Freedom of Speech

Essay by
Henry David Thoreau

draft from:

The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau
edited by Bradford Torrey
and Francis H. Allen

Houghton Mifflin: Boston, 1906

November 1858

Breathing free, speaking free

Preaching? Lecturing? Who are ye that ask for such things? What do ye want to hear, ye puling infants? A trumpet-sound that would train you up to mankind, or a nurse's lullaby? The preachers and lecturers deal with men of straw, as they are men of straw themselves.

Why, a free-spoken man, of sound lungs, cannot draw a long breath without causing your rotten institutions to come toppling down by the vacuum he makes. Your church is a baby-house made of blocks, and so of the state. It would be a relief to breathe one's self occasionally among men.

If there were any magnanimity in us, any grandeur of soul, anything but sects and parties undertaking to patronize God and keep the mind within bounds, how often we might encourage and provoke one another by a free expression! I will not consent to walk with my mouth muzzled ...

Freedom ... is not leave given me

Freedom of speech! It hath not entered into your hearts to conceive what those words mean. It is not leave given me by your sect to say this or that; it is when leave is given to your sect to withdraw.

The church, the state, the school, the magazine, think they are liberal and free! It is the freedom of a prison-yard. I ask only that one fourth part of my honest thoughts be spoken aloud.

What is it you tolerate, you church to-day? Not truth, but a lifelong hypocrisy. Let us have institutions framed not out of our rottenness, but out of our soundness.

This factitious piety is like stale gingerbread. I would like to suggest what a pack of fools and cowards we mankind are. They want me to agree not to breathe too hard in the neighborhood of their paper castles. If I should draw a long breath in the neighborhood of these institutions, their weak and flabby sides would fall out, for my own inspiration would exhaust the air about them.

A timid devil

The church! it is eminently the timid institution, and the heads and pillars of it are constitutionally and by principle the greatest cowards in the community. The voice that goes up from the monthly concerts is not so brave and so cheering as that which rises from the frog-ponds of the land. The best "preachers," so called, are an effeminate class; their bravest thoughts wear petticoats. If they have any manhood they are sure to forsake the ministry, though they were to turn their attention to baseball.

Look at your editors of popular magazines. I have dealt with two or three the most liberal of them. They are afraid to print a whole sentence, a round sentence, a free-spoken sentence. They want to get thirty thousand subscribers, and they will do anything to get them. They consult the D.D.'s [Doctors of Divinity] and all the letters of the alphabet before printing a sentence.

I have been into many of these cowardly New England towns where they profess Christianity, — invited to speak, perchance, — where they were trembling in their shoes at the thought of the things you might say, as if they knew their weak side, — that they were weak on all sides. The devil they have covenanted with is a timid devil. If they would let their sores alone they might heal, and they could to the wars again like men; but instead of that they get together in meeting-house cellars, rip off the bandages and poultice them with sermons. ...

You may find a cape which runs six miles into the sea that has not a man of moral courage upon it. What is called faith is an immense prejudice. ... they are the creatures of an institution. ...

How often is it that the shoemaker, by thinking over his last, can think as valuable a thought as he makes a valuable shoe?

I have been into the town, being invited to speak to the inhabitants, not valuing, not having read even, the Assembly's Catechism, and I try to stimulate them by reporting the best of my experience. I see the craven priest looking round for a hole to escape at, alarmed because it was he that invited me thither, and an awful silence pervades the audience. They think they will never get me there again. But the seed has not all fallen in stony and shallow ground.

Speaking guns, sons of thunder

It is no compliment to be invited to lecture before the rich Institutes and Lyceums. The settled lecturers are as tame as the settled ministers. The audiences do not want to hear any prophets; they do not wish to be stimulated and instructed, but entertained. They, their wives and daughters, go to the Lyceum to suck a sugar-plum. The little of medicine they get is disguised with sugar.

It is never the reformer they hear there, but a faint and timid echo of him only. They seek a pastime merely. Their greatest guns and sons of thunder are only wooden guns and great-grandsons of thunder, who give them smooth words well pronounced from manuscripts well punctuated, — they who have stolen the little fire they have from prophets whom the audience would quake to hear. ...

The curators have on their lists the names of the men who came before the Philomathean Institute in the next large town and did no harm; left things in statu quo, so that all slept the better for it; only confirmed the audience in their previous badness; spoke a good word for God; gave the clergy, that heavy set, a lift; told the youngsters to be good boys. A man may have a good deal to say who has not any desk to thump on, who does not thunder in bad air.

They want all of a man but his truth and independence and manhood.

One who spoke to their condition would of course make them wince, and they would retaliate, i.e. kick him out, or stop their ears.



Troynovant, or Renewing Troy:    New | Contents
  recurrent inspiration    200 Recent Updates
emergent layers of
untimely Reviews
& prismatic Essays


Essays A-L, M-Z: mining the prismatic veins of Knowledge
Follies: whimsical Ventures, shiny light-hearted Profundities
Illuminants: glances brightening to heat
Memoirs: Personal History, personally told
Postcards: flat-carded Scenes of Passage
Satires: a point or a quiver-full

Strata | Regions | Personae

Share this item —

Bookmark & Share

© 2001-2023 Franson Publications