Excerpts from H.D. Thoreau’s journals (1860-1861)

This is part thirteen 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 ().

Footnotes are mine unless otherwise noted. I mostly stuck by the transcriptions used in Torrey & Allen, 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.


When I read some of the rules for speaking & writing the English language correctly — as that a sentence must never end with a particle — & perceive how implicitly even the learned obey it, I think — 

Any fool can make a rule
And every fool will mind it.

It is true, as is said, that we have as good a right to make berries private property as to make grass & trees such. But what I chiefly regret is the, in effect, dog-in-the-manger1 result — 

For at the same time that we exclude mankind from gathering berries in our field, we exclude them from gathering health & happiness & inspiration & a hundred other far finer & nobler fruits than berries, which yet we shall not gather ourselves there, nor even carry to market. We strike only one more blow at a simple & wholesome relation to nature. As long as the berries are free to all comers they are beautiful, though they may be few & small — but tell me that is a blue-berry swamp which somebody has hired, & I shall not want even to look at it.

In laying claim for the first time to the spontaneous fruit of our pastures we are accordingly aware of a little meanness — inevitably — & the gay berry party whom we expel turn away com naturally look down on & despise us — the party of children in the hay-rigging who have come to have a good time merely. If it were left to the berries to say who should have them, is it not likely that they would prefer to be gathered by the party of children in the hay rigging who have come to have a good time merely.

I do not see clearly that these successive losses are ever quite made up to us. This is one of the taxes we pay for having a rail road. Almost all our improvements, so called, tend to convert the country into the town.

This suggests what origin & foundation many of our laws & institutions have — & I do not say this by way of complaining of this particular custom. Not that I love Cæsar less, but Rome more.2

  1. The Dog in the Manger
  2. This sentence mimics one from Brutus’s address to the citizens in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Pears, it is truly said, are less poetic than apples. They have neither the beauty nor the fragrance of apples, but their excellence is in their flavor, which speaks to a grosser sense. They are glouts-morceaux.1 Hence, while children dream of apples, ex-judges are the connoiseurs of realize pears. They are named after emperors & kings & queens & dukes & duchesses. I fear I shall have to wait till we get to pears with American names, which a Republican can swallow.

  1. a variety of pear

Truly this is a world of vain delights. We think that man have a substratum of common sense — but sometimes are peculiarly frivolous. But consider what a value is seriously & permanently attached to gold & so called precious stones — almost universally. Day & night, summer & winter, sick or well, in war & in peace, men speak of & believe in gold as a great treasure. By a thousand comparisons they prove their devotion to it. If wise men or true philosophers bore any considerable proportion to the whole no of men, gold would be treated with no such distinction. Men seriously & if possible religiously believe in & worship gold. They hope to earn golden opinions, to celebrate their golden wedding. They dream of the golden age. Now it is not its intrinsic beauty or value, but its rarity & arbitrarily attached value that distinguishes gold. You would think it was the reign of shams.

As some beautiful or palatable fruit is perhaps the noblest gift of nature to man, so is a fruit with which a man has in some measure identified himself by cultivating or collecting it one of the most suitable presents to a friend. It was some compensation for Commodore Porter,1 who may have introduced some cannon balls & bomb shells into ports where they were not wanted, to have introduced the Valparaiso squash into the U.S.. I think that this eclipses his military glory.

A man fits out a ship at a great expense — & sends it to the West Indies adrift with a crew of men and boys — & after 6 months or a year it comes back with a load of pineapples. Now, if no more gets accomplished than the speculator commonly aims at — if it simply turns out what is called a successful venture — I am less interested in this expedition, than in some child’s first excursion a-huckleberrying, in which it is introduced into a new world — experiences a new development — though it brings home only a gill of huckleberries in its basket. I know that the newspapers & the politicians declare otherwise — but they do not alter the fact. Then, I think that the fruit of the latter expedition was finer than that of the former. It was a more fruitful expedition.

The value of any experience is measured, of course, not by the amount of money — but the amount of development we get out of it. If a New England boy’s dealings with oranges & pineapples have had more to do with his development than picking huckleberries or pulling turnips have, then he rightly & naturally thinks more of the former — otherwise not.

I anticipated the other day that if anybody should write the history of Boxboro — once a part of Stow1 — he should be pretty sure to leave out omit to notice the most interesting thing in it — its forest — & lay all the stress on the history of its parish — & I find that I had conjectured rightly

For Mr. Gardner,2 after telling us who was his predecessor in the ministry & when he himself was settled, goes on to say: “As for any remarkables, I am of the mind there have been the fewest of any town of our standing in the forest Province. — I can’t call to mind above one thing worthy of public notice, and that is the grave of Mr. John Green,” who, it appears, “was made… clerk of the exchequer” by Cromwell.3 “Whether he was excluded from the act of oblivion4 or not I cannot tell,” says Mr. Gardner. At any rate he returned to N.E., “lived and died, and was lies buried in this place.”

I cannot assure Mr. Gardner that he was not excluded from the act of oblivion.

I have been surprised when a young man who had undertaken to write the history of a county town — his native place — the very name of which suggested a hundred things to me — referred to it, as the crowning fact of his story, that that town was the residence of General So & So and the family mansion was still standing.

  1. Boxboro & Stow
  2. Rev. John Gardner (Massachusetts Historical Collections volume 10; letter dated )
  3. Oliver Cromwell
  4. A general pardon; specifically the one passed by the English Parliament in to pardon Cromwell’s supporters.

That on which commerce seizes is always the very coarsest part of a fruit — the mere husk & rind in fact — for her hands are very clumsy. This is what fills the holds of ships, is exported & imported, pays duties, & is finally sold at the shops.

It is a grand fact that you cannot make the finer fruits or parts of fruits matter of commerce. You may buy a servant or slave, but you cannot buy a friend. You can’t buy the finer part of any fruit — i.e. the highest use & enjoyment of it. You cannot buy that pleasure which it yields to him who truly plucks it — You can’t buy a good appetite even.

The mass of men are very easily imposed on. They have their run-ways in which they always travel, and are sure to fall into any pit or fox trap set therein. Whatever a great many grown-up boys are seriously engaged in is considered great & good — and, as such, is sure of the recognition of the churchman & statesman. What, for instance, are the blue Juniper berries in the pasture, which the cowboy remembers so far as they are beautiful merely, to church or state? (Mere trifles which deserve & get no protection.) As an object of beauty, significant to all who really live in the country, they do not receive the protection of any community. Anybody may grub up all that exist. But as an article of commerce they command the attention of the civilized world. I read that “several hundred tons of them are imported annually from the continent” into England — to flavor gin with; “but even this quantity,” says my author, “is quite insufficient to meet the enormous consumption of the fiery liquid, & the deficiency is made up by spirits of turpentine.”

Go to the English government — which of course is representative of the people — & ask, “what is the use of Juniper berries?” The answer is, “to flavor gin with.” This is the gross abuse of Juniper berries, with which an enlightened Government if ever there shall be one, will have nothing to do.

Let us make distinctions — call things by the right names.

If a man has spent all his days about some business by which he has merely got rich, as it is called, i.e., has got much money, many houses & barns & woodlots, then his life has been a failure, I think. But if he has been trying to better his condition in a higher sense than this — has been trying to be somebody, to invent something — i.e., to invent and get a patent for himself — so that all may see his originality, though he should never get above board — & all great inventors, you know, commonly die poor — I shall think him comparatively successful.

You would say that some men had been tempted to live in this world at all only by the offer of a bounty by the general government — a bounty on living — to any one who will consent to be out at this era of the world — the object of the governors being to create a nursery for their navy. I told such a man the other day that I had got a Canada Lynx here in Concord, & his instant question was, “Have you got the reward for him?” What reward? Why, the 10 dollars which the State offers. As long as I saw him, he neither said nor thought anything about the lynx — but only about this reward. “Yes,” said he, “this State offers 10 dollars reward.” You might have inferred that 10 dollars was something rarer in his neighborhood than a lynx even — & he was anxious to see it on that account. I had thought that a Lynx was a bright-eyed, 4-legged, furry beast of the cat kind — very current indeed, though its natural gait is by leaps. But he knew it to be a draught drawn by the cashier of the wild-cat bank on the State treasury, payable at sight. Then I reflected that the first money was of leather, or a whole creature (whence Pecunia, from pecus, a herd), & since leather was at first furry, I easily understood the connexion between a Lynx and 10 dollars — & found that all money was traceable right back to the original wild-cat bank.

But the fact was that, instead of receiving 10 dollars for the Lynx which I had got, I had paid away some dollars in order to get him. So you see, I was away back in a gray antiquity behind the institution of money — further than history goes.

This reminded me that I once saw a cougar recently killed at the Adirondacks which had its ears clipped. This was a 10-dollar cougar.

Yet, though money can buy no fine fruit whatever — & we are never made truly rich by the possession of it — the value of things generally is commonly estimated by the amount of money they will fetch.

A thing is not valuable — e.g. a fine situation for a house — until it is convertible into something else [so] much money, that is, can cease to be what it is & becomes something else which you prefer. So you will see that all prosaic people who possess only the commonest sense, who believe strictly in this kind of wealth, are speculators in fancy stocks & continually cheat themselves — but poets & all discerning people who have an object in life & know what they want, speculate in real values.

The mean & low values of anything depend on its convertibility into something else — i.e. have nothing to do with its intrinsic value.

This world & our life have practically a similar value only to most. The value of life is what any body will give you for living. A man has his price at the South, is worth so many dollars — and so he has at the North. Many a man here sets out by saying, “I will make so many dollars by such a time, or before I die,” & that is his price, as much as if he were knocked off for it by a Southern auctioneer.

We hear a good deal said about moon-shine — by so called practical people — & the next day perchance we hear of their failure, they having been dealing in fancy stocks — but there really never is any moonshine of this kind in the practice of poets & philosophers; there never are any hard times or failures with them, for they deal with permanent values.

Talking with Walcott & Staples  — they first declared that John Brown did wrong. When I said that I thought he was right, they agreed in asserting that he did wrong because he threw his life away — & that no man had a right to undertake anything which he knew would cost him his life. I inquired if Christ did not foresee that he would be crucified if he preached such doctrines as he did, but they both — though as if it was their only escape — asserted that they did not believe that he did. Upon which a 3d party threw in: “You do not think that he had so much foresight as Brown.” Of course, they as good as said that if Christ had foreseen that he would be crucified, he would have “backed out.” Such are the principles & the logic of the mass of men.

Talk about slavery! It is not the peculiar institution of the South. It exists wherever men are bought & sold — wherever a man permits allows himself to become be made a mere thing — a tool — & surrenders his inalienable rights of conscience & reason, & indeed I think that this slavery is more complete than that which enslaves the body alone.

It exists in the Northern States, & I am reminded by what I find in the newspapers that it exists in Canada. I never yet met with, or heard of, a judge who was not a slave of this kind, & so the finest & most unfailing weapon of injustice. He fetches a slightly higher price than the black man only because he is a more valuable slave.

It appears that a colored man killed his would-be kidnapper in Missouri & fled to Canada. The bloodhounds have tracked him to Toronto & now demand him of her judges. From all that I can learn, they are playing their parts like judges. They are servile, while the poor fugitive in their jail is free in spirit.

This is what a Canadian writes to the New York Tribune: “Our judges may be compelled to render a judgement adverse to the prisoner. Depend upon it, they will not do it unless compelled [his italics]1. And then the poor fellow will be taken back, and probably burned to death by the brutes of the South.” Compelled! By whom? The master whom they serve? Does God compel them? or is it some man or number of men? Can’t they hold out a little longer against the tremendous pressure? If they are fairly represented, I wouldn’t trust their courage to defend a setting hen of mine against a weasel. Will this excuse avail them when the real day of judgment arrives comes? They have not to fear the slightest bodily harm: nobody one stands over them with a stick or a knife even. They have at the worst only to give up resign their salaries places & not a mouse will squeak about it — & yet they are likely to assist in tying their victim to the stake! Would that his example might teach them to break their own fetters. They do appear not to know what kind of justice that is which is to be done though the heavens fall. Better that the British Empire be destroyed than that it should help to reenslave this man.

This correspondent suggests that the “good people” of New York may rescue him as he is being carried back. There, then, is the only resort of justice — not where the judges are, but where the sympathetic mob is, where human hearts are beating, & hands move in obedience to their impulses. Perhaps his fellow-fugitives in Toronto may not feel compelled to surrender him. Justice, leaving departing from the Canadian soil, makes leaves her last tracks traces among these.

This concerns the case of John Anderson; see The Story of the Life of John Anderson, The Fugitive Slave. At first, a Canadian court ruled that Anderson could be extradited back to the United States to face murder charges, but a second court overruled this on a technicality.

  1. This bracketed note is Thoreau’s

It is no worse, I allow, than almost every other practice which custom has sanctioned — but that is the worst of it — for it shows how bad the rest are. It has come to this To such a pass our civilization & division of labor has come that A, a professional huckleberry-picker, has hired B’s field — and, we will suppose, is now gathering the crop, perhaps with the aid of a patented machine.

C, a professed cook, is superintending the cooking of a pudding made of these of the berries.

While Professor D, for whom the pudding is intended, sits in his library writing a book — a work on the vaccinieæ,1 of course.

And now the result of this downward course will be seen in that book, which should be the ultimate fruit of the huckleberry-field — & account for the existence of the 2 professors who come between D & A. It will be worthless. There will be none of the spirits of the huckleberry in it. The reading of it will be a weariness to the flesh.

To use a homely illustration, this is to save at the spile but waste at the bung. I believe in a different kind of division of labor — & that Professor D should divide himself between the library and the huckleberry-field.

  1. The family of plants that includes the huckleberry

What are the natural features which make a township handsome? A river, with its waterfalls & meadows, a lake, a hill, a cliff or individual rocks, a forest, and ancient trees standing singly. Such things are beautiful; they have a high use which dollars & cents never represent. If the inhabitants of a town were wise they would seek to preserve these things, though at a considerable expense. For such things educate — far more than any hired teachers or preachers — or any at present recognized system of school education. I do not think him fit to be the founder of a state or even of a town who does not foresee the use of these things, but legislates chiefly for oxen, as it were.

Far the handsomest thing I saw in Boxboro was its noble oak wood. I doubt if there is a finer one in Mass. Let her keep it a century longer, & men will make pilgrimages to it from all parts of the country; and yet it would be very like the rest of New England if Boxboro were ashamed of that woodland.

I said to myself if I have since heard however, that she is contented to have that forest stand — instead of the houses & farms that might supplant — because the land pays a much larger tax to the town now than it would then.

I said to myself, if the history of this town is written, the chief stress is probably laid on its parish, & there is not a word about this forest in it.

It would be worth the while if in each town there were a committee appointed to see that the beauty of the town received no detriment. If we have the largest boulder in the country, then it should not belong to an individual, nor be made into door steps.

As in many countries precious metals belong to the crown, so here natural objects of rare beauty should belong to the public.

Not only the channel but one or both banks of every river should be a public highway. The only use of a river is not to float on it.

Think of a mt-top in the township — even to the minds of the Indians a sacred place — only accessible thro’ private grounds.

A temple, as it were, which you cannot enter except to trespass at the risk of letting out or letting in somebody’s cattle. In fact the temple itself in this case private property and standing in a man’s cow yard — for such is commonly the case!

N.H. courts have lately been deciding — as if it was for them to decide — whether the top of Mt. Washington belonged to A or B — & it being decided in favor of B, as I hear, he went up one winter with the proper officer & took formal possession of it. But I think that the top of Mt. Washington must not be private property. It should be left unappropriated for modesty & reverence sake, or if only to suggest that earth has higher uses than we put her to. I know it is a mere figure of speech to talk about temples nowadays — when men recognize none — & indeed, associate the word with heathenism.

I should not think him fit to be the founder of a state — or even of a town — who did foresee the use of a mt top — or a forest — or a lake or river — 

It is true we as yet take liberties & go across lots, & steal or “hook” a good many things, but we naturally take fewer & fewer liberties every year, as we meet with more resistance. In old countries, as England, going across lots is out of the question. You must walk in some beaten path or other, have though it may a narrow one and there is an end to all or a. We are tending to the same state of things here, when practically a few will have grounds of their own, but most will have none & walk over but what the few allow them.

[M]ost men, it seems to me, do not care for Nature & would sell their share in all her beauty, as long as they may live, for a stated sum — many for a glass of rum.

Thank God men cannot as yet fly & lay waste the sky as well as the earth. We are safe on that side for the present. It is for the very reason that some do not care for those things that we need to continue to protect all from the vandalism of a few.

A lady tells me that she met Dea. S. of Lincoln with a load of hay, & she, noticing that as he drove under the apple trees by the side of the road a considerable part of the hay was raked off by their boughs, informed him of it. But he answered, “It is not mine yet. I am going to the scales with it & intend to come back this way.”

Going to law — I hear that Judge Minott of Haverhill once told a client, by way of warning, that 2 men millers who owned mills on the same stream went to law about a dam, & at the end of the lawsuit one lawyer owned one mill & the other the other.