“Slavery in Massachusetts” by H.D. Thoreau

I lately at­tended a meet­ing of the cit­i­zens of Con­cord, ex­pect­ing, as one among many, to speak on the sub­ject of slav­ery in Mas­sa­chu­setts; but I was sur­prised and dis­ap­pointed to find that what had called my towns­men to­gether was the des­tiny of Ne­braska, and not of Mas­sa­chu­setts, and that what I had to say would be en­tirely out of order. I had thought that the house was on fire, and not the prai­rie; but though sev­eral of the cit­i­zens of Mas­sa­chu­setts are now in pris­on for at­tempt­ing to res­cue a slave from her own clutches, not one of the speak­ers at that meet­ing ex­pressed re­gret for it, not one even re­ferred to it. It was only the dis­po­si­tion of some wild lands a thou­sand miles off which ap­peared to con­cern them. The in­hab­i­tants of Con­cord are not pre­pared to stand by one of their own bridges, but talk only of tak­ing up a po­si­tion on the high­lands be­yond the Yel­low­stone River. Our But­tricks and Davis­es and Hosmers are re­treat­ing thither, and I fear that they will leave no Lex­ing­ton Com­mon be­tween them and the en­emy. There is not one slave in Ne­braska; there are per­haps a mil­lion slaves in Mas­sa­chu­setts. [¶1]

They who have been bred in the school of pol­i­tics fail now and al­ways to face the facts. Their meas­ures are half meas­ures and make­shifts merely. They put off the day of set­tle­ment in­def­i­nitely, and mean­while the debt ac­cu­mu­lates. Though the Fu­gi­tive Slave Law had not been the sub­ject of dis­cus­sion on that oc­ca­sion, it was at length faintly re­solved by my towns­men, at an ad­journed meet­ing, as I learn, that the com­pro­mise compact of hav­ing been re­pu­di­ated by one of the par­ties, “There­fore,… the Fu­gi­tive Slave Law of must be re­pealed.” But this is not the rea­son why an in­iq­ui­tous law should be re­pealed. The fact which the pol­i­ti­cian faces is merely that there is less honor among thieves than was sup­posed, and not the fact that they are thieves. [¶2]

As I had no op­por­tu­nity to ex­press my thoughts at that meet­ing, will you allow me to do so here? [¶3]

Again it hap­pens that the Bos­ton Court-House is full of armed men, hold­ing pris­oner and try­ing a man, to find out if he is not really a slave. Does any one think that jus­tice or God awaits Mr. Lor­ing’s de­ci­sion? For him to sit there de­cid­ing still, when this ques­tion is al­ready de­cided from eter­nity to eter­nity, and the un­let­tered slave him­self and the mul­ti­tude around have long since heard and as­sented to the de­ci­sion, is sim­ply to make him­self ri­dic­u­lous. We may be tempted to ask from whom he re­ceived his com­mis­sion, and who he is that re­ceived it; what novel stat­utes he obeys, and what prec­e­dents are to him of au­thor­ity. Such an ar­bi­ter’s very ex­is­tence is an im­per­ti­nence. We do not ask him to make up his mind, but to make up his pack. [¶4]

I lis­ten to hear the voice of a Gov­er­nor, Com­mander-in-Chief of the forces of Mas­sa­chu­setts. I hear only the creak­ing of crick­ets and the hum of in­sects which now fill the sum­mer air. The Gov­er­nor’s ex­ploit is to re­view the troops on muster days. I have seen him on horse­back, with his hat off, lis­ten­ing to a chap­lain’s prayer. It chances that that is all I have ever seen of a Gov­er­nor. I think that I could man­age to get along with­out one. If he is not of the least use to pre­vent my be­ing kid­napped, pray of what im­port­ant use is he likely to be to me? When free­dom is most en­dan­gered, he dwells in the deep­est ob­scur­ity. A dis­tin­guished cler­gy­man told me that he chose the pro­fes­sion of a cler­gy­man because it af­forded the most lei­sure for lit­er­ary pur­suits. I would rec­om­mend to him the pro­fes­sion of a Gov­er­nor. [¶5]

, also, when the Sims trag­edy was acted, I said to my­self, There is such an of­fi­cer, if not such a man, as the Gov­er­nor of Mas­sa­chu­setts — what has he been about the last fort­night? Has he had as much as he could do to keep on the fence dur­ing this moral earth­quake? It seemed to me that no keener sat­ire could have been aimed at, no more cut­ting in­sult have been of­fered to that man, than just what hap­pened — the ab­sence of all in­quiry after him in that cri­sis. The worst and the most I chance to know of him is that he did not im­prove that op­por­tu­nity to make him­self known, and wor­thily known. He could at least have re­signed him­self into fame. It ap­peared to be for­got­ten that there was such a man or such an of­fice. Yet no doubt he was en­deav­or­ing to fill the gu­ber­na­to­rial chair all the while. He was no Gov­er­nor of mine. He did not gov­ern me. [¶6]

But at last, in the pre­sent case, the Gov­er­nor was heard from. After he and the United States gov­ern­ment had per­fectly suc­ceeded in rob­bing a poor in­no­cent black man of his lib­erty for life, and, as far as they could, of his Cre­a­tor’s like­ness in his breast, he made a speech to his ac­com­plices, at a con­grat­u­la­tory supper! [¶7]

I have read a re­cent law of this State, mak­ing it penal for any of­fi­cer of the “Com­mon­wealth” to “de­tain or aid in the… de­ten­tion,” any­where within its lim­its, “of any per­son, for the rea­son that he is claimed as a fu­gi­tive slave.” Also, it was a mat­ter of no­to­ri­ety that a writ of re­plevin to take the fu­gi­tive out of the cus­tody of the United States Mar­shal could not be served for want of suf­fi­cient force to aid the of­fi­cer. [¶8]

I had thought that the Gov­er­nor was, in some sense, the ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of the State; that it was his busi­ness, as a Gov­er­nor, to see that the laws of the State were ex­e­cuted; while, as a man, he took care that he did not, by so doing, break the laws of hu­man­ity; but when there is any spe­cial im­por­tant use for him, he is use­less, or worse than use­less, and per­mits the laws of the State to go un­ex­e­cuted. Perhaps I do not know what are the du­ties of a Gov­er­nor; but if to be a Gov­er­nor re­quires to sub­ject one’s self to so much ig­no­miny with­out rem­edy, if it is to put a re­straint upon my man­hood, I shall take care never to be Gov­er­nor of Mas­sa­chu­setts. I have not read far in the stat­utes of this Com­mon­wealth. It is not prof­it­a­ble read­ing. They do not al­ways say what is true; and they do not al­ways mean what they say. What I am con­cerned to know is, that that man’s in­flu­ence and au­thor­ity were on the side of the slave­holder, and not of the slave — of the guilty, and not of the in­no­cent — of in­just­ice, and not of jus­tice. I never saw him of whom I speak; in­deed, I did not know that he was Gov­er­nor until this event oc­curred. I heard of him and Anthony Burns at the same time, and thus, un­doubt­edly, most will hear of him. So far am I from be­ing gov­erned by him. I do not mean that it was any­thing to his dis­credit that I had not heard of him, only that I heard what I did. The worst I shall say of him is, that he proved no bet­ter than the ma­jor­ity of his con­stit­u­ents would be likely to prove. In my opin­ion, he was not equal to the oc­ca­sion. [¶9]

The whole mil­i­tary force of the State is at the ser­vice of a Mr. Sut­tle, a slave­holder from Vir­ginia, to enable him to catch a man whom he calls his prop­erty; but not a sol­dier is of­fered to save a cit­i­zen of Mas­sa­chu­setts from be­ing kid­napped! Is this what all these sol­diers, all this training, have been for these sev­enty-nine years past? Have they been trained merely to rob Mexico and carry back fu­gi­tive slaves to their mas­ters? [¶10]

These very nights I heard the sound of a drum in our streets. There were men train­ing still; and for what? I could with an ef­fort par­don the cock­er­els of Con­cord for crow­ing still, for they, per­chance, had not been beaten that morn­ing; but I could not ex­cuse this rub-a-dub of the “train­ers.” The slave was carried back by ex­actly such as these; i.e., by the sol­dier, of whom the best you can say in this con­nec­tion is that he is a fool made con­spic­u­ous by a painted coat. [¶11]

Three years ago, also, just a week after the au­thor­i­ties of Bos­ton as­sem­bled to carry back a per­fectly in­no­cent man, and one whom they knew to be in­no­cent, into slav­ery, the in­hab­i­tants of Con­cord caused the bells to be rung and the can­nons to be fired, to cel­e­brate their lib­erty — and the cour­age and love of lib­erty of their an­ces­tors who fought at the bridge. As if those three mil­lions had fought for the right to be free them­selves, but to hold in slav­ery three mil­lion others. Now­a­days, men wear a fool’s-cap, and call it a lib­erty-cap. I do not know but there are some who, if they were tied to a whip­ping-post, and could but get one hand free, would use it to ring the bells and fire the can­nons to cel­e­brate their lib­erty. So some of my towns­men took the lib­erty to ring and fire. That was the ex­tent of their free­dom; and when the sound of the bells died away, their lib­erty died away also; when the pow­der was all ex­pended, their lib­erty went off with the smoke. [¶12]

The joke could be no broader if the in­mates of the pris­ons were to sub­scribe for all the pow­der to be used in such sa­lutes, and hire the jail­ers to do the fir­ing and ring­ing for them, while they en­joyed it through the grat­ing. [¶13]

This is what I thought about my neigh­bors. [¶14]

Every hu­mane and in­tel­li­gent in­hab­i­tant of Con­cord, when he or she heard those bells and those can­nons, thought not with pride of the events of , but with shame of the events of . But now we have half bur­ied that old shame un­der a new one. [¶15]

Mas­sa­chu­setts sat wait­ing Mr. Lor­ing’s de­ci­sion, as if it could in any way af­fect her own crim­i­nal­ity. Her crime, the most con­spic­u­ous and fa­tal crime of all, was per­mit­ting him to be the um­pire in such a case. It was really the trial of Mas­sa­chu­setts. Every mo­ment that she hes­i­tated to set this man free — every mo­ment that she now hes­i­tates to atone for her crime, she is con­victed. The Com­mis­sioner on her case is God; not Ed­ward G. God, but sim­ply God. [¶16]

I wish my coun­try­men to con­sider, that what­ever the hu­man law may be, nei­ther an in­di­vid­ual nor a na­tion can ever com­mit the least act of in­just­ice against the ob­scur­est in­di­vid­ual with­out hav­ing to pay the pen­alty for it. A gov­ern­ment which de­lib­er­ately en­acts in­just­ice, and per­sists in it, will at length even be­come the laugh­ing-stock of the world. [¶17]

Much has been said about Amer­i­can slav­ery, but I think that we do not even yet re­al­ize what slav­ery is. If I were se­ri­ously to pro­pose to Con­gress to make man­kind into sau­sages, I have no doubt that most of the mem­bers would smile at my pro­po­si­tion, and if any be­lieved me to be in ear­nest, they would think that I pro­posed some­thing much worse than Con­gress had ever done. But if any of them will tell me that to make a man into a sau­sage would be much worse — would be any worse — than to make him into a slave — than it was to en­act the Fu­gi­tive Slave Law, I will ac­cuse him of fool­ish­ness, of in­tel­lec­tual in­ca­pac­ity, of mak­ing a dis­tinc­tion with­out a dif­fer­ence. The one is just as sen­si­ble a pro­po­si­tion as the other. [¶18]

I hear a good deal said about tram­pling this law un­der foot. Why, one need not go out of his way to do that. This law rises not to the level of the head or the rea­son; its nat­u­ral hab­i­tat is in the dirt. It was born and bred, and has its life, only in the dust and mire, on a level with the feet; and he who walks with free­dom, and does not with Hin­doo mercy avoid tread­ing on every ven­o­mous rep­tile, will in­ev­i­ta­bly tread on it, and so tram­ple it un­der foot — and Web­ster, its maker, with it, like the dirt-bug and its ball. [¶19]

Recent events will be val­u­a­ble as a crit­i­cism on the ad­min­is­tra­tion of jus­tice in our midst, or, rather, as show­ing what are the true re­sources of jus­tice in any com­mu­nity. It has come to this, that the friends of lib­erty, the friends of the slave, have shud­dered when they have un­der­stood that his fate was left to the le­gal tri­bu­nals of the coun­try to be de­cided. Free men have no faith that jus­tice will be awarded in such a case. The judge may de­cide this way or that; it is a kind of ac­ci­dent, at best. It is ev­i­dent that he is not a com­pe­tent au­thor­ity in so im­por­tant a case. It is no time, then, to be judg­ing ac­cord­ing to his prec­e­dents, but to es­tab­lish a prec­e­dent for the fu­ture. I would much rather trust to the sen­ti­ment of the peo­ple. In their vote you would get some­thing of some value, at least, how­ever small; but in the other case, only the tram­meled judg­ment of an in­di­vid­ual, of no sig­nif­i­cance, be it which way it might. [¶20]

It is to some ex­tent fa­tal to the courts, when the peo­ple are com­pelled to go be­hind them. I do not wish to be­lieve that the courts were made for fair weather, and for very civil cases merely; but think of leav­ing it to any court in the land to de­cide whether more than three mil­lions of peo­ple, in this case a sixth part of a na­tion, have a right to be free­men or not! But it has been left to the courts of jus­tice, so called — to the Su­preme Court of the land — and, as you all know, rec­og­niz­ing no au­thor­ity but the Con­sti­tu­tion, it has de­cided that the three mil­lions are and shall con­tinue to be slaves. Such judges as these are merely the in­spec­tors of a pick-lock and mur­derer’s tools, to tell him whether they are in work­ing order or not, and there they think that their re­spon­si­bil­ity ends. There was a prior case on the docket, which they, as judges ap­pointed by God, had no right to skip; which hav­ing been justly set­tled, they would have been saved from this hu­mil­i­a­tion. It was the case of the mur­derer him­self. [¶21]

The law will never make men free; it is men who have got to make the law free. They are the lov­ers of law and order who ob­serve the law when the gov­ern­ment breaks it. [¶22]

Among human be­ings, the judge whose words seal the fate of a man fur­thest into eter­nity is not he who merely pro­nounces the ver­dict of the law, but he, who­ever he may be, who, from a love of truth, and un­prej­u­diced by any cus­tom or en­act­ment of men, ut­ters a true opin­ion or sen­tence con­cern­ing him. He it is that sen­tences him. Who­ever can dis­cern truth has re­ceived his com­mis­sion from a higher source than the chief­est jus­tice in the world who can dis­cern only law. He finds him­self con­sti­tuted judge of the judge. Strange that it should be nec­es­sary to state such sim­ple truths! [¶23]

I am more and more con­vinced that, with ref­er­ence to any pub­lic ques­tion, it is more im­por­tant to know what the coun­try thinks of it than what the city thinks. The city does not think much. On any moral ques­tion, I would rather have the opin­ion of Box­boro’ than of Bos­ton and New York put to­gether. When the former speaks, I feel as if some­body had spoken, as if hu­man­ity was yet, and a rea­son­a­ble be­ing had as­serted its rights — as if some un­prej­u­diced men among the coun­try’s hills had at length turned their at­ten­tion to the sub­ject, and by a few sen­si­ble words re­deemed the rep­u­ta­tion of the race. When, in some ob­scure coun­try town, the farm­ers come to­gether to a spe­cial town-meet­ing, to ex­press their opin­ion on some sub­ject which is vex­ing the land, that, I think, is the true Con­gress, and the most re­spect­a­ble one that is ever as­sem­bled in the United States. [¶24]

It is ev­i­dent that there are, in this Com­mon­wealth at least, two par­ties, becoming more and more distinct — the party of the city, and the party of the coun­try. I know that the coun­try is mean enough, but I am glad to be­lieve that there is a slight dif­fer­ence in her favor. But as yet she has few, if any organs, through which to ex­press herself. The editorials which she reads, like the news, come from the seaboard. Let us, the in­hab­i­tants of the coun­try, cultivate self-re­spect. Let us not send to the city for aught more essential than our broad­cloths and groceries; or, if we read the opin­ions of the city, let us entertain opin­ions of our own. [¶25]

Among meas­ures to be adopted, I would sug­gest to make as ear­nest and vig­or­ous an as­sault on the press as has al­ready been made, and with ef­fect, on the church. The church has much im­proved within a few years; but the press is, al­most with­out ex­cep­tion, cor­rupt. I be­lieve that in this coun­try the press ex­erts a greater and a more per­ni­cious in­flu­ence than the church did in its worst pe­riod. We are not a re­li­gious peo­ple, but we are a na­tion of pol­i­ti­cians. We do not care for the Bi­ble, but we do care for the news­pa­per. At any meet­ing of pol­i­ti­cians — like that at Con­cord the other eve­ning, for in­stance — how im­per­ti­nent it would be to quote from the Bi­ble! how per­ti­nent to quote from a news­pa­per or from the Con­sti­tu­tion! The news­pa­per is a Bi­ble which we read every morn­ing and every af­ter­noon, stand­ing and sit­ting, rid­ing and walk­ing. It is a Bi­ble which every man car­ries in his pocket, which lies on every ta­ble and coun­ter, and which the mail, and thou­sands of mis­sion­ar­ies, are con­tin­u­ally dis­pers­ing. It is, in short, the only book which America has printed and which America reads. So wide is its in­flu­ence. The ed­i­tor is a preacher whom you vol­un­ta­rily sup­port. Your tax is com­monly one cent daily, and it costs noth­ing for pew hire. But how many of these preach­ers preach the truth? I re­peat the tes­ti­mony of many an in­tel­li­gent for­eigner, as well as my own con­vic­tions, when I say, that prob­a­bly no coun­try was ever ruled by so mean a class of tyrants as, with a few no­ble ex­cep­tions, are the ed­i­tors of the pe­ri­od­i­cal press in this coun­try. And as they live and rule only by their ser­vil­ity, and ap­peal­ing to the worse, and not the bet­ter, na­ture of man, the peo­ple who read them are in the con­di­tion of the dog that re­turns to his vomit. [¶26]

The Lib­er­a­tor and the Com­mon­wealth were the only pa­pers in Bos­ton, as far as I know, which made them­selves heard in con­dem­na­tion of the cow­ard­ice and mean­ness of the au­thor­i­ties of that city, as ex­hib­ited in . The other jour­nals, al­most with­out ex­cep­tion, by their man­ner of re­fer­ring to and speak­ing of the Fu­gi­tive Slave Law, and the car­ry­ing back of the slave Sims, in­sulted the com­mon sense of the coun­try, at least. And, for the most part, they did this, one would say, be­cause they thought so to se­cure the approbation of their patrons, not be­ing aware that a sounder sen­ti­ment pre­vailed to any ex­tent in the heart of the Com­mon­wealth. I am told that some of them have im­proved of late; but they are still em­i­nently time-serv­ing. Such is the char­ac­ter they have won. [¶27]

But, thank for­tune, this preacher can be even more eas­ily reached by the weap­ons of the re­former than could the rec­re­ant priest. The free men of New Eng­land have only to re­frain from pur­chas­ing and read­ing these sheets, have only to with­hold their cents, to kill a score of them at once. One whom I re­spect told me that he pur­chased Mitchell’s Cit­i­zen in the cars, and then threw it out the win­dow. But would not his con­tempt have been more fa­tally ex­pressed if he had not bought it? [¶28]

Are they Amer­i­cans? are they New Eng­land­ers? are they in­hab­i­tants of Lex­ing­ton and Con­cord and Fra­ming­ham, who read and sup­port the Bos­ton Post, Mail, Jour­nal, Ad­ver­tiser, Cou­rier, and Times? Are these the Flags of our Union? I am not a news­pa­per reader, and may omit to name the worst. [¶29]

Could slav­ery sug­gest a more com­plete ser­vil­ity than some of these jour­nals ex­hibit? Is there any dust which their con­duct does not lick, and make fouler still with its slime? I do not know whether the Bos­ton Her­ald is still in ex­is­tence, but I re­mem­ber to have seen it about the streets when Sims was car­ried off. Did it not act its part well — serve its mas­ter faith­fully! How could it have gone lower on its belly? How can a man stoop lower than he is low? do more than put his ex­trem­i­ties in the place of the head he has? than make his head his lower ex­trem­ity? When I have taken up this pa­per with my cuffs turned up, I have heard the gur­gling of the sewer through every col­umn. I have felt that I was han­dling a pa­per picked out of the pub­lic gut­ters, a leaf from the gos­pel of the gam­bling-house, the grog­gery, and the brothel, har­mo­niz­ing with the gos­pel of the Mer­chants’ Ex­change. [¶30]

The ma­jor­ity of the men of the North, and of the South and East and West, are not men of prin­ci­ple. If they vote, they do not send men to Con­gress on er­rands of hu­man­ity; but while their broth­ers and sis­ters are be­ing scourged and hung for lov­ing lib­erty, while — I might here in­sert all that slav­ery im­plies and is — it is the mis­man­age­ment of wood and iron and stone and gold which con­cerns them. Do what you will, O Gov­ern­ment, with my wife and children, my mother and brother, my father and sister, I will obey your com­mands to the letter. It will indeed grieve me if you hurt them, if you de­liver them to over­se­ers to be hunted by bounds or to be whipped to death; but, nev­er­the­less, I will peace­a­bly pur­sue my cho­sen cal­ling on this fair earth, until per­chance, one day, when I have put on mourn­ing for them dead, I shall have per­suaded you to re­lent. Such is the at­ti­tude, such are the words of Mas­sa­chu­setts. [¶31]

Rather than do thus, I need not say what match I would touch, what sys­tem en­deavor to blow up; but as I love my life, I would side with the light, and let the dark earth roll from un­der me, cal­ling my mother and my brother to follow. [¶32]

I would re­mind my coun­try­men that they are to be men first, and Amer­i­cans only at a late and con­ven­ient hour. No mat­ter how val­u­a­ble law may be to pro­tect your prop­erty, even to keep soul and body to­gether, if it do not keep you and hu­man­ity to­gether. [¶33]

I am sorry to say that I doubt if there is a judge in Mas­sa­chu­setts who is pre­pared to re­sign his of­fice, and get his liv­ing in­no­cently, when­ever it is re­quired of him to pass sen­tence un­der a law which is merely con­trary to the law of God. I am com­pelled to see that they put them­selves, or rather are by char­ac­ter, in this re­spect, ex­actly on a level with the ma­rine who dis­charges his musket in any di­rec­tion he is or­dered to. They are just as much tools, and as lit­tle men. Cer­tainly, they are not the more to be re­spected, be­cause their mas­ter en­slaves their un­der­stand­ings and con­sciences, in­stead of their bodies. [¶34]

The judges and law­yers — sim­ply as such, I mean — and all men of ex­pe­di­ency, try this case by a very low and in­com­pe­tent stan­dard. They con­sider, not whether the Fu­gi­tive Slave Law is right, but whether it is what they call con­sti­tu­tional. Is vir­tue con­sti­tu­tional, or vice? Is eq­uity con­sti­tu­tional, or in­iq­uity? In im­por­tant moral and vital ques­tions, like this, it is just as im­per­ti­nent to ask whether a law is con­sti­tu­tional or not, as to ask whether it is prof­it­a­ble or not. They per­sist in be­ing the ser­vants of the worst of men, and not the ser­vants of hu­man­ity. The ques­tion is, not whether you or your grand­father, sev­enty years ago, did not en­ter into an agree­ment to serve the Devil, and that ser­vice is not ac­cord­ingly now due; but whether you will not now, for once and at last, serve God — in spite of your own past rec­re­ancy, or that of your an­ces­tor — by obey­ing that eter­nal and only just Con­sti­tu­tion, which He, and not any Jef­fer­son or Adams, has writ­ten in your being. [¶35]

The amount of it is, if the ma­jor­ity vote the Devil to be God, the mi­nor­ity will live and be­have ac­cord­ingly — and obey the suc­cess­ful can­di­date, trust­ing that, some time or other, by some Speaker’s cast­ing-vote, per­haps, they may re­in­state God. This is the high­est prin­ci­ple I can get out or in­vent for my neigh­bors. These men act as if they be­lieved that they could safely slide down a hill a lit­tle way — or a good way — and would surely come to a place, by and by, where they could be­gin to slide up again. This is ex­pe­di­ency, or choos­ing that course which of­fers the slight­est ob­sta­cles to the feet, that is, a down­hill one. But there is no such thing as ac­com­plish­ing a right­eous re­form by the use of “ex­pe­di­ency.” There is no such thing as slid­ing up hill. In morals the only sliders are back­sliders. [¶36]

Thus we stead­ily wor­ship Mam­mon, both school and state and church, and on the sev­enth day curse God with a tin­ta­mar from one end of the Union to the other. [¶37]

Will man­kind never learn that pol­icy is not mo­ral­ity — that it never se­cures any moral right, but con­sid­ers merely what is ex­pe­di­ent? chooses the avail­a­ble can­di­date — who is in­var­i­a­bly the Devil — and what right have his con­stit­u­ents to be sur­prised, be­cause the Devil does not be­have like an angel of light? What is wanted is men, not of pol­icy, but of pro­bity — who rec­og­nize a higher law than the Con­sti­tu­tion, or the de­ci­sion of the ma­jor­ity. The fate of the coun­try does not de­pend on how you vote at the polls — the worst man is as strong as the best at that game; it does not de­pend on what kind of pa­per you drop into the bal­lot-box once a year, but on what kind of man you drop from your cham­ber into the street every morning. [¶38]

What should con­cern Mas­sa­chu­setts is not the Ne­braska Bill, nor the Fu­gi­tive Slave Bill, but her own slave­hold­ing and ser­vil­ity. Let the State dis­solve her union with the slave­holder. She may wrig­gle and hes­i­tate, and ask leave to read the Con­sti­tu­tion once more; but she can find no re­spect­a­ble law or prec­e­dent which sanc­tions the con­tin­u­ance of such a union for an instant. [¶39]

Let each in­hab­i­tant of the State dis­solve his union with her, as long as she de­lays to do her duty. [¶40]

The events of the past month teach me to dis­trust Fame. I see that she does not finely dis­crim­i­nate, but coarsely hur­rahs. She con­sid­ers not the sim­ple her­o­ism of an ac­tion, but only as it is con­nected with its ap­par­ent con­se­quences. She praises till she is hoarse the easy ex­ploit of the Bos­ton tea party, but will be com­par­a­tively si­lent about the braver and more dis­in­ter­est­edly her­oic at­tack on the Bos­ton Court-House, sim­ply be­cause it was un­suc­cessful! [¶41]

Cov­ered with dis­grace, the State has sat down coolly to try for their lives and lib­er­ties the men who at­tempted to do its duty for it. And this is called jus­tice! They who have shown that they can be­have par­tic­u­larly well may per­chance be put un­der bonds for their good be­hav­ior. They whom truth re­quires at pre­sent to plead guilty are, of all the in­hab­i­tants of the State, pre­em­i­nently in­no­cent. While the Gov­er­nor, and the Mayor, and count­less of­fi­cers of the Com­mon­wealth are at large, the cham­pi­ons of lib­erty are im­prisoned. [¶42]

Only they are guilt­less who com­mit the crime of con­tempt of such a court. It be­hooves every man to see that his in­flu­ence is on the side of jus­tice, and let the courts make their own char­ac­ters. My sym­pa­thies in this case are wholly with the ac­cused, and wholly against their ac­cusers and judges. Jus­tice is sweet and mu­si­cal; but in­just­ice is harsh and dis­cor­dant. The judge still sits grind­ing at his organ, but it yields no mu­sic, and we hear only the sound of the han­dle. He be­lieves that all the mu­sic re­sides in the han­dle, and the crowd toss him their cop­pers the same as be­fore. [¶43]

Do you sup­pose that that Mas­sa­chu­setts which is now do­ing these things — which hes­i­tates to crown these men, some of whose law­yers, and even judges, per­chance, may be driven to take ref­uge in some poor quib­ble, that they may not wholly out­rage their in­stinc­tive sense of jus­tice — do you sup­pose that she is any­thing but base and ser­vile? that she is the cham­pion of lib­erty? [¶44]

Show me a free state, and a court truly of jus­tice, and I will fight for them, if need be; but show me Mas­sa­chu­setts, and I re­fuse her my al­le­giance, and ex­press con­tempt for her courts. [¶45]

The ef­fect of a good gov­ern­ment is to make life more val­u­a­ble — of a bad one, to make it less val­u­a­ble. We can af­ford that rail­road and all merely ma­te­rial stock should lose some of its value, for that only com­pels us to live more sim­ply and ec­o­nom­i­cally; but sup­pose that the value of life it­self should be di­min­ished! How can we make a less de­mand on man and na­ture, how live more ec­o­nom­i­cally in re­spect to vir­tue and all no­ble qualities, than we do? I have lived for the last month — and I think that every man in Mas­sa­chu­setts ca­pa­ble of the sen­ti­ment of pa­tri­ot­ism must have had a sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ence — with the sense of hav­ing suf­fered a vast and in­def­i­nite loss. I did not know at first what ailed me. At last it oc­curred to me that what I had lost was a coun­try. I had never re­spected the gov­ern­ment near to which I lived, but I had fool­ishly thought that I might man­age to live here, mind­ing my pri­vate af­fairs, and forget it. For my part, my old and wor­thi­est pur­suits have lost I can­not say how much of their at­trac­tion, and I feel that my in­vest­ment in life here is worth many per cent less since Mas­sa­chu­setts last de­lib­er­ately sent back an in­no­cent man, Anthony Burns, to slav­ery. I dwelt be­fore, per­haps, in the il­lu­sion that my life passed some­where only be­tween heaven and hell, but now I can­not per­suade my­self that I do not dwell wholly within hell. The site of that po­lit­i­cal or­gan­i­za­tion called Mas­sa­chu­setts is to me mor­ally cov­ered with vol­canic sco­riae and cin­ders, such as Mil­ton de­scribes in the in­fer­nal re­gions. If there is any hell more un­prin­ci­pled than our rul­ers, and we, the ruled, I feel cu­ri­ous to see it. Life itself be­ing worth less, all things with it, which min­is­ter to it, are worth less. Sup­pose you have a small li­brary, with pic­tures to adorn the walls — a gar­den laid out around — and con­tem­plate sci­en­tific and lit­er­ary pur­suits, &c., and dis­cover all at once that your villa, with all its con­tents is lo­cated in hell, and that the jus­tice of the peace has a clo­ven foot and a forked tail — do not these things sud­denly lose their value in your eyes? [¶46]

I feel that, to some ex­tent, the State has fa­tally in­ter­fered with my law­ful busi­ness. It has not only in­ter­rupted me in my pas­sage through Court Street on er­rands of trade, but it has in­ter­rupted me and every man on his on­ward and up­ward path, on which he had trusted soon to leave Court Street far be­hind. What right had it to re­mind me of Court Street? I have found that hol­low which even I had re­lied on for solid. [¶47]

I am sur­prised to see men go­ing about their busi­ness as if noth­ing had hap­pened. I say to my­self, “Un­for­tu­nates! they have not heard the news.” I am sur­prised that the man whom I just met on horse­back should be so ear­nest to over­take his newly bought cows run­ning away — since all prop­erty is in­se­cure, and if they do not run away again, they may be taken away from him when he gets them. Fool! does he not know that his seed-corn is worth less this year — that all be­nef­i­cent har­vests fail as you ap­proach the em­pire of hell? No pru­dent man will build a stone house un­der these cir­cum­stances, or en­gage in any peace­ful en­ter­prise which it re­quires a long time to ac­com­plish. Art is as long as ever, but life is more in­ter­rupted and less avail­a­ble for a man’s proper pur­suits. It is not an era of re­pose. We have used up all our in­her­ited free­dom. If we would save our lives, we must fight for them. [¶48]

I walk toward one of our ponds; but what sig­ni­fies the beauty of na­ture when men are base? We walk to lakes to see our se­ren­ity re­flected in them; when we are not se­rene, we go not to them. Who can be se­rene in a coun­try where both the rul­ers and the ruled are with­out prin­ci­ple? The re­mem­brance of my coun­try spoils my walk. My thoughts are mur­der to the State, and in­vol­un­ta­rily go plot­ting against her. [¶49]

But it chanced the other day that I scented a white wa­ter-lily, and a sea­son I had waited for had ar­rived. It is the em­blem of pu­rity. It bursts up so pure and fair to the eye, and so sweet to the scent, as if to show us what pu­rity and sweet­ness re­side in, and can be ex­tracted from, the slime and muck of earth. I think I have plucked the first one that has opened for a mile. What con­fir­ma­tion of our hopes is in the fra­grance of this flower! I shall not so soon de­spair of the world for it, not­with­stand­ing slav­ery, and the cow­ard­ice and want of prin­ci­ple of North­ern men. It sug­gests what kind of laws have pre­vailed long­est and wid­est, and still pre­vail, and that the time may come when man’s deeds will smell as sweet. Such is the odor which the plant emits. If Na­ture can com­pound this fra­grance still an­nually, I shall be­lieve her still young and full of vigor, her in­teg­rity and genius un­im­paired, and that there is vir­tue even in man, too, who is fit­ted to per­ceive and love it. It re­minds me that Na­ture has been part­ner to no Mis­souri Com­pro­mise. I scent no com­pro­mise in the fra­grance of the wa­ter-lily. It is not a Nym­phæa Doug­lasii. In it, the sweet, and pure, and in­no­cent are wholly sun­dered from the ob­scene and bale­ful. I do not scent in this the time-serv­ing ir­res­o­lu­tion of a Mas­sa­chu­setts Gov­er­nor, nor of a Bos­ton Mayor. So be­have that the odor of your ac­tions may en­hance the gen­eral sweet­ness of the at­mos­phere, that when we be­hold or scent a flower, we may not be re­minded how in­con­sis­tent your deeds are with it; for all odor is but one form of ad­ver­tise­ment of a moral qual­ity, and if fair ac­tions had not been per­formed, the lily would not smell sweet. The foul slime stands for the sloth and vice of man, the de­cay of hu­man­ity; the fra­grant flower that springs from it, for the pu­rity and cour­age which are immortal. [¶50]

Slav­ery and ser­vil­ity have pro­duced no sweet-scented flower an­nually, to charm the senses of men, for they have no real life: they are merely a de­cay­ing and a death, of­fen­sive to all healthy nos­trils. We do not com­plain that they live, but that they do not get bur­ied. Let the liv­ing bury them: even they are good for manure. [¶51]