Excerpts from H.D. Thoreau’s journals (1855)

This is part seven of a collection of excerpts from the journals of Henry David Thoreau concerning law, government, man in society, war, economics, duty, and conscience. This part covers Thoreau’s journals for . For other parts, see:

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.


One is educated to believe, & would rejoice if the rising generation should find no occasion to doubt, that the state and the Church are on the side of morality — that the voice of the people is the voice of God. Harvard College was partly built by a lottery. My father tells me he bought a ticket in it. Perhaps she thus laid the foundation of her Divinity school. Thus she teaches by example. New England is flooded with the “Official schemes of the Maryland State Lotteries,” and in this that state is no less unprincipled than in her slave-holding. Maryland, and every fool who buys a ticket of her, is bound straight to the bottomless pit. The state of Maryland is a moral fungus. Her offence is rank; it smells to heaven. Knowing that she is doing the devil’s work, and that her customers are ashamed to be known as such, she advertises, as in the case of private diseases, that “the strictest confidence will be observed.” “Consolidated” Deviltry.

A typical such advertisement might offer tickets in “the Grand Consolidated Lottery, the Maryland Consolidated Lottery, the Bel Air Lottery, Washington County, and Carroll County Lotteries.” Thoreau was opposed to gambling on principle, but in addition those who bought tickets in the Maryland lottery were supporting the government of a slave state.

A man came to our house at … who set out this morning to go from Waltham to Noah Wheeler’s in Nine Acre Corner. He got as far as Lee’s Bridge on the edge of Lincoln, or within ¾ of a mile of Wheeler’s, & could not get over the river on account of the freshet. So he came round through Concord village — he might have come by the RR a little nearer, — & I directed him over the RR bridge, the first by which he could cross dry-shod down the stream, & up stream he would have been obliged to go to Saxonville. Thus he had to go 8 miles round instead of ¾ of a mile direct, and in the whole about double the usual distance from Waltham.… The river thus opposes a serious obstacle to travellers from S.E. to N.W. for some 20 miles of its course at least, above & below Concord. No doubt hundreds have been put to great inconvenience by it within a day or 2. Even travellers in wagons are stopped at many of these causeways. If they were raised 2 feet the trouble would be in great part, the danger wholly, obviated. There should at least be provided a ferry for foot passengers at each such causeway, at the expense of the town, and the traveller could blow a horn to call the ferryman over.

Staples1 said the other day that he heard Philips2 speak at the State House. By thunder he never heard a man that could speak like him. His words come so easy. It was just like picking up chips.

  1. Could this be Samuel Staples, Concord’s constable, jailer, and tax-gatherer, who imprisoned Thoreau for tax evasion almost ten years before?
  2. Wendell Phillips

When I would go a visiting I find that I go off the fashionable street — not being inclined to change my dress — to where man meets man and not polished shoe meets shoe.

Ac to Holland’s Hist of Western Mass,1 in Westfield “In , it was voted that the pews next the pulpit should be highest in dignity. The next year it was voted that persons should be seated in the meeting house according to their age & estate, and that so much as any man’s estate is increased by his negroes, ‘that shall be left out.’ If a man lived on a hired farm, ‘or hath obtained his property by marrying a widow, it shall be reckoned only one-third,’ that is, he shall have only ⅓ as much dignity as if he owned his farm, or had acquired his money by his own industry.”

  1. Josiah Gilbert Holland’s History of Western Massachusetts ()

ArguingTalking with Bellew1 this evening about Fourierism2 and communities, I said that I suspected any enterprise in which 2 were engaged together. “But,” said he, “it is difficult to make a stick stand unless you slant 2 or more against it.” “Oh, no,” saidanswered I, “you may split its lower end into 3, or drive it single into the ground, which is the best way; but most men, when they start on a new enterprise, not only figuratively, but really, pull up stakes. When the sticks prop one another, none, or only one, stands erect.”

He complains that [the] Americans have attained to bad luxuries, but have no comforts.

Howitt3 says of the man who found the great nugget which weighed 28 pounds at the Bendigo diggings in Australia: “He soon began to drink; got a horse, and rode all about, generally at full gallop, and when he met people, called out to inquire if they knew who he was, and then kindly informed them that he was ‘the bloody wretch that had found the nugget.’ At last he rode full speed against a tree, and nearly knocked his brains out.” (“He is a hopelessly ruined man,” added Howitt.) In my opinion there was no danger of that though, for he had already knocked his brains out against the nugget. But he is a type of the class. They are all fast men.

Hear some of the names of the places where they dig: “Jackass Flat,” — “Sheep’s-Head Gully,” — “Sulky Gully,” — “Murderer’s Bar,” &c Is there no permanent satire in these names? Let them carry their ill-gotten wealth where they will — whether to Beacon St. or Broadway it will still be Jackass Flat &c &c where they live. 4

  1. Frank Henry Temple Bellew ()
  2. Charles Fourier.
  3. William Howitt (). The quotes come from his Land, Labour, and Gold: or, Two Years in Victoria: with Visits to Sydney and Van Diemen’s Land ()
  4. Thoreau includes these two paragraphs in Life Without Principle (along with bits of other journal entries not included here in which he contrasts gold prospecting with searching for “true gold”).

Now is the time for chestnuts. A stone cast against the tree shakes them down in showers upon one’s head & shoulders. But I cannot excuse myself for using the stone. It is not innocent. It is not just so to maltreat the tree that feeds us. I am not disturbed by considering that if I thus shorten its life I shall not enjoy its fruit so long, but am prompted to a more innocent course by motives purely of humanity. I sympathize with the tree. Yet I heaved a big stone against the trunks like a robber — not too good to commit murder. I trust that I shall never do it again. These gifts should be accepted not merely with gentleness but with a certain humble gratitude. The tree whose fruit we would obtain should not be too rudely shaken even. It is not a time of distress, when a little haste & violence even might be pardoned. It is worse than boorish, it is criminal, to inflict an unnecessary injury on the tree that feeds or shadows us. Old trees are our parents, & our parents’ parents, perchance. If you would learn the secrets of Nature, you must practice more humanity than others.

The thought that I was robbing myself by injuring the tree did not occur to me, but I was affected as if I had cast a rock at a sentient being — with a duller sense than my own, it is true, but yet a distant relation. Behold a man cutting down a tree to come at the fruit! What is the moral of such an act?

Ah! we begin old men in crime. Would that we might grow innocent at last as the children of light!

I hate the present modes of living & getting a living. Farming & shopkeeping and working at a trade or profession are all odious to me. I should relish getting my living in a simple, primitive fashion.

The life which society proposes to me to live is so artificial and complex — bolstered up on many weak supports and sure to topple down at last — that no man surely can ever be inspired to live it, & only “old fogies” ever praise it. At best some think it their duty to live it. I believe in the infinite joy & satisfaction of helping myself — and others to the extent of my ability. But what is the use in trying to live simply — raising what you eat, making what you wear, building what you inhabit, burning what you cut or dig — when those to whom you are allied insanely want & will have a thousand other things which neither you nor they can raise & nobody else, perchance, will pay for? The fellow-man to whom you are yoked is a steer that is ever bolting right the other way.

I was suggesting once to a man who was wincing under some of the consequences of our loose & expensive way of living, “But you might raise all your own potatoes, &c, &c” We had often done it at our house & had some to sell. At which he demurring, I said, setting it high, “You could raise 20 bushels even.” “But,” said he, “I use 35.” “How large is your family?” “A wife & 3 infant children.” This was the real family; I need not enumerate those who were hired to help eat the potatoes & waste them. So he had to hire a man to raise his potatoes.

Thus men invite the devil in at every angle and then prate about the garden of Eden & the fall of man.

I know many children to whom I would fain make a present on some one of their birth days. But they are so far gone in the luxury of presents — have such perfect museums of costly ones — that it would absorb my entire earnings for a year to buy them some thing which would not be beneath their notice.

I affect what would commonly be called a mean & miserable way of living. I thoroughly sympathize with all savages & gypsies in as far as they merely assert the original right of man — to the productions of nature & a place in her. The Irish man moves into town, sets up a shanty on the RR-land, & then gleans the dead wood from the neighboring forest, which would never get to market. But the so-called owner forbids it & complains of him as a trespasser. The highest laws gives a thing to him who can use it.

One man thinks that he has a right to burn his 30 cords in a year because he can give a certain sum of money in exchange for them, but that another has no right to pick up the faggots which else nobody would burn. They who remember only this kind of right do as if they stood under a shed & affirmed that they were under the unobscured heavens. The shed has its use, but what is it to the heavens above?

So of the warmth which food, shelter, & clothing afford, or might afford, if we used economical stoves. We might burn the smoke which now puts our eyes out. The pleasure, the warmth, is not so much in having as in a true & simple manner getting these necessaries.

Men prefer foolishly the gold to that of which it is the symbol — simple, honest, independent labor. Can gold be said to buy food, if it does not buy an appetite for food?

It is fouler & uglier to have too much than not to have enough.

I have omitted a number of other journal entries in which Thoreau discusses the virtue of firewood that is gathered and split, in contrast to that which is purchased, in much these same terms.

The Assessors called me into their office & said they wished to get an inventory of my property; asked if I had any real estate. No. Any notes at interest or RR shares? No. Any taxable property? None that I knew of. “I haveown a boat,” I said; & one of them thought that that might come under the head of a pleasure carriage, which is taxable.

This last bit is said jestingly, as Thoreau’s boat is just a tiny rowboat.

In reading Columella1 I am frequently reminded, not only by the general tone, but even by the particular warnings & directions, of our agricultural journals & reports of farmers’ clubs. Often what is last & most insisted on among us, iswas most insisted on by the Romans.

As when he says it is better to cultivate a little land well than a great deal ill, and quotes the poet:2 — “laudato ingentia rura, Exiguum colito.3

Modus ergo, qui in omnibus rebus, etiam parandis agris adhibebitur: tantum enim obtinendum est, quanto est opus, ut emisse videamur quo potiremur, non quo oneraremur ipsi, atque aliis fruendum eriperemus, more praepotentium, qui possident fines Gentium, quos ne circumire equis quidem valent, sed proculcandos pecudibus, et vastandos ac populandos feris derelinquunt, aut occupatos nexu civium, et ergastulis tenent.” (Therefore, as in all things, so in buying land moderation will be used; for only so much is to be obtained as there is need of, so that we may be seen to is necessary, to make it appear that we have bought what we can possessuse, not what we may be burdened with, & hinder others from enjoying, like those very overpowerful ones who also possessoccupypossess the territory of a tribenations, which they can not go round even with horses, but leave to be trampled by herds, & to be laid waste & depopulated by wild beasts, or keep occupied by nexu civium4 or prisons.)

This reminds me of those extensive tracts said to belong to the Peter Piper estate, running back a mile or more & absorbing several old farms but almost wholly neglected & run out, which I often traverse & am better acquainted with than their so-called owners. Several times I have had to show such the nearest way out of their woodlots.5 Extensive woodlots & cranberry meadows perhaps, & a rambling old country house on one side, but you can’t buy an acre of land for a houselot. “Where wealth accumulates & men decay.”6

  1. Lucius Iunius Moderatus Columella. The quote is from “de Re Rustica”.
  2. Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro).
  3. This quote is from Virgil’s Georgics: “Praise huge farms, cultivate a small one.”
  4. Footnote Thoreau’s: “confinement & compulsory labor on farms of fellow-citizens for debt.”
  5. Thoreau mentioned this also in The Succession of Forest Trees: “In my capacity of surveyor, I have often talked with some of you, my employers, at your dinner-tables, after having gone round and round and behind your farming, and ascertained exactly what its limits were. Moreover, taking a surveyor’s and a naturalist’s liberty, I have been in the habit of going across your lots much oftener than is usual, as many of you, perhaps to your sorrow, are aware. Yet many of you, to my relief, have seemed not to be aware of it; and when I came across you in some out-of-the-way nook of your farms, have inquired, with an air of surprise, if I were not lost, since you had never seen me in that part of the town or county before; when, if the truth were known, and it had not been for betraying my secret, I might with more propriety have inquired if you were not lost, since I had never seen you there before. I have several times shown the proprietor the shortest way out of his wood-lot.”
  6. This quote is from Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village: “Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, / Where wealth accumulates and men decay: / Princes and lords may flourish or may fade; / A breath can make them, as a breath has made; / But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride, / When once destroyed, can never be supplied.” That poem as a whole strikes similar notes to this journal entry.