Excerpts from Henry David Thoreau’s journals
part twelve ()
This is part thirteen 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
Footnotes are mine unless otherwise noted. I mostly stuck by the
transcriptions used in Torrey & Allen, occasionally omitting brackets when
they were used to insert some obvious missing article or end-quote, or when
the intended addition seemed unnecessary. I sometimes used ellipses to omit
material without distinguishing these from ellipses used by the editors of the
transcribed journals or by Thoreau himself.
When I read some of the rules for speaking & writing the English language
correctly — as that a sentence must never end with a particle — & perceive
how implicitly even the learned obey it, I think —
Any fool can make a rule And every fool will mind it.
It is true, as is said, that we have as good a right to make berries private
property as to make grass & trees such. But what I chiefly regret is the,
in effect, dog-in-the-manger1 result —
For at the same time that we exclude mankind from gathering berries in our
field, we exclude them from gathering health & happiness & inspiration
& a hundred other far finer & nobler fruits than berries, which yet
we shall not gather ourselves there, nor even carry to market. We strike only
one more blow at a simple & wholesome relation to nature. As long as the
berries are free to all comers they are beautiful, though they may be few
& small — but tell me that is a blue-berry swamp which somebody has hired,
& I shall not want even to look at it.
In laying claim for the first time to the spontaneous fruit of our pastures
we are accordingly aware of a little meanness — inevitably — & the gay
berry party whom we expel turn away com naturally look
down on & despise us — the party of children in the hay-rigging who
have come to have a good time merely. If it were left to the berries to
say who should have them, is it not likely that they would prefer to be
gathered by the party of children in the hay rigging who have come to have a
good time merely.
I do not see clearly that these successive losses are ever quite made up to
us. This is one of the taxes we pay for having a rail road. Almost all our
improvements, so called, tend to convert the country into the town.
This suggests what origin & foundation many of our laws & institutions
have — & I do not say this by way of complaining of this particular custom.
Not that I love Cæsar less, but Rome more.2
This sentence mimics one from Brutus’s address to the citizens
in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
Pears, it is truly said, are less poetic than apples. They have neither the
beauty nor the fragrance of apples, but their excellence is in their flavor,
which speaks to a grosser sense. They are
glouts-morceaux.1 Hence, while
children dream of apples, ex-judges are the connoiseurs of realize
pears. They are named after emperors & kings & queens & dukes
& duchesses. I fear I shall have to wait till we get to pears with
American names, which a Republican can swallow.
a variety of pear
Truly this is a world of vain delights. We think that man have a substratum
of common sense — but sometimes are peculiarly frivolous. But consider what a
value is seriously & permanently attached to gold & so called precious
stones — almost universally. Day & night, summer & winter, sick or
well, in war & in peace, men speak of & believe in gold as a great
treasure. By a thousand comparisons they prove their devotion to it. If wise
men or true philosophers bore any considerable proportion to the whole
no of men, gold would
be treated with no such distinction. Men seriously & if possible
religiously believe in & worship gold. They hope to earn golden opinions,
to celebrate their golden wedding. They dream of the golden age. Now it is
not its intrinsic beauty or value, but its rarity & arbitrarily attached
value that distinguishes gold. You would think it was the reign of shams.
As some beautiful or palatable fruit is perhaps the noblest gift of nature to
man, so is a fruit with which a man has in some measure identified himself by
cultivating or collecting it one of the most suitable presents to a friend.
It was some compensation for Commodore Porter,1
who may have introduced some cannon balls & bomb shells into ports where
they were not wanted, to have introduced the Valparaiso squash into the
U.S.. I think that
this eclipses his military glory.
A man fits out a ship at a great expense — & sends it to the West Indies
adrift with a crew of men and boys — & after 6 months or a year
it comes back with a load of pineapples. Now, if no more gets accomplished
than the speculator commonly aims at — if it simply turns out what is called a
successful venture — I am less interested in this expedition, than in some
child’s first excursion a-huckleberrying, in which it is introduced into a new
world — experiences a new development — though it brings home only a gill of
huckleberries in its basket. I know that the newspapers & the politicians
declare otherwise — but they do not alter the fact. Then, I think that the
fruit of the latter expedition was finer than that of the former. It was a
more fruitful expedition.
The value of any experience is measured, of course, not by the amount of
money — but the amount of development we get out of it. If a New England boy’s
dealings with oranges & pineapples have had more to do with his
development than picking huckleberries or pulling turnips have, then he
rightly & naturally thinks more of the former — otherwise not.
I anticipated the other day that if anybody should write the history of
Boxboro — once a part of Stow1 — he should be
pretty sure to leave out omit to notice the most interesting thing
in it — its forest — & lay all the stress on the history of its parish — & I find that I had conjectured rightly
For Mr. Gardner,2
after telling us who was his predecessor in the ministry & when he himself
was settled, goes on to say: “As for any remarkables, I am of the mind there
have been the fewest of any town of our standing in the forest
Province. — I can’t call to mind above one thing worthy of public notice, and
that is the grave of Mr. John Green,” who, it
appears, “was made… clerk of the exchequer” by
Cromwell.3 “Whether he was excluded
from the act of oblivion4 or not I
cannot tell,” says Mr. Gardner. At any rate he
returned to N.E., “lived and died, and
was lies buried in this place.”
I cannot assure Mr. Gardner that
he was not excluded from the act of oblivion.
I have been surprised when a young man who had undertaken to write the history
of a county town — his native place — the very name of which suggested a
hundred things to me — referred to it, as the crowning fact of his story, that
that town was the residence of General So & So and the family mansion was
A general pardon; specifically the one passed by the English Parliament
in to pardon Cromwell’s supporters.
That on which commerce seizes is always the very coarsest part of a fruit — the mere husk & rind in fact — for her hands are very clumsy. This is what
fills the holds of ships, is exported & imported, pays duties, & is
finally sold at the shops.
It is a grand fact that you cannot make the finer fruits or parts of fruits
matter of commerce. You may buy a servant or slave, but you cannot buy a
friend. You can’t buy the finer part of any fruit — i.e. the highest use & enjoyment of it.
You cannot buy that pleasure which it yields to him who truly plucks it — You
can’t buy a good appetite even.
The mass of men are very easily imposed on. They have their run-ways in which
they always travel, and are sure to fall into any pit or fox trap set therein.
Whatever a great many grown-up boys are seriously engaged in is considered
great & good — and, as such, is sure of the recognition of the churchman
& statesman. What, for instance, are the blue Juniper berries in the
pasture, which the cowboy remembers so far as they are beautiful merely, to
church or state? (Mere trifles which deserve & get no protection.) As an
object of beauty, significant to all who really live in the country, they do
not receive the protection of any community. Anybody may grub up all that
exist. But as an article of commerce they command the attention of the
civilized world. I read that “several hundred tons of them are imported
annually from the continent” into England — to flavor gin with; “but even this
quantity,” says my author, “is quite insufficient to meet the enormous
consumption of the fiery liquid, & the deficiency is made up by spirits of
Go to the English government — which of course is representative of the
people — & ask, “what is the use of Juniper berries?” The answer is, “to
flavor gin with.” This is the gross abuse of Juniper berries, with
which an enlightened Government if ever there shall be one, will have nothing
Let us make distinctions — call things by the right names.
If a man has spent all his days about some business by which he has merely got
rich, as it is called, i.e., has got much
money, many houses & barns & woodlots, then his life has been a
failure, I think. But if he has been trying to better his condition in a
higher sense than this — has been trying to be somebody, to invent something — i.e., to invent and get a patent for himself — so that all may see his originality, though he should never get above board — & all great inventors, you know, commonly die poor — I shall
think him comparatively successful.
You would say that some men had been tempted to live in this world at all only
by the offer of a bounty by the general government — a bounty on living — to
any one who will consent to be out at this era of the world — the
object of the governors being to create a nursery for their navy. I told such
a man the other day that I had got a Canada Lynx here in Concord, & his
instant question was, “Have you got the reward for him?” What reward? Why, the
10 dollars which the State offers. As long as I saw him, he neither said nor
thought anything about the lynx — but only about this reward. “Yes,” said he,
“this State offers 10 dollars reward.” You might have inferred that 10 dollars
was something rarer in his neighborhood than a lynx even — & he was
anxious to see it on that account. I had thought that a Lynx was a
bright-eyed, 4-legged, furry beast of the cat kind — very current
indeed, though its natural gait is by leaps. But he knew it to be a draught
drawn by the cashier of the wild-cat bank on the State treasury, payable at
sight. Then I reflected that the first money was of leather, or a whole
creature (whence Pecunia, from
pecus, a herd), & since leather was at
first furry, I easily understood the connexion between a Lynx and 10 dollars — & found that all money was traceable right back to the original wild-cat
But the fact was that, instead of receiving 10 dollars for the Lynx which I
had got, I had paid away some dollars in order to get him. So you see, I was
away back in a gray antiquity behind the institution of money — further than
This reminded me that I once saw a cougar recently killed at the Adirondacks
which had its ears clipped. This was a 10-dollar cougar.
Yet, though money can buy no fine fruit whatever — & we are never made
truly rich by the possession of it — the value of things generally is commonly
estimated by the amount of money they will fetch.
A thing is not valuable — e.g. a fine
situation for a house — until it is convertible into something else
[so] much money, that is, can cease to be what it is & becomes something
else which you prefer. So you will see that all prosaic people who possess
only the commonest sense, who believe strictly in this kind of wealth, are
speculators in fancy stocks & continually cheat themselves — but poets
& all discerning people who have an object in life & know what they
want, speculate in real values.
The mean & low values of anything depend on its convertibility into
something else — i.e. have nothing to do with
its intrinsic value.
This world & our life have practically a similar value only to most. The
value of life is what any body will give you for living. A man has his price
at the South, is worth so many dollars — and so he has at the North. Many a
man here sets out by saying, “I will make so many dollars by such a time, or
before I die,” & that is his price, as much as if he were knocked off for
it by a Southern auctioneer.
We hear a good deal said about moon-shine — by so called practical people — & the next day perchance we hear of their failure, they having been
dealing in fancy stocks — but there really never is any moonshine of this
kind in the practice of poets & philosophers; there never are any hard
times or failures with them, for they deal with permanent values.
Talking with Walcott & Staples — they first declared that John Brown did wrong. When I said that
I thought he was right, they agreed in asserting that he did wrong
because he threw his life away — & that no man had a right to
undertake anything which he knew would cost him his life. I inquired if Christ
did not foresee that he would be crucified if he preached such doctrines as he
did, but they both — though as if it was their only escape — asserted that
they did not believe that he did. Upon which a 3d
party threw in: “You do not think that he had so much foresight as Brown.” Of
course, they as good as said that if Christ had foreseen that he
would be crucified, he would have “backed out.” Such are the principles &
the logic of the mass of men.
Talk about slavery! It is not the peculiar institution of the South. It exists
wherever men are bought & sold — wherever a man permits allows
himself to become be made a mere thing — a tool — &
surrenders his inalienable rights of conscience & reason, & indeed I
think that this slavery is more complete than that which enslaves the body
It exists in the Northern States, & I am reminded by what I find in the
newspapers that it exists in Canada. I never yet met with, or heard of, a
judge who was not a slave of this kind, & so the finest &
most unfailing weapon of injustice. He fetches a slightly higher price than
the black man only because he is a more valuable slave.
It appears that a colored man killed his would-be kidnapper in Missouri &
fled to Canada. The bloodhounds have tracked him to Toronto & now demand
him of her judges. From all that I can learn, they are playing their parts
like judges. They are servile, while the poor fugitive in their jail is free
This is what a Canadian writes to the New York
Tribune: “Our judges may be compelled to render a judgement adverse to
the prisoner. Depend upon it, they will not do it unless compelled
[his italics]1. And then the poor fellow will be
taken back, and probably burned to death by the brutes of the South.”
Compelled! By whom? The master whom they serve? Does God compel them? or is it
some man or number of men? Can’t they hold out a little longer against the
tremendous pressure? If they are fairly represented, I wouldn’t trust
their courage to defend a setting hen of mine against a weasel. Will this
excuse avail them when the real day of judgment arrives comes? They
have not to fear the slightest bodily harm: nobody one stands over
them with a stick or a knife even. They have at the worst only to
give up resign their salaries places & not a mouse
will squeak about it — & yet they are likely to assist in tying
their victim to the stake! Would that his example might teach them
to break their own fetters. They do appear not to know what kind of
justice that is which is to be done though the heavens fall. Better that the
British Empire be destroyed than that it should help to reenslave this man.
This correspondent suggests that the “good people” of New York may rescue him
as he is being carried back. There, then, is the only resort of justice — not
where the judges are, but where the sympathetic mob is, where human
hearts are beating, & hands move in obedience to their impulses. Perhaps
his fellow-fugitives in Toronto may not feel compelled to surrender him.
Justice, leaving departing from the Canadian soil, makes
leaves her last tracks traces among these.
It is no worse, I allow, than almost every other practice which custom has
sanctioned — but that is the worst of it — for it shows how bad the rest are.
It has come to this To such a pass our civilization & division
of labor has come that A, a professional huckleberry-picker, has hired B’s
field — and, we will suppose, is now gathering the crop, perhaps with the aid
of a patented machine.
C, a professed cook, is superintending the cooking of a pudding made of
these of the berries.
While Professor D, for whom the pudding is intended, sits in his library
writing a book — a work on the
vaccinieæ,1 of course.
And now the result of this downward course will be seen in that book, which
should be the ultimate fruit of the huckleberry-field — & account for the
existence of the 2 professors who come between D & A. It will be
worthless. There will be none of the spirits of the huckleberry in it. The
reading of it will be a weariness to the flesh.
To use a homely illustration, this is to save at the spile but waste at the
bung. I believe in a different kind of division of labor — & that
Professor D should divide himself between the library and the
The family of plants that includes the huckleberry
What are the natural features which make a township handsome? A river, with
its waterfalls & meadows, a lake, a hill, a cliff or individual rocks, a
forest, and ancient trees standing singly. Such things are beautiful; they
have a high use which dollars & cents never represent. If the inhabitants
of a town were wise they would seek to preserve these things, though at a
considerable expense. For such things educate — far more than any hired
teachers or preachers — or any at present recognized system of school
education. I do not think him fit to be the founder of a state or even of a
town who does not foresee the use of these things, but legislates chiefly for
oxen, as it were.
Far the handsomest thing I saw in Boxboro was its noble oak wood. I doubt if
there is a finer one in Mass. Let her keep
it a century longer, & men will make pilgrimages to it from all parts of
the country; and yet it would be very like the rest of New England if Boxboro
were ashamed of that woodland.
I said to myself if I have since heard however, that she is
contented to have that forest stand — instead of the houses & farms that
might supplant — because the land pays a much larger tax to the town now than
it would then.
I said to myself, if the history of this town is written, the chief stress is
probably laid on its parish, & there is not a word about this forest in it.
It would be worth the while if in each town there were a committee appointed
to see that the beauty of the town received no detriment. If we have the
largest boulder in the country, then it should not belong to an individual,
nor be made into door steps.
As in many countries precious metals belong to the crown, so here natural
objects of rare beauty should belong to the public.
Not only the channel but one or both banks of every river should be a public
highway. The only use of a river is not to float on it.
Think of a mt-top in
the township — even to the minds of the Indians a sacred place — only
accessible thro’ private
A temple, as it were, which you cannot enter except to trespass at the risk
of letting out or letting in somebody’s cattle. In fact the temple itself in
this case private property and standing in a man’s cow yard — for such is
commonly the case!
N.H. courts have lately been deciding — as
if it was for them to decide — whether the top of
Mt. Washington belonged
to A or B — & it being decided in favor of B, as I hear, he went
up one winter with the proper officer & took formal possession of it. But
I think that the top of
Mt. Washington must not
be private property. It should be left unappropriated for modesty &
reverence sake, or if only to suggest that earth has higher uses than we put
her to. I know it is a mere figure of speech to talk about temples nowadays — when men recognize none — & indeed, associate the word with heathenism.
I should not think him fit to be the founder of a state — or even of a town — who did foresee the use of a
mt top — or a forest — or a
lake or river —
It is true we as yet take liberties & go across lots, & steal or
“hook” a good many things, but we naturally take fewer & fewer liberties
every year, as we meet with more resistance. In old countries, as England,
going across lots is out of the question. You must walk in some beaten path
or other, have though it may a narrow one and there is an end
to all or a. We are tending to the same state of things here, when
practically a few will have grounds of their own, but most will have none
& walk over but what the few allow them.
[M]ost men, it seems to me, do not care for Nature & would sell their
share in all her beauty, as long as they may live, for a stated sum — many for
a glass of rum.
Thank God men cannot as yet fly & lay waste the sky as well as the earth.
We are safe on that side for the present. It is for the very reason that some
do not care for those things that we need to continue to protect all from the
vandalism of a few.
A lady tells me that she met Dea. S. of Lincoln with a load of hay, & she,
noticing that as he drove under the apple trees by the side of the road a
considerable part of the hay was raked off by their boughs, informed him of
it. But he answered, “It is not mine yet. I am going to the scales with
it & intend to come back this way.”
Going to law — I hear that Judge Minott of Haverhill once told a client, by
way of warning, that 2 men millers who owned mills on the same
stream went to law about a dam, & at the end of the lawsuit one lawyer
owned one mill & the other the other.