Excerpts from H.D. Thoreau’s journals (1841-1850)

This is part two 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.


Man finds himself in life, but with no hint for the conduct of an hour. — Conscience only informs him that he must behave.

We must expect no income beside our outgoes — we must succeed now, and we shall not fail hereafter. So soon as we begin to count the cost the cost begins.

If our scheme is well built within, any mishap to the out-building will not be fatal.

The capital wanted is an entire independence upon all capital, but a clear conscience, and a resolute will.

When we are so poor that the howling of the wind shall have a music in it, and not declare war against our property — the proprietors may well envy us. We have been seeking riches not by a true industry or building within, but by mere accumulation, putting together what was without till it rose a heap beside us. — We should rather acquire them by the utter renunciation of them. If I hold a house and land as property, am I not disinherited of sun, wind, rain, and all good beside? The richest are only some degrees poorer than nature.

It is impossible to have more property than we dispense — Genius is only as rich as it is generous, if it hoards it impoverishes itself. — What the banker sighs for the meanest clown may have, leisure and a quiet mind.

We can render men the best assistance, by letting them see how sore a thing it is to need any assistance. I am not in haste to help men more than God is. If they will not help themselves, shall I become their abettor?

Wealth, no less than knowledge, is power. Among the Bedouins the richest man is the sheik, among savages he who has the most iron and wampum is chief, and in England and America he is the merchant prince.

There is something proudly thrilling in the thought that this obedience to conscience and trust in God, which is so solemnly preached in extremities and arduous circumstances, is only to retreat to one’s self, and rely on our own strength. In trivial circumstances I find myself sufficient to myself, and in the most momentous I have no ally but myself, and must silently put by their harm by my own strength, as I did the former. As my own hand bent aside the willow in my path, so must my single arm put to flight the devil and his angels. God is not our ally when we shrink, and neuter when we are bold. If by trusting in God you lose any particle of your vigor, trust in Him no longer. When you trust, do not lay aside your armor, but put it on and buckle it tighter. If by reliance on the gods I have disbanded one of my forces, then was it poor policy. I had better have retained the most inexperienced tyro who had straggled into the camp, and let go the heavenly alliance. I cannot afford to relax discipline because God is on my side, for He is on the side of discipline. And if the gods were only the heavens I fought under, I would not care if they stormed or were calm. I do not want a countenance, but a help. And there is more of God and divine help in a man’s little finger than in an idle prayer and trust.

If the law of the universe were to be audibly promulgated, no mortal lawgiver would suspect it, for it would be a finer melody than his ears ever attended to. It would be sphere music.1

There is but one obligation, and that is the obligation to obey the highest dictate. None can lay me under another which will supersede this. The gods have given me these years without any incumbrance; society has no mortgage on them.

Sometimes a particular body of men do unconsciously assert that their will is fate, that the right is decided by their fiat without appeal, and when this is the case they can never be mistaken; as when one man is quite silenced by the thrilling eloquence of another, and submits to be neglected as to his fate, because such is not the willful vote of the assembly, but their instinctive decision.

The merely political aspect of the land is never very cheering. Men are degraded when considered as the members of a political organization. As a nation the people never utter one great and healthy word. From this side all nations present only the symptoms of disease. I see but Bunker’s Hill and Sing Sing, the District of Columbia and Sullivan’s Island, with a few avenues connecting them. But paltry are all these beside one blast of the east or south wind which blows over them all.

In society you will not find health, but in nature. You must converse much with the field and woods, if you would imbibe such health into your mind and spirit as you covet for your body. Society is always diseased, and the best is the sickest.…

…The doctrines of despair, of spiritual or political servitude, no priestcraft nor tyranny, was ever taught by such as drank in the harmony of nature.

Thoreau reworked this entry for Natural History of Massachusetts.

Raleigh’s Maxims1 are not true and impartial, but yet are expressed with a certain magnanimity, which was natural to the man, as if this selfish policy could easily afford to give place in him to a more human and generous. He gives such advice that we have more faith in his conduct than his principles.

He seems to have carried the courtier’s life to the highest pitch of magnanimity and grace it was capable of. He is liberal and generous as a prince — that is, within bounds; brave, chivalrous, heroic, as the knight in armor and not as a defenseless man. His was not the heroism of Luther,2 but of Bayard.3 There was more of grace than of truth in it. He had more taste than character. There may be something petty in a refined taste; it easily degenerates into effeminacy; it does not consider the broadest use. It is not content with simple good and bad, and so is fastidious and curious, or nice only.

The most attractive sentences are not perhaps the wisest, but the surest and soundest. He who uttered them had a right to speak. He did not stand on a rolling stone, but was well assured of his footing, and naturally breathed them without effort. They were spoken in the nick of time. With rare fullness were they spoken, as a flower expands in the field; and if you dispute their doctrine, you will say, “But there is truth in their assurance.” Raleigh’s are of this nature, spoken with entire satisfaction and heartiness. They are not philosophy, but poetry.

With him it was always well done and nobly said.

That is very true which Raleigh says about the equal necessity of war and law — that “the necessity of war, which among human actions is most lawless, hath some kind of affinity and near resemblance with the necessity of law;” for both equally rest on force as their basis, and war is only the resource of law, either on a smaller or larger scale — its authority asserted. In war, in some sense, lies the very genius of law. It is law creative and active; it is the first principle of the law. What is human warfare but just this — an effort to make the laws of God and nature take sides with one party. Men make an arbitrary code, and, because it is not right, they try to make it prevail by might. The moral law does not want any champion. Its asserters do not go to war. It was never infringed with impunity. It is inconsistent to decry war and maintain law, for if there were no need of war there would be no need of law.

I must confess I see no resource but to conclude that conscience was not given us to no purpose, or for a hindrance, but that, however flattering order and expediency may look, it is but the repose of a lethargy; and we will choose rather to be awake, though it be stormy, and maintain ourselves on this earth and in this life as we may, without signing our death-warrant in the outset. What does the law protect? My rights? or any rights? My right, or the right? If I avail myself of it, it may help my sin; it cannot help my virtue. Let us see if we cannot stay here, where God has put us, on his own conditions. Does not his law reach to the earth? While the law holds fast the thief and murderer for my protection (I should say its own), it lets itself go loose. Expediencies differ. They may clash. English law may go to war with American law, that is English interest with American interest, but what is expedient for the whole world will be absolute right, and synonymous with the law of God. So the law is only partial right. It is selfish, and consults for the interest of the few.4

Somehow, strangely, the vice of men gets well represented and protected, but their virtue has none to plead its cause, nor any charter of immunities and rights. The Magna Charta5 is not chartered rights, but chartered wrongs.

Thoreau reworked some of this material for Sir Walter Raleigh.

  1. Walter Raleigh’s The Prince, or Maxims of State
  2. Martin Luther
  3. Pierre Terrail, seigneur de Bayard
  4. In A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Thoreau rewrote this as follows: “I must conclude that Conscience, if that be the name of it, was not given us for no purpose, or for a hindrance. However flattering order and expediency may look, it is but the repose of a lethargy, and we will choose rather to be awake, though it be stormy, and maintain ourselves on this earth and in this life, as we may, without signing our death-warrant. Let us see if we cannot stay here, where He has put us, on his own conditions. Does not his law reach as far as his light? The expedients of the nations clash with one another, only the absolutely right is expedient for all.”
  5. Magna Carta

I wonder men can be so frivolous almost as to attend to the gross form of negro slavery, there are so many keen and subtle masters who subject us both. Self-emancipation in the West Indies of a man’s thinking and imagining provinces, which should be more than his island territory — one emancipated heart and intellect! It would knock the fetters from a million slaves.

Thoreau reworked this for Walden.

[I]n the ruder states of society every family owns a shelter as good as the best, and sufficient for its ruder and simpler wants; but in modern civilized society, though the birds of the air have their nests, and woodchucks and foxes their holes, though each one is commonly the owner of his coat and hat though never so poor, yet not more than one man in a thousand owns a shelter, but the nine hundred and ninety-nine pay an annual tax for this outside garment of all, indispensable summer and winter, which would buy a village of Indian wigwams and contributes to keep them poor as long as they live. But, answers one, by simply paying this annual tax the poorest man secures an abode which is a palace compared to the Indian’s. An annual rent of from twenty to sixty or seventy dollars entitles him to the benefit of all the improvements of centuries — Rumford fireplace, back plastering, Venetian blinds, copper pump, spring lock, &c, &c. But while civilization has been improving our houses, she has not equally improved the men who should occupy them. She has created palaces, but it was not so easy to create noblemen and kings. The mason who finishes the cornice of the palace returns at night, perchance, to a hut no better than a wigwam. If she claims to have made a real advance in the welfare of man, she must show how she has produced better dwellings without making them more costly. And the cost of a thing, it will be remembered, is the amount of life it requires to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run. An average house costs perhaps from one thousand to fifteen hundred dollars, and to earn this sum will require from fifteen to twenty years of the day laborer’s life, even if he is not incumbered with a family; so that he must spend more than half his life before a wigwam can be earned; and if we suppose he pays a rent instead, this is but a doubtful choice of evils. Would the savage have been wise to exchange his wigwam for a palace on these terms?

When I consider my neighbors, the farmers of Concord, for instance, who are at least as well off as the other classes, what are they about? For the most part I find that they have been toiling ten, twenty, or thirty years to pay for their farms, and we may set down one half of that toil to the cost of their houses; and commonly they have not yet paid for them. This is the reason they are poor; and for similar reasons we are all poor in respect to a thousand savage comforts, though surrounded by luxuries.

But most men do not know what a house is, and the mass are actually poor all their days because they think they must have such an one as their neighbor’s. As if one were to wear any sort of coat the tailor might cut out for him, or, gradually leaving off palm-leaf hat and cap of woodchuck-skin, should complain of hard times because he could not buy him a crown!

Thoreau reworked this entry for Walden.

unknown date ()

I have travelled some in New England, especially in Concord, and I found that no enterprise was on foot which it would not disgrace a man to take part in. They seemed to be employed everywhere in shops and offices and fields. They seemed, like the Brahmins of the East,1 to be doing penance in a thousand curious, unheard-of ways, their endurance surpassing anything I had ever seen or heard of — Simeon Stylites,2 Brahmins looking in the face of the sun, standing on one leg, dwelling at the roots of trees, nothing to it; any of the twelve labors of Hercules3 to be matched… nothing at all in comparison, being only twelve and having an end.…

Men labor under a mistake; they are laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal.4 Northern Slavery, or the slavery which includes the Southern, Eastern, Western, and all others.

It is hard to have a Southern overseer; it is worse to have a Northern one; but worst of all when you are yourself the slave-driver. Look at the lonely teamster on the highway, wending to market by day or night; is he a son of the morning, with somewhat of divinity in him, fearless because immortal, going to receive his birthright, greeting the sun as his fellow, bounding with youthful, gigantic strength over his mother earth? See how he cowers and sneaks, how vaguely, indefinitely all the day he fears, not being immortal, not divine, the slave and prisoner of his own opinion of himself, fame which he has earned by his own deeds. Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with private opinion. What I think of myself, that determines my fate.

I see young men, my equals, who have inherited from their spiritual father a soul — broad, fertile, uncultivated — from their earthly father a farm — with cattle and barns and farming tools, the implements of the picklock and the counterfeiter. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, or perhaps cradled in a manger, that they might have seen with clear eye what was the field they were called to labor in. The young man has got to live a man’s life, then, in this world, pushing all these things before him, and get on as well as he can. How many a poor immortal soul I have met, well-nigh crushed and smothered, creeping slowly down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five by forty feet and one hundred acres of land… It’s a fool’s life, as they will all find when they get to the end of it. The man that goes on accumulating property when the bare necessities of life are cared for is a fool and knows better.

There is a stronger desire to be respectable to one’s neighbors than to one’s self.

Thoreau reworked this entry for Walden.

  1. Brahmanism
  2. Simeon Stylites
  3. Labours of Hercules
  4. References Matthew 6:19–21

unknown date ()

A state should be a complete epitome of the earth, a natural principality, and by the gradations of its surface and soil conduct the traveller to its principal marts. Nature is stronger than law, and the sure but slow influence of wind and water will balk the efforts of restricting legislatures. Man cannot set up bounds with safety but where the revolutions of nature will confirm and strengthen, not obliterate, them.

Scholars have for the most part a diseased way of looking at the world. They mean by it a few cities and unfortunate assemblies of men and women, who might all be concealed in the grass of the prairies. They describe this world as old or new, healthy or diseased, according to the state of their libraries, — a little dust more or less on their shelves. When I go abroad from under this shingle or slate roof, I find several things which they have not considered. Their conclusions seem imperfect.

We can afford to lend a willing ear occasionally to those earnest reformers of the age. Let us treat them hospitably. Shall we be charitable only to the poor? What though they are fanatics? Their errors are likely to be generous errors, and these may be they who will put to rest the American Church and the American government, and awaken better ones in their stead.

Let us not meanly seek to maintain our delicate lives in chambers or in legislative halls by a timid watchfulness of the rude mobs that threaten to pull down our baby-houses. Let us not think to raise a revenue which shall maintain our domestic quiet by an impost on the liberty of speech. Let us not think to live by the principle of self-defense. Have we survived our accidents hitherto, think you, by virtue of our good swords — that three-foot lath that dangles by your side, or those brazen-mouthed pieces under the burying hill which the trainers keep to hurrah with in the April and July mornings?1 Do our protectors burrow under the burying-ground hill, on the edge of the bean-field which you all know, gorging themselves once a year with powder and smoke, and kept bright and in condition by a chafing of oiled rags and rotten stone? Have we resigned the protection of our hearts and civil liberties to that feathered race of wading birds and marching men who drill but once a month? — and I mean no reproach to our Concord train-bands, who certainly make a handsome appearance — and dance well. Do we enjoy the sweets of domestic life undisturbed, because the naughty boys are all shut up in that whitewashed “stone-yard,” as it is called, and see the Concord meadows only through a grating.

No, let us live amid the free play of the elements. Let the dogs bark, let the cocks crow, and the sun shine, and the winds blow!

A small sum would really do much good, if the donor spent himself with it and did not merely relinquish it to some distant society whose managers do the good or the evil with it.

Men talk much of cooperation nowadays, of working together to some worthy end; but what little cooperation there is, is as if it were not, being a simple result of which the means are hidden, a harmony inaudible to men. If a man has faith, he will cooperate with equal faith everywhere. If he has not faith he will continue to live like the rest of the world, whatever company he is joined to. To cooperate thoroughly implies to get your living together. I heard it proposed lately that two young men should travel together over the world, the one earning his means as he went, the other carrying a bill of exchange in his pocket. It was easy to see that they could not long be companions, or cooperate, since one would not operate at all. They would part company at the first and most interesting crisis in their adventures.2

  1. Celebrating the Battle of Lexington and Concord (April) and the Declaration of Independence (July)
  2. Thoreau reworked this paragraph for Walden.

After… fires in the woods which I helped to put out, a more effectual system by which to quell them occurred to me. When the bell rings, hundreds will run to a fire in the woods without carrying any implement, and then waste much time after they get there either in doing nothing or what is worse than nothing, having come mainly out of curiosity, it being as interesting to see it burn as to put it out. I thought that it would be well if forty or fifty men in every country town should enroll themselves into a company for this purpose and elect suitable officers. The town should provide a sufficient number of rakes, hoes, and shovels, which it should be the duty of certain of the company to convey to woods in a wagon, together with the drum, on the first alarm, people being unwilling to carry their own tools for fear they will be lost. When the captain or one of the numerous vice-captains arrives, having inspected the fire and taken his measures, let him cause the roll to be called, however the men may be engaged, and just take a turn or two with his men to form them into sections and see where they are. Then he can appoint and equip his rake-men and his hoe-men and his bough-men, and drop them at the proper places, always retaining the drummer and a scout; and when he has learned through his scout that the fire has broken out in a new place, he, by beat of drum, can take up one or two men of each class — as many as can be spared — and repair to the scene of danger.

One of my friends suggests instead of the drum some delicious music, adding that then he would come. It might be well, to refresh the men when wearied with work, and cheer them on their return. Music is the proper regulator.

Wherever a man goes men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions.

Thoreau inserted this phrase into his brief description of his arrest for tax resistance in Walden.


From time to time I overlook the promised land, but I do not feel that I am travelling toward it. The moment I begin to look there, men and institutions get out of the way that I may see. I see nothing permanent in the society around me, and am not quite committed to any of its ways.

The heaven-born Numa, or Lycurgus, or Solon,1 gravely makes laws to regulate the exportation of tobacco. Will a divine legislator legislate for slaves, or to regulate the exportation of tobacco? What shall a State say for itself at the last day, in which this is a principal production?

What have grave, not to say divine, legislators — Numas, Lycurguses, Solons — to do with the exportation or the importation of tobacco. There was a man appealed to me the other day, “Can you give me a chaw of tobacco?” I legislated for him. Suppose you were to submit the question to any son of God, in what State would you get it again?2

As to conforming outwardly, and living your own life inwardly, I have not a very high opinion of that course. Do not let your right hand know what your left hand does in that line of business. I have no doubt it will prove a failure.3

Man and his affairs — Church and State and school, trade and commerce and agriculture — Politics — for that is the word for them all here to-day — I am pleased to see how little space it occupies in the landscape.4

A squaw5 came to our door to-day with two pappooses, and said, “Me want a pie.” Theirs is not common begging. You are merely the rich Indian who shares his goods with the poor. They merely offer you an opportunity to be generous and hospitable.

Equally simple was the observation which an Indian made at Mr. Hoar’s6 door the other day, who went there to sell his baskets. “No, we don’t want any,” said the one who went to the door. “What! do you mean to starve us?” asked the Indian in astonishment, as he was going out the gate. The Indian seems to have said: I too will do like the white man; I will go into business. He sees his white neighbors well off around him, and he thinks that if he only enters on the profession of basket-making, riches will flow in unto him as a matter of course; just as the lawyer weaves arguments, and by some magical means wealth and standing follow. He thinks that when he has made the baskets he has done his part, now it is yours to buy them. He has not discovered that it is necessary for him to make it worth your while to buy them, or make some which it will be worth your while to buy. With great simplicity he says to himself: I too will be a man of business; I will go into trade. It isn’t enough simply to make baskets. You have got to sell them.7

  1. Numa Pompilius, Lycurgus, and Solon.
  2. Thoreau reworked these two paragraphs for Life Without Principle.
  3. Thoreau also included this thought in a letter to Harrison Blake, dated
  4. This thought is interrupted by missing pages in the journal, but Thoreau completes it in Walking: “…I sometimes direct the traveller thither. If you would go to the political world, follow the great road, — follow that market-man, keep his dust in your eyes, and it will lead you straight to it; for it, too, has its place merely, and does not occupy all space. I pass from it as from a bean-field into the forest, and it is forgotten. In one half-hour I can walk off to some portion of the earth’s surface where a man does not stand from one year’s end to another, and there, consequently, politics are not, for they are but as the cigar-smoke of a man.”
  5. Squaw
  6. Samuel Hoar
  7. In Walden, Thoreau relates this anecdote and adds: “I too had woven a kind of basket of a delicate texture, but I had not made it worth any one’s while to buy them. Yet not the less, in my case, did I think it worth my while to weave them, and instead of studying how to make it worth men’s while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them.” See also , in which Thoreau tells an anecdote about a misapprehension on the other side of supply and demand.

John Garfield brought me this morning () a young great heron (Ardea Herodias), which he shot this morning on a pine tree on the North Branch. It measured four feet, nine inches, from bill to toe and six feet in alar extent, and belongs to a different race from myself and Mr. Frost. I am glad to recognize him for a native of America — why not an American citizen?

A people who would begin by burning the fences and let the forest stand! I saw the fences half consumed, their ends lost in the middle of the prairie, and some worldly miser with a surveyor looking after his bounds, while heaven had taken place around him, and he did not see the angels around, but was looking for an old post-hold in the midst of paradise. I looked again and saw him standing in the middle of a boggy Stygian fen1, surrounded by devils, and he had found his bounds without a doubt, three little stones where a stake had been driven, and, looking nearer, I saw that the Prince of Darkness was his surveyor.

In Walking, Thoreau includes this paragraph almost verbatim, preceding it with “Nowadays almost all man’s improvements, so called, as the building of houses, and the cutting down of the forest and of all large trees, simply deform the landscape, and make it more and more tame and cheap.”

  1. With this language, he evokes Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene: “Where he was fostred long in Stygian fen, / Till he to perfect ripenesse grew, and then / Into this wicked world he forth was sent, / To be the plague and scourge of wretched men: / Whom with vile tongue and venemous intent / He sore doth wound, and bite, and cruelly torment.”

It is a strange age of the world this, when empires, kingdoms, and republics come a-begging to our doors and utter their complaints at our elbows. I cannot take up a newspaper but I find that some wretched government or other, hard pushed and on its last legs, is interceding with me, the reader, to vote for it — more importunate than an Italian beggar. Why does it not keep its castle in silence, as I do? The poor President, what with preserving his popularity and doing his duty, does not know what to do. If you do not read the newspapers, you may be impeached for treason. The newspapers are the ruling power. What Congress does is an afterclap. Any other government is reduced to a few marines at Fort Independence.1 If a man neglects to read the Daily Times, the government will go on its knees to him; this is the only treason in these days. The newspapers devote some of their columns specially to government and politics without charge, and this is all that saves it, but I never read those columns.

Thoreau reworked and expanded this paragraph for Life Without Principle.

  1. Fort Independence