Walden, by Henry David Thoreau

Part 6 out of 6

or to the Maker of fire, and I have only myself to blame. If I
could convince myself that I have any right to be satisfied with men
as they are, and to treat them accordingly, and not according, in
some respects, to my requisitions and expectations of what they and
I ought to be, then, like a good Mussulman and fatalist, I should
endeavor to be satisfied with things as they are, and say it is the
will of God. And, above all, there is this difference between
resisting this and a purely brute or natural force, that I can
resist this with some effect; but I cannot expect, like Orpheus, to
change the nature of the rocks and trees and beasts.
I do not wish to quarrel with any man or nation. I do not wish
to split hairs, to make fine distinctions, or set myself up as
better than my neighbors. I seek rather, I may say, even an excuse
for conforming to the laws of the land. I am but too ready to
conform to them. Indeed, I have reason to suspect myself on this
head; and each year, as the tax-gatherer comes round, I find myself
disposed to review the acts and position of the general and State
governments, and the spirit of the people, to discover a pretext for
"We must affect our country as our parents,
And if at any time we alienate
Our love or industry from doing it honor,
We must respect effects and teach the soul
Matter of conscience and religion,
And not desire of rule or benefit."

I believe that the State will soon be able to take all my work
of this sort out of my hands, and then I shall be no better a
patriot than my fellow-countrymen. Seen from a lower point of view,
the Constitution, with all its faults, is very good; the law and the
courts are very respectable; even this State and this American
government are, in many respects, very admirable and rare things,
to be thankful for, such as a great many have described them; but
seen from a point of view a little higher, they are what I have
described them; seen from a higher still, and the highest, who shall
say what they are, or that they are worth looking at or thinking of
at all?
However, the government does not concern me much, and I shall
bestow the fewest possible thoughts on it. It is not many moments
that I live under a government, even in this world. If a man is
thought-free, fancy-free, imagination-free, that which is not never
for a long time appearing to be to him, unwise rulers or reformers
cannot fatally interrupt him.
I know that most men think differently from myself; but those
whose lives are by profession devoted to the study of these or
kindred subjects, content me as little as any. Statesmen and
legislators, standing so completely within the institution, never
distinctly and nakedly behold it. They speak of moving society, but
have no resting-place without it. They may be men of a certain
experience and discrimination, and have no doubt invented ingenious
and even useful systems, for which we sincerely thank them; but all
their wit and usefulness lie within certain not very wide limits.
They are wont to forget that the world is not governed by policy and
expediency. Webster never goes behind government, and so cannot
speak with authority about it. His words are wisdom to those
legislators who contemplate no essential reform in the existing
government; but for thinkers, and those who legislate for all time,
he never once glances at the subject. I know of those whose serene
and wise speculations on this theme would soon reveal the limits of
his mind's range and hospitality. Yet, compared with the cheap
professions of most reformers, and the still cheaper wisdom and
eloquence of politicians in general, his are almost the only
sensible and valuable words, and we thank Heaven for him.
Comparatively, he is always strong, original, and, above all,
practical. Still, his quality is not wisdom, but prudence. The
lawyer's truth is not truth, but consistency or a consistent
expediency. Truth is always in harmony with herself, and is not
concerned chiefly to reveal the justice that may consist with
wrong-doing. He well deserves to be called, as he has been called,
the Defender of the Constitution. There are really no blows to be
given by him but defensive ones. He is not a leader, but a
follower. His leaders are the men of '87. "I have never made an
effort," he says, "and never propose to make an effort; I have never
countenanced an effort, and never mean to countenance an effort, to
disturb the arrangement as originally made, by which the various
States came into the Union." Still thinking of the sanction which
the Constitution gives to slavery, he says, "Because it was a part
of the original compact -- let it stand." Notwithstanding his
special acuteness and ability, he is unable to take a fact out of
its merely political relations, and behold it as it lies absolutely
to be disposed of by the intellect -- what, for instance, it
behooves a man to do here in America to-day with regard to slavery,
but ventures, or is driven, to make some such desperate answer as
the following, while professing to speak absolutely, and as a
private man -- from which what new and singular code of social
duties might be inferred? "The manner," says he, "in which the
governments of those States where slavery exists are to regulate it
is for their own consideration, under their responsibility to their
constituents, to the general laws of propriety, humanity, and
justice, and to God. Associations formed elsewhere, springing from
a feeling of humanity, or any other cause, have nothing whatever to
do with it. They have never received any encouragement from me, and
they never will."
They who know of no purer sources of truth, who have traced up
its stream no higher, stand, and wisely stand, by the Bible and the
Constitution, and drink at it there with reverence and humility; but
they who behold where it comes trickling into this lake or that
pool, gird up their loins once more, and continue their pilgrimage
toward its fountain-head.
No man with a genius for legislation has appeared in America.
They are rare in the history of the world. There are orators,
politicians, and eloquent men, by the thousand; but the speaker has
not yet opened his mouth to speak who is capable of settling the
much-vexed questions of the day. We love eloquence for its own
sake, and not for any truth which it may utter, or any heroism it
may inspire. Our legislators have not yet learned the comparative
value of free-trade and of freedom, of union, and of rectitude, to a
nation. They have no genius or talent for comparatively humble
questions of taxation and finance, commerce and manufacturers and
agriculture. If we were left solely to the wordy wit of legislators
in Congress for our guidance, uncorrected by the seasonable
experience and the effectual complaints of the people, America would
not long retain her rank among the nations. For eighteen hundred
years, though perchance I have no right to say it, the New Testament
has been written; yet where is the legislator who has wisdom and
practical talent enough to avail himself of the light which it sheds
on the science of legislation?
The authority of government, even such as I am willing to submit
to -- for I will cheerfully obey those who know and can do better
than I, and in many things even those who neither know nor can do so
well -- is still an impure one: to be strictly just, it must have
the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right
over my person and property but what I concede to it. The progress
from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a
democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual.
Even the Chinese philosopher was wise enough to regard the
individual as the basis of the empire. Is a democracy, such as we
know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not
possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing
the rights of man? There will never be a really free and
enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual
as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and
authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. I please myself
with imagining a State at least which can afford to be just to all
men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which
even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few
were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by
it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men. A
State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as
fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect
and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere


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