Excerpts from H.D. Thoreau’s journals (1854)

This is part six 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 () and on the online journal transcripts at The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau. Footnotes are mine unless otherwise noted.

Contents:

In Vimont’s1 Jesuit Relation2 for , he describes the customs of the Iroquois. As in the case of the Hurons, everything is done by presents. The murderer and robber are restrained by the very defect of justice, and because the community (his relations or tribe) whips itself for his fault. They must appease the injured with costly presents. They make that he shall involve his friends in ruin along with himself, and if he would injure any one, shall injure them too. By making it impossible for him to do an injury without doing a greater injury than he wishes, they restrain him.


  1. Barthelemy Vimont
  2. Jesuit Relations

I just had a coat come home from the tailor’s. Ah me! Who am I that should wear this coat? It was fitted upon one of the devil’s angels about my size. Of what use that measuring of me if he did not measure my character, but only the breadth of my shoulders, as it were a peg to hang it on. This is not the figure that I cut. This is the figure the tailor cuts. That presumptuous and impertinent fashion whispered in his ear, so that he heard no word of mine. As if I had said, “Not my will, O Fashion, but thine be done.”1 We worship not the Parcæ, nor the Graces, but Fashion, offspring of Proteus and Vanessa, of Whim and Vanity.2 She spins and weaves and cuts with the authority of the Fates.3 Oh, with what delight I could thrust a spear through her vitals or squash her under my heel! Every village might well keep constantly employed a score of knights to rid it of this monster. It changes men into bears or monkeys with a single wave of its wand. The head monkey at Paris, Count D’Orsay,4 put on the traveller’s cap, and now all the monkeys in the world do the same thing. He merely takes the breadth of my shoulders and proceeds to fit the garment to Puck,5 or some other grotesque devil of his acquaintance to whom he has sold himself.

I despair of ever getting anything quite simple and honest done in this world by the help of men. They would have to be passed through a powerful press, à la cider-mill, that their old notions might be thoroughly squeezed out of them, and it would be some time before they would get upon their legs again. Then undoubtedly there would be some one with a maggot in his head, offspring of an egg deposited there nobody knows when; fire does not kill these things, and you would have lost your labor. I could cry, if it were not for laughing.


Thoreau reworked these paragraphs for a paragraph in Walden. He also complained in a similar way about how his coat was tailored in a letter to Harrison Blake dated .

  1. A reference to the words of Jesus in Gethsemane: “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.” (Luke 22:42)
  2. Parcae, Graces, Proteus, and Vanessa
  3. Fates
  4. Alfred Guillaume Gabriel, Count D’Orsay (a “traveller’s cap” is something like a beret)
  5. Puck

The poets, philosophers, historians, and all writers have always been disposed to praise the life of the farmer and prefer it to the life of the citizen. They have been inclined to regard trade and commerce as not merely uncertain modes of getting a living, but as running into the usurious and disreputable. And even at the present day the trader, as carrier or go-between, the speculator, the forestaller, and corporations do not escape a fling. Trade has always been regarded to some extent as a questionable mode of getting a livelihood. Cato1 says: “Et virum bonum cum laudabant, ita laudabant, bonum agricolam, bonumque colonum. Amplissime laudari existimabatur, qui ita laudabatur. Mercatorem autem strenuum studiosumque rei quaerendae existimo; verum … periculosum et calamitosum. At ex agricolis et viri fortissimi, et milites strenuissimi gignuntur, maximeque invidosus: minimeque male cogitantes sunt, qui in eo studio occupati sunt.2 That is: “When they [i.e. our ancestors]3 praised a good man, they called him a good farmer and a good husbandman (settler?). He was thought to be most amply praised who was so praised. However, I think that the merchant is energetic and studious to make money, but his business is dangerous and liable to misfortunes. But from the cultivators of the soil, both the men of most fortitude and the hardiest soldiers are descended, and theirs is a gain particularly just (honest, pious) and stable, and least of all the subject of envy: and they are the least of all thinking evil who are engaged in this pursuit.”

And Varro4 says: “Viri magni nostri majores non sine cause praeponebant rusticos Romanos urbanis. Ut ruri enim, qui in villa vivunt ignaviores, quam qui in agro versantur in aliquo opere faciundo; sic qui in oppido sederent, quam qui rura colerent, desidiosiores putabant.5 That is: “Great men, our ancestors, preferred Romans who had lived in the country to those who lived in the city. For, as in the country, they who live in the villa are idler than they who are employed in the field doing some work, so they thought that those who sat in a town were more slothful than they who cultivated the fields.” and he says that they did not need the gymnasia of the Greeks, but now one does not think that he has a villa unless he has many places with Greek names in it, and, having stolen into the city, instead of using their hands in swinging a scythe or holding a plow they move them in the theatre and circus and have forgotten husbandry.6

And in another place V. boasts of the antiquity of rustic life, saying that “there was a time when men cultivated the fields, but had no city (fuit tempus, cum rura colerent homines, neque urbem haberent).” And again: “Immani numero annorum urbanos agricolae praestant. Nec mirum, quod divina natura dedit agros, ars humana aedificavit urbes. (That is: Cultivators of the soil precede citizens by a vast number of years. Nor is it to be wondered at, for divine Nature gave fields, human art built cities.) … Nec sine causa Terram eandem appellabant matrem, et Cererem, et qui eam colerent, piam et utilem agere vitam credebant, atque eos solos reliquos esse ex stirpe Saturni regis. (That is: Nor without reason did they [our ancestors] call the same Earth mother and Ceres, and thought that they who cultivated it led a pious and useful life, and that they alone were left of the race of King Saturn.)”

But now, by means of railroads and steamboats and telegraphs, the country is denaturalized, the old pious, stable, and unenvied gains of the farmer are liable to all the suspicion which only the merchant’s formerly excited. All milk-farms and fruit-farms, &c, are so many markets with their customs in the country.


  1. Cato the Elder
  2. The quote comes from “de Agri Cultura”.
  3. bracketed section supplied by Thoreau
  4. Marcus Terentius Varro
  5. Here, Thoreau inserts a note to the reader to see his entry of where he continues this quote from Varro’sde Agri Cultura”.
  6. Journal editors Torrey and Allen note here that this is “A free rendering of Varro’s Latin.”

After “putabant” in Varro, four pages back,1 comes “Itaque annum ita diviserunt, ut nonis modo diebus urbanas res usurparent, reliquis Ⅶ ut rura colerent. (Therefore they so divided the year as to attend to town affairs on the ninth day only, that they might cultivate the fields on the other days).” Hence nundinae means a fair, and oppidum nundinarium (a ninth-day town) is a market town, and forum nundinarium is the market-place.

Columella, referring to Varro, gives the same reason for the setting aside of the ninth day only, and adds: “Illis enim temporibus proceres civitatis in agris morabantur; et cum consilium publicum desiderabatur, a villis arcessebantur in senatum. Ex quo qui eos evocabant, Viatores nominati sunt. (For in those days the chief men of the state stayed on their farms; and when a public council was wanted they were sent for from their villas to the senate. Whence they who called them out were named Road-men.)”2 These were the times which all Romans loved to praise. But now, so far as the rulers of the State are concerned, the city for the most part, instead of being a ninth-day town, gets six days, while the country gets only one day and the nights at most. We go to market every day. The city is not a ninth-day place but an every-day place, and the country is only a night or Sunday place. In a Yankee’s estimation, it is perhaps the greatest satire on a New England country village to say that it has an air of quietness which reminds him of the Sabbath. He loves the bustle of a market, where things are bought and sold, and sometimes men among the rest. The boys swop jack-knives on Sunday, and their fathers, perchance, barter their own souls.


  1. See .
  2. From Columella’s “de Re Rustica”.

I read some of the speeches in Congress about the Nebraska Bill,1 — a thing the like of which I have not done for a year. What trifling upon a serious subject! while honest men are sawing wood for them outside. Your Congress halls have an ale-house odor — a place for stale jokes and vulgar wit. It compels me to think of my fellow-creatures as apes and baboons.


Leonard N. Neufeldt, in Henry David Thoreau’s Political Economy (The New England Quarterly , p. 369) notes that a passage very similar to this appears in “[a] surviving fragment of a manuscript page written in the mid-1850s on the subject of the current Congress (not listed in William L. Howarth’s The Literary Manuscripts of Henry David Thoreau).”

  1. The Kansas-Nebraska Act

It is only the irresolute and idle who have no leisure for their proper pursuit. Be preoccupied with this, devoted to it, and no accident can befall you, no idle engagements distract you. No man ever had the opportunity to postpone a high calling to a disagreeable duty. Misfortunes occur only when a man is false to his Genius. You cannot hear music and noise at the same time. We avoid all the calamities that may occur in a lower sphere by abiding perpetually in a higher. Most men are engaged in business the greater part of their lives, because the soul abhors a vacuum, and they have not discovered any continuous employment for man’s nobler faculties. Accordingly they do not pine, because they are not greatly disappointed. A little relaxation in your exertion, a little idleness, will let in sickness and death into your own body, or your family and their attendant duties and distractions. Every human being is the artificer of his own fate in these respects. The well have no time to be sick. Events, circumstances, &c, have their origin in ourselves. They spring from seeds which we have sown. Though I may call it a European War,1 it is only a phase or trait in my biography that I wot of.2 The most foreign scrap of news which the journals report to me — from Turkey or Japan — is but a hue of my inmost thought.


  1. Probably a reference to the Crimean War.
  2. “wot of” = “become aware of”

The ideal of a market is a place where all things are bought and sold. At an agricultural meeting in New York the other day, one said that he had lately heard a man inquiring for spurry seed; he wanted it to sow on drifting sand. His presumption had been that if he wanted it, i.e., if there was a demand, there was a supply to satisfy that demand. He went simply to the shop instead of going to the weed itself. But the supply does not anticipate the demand.


See also Thoreau’s journal from , in which he tells an anecdote about a misapprehension on the other side of supply and demand.


This crop [huckleberries] grows wild all over the country — wholesome, bountiful, and free — a real ambrosia … — and yet men — the foolish demons that they are — devote themselves to culture of tobacco, inventing slavery and a thousand other curses as the means, — with infinite pains and inhumanity go raise tobacco all their lives. Tobacco is the staple instead of huckleberries. Wreaths of tobacco smoke go up from this land, the incense of a million sensualists. With what authority can such distinguish between Christians and Mahometans?1

It would be worth the while to ask ourselves weekly, Is our life innocent enough? Do we live inhumanely, toward man or beast, in thought or act? To be serene and successful we must be at one with the universe. The least conscious and needless injury inflicted on any creature is to its extent a suicide. What peace — or life — can a murderer have?

The inhumanity of science concerns me, as when I am tempted to kill a rare snake that I may ascertain its species. I feel that this is not the means of acquiring true knowledge.


See also for Thoreau’s ambivalence about vivisection.

  1. That is, Muslims.

These days it is left to one Mr. Loring1 to say whether a citizen of Massachusetts is a slave or not. Does any one think that Justice or God awaits Mr. Loring’s decision? Such a man’s existence in this capacity under these circumstances is as impertinent as the gnat that settles on my paper. We do not ask him to make up his mind, but to make up his pack. Why, the United States Government never performed an act of justice in its life! And this unoffending citizen is held a prisoner by the United States soldier, of whom the best you can say is that he is a fool in a painted coat. Of what use a Governor or a Legislature? they are nothing but politicians. I have listened of late to hear the voice of a Governor, Commander-in-Chief of the forces of Massachusetts. I heard only the creaking of the crickets and the hum of the insects which now fill the summer air. The Governor’s exploit is to review the troops on muster-days. I have seen him on horseback, with his hat off, listening to a chaplain’s prayer. That is all I have ever seen of a Governor. I think that I could manage to get along without one. When freedom is most endangered, he dwells in the deepest obscurity. A distinguished clergyman once told me that he chose the profession of a clergyman because it afforded the most leisure for literary pursuits. I would recommend to him the profession of a Governor. I see the papers full of soft speeches of the mayor and the Governor and brother editors. I see the Court-House full of armed men, holding prisoner and trying a Man, to find out if he is not really a Slave. It is a question about which there is great doubt.

It is really the trial of Massachusetts. Every moment that she hesitates to set this man free, she is convicted. The Commissioner on her case is God. Perhaps the most saddening aspect of the matter is the tone of almost all the Boston papers, connected with the fact that they are and have been of course sustained by a majority of their readers. They are feeble indeed, but only as sin compared with righteousness and truth. They are eminently time-serving. I have seen only the Traveller, Journal, and Post. I never look at them except at such a time as this. Their life is abject even as that of the marines. Men in any office of government are everywhere and forever politicians. Will mankind never learn that policy is not morality, that it never secures any moral right, but always considers merely what is “expedient,” — chooses the available candidate, who, when moral right is concerned, is always the devil? Witness the President of the United States. What is the position of Massachusetts? (Massa-chooses-it!) She leaves it to a Mr. Loring to decide whether one of her citizens is a freeman or a slave. What is the value of such a She’s Freedom and Protection to me? Perhaps I shall so conduct that she will one day offer me the Freedom of Massachusetts in a gold casket — made of California gold in the form of a court-house, perchance. I spurn with contempt any bribe which she or her truckling men can offer. I do not vote at the polls. I wish to record my vote here. Men profess to be surprised because the devil does not behave like an angel of light. The majority of the men of the North, and of the South and East and West, are not men of principle. If they vote, they do not send men to Congress on errands of humanity; but, while their brothers and sisters are being scourged and hung for loving liberty, while (insert here all the inhumanities that pandemonium can conceive of), it is the mismanagement of wood and iron and stone and gold which concerns them. Do what you will, O Government, with my mother and brother, my father and sister, I will obey your command to the letter. It will, indeed, grieve me if you hurt them, if you deliver them to overseers to be hunted by hounds, and to be whipped to death; but, nevertheless, I will peaceably pursue my chosen calling on this fair earth, until, perhaps, one day I shall have persuaded you to relent. Such is the attitude, such are the words of Massachusetts. Rather than thus consent to establish hell upon earth — to be a party to this establishment — I would touch a match to blow up earth and hell together. As I love my life, I would side with the Light and let the Dark Earth roll from under me, calling my mother and my brother to follow me.


This entry was prompted by the Anthony Burns case. Thoreau reworked much of this for Slavery in Massachusetts. See Sandra Harbert Petrulionis’s Editorial Savoir Faire: Thoreau Transforms His Journal into “Slavery in Massachusetts” for an interesting look at this process.

  1. United States Slave Commissioner Edward Greeley Loring

In some cases fame is perpetually false and unjust. Or rather I should say that she never recognizes the simple heroism of an action, but only as connected with its apparent consequence. It praises the interested energy of the Boston Tea Party,1 but will be comparatively silent about the more bloody and disinterestedly heroic attack on the Boston Court-House, simply because the latter was unsuccessful. Fame is not just. It never finely or discriminatingly praises, but coarsely hurrahs. The truest acts of heroism never reach her ear, are never published by her trumpet.


This entry was prompted by the Anthony Burns case (the attack on the Boston courthouse was an attempt by to free Burns). Thoreau reworked this for Slavery in Massachusetts. See Sandra Harbert Petrulionis’s Editorial Savoir Faire: Thoreau Transforms His Journal into “Slavery in Massachusetts” for an interesting look at this process.

  1. The Boston Tea Party

Herndon,1 in his “Exploration of the Amazon,” says that “there is wanting an industrious and active population, who know what the comforts of life are, and who have artificial wants to draw out the great resources of the country.” But what are the “artificial wants” to be encouraged, and the “great resources” of a country? Surely not the love of luxuries like the tobacco and slaves of his native Virginia, or that fertility of soil which produces these. The chief want is ever a life of deep experiences — that is, character — which alone draws out “the great resources” of Nature. When our wants cease to be chiefly superficial and trivial, which is commonly meant by artificial, and begin to be wants of character, then the great resources of a country are taxed and drawn out, and the result, the staple production, is poetry. Have the “great resources” of Virginia been drawn out by such “artificial wants” as there exist? Was that country really designed by its Maker to produce slaves and tobacco, or something more even than the freeman and food for freeman? Wants of character, aspirations — this is what is wanted; but what is called civilization does not always substitute this for the barren simplicity of the savage.


In The Relation of Herndon and Gibbon’s Exploration of the Amazon to North American Slavery, (The Hispanic American Historical Review, ), Whitfield J. Bell, Jr. notes that “[t]wo ideas lay behind the exploration of the Amazon River by Lieutenant William Lewis Herndon… The more important and the more frequently expressed was that the region of the Amazon offered a rich field for development by American commercial enterprise; the other was that the Amazon Valley might be employed as an outlet for the increasing slave population of the United States.” When Thoreau reworked this paragraph for Life Without Principle, he made note of this, beginning the paragraph: “Lieutenant Herndon, whom our government sent to explore the Amazon, and, it is said, to extend the area of slavery,…”

  1. William Lewis Herndon

Covered with disgrace, this State has sat down cooly to try for their lives the men who attempted to do its duty for it. And this is called justice! They who have shown that they can behave particularly well — they alone are put under bonds “for their good behavior!” Such a judge and court are an impertinence. Only they are guiltless who commit the crime of contempt of such a court. It behooves every man to see that his influence is on the side of justice, and let the courts make their own characters. What is any political organization worth, when it is in the service of the devil? I see that the authorities — the Governor, Mayor, Commissioner, Marshal, &c — are either weak or unprincipled men — i.e., well disposed but not equal to the occasion — or else of dull moral perception, with the unprincipled and servile in their pay. All sound moral sentiment is opposed to them.

I had thought that the Governor was in some sense the executive officer of the State; that it was his business to see that the laws of the State were executed; but, when there is any special use for him, he is useless, permits the laws to go unexecuted, and is not heard from. But the worst I shall say of the Governor is that he was not better than the majority of his constituents — he was not equal to the occasion. While the whole military force of the State, if need be, is at the service of a slaveholder, to enable him to carry back a slave, not a soldier is offered to save a citizen of Massachusetts from being kidnapped. Is this what all these arms, all this “training,” has been for ? What is wanted is men of principle, who recognize a higher law than the decision of the majority. The marines and the militia whose bodies were used lately were not men of sense nor of principle; in a high moral sense they were not men at all.

Justice is sweet and musical to hear; but injustice is harsh and discordant. The judge still sits grinding at his organ, but it yields no music, and we hear only the sound of the handle. He believes that all the music resides in the handle, and the crowd toss him their coppers just the same as before.


This entry was prompted by the Anthony Burns case (“the men who attempted to do [the State’s] duty for it” were on trial for their roles in a raid on the Boston courthouse in an attempt by to free Burns). Thoreau reworked this for Slavery in Massachusetts. See Sandra Harbert Petrulionis’s Editorial Savoir Faire: Thoreau Transforms His Journal into “Slavery in Massachusetts” for an interesting look at this process.


Again I scent the white water-lily, and a season I had waited for is arrived. … It is the emblem of purity, and its scent suggests it. Growing in stagnant and muddy water, it bursts up so pure and fair to the eye and so sweet to the scent, as if to show us what purity and sweetness reside in, and can be extracted from, the slime and muck of earth. I think I have plucked the first one that has opened for a mile at least. What confirmation of our hopes is the fragrance of the water-lily! I shall not so soon despair of the world for it, notwithstanding slavery, and the cowardice and want of principle of the North. It suggests that the time may come when man’s deeds will smell as sweet. Such, then, is the odor our planet emits. Who can doubt, then, that Nature is young and sound? If Nature can compound this fragrance still annually, I shall believe her still full of vigor, and that there is virtue in man, too, who perceives and loves it. It is as if all the pure and sweet and virtuous was extracted from the slime and decay of earth and presented thus in a flower. The resurrection of virtue! It reminds me that Nature has been partner to no Missouri compromise. I scent no compromise in the fragrance of the white water-lily. In it, the sweet, and pure, and innocent are wholly sundered from the obscene and baleful. I do not scent in this the time-serving irresolution of a Massachusetts Governor, nor of a Boston Mayor. All good actions have contributed to this fragrance. So behave that the odor of your actions may enhance the general sweetness of the atmosphere, that, when I behold or scent a flower, I may not be reminded how inconsistent are your actions with it; for all odor is but one form of advertisement of a moral quality. If fair actions had not been performed, the lily would not smell sweet. The foul slime stands for the sloth and vice of man; the fragrant flower that springs from it, for the purity and courage which springs from its midst. It is these sights and sounds and fragrances put together that convince us of our immortality. No man believes against all evidence. Our external senses consent with our internal. This fragrance assures me that, though all other men fall, one shall stand fast; though a pestilence sweep over the earth, it shall at least spare one man. The genius of Nature is unimpaired. Her flowers are as fair and as fragrant as ever.1

The effect of a good government is to make life more valuable — of a bad government, to make it less valuable. We can afford that railroad and all merely material stock should depreciate, for that only compels us to live more simply and economically; but suppose the value of life itself should be depreciated. Every man in New England capable of the sentiment of patriotism must have lived the last three weeks with the sense of having suffered a vast, indefinite loss. I had never respected this government, but I had foolishly thought that I might manage to live here, attending to my private affairs, and forget it. For my part, my old and worthiest pursuits have lost I cannot say how much of their attraction, and I feel that my investment in life here is worth many per cent. less since Massachusetts last deliberately and forcibly restored an innocent man, Anthony Burns, to slavery. I dwelt before in the illusion that my life passed somewhere only between heaven and hell, but now I cannot persuade myself that I do not dwell wholly within hell. The sight of that political organization called Massachusetts is to me morally covered with scoriæ and volcanic cinders, such as Milton imagined.2 If there is any hell more unprincipled than our rulers and our people, I feel curious to visit it. Life itself being worthless, all things with it, that feed it, are worthless. Suppose you have a small library, with pictures to adorn the walls — a garden laid out around — and contemplate scientific and literary pursuits, &c, &c, and discover suddenly that your villa, with all its contents, is located in hell, and that the justice of the peace is one of the devil’s angels, has a cloven foot and a forked tail — do not these things suddenly lose their value in your eyes? Are you not disposed to sell at a great sacrifice?

I feel that, to some extent, the State has fatally interfered with my just and proper business. It has not merely interrupted me in my passage through Court Street on errands of trade, but it has, to some extent, interrupted me and every man on his onward and upward path, on which he had trusted soon to leave Court Street far behind.3 I have found that hollow which I had relied on for solid.

I am surprised to see men going about their business as if nothing had happened, and say to myself, “Unfortunates! they have not heard the news;” that the man whom I just met on horseback should be so earnest to overtake his newly bought cows running away — since all property is insecure, and if they do not run away again, they may be taken away from him when he gets them. Fool! does he not know that his seed-corn is worth less this year — that all beneficent harvests fail as he approaches the empire of hell? No prudent man will build a stone house under these circumstances, or engage in any peaceful enterprise which it requires a long time to accomplish. Art is as long as ever, but life is more interrupted and less available for a man’s proper pursuits. It is time we had done referring to our ancestors. We have used up all our inherited freedom, like the young bird the albumen in the egg. It is not an era of repose. If we would save our lives, we must fight for them.4

The discovery is what manner of men your countrymen are. They steadily worship mammon — and on the seventh day curse God with a tintamarre from one end of the Union to the other.5 I heard the other day of a meek and sleek devil of a Bishop Somebody, who commended the law and order with which Burns was given up. I would like before I sit down to a table to inquire if there is one in the company who styles himself or is styled Bishop, and he or I should go out of it. I would have such a man wear his bishop’s hat and his clerical bib and tucker, that we may know him.

Why will men be such fools as trust to lawyers for a moral reform? I do not believe that there is a judge in this country prepared to decide by the principle that a law is immoral and therefore of no force. They put themselves, or rather are by character, exactly on a level with the marine who discharges his musket in any direction in which he is ordered. They are just as much tools, and as little men.6

There is a fine ripple and sparkle on the pond, seen through the mist. But what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base? We walk to lakes to see our serenity reflected in them. When we are not serene, we go not to them. Who can be serene in a country where both rulers and ruled are without principle? The remembrance of the baseness of politicians spoils my walks. My thoughts are murder to the State; I endeavor in vain to observe nature; my thoughts involuntarily go plotting against the State. I trust that all just men will conspire.7


  1. Thoreau reworked this section to conclude Slavery in Massachusetts. See also .
  2. A reference to John Milton’s Paradise Lost
  3. Court Street in Boston was both a major commercial area and the address of many government buildings.
  4. Thoreau reworked this section for Slavery in Massachusetts.
  5. Thoreau reworked this section for Slavery in Massachusetts. (See also Tintamarre.)
  6. Thoreau reworked this section for Slavery in Massachusetts.
  7. Thoreau reworked this section for Slavery in Massachusetts.

See also Sandra Harbert Petrulionis’s Editorial Savoir Faire: Thoreau Transforms His Journal into “Slavery in Massachusetts”.


Slavery has produced no sweet-scented flower like the water-lily, for its flower must smell like itself. It will be a carrion-flower.1

The judges and lawyers, all men of expediency, consider not whether the Fugitive Slave Law2 is right, but whether it is what they call constitutional. They try the merits of the case by a very low and incompetent standard. Pray, is virtue constitutional, or vice? Is equity constitutional, or iniquity? It is as impertinent, in important moral and vital questions like this, to ask whether a law is constitutional or not, as to ask whether it is profitable or not. They persist in being the servants of man, and the worst of men, rather than the servants of God. Sir, the question is not whether you or your grandfather, seventy years ago, entered into an agreement to serve the devil, and that service is not accordingly now due; but whether you will not now, for once and last, serve God — in spite of your own past recreancy or that of your ancestors — and obey that eternal and only just Constitution which he, and not any Jefferson or Adams, has written in your being.3 Is the Constitution a thing to live by? or die by? No, as long as we are alive we forget it, and when we die we have done with it. At most it is only to swear by. While they are hurrying off Christ to the cross, the ruler decides that he cannot constitutionally interfere to save him. The Christians, now and always, are they who obey the higher law, who discover it to be according to their constitution to interfere. They at least cut of the ears of the police; the others pocket the thirty pieces of silver.4 This was meaner than to crucify Christ, for he could better take care of himself.

Massachusetts sits waiting his decision, as if the crime were not already committed. The crime consists first of all and chiefly in her permitting an innocent man to be tried for more than his life — for his liberty. They who talk about Mr. Loring’s5 decision, and not about their own and the State’s consenting that he shall be the umpire in such a case, waste time in words and are weak in the head, if not in the heart alone.6

(, continued.) — The amount of it is, if the majority vote the devil to be God, the minority will live and behave accordingly, and obey the successful candidate, trusting that some time or other, by some Speaker’s casting-vote, they may reinstate God again. Some men act as if they believed that they could safely slide down-hill a little way — or a good way — and would surely come to a place, by and by, whence they could slide up again. This is expediency, or choosing that course which offers the fewest obstacles to the feet (of the slider). But there is no such thing as accomplishing a moral reform by the use of expediency or policy. There is no such thing as sliding up-hill. In morals the only sliders are backsliders.7

Let the judge and the jury, and the sheriff and the jailer, cease to act under a corrupt government — cease to be tools and become men.

Certainly slavery, and all vice and iniquity, have not had power enough to create any flower thus annually to charm the senses of men. It has no life. It is only a constant decaying and a death, offensive to all healthy nostrils.8 The unchangeable laws of the universe, by a partial obedience to which even sin in a measure succeeds, are all on the side of the just and fair. It is his few good qualities misallied which alone make the slaveholder at all to be feared; it is because he is in some respects a better man than we.

Why, who are the real opponents of slavery? The slaveholders know, and I know. Are they the governors, the judges, the lawyers, the politicians? Or are they Garrison, Phillips, Parker & Co.?9 The politicians do now, and always will, instinctively stand aloof from such.

And at this very time I heard the sound of a drum in our streets. There were men or boys training; and for what? With an effort I could pardon the cocks for crowing still, for they had not been beaten that morning; but I could not excuse this rubadub of the trainers.10


  1. Thoreau reworked this section to conclude Slavery in Massachusetts. See also .
  2. Fugitive slave laws
  3. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Thoreau reworked this section for Slavery in Massachusetts.
  4. In the Christian Gospels, Christ was betrayed to his captors by the disciple Judas in return for thirty pieces of silver. At his arrest, another disciple attacks a Roman soldier, cutting off his ear. See Arrest of Jesus.
  5. United States Slave Commissioner Edward Greeley Loring
  6. Thoreau reworked this section for Slavery in Massachusetts.
  7. Thoreau reworked this section for Slavery in Massachusetts.
  8. Thoreau reworked this section to conclude Slavery in Massachusetts. See also .
  9. William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Theodore Parker.
  10. Thoreau reworked this section for Slavery in Massachusetts.

See also Sandra Harbert Petrulionis’s Editorial Savoir Faire: Thoreau Transforms His Journal into “Slavery in Massachusetts”.


What we want is not mainly to colonize Nebraska with free men, but to colonize Massachusetts with free men — to be free ourselves. As the enterprise of a few individuals, that is brave and practical; but as the enterprise of the State, it is cowardice and imbecility. What odds where we squat, or how much ground we cover? It is not the soil that we would make free, but men.

As for asking the South to grant us the trial by jury in the case of runaway slaves, it is as if, seeing a righteous man sent to hell, we should run together and petition the devil first to grant him a trial by jury, forgetting that there is another power to be petitioned, that there is another law and other precedents.

It is not any such free-soil party1 as I have seen, but a free-man party, i.e. a party of free men — that is wanted. It is not any politicians, even the truest and soundest, but, strange as it may sound, even godly men, as Cromwell2 discovered, who are wanted to fight this battle — men not of policy but of probity. Politicians! I have looked into the eyes of two or three of them, but I saw nothing there to satisfy me. They will vote for my man to-morrow if I will vote for theirs to-day. They will whirl round and round, not only horizontally like weathercocks, but vertically also.

My advice to the State is simply this: to dissolve her union with the slaveholder instantly. She can find no respectable law or precedent which sanctions its continuance. And to each inhabitant of Massachusetts, to dissolve his union with the State, as long as she hesitates to do her duty.3


Men may talk about measures till all is blue and smells of brimstone, and then go home and sit down and expect their measures to do their duty for them. The only measure is integrity and manhood.


18 August 1854

I have just been through the process of killing the cistudo1 for the sake of science; but I cannot excuse myself for this murder, and see that such actions are inconsistent with the poetic perception, however they may serve science, and will affect the quality of my observations. I pray that I may walk more innocently and serenely through nature. No reasoning whatever reconciles me to this act. It affects my day injuriously. I have lost some self-respect. I have a murderer’s experience in a degree.


See also for Thoreau’s ambivalence about vivisection.

  1. turtle

In my experience, at least of late years, all that depresses a man’s spirits is the sense of remissness — duties neglected unfaithfulness — or shamming, impurity, falsehood, inhumanity, and the like.

From the experience of late years I should say that a man’s seed was the direct tax of his race. It stands for my sympathy with my race. When the brain chiefly is nourished, and not the affections, the seed becomes merely excremental.


Mrs. Mowatt1, the actress, describes a fancy ball in Paris, given by an American millionaire, at which “one lady … wore so many diamonds (said she valued at two hundred thousand dollars) that she was escorted in her carriage by gendarmes, for fear of robbery.” This illustrates the close connexion between luxury & robbery — but commonly the gendarmes are further off.


  1. Anna Cora Mowatt ()

I sometimes seem to myself to owe all my little success, all for which men commend me, to my vices. I am perhaps more willful than others and make enormous sacrifices even of others’ happiness, it may be, to gain my ends. It would seem even as if nothing good could be accomplished without some vice to aid in it.


At the end of Obed Macy’s Hist of Nantucket are some verses signed “Peter Folger ” as for the sin which God would punish by the Indian war,1 — 

“Sure ’tis not chiefly for those sins
   that magistrates do name,”

but for the sin of persecution & the like — the banishing & whipping of godly men — 

“The cause of this their suffering
   was not for any sin,
 But for the witness that they bare
   against babes sprinkling2

“The church may now go stay at home,
   there’s nothing for to do;
 Their work is all cut out by law,
   and almost made up too.

“’Tis like that some may think and say,
   our war would not remain,
 If so be that a thousand more
   of natives were but slain.

“Alas! these are but foolish thoughts;
   God can make more arise,
 And if that there were none at all,
   He can make war with flies.3


The poem is A Looking-Glass for the Times; or, The former spirit of New England revived in this generation. Folger’s grandson Benjamin Franklin characterized the poem in this way: “It was written in , in the home-spun verse of that time and people, and addressed to those then concerned in the government there. It was in favour of liberty of conscience, and in behalf of the Baptists, Quakers, and other sectaries that had been under persecution, ascribing the Indian wars, and other distresses that had befallen the country, to that persecution, as so many judgments of God to punish so heinous an offense, and exhorting a repeal of those uncharitable laws. The whole appeared to me as written with a good deal of decent plainness and manly freedom.”

  1. King Philip’s War
  2. That is, infant baptism.
  3. See Exodus 8:20–30
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