Excerpts from Henry David Thoreau’s journals
part seven ()
This is part seven 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:
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.
One is educated to believe, & would rejoice if the rising generation
should find no occasion to doubt, that the state and the Church are on the
side of morality — that the voice of the people is the voice of God. Harvard
College was partly built by a lottery. My father tells me he bought a ticket
in it. Perhaps she thus laid the foundation of her Divinity school. Thus she
teaches by example. New England is flooded with the “Official schemes of the
Maryland State Lotteries,” and in this that state is no less unprincipled than
in her slave-holding. Maryland, and every fool who buys a ticket of her, is
bound straight to the bottomless pit. The state of Maryland is a moral fungus.
Her offence is rank; it smells to heaven. Knowing that she is doing the
devil’s work, and that her customers are ashamed to be known as such, she
advertises, as in the case of private diseases, that “the strictest confidence
will be observed.” “Consolidated” Deviltry.
A typical such advertisement might offer tickets in “the Grand Consolidated
Lottery, the Maryland Consolidated Lottery, the Bel Air Lottery, Washington
County, and Carroll County Lotteries.” Thoreau was opposed to gambling on
principle, but in addition those who bought tickets in the Maryland lottery
were supporting the government of a slave state.
A man came to our house at … who
set out this morning to go from Waltham to Noah Wheeler’s in Nine Acre Corner.
He got as far as Lee’s Bridge on the edge of Lincoln, or within ¾ of a mile of
Wheeler’s, & could not get over the river on account of the freshet. So he
came round through Concord village — he might have come by the
RR a little nearer, — & I directed him over the
RR bridge, the first by
which he could cross dry-shod down the stream, & up stream he would have
been obliged to go to Saxonville. Thus he had to go 8 miles round instead of ¾
of a mile direct, and in the whole about double the usual distance from
Waltham.… The river thus opposes a serious obstacle to travellers from
N.W. for some 20 miles
of its course at least, above & below Concord. No doubt hundreds have been
put to great inconvenience by it within a day or 2. Even travellers in wagons
are stopped at many of these causeways. If they were raised 2 feet the trouble
would be in great part, the danger wholly, obviated. There should at least be
provided a ferry for foot passengers at each such causeway, at the expense of
the town, and the traveller could blow a horn to call the ferryman over.
Staples1 said the other day that he heard
Philips2 speak at the State House. By thunder he
never heard a man that could speak like him. His words come so easy. It was
just like picking up chips.
Could this be Samuel Staples, Concord’s constable, jailer, and
tax-gatherer, who imprisoned Thoreau for tax evasion almost ten years
When I would go a visiting I find that I go off the fashionable street — not
being inclined to change my dress — to where man meets man and not polished
shoe meets shoe.
Ac to Holland’s
Hist of Western
in Westfield “In , it was voted that the pews
next the pulpit should be highest in dignity. The next year it was voted that
persons should be seated in the meeting house according to their age &
estate, and that so much as any man’s estate is increased by his negroes,
‘that shall be left out.’ If a man lived on a hired farm, ‘or hath
obtained his property by marrying a widow, it shall be reckoned only
one-third,’ that is, he shall have only ⅓ as much dignity as if he owned his
farm, or had acquired his money by his own industry.”
Arguing with Bellew1
this evening about Fourierism2 and
communities, I said that I suspected any enterprise in which 2 were
engaged together. “But,” said he, “it is difficult to make a stick stand
unless you slant 2 or more against it.” “Oh, no,”
said I, “you may split its lower end into 3, or
drive it single into the ground, which is the best way; but most men, when
they start on a new enterprise, not only figuratively, but really, pull up
stakes. When the sticks prop one another, none, or only one, stands
He complains that [the] Americans have attained to bad luxuries, but have no
Howitt3 says of the man who found the great nugget
which weighed 28 pounds at the Bendigo diggings in Australia: “He soon began
to drink; got a horse, and rode all about, generally at full gallop, and when
he met people, called out to inquire if they knew who he was, and then kindly
informed them that he was ‘the bloody wretch that had found the nugget.’ At
last he rode full speed against a tree, and nearly knocked his brains out.”
(“He is a hopelessly ruined man,” added Howitt.) In my opinion there was no
danger of that though, for he had already knocked his brains out against the
nugget. But he is a type of the class. They are all fast men.
Hear some of the names of the places where they dig: “Jackass Flat,” — “Sheep’s-Head Gully,” — “Sulky Gully,” — “Murderer’s Bar,”
&c Is there no
permanent satire in these names? Let them carry their ill-gotten wealth where
they will — whether to Beacon
St. or Broadway it will still
be Jackass Flat
&c where they
(). The quotes come from his
Land, Labour, and Gold: or, Two Years in Victoria:
with Visits to Sydney and Van Diemen’s Land ()
Thoreau includes these two paragraphs in
Principle (along with bits of other journal entries not
included here in which he contrasts gold prospecting with searching for
Now is the time for chestnuts. A stone cast against the tree shakes them down
in showers upon one’s head & shoulders. But I cannot excuse myself for
using the stone. It is not innocent. It is not just so to maltreat the tree
that feeds us. I am not disturbed by considering that if I thus shorten its
life I shall not enjoy its fruit so long, but am prompted to a more innocent
course by motives purely of humanity. I sympathize with the tree. Yet I heaved
a big stone against the trunks like a robber — not too good to commit murder.
I trust that I shall never do it again. These gifts should be accepted not
merely with gentleness but with a certain humble gratitude. The tree whose
fruit we would obtain should not be too rudely shaken even. It is not a time
of distress, when a little haste & violence even might be pardoned. It is
worse than boorish, it is criminal, to inflict an unnecessary injury on the
tree that feeds or shadows us. Old trees are our parents, & our parents’
parents, perchance. If you would learn the secrets of Nature, you must
practice more humanity than others.
The thought that I was robbing myself by injuring the tree did not occur to
me, but I was affected as if I had cast a rock at a sentient being — with a
duller sense than my own, it is true, but yet a distant relation. Behold a man
cutting down a tree to come at the fruit! What is the moral of such an act?
Ah! we begin old men in crime. Would that we might grow innocent at last as
the children of light!
I hate the present modes of living & getting a living. Farming &
shopkeeping and working at a trade or profession are all odious to me. I
should relish getting my living in a simple, primitive fashion.
The life which society proposes to me to live is so artificial and complex — bolstered up on many weak supports and sure to topple down at last — that no
man surely can ever be inspired to live it, & only “old fogies” ever
praise it. At best some think it their duty to live it. I believe in the
infinite joy & satisfaction of helping myself — and others to the extent
of my ability. But what is the use in trying to live simply — raising what you
eat, making what you wear, building what you inhabit, burning what you cut or
dig — when those to whom you are allied insanely want & will have a
thousand other things which neither you nor they can raise & nobody else,
perchance, will pay for? The fellow-man to whom you are yoked is a steer that
is ever bolting right the other way.
I was suggesting once to a man who was wincing under some of the consequences
of our loose & expensive way of living, “But you might raise all your own
&c” We had
often done it at our house & had some to sell. At which he demurring, I
said, setting it high, “You could raise 20 bushels even.” “But,” said he, “I
use 35.” “How large is your family?” “A wife & 3 infant children.” This
was the real family; I need not enumerate those who were hired to
help eat the potatoes & waste them. So he had to hire a man to
raise his potatoes.
Thus men invite the devil in at every angle and then prate about the garden of
Eden & the fall of man.
I know many children to whom I would fain make a present on some one of their
birth days. But they are so far gone in the luxury of presents — have such
perfect museums of costly ones — that it would absorb my entire earnings for a
year to buy them some thing which would not be beneath their notice.
I affect what would commonly be called a mean & miserable way of living. I
thoroughly sympathize with all savages & gypsies in as far as they merely
assert the original right of man — to the productions of nature & a place
in her. The Irish man moves into town, sets up a shanty on the
RR-land, & then
gleans the dead wood from the neighboring forest, which would never get to
market. But the so-called owner forbids it & complains of him as a
trespasser. The highest laws gives a thing to him who can use it.
One man thinks that he has a right to burn his 30 cords in a year because he
can give a certain sum of money in exchange for them, but that another has no
right to pick up the faggots which else nobody would burn. They who remember
only this kind of right do as if they stood under a shed & affirmed that
they were under the unobscured heavens. The shed has its use, but what is it
to the heavens above?
So of the warmth which food, shelter, & clothing afford, or might
afford, if we used economical stoves. We might burn the smoke which
now puts our eyes out. The pleasure, the warmth, is not so much in
having as in a true & simple manner getting these
Men prefer foolishly the gold to that of which it is the symbol — simple,
honest, independent labor. Can gold be said to buy food, if it does not buy an
appetite for food?
It is fouler & uglier to have too much than not to have enough.
I have omitted a number of other journal entries in which Thoreau discusses
the virtue of firewood that is gathered and split, in contrast to that which
is purchased, in much these same terms.
The Assessors called me into their office & said they wished to get an inventory of my property; asked
if I had any real estate. No. Any notes at interest or
RR shares? No. Any
taxable property? None that I knew of. “I have a
boat,” I said; & one of them thought that that might come under the head
of a pleasure carriage, which is taxable.
This last bit is said jestingly, as Thoreau’s boat is just a tiny rowboat.
In reading Columella1 I am frequently reminded,
not only by the general tone, but even by the particular warnings &
directions, of our agricultural journals & reports of farmers’ clubs.
Often what is last & most insisted on among us,
is most insisted on by the Romans.
As when he says it is better to cultivate a little land well than a great deal
ill, and quotes the poet:2 — “laudato ingentia rura, Exiguum
“Modus ergo, qui in omnibus rebus, etiam
parandis agris adhibebitur: tantum enim obtinendum est, quanto est opus, ut
emisse videamur quo potiremur, non quo oneraremur ipsi, atque aliis fruendum
eriperemus, more praepotentium, qui possident fines Gentium, quos ne circumire
equis quidem valent, sed proculcandos pecudibus, et vastandos ac populandos
feris derelinquunt, aut occupatos nexu civium, et ergastulis tenent.”
(Therefore, as in all things, so in buying land moderation will be used; for
only so much is to be obtained as there is need of, so that we may be
seen to have bought
what we can possess, not what we may be burdened
with, & hinder others from enjoying, like those
very powerful ones who also
possessoccupy the territory of a
tribe, which they can not go round even with horses,
but leave to be trampled by herds, & to be laid waste & depopulated by
wild beasts, or keep occupied by nexu
civium4 or prisons.)
This reminds me of those extensive tracts said to belong to the Peter Piper
estate, running back a mile or more & absorbing several old farms but
almost wholly neglected & run out, which I often traverse & am better
acquainted with than their so-called owners. Several times I have had to show
such the nearest way out of their woodlots.5
Extensive woodlots & cranberry meadows perhaps, & a rambling old
country house on one side, but you can’t buy an acre of land for a houselot.
“Where wealth accumulates & men decay.”6
This quote is from Virgil’s Georgics: “Praise huge farms, cultivate a small one.”
Footnote Thoreau’s: “confinement & compulsory labor on farms of fellow-citizens for debt.”
Thoreau mentioned this also in The Succession of
Forest Trees: “In my capacity of surveyor, I have often talked
with some of you, my employers, at your dinner-tables, after having gone
round and round and behind your farming, and ascertained exactly what its
limits were. Moreover, taking a surveyor’s and a naturalist’s liberty, I
have been in the habit of going across your lots much oftener than is
usual, as many of you, perhaps to your sorrow, are aware. Yet many of
you, to my relief, have seemed not to be aware of it; and when I came
across you in some out-of-the-way nook of your farms, have inquired, with
an air of surprise, if I were not lost, since you had never seen me in
that part of the town or county before; when, if the truth were known,
and it had not been for betraying my secret, I might with more propriety
have inquired if you were not lost, since I had never seen
you there before. I have several times shown the proprietor the
shortest way out of his wood-lot.”
This quote is from Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village: “Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, / Where wealth accumulates and men decay: / Princes and lords may flourish or may fade; / A breath can make them, as a breath has made; / But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride, / When once destroyed, can never be supplied.” That poem as a whole strikes similar notes to this journal entry.