Excerpts from H.D. Thoreau’s journals (1857)

This is part nine 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.


There is nothing so sanative, so poetic, as a walk in the woods and fields even now, when I meet none abroad for pleasure. Nothing so inspires me & excites such serene & profitable thought. The objects are elevating. In the street & in society I am almost invariably cheap & dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean. No amount of gold or respectability would in the least redeem it — dining with the governor — or a member of congress!! But alone in distant woods or fields, in unpretending sproutlands or pastures tracked by rabbits, even in a bleak &, to most, cheerless day like this, when a villager would be thinking of his inn, I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related, & that cold & solitude are friends of mine. I suppose that this value, in my case, is equivalent to what others get by churchgoing and prayer. I come to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home. I thus dispose of the superfluous & see things as they are, grand & beautiful. I have told many that I walk every day about half the daylight, but I think they do not believe it. I wish to get the Concord — the Massachusetts —out the America, out of my head & be sane…

We sometimes think that the inferior animals act foolishly, but are there any greater fools than mankind? Consider how so many, perhaps most, races — Chinese, Japanese, Arabs, Mussulmen1 generally, Russians — treat the traveller; what fear & prejudices he has to contend with. So many millions believing that he has come to do them some harm. Let a traveller set out to go around the world, visiting every race, and he shall meet with such treatment at their hands that he will be obliged to pronounce them incorrigible fools. Even in Virginia a naturalist who was seen crawling through a meadow catching frogs &c was seized and carried before the authorities.

  1. That is, Muslims.

Webster1 prided himself on being the first farmer in the S parish of Marshfield. But if he was the first they must have been a sorry set, for his farming was a complete failure. It cost a great deal more than it came to. He used other people’s capital, & was insolvent when he died, so that his friends & relatives found it difficult to retain the place, if indeed they have not sold it. How much cheaper it would have been for the town or county to have maintained him in the alms house than as a farmer at large! How many must have bled annually to manure his broad potato fields, who without inconvenience could have contributed sufficient to maintain him in the alms house!

It is a singular infatuation that leads men to become clergymen in regular, or even irregular, standing. I pray to be introduced to new men, at whom I may stop short, & taste their peculiar sweetness. But in the clergyman of the most liberal sort I see no perfectly independent human nucleus, but I seem to see some indistinct scheme hovering about, to which he has lent himself, to which he belongs. It is a very find cobweb in the lower stratum of the air, which stronger wings do not even discover. Whatever he may say, he does not know that one day is as good as another. Whatever he may say, he does not know that a man’s creed can never be written, that there are no particular expressions of belief that deserve to be prominent. He dreams of a certain sphere to be filled by him, something less in diameter than a great circle,1 may be not greater than a hogshead.

All the staves are got out, & his sphere is already hooped. What’s the use of talking to him? When you spoke of sphere-music2 he thought only of a thumping on his cask. If he doesn’t know something that nobody else does, that nobody told him, then he’s a tell-tale. What great interval is there between him who is caught in Africa & made a plantation slave of in the south, & him who is caught in New England & made a Unitarian Minister of? In course of time they will abolish the one form of servitude, & not long after, the other.

I do not see the necessity for a man’s getting into a hogshead & so narrowing his sphere, nor for his putting his head into a halter.

Here’s a man who can’t butter his own bread, & he has just combined with 1000 like him to make a dipt toast3 for all eternity!

  1. Great circle
  2. Sphere-music
  3. “Dipped toast” is toast immersed in melted butter

They told me at New Bedford that one of their whalers came in the other day with a black man aboard whom they had picked up swimming in the broad Atlantic without anything to support him, but nobody could understand his language or tell where he came from. He was in good condition and well-behaved. My respect for my race rose several degrees when I heard this, & I thought they had found thea true merman at last. “What became of him?” I inquired. “I believe they sent him to the State Alms-house,” was the reply. Could anything have been more ridiculous? That he should be beholden to Mass. for his support who floated free where Massachusetts with her state alms house could not have supported herself for a moment. They should have dined him, then accompanied him to the nearest cape & bidden him good-bye. The State would do well to appoint an intelligent standing committee on such curious, in behalf of philologists, naturalists, & so forth, to see that the proper disposition is made of such visitors.

I have the same objection to killing a snake that I have to the killing of any other animal, yet the most humane man that I know never omits to kill one.

A great part of our troubles are literally domestic or originate in the house and from living indoors. I could write an essay to be entitled “Out of Doors” — undertake a crusade against houses. What a different thing Christianity preached to the house-bred & to a party who lived out of doors! Also a sermon is needed on economy of fuel. What right has my neighbor to burn 10 cords of wood, when I have only one? Thus robbing our half-naked town of this precious covering. Is he so much colder than I? It is expensive to maintain him in our midst. If some earn the salt of their porridge, are we certain that they earn the fuel of their kitchen & parlor? One man makes a little of the drift wood of the river or of the dead and refuse (unmarketable!) of the forest, suffice, & nature rejoices in him. Another, Herod-like, requires 10 cords of the best of young white oak or hickory, & he is commonly esteemed a virtuous man. He who burns the most wood on his hearth is least warmed by the sight of it growing. Leave the trim wood lots to widows & orphan girls. Let men tread gently through nature. Let us religiously burn stumps & worship in groves, while Christian Vandals lay waste the forest temples to build miles of meeting-houses and horsesheds & feed their box-stoves.

How rarely I meet with a man who can be free even in thought! We live according to rule. Some men are bed-ridden; other all, world-ridden. I take my neighbor, an intellectual man, out into the woods & invite him to take a new & absolute view of things, to empty clean out of his thoughts all institutions of men & start again; but he can’t do it, he sticks to his traditions & his crotchets. He thinks that governments, colleges, newspapers, &c are from everlasting to everlasting.

I hear the sound of fife & drum the other side of the village, & am reminded that it is  — training.1 Some 30 young men are marching in the streets in 2 straight sections, with each a very heavy & warm cap for the season on his head and a bright red stripe down the legs of his pantaloons, & at their head march 2 with white stripes down their pants, one beating a drum, the other blowing a fife. I see them all standing in a row by the side of the streets in front of their captain’s residence, with a dozen or more ragged boys looking on, but presently they all remove to the opposite side, as it were with one consent, not being satisfied with their former position, which probably had its disadvantages. Thus they march and strut the better part of the day, going into the tavern 2 or 3 times, to abandon themselves to unconstrained positions out of sight, & at night they may be seen going home singly with swelling breasts.

When I first heardsaw them as I was ascending the Hill, they were going along the road to the road to the Battle Ground far away under the hill — a fifer & a drummer to keep each other company & spell one another. Ever and anon the drum sounded more hollowly loud & distinct, as if they had just emerged from a subterranean passage, though it was only from behind some barn, and following close behind I could see 2 platoons of aweful black beavers rising just above the wall where the warriors were stirring up the dust of Winter Street, passing Ex-Capt. Abel Heywood’s house, probably with trailed arms.2

There might have been some jockey in their way, spending his elegant leisure teaching his horse to stand fire,3 or trying to run down an orphan boy. I also hear, borne down the river from time to time, regular reports of small arms from Sudbury or Wayland, where they are probably firing by platoons.

  1. “May Training” was one of two annual drills of the state militia.
  2. “With trailed arms” means with their rifles held, by one hand at their sides, parallel to the ground.
  3. That is, not to spook and run at the sound of gunfire.

With all this opportunity — this comedy & tragedy — how near all men come to doing nothing! It is strange that they did not make us more intense & emphatic — that they do not goad us into some action. Generally, with all our desires & restlessness, we are no more likely to embark in any enterprise than a tree is to walk to a more favorable locality. The sea board swarms with adventurous & rowdy fellows, but how unaccountably they train & are held in check! They are as likely to be policemen as anything. It exhausts their wits & energy merely to get their living, & they can do no more. The Americans are very busy & adventurous sailors, but all in some-body’s employ — as hired men. I have not heard of one setting out in his own bark, merely if only to run down our own coast on a voyage of adventure or observation, on his own account.

I… called on Mr Atwood, the representative of the town1 & one of the commissioners appointed by the legislature to superintend the experiments in the artificial breeding of fishes. He is eaten up with vanity. He said that he knew (I think) 82 kinds of fishes there.

When Mr Pool, the Doorkeeper of the House of Representatives (if that is his name & title) who makes out a list of the representatives & their professions, asked him his business, he answered, “Fisherman.” At which Pool was disturbed & said that no representative had ever called himself a Fisherman before. It would not do to print it so & so Atwood is put down as “Master Mariner”!! So much for American Democracy. I reminded him that Fisherman had been a title of honor with a large party ever since the Christian Era at least.

When next we have occasion to speak of the apostles I suppose we should call them “Master Mariners”!2

  1. Provincetown, Massachusetts
  2. “Master mariner” is the title for a captain of a merchant ship.

There always were poor & rich as now — in that first year when our ancestors lived on pumpkins & raccoons, as now when flour is imported from the west.

I hear the neighbors complain sometimes about the peddlers selling their help false jewelry, as if they themselves wore true jewelry; but if their help pay as much for it as they did for theirs, then it is just as true jewelry as theirs, just as becoming to them & no more; for unfortunately it is the cost of the article & not the merits of the wearer that is considered. The money is just as well spent, & perhaps better earned. I do not care how much false jewelry the peddlers sell, nor how many of the eggs which you steal are rotten. What, pray, is true jewelry? The hardened tear of a diseased clam, murdered in its old age: Is that fair play? If not, it is no jewel. The mistress wears this in her ear, while her help has one made of paste which you cannot tell from it. False jewelry! Do you know of any shop where true jewelry can be bought? I always look askance at a jeweler & wonder what church he can belong to.

I heard some ladies the other day laughing about some one of their help who had helped herself to a real hoop from off a hogshead for her gown. I laughed too, but which party do you think I laughed at? Isn’t hogshead as good a word as crinoline?

If some are prosecuted for abusing children, others deserve to be prosecuted for maltreating the face of th nature committed to their care.

Washing the dishes, especially the greasy ones, is the most irksome duty of the camp, & it reminded me of that sacred band in Fourier’s scheme,1 who took upon themselves the most disagreeable services. The consequence is that they do not often get washed.

It is indeed a golden autumn. These 9 days are enough to make the reputation of any climate. A tradition of these days might be handed down to posterity. They deserve a notice in history, in the history of Concord. All kinds of crudities have a chance to get ripe this year. Was there ever such an autumn? & yet there was never such a panic & hard times in the commercial world.1 The merchants & banks are suspending & failing all the country over, but not the sand banks, solid & warm, & streaked with bloody blackberry vines. You may run upon them as much as you please — even as the crickets do, & find their account in it. You cannot break them. If you should slump, ’tis to a firmer sand. They are the stockholders in these banks, and I hear them creaking their content. You may see them on change2 any warmer hour. In these banks, too, & such as these, are my funds deposited, a fund of health & enjoyment. Their (the crickets) prosperity & happiness &, I trust, mine do not depend on whether the New York banks suspend or no. We do not rely on such slender security as the thin paper of the Suffolk bank.3 To put your trust in such a bank is to be swallowed up & undergo suffocation. Invest, I say, in these county banks. Let your capital be simplicity & contentment. Withered goldenrod (S. nemoralis) is no failure, like a broken bank, & yet in its most golden season no body counterfeits it. Nature needs no counterfeit detection. I have no compassion for nor sympathy with this miserable state of things. Banks built of granite after some Grecian or Roman style, with their porticoes & their safes of iron, are not so permanent, & cannot give me so good security for capital invested in them, as the heads of withered hardhack in the meadow. I do not suspect the solvency of these. I know who is their president & Cashier.

  1. Panic of
  2. “on change” was a way of saying “on the stock exchange”
  3. Alan Greenspan described the Suffolk Bank as “the first notable example of cooperative self-regulation in American banking… The Suffolk Bank was chartered in and entered the business of collecting country bank notes in . In effect, the Suffolk Bank created the first regional clearing system. By doing so, it effectively constrained the supply of notes by individual banks to prudential levels and thereby allowed the notes of all of its associated banks to circulate consistently at face value.”

The river lower this morning than before this year. Concord Bank has suspended.

The trainers are out1 with their band of music, & I find my account in it, though I have not subscribed for it. I am walking with the sold a hill between me & the soldiers. I think, perhaps, it will be worth the while to keep within hearing of these strains this afternoon. Yet I hesitate. I am wont to find music unprofitable; it is a luxury. It is surprising, however, that so few habitually intoxicate themselves with music, so many with alcohol. I think perchance I may risk it, it will whet my senses so; it will reveal a glory where none was seen before. It is remarkable that men too must dress in bright colors and march to music once in the year. Nature, too, assumes her bright hues now, & think you a subtile music may not be heard amid the hills? No doubt these strains do sometimes suggest to Abner, walking behind in his red-streaked pants, an ideal which he had lost sight of, or never perceived. It is remarkable that our institutions can stand before music, it is so revolutionary.

  1. October Training was one of two annual drills of the state militia.

It would seem as if men generally could better appreciate honesty of the John Beatton stamp, which gives you your due to a mill, than the generosity which habitually throws in the half-cent.

In earlier journal entries, Thoreau had written of John Beatton as a merchant who had a reputation for honesty and precision, so that for instance if a child were sent to his store to purchase goods, and the change due included some fraction of a cent, Beatton would return this fraction in the form of some amount of pins which he would attach to the child’s coat.

Surveying for Stedman Buttrick & Mr. Gordon.

Jacob Farmer says that he remembers well a particular bound (which is the subject of dispute between the above 2 men) from this circumstance: He, a boy, was sent as the representative of his mother to witness the placing of bounds to her lot, & he remembers that, when they had fixed the stake & stones, Old Mr Nathan Barrett asked him if he had a knife about him, upon which he pulled out his knife & gave it to him. Mr Barrett cut a birch switch & trimmed it in the presence of young Farmer, & then called out, “Boy, here’s your knife;” but as the boy saw that he was going to strike him when he reached his hand for the knife, he dodged into a bush which alone received the blow. And Mr Barrett said that if it had not been for that, he would have got a blow which would have made him remember that bound as long as he lived, & explained to him that that was his design in striking him. He had before told his mother that since she could not go to the wood to see what bounds were set to her lot, she had better send Jacob as a representative of the family. This made Farmer the important witness in this case. He first, some years ago, saw Buttrick trimming up the trees, & told him he was on Gordon’s land & pointed out, “This is the bound between them.”

Thoreau adds more details about this boundary dispute and the people involved in it in his entry (not included here).

In spite of Malthus1 & the rest, there will be plenty of room in this world, if every man will mind his own business. I have not heard of any planet running against another yet.

Returning through L Harrington’s land, I see, methinks, 2 gentlemen plowing a field, as if to try an agricultural experiment — for, it being cold & windy, both plowman & driver have their coats on. But when I get closer I hear the driver speak with in a peculiarly sharp & petulant manner to the plowman as they are turning the land furrows, and I know at once that they belong to those 2 races which are so slow to amalgamate. Thus my little Idyl is disturbed.

Rice tells me he remembers that Nathan Barrett’s father used to stutter. He went round collecting the direct taxes soon after the revolution — on carriages, watches, dogs, &c, &c It was perhaps a dollar on a dog. Coming to Capt. Bent’s, who kept Tavern in Sudbury where Israel Rice lives, he collected his tax & then said, “I want you to may-ma-ma-ma-make me a ha, ha ha ha ha — to make me a ha-ha-ha — a whole mug o’ flip.”

Staples says he came to Concord some 24 years ago a poor boy with a dollar & 3 cents in his pocket, & he spent the 3 cents for drink at Bigelow’s tavern, & now he’s worth “20 hundred dollars clear.” He remembers many who inherited wealth whom he can buy out to-day. I told him that he had done better than I in a pecuniary respect, for I had only earned my living. Well, said he, “that’s all I’ve done, and I don’t know as I’ve got much better clothes than you.”

I was particularly poorly clad then, in the woods; my hat, pants, boots, rubbers, & gloves would not have brought 4 pence, & I told the Irishman that it wasn’t everybody could afford to have a fringe round his legs, as I had, my corduroys not preserving a selvage.

Staples said there was one thing he liked. “What is that?” “An honest man.” If he lent a man money, & when it became due he came and asked for more time because he could not pay, he excused him, but if, after it had become due, he went to the man, & he then made the same excuse, he lost all confidence in him.

Abel Brooks… was so afraid he should lose some land belonging to him that, though he had employed Rice to survey his small woodlot of 3 acres, within a year, he working 2 or 3 days at it & setting at least 50 stakes about it, having also 2 plans of it, yet, seeing that I had by chance set a stake a little a foot or 2 one side of his line, thought there was some mistake & would have me measure his lot anew.

It was but little labor, the lines were so open — for a path was actually worn round the whole lot. He appears to go round it every day or 2. When I wanted a straight pole, he was very scrupulous not to cut it from his neighbor’s side of the line. He did not seem able to understand a plan or deed, & had sold some of his land because he did not know that he had a good title to it. Every thing I told him about his deed & plan seemed to surprise him infinitely & make him laugh with excess of interest. When I pointed out anything in the plan, he did not look at it, only at my fingers & at me, & took my word for it. I told him that I wondered his last surveyor had not set a stake and stone in one place, according to his plan & deed, a perfectly plain case, the stump of the pitch pine referred to being left. He said he did not want to make bounds, & asked me if I should have set it there, to which I answered, yes, of course, that is what I had been doing all my life, making bounds, or rather finding them, remaking what had been unmade, where they were away. He listened to me as if I were an oracle.