Excerpts from H.D. Thoreau’s journals (1838-1840)

This is part one 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 “lost” volume transcribed by Perry Miller in Consciousness in Concord ().

Footnotes are mine unless otherwise noted. I mostly stuck by the transcriptions used in the sources mentioned above, 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.


Revolutions are never sudden. Not one man, nor many men, in a few years or generations, suffice to regulate events, and dispose mankind for the revolutionary movement. The hero is but the crowning stone of the pyramid — the keystone of the arch. Who was Romulus or Remus, Hengist or Horsa, that we should attribute to them Rome or England? They are famous or infamous because the progress of events has chosen to make them its stepping-stones. But we would know where the avalanche commenced, or the hollow in the rock whence springs the Amazon. The most important is apt to be some silent and unobtrusive fact in history. In three Saxon cyules arrived on the British coast — “Three scipen gode comen mid than flode, three hundred cnihten” — The pirate of the British coast was no more the founder of a state than the scourge of the German shore.

Thoreau reworked this for Reform and the Reformers.

Every proverb in the newspapers originally stood for a truth. Thus the proverb that man was made for society, so long as it was not allowed to conflict with another important truth, deceived no one; but, now that the same words have come to stand for another thing, it may be a for a lie, we are obliged, in order to preserve its significance, to write it anew, so that properly it will read, Society was made for man.

The mass never comes up to the standard of its best member, but on the contrary degrades itself to a level with the lowest. As the reformers say, it is a levelling down, not up. Hence the mass is only another name for the mob. The inhabitants of the earth assembled in one place would constitute the greatest mob. The mob is spoken of as an insane and blinded animal; magistrates say it must be humored; they apprehend it may incline this way or that, as villagers dread an inundation, not knowing whose land may be flooded, nor how many bridges carried away.

In obedience to an instinct of their nature men have pitched their cabins and planted corn and potatoes within speaking distance of one another, and so formed towns and villages, but they have not associated, they have only assembled, and society has signified only a convention of men.

Thoreau’s note: “Scraps from a lecture on ‘Society’ written and delivered before our Lyceum, .”

Men have made war from a deeper instinct than peace. War is but the compelling of peace.1

When the world is declared under martial law, every Esau retakes his birthright,2 and what there is in him does not fail to appear. He wipes off all old scores and commences a new account. The world is interested to know how any soul will demean itself in so novel a position. But when war too, like commerce and husbandry, gets to be a routine, and men go about it as indented apprentices, the hero degenerates into a marine, and the standing army into a standing jest.

No pains are spared to do honor to the brave soldier. All guilds and corporations are taxed to provide him with fit harness and equipment. His coat must be red as the sunset, or blue as the heavens. Gold or silver, pinchbeck3 or copper, solid or superficial, mark him for fortune’s favorite. The skill of a city enchases and tempers his sword-blade; the Tyrian dye4 confounds him with emperors and kings. Wherever he goes, music precedes and prepares the way for him. His life is a holiday, and the contagion of his example unhinges the universe. The world puts by work and comes out to stare. He is the one only man. He recognizes no time-honored casts and conventions, no fixtures but transfixtures, no governments at length settled on a permanent basis. One tap of the drum sets the political and moral harmonies all ajar. His ethics may well bear comparison with the priest’s. He may rally, charge, retreat in an orderly manner, but never flee nor flinch.

(The soldier is the degenerate hero, as the priest is the degenerate saint; and the soldier and the priest are related as the hero and saint. The one’s virtue is bravery, the other’s bravery virtue. Mankind still pay to the soldier the honors due only to the hero. They delight to do him honor. He is adorned with silver and gold and the colors of the rainbow, invested with outward splendor; music is for him especially, and his life is a holiday.)

  1. Thoreau included this in The Service.
  2. See Genesis 25:29–34
  3. Pinchbeck
  4. Tyrian purple

The ring-leader of the mob will soonest be admitted into the councils of state.

War is the sympathy of concussion. We would fain rub one against another. Its rub may be friction merely, but it would rather be titillation. We discover in the quietest scenes how faithfully war has copied the moods of peace. Men do not peep into heaven but they see embattled hosts there. Milton’s1 heaven was a camp. When the sun bursts through the morning fog I seem to hear the din of war louder than when his chariot thundered on the plains of Troy.2 Every man is a warrior when he aspires. He marches on his post. The soldier is the practical idealist; he has no sympathy with matter, he revels in the annihilation of it. So do we all at times. When a freshet destroys the works of man, or a fire consumes them, or a Lisbon earthquake3 shakes them down, our sympathy with persons is swallowed up in a wider sympathy with the universe. A crash is apt to grate agreeably on our ears.

  1. John Milton ()
  2. Thoreau used this sentence in The Service. In the Greek legends of Troy, the sun is carried across the sky in a chariot.
  3. References the Great Lisbon Earthquake of .

I have a deep sympathy with war, it so apes the gait and bearing of the soul.

The Townsend Light Infantry encamped last night in my neighbor’s inclosure.

The night still breathes slumberously over field and wood, when a few soldiers gather about one tent in the twilight, and their band plays an old Scotch air, with bugle and drum and fife attempered to the season. It seems like the morning hymn of creation. The first sounds of the awakening camp, mingled with the chastened strains which so sweetly salute the dawn, impress me as the morning prayer of an army.

And now the morning gun fires. The soldier awakening to creation and awakening it. I am sure none are cowards now. These strains are the roving dreams which steal from tent to tent, and break forth into distinct melody. They are the soldier’s morning thought. Each man awakes himself with lofty emotions, and would do some heroic deed. You need preach no homily to him; he is the stuff they are made of.

The whole course of our lives should be analogous to one day of the soldier’s. His Genius seems to whisper in his ear what demeanor is befitting, and in his bravery and his march he yields a blind and partial obedience.

No fresher tints than this morning’s witnessed the valor of Hector and Idomeneus, and some such evening as this the Greek fleet came to anchor in the bay of Aulis;1 but alas; it is not to us the eve of a ten years’ war, but of a sixty years’ idleness and defeat.2

Our peace is proclaimed by the rust on our swords, and our inability to draw them from their scabbards — She does not so much work as to keep these swords bright and sharp. Let not ours be such nonresistance as the chaff that rides before the gale.

Thoreau reworked this for The Service.

  1. References to the Greek mythology of the Trojan War: Hector, Idomeneus, and Aulis.
  2. The Trojan War is said to have lasted ten years. Sixty years is roughly the span between the establishment of the United States republic and the date of this journal entry.

The very dogs that sullenly bay the moon from farm yards o’ these nights, evince more heroism than is tamely barked forth in all the civil exhortations and war sermons of the age.1

Our actions should make the stars forget their sphere music,2 and chant an elegiac strain — that heroism should have departed out of their ranks, and gone over to humanity.

If want of patriotism be objected to us, because we hold ourselves aloof from the din of politics, I know of no better answer than that of Anaxagoras3 to those who in like case reproached him with indifference to his country because he had withdrawn from it, and devoted himself to the search after truth — “On the contrary,” he replied pointing to the heavens, “I esteem it infinitely.” My country is free — my country ’tis of thee sweet land of liberty to thee I sing.4

  1. Thoreau added this to The Service.
  2. Sphere Music. Thoreau added this to The Service.
  3. Anaxagoras
  4. Lyrics from an American patriotic anthem named “America” (but more frequently called “My Country ’Tis of Thee”) that had been first publicly sung nine years before in Boston.

The brave man is the elder son of creation, who steps buoyantly into his inheritance, while the coward, who is the younger, waits patiently till he decease.

He is that sixth champion against Thebes, whom, when the proud devices of the rest have been recorded, the poet describes as “bearing a full-orbed shield of solid brass.”

“But there was no device upon its circle,
 For not to seem just but to be is his wish.”1

Our task is not such a piece of day labor that a [man] must be thinking what he shall do next for a livelihood, but such that as it began in endeavor, so it will end only when nothing in heaven or on earth, remains to be endeavored.2

Of such sort then be our crusade, that, while it inclines chiefly to the heartiness and activity of war, rather than the insincerity and sloth of peace, it may set an example to both of calmness and energy; we will be as unconcerned for victory as careless of defeat, not seeking to lengthen our term of service, nor to cut it short by a reprieve, but earnestly applying ourselves to the campaign before us. Nor let our warfare be a boorish and uncourteous one, but a higher courtesy attend its higher chivalry, though not to the slackening of its sterner duties and severer discipline — that so our camp may be a palaestra for the exercise of the dormant energies of men.3

Methink I hear the clarion sound, and the clang of corselet and buckler from many a silent hamlet of the soul. The morning gun has long since sounded, and we are not yet at our posts.4

The age is resigned. Everywhere it sounds a retreat, and the word has gone forth to fall back on innocence. Christianity only hopes. It has hung its harp on the willow and cannot sing a song in a strange land.5 It has dreamed a sad dream and does not yet welcome the morning with joy.

Let us hear no more of peace at present — There is more of it in fiercest war than any Amiens or Utrecht ever compounded.6

We have need to be as sturdy pioneers still as Miles Standish or Church.7 We are to follow on another trail, perhaps, but one as convenient for ambushes, and with not so much as a moccasin print to guide us. What if the Indians are exterminated?8 Do not savages as grim defile down into the clearing to-day?

The danger is that we be exterminated.

Perry Miller notes in Consciousness in Concord how Thoreau rewrote parts of this for a draft of The Service, and for A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

  1. References Æschylus’s “The Seven Against Thebes”. Thoreau used these paragraphs when writing the opening paragraph to The Service.
  2. Thoreau reworked this paragraph for The Service.
  3. Thoreau reworked this paragraph for The Service. (Palaestra)
  4. Thoreau reworked this paragraph for The Service.
  5. References Psalm 137
  6. References the Treaty of Amiens and Treaty of Utrecht.
  7. Myles Standish
  8. Population history of indigenous peoples of the Americas

A brave soul will make these peaceful times dangerous — and dangerous times peaceful.

When with pale cheek and sunken eye I sang
Unto the slumbering world at midnights hour,
How it no more resounded with war’s clang,
And virtue was decayed in Peace’s bower;

How in these days no hero was abroad,
But puny men, afraid of war’s alarms,
Stood forth to fight the battles of their Lord,
Who scarce could stand beneath a hero’s arms;

A faint, reproachful, reassuring strain,
From some harp’s strings touched by unskilful hands
Brought back the days of chivalry again,
And the surrounding fields made holy lands.

A bustling camp and an embattled host
Extending far on either hand I saw,
For I alone had slumbered at my post,
Dreaming of peace when all around was war.

13 August 1840

We do not avoid evil by hurry-skurry and fleetness in extenso,1 but by rising above or diving below its plane. As the worm escapes drought and frost, by boring a few inches deeper, but the grasshopper is overtaken and destroyed — By our suppleness and speed we only fly before an evil, by the height or depth of our characters we avoid it.

Perry Miller notes in Consciousness in Concord how Thoreau rewrote this for A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

  1. “at full length, maximum”

Sir Thomas Overbury,1 who says that Raleigh2 followed the sherriff out of court “with admirable erection, but yet in such a sort as became a man condemned,” has a share in that exploit by his discernment. We admire equally him who could do the deed, and him could see it done.

See also: Sir Walter Raleigh

  1. Thomas Overbury (). The quote comes from his “Arraignment of Sir Walter Raleigh”.
  2. Walter Raleigh ()

The humane society1 will not make the hunter despicable so soon as the butcher nor the grouse shooter so soon as he who kills sparrows — I feel great respect for the English deer stalker2 on reading that “ ‘His muscles must be of marble, and his sinews of steel.’ He must not only ‘run like the antelope, and breathe like the trade wind;’ but he must be able ‘to run in a stooping position with a grey-hound pace, having his back parallel to the ground, and his face within an inch of it for miles together.’ He must have a taste for running, like an eel through sand, ventre à terre,3 and he should be accomplished in ‘skilfully squeezing his clothes after this operation, to make all comfortable.’ ”

  1. Humane Society
  2. Quotes are from a review of The Art of Deer-Stalking by William Scrope ()
  3. at top speed (literally “belly to the ground”)

In the old Chinese book which the French call “L’Invariable Milieu1 occurs this sentence — “L’ordre ètablie par le ciel s’appelle nature; ce qui est conforme à la nature s’appelle loi; l’etablissement de la loi s’appelle instruction.2

God’s order is nature — man’s order is law — and the establishment of law is the subject of instruction.

  1. L’Invariable Milieu () was Jean Pierre Abel Rèmusat’s translation of a Confucian work.
  2. Roughly: “The order established by heaven is called nature; what is in conformity to nature is called law; the establishment of the law is called instruction.”

Defeat is heaven’s success. He cannot be said to succeed to whom the world shows any favor. In fact it is the hero’s point d’appui,1 which by offering resistance to his action enables him to act at all. At each step he spurns the world. He vaults the higher in proportion as he employs the greater resistance of the earth.

It is fatal when an elevation has been gained by too wide a concession — retaining no point of resistance, for then the hero like the aeronaut, must float at the mercy of the winds — or cannot sail for calmer weather, nor steer himself for want of waves to his rudder.

When we rise to the step above, we tread hardest on the step below.

  1. a foothold, a point of leverage

Every countryman and dairymaid knows that the coats of the fourth stomach of the calf will curdle milk — and what particular mushroom is a safe and nutritious diet. You cannot go into any field or wood but it will seem as if every stone had been turned, and the bark on every tree ripped up. Surely men are busy and knowing enough after their fashion. One would suppose that he who had counted the eyes of a fly and the nerves of a caterpillar, must have learned the whole duty of man in his youth. But alas, it is easier to make a white rose black, or pears grow on an apple tree, than to do one’s duty for five minutes. It is vastly easier to discover than to see when the cover is off.

Thoreau reworked this for Natural History of Massachusetts.

It is always easy to infringe the law — but the Bedouin of the desert find it impossible to resist public opinion.

The traveller Stevens1 had the following conversation with a Bedouin of Mount Sinai. “I asked him who governed them; he stretched himself up and answered in one word, ‘God.’ I asked him if they paid tribute to the pasha; and his answer was, ‘No, we take tribute from him.’ I asked him how. ‘We plunder his caravans.’ Desirous to understand my exact position with the sheik of Akaba, under his promise of protection, I asked him if they were governed by their sheik; to which he answered, ‘No, we govern him.’ ”

  1. John Lloyd Stephens, from Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea and The Holy Land.

To yield bravely is infinitely harder than to resist bravely. In the one course our sin assists us to be brave, in the other our virtue is alone. True bravery has no ally yet all things are with it.

I find Gibbon1 to have been less a man and more of a student that I had anticipated — I had supposed him a person of more genius with as much learning, more an enthusiast than a pedant, better fitted to influence an active and practical people like the English, than to lead in a German School.

He had very little greatness. His Roman History,2 by his own confession, was undertaken from no higher motive than the love of fame. In his religious views he did not differ nobly from mankind, but rather apologized and conformed. He was ambitious and vain. It was a quite paltry ambition that inspired his first Essay3 — his observations on the Ænead, and the Decline and Fall2 — and vanity inspired his memoirs of his own life.4 In his letters he was more literary than social, they are moments grudgingly given to his friends, whom he kept in pay to inform him how that world went on from which he had retired.

I hear him smack his lips at the prospect of a pipe of wine to be sent from England to Lausanne. There is not recorded of him, that I know, a single reckless and heroic action, which would have been worth a thousand histories. That would have been to Rise and Stand. He withdrew into retirement in Switzerland, not to perfect his culture, but be more at leisure to build up a reputation undisturbed. He respected and courted the doctors and learned, not the learning. I think of him only as the laborious ambitious student who wrote the Decline & Fall, during those 56 years — which after all it does not concern me to read.

  1. Edward Gibbon
  2. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire ()
  3. Critical Observations on the Sixth Book of the Aeneid ()
  4. Memoirs of My Life ()

The character of Washington1 has after all been undervalued, simply because not valued correctly. He was a proper Puritan hero. It is his erectness and persistency which attract me. A few simple deeds with a dignified silence for background and that is all. He never fluctuated, nor lingered, nor stooped, nor swerved, but was nobly silent and assured. He was not the darling of the people, as no man of integrity can ever be, but was as much respected as loved. His instructions to his steward — his refusal of a crown — his interviews with his officers at the termination of the war — his thoughts after his retirement, as expressed in a letter to La Fayette2 — his remarks to another correspondent on his being chosen president — his last words to Congress3 — and the unparalleled respect which his most distinguished contemporaries — as Fox and Erskine,4 expressed for him — are refreshing to read in these unheroic days.

His behavior in the field and in council, and his dignified and contented withdrawal to private life — were great. He could advance and he could withdraw.

But we are not sorry he is dead.

To discover a gleam in the trenches, and hear a music in the rattling of the tools we work with — is to have an eye and an ear — We should not be sad on account of the sins of men, but glad in our own innocence. Another man’s sin never made me sad, it was my own. A burnishing of spades and ploughshares the country over would be symbolic of the true reform.