Excerpts from H.D. Thoreau’s journals (1856)

This is part eight 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.


It is astonishing how far a merely well-dressed & good-looking man may go without being challenged by any sentinel. What is called good Society will bid high for such.

The man whom the state has raised to high office, like that of Governor for instance, from some, it may be, honest but less respected calling, cannot return to his former humble but profitable pursuits. His old customers will be so shy of him. His ex-honorableness-ship stands seriously in his way, whether he is a lawyer or a shopkeeper. He can’t get ex-honorated. So he becomes a sort of state pauper, an object of charity on its hands which the state is bound in honor to see through & provide still with offices of similar respectability, that he may not come to want.

A man who has been president becomes the ex-president & can’t travel or stay at home anywhere but men will persist in paying respect to his ex-ship. It is cruel to remember his deeds so long. When his time is out, why can’t they let the poor fellow go?

In my experience I have found nothing so truly impoverishing as what is called wealth, i.e. the command of greater means than you had before possessed, though comparatively few and slight still — for you thus inevitably acquire a more expensive habit of living, & even the very same necessaries & comforts cost you more than they once did. Instead of gaining, you have lost some independence, and if your income should be suddenly lessened, you would find yourself poor, though possessed of the same means which once made you rich. Within the last 5 years I have had the command of a little more money than in the previous 5 years, for I have sold some books & some lectures, yet I have not been a whit better fed or clothed or warmed or sheltered — not a whit richer, except that I have been less concerned about my living — but perhaps my life has been the less serious for it, & to balance it I feel now that there is a possibility of failure. Who knows but I may come upon the town1, if, as is likely, the public want no more of my books, or lectures (which last is already the case)? Before, I was much likelier to take the town upon my shoulders. That is, I have lost some of my independence on them, when they would say that I had gained an independence. If you wish to give a man a sense of poverty, give him a thousand dollars. The next hundred dollars he gets will not be worth more than ten that he used to get. Have pity on him; withhold your gifts.

  1. That is, become dependent upon the town’s charity for support.

I have seen many a collection of stately elms which better deserved to be represented at the General Court1 than the mannikins beneath — than the barroom and victualling cellar and groceries they overshadowed.

When I see their magnificent domes miles away in the horizon, over intervening valleys & forests, they suggest a village, a community, there. But, after all, it is a secondary consideration whether there are human dwellings beneath them; these may have long since passed away. I find that into my idea of the village has entered more of the elm than of the human being. They are worth many a political borough. They constitute a borough. The poor human representative of his party sent out from beneath their shade will not suggest a tithe of the dignity, the true nobleness & comprehensiveness of view, the sturdiness & independence, & the serene beneficence that they do. They look from town-ship to township. A fragment of their bark is worth the backs of all the politicians in the union. They are free-soilers2 in a peculiar buttheir own broad sense. They send their roots north & south & east & west into many a conservatives’ Kansas & Carolina, who does not suspect theirsuch underground railroads — they improve the subsoil he has never disturbed — & many times their length, if the support of their principles requires it. They battle with the tempests of a century. See what scars they bear, what limbs they lost before we were born. Yet they never adjourn3; they steadily vote for their principles, & send their roots further & wider from the same centre. They die at their posts, & they leave a tough butt for the choppers to exercise themselves about, & a stump which serves for their monument.

They attend no caucus, they make no compromise, they use no policy. Their one principle is growth. They combine a true radicalism with a true conservatism. Their radicalism is not cutting away of roots, but an infinite multiplication and extension of them under all surrounding institutions. They take a firmer hold on the earth that they may rise higher into the heavens. Their conservative heartwood, in which no sap longer flows, does not impoverish their growth, but is a firm column to support it; & when their expanding trunks no longer require it, it utterly decays. Their conservatism is a dead but solid heartwood, which is the pivot & firm column of support to all this growth, appropriating nothing to itself, but forever by its support extendingassisting to extend the area of their radicalism. Half a century after they are dead at the core, they are preserved by radical reforms. They do not, like men, from radicals turn conservative. Their conservative part dies out first; their radical & growing part survives. They acquire new states & territories, while the old dominions decay, and arebecome the habitation of bears & owls & coons.

This journal entry was preceded by another, from , in which Thoreau witnessed the cutting down of a hundred-foot Elm that he later estimated to have been 132 years old. The following day, he wrote more on his feeling of mourning and his exasperation that this feeling did not seem to be shared by the others in Concord.

  1. The name of the Massachusetts state legislature.
  2. Free Soil Party
  3. In Thoreau’s entry he refined this to: “The elms, they adjourn not night nor day; they pair not off.”

The papers are talking about the prospect of war between England & America. Neither side sees how its country can avoid a long & fratricidal war without sacrificing its honor. Both nations are ready to take a desperate step, to forget the interests of civilization & christianity & their commercial prosperity, & fly at each other’s throats. When I see an individual thus beside himself, thus desperate, ready to shoot or be shot, like a blackleg who has little to lose, no serene aims to accomplish, I think he is a candidate for bedlam. What asylum is there for nations to go to?

Nations are thus ready to talk of wars & challenge one another,1 because they are made up to such an extent of poor, low-spirited, despairing men, in whose eyes the chance of shooting somebody else without being shot themselves exceeds their actual good fortune. Who in fact will be the first to enlist but the most desperate class — they who have lost all hope — & they may at last infect the rest.

The tensions between England and the United States, over such issues as England’s colonial aspirations for Belize and the improper use of its diplomatic presence in Washington to recruit mercenaries to help it fight the Crimean War, were much in the press at this time.

  1. Thoreau’s footnote: “Will it not be thought disreputable at length, as duelling between individuals now is?”

I am sometimes affected by the consideration that a man may spend the whole of his life after boyhood in accomplishing a particular design; as if he were put to a special & petty use, without taking time to look around him & appreciate the phenomenon of his existence. If so many purposes are thus necessarily left unaccomplished, perhaps unthought of, we are reminded of the transient interest we have in this life. Our interest in our country, in the spread of liberty, &c, strong & as it were, innate as it is, cannot be as transient as our present existence here. It cannot be that all those patriots who die in the midst of their career have no further connection with the career of the country.

After Jules Gérard1 the Lion Killer had hunted lions for some time, & run great risk of losing his life, though he struck the lions in the right place with several balls (the lions steadily advancing upon him even though they had got a death-wound) he discovered that it was not enough to be brave & take good aim — that his balls, which were of lead, lacked penetration & were flattened against the lions’ bones; and accordingly he sent to France and obtained balls which were pointed with steel & went through & through both shoulder blades. So I should say that the weapons or balls which the Republican party2 uses lacked penetration, & their foe steadily advances nevertheless, to tear them in pieces, with their well-aimed balls flattened on his forehead.3

  1. Jules Gérard ()
  2. The party had only been around for two years at this point, and had recently nominated its first presidential candidate, John Frémont.
  3. Thoreau’s evocation of gunplay is more than metaphor; in , pro-slavery Border Ruffians had attacked Lawrence, Kansas and John Brown replied with the Pottawatomie Massacre, which was followed by the Sacking of Lawrence by enraged Border Ruffians. News like this was making abolitionists increasingly militant. On , Thoreau notes, without further comment: “Looked at a Sharp’s rifle, a Colt’s revolver, a Maynard’s, and a Thurber’s revolver. The last fires fastest (by a steady pull), but not so smartly, and is not much esteemed.”

When I came forth, thinking to empty my boat & go a-meditating along the river — for the full ditches & drenched grass forbade other routes, except the highway (& this is one advantage of a boat) — I learned to my chagrin that Father’s pig was gone. He had leaped out of the pen some time since his breakfast, but his dinner was untouched. Here was an ugly duty not to be shirked — a wild shoat that weighed but ninety to be tracked, caught, & penned — an afternoon’s work, at least (if I were lucky enough to accomplish it so soon), prepared for me, quite different from what I had anticipated. I felt chagrined, it is true, but I could not ignore the fact nor shirk the duty that lay so near to me: Do the Duty that lies nearest you.…1

  1. “ ‘Do the Duty which lies nearest thee,’ which thou knowest to be a Duty! Thy second Duty will already have become clearer” — Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, quoting from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister

I was suggesting yesterday, as I have often before, that the town should provide a stone monument to be placed in the river, so as to be surrounded by water at its lowest stage, & a dozen feet high, so as to rise above it at its highest stage; on this feet & inches to be permanently marked; & it be made some one’s duty to record each high or low stage of the water. Now, when we have a remarkable freshet, we cannot tell surely whether it is higher than the one 30 or 60 years ago or not. It would be not merely interesting, but often practically valuable, to know this.… It is important when building a causeway, or a bridge, or a house even in some situations, to know exactly how high the river has ever risen.…

 — the tortoise eggs are hatching a few inches beneath the surface in sandy fields. You tell of active labors, of works of art, & wars the past summer; meanwhile the tortoise eggs underlie this turmoil. What events have transpired on the lit & airy surface 3 inches above them! Sumner knocked down;1 Kansas living an age of suspense.2 Think what is a summer to them! How many worthy men have died and had their funeral sermons preached since I saw the mother turtle bury her eggs here. They contained an undeveloped liquid then, they are now turtles. June, July, & August — the livelong summer — what are they with their heats & fevers but sufficient to hatch a tortoise in. Be not in haste; mind your private affairs. Consider the turtle. A whole summer — June, July, & August — — are not too good nor too much to hatch a turtle in. Perchance you have worried yourself, despaired of the world, meditated the end of life, & all things seemed rushing to destruction; but nature has steadily & serenely advanced with a turtle’s pace. The young turtle spends its infancy within its shell. It gets experience & learns the ways of the world through that wall. While it rests warily on the edge of its hole, rash schemes are undertaken by men & fail. Has not the tortoise also learned the true value of time? You go to India & back, & the turtle eggs in your field are still unhatched. French empires rise or fall, but the turtle is developed only so fast. What’s a summer? Time for a turtle’s eggs to hatch. Not so is the turtle developed, fitted to endure, for he outlives 20 French dynasties. One turtle knows several Napoleons. They have seen no berries, had no cares, yet has not the great world existed for them as much as for you?

  1. On , two days after Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner had denounced the Kansas Border Ruffians and their supporters in Congress, he was brutally attacked with a cane on the Senate floor by South Carolina Senator Preston Brooks. It is also possible that Thoreau is referring to Colonel Edwin Vose Sumner who commanded the United States Army units who were ordered to disrupt the alternate “free” Kansas legislature in July.
  2. In Kansas, two competing legislatures — one pro-slavery and one anti-slavery — were trying to determine whether Kansas would be admitted to the union as a free or a slave state. The federal government recognized the pro-slavery legislature, which had come into power after a sham election in 1855. Meanwhile, advocates for each side were coming into armed conflict, in what would come to be called Bleeding Kansas.

I have come out this PM a cranberrying chiefly to gather some of the small cranberry, vac. oxycoccus, which Emerson says is the common cranberry of the N of Europe. Thus it was a small object, yet not to be postponed, on account of imminent frosts, i.e., if I would know this year the flavor of the European cranberry as compared with the larger kind. I thought I should like to have a dish of this sauce on the table at Thanksgiving of my own gathering. I could hardly make up my mind to come this way, it seemed so poor an object to spend the afternoon on. I kept foreseeing a lame conclusion — how I should cross the Great Fields, look into Beck Stow’s, & then retrace my steps no richer than before. In fact, I expected little of this walk, yet it did pass through the side of my mind that somehow, on this very account (my small expectation), it would turn out well, as also the advantage of having some purpose, however small, to be accomplished — to let your deliberate wisdom & foresight in the house to some extent direct & control your steps. If you would really take a position outside the street & daily life of men, you must have deliberately planned your course, you must have business which is not your neighbors’ business, which they cannot understand. For only absorbing employment prevails, succeeds, takes up space, occupies territory, determines the future of individuals and states, drives Kansas out of your head, & actually and permanently occupies the only desirable & free Kansas against all border ruffians.1 The attitude of resistance is one of weakness, in as much as it only faces an enemy. It has its back to all that is truly attractive. You shall have your affairs, I will have mine. You will spend the PM in setting up your neighbor’s stove, & be paid for it; I will spend it in gathering the few berries of the Vac. oxycoccus which Nature produces here, before it is too late, and be paid for it also after another fashion.…

If anybody else — any farmer at least — should spend an hour thus wading about here in this secluded swamp, bare legged, intent on the sphagnum, filling his pocket only, with no rake in his hand & no bag or bushel on the bank, he would be pronounced insane & have a guardian put over him; but if he’ll spend his time skimming & watering his milk & selling his small potatoes for large ones, or generally in skinning flints, he will probably be made guardian of somebody else.

My father asked John Le Grosse if he took an interest in politics & did his duty to his country at this crisis. He said he did: He went into the wood-shed & read the newspaper sundays. Such is the dawn of the literary taste — the first seed of literature that is planted in the new country. His grandson may be the author of a Bhagvat Geeta.1

Minott tells of a Gen. Hull,1 who lived somewhere in this county, who, he remembers, called out the whole division once or twice to a muster. He sold the army under him to the English in the last war2 — though Gen Miller3 of Lincoln besought to let him lead them — and never was happy after it, had no peace of mind. It was said that his life was in danger here in consequence of his treason. Once at a muster in front of the Hayden house, when there was a sham fight, & an Indian party took a circuit round a piece of wood, some put green grapes into their guns, & he, hearing one whistle by his head, thought some one wished to shoot him & ordered them to disperse — dismissed them.

I see the old pale-faced farmer out again on his sled now for the 5000th time.

Cyrus Hubbard, a man of a certain N.E. probity and worth, immortal & natural, like a natural product, like the sweetness of a nut, like the toughness of hickory. He, too, is a redeemer for me. How superior actually to the faith he professes! He is not an office-seeker.…

Yesterday I walked under the murderous Lincoln Bridge, where at least 10 men have been swept dead from the cars within as many years. I looked to see if their heads had indented the bridge, if there were sturdy blows given as well as received, and if their brains lay about. But I could see neither the one nor the other. The bridge is quite uninjured even & straight, not even the paint worn off or discolored. The ground is clean, the snow spotless, & the place looks as innocent as a bank whereon the wild thyme grows. It does its work in an artistic manner. We have another bridge of exactly the same character on the other side of the town, which has killed one at least to my knowledge. Surely the approaches to our town are well guarded. These are our Modern Dragons of Wantley1 — Boucaniers of the Fitchburg RR.2 they lie in wait at the narrow passes & decimate the employees. The Company has signed a bond to give up one employee at this pass annually. The Vermont mother commits her son to their charge, & when she asks for him again the Directors say: “I am not your son’s keeper.3 Go look beneath the ribs of the Lincoln Bridge.” It is a monster which would not have minded Perseus with his Medusa’s head.4 If he could be held back only 4 feet from where he now crouches, all travellers might pass in safety & laugh him to scorn. This would require but a little resolution in our legislature, but it is preferred to pay tribute still. I felt a curiosity to see this famous Bridge, naturally far greater than my curiosity to see the gallows on which Smith5 was hung, which was burned in the old Court House, for the exploits of this bridge are 10 times as memorable. Here too they are killed without priest — the bridge, unlike the gallows, is a fixture. Besides, the gallows bears an ill name, & I think deservedly. No doubt it has hung many an innocent man, but this Lincoln bridge, long as it has been in our midst & busy as it has been, no legislature, no body, indeed, has ever seriously complained of, unless it was some bereaved mother, who was naturally prejudiced against it. To my surprise, I found no difficulty in getting a sight of it. It stands right out in broad daylight in the midst of the fields. No sentinels, no spiked fence, no crowd about it, & you have to pay no fee for looking at it. It is perfectly simple & easy to construct, & does its work silently. The days of the gallows are numbered. The next time this country has a Smith to dispose of, they have only to hire him out to the Fitchburg RR Company. Let the priest accompany him to the freight train, pray with him, & take leave of him there. Another advantage I have hinted at — an advantage to the morals of the community — that, strange as it may seem, no crowd ever assembles at this spot; there are no morbidly curious persons, no hardened reprobates, no masculine women, no anatomists there.

Does it not make life more serious? I feel as if these were stirring times, as good as the days of the Crusaders, the Northmen, or the Boucaniers.6

  1. Dragon of Wantley
  2. Fitchburg Railroad
  3. See Genesis 4:8–9
  4. Perseus and Medusa
  5. Samuel Smith, executed for burglary in Concord in . The courthouse where the gallows was displayed burned down in .
  6. Crusaders, Northmen, Boucaniers

Think what a pitiful kind of life ours is, eating our kindred animals! & in some places one another. Some of us (the Esquimaux)1 half whose life is spent in the dark, wholly dependent on one or 2 animals not many degrees removed from themselves for food, clothing, & fuel, & partly for shelter; making their sledges “of small fragments of porous bones [of whale]2, admirably knit together by thongs of hide” (Kane’s last book3, V1, p 205), thus getting about, sliding about, on the bones of our cousins.

Where Kane wintered in the Advance4 in on the coast of Greenland, about 78½° N Lat., or further N than any navigator had been excepting Parry at Spitzbergen,5 he met with Esquimaux, & “the fleam-shaped tips of their lances were of unmistakable steel” — “the metal was obtained in traffic from the more southern tribes.” Such is trade.

  1. Esquimaux
  2. Brackets Thoreau’s
  3. Elisha Kent Kane Arctic Explorations: The Second Grinnell Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin, ()
  4. The name of Kane’s ship was the Advance.
  5. William Edward Parry

What an evidence it is, after all, of civilization, or of a capacity for improvement, that savages like our Indians, who in their protracted wars stealthily slay men, women, & children without mercy, with delight, who delight to burn, torture, & devour one another, proving themselves more inhuman in these respects even than beasts — what a wonderful evidence it is, I say, of their capacity for improvement that even they can enter into the most formal compact or treaty of peace, burying the hatchet, &c, &c, & treating with each other with as much consideration as the most enlightened states. You would say that they had a genius for diplomacy as well as for war. Consider that Iroquois,1 torturing his captive, roasting him before a slow fire, biting off the fingers of him alive, & finally eating the heart of him dead, betraying not the slightest evidence of humanity; & now behold him in the council chamber, where me meets the representatives of the hostile nations to treat of peace, conducting with such perfect dignity & decorum, betraying such a sense of justness. These savages are equal to us civilized men in their treaties, & I fear, not essentially worse in their wars.