“It was the North … he attacked … he spoke to a Massachusetts that had denied to its citizens the legal right to preserve their own moral integrity” – Henry Seidel Canby. “Thoreau is deliciously sarcastic as he expresses his dismay that all these people were so interested in some far-away wilderness when there was such an injustice being done right in their own back yard, so to speak.” –
Where this essay came from…
Thoreau Transforms His Journal into “Slavery in Massachusetts” – Dr. Sandra Harbert Petrulionis describes how this essay was created from Thoreau’s journal entries, with an appendix that shows what was used for the speech and what was left out. In the process, she also shows another side of Henry Thoreau, and the “hermit” of Walden is revealed as a man who, like so many others, is trying to make something of his life. More information: Links to other “Slavery in Massachusetts” sites.
Slavery in Massachusetts
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,(1) 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,(2) 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.(3) Our Buttricks and Davises and Hosmers (4) 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.(5)
 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 (6) 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 1820 having been repudiated by one of the parties, “Therefore,… the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 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.
 As I had no opportunity to express my thoughts at that meeting, will you allow me to do so here?
Left: The Boston Courthouse under heavy guard while Anthony Burns was held inside.
 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 (7) 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.
 I listen to hear the voice of a Governor,(8) 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.
 Three years ago, also, when the Sims tragedy (9) 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.
 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!
 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 (10) 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.
 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, be was not equal to the occasion.
 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?(11) Have they been trained merely to rob Mexico and carry back fugitive slaves to their masters?
 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.
 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,(12) 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.(13) 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.(14) 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.
 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.
 This is what I thought about my neighbors.
 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 the 19th of April, 1775,(15) but with shame of the events of the 12th of April, 1851.(16) But now we have half buried that old shame under a new one.
 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.
 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.
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,(18) its maker, with it, like the dirt-bug and its ball.
 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.
 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.(19) 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.
 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.
 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!
 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 (20) 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.
 It is evident that there are, in this Commonwealth (21) 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.
 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.
 The Liberator and the Commonwealth (22) 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 ’51. 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.
 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 (23) in the cars, and then throw it out the window. But would not his contempt have been more fatally expressed if he had not bought it?
 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.
 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 (24), 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 Thus we steadily worship Mammon,(25) both school and state and church, and on the seventh day curse God with a tintamar (26) from one end of the Union to the other.
 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.
 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.(27) 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.
Right: advertisement for an abolitionist rally, with “Union with Freemen – No Union with Slaveholders”
 Let each inhabitant of the State dissolve his union with her, as long as she delays to do her duty.
 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!
 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.
 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.
 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?
 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.
 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?
 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.
 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.
 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.
Left: White water lily (Nymphaea odorata)
 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 Nymphoea Douglasii.(28) 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.
 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.
1. The Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 set up a territorial government for lands that later became the states of Kansas and Nebraska. Anti-slavery groups saw this as an attempt to extend slavery, and the new Republican Party was formed to defeat it. – back
2. On May 26, 1854, abolitionists storm the Boston federal courthouse in an attempt to free runaway slave Anthony Burns. Thirteen were arrested and one marshall was killed. – back
3. The Yellowstone River is a tributary of the Missouri River – the Lewis and Clark Expedition reached the mouth of the Yellowstone in April 1805 – back
4. John Buttrick was an American commander at the Battle of Concord in the Revolutionary War – Davis and Hosmer were Americans killed at Concord – back
5. The 1850 census determined that the population of Massachusetts in 1850 was 995,515, which would have become “perhaps a million” by 1854 – back
6. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was a congressional compromise: California entered the Union as a free state, and slave trading was abolished in Washington D.C., but it included concessions on slaveholding in Texas. Any official who did not arrest a suspected runaway slave could be fined $1,000. The act spurred the continued operation of the Undergound Railroad. – back
7. Edward G. Loring (1802-1890) – Massachusetts judge who ordered that Burns be returned to his southern “owner” under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 – back
8. Henry Joseph Gardner (1819-1892), governor of Massachusetts 1855-1858, part of the “Know Nothing” movement, a reaction to fears that cities were being overwhelmed by Irish immigrants – back
9. Thomas Sims was a slave who escaped in Georgia as a teenager, was arrested in Boston under the Fugitive Slave Law in 1851, and after a trial, was returned to his owner. – back
10. A writ of replevin can be used to order the seizure of illegally taken or wrongfully held property, to be held by a designated official under for the court, until the court determines otherwise. It’s commonly used to take property from an individual who is wrongfully in possession of it and to return it to its rightful owner. – back
11. Thoreau’s speech was 79 years after the Revolutionary War battles of Lexington and Concord – back
12. Thoreau’s speech was three years after Thomas Sims was returned to slavery – back
13. The 1775 Revolutionary War Battle of Concord began with the struggle for the North Bridge over the Concord River. The British were blocked by much smaller colonial force. – back
14. During the American Revolution, many soldiers who fought for the Patriot cause wore knitted stocking liberty caps of red, sometimes with the motto “Liberty” or “Liberty or Death” knitted into the band. – back
15. The date of the Battles of Lexington and Concord – back
16. In Boston, on April 12, 1851, three hundred guards escorted escaped slave Thomas Sims on to a boat that would take him to Savannah. – back
17. The British Parliament freed all slaves in the British Empire in 1833 – back
18. Daniel Webster opposed the expansion of slavery but was more concerned about the dissolution of the U.S. Webster was named secretary of state in July 1850 by Fillmore, and supervised the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act. – back
19. A reference to the Dred Scott case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1857 that all blacks were not and could never become citizens of the United States – back
20. Boxborough, Mass, is a town west of Concord, where Thoreau some times walked – back
21. The official name of Massachusets is the Commonwealth of husetts – back
22. Abolitionist newspapers included The Liberator, published by William Lloyd Garrison and Maria Weston Chapman, and the Commonwealth, published by Julia Ward Howe and Samuel Gridley Howe – back
23. John Mitchel (1815-1875) published The Citizen in New York, an Irish nationalist paper which also defended slavery. Thoreau’s spelling of Mitchel’s name is incorrect – back
24. The Boston Herald, first published in 1846 as a single sheet, two-sided paper that sold for one cent, later merged with other papers, and is now the smaller of the two Boston dailies – back
25. From the Aramaic term, meaning worldly riches. “Ye cannot serve God and mammon” is one of the better known biblical sayings. – back
26. An unpleasant uproar – back
27. “No union with slaveholders” became a goal for northern abolitionists – instead of a civil war to decide the question of slavery, they advocated a separation of the U.S., with the north and south becoming two separate countries. – back
28. A reference to Senator Stephen A. Douglas, primary author of the Compromise of 1850, which included the Fugitive Slaw Law, also the presidential candidate defeated by Lincoln in 1860. A water lily’s botanical name is Nymphaea Odorata.
Be exceedingly glad with her, all you who mourn over her, That you may nurse and be satisfied with her comforting breasts, That you may suck and be delighted with her bountiful bosom. For thus says the LORD, “Behold, I extend peace to her like a river, And the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream; And you will be nursed, you will be carried on the hip and fondled on the knees. As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; And you will be comforted in Jerusalem. Then you will see this, and your heart will be glad, And your bones will flourish like the new grass; And the hand of the LORD will be made known to His servants, But He will be indignant toward His enemies. For behold, the LORD will come in fire And His chariots like the whirlwind, To render His anger with fury, And His rebuke with flames of fire. For the LORD will execute judgment.
GANDHI: If I had been still alive at the time of your death, Sir Winston, I should have found it difficult to say very much that was favourable in your behalf. I hope you will at least appreciate the frankness of this confession.
CHURCHILL: Not only its frankness, Mr. Gandhi, but its justice. -After all, I had no kind words to offer in your behalf upon your death.
GANDHI: Nor indeed during my life. I fear I never struck you as being much better than, as you put it, “a half-naked fakir.”
CHURCHILL: That, sir, is a misquotation. What I really said was rather more severe. I called you a “seditious fakir.”
GANDHI: Well, I do not take it unkindly that you should have called me either “half-naked” or “seditious.” For, indeed, both were true of me: I was a revolutionary in a loincloth and am not insulted to have you say so. But that you should call me a “fakir”-a monk. I know what insult you intended by this. You intended to deny me the honour of sharing your own calling-that of a statesman.
CHURCHILL: Exactly so. Though why you should feel insulted by this I’m sure I don’t understand. It was just as much a statement of fact as that you were “seditious.” A monk, a mystic, a visionary-you might have been any of these. But a statesman-never!
GANDHI: I hope you will explain this to me, Sir Winston. A statesman is one who leads people, is he not? You must admit that many people followed where I led-in fact, many more, I think, than ever followed’ you.
CHURCHILL: A great many children followed Stephen of Vendome on the Children’s Crusade. This did not make Stephen a statesman. For similar reasons of religious delusion, many millions followed you into a collective act of rebellion and folly for which your country is still paying the price of disunity and poverty. No sir, a statesman is not simply any Pied Piper who can beguile a crowd into following at his heels. That is far too simple. He is essentially a man who pursues realistic goals with a realistic appreciation of
GANDHI: I shall leave to one side the question of who bears the responsibility for both India’s disunity and her poverty. I doubt this is a matter that any British politician could pursue very far without embarrassment. But surely, Sir Winston, you must give me credit for understanding how to wield power. Else how should I have managed to arouse so many millions to the struggle for independence?
CHURCHILL: You did that, of course, by playing freely upon their religious sensibilities, by indiscriminately stirring their moral passion.
GANDHI: But if this is a transgression, you clearly stand condemned of it yourself. After all, it was your gift of eloquence that inspired the British to their heroic war effort. My fasting and preaching was but the Indian counterpart of your magnificent BBC broadcasts. It seems to me we both stirred our people’s moral passion, for we both knew that a people’s moral passion is the greatest source of political power.
CHURCHILL: Ah, but I spoke of a “realistic appreciation of power.” The difference between us is that I knew where moral fervour must be bounded by political necessity: I knew where the compromise must be struck between principle and practice, between the ideal and the
possible. But you-you were an ethical inebriate: you spoke of “love” and “truth” and you went flat out for them-as a drunken man might leap off a housetop trying to embrace the moon, never caring what sacrifice of life or limb or simple self-respect it may cost. Why,
in the name of “love,” you would have denied your people proper defence against the Japanese! There are always cowards and simpletons around to cheer on such folly. But in my eyes, you were simply another sorcerer’s apprentice of the human conscience. If I may quote myself: “The human race cannot make progress without idealism. . . .”
GANDHI: I know there will be a “but” in this somewhere.
CHURCHILL: Indeed there will: “but idealism at other people’s expense, and without regard to the ruin and slaughter which fall upon millions of humble homes, cannot be regarded as its highest or noblest form.” Painful as it may seem to a man of your “saintly” sensitivities, politics is the art of choosing among lesser evils.for the sake of greater goods.
GANDHI: And what was the obliteration bombing of “millions of humble homes” in Dresden and Hamburg deed for which you bear the primary responsibility? Was this a lesser evil or a greater good?
CHURCHILL: A great, a regrettably great, but still a lesser evil; a strategy that helped crush the enemy and end the war all the sooner. And so to save many innocent lives.
GANDHI: I wonder that you do not see how deeply warped must be any concept of “statesmanship” that forces so good a man as yourself to order the mass killing of innocent hundreds of thousands in Dresden and Hamburg-and this in defence of innocence! What you are saying, Sir Winston, boils down to the oldest of political clichés: the end justifies the means. But how can we talk any longer of ends and means as if they were separable rather than an indivisible spectrum of causes and effects? MINT politics, which I called satvayraha [nonviolent resistance-literally, “soul force”], insisted that to
divide ends from means, even when this is done by a good man, is the beginning of evil and ultimately of political disaster.
CHURCHILL: Well and good But should I then have stinted in waging war against Hitler and by so doing have risked defeat? You know what Nazism meant. You know the risks we ran.
GANDHI: I know that Britain went to war to preserve the freedom of Poland and I know that Poland along with all the rest of Eastern Europe-is not free today. Similarly, I know the Americans went to war to overthrow the genocidal terror of Nazism and I know they
finished by annihilating Japanese cities with atomic bombs.
CHURCHILL: Eastern Europe need not have suffered its fate, had my wartime counsels not been ignored.
GANDHI: You mean Eastern Europe might have been saved from total Russian domination by restoring a few selected bits of it to British and American domination. Just as you were quite willing to save India from Japanese domination-provided we agreed to accept
indefinite British domination.
CHURCHILL: Do you deny these would have been lesser evils?
GANDHI: But when shall we have done with seeking to calibrate and balance goods and evils with such impossible precision! Moral rights and wrongs are not ,simply so many onions and potatoes to be weighed up in a scale. To what last, least perceptible discrimination between the vile and yet more vile does this weighing of evils extend? You yourself called communism “a ghoul descending from a pile of skulls.” Yet you allied with “Russian barbarism” to fight Hitler. You even said, “if Hitler invaded bell, I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.” Apparently your “statesmanship” excludes not even an alliance with hell.
CHURCHILL: All this only proves that you were never a politician. You wanted perfection. You wanted moral purity. But the world is a mixed bag. There is evil in it, all too much evil. We must have the courage to be practical; which means, we must be prepared at times
to weigh blood against blood, crime against crime.
GANDHI: I must protest, Sir Winston! How can you call me a political purist? Who would know better than I the perverseness and weakness of men? How many times did I fast to atone for my Himalayan miscalculations of human goodness? Of course there must be suffering and perhaps death wherever there is human conflict. But we shall never have the foresight or judgement to make careful predictions and discriminations your sort of statesman deals in. We think we have chosen a means which is a “lesser evil”- but it perversely generates an end we did not foresee and which is ten times worse than the evil we sought to elude. So I insist: what we really know of good and evil lies here before us in our immediate action. We must be good and do good now, not later. “The only guide to a man is his conscience.” These are your own words.
CHURCHILL: Then what would you have had me do when the enemy was at our gates? Advise my people not to defy him?
GANDHI: The enemy at your gates in 1940 was the product of a long catalogue of vengeful and selfish actions in the 20 years before 1940-and further back than that. A catalogue to which your own people contributed heavily. Hitler was a monster of your own making.
CHURCHILL: An observation I made myself many times. I shall not dispute that. But you avoid my question: when he was at the gates, what should I have done then? Surrender? Should I have let him crush our liberty, destroy our dignity, our very souls?
GANDHI: I presume you speak symbolically, Sir Winston. It was, after all, not you who resisted the Nazis. It was the British people as a whole-as you yourself said: they were the lionheart, you were but the roar. Suppose Hitler had occupied your country. Occupation does not imply surrender. Could Hitler have destroyed the souls or dignity of the British people, with their proud Dunkirk spirit? The British who occupied India could not destroy our souls or dignity. Were not your gallant people prepared to fight on the beaches, in the streets?
CHURCHILL: If it came to that, yes. But we would not have fought nonviolently as you desire. That would have been useless.
GANDHI: You say that, despite the victory we achieved over Britain by nonviolence?
CHURCHILL: You did not achieve that victory from my government, remember!
GANDHI: But we would have, you know. Even you we should have “weaned from error by patience and sympathy”– or forced into compliance by sheer dogged resistance. And out of our nonviolent struggle you see what has come: we have freed ourselves and we have made you a better, prouder people, because we avoided as far as possible bloodshed and hatred and so forced you to recognise the criminality of your position in India.
CHURCHILL: Our criminality indeed! Of course, you can never admit what Britain brought to India. But my father was right when be said, “Our rule in India is, as it were, a sheet of oil spread out and keeping free from storms a vast and profound ocean of humanity.” And
but for your revolutionary precipitousness, the Raj should have matured toward greater justice and enlightenment.
GANDHI: How typical of you, Sir Winston! Such patrician generosity. So long as the downtrodden whether they were your own British working classes or our Indian masses-were willing to ask politely,wait patiently and accept with thanks, then of course you could be magnanimous with them, like a good father rewarding his children for their obedience. You could give social insurance and generous measures of self-rule. Never all the underprivileged wanted, but something more-than they had. But let them once demand their rights and reach to take what was rightfully theirs-as your workers did in the General Strike-and there was no open hand, only a clenched fist.
CHURCHILL: You are deucedly clever at steering a conversation into irrelevant detours. I seem to remember your suggesting that your satyagraha could have been used successfully against Hitler. And your proof, amazingly enough, is that it worked against us in India.
This is a very crooked argument, Mr. Gandhi. There is simply no comparison between the British Raj in India and the Nazi Reich in Europe. There is all the difference between them that lies between a not quite cloudless day and a starless midnight.
GANDHI: Of course you British prefer to flatter yourself on that score. You conveniently forget Amritsan and the Rowlatt Act, don’t you? I think it almost fills the British with pride now to say that nonviolence worked against them; it surely would never have worked
against other, less humane, less sportsmanlike people I like the Germans. But of course it did! You recall the success of the Norwegian teachers against Hitler.
CHURCHILL: An exceptional situation.
GANDHI: Every situation is an exception. For every situation is unique. How many such “exceptional situations” have men failed to recognise because of their blind commitment to armed force?
CHURCHILL: All that you say again proves you are no politician. For you cannot see the most obvious realities. I saw the horror and brutality of Nazism and knew that our flawed society and those of France and America-yes, even that of Russia-were better. We fought through to victory and we survived. Imperfect, yes. But amid our imperfections the ideals that Hitler would have ruthlessly blotted out survive. Satyagraha would have saved nothing from Hitler. War saved something. And intelligent diplomacy-in the Twenties and Thirties-would have saved everything, just as it can save everything now, if the Western nations can keep their heads and their nerve. What you fail to see is the way in which power can serve principle. But principle divested of power is doomed.
GANDHI: What you fail to see is that there are sources of power as yet untapped in men-the power of their love and their ideals. And this power is not incompatible with intelligent diplomacy. Remember, Sir Winston, your country never dealt with a diplomat so courteous
and yet so cunning, and ultimately so successful against you, as this “seditious fakir.” Indeed, my argument is that the power of love and idealism alone can generate intelligent diplomacy, by which I mean open communication and fair bargaining. What would a little love and honesty have-done in 1919 to prevent 1939?
CHURCHILL: And what would a little air parity have done in 1937 to prevent 1939?
GANDHI: But must you always see power as a weapon? Is it not sufficiently clear that this kind of power- military power-can really no longer “serve principle”? This policy of deterrence your Western societies now cling to involves you in a commitment to
genocide, the very crime for which you punished the Nazis at Nuremberg. And if you should ever unleash that power, there will be neither principles nor people left in your societies. The technicians have, I fear, rendered your Realpolitik obsolete.
CHURCHILL: Not at all, sir. The weapons change, but not the ancient principle: si vis pacem, para bellum. In 1953 1 said, “when the advance to destructive weapons enables everyone to kill everyone else, nobody will want to kill anyone at all.” This is what deterrence amounts to, and what it requires is that we arm and remain armed as never before in history.
GANDHI: You can still believe that politics proceeds on the basis of such rational calculation-you who have seen madmen like Hitler rise up on the stage of history, you who saw relatively sane men blunder into catastrophe in 1914! When I hear you speak like this, I wonder that you can call me a mystic and a dreamer. I seem to hear the eloquent voice of a hopeless romantic: “the Byronic Napoleon,” as my biographer Louis Fischer called you. You are someone whose politics belongs to the distant past, to the day of your great ancestor,
Marlborough, when wars could be surgically neat and world affairs could be pursued like a sport among generals and gentlemen. But that is all over, you know. Ours is the age of the masses and of massive violence, a revolutionary age that requires a revolution in our
conception of power. And this, for all my failures and miscalculations, is what I offered as a pioneer of nonviolence: a revolution in the meaning of power which called for “the vindication of truth by the infliction of suffering not on the opponent but on one’s self.”
CHURCHILL: And when I hear you speak, I hear an even more distant voice-the voice of untold numbers of prophets and visionaries, none of whose inspiration would have been preserved but for the grim resolution, the hard sense and the steadfast responsibility of the
statesmanship that has always stood between civilised life and the barbarian at the gates.
GANDHI: I see, then, we can finally agree on very little. But you know, Sir Winston, though we never spoke to one another in all our lives, I believe there was between us, through our life and work, the greatest dialogue of our time.
CHURCHILL: On that we can agree.
The book was written in order to show that they were following ‘a suicidal policy.’ He recalled he had come into contact with “every known Indian school of violence.’ I felt that violence was no remedy for India’s ills and that her civilisation required the use of a different and higher weapon for self- protection. Fourthly ‘modern civilisation’ posed a greater threat than did colonialism. They appeared to take it for granted that modern civilisation was an unmixed blessing and colonialism an unmixed evil, forgetting that colonialism itself was a product civilisation. ‘My countrymen therefore ‘think’, states the Preface, ‘that they should adopt modern civilization and modern method of violence to drive out the English, This : ‘it is not the point is further elaborated in the Preface to the second Gujarati edition of 1914: ‘it is not the British that are responsible for the misfortunes of India but we who have succumbed to modern civilisation.The key to an understanding of Hind Swaraj lies in the idea that worldly pursuits should give way to ethical living. This way of life has no room for violence in any form against any human being, black or white. And in 1929 he came back to the same idea: “The Western civilisation which passes for civilisation is disgusting to me. I have given a rough picture of it in Hind Swaraj. Time has brought no change in it. And in 1939. ‘The key to understand that incredibly simple (so simple as to be regarded foolish) booklet is to realise that it is not an attempt to go back to the so called ignorant , dark ages. But it is an attempt to see beauty in voluntary simplicity, voluntary poverty and slowness. I have picture that as my ideal. ‘I would ask you to read Hind Swaraj with my eyes,’ he exhorts the reader, and see therein the chapter on how to make India non-violent. You cannot build non-violence on a factory civilization, but it can be built on self-contained villages.’ Fifthly he wanted to contribute towards the reconciliation of Indians and Britons. This is evident from the ‘exhortation’ to the English. Modern civilisation posed as much a problem for them as it did for the Indians. And the desire for reconciliation can come about ‘only when the root of our relationship is sunk in a religious soil. In Hind Swaraj a conscious attempt is being made to actualise that potential. ‘This is not a mere Finally, Gandhi believed that through Hind Swaraj he would be able to give Indians a practical philosophy, an updated conception of dharma, that would fit them for life in the modern world. Dharma was tied to a hierarchical system of duties and obligations and to the preservation of status. It gave little or no attention to the idea of democratic citizenship. Gandhi felt that the time had come to redefine the scope to include notions of citizenship, equality, liberty, and mutual assistance. ‘This is not a mere political book,’ he writes. “I have used the language of politics, but I have really tried to offer a glimpse of dharma. What is the meaning of Hind Swaraj? It means rule of dharma or Ramarajya. What we have to learn from them is desire for the welfare of others. A casual reading may strike the reader as being a rather simple one. This would not be an unwarranted reaction, since Gandhi sought simplicity in all things, including the way he presented his ideas. But first impressions in this case can be, and are, deceptive, for the book contains in compressed form the author’s conception of what modern India to become and how politics may be made into the highest form of the active life. It is therefore a book that needs to be read reflectively.