People v. State

fairly undermining public confidence in the administration of justice

“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.”

November 22, 2011 By: John Kindley Category: Henry David Thoreau

“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]

. . .

“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]

Henry David Thoreau’s “Slavery in Massachusetts” (1854)


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