Excerpts from H.D. Thoreau’s journals (1858)

This is part ten 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:

There are many words which are genuine & indigenous & have their root in our natures — not made by scholars, & as well understood by the illiterate as others. There are also a great many words which are spurious & artificial, and can only be used in a bad sense, since the thing they signify is not fair & substantial — such as the church, the judiciary, to impeach, &c, &c They who use them do not stand on solid ground. It is in vain to try to preserve them by attaching other words to them as the true church, &c It is like towing a sinking ship with a canoe.


Who can doubt that men are by a certain fate what they are, contending with unseen & unimagined difficulties, or encouraged & aided by equally mysterious auspicious circumstances? Who can doubt this essential & innate difference between man & man, when he considers a whole race, like the Indian, inevitably and resignedly passing away in spite of our efforts to christianize & educate them? Individuals accept their fate & live according to it, as the Indian does.

Everybody notices that the Indian retains his habits wonderfully — is still the same man that the discoverers found. The fact is, the history of the White man is a history of improvement, that of the Red man a history of fixed habits, stagnation.

The dog is to the fox as the white man to the red. The former has attained to more clearness in his bark; it is more ringing & musical, more developed; he explodes the vowels of his alphabet better; and beside he has made his place so good in the world that he can run without skulking in the open field. What a smothered, ragged, feeble, & unmusical sound is the bark of the fox! It seems as if he scarcely dared raise his voice lest he it should catch the ear of his tame cousin & inveterate foe.


At Nut Meadow Brook the small sized water bugs are as abundant & active as in summer. I see 40 or 50 circling together in the smooth & sunny bays all along the brook. … I would like to know what it is they communicate to one another, they who appear to value each other’s society so much. How many water bugs make a quorum! How many hundreds does their Fourier think it takes to make a complete bug?1


  1. Charles Fourier. Ralph Waldo Emerson had, in an speech, said that “Charles Fourier noting that each man had a different talent, computed that you must collect 1800 or 2000 souls to make one complete man.”

The creditor is servant to his debtor, especially if he is about paying his due. I am amused to see what airs men take about themselves when they have money to pay me. No matter how long they have deferred it, they imagine that they are my benefactors or patrons, & send me word graciously that if I will come to their houses they will pay me, when it is their business to come to me.


You cannot go home yet; you stay & sit in the rain. You glide along the distant woodside, full of joy & expectation, seeing nothing but beauty, hearing nothing but music, as free as the fox-colored sparrow, seeing far ahead, a courageous knight, a great philosopher, not indebted to any academy or college for this expansion, but chiefly to the April rain, which descendeth on all alike.1

Not encouraged by men in your walks, not by the divines, not the professors, and to the lawgiver an outlaw; not encouraged even (surely) when you are reminded of the government at Washington.


Geo. Minott tells me that he, when young, used often to go to a store by the side of where Bigelow’s tavern was & kept by Ephraim Jones — the Goodknow store. That was prob. the one kept by my old trader. Told me how Carey, who was a slave to a man who lived where Hawthorne owns — Whittaker I believe Whitney — the same house — before the revolution, ran off one Sunday. Whittaker’s boy threw snowballs at him the day before, & finally C., who was chopping in the yard, threw his axe at him, & W. said he was an ugly nigger & he would put him in jail. [He] was pursued by the neighbors, & hid himself in the river up to his neck till nightfall, just beyond across the great fields meadows. He ran thro’ Gowing’s swamp & came back that night to a Mrs Cogswell, who lived where Charles Davis does, & got something to eat; then cleared far away, enlisted, & was freed as a soldier after the war. He may have been 20 years old when stolen from Africa; left a wife & one child there. Used to say that he went home to Africa in the night & came back again in the morning; i.e. he dreamed of home. Lived to be old. Called Thanksgiving “Tom Kiver.”


We hear the names of the worthies of Concord — Squire Cumings & the rest — but the poor slave Carey seems to have lived a more adventurous life than any of them — Squire Cumings probably never had to run for his life on the plains of Concord.


The last new journal thinks that it is very liberal — nay bold — but it dares not publish a child’s thought on important subjects — such as life & death & good books. It requires the sanction of the divines just as surely as the tamest journal does. If it had been published at the time of the famous dispute between Christ & the doctors1 it would have published only the opinions of the doctors & suppressed Christ’s. There is no need of a law to check the freedom license of the press. It is law enough, & more than enough, to itself. Virtually, the community have come together & agreed what things shall be uttered — have agreed on a platform & to excommunicate him who departs from it, and not one in a thousand dares utter anything else. There are plenty of journals brave enough to say what they think about the government, this being a free one, but I know of none widely circulated or well conducted that does say what it thinks about the Sunday or the bible. They have been bribed to keep dark. They are in the service of hypocrisy.


The state commonly grants a tract of forest to make an academy out of,1 for such is the material of which our institutions are made, though only the crudest part of it is used, but the groves of the academy are straightway cut down & that institution is built of the its lumber — its coarsest & least valuable part — Down go the groves of the academy and up goes its frame, — on some bare common far away. And as for the public domains, if anybody neglected his civil duties during the last war, he is privileged to cut & slash there — he is let loose against the 160 acres of well-behaved trees, as if the liberty he had defended was derived from liber, bark & meant the liberty to bark the trees.2


  1. In The Maine Woods this became: “When the State wishes to endow an academy or university, it grants it a tract of forest land: one saw represents an academy; a gang, a university.”
  2. “Liber” is Latin for tree bark.

The gregariousness of men is their most contemptible & discouraging aspect. See how they follow each other like sheep not knowing why. Day & Martins’ Blackening1 was preferred by the last generation and also is by this. They have not so good a reason for preferring this or that religion as in this case even. Apparently in ancient times several parties were nearly equally matched. They appointed a committee & made a compromise agreeing to vote or believe so & so, & they still helplessly abide by that. Men are the inveterate foes of all improvement. Generally speaking they think more of their hen-houses than of any desirable heaven. If you aspire to anything better than politics expect no cooperation from men. They will not further anything good. You must prevail of your own force, as a plant springs & grows by its own vitality.


  1. Day & Martin’s Blacking was a variety of shoe polish.

The thinker, he who is serene & self-possessed, is the brave — not the desperate soldier. He who can deal with his thoughts as a material, building them into poems in which future generations will delight, he is the man of the greatest & rarest vigor, not sturdy diggers & lusty polygamists. He is the man of energy in whom subtle & poetic thoughts are bred. Common men can enjoy partially. They can go a fishing rainy days. They can read poems perchance but they have not the vigor to beget poems. They can enjoy feebly but they cannot create. Men talk of freedom! How many are free to think — free from fear, from perturbation, from prejudice? 999 in a 1000 are perfect slaves. How many can exercise the highest human faculties? He is the man truly — courageous, wise, ingenious — who can use his thoughts & ecstasies as the material of fair & durable creations. One man shall derive from the fisherman’s story more than the fisher has got who tells it. The mass of men do not know how to cultivate the fields they traverse. The mass glean only a scanty pittance where the thinker reaps an abundant harvest. What is all your building if you do not build with thoughts?

No exercise implies more real manhood & vigor than joining thought to thought. How few men can tell what they have thought! I hardly know half a dozen who are not too lazy for this. They cannot get over some difficulty, therefore they are on the long way round. You conquer fate by thought. If you think the fatal thought of men & institutions, you need never pull the trigger. The consequences of thinking inevitably follow. There is no more Herculean task than to think a thought about this life & then get it expressed.

Horticulturalists think that they make flower gardens, though in their thoughts they are barren & flowerless, but to the poet the earth is a flower garden wherever he goes or thinks. Most men can keep a horse or keep up a certain fashionable style of living, but few indeed can keep up great expectations. They justly think very meanly of themselves.


A marked difference when we enter Massachusetts, in roads, farms, houses, trees, fences, &c — a great improvement, showing an older settled country.

In New Hampshire there is greater want of shade trees, but long bleak or sunny roads, from which there is no escape. What barbarians we are. The convenience of the traveller is very little consulted; he merely has the privilege of crossing somebody’s farm by a particular narrow & maybe unpleasant path. The individual retains all the rights as to trees & fruit & wash of the road &c On the other hand these should belong to mankind inalienably. The road should be of ample width & adorned with trees, expressly for the use of the traveller. There should be broad recesses in it, esp. at springs & watering places, where he can turn out & rest or camp if he will. I feel commonly as if I were condemned to drive through somebody’s cow yard or huckleberry pasture by a narrow lane & if I make a fire by the roadside to boil my hasty pudding, the farmer comes running over to see if I am not burning up his stuff. You are backed along through the country from door to door.


I hear of pickers ordered out of the huckleberry fields & I see stakes set up with written notices forbidding any to pick there. Some let their fields or allow so much for the picking — Sic transit gloria ruris.1 We are not grateful enough that we have lived a part of our lives before these evil days came. What becomes of the true value of country life? What if you must go to market for it? Shall things come to such a pass that the butcher commonly brings round huckleberries in his cart? It is as if the hangman were to perform the marriage ceremony, or were to preside at the communion table. Such is the inevitable tendency of our civilization to reduce huckleberries to a level with beefsteak. The butcher’s item on the door is now “calf’s head & huckleberries.” I suspect that the inhabitants of England & of the continent of Europe have thus lost their natural rights with the increase of populations & of monopolies. The wild fruits of the earth disappear before civilization, or are only to be found in large markets. The whole city country becomes, as it were, a town or beaten common, & the fruits left are a few hips & haws.


  1. Latin: “thus passes the glory of the countryside” (a play on the more familiar phrase, sic transit gloria mundi — “thus passes the glory of the world”)

It is surprising to what extent the world is ruled by cliques. They who constitute, or at least lead, New England or N. York society in the eyes of the world are but a clique. A few “men of the age” & of the town, who work best in the harness provided for them. The institutions of almost all kinds are thus of a sectarian or party character. Newspapers, magazines, colleges, & all forms of government & religion express the rather superficial activity of a few, the mass either conforming or not attending. The newspapers have just got over this eating-fullness or dropsy which takes place with the annual commencements & addresses before the Philomathian or Alpha Β. Γ. societies.1 Both Neither they who make these addresses nor & they who attend to them are representative of the latest age. The boys think that these annual recurrences are part & parcel of the annual revolution of the system. There are also regattas & fireworks & “surprise parties” & horse shows. So that I am glad when I see or hear of a man anywhere who does not know of these things nor recognizes these particular fuglers.2 I was pleased to hear the other day that there were 2 men in Tamworth, N. H. who had been fishing for trout there ever since May; but it was a serious drawback to be told that they sent their fish to Boston & so (succumbed to) catered for the few.

The editors of newspapers, the popular clergy, politicians & orators of the day & office holders, though they may be thought to be of very different politics & religion are essentially one & homogeneous, in as much as they are only the various ingredients of the froth which ever floats on the surface of society.

It is surprising what a tissue of trifles & crudities make the daily news. For one event of interest there are 999 insignificant, but about the same stress is laid on the last as on the first. The newspapers have just told me that the transatlantic telegraph cable is laid.3 That is important, but & they instantly proceed to inform me how the news was received in every larger town in the U.S., how many guns they fired, or how high they jumped in New York & Milwaukee & Sheboygan, & the boys & girls old and young at the corners of the streets are reading it all with glistening eyes, down to the very last scrap, not omitting what they did at New Rochelle & Evansville. And all the speeches are reported, and some think of collecting them into a volume!!!

You say that you have traveled far & wide. How many men have you seen that did not belong to any sect, or party, or clique? Did you go further than letters of introduction would avail?


  1. Philomathean Society (Alpha Beta Gamma may have been a reference to the actual society of that name, or just a generic reference to Greek-lettered societies).
  2. Fugler
  3. Transatlantic telegraph cable. On , Thoreau noted: “ one of our neighbors who has just completed a costly house & front yard — the most showy in the village — illuminated in honor of the Atlantic telegraph. I read in great letters before the house the sentence ‘Glory to God in the highest’” (the opening phrase of the first message sent over the transatlantic telegraph) “But it seemed to me that that was not a sentiment to be illuminated, but to keep dark about. A simple & genuine sentiment of reverence would not emblazon these words as on a sign board in the streets. They were exploding countless crackers beneath it, & gay company passing in & out made it a kind of house-warming. I felt a kind of shame for I was inclined to pass quickly by, the ideas of indecent exposure & cant being suggested.” See also .

Wars are not yet over. I hear one in the outskirts learning to drum every night; & think you there will be no field for him? He relies on his instincts. He is instinctively meeting a demand.


In my boating of late I have several times scared up a couple of summer ducks of this year, bred in our meadows. They allowed me to come quite near & helped to people the river. I have not seen them for some days. Would you know the end of our intercourse? Goodwin shot them & Mrs. ——, who never sailed on the river, ate them. Of course, she knows not what she did. I shall not eat her canary. Thus we share each other’s sins as well as burdens. The lady who watches admiringly the matador shares his deed. They belonged to me, as much as to anyone, when they were alive, but it was considered of more importance that Mrs. —— should taste the flavor of them dead than that I should enjoy the beauty of them alive.


Stopped & talked with Wm Wheeler & ate a watermelon with him on the grass. Once his senseless democracy appeared. He spoke with an ignorant pride of Buchanan’s telegraphic message,1 of which most of us were ashamed; said he supposed he had more learning than Victoria!


  1. President James Buchanan responded to Queen Victoria’s inaugural transatlantic telegraph message with a message that called the technological advance “a triumph more glorious, because far more useful to mankind, than was ever won by conqueror on the field of battle” and expressed the hope that it would “prove to be a bond of perpetual peace and friendship between the kindred nations, and an instrument destined by Divine Providence to diffuse religion, civilization, liberty, and law throughout the world.” It seemed designed to one-up the Queen’s own message, which, for instance, hoped simply that the telegraph “will prove an additional link between the two nations” and put things in a less-bombastic tone. See also .

I have heard of judges, accidentally met at an evening party, discussing the efficacy of the laws & courts, & deciding that with the aid of the jury system “substantial justice was done.” But taking those cases in which honest men refrain from going to law together with those in which men, honest & dishonest, do go to law, I think that the law is really a “humbug” & a benefit principally to the lawyers. This town has made a law recently against cattle going at large & assigned a penalty of 5 dollars. I am troubled by an Irish neighbors cow & horse & have threatened to have them put in the pound. But a lawyer tells me that these town laws are hard to put through, there are so many quibbles. He never knew the complainant to get his case if the defendant were a-mind to contend. However the cattle were kept out several days, till a Sunday came, & then they were all in my ground again, as I heard, but all my neighbors tell me that I cannot have them impounded on that day. Indeed I observe that very many of my neighbors do for this reason regularly turn their cattle loose on Sundays.1

The judges may discuss the question of the courts & law over their nuts & raisins & mumble forth the decision that “substantial justice is done” but I must believe they mean that they do really get paid a “substantial” salary.


Little did the fathers of the town anticipate this brilliant success when they caused to be imported from farther in the county some straight poles whe with the tops cut off which they called sugar maple trees. And a sugar neighboring merchant’s clerk, as I remember, by way of jest planted beans about them. Yet these which, were then jestingly called bean poles are these days far the most beautiful object noticeable in our streets. They are worth all & more than they have cost — though one of the selectmen did take the cold which occasioned his death in setting them out — if only because they have filled the open eyes of children with their rich color so unstintedly which so many autumns. We will not ask them to yield us sugar in the spring while they yield us so fair a prospect in the autumn. Wealth may be the inheritance of few in the houses, but it is equally distributed on the common. All children alike can revel in this golden harvest. These trees, throughout the street, are at least equal to an annual festival & holiday or a week of such (not requiring any special police to keep the peace) & poor indeed must be that N.E. “village’s” October which has not the maple in its streets. This October festival costs no powder, no ringing of bells, but every tree is a living liberty pole on which a thousand bright flags are run up. Hundreds of children’s eyes are steadily drinking in this color, & by these teachers even the truants are caught and educated by these teachers the moment they step abroad. It is as if some cheap & innocent gala days were celebrated in our town every autumn — a week or 2 of such days.

What meant the fathers by establishing this living institution before the Church — this institution which needs no repairing nor repainting — which is continually “enlarged & repaired” by nature its growth? Surely trees should be set in our streets with a view to their October splendor. Do you not think it will make some odds to these children that they were brought up under the maples? Indeed neither the truant nor the studious are at present taught colors in the schools. These are instead of the bright colors in Apothecary shops & city windows. It is a pity we have not more red maples & some hickories in the streets as well. Our paint box is very imperfectly filled. Instead of, or besides, supplying paintboxes, I would supply these natural colors to the young.

I know of one man at least, called an excellent & certainly successful farmer, who has thoroughly repaired his house & built a new barn with a barn cellar, such as any farmer seems fated to have, who has not set out a single tree or shrub of any kind about his house or within a considerable distance of it.

No annual training or muster of soldiery, no celebration with its scarfs & banners, could import into this town a hundredth part of the annual splendor of an October. We have only to set the trees, or let them stand, & nature will find the colored drapery — flags of all her nations, some of whose private signals hardly the botanist can read. Let us have a good many maples & hickories & scarlet oaks — then, I say Blaze away! Shall that dirty roll of bunting in the gun-house be all the colors a village can display?

A village is not complete unless it has these trees to mark the season in it. They are as important as the a town-clock. Such a village will not be found to work well. It has a screw loose; an essential part is wanting.

Let us have willows for spring, elms for summer, maples & walnuts & tupelos for Autumn, evergreens for winter, & oaks for all seasons. What is a gallery in a house to a gallery in the streets! I think that there is not a picture gallery in the country which would be worth as much to us as is the western view under the elms of our Main Street. They are the frame to a picture & we are not in the dilemma of the Irish man who, having bought a costly gilt picture frame at an auction, found himself obliged to buy a picture at private sale to put into it — for our picture is already painted with each sunset behind it. An avenue of elms as large as our largest & 3 miles long would seem to lead to some admirable place, though only Concord were at the end of it. Such a street as I have described would be to the traveller, esp. in October, an ever-changing panorama.

A village needs these innocent stimulants of bright & cheery prospects to keep off melancholy & superstition. Show me two villages, one embowered in trees & blazing with all the glories of October, the other a merely trivial & treeless waste, & I shall be sure that in the latter will be found the most desperate & hardest drinkers.

What if we were to take half as much pains in protecting them, as we do in setting them out — not stupidly tie our horses to our dahlia stems?

They are cheap preachers, permanently settled, which preach their half century, & century, aye, & century & a half sermons, with continually increasing influence & unction, ministering to many generations of men, & the least we can do is to supply them with suitable colleagues as they grow infirm.


Thoreau reworked this for Autumnal Tints.


Barrett’s apprentice, it seems, makes trays of birch-bush & of red maple, in a dark room under the mill.…

I was the more pleased with the sight of the trays because the tools used were so simple, and they were made by hand not by machinery. They may make equally good pails, & cheaper as well as faster, at the pail-factory with the home-made ones, but that interests me less because thatthe man is turned partly into a machine there himself. In this case the workman’s relation to his work is more poetic — he also shows more dexterity & is more of a man. You came away from the great factory saddened, as if the chief end of man were to make pails. But in the case of the country man who makes a few by hand, rainy days, the relative importance of human life and of pails is preserved & you came away thinking of the simple & helpful life of the man — you do not turn pale at the thought — & would fain go to making pails yourself. We admire more the man who can use in axe or adze skillfully than him who can merely tend a machine. When labor is reduced to turning a crank it is no longer amusing nor truly profitable. But let this business become very profitable in a pecuniary sense, & so be “driven,” as the phrase is, & carried on on a large scale, & the man is sunk in it while only the pail or tray floats. We are interested in it only in the same way as the proprietor or company is.


…I saw yonder a man far off by the edge of the river splitting billets off a stump. Suspecting who it was took out my glass & beheld Goodwin — the one eyed Ajax — in his shirt blue frock, short & square bodied, as broad as for his height he can afford to be, getting his winter’s wood…

It would be no amusement to me to see a gentleman buy his winter wood. It is to see G. get his. I helped him tip over a stump or 2. He said that the owner of the land had given his leave to get them out, but it seemed to me a condescension for him to ask any man leave to grub up these stumps. The stumps to those who can use them, I say, to those who will split them. He might as well ask leave of the same to shoot the musquash1 and the meadow hen; I might as well ask leave to look at the landscape. Nearby were large hollows in the ground, now grassed over, where he had got out white oak stumps in previous years. But, strange to say, the town do not like to have him get his fuel in this way. They would rather the stumps would rot in the ground or be floated down stream to the sea. They have almost without dissent agreed on a different mode of living, with their division of labor. They would have him stick to his laying wall & buy corded wood for his fuel as they do.


  1. muskrat

Preaching? Lecturing? Who are ye that ask for these things? What do ye want to hear, ye puling infants? a trumpet sound that would train you up to mankind, or a nurse’s lullaby?

The preachers & lecturers deal with men of straw, as they are men of straw themselves. Why a free spoken man, of sound lungs, cannot draw a long breath without causing your rotten institutions to come toppling down by the vacuum he makes.

Your church is a baby-house made of blocks & so of the state. It would be a relief to breathe one’s self occasionally among men. If there were any magnanimity in us, any grandeur of soul, anything but sects & parties undertaking to patronize Good & keep the mind within bounds, how often we might encourage & provoke one another by a free expression. I will not consent to walk with my mouth muzzled, until not till I am rabid, until there is danger that I shall bite the unoffending & that my bite will produce hydrophobia.

Freedom of speech! It hath not entered into your hearts to conceive what those words mean. It is not leave given me by your sect to say this or that; it is when leave is given to your sect to withdraw. The church, the state, the school, the magazine, think they are liberal & free! It is the freedom of a prison yard. I ask only that ¼ part of my honest thoughts be spoken aloud. What is it you tolerate, your church today? not truth, but a life-long hypocrisy. Let us have institutions framed not out of our rottenness but out of our soundness. This factitious piety is like stale ginger-bread. I would like to suggest what a pack of fools & cowards we mankind are. They want me to agree not to breathe too hard in the neighborhood of their paper-castles.

If I should draw a long breath in the neighborhood of these institutions, their weak & flabby sides would pull out, for my own inspiration would exhaust the air about them. The church! it is eminently the timid institution, & the heads & pillars of it are constitutionally & by principal the greatest cowards in the community.

The voice that goes up from the monthly concerts is not so brave & so cheering as that which rises from the frog-ponds of the land. The best “preachers,” so called, are an effeminate class; their honest thoughts wear petticoats. If they have any manhood they are sure to forsake the ministry, though they were to turn their attention to base ball. Look at your editors of popular magazines. I have dealt with 2 or 3 the most liberal of them. Look at your They are afraid to print a whole sentence, a round sentence, a free-spoken sentence. They want to get 30,000 subscribers & they will do anything to get them. They consult the D.D.s, & all the letters of the alphabet before printing a sentence. I have been into many of these cowardly N.E towns, where they profess Christianity — invited to speak perchance — when they were trembling in their shoes at the thought of the thing you might say, as if they knew their weak side, not that they were weak on all sides. The devil they have covenanted with is a timid devil. If they would let their sores alone they might heal & they could to the wars again like men — but instead of that they get together in meeting house cellars, rip off the bandages & poultice them with sermons.

One of our N.E towns is sealed up hermetically like a molasses hogshead — such is its sweet christianity — only a little of the sweet trickling out at the cracks enough to daub you. The few more liberal minded or indifferent inhabitants are the flies that buzz about it. It is christianity bunged up. I see awful eyes looking out through a bull’s eye at the bung-hole. It is doubtful if they can fellowship with me.

The further you go up country, I think, the worse it is, the more benighted they are. On the one side you will find a bar-room which holds the “Scoffers,” so called; on the other a vestry, where is a monthly concert of prayer. There is just as little to cheer you in one of these companies as the other. It may be often the truth & righteousness of the bar-room that saves the town.

There is nothing to redeem the big city & moral cowardice of N Englanders in my eyes. You may find a cape which runs 50 miles into the sea that has not a man of moral courage upon it. What is called faith is an immense prejudice.

Like the Hindoos & Russianes & Sandwich Islanders (that were), they are the creatures of an institution. They do not think; they adhere like oysters to what their fathers & grandfathers adhered to. How often is it that the shoe maker, by thinking over his last, can think as valuable a thought as he makes a valuable shoe?

I have been into the town, & being invited to speak to the inhabitants, not valuing, not having read even, the assembly’s catechism, & I try to stimulate them by reporting the best of my experience. I see the craven priest looking for a hole to escape at — alarmed because it was he that invited me thither — & an awful silence pervades the audience. They think they will never get me there again. But the seed has not all fallen in stony & shallow ground.

It is no compliment to be invited to lecture before the rich Institutes & Lyceums. The settled lecturers are as tame as the settled ministers. The audiences do not want to hear any prophets; they do not wish to be stimulated & instructed, but entertained. They, their wives & daughters, go to the Lyceum to suck a sugar-plum. The little of medicine they get is disguised with sugar. It is never the reformer they hear there, but a faint & timid echo of him only. They seek a pass-time merely. Their greatest guns & sons of thunder are only wooden guns & great grandsons of thunder, who give them smooth words well pronounced from MSS well punctuated. They who have stolen the little fire they have from prophets whom the audience would quake to hear. They ask for orators that will entertain them & leave them where they found them. The most successful lecturing on what on Washington, or what not, is an aweful scratching of backs to the tune, it may be, of 50,000 dollars. Sluggards that want to have a lullaby sung to them! Such mannikins as I have described are they, alas, who have made the greatest stir (and what a shallow stir) in the church & Lyceum & in Congress.

They want a medicine that will not interfere with their daily meals.

There is the Lowell Institute, with its restriction, requiring a certain faith in the lecturers.1 How can any free thinking man accept its terms? It is as if you were to resolve that you would not eat oysters that were not of a particular faith — that, for instance, did not believe the 39 articles2 — for the faith that is in an oyster is just as valuable as the faith referred to in Mr. Lowell’s will.3 These popular lecturers and preachers & magazines are for women & children in the bad sense

The curators have on their lists the names of the men who came before the Philomathean Institute4 in the next large town & did no harm — left things in statu quo5 so that all slept the better for it — only confirmed the audience in their previous badness — spoke a good word for God — gave the clergy, that heavy set, a lift — told the little youngsters to be good boys.

A man may have a good deal to say who has not any desk to thump on, who does not thunder in bad air.

They want all of a man but his truth & independence & manhood.

One who spoke to their condition would of course make them wince, & they would retaliate, i.e kick him out, or stop their ears.


  1. One of the restrictions of the Lowell Institute was that “No man ought to be appointed a lecturer, who is not willing to declare and who does not previously declare his belief in the divine revelation of the Old and New Testaments, leaving the interpretation thereof to his own conscience.”
  2. Thirty-Nine Articles
  3. John Lowell, Jr.
  4. Philomathean Society
  5. “the way they were”

The fruitless enterprise of some persons who rush helter skelter carrying out their crazy scheme, merely “putting it through” as they phrase it, reminds me of those thistle downs which, not being detained nor steadied by any seed at the base, are blown away at the first impulse & go rolling over all obstacles. They may indeed go fastest & farthest, but where they rest at last not even a thistle springs.

I meet these useless barren thistle downs driving over the fields. They remind me of busy merchants & brokers on change,1 doing business on credit, gambling with fancy stocks, that have failed over & over again, assisted to get agoing again to no purpose — a great ado about nothing — all in my eye — with nothing to deposit, not of the slightest use to the great thistle tribe, not even tempting a jack ass. When you right or extricate one of these fellows & set him before the wind again it is worth the while to look & see if he has any seed of success under him. Such a one you may know afar — he floats more slow & steady — & of his enterprise expect results.


  1. “on change” was a way of saying “on the stock exchange”

Who are bad neighbors? They who suffer their neighbors cattle to go at large because they don’t want their ill will — are afraid to anger them. They are abettors of the ill doers.1

Who are the religious? They who do not differ much from mankind generally, except that they are more conservative & timid, and useless, but who in their conversation & correspondence talk about kindness of heavenly Father. Instead of going bravely about their business, trusting God ever, they do like him who says “Good sir” to the one he fears, or whistles to the dog that is rushing at him. And because they take his name in vain so often they presume that they are better than you. Oh their religion is a rotten squash.


Neither England nor America have any right to laugh at that sentence in the rare book called “The Blazon of Gentry,”1 written by a zealous student of heraldry, which says after due investigation that “Christ was a gentleman, as to the flesh, by the part of his mother, … and might have borne coat-armor. The apostles also were gentlemen of blood, and many of them descended from that worthy conqueror Judas Machabeus; but, through the tract of time, & persecution of wars, poverty oppressed the kindred, and they were constrayned to servile workes.” Whatever we may preach & profess, texts we may quote or commentaries we may write, when we consider the laws & customs of these 2 countries we cannot fail to perceive that the above sentence is perfectly of a piece with our practical commentary on the New Testament. The above is really a pertinent reason offered why Christianity should be embraced in England & America. Indeed, it is, accordingly, only what may be called “respectable Christianity” that is at all generally embraced in the 2 countries.


  1. The Blazon of Gentrie by John Ferne ()

Talk of fate! How little one can know what is fated to another! what he can do & what he can not do. I doubt whether one can give or receive any very pertinent advice. In all important crises one can only consult his Genius. Though he were the most shiftless & craziest of mortals, if he still recognizes that he has any Genius to consult, none may presume to go between him & her. They, methinks, are poor stuff & creatures of a miserable fate who can be advised & persuaded in very important steps. Show me a man who consults his genius, & you have shown me a man who cannot be advised. You may know what a thing costs or is worth to you, you can never know what it costs or is worth to me.

All the community may scream because one man is born who will not do as it does, who will not conform because conformity to him is death. He is so constituted. They know nothing about his case. They are fools when they presume to advise him. The man of genius knows what he is driving at; nobody else knows. & he alone knows when something comes between him & his object.

In the course of generations, however, men will excuse you for not doing as they do, if you will bring enough to pass in your own way.

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