Editorial Savoir Faire: Thoreau Transforms
His Journal into “Slavery in Massachusetts”

By Dr. Sandra Harbert Petrulionis

Thoreau Reader: Home - Thoreau Transforms His Journal - Slavery in Massachusetts - Journal Writing

Below are excerpts from Thoreau’s 1854 Journal in which Thoreau discusses Anthony Burns and slavery. The italicized words, sentences, and phrases do not appear in “Slavery in Massachusetts.” This listing does not include all of the Journal that was incorporated into the speech, but only those portions that precede or follow significant passages of omitted text, and the omitted text itself. Square brackets indicate either Thoreau’s errors ([sic]) or indecipherable manuscript text.
Journal Date
Manuscript Journal Text

29 May 1854

“These days it is left to one Mr Loring to say whether a citizen of Massachusetts is a slave or not. Does any one think that Justice or God awaits Mr. Loring’s decision? Such a mans [sic] existence in this capacity under these circumstances is as impertinent as the gnat that settles on my paper. We do not ask him to make up his mind, but to make up his packs. Why the U.S. Government never performed an act of justice in its life. And this unoffending citizen is held a prisoner by the united states soldier — of whom the best you can say is that he is a fool made conspicuous by a painted coat. Of what use a governor or a legislature?  they are nothing but politicians.”

“A distinguished clergyman once 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 — Time somebody worked  At last the Governor is heard from at a congratulatory dinner & what a governor was there? — We don’t complain of what a coward does. — but of what he does not do. I see the papers full of soft speeches of the mayor & the governor — & brother editors — I see the court house full of armed men holding prisoner & trying a Man to find out if he is not really a Slave. It is a question about which there is great doubt. It takes all the legal heads & they they [sic] cannot settle it.”

“It is really the trial of Massachusetts — every moment that she hesitates to set this man free — she is convicted. The commissioner on her case is God.  not Edward G. God — but simple God. Perhaps the most saddening aspect of the matter is the tone of almost all the Boston papers — connected with the fact that they are & have been of course sustained by a majority of their readers — They are feeble indeed — but only as sin is feeble compared with rihghteousness [sic] & truth. They are eminently time-serving. I have seen only the Traveler — Journal — & Post. I never look at them except at such a time as this. Their life is abject even as that of the marines. Men in any office of government are everywhere & forever politicians. Will mankind never learn that policy is not morality — that it never secures any moral right but alway [sic] considers merely what is ‘expedient’ — chooses the available candidate — who when moral right is concerned is always the Devil. Witness the President of the U.S. What is the position of Massachusetts Massa-chooses-it — ? She leaves it to a Mr [sic] Loring to decide whether one of her citizens is a freeman or a slave. What is the value of such a She’s Freedom & Protection to me? Perhaps I shall so conduct that she will one day offer me the Freedom of Massachetts [sic] in a Gold casket, made of California gold which she has stolen in the form of a Court-House — perchance I spurn with contempt any bribe which she or her truckling men can offer. I do not vote at the polls — I wish to record my vote here.”

“Rather than thus consent to establish Hell upon earth — to be a party to this establishment — I would touch a match to blow up earth & hell together. I will not accept life in America or on this planet on such terms. As I love my life I would side with the Light & let the Dark Earth roll from under me — Calling my mother & my brother to follow me. The US gv never performed an act of pure justice in its life —”

4 June 1854

"In some cases fame is perpetually false and unjust. Or rather I should say that she never recognizes the simple heroism of an action, but only as connected with its apparent consequence. It praises the interested energy of the Boston tea party, but will be comparatively silent about the more bloody & disinterestedly heroic attack on the Boston Court House — simply because the latter was unsuccessful. Fame is not just. It never finely or discriminatingly praises, but coarsely hurrahs. The truest Acts of heroism never reach her ear — are never published by her trumpet.”

9 June 1854

Covered with disgrace — this state has sat down coolly to try for their lives 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 — they alone are put under bonds ‘for their good behavior’! And the one whom truth requires at present to plead guilty is perchance the one who is preeminently innocent — Such a judge & court are an impertinence.”

“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 — & let the courts make their own characters. What is any political organization worth — when it is in the service of the Devil? I see that the Authorities the Governor — Mayor — Commissioner — Marshall &c — are either weak or unprincipled men — i.e. well disposed but not equal to the occasion, or else of dull moral perception — with the unprincipled & servile in their pay. All sound moral sentiment is opposed to them. I had thought that the governor was in some sense the executive officer of the state — that it was his business to see that the laws of the state were executed — but when there is any special use for him he is useless — permits the laws to go unexecuted — & is not heard from. While the whole military force of the state if need be is at the service of a slaveholder — But the worst I shall say of the governor this particular Gubernator now at the wheel whom I never saw is that he was no better than the majority of his constituents — he was not equal to the occasion” 

“The citizens of Mass. not being men of principle — will it appears send back this fugitive slave — i.e. to call the same thing by another name will crucify christ just so long as the majority decide that it shall be done. The marines & the militia whose bodies were used lately — were not men of sense nor of principle — in a high moral sense they were not men at all.”

16 June 1854

“Every man in New England capable of the sentiment of patriotism — must have lived the last three weeks with the sense of having suffered a vast indefinite loss. I had never respected this government near which I lived — but I had foolishly thought that I might manage to live here — minding to my private affairs — & forget it. It is the discovery of What [sic] kind of men your countrymen are — For my part I did not know at first what aild [sic] me  my old & worthiest pursuits have lost I cannot say how much of their attraction.  and I feel that my investmen tin life here is worth many percent less since Massachusetts — since Massachusetts last deliberately & forciby restored an innocent man anthony [sic] Burns to slavery.” 

“Suppose you have a small library with pictures to adorn the walls — a garden laid out around — & contemplate scientific & literary pursuits &c &c & discover suddenly that your villa with all its contents is located in hell — and that the justice of the peace is one of the devil’s angels has a cloven foot & a forked tail — do not these things suddenly lose their value in your eyes. Are you not disposed to sell at a great sacrifice”

“It is time we had done referring to our ancestors — We have used up all our inherited freedom — like the young bird the albumen in the egg — It is not an era of repose. If we would save our lives we must fight for them. The discovery is what manner of men your countrymen are. They steadily worship Mammon — and on the 7th day curse God with a tintimmarre from one end of the Union to the other. I heard the other day of a meek & sleek devil of a bishop somebody — who commended the law & order with which Burns was given up — I would like before I sit down to a table to inquire if there is one in the company who styles himself or is styled bishop — & he or I should go out of it —  I would have such a man wear his bishops [sic] hat & his clerical bib & tucker that we may know him —”

“Why will men be such fools as trust to lawyers for moral reform — I do not believe that there is a judge in this country prepared to decide by the principle that a law is immoral & therefore of no force.” 

“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 rulers & ruled are without principle? The remembrance of the baseness of politicians spoils my walks — my thoughts are murder to the state —  I endeavor in vain to observe Nature — my thoughts involuntarily go plotting against the state — I am calculating how many miscreants each honest man can dispose of  I trust that all just men will conspire.”

17 June 1854

“Slavery has produced no sweet scented flower like the water-lily — for its flower must smell like itself. It will be a carrion-flower.”

“Sir the question is not whether you or your grandfather 70 years ago entered into an agreement to serve the devil — and that service is not accordingly now due — but whether you will not now for once & at last serve God — in spite of your own past recreancy or that of your ancestors — and obey that eternal & only just Constitution which he & not any Jefferson or Adams has written in your being. Is the Constitution a thing to live by? or to die by? No as long as we are alive we forget it & when we die we have done with it. At most it is only to swear by. While they are hurrying off christ to the cross — the ruler decides that he cannot constitutionally interfere to save him — The christians now & always are they who obey the higher law.  who discovers it to be according to their constitution to interfere — They at least cut off the ears of the police the others pocket the 30 pieces of silver. This was meaner than to crucify Christ — for he could better take care of himself”

“Let the judge & the jury — the sheriff & the jailor [sic] cease to act under a corrupt-government — cease to be tools & become men. The fate of The [sic] country does not depend on how you vote at the polls but on how you vote everywhere though you should be removed to solitary confinement on what manner of man you are”

“Certainly Slavery — and all vice & iniquity have not had poewr enough to create any flower thus annually to charm the senses of men — It has no life —  It is only a constant decaying & a death — offensive to all healthy nostrils — The unchangeable laws of the universe — by partial obedience to which even sin in a measure succeeds — are all on the side of the just & fair — It is his few good qualities mis-allied — which alone make the slaveholder at all to be feared—it is because he is in some respects a better man then [sic] we — Why who are the real opponents of slavery —? The slave holders know — & I know  Are they the governors — the judges — the lawyers the politicians — ? Or are they Garrison — Phillips Parker & Co.? The politicians do now & always will instinctively stand aloof from such”

18 June 1854

“What we want is not mainly to colonize Nebrasca [sic] with free man — but to colonize Massachusetts with free men to be free ourselves — As the enterprise of a few individuals that is brave & practical — but as the enterprise of a state it is cowardice & imbecility. What odds where we squat or how much ground we cover! It is not the soil that would make free — but men — ”

“As for asking the south to grant us the trial by jury in the case of run away slaves — It is as if — seeing a righteous man sent to Hell we should run together & petition the Devil first to grant him a trial by jury — forgetting that there is another power to be petitioned — there there [sic] is another law and other precedents [indecipherable word(s)] office is indeed another President.”

“It is not any such free soil party as I have seen — but a free man party — i.e. a party of free men — that is wanted —  It is not any politicians even the truest & soundest — but strange as it may sound even godly men as Cromwell discovered — who are wanted to fight this battle — men not of policy but of probity. Politicians! I have looked into the eyes of two or three of them — but I saw nothing there to satisfy me — They will will [sic] vote for my man tomorrow if I will vote for theirs today — They will whirl round & round not only hoziontally [sic] like weather cocks — but vertically also — My advice to the state is simply this — to dissolve her union with the slave holder instantly. She can find no respectable law or precedent which sanctions its continuance — and to each inhabitant of Mass. to dissolve his union with the state as long as she hesitates to do her duty.”

19 June 1854

“Men may talk about measures till all is blue & smells of brimstone — & then go home & sit down & expect their measures to do their duty for them —  the only measure is integrity & manhood.” 

Thoreau Reader: Home - Thoreau Transforms His Journal - Slavery in Massachusetts - Journal Writing