whether you shake dirt or shake dice? If you win, society is the loser. The gold-digger is the enemy of the honest laborer, whatever checks and compensations a kind fate has provided. The humblest thinker who has been to the mines sees and says that gold-digging is of the character of a lottery, that the reward is not proportionate to the labor, that the gold has not the same look, is not the same thing, with the wages of honest toil; but he practically forgets what he has seen, for he has seen only the fact, not the principle. He looks out for “the main chance” still; he buys a ticket in another lottery, nevertheless, where the fact is not so obvious. It is remarkable that among all the teachers and preachers there are so few moral teachers. I find the prophets and preachers employed in excusing the ways of men. My most reverend seniors — doctors, deacons, and the illuminated — tell me with a reminiscent smile, betwixt an aspiration and a shudder, not to be so tender about these things — to lump all that, i.e. make a lump of gold of it. I was never refreshed by any advice on this subject; the highest I have heard was grovelling. It is not worth the while for you to undertake to reform the world in this particular. They tell me not to ask how my bread is buttered, — it will make me sick if I do — and the like.1

Concord Fight! Two killed on the patriots’ side, and Luther Blanchard wounded! Why, here every ant was a Buttrick — “Fire! for God’s sake, fire!” — and thousands shared the fate of Davis and Hosmer.2 I have no doubt it was a principle they fought for as much as our ancestors, and not a threepenny tax on their tea.3


  1. Thoreau reworked these reflections on the California Gold Rush for Life Without Principle.
  2. Thoreau is referring to heroes of the Battle of Lexington and Concord: Luther Blanchard, John Buttrick, Isaac Davis, and Abner Hosmer. “Fire! for God’s sake, fire!” is a command attributed to Buttrick.
  3. Thoreau added this reflection on the battle between two ant nations (see ) to his description of the battle in Walden.

I remember a few words that I had with a young Englishman in the citadel,1 who politely undertook to do the honors of Quebec to me, whose clear, glowing English complexion I can still see. Perhaps he was a chaplain in the army. In answer to his information, I looked round with a half-suppressed smile at those preparations for war, Quebec all primed and cocked for it, and at length expressed some of my surprise. “Perhaps you hold the opinions of the Quakers,”2 he replied. I thought, if there was any difference between us, it might be that I was born in modern times.


  1. The Citadelle of Quebec
  2. By “the opinions of the Quakers,” the Englishman probably meant pacifism.

He is in the lowest scale of laborers who is merely an able-bodied man and can compete with others only in physical strength. Woodchoppers in this neighborhood get but fifty cents a cord, but, though many can chop two cords in a day in pleasant weather and under favorable circumstances, yet most do not average more than seventy-five cents a day, take the months together. But one among them of only equal physical strength and skill as a chopper, having more wit, buys a cross-cut saw for four dollars, hires a man to help him at a dollar a day, and saws down trees all winter at ten cents apiece and thirty or forty a day, and clears two or more dollars a day by it. Yet as long as the world may last few will be found to buy the cross-cut saw, and probably the wages of the sawyer will never be reduced to a level with those of the chopper.


In the promulgated views of man, in institutions, in the common sense, there is narrowness and delusion. It is our weakness that so exaggerates the virtues of philanthropy and charity and makes it the highest human attribute. The world will sooner or later tire of philanthropy and all religions based on it mainly. They cannot long sustain my spirit. I would fain let man go by and behold a universe in which man is but as a grain of sand. I am sure that those of my thoughts which consist, or are contemporaneous, with social personal connections, however humane, are not the wisest and widest, most universal. What is the village, city, State, nation, aye the civilized world, that it should concern a man so much? the thought of them affects me in my wisest hours as when I pass a woodchuck’s hole. … Not satisfied with defiling one another in this world, we would all go to heaven together. To be a good man, that is, a good neighbor in the widest sense, is but little more than to be a good citizen. Mankind is a gigantic institution; it is a community to which most men belong. It is a test I would apply to my companion — can he forget man? can he see this world slumbering?

I do not value any view of the universe into which man and the institutions of man enter very largely and absorb much of the attention. Man is but the place where I stand, and the prospect hence is infinite. It is not a chamber of mirrors which reflect me.


It is hard for a man to take money from his friends, or any service. This suggests how all men should be related.


In the New Forest in Hampshire1 they had a chief officer called the Lord Warden and under him two distinct officers, one to preserve the venison of the forest, another to preserve its vert, i.e. woods, lawns, &c Does not our Walden need such? The Lord Warden was a person of distinction, as the Duke of Gloucester.

Walden Wood was my forest walk.

The English forests are divided into “walks,” with a keeper presiding over each. My “walk” is ten miles from my house every way. Gilpin says, “It is a forest adage of ancient date, Non est inquirendum unde venit venison,”2 i.e. whether stolen or not.

“The incroachments of trespassers, and the houses and fences thus raised on the borders of the forest” by forest borderers, were “considered as great nuisances by the old forest law, and were severely punished under the name of purprestures, as tending ad terrorem ferarum — ad nocumentum forestae,3 &c


Thoreau reworks these musings into a paragraph of Walden. He is quoting William Gilpin, from Remarks on Forest Scenery, and Other Woodland Views.

  1. New Forest
  2. “It is not to be inquired from whence venison comes [for if by chance it is stolen, a reasonable belief is enough]”
  3. “to the frightening of the game, to the detriment of the forest”

Gilpin says1 of the stags in the New Forest,2 if one “be hunted by the king, and escape; or have his life given him for the sport he has afforded, he becomes from thence forward a hart-royal. — If he be hunted out of the forest, and there escape, the king hath sometimes honoured him with a royal proclamation; the purport of which is, to forbid any one to molest him, that he may have free liberty of returning to his forest. From that time he becomes a hart-royal proclaimed.” As is said of Richard the First,3 that, having pursued a hart a great distance, “the king in gratitude for the diversion he had received, ordered him immediately to be proclaimed at Tickill, and at all the neighbouring towns.” (A hart is a stag in his fifth or sixth year and upward.)

Think of having such a fellow as that for a king, causing his proclamation to be blown about your country towns at the end of his day’s sport, at Tickill or elsewhere, that you hinds may not molest the hart that has afforded him such an ever-memorable day’s sport. Is it not time that his subjects whom he has so sorely troubled and so long, be harts-royal proclaimed themselves — who have afforded him such famous sport? It will be a finer day’s-sport when the hinds shall turn and hunt the royal hart himself beyond the bounds of his forest and his kingdom, and in perpetual banishment alone he become a royal hart proclaimed. Such is the magnanimity of royal hearts that, through a whimsical prick of generosity, spares the game it could not kill, and fetters its equals with its arbitrary will. Kings love to say “shall” and “will.”


As we stand by the monument on the Battle-Ground, I see a white pine dimly in the horizon just north of Lee’s Hill, at , its upright stem and straight horizontal feathered branches, while at the same time I hear a robin sing. Each enhances the other. That tree seems the emblem of my life; it stands for the west, the wild. The sight of it is grateful to me as to a bird whose perch it is to be at the end of a weary flight. I am not sure whether the music I hear is most in the robin’s song or in its boughs. My wealth should be all in pine-tree shillings. The pine tree that stands on the verge of the clearing, whose boughs point westward; which the village does not permit to grow on the common or by the roadside; which is banished from the village; in whose boughs the crow and the hawk have their nests.

We have heard enough nonsense about the Pyramids. If Congress should vote to rear such structures on the prairies to-day, I should not think it worth the while, nor be interested in the enterprise. It was the foolish undertaking of some tyrant. “But,” says my neighbor, “when they were built, all men believed in them and were inspired to build them.” Nonsense! nonsense! I believe that they were built essentially in the same spirit in which the public works of Egypt, of England, and America are built to-day — the Mahmoudi Canal, the Tubular Bridge, Thames Tunnel, and the Washington Monument.1 The inspiring motive in the actual builders of these works is garlic, or beef, or potatoes. For meat and drink and the necessaries of life men can be hired to do many things. “Ah,” says my neighbor, “but the stones are fitted with such nice joints!” But the joints were nicer yet before they were disjointed in the quarry. Men are wont to speak as if it were a noble work to build a pyramid — to set, forsooth, a hundred thousand Irishmen at work at fifty cents a day to piling stone. As if the good joints could ennoble it, if a noble motive was wanting! To ramble round the world to see that pile of stones which ambitious Mr. Cheops, an Egyptian booby, like some Lord Timothy Dexter,2 caused a hundred thousand poor devils to pile up for low wages, which contained for all treasure the thigh-bone of a cow. The tower of Babel3 has been a good deal laughed at. It was just as sensible an undertaking as the Pyramids, which, because they were completed and have stood to this day, are admired.


Thoreau sharpens these observations for Walden. One excerpt: “As for the Pyramids, there is nothing to wonder at in them so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend their lives constructing a tomb for some ambitious booby, whom it would have been wiser and manlier to have drowned in the Nile, and then given his body to the dogs.”

  1. The Mahmudiyya Canal, which linked Alexandria to the Nile, was completed in , the Brittania Bridge in , the Thames Tunnel in . The Washington Monument was still under-construction.
  2. “Lord” Timothy Dexter () was a marvelous American eccentric.
  3. See Genesis 11:1–8

I love to see the dull gravity, even stolidity, of the farmer opposed to the fluency of the lawyer or official person. The farmer sits silent, not making any pretensions nor feeling any responsibility even to apprehend the other, while the Judge or Governor talks glibly and with official dispatch, all lost on the farmer, who minds it not, but looks out for the main chance, with his great inexpressive face and his two small eyes, looking the first in the face and rolling a quid in the back part of his mouth. The lawyer is wise in deeds, but the farmer, who buys land, puts the pertinent questions respecting the title.


I know two species of men. The vast majority are men of society. They live on the surface; they are interested in the transient and fleeting; they are like driftwood on the flood. They ask forever and only the news, the froth and scum of the eternal sea. They use policy; they make up for want of matter with manner. They have many letters to write. Wealth and the approbation of men is to them success. The enterprises of society are something final and sufficing for them. The world advises them, and they listen to its advice. They live wholly an evanescent life, creatures of circumstance. It is of prime importance to them who is the president of the day. They have no knowledge of truth, but by an exceedingly dim and transient instinct, which stereotypes the church and some other institutions. They dwell, they are ever, right in my face and eyes like gnats; they are like motes, so near the eyes that, looking beyond, they appear like blurs; they have their being between my eyes and the end of my nose. The terra firma of my existence lies far beyond, behind them and their improvements. If they write, the best of them deal in “elegant literature.” Society, man, has no prize to offer me that can tempt me; not one. That which interests a town or city or any large number of men is always something trivial, as politics. It is impossible for me to be interested in what interests men generally. Their pursuits and interests seem to me frivolous. When I am most myself and see the clearest, men are least to be seen; they are like muscae volitantes,1 and that they are seen at all is the proof of imperfect vision. These affairs of men are so narrow as to afford no vista, no distance; it is a shallow foreground only, no large extended views to be taken. Men put to me frivolous questions: When did I come? where am I going? That was a more pertinent question — what I lectured for? — which one auditor put to another. What an ordeal it were to make men pass through, to consider how many ever put to you a vital question! Their knowledge of something better gets no further than what is called religion and spiritual knockings.


Thoreau rewrote part of this for Life Without Principle: “Ordinarily, the inquiry is, Where did you come from? or, Where are you going? That was a more pertinent question which I overheard one of my auditors put to another one — ‘What does he lecture for?’ It made me quake in my shoes.” He combined this with part of the entry.

  1. A Latin term for those translucent floating spots in your field of vision caused by tiny debris or defects in the eye.

This excitement about Kossuth1 is not interesting to me, it is so superficial. It is only another kind of dancing or of politics. Men are making speeches to him all over the country, but each expresses only the thought, or the want of thought, of the multitude. No man stands on truth. They are merely banded together as usual, one leaning on another and all together on nothing; as the Hindoos made the world rest on an elephant, and the elephant on a tortoise, and had nothing to put under the tortoise.2 You can pass your hand under the largest mob, a nation in revolution even, and, however solid a bulk they may make, like a hail-cloud in the atmosphere, you may not meet so much as a cobweb of support. They may not rest, even by a point, on eternal foundations. But an individual standing on truth you cannot pass your hand under, for his foundations reach to the centre of the universe. So superficial these men and their doings, it is life on a leaf or a chip which has nothing but air or water beneath. I love to see a man with a tap-root, though it make him difficult to transplant. It is unimportant what these men do. Let them try forever, they can effect nothing. Of what significance the things you can forget?


  1. Lajos Kossuth, who was touring the United States at that time.
  2. Thoreau included his observations about the Kossuth mania in Life Without Principle. For more on the tortoise story, see Turtles all the way down.

If a forest were planted at the birth of every man, nations would not be likely to become effete. It has ever been regarded as a crime, even among warriors, to cut down a nation’s woods.


What a singular fact for an angel visitant to this earth to carry back in his note-book, that men were forbidden to expose their bodies under the severest penalties!


The motive of the laborer should be not to get his living, to get a good job, but to perform well a certain work. A town must pay its engineers so well that they shall not feel that they are working for low ends, as for a livelihood merely, but for scientific ends. Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for love, and pay him well.


Thoreau recrafted this for Life Without Principle: “The aim of the laborer should be, not to get his living, to get ‘a good job,’ but to perform well a certain work; and, even in a pecuniary sense, it would be economy for a town to pay its laborers so well that they would not feel that they were working for low ends, as for a livelihood merely, but for scientific, or even moral ends. Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for love of it.”


[I]t should not be by their architecture but by their abstract thoughts that a nation should seek to commemorate itself. How much more admirable the Bhagavat Geeta1 than all the ruins of the East! Methinks there are few specimens of architecture so perfect as a verse of poetry. Architectural remains are beautiful not intrinsically and absolutely, but from association. They are the luxury of princes. A simple and independent mind does not toil at the bidding of any prince, nor is its material silver and gold, or marble. The American’s taste for architecture, whether Grecian or Gothic, is like his taste for olives and wine, though the last may be made of logwood. Consider the beauty of New York architecture — and there is no material difference between this and Baalbec2 — a vulgar adornment of what is vulgar. To what end pray is so much stone hammered? An insane ambition to perpetuate the memory of themselves by the amount of hammered stone they leave. Such is the glory of nations. What if equal pains were taken to smooth and polish their manners? Is not the builder of more consequence than the material? One sensible act will be more memorable than a monument as high as the moon. I love better to see stones in place. The grandeur of Thebes3 was a vulgar grandeur. She was not simple, and why should I be imposed on by the hundred gates of her prison? More sensible is a rod of stone wall that bounds an honest man’s field than a hundred-gated Thebes that has mistaken the true end of life, that places hammered marble before honesty. The religion and civilization which are barbaric and heathenish build splendid temples, but Christianity does not. It needs no college-bred architect. All the stone a nation hammers goes toward its tomb only. It buries itself alive. The too exquisitely cultured I avoid as I do the theatre. Their life lacks reality. They offer me wine instead of water. They are surrounded by things that can be bought.


Thoreau combined some of this section with his earlier comments on the pyramids () for a section in Walden.

  1. Bhagavad Gita
  2. Baalbek
  3. Thebes (Homer called it “the hundred-gated Thebes.”)

In my experience nothing is so opposed to poetry — not crime — as business. It is a negation of life.


In Life Without Principle, Thoreau rewords this: “I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business.”


It would be well if the false preacher of Christianity were always met and balked by a superior, more living and elastic faith in his audience; just as some missionaries in India are balked by the easiness with which the Hindoos believe every word of the miracles and prophecies, being only surprised “that they are so much less wonderful than those of their own scripture, which also they implicitly believe.”1

I noticed Hayden walking beside his team, which was slowly drawing a heavy hewn stone swung under the axle, surrounded by an atmosphere of industry, his day’s work begun. Honest, peaceful industry, conserving the world, which all men respect, which society has consecrated. A reproach to all sluggards and idlers. Pausing abreast the shoulders of his oxen and half turning around, with a flourish of his merciful whip, while they gained their length on him. And I thought, such is the labor which the American Congress exists to protect — honest, manly toil. His brow has commenced to sweat. Honest as the day is long. One of the sacred band doing the needful but irksome drudgery. Toil that makes his bread taste sweet, and keeps society sweet. The day went by, and at evening I passed a rich man’s yard, who keeps many servants and foolishly spends much money while he adds nothing to the common stock, and there I saw Hayden’s stone lying beside a whimsical structure intended to adorn this Lord Timothy Dexter’s2 mansion, and the dignity forthwith departed from Hayden’s labor, in my eyes.3 I am frequently invited to survey farms in a rude manner, a very… insignificant labor, though I manage to get more out of it than my employers; but I am never invited by the community to do anything quite worth the while to do. How much of the industry of the boor, traced to the end, is found thus to be subserving some rich man’s foolish enterprise! There is a coarse, boisterous, money-making fellow in the north part of the town who is going to build a bank wall under the hill along the edge of his meadow. The powers have put this into his head to keep him out of mischief, and he wishes me to spend three weeks digging there with him. The result will be that he will perchance get a little more money to hoard, or leave for his heirs to spend foolishly when he is dead. Now, if I do this, the community will commend me as an industrious and hard-working man; but, as I choose to devote myself to labors which yield more real profit, though but little money, they regard me as a loafer. But, as I do not need this police of meaningless labor to regulate me, and do not see anything absolutely praiseworthy in his undertaking, however amusing it may be to him, I prefer to finish my education at a different school.4


  1. This quote is attributed to “Father Gregory, the Roman Catholic priest” in W.H. Sleeman’s Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official ().
  2. “Lord” Timothy Dexter () was a marvelous American eccentric.
  3. In Life Without Principle, Thoreau recounts this story and adds: “I may add that his employer has since run off, in debt to a good part of the town, and, after passing through Chancery [bankruptcy], has settled somewhere else, there to become once more a patron of the arts.”
  4. Thoreau also includes the story of the “coarse and boisterous money-making fellow” in Life Without Principle.

It is commonly said that history is a history of war, but it is at the same time a history of development. Savage nations — any of our Indian tribes, for instance — would have enough stirring incidents in their annals, wars and murders enough, surely, to make interesting anecdotes without end, such a chronicle of startling and monstrous events as fill the daily papers and suit the appetite of barrooms; but the annals of such a tribe do not furnish the materials for history.


We boast that we belong to the Nineteenth Century, and are making the most rapid strides of any nation. But consider how little this village does for its own culture. We have a comparatively decent system of common schools, schools for infants only, as it were, but, excepting the half-starved Lyceum1 in the winter, no school for ourselves. It is time that we had uncommon schools, that we did not leave off our education when we begin to be men. Comparatively few of my townsmen evince any interest in their own culture, however much they may boast of the school tax they pay. It is time that villages were universities, and their elder inhabitants the fellows, with leisure — if they are indeed so well off — to pursue liberal studies a long as they live. In this country, the village should in many respects take the place of the nobleman who has gone by the board. It should be the patron of the fine arts. It is rich enough; it only wants the refinement. It can spend money enough on such things as farmers value, but it is thought utopian to propose spending money for things which more intelligent men know to be of far more worth. If we live in the Nineteenth Century, why should we not enjoy the advantages which the Nineteenth Century has to offer? Why should our life be in any respect provincial? As the nobleman of cultivated taste surrounds himself with whatever conduces to his culture — books, paintings, statuary, &c — so let the village do. This town — how much has it ever spent directly on its own culture? To act collectively is according to the spirit of our institutions, and I am confident that, as our circumstances are more flourishing, our means are greater. New England can hire al the wise men in the world to come and teach her, and board them round the while, and not be provincial at all. That is the uncommon school we want. The one hundred and twenty-five dollars which is subscribed in this town every winter for a Lyceum is better spent than any other equal sum. Instead of noblemen, let us have noble towns or villages of men. This town has just spent sixteen thousand dollars for a town-house. Suppose it had been proposed to spend an equal sum for something which will tend far more to refine and cultivate its inhabitants, a library, for instance. We have sadly neglected our education. We leave it to Harper & Brothers and Redding & Co.2


See also in which Thoreau makes many of these same points (he also reworked this for Walden).

  1. Lyceum movement
  2. Harper & Brothers. Redding & Co. was another publishing house.

What men call social virtues, good fellowship, is commonly but the virtue of pigs in a litter, which lie close together to keep each other warm. It brings men together in crowds and mobs in barrooms and elsewhere, but it does not deserve the name of virtue.

browse«»