1 Yolabar

The Tax Gatherer Essay Outline

I heart­ily accept the motto, — “That gov­ern­ment is best which gov­erns least;” and I should like to see it acted up to more rap­idly and sys­tem­at­i­cally. Car­ried out, it fi­nally amounts to this, which also I believe, — “That gov­ern­ment is best which gov­erns not at all;” and when men are pre­pared for it, that will be the kind of gov­ern­ment which they will have. Gov­ern­ment is at best but an ex­pe­di­ent; but most gov­ern­ments are usu­ally, and all gov­ern­ments are some­times, in­ex­pe­di­ent. The ob­jec­tions which have been brought against a stand­ing army, and they are many and weighty, and de­serve to pre­vail, may also at last be brought against a stand­ing gov­ern­ment. The stand­ing army is only an arm of the stand­ing gov­ern­ment. The gov­ern­ment it­self, which is only the mode which the peo­ple have cho­sen to ex­e­cute their will, is equally li­a­ble to be abused and per­verted be­fore the peo­ple can act through it. Witness the pres­ent Mex­i­can war, the work of com­par­a­tively a few in­di­vid­u­als using the stand­ing gov­ern­ment as their tool; for, in the out­set, the peo­ple would not have con­sented to this meas­ure. [¶1]

This Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment, — what is it but a tra­di­tion, though a recent one, en­deav­or­ing to trans­mit it­self un­im­paired to pos­ter­ity, but each in­stant losing some of its in­teg­rity? It has not the vi­tal­ity and force of a sin­gle liv­ing man; for a sin­gle man can bend it to his will. It is a sort of wooden gun to the peo­ple them­selves; and, if ever they should use it in ear­nest as a real one against each other, it will surely split. But it is not the less nec­es­sary for this; for the peo­ple must have some com­pli­cated ma­chin­ery or other, and hear its din, to sat­isfy that idea of gov­ern­ment which they have. Gov­ern­ments show thus how suc­cess­fully men can be im­posed upon, even im­pose on them­selves, for their own ad­van­tage. It is ex­cel­lent, we must all al­low; yet this gov­ern­ment never of it­self fur­thered any en­ter­prise, but by the alac­rity with which it got out of its way. It does not keep the coun­try free. It does not set­tle the West. It does not ed­u­cate. The char­ac­ter in­her­ent in the Amer­i­can peo­ple has done all that has been ac­com­plished; and it would have done some­what more, if the gov­ern­ment had not some­times got in its way. For gov­ern­ment is an ex­pe­di­ent by which men would fain suc­ceed in let­ting one an­other alone; and, as has been said, when it is most ex­pe­di­ent, the gov­erned are most let alone by it. Trade and com­merce, if they were not made of In­dia rub­ber, would never man­age to bounce over ob­sta­cles which leg­is­la­tors are con­tin­u­ally put­ting in their way; and, if one were to judge these men wholly by the ef­fects of their ac­tions, and not partly by their in­ten­tions, they would de­serve to be classed and pun­ished with those mis­chie­vious per­sons who put ob­struc­tions on the rail­roads. [¶2]

But, to speak prac­ti­cally and as a cit­i­zen, un­like those who call them­selves no-gov­ern­ment men, I ask for, not at once no gov­ern­ment, but at once a bet­ter gov­ern­ment. Let ev­ery man make known what kind of gov­ern­ment would com­mand his re­spect, and that will be one step to­ward ob­taining it. [¶3]

Af­ter all, the prac­ti­cal rea­son why, when the power is once in the hands of the peo­ple, a ma­jor­ity are per­mit­ted, and for a long pe­ri­od con­tinue, to rule, is not be­cause they are most likely to be in the right, nor be­cause this seems fair­est to the mi­nor­ity, but be­cause they are phys­ic­ally the strong­est. But a gov­ern­ment in which the ma­jor­ity rule in all cases can­not be based on jus­tice, even as far as men un­der­stand it. Can there not be a gov­ern­ment in which ma­jor­it­ies do not vir­tu­ally de­cide right and wrong, but con­science? — in which ma­jor­it­ies de­cide only those ques­tions to which the rule of ex­pe­di­ency is ap­pli­ca­ble? Must the cit­i­zen ever for a mo­ment, or in the least de­gree, re­sign his con­science to the leg­is­la­tor? Why has ev­ery man a con­science, then? I think that we should be men first, and sub­jects af­ter­ward. It is not de­sir­a­ble to cul­ti­vate a re­spect for the law, so much as for the right. The only ob­li­ga­tion which I have a right to as­sume, is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a cor­po­ra­tion has no con­science; but a cor­po­ra­tion of con­sci­en­tious men is a cor­po­ra­tion with a con­science. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their re­spect for it, even the well-dis­posed are daily made the agents of in­jus­tice. A com­mon and nat­u­ral re­sult of an un­due re­spect for the law is, that you may see a file of sol­diers, colo­nel, cap­tain, cor­po­ral, pri­vates, pow­der-mon­keys and all, march­ing in ad­mi­ra­ble order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their com­mon sense and con­sciences, which makes it very steep march­ing in­deed, and pro­duces a pal­pi­ta­tion of the heart. They have no doubt that it is a dam­na­ble busi­ness in which they are con­cerned; they are all peace­a­bly in­clined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small mov­a­ble forts and mag­a­zines, at the serv­ice of some un­scru­pu­lous man in power? Visit the Navy Yard, and be­hold a ma­rine, such a man as an Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment can make, or such as it can make a man with its black arts, a mere shadow and rem­i­nis­cence of hu­man­ity, a man laid out alive and stand­ing, and al­ready, as one may say, bur­ied un­der arms with fu­neral ac­com­pa­ni­ments, though it may be

“Not a drum was heard, not a fu­neral note,
    As his corse to the ram­parts we hur­ried;
 Not a sol­dier dis­charged his fare­well shot
   O’er the grave where our hero we bur­ied.”[¶4]

The mass of men serve the State thus, not as men mainly, but as ma­chines, with their bod­ies. They are the stand­ing army, and the mi­li­tia, jail­ers, con­sta­bles, posse com­i­ta­tus, &c. In most cases there is no free ex­er­cise what­ever of the judge­ment or of the moral sense; but they put them­selves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can per­haps be man­u­fac­tured that will serve the pur­pose as well. Such com­mand no more re­spect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are com­monly es­teemed good cit­i­zens. Others, as most leg­is­la­tors, pol­i­ti­cians, law­yers, min­is­ters, and of­fice-hold­ers, serve the State chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral dis­tinc­tions, they are as likely to serve the devil, with­out in­tend­ing it, as God. A very few, as he­roes, pa­tri­ots, mar­tyrs, re­form­ers in the great sense, and men, serve the State with their con­sciences also, and so nec­es­sa­rily re­sist it for the most part; and they are com­monly treated by it as en­e­mies. A wise man will only be use­ful as a man, and will not submit to be “clay,” and “stop a hole to keep the wind away,” but leave that of­fice to his dust at least: — 

“I am too high-born to be prop­er­tied,
 To be a sec­ond­ary at con­trol,
 Or use­ful serv­ing-man and in­stru­ment
 To any sov­er­eign state through­out the world.”[¶5]

He who gives him­self en­tirely to his fel­low-men ap­pears to them use­less and self­ish; but he who gives him­self par­tially to them is pro­nounced a ben­e­fac­tor and phi­lan­thro­pist. [¶6]

How does it be­come a man to be­have to­ward this Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment to-day? I an­swer that he can­not with­out dis­grace be as­so­ci­a­ted with it. I can­not for an in­stant re­cog­nize that po­lit­i­cal or­gan­i­za­tion as my gov­ern­ment which is the slave’s gov­ern­ment also. [¶7]

All men re­cog­nize the right of rev­o­lu­tion; that is, the right to re­fuse al­le­giance to and to re­sist the gov­ern­ment, when its tyr­anny or its in­ef­fi­ciency are great and un­en­dur­a­ble. But al­most all say that such is not the case now. But such was the case, they think, in the Rev­o­lu­tion of . If one were to tell me that this was a bad gov­ern­ment be­cause it taxed cer­tain for­eign com­mod­i­ties brought to its ports, it is most prob­a­ble that I should not make an ado about it, for I can do with­out them: all ma­chines have their fric­tion; and pos­si­bly this does enough good to coun­ter­bal­ance the evil. At any rate, it is a great evil to make a stir about it. But when the fric­tion comes to have its ma­chine, and op­pres­sion and rob­bery are or­gan­ized, I say, let us not have such a ma­chine any longer. In other words, when a sixth of the pop­u­la­tion of a na­tion which has un­der­taken to be the ref­uge of lib­erty are slaves, and a whole coun­try is un­justly over­run and con­quered by a for­eign army, and sub­jected to mil­i­tary law, I think that it is not too soon for hon­est men to rebel and rev­o­lu­tion­ize. What makes this duty the more ur­gent is that fact, that the coun­try so over­run is not our own, but ours is the in­vad­ing army. [¶8]

Paley, a com­mon au­thor­ity with many on moral ques­tions, in his chap­ter on the “Duty of Sub­mis­sion to Civil Gov­ern­ment,” re­solves all civil ob­li­ga­tion into ex­pe­di­ency; and he pro­ceeds to say, “that so long as the in­ter­est of the whole so­ci­ety re­quires it, that is, so long as the es­tab­lished gov­ern­ment can­not be re­sisted or changed with­out pub­lic in­con­ven­iency, it is the will of God that the es­tab­lished gov­ern­ment be obeyed, and no longer.” — “This prin­ci­ple be­ing ad­mit­ted, the jus­tice of ev­ery par­tic­u­lar case of re­sis­tance is re­duced to a com­pu­ta­tion of the quan­tity of the dan­ger and griev­ance on the one side, and of the prob­a­bil­ity and ex­pense of re­dres­sing it on the other.” Of this, he says, ev­ery man shall judge for him­self. But Paley ap­pears never to have con­tem­plated those cases to which the rule of ex­pe­di­ency does not ap­ply, in which a peo­ple, as well as an in­di­vid­ual, must do jus­tice, cost what it may. If I have un­justly wrested a plank from a drown­ing man, I must re­store it to him though I drown my­self. This, ac­cord­ing to Paley, would be in­con­ve­nient. But he that would save his life, in such a case, shall lose it. This peo­ple must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mex­ico, though it cost them their ex­is­tence as a peo­ple. [¶9]

In their practice, na­tions agree with Paley; but does any one think that Mas­sa­chu­setts does ex­actly what is right at the pres­ent cri­sis?

“A drab of state, a cloth-o’-sil­ver slut,
 To have her train borne up, and her soul trail in the dirt.”

Prac­ti­cally speak­ing, the op­pon­ents to a re­form in Mas­sa­chu­setts are not a hun­dred thou­sand pol­i­ti­cians at the South, but a hun­dred thou­sand mer­chants and farm­ers here, who are more in­ter­ested in com­merce and ag­ri­cul­ture than they are in hu­man­ity, and are not pre­pared to do jus­tice to the slave and to Mex­ico, cost what it may. I quar­rel not with far-off foes, but with those who, near at home, co-op­er­ate with, and do the bid­ding of those far away, and with­out whom the lat­ter would be harm­less. We are ac­cus­tomed to say, that the mass of men are un­pre­pared; but im­prove­ment is slow, be­cause the few are not ma­te­ri­ally wiser or bet­ter than the many. It is not so im­por­tant that many should be as good as you, as that there be some ab­so­lute good­ness some­where; for that will leaven the whole lump. There are thou­sands who are in opin­ion op­posed to slav­ery and to the war, who yet in ef­fect do noth­ing to put an end to them; who, es­teem­ing them­selves chil­dren of Wash­ing­ton and Frank­lin, sit down with their hands in their pock­ets, and say that they know not what to do, and do noth­ing; who even post­pone the ques­tion of free­dom to the ques­tion of free-trade, and qui­etly read the prices-cur­rent along with the latest ad­vices from Mex­ico, af­ter din­ner, and, it may be, fall asleep over them both. What is the price-cur­rent of an hon­est man and pa­triot to-day? They hes­i­tate, and they re­gret, and some­times they pe­ti­tion; but they do noth­ing in ear­nest and with ef­fect. They will wait, well dis­posed, for others to rem­edy the evil, that they may no longer have it to re­gret. At most, they give only a cheap vote, and a fee­ble coun­te­nance and God-speed, to the right, as it goes by them. There are nine hun­dred and ninety-nine pa­trons of vir­tue to one vir­tu­ous man; but it is eas­ier to deal with the real pos­ses­sor of a thing than with the tem­po­rary guard­ian of it. [¶10]

All vot­ing is a sort of gam­ing, like che­quers or back­gam­mon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a play­ing with right and wrong, with moral ques­tions; and bet­ting nat­u­rally ac­com­pa­nies it. The char­ac­ter of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, per­chance, as I think right; but I am not vi­tally con­cerned that that right should pre­vail. I am wil­ling to leave it to the ma­jor­ity. Its ob­li­ga­tion, there­fore, never ex­ceeds that of ex­pe­di­ency. Even vot­ing for the right is do­ing noth­ing for it. It is only ex­pres­sing to men fee­bly your de­sire that it should pre­vail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to pre­vail through the power of the ma­jor­ity. There is but lit­tle vir­tue in the ac­tion of mas­ses of men. When the ma­jor­ity shall at length vote for the ab­o­li­tion of slav­ery, it will be be­cause they are in­dif­fer­ent to slav­ery, or be­cause there is but lit­tle slav­ery left to be ab­o­lished by their vote. They will then be the only slaves. Only his vote can has­ten the ab­o­li­tion of slav­ery who as­serts his own free­dom by his vote. [¶11]

I hear of a con­ven­tion to be held at Bal­ti­more, or else­where, for the se­lec­tion of a can­di­date for the Pres­i­dency, made up chiefly of ed­i­tors, and men who are pol­i­ti­cians by pro­fes­sion; but I think, what is it to any in­de­pen­dent, in­tel­li­gent, and re­spect­able man what de­ci­sion they may come to, shall we not have the ad­van­tage of his wis­dom and hon­esty, nev­er­the­less? Can we not count upon some in­de­pen­dent votes? Are there not many in­di­vid­u­als in the coun­try who do not at­tend con­ven­tions? But no: I find that the re­spect­able man, so called, has im­me­di­ately drifted from his po­si­tion, and de­spairs of his coun­try, when his coun­try has more rea­sons to de­spair of him. He forth­with adopts one of the can­di­dates thus se­lected as the only avail­able one, thus prov­ing that he is him­self avail­able for any pur­poses of the dem­a­gogue. His vote is of no more worth than that of any un­prin­ci­pled for­eigner or hire­ling na­tive, who may have been bought. Oh for a man who is a man, and, as my neigh­bor says, has a bone in his back which you can­not pass your hand through! Our sta­tis­tics are at fault: the pop­u­la­tion has been re­turned too large. How many men are there to a square thou­sand miles in the coun­try? Hardly one. Does not Amer­ica offer any in­duce­ment for men to set­tle here? The Amer­i­can has dwin­dled into an Odd Fel­low, — one who may be known by the de­vel­op­ment of his or­gan of gre­gar­i­ous­ness, and a man­i­fest lack of in­tel­lect and cheer­ful self-re­li­ance; whose first and chief con­cern, on com­ing into the world, is to see that the alms-houses are in good re­pair; and, be­fore yet he has law­fully donned the virile garb, to col­lect a fund for the sup­port of the wid­ows and or­phans that may be; who, in short, ven­tures to live only by the aid of the mu­tual in­sur­ance com­pany, which has prom­ised to bury him de­cently. [¶12]

It is not a man’s duty, as a mat­ter of course, to de­vote him­self to the erad­i­cat­ion of any, even the most enor­mous wrong; he may still prop­erly have other con­cerns to en­gage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it prac­ti­cally his sup­port. If I de­vote my­self to other pur­suits and con­tem­plat­ions, I must first see, at least, that I do not pur­sue them sit­ting upon an­other man’s shoul­ders. I must get off him first, that he may pur­sue his con­tem­plat­ions too. See what gross in­con­sis­tency is tol­er­a­ted. I have heard some of my towns­men say, “I should like to have them or­der me out to help put down an in­sur­rec­tion of the slaves, or to march to Mex­ico, — see if I would go;” and yet these very men have each, di­rectly by their al­le­giance, and so in­di­rectly, at least, by their money, fur­nished a sub­sti­tute. The sol­dier is ap­plauded who re­fuses to serve in an un­just war by those who do not re­fuse to sus­tain the un­just gov­ern­ment which makes the war; is ap­plauded by those whose own act and au­thor­ity he dis­re­gards and sets at nought; as if the State were pen­i­tent to that de­gree that it hired one to scourge it while it sinned, but not to that de­gree that it left off sin­ning for a mo­ment. Thus, un­der the name of order and civil gov­ern­ment, we are all made at last to pay hom­age to and sup­port our own mean­ness. Af­ter the first blush of sin comes its in­dif­fer­ence; and from im­moral it be­comes, as it were, un­moral, and not quite un­nec­es­sary to that life which we have made. [¶13]

The broad­est and most prev­a­lent error re­quires the most dis­in­ter­ested vir­tue to sus­tain it. The slight re­proach to which the vir­tue of pa­tri­ot­ism is com­monly li­a­ble, the no­ble are most likely to in­cur. Those who, while they dis­ap­prove of the char­ac­ter and meas­ures of a gov­ern­ment, yield to it their al­le­giance and sup­port, are un­doubt­edly its most con­sci­en­tious sup­port­ers, and so fre­quently the most se­ri­ous ob­sta­cles to re­form. Some are pe­ti­tion­ing the State to dis­solve the Union, to dis­re­gard the req­ui­si­tions of the Pres­i­dent. Why do they not dis­solve it them­selves, — the union be­tween them­selves and the State, — and re­fuse to pay their quota into its trea­sury? Do not they stand in the same re­la­tion to the State, that the State does to the Union? And have not the same rea­sons pre­vented the State from re­sist­ing the Union, which have pre­vented them from re­sist­ing the State? [¶14]

How can a man be sat­is­fied to en­ter­tain an opin­ion merely, and en­joy it? Is there any en­joy­ment in it, if his opin­ion is that he is ag­grieved? If you are cheated out of a sin­gle dol­lar by your neigh­bor, you do not rest sat­is­fied with know­ing that you are cheated, or with say­ing that you are cheated, or even with pe­ti­tion­ing him to pay you your due; but you take ef­fec­tual steps at once to ob­tain the full amount, and see that you are never cheated again. Ac­tion from prin­ci­ple, — the per­cep­tion and the per­for­mance of right, — changes things and re­la­tions; it is es­sen­tially rev­o­lu­tion­ary, and does not con­sist wholly with any thing which was. It not only di­vides states and churches, it di­vides fam­i­lies; aye, it di­vides the in­di­vid­ual, sep­a­rat­ing the di­a­bol­i­cal in him from the di­vine. [¶15]

Un­just laws ex­ist: shall we be con­tent to obey them, or shall we en­deavor to amend them, and obey them un­til we have suc­ceeded, or shall we trans­gress them at once? Men gen­er­ally, un­der such a gov­ern­ment as this, think that they ought to wait until they have per­suaded the ma­jor­ity to alter them. They think that, if they should re­sist, the rem­edy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the gov­ern­ment it­self that the rem­edy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to an­tic­i­pate and pro­vide for re­form? Why does it not cher­ish its wise mi­nor­ity? Why does it cry and re­sist be­fore it is hurt? Why does it not en­cour­age its cit­i­zens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do bet­ter than it would have them? Why does it always cru­cify Christ and excommunicate Co­per­ni­cus and Lu­ther, and pro­nounce Wash­ing­ton and Frank­lin rebels? [¶16]

One would think, that a de­lib­er­ate and prac­ti­cal de­nial of its au­thor­ity was the only of­fense never con­tem­plated by gov­ern­ment; else, why has it not as­signed its def­i­nite, its suit­able and pro­por­tion­ate pen­alty? If a man who has no prop­erty re­fuses but once to earn nine shil­lings for the State, he is put in prison for a pe­ri­od un­lim­ited by any law that I know, and de­ter­mined only by the dis­cre­tion of those who placed him there; but if he should steal ninety times nine shil­lings from the State, he is soon per­mit­ted to go at large again. [¶17]

If the in­jus­tice is part of the nec­es­sary fric­tion of the ma­chine of gov­ern­ment, let it go, let it go: per­chance it will wear smooth, — cer­tainly the ma­chine will wear out. If the in­jus­tice has a spring, or a pul­ley, or a rope, or a crank, ex­clu­sively for it­self, then per­haps you may con­sider whether the rem­edy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a na­ture that it re­quires you to be the agent of in­jus­tice to an­other, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter fric­tion to stop the ma­chine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend my­self to the wrong which I con­demn. [¶18]

As for adopt­ing the ways which the State has pro­vided for rem­edy­ing the evil, I know not of such ways. They take too much time, and a man’s life will be gone. I have other af­fairs to at­tend to. I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad. A man has not ev­ery thing to do, but some­thing; and be­cause he can­not do ev­ery thing, it is not nec­es­sary that he should do some­thing wrong. It is not my busi­ness to be pe­ti­tion­ing the gov­ernor or the leg­is­la­ture any more than it is theirs to pe­ti­tion me; and, if they should not hear my pe­ti­tion, what should I do then? But in this case the State has pro­vided no way: its very Con­sti­tu­tion is the evil. This may seem to be harsh and stub­born and un­con­cil­i­a­tory; but it is to treat with the ut­most kind­ness and con­sid­er­ation the only spirit that can ap­pre­ci­ate or de­serves it. So is all change for the bet­ter, like birth and death which con­vulse the body. [¶19]

I do not hes­i­tate to say, that those who call them­selves ab­o­li­tion­ists should at once ef­fec­tu­ally with­draw their sup­port, both in per­son and prop­erty, from the gov­ern­ment of Mas­sa­chu­setts, and not wait till they con­sti­tute a ma­jor­ity of one, be­fore they suf­fer the right to pre­vail through them. I think that it is enough if they have God on their side, with­out wait­ing for that other one. More­over, any man more right than his neigh­bors con­sti­tutes a ma­jor­ity of one al­ready. [¶20]

I meet this Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment, or its rep­re­sen­ta­tive the State gov­ern­ment, di­rectly, and face to face, once a year, no more, in the per­son of its tax-gath­erer; this is the only mode in which a man sit­u­ated as I am nec­es­sa­rily meets it; and it then says dis­tinctly, Rec­og­nize me; and the sim­plest, the most ef­fec­tual, and, in the pres­ent pos­ture of af­fairs, the in­dis­pens­ablest mode of treat­ing with it on this head, of ex­pres­sing your lit­tle sat­is­fac­tion with and love for it, is to deny it then. My civil neigh­bor, the tax-gath­erer, is the very man I have to deal with, — for it is, af­ter all, with men and not with parch­ment that I quar­rel, — and he has vol­un­tar­ily cho­sen to be an agent of the gov­ern­ment. How shall he ever know well what he is and does as an of­ficer of the gov­ern­ment, or as a man, un­til he is obliged to con­sider whether he shall treat me, his neigh­bor, for whom he has re­spect, as a neigh­bor and well-dis­posed man, or as a ma­niac and dis­turber of the peace, and see if he can get over this ob­struc­tion to his neigh­bor­li­ness with­out a ruder and more im­pet­u­ous thought or speech cor­re­spond­ing with his ac­tion. I know this well, that if one thou­sand, if one hun­dred, if ten men whom I could name, — if ten hon­est men only, — aye, if onehon­est man, in this State of Mas­sa­chu­setts, ceas­ing to hold slaves, were ac­tu­ally to with­draw from this co­part­ner­ship, and be locked up in the county jail there­for, it would be the ab­o­li­tion of slav­ery in Amer­ica. For it mat­ters not how small the be­gin­ning may seem to be: what is once well done is done for ever. But we love bet­ter to talk about it: that we say is our mis­sion. Re­form keeps many scores of news­pa­pers in its serv­ice, but not one man. If my es­teemed neigh­bor, the State’s am­bas­sa­dor, who will de­vote his days to the set­tle­ment of the ques­tion of hu­man rights in the Coun­cil Cham­ber, in­stead of be­ing threat­ened with the pris­ons of Car­o­lina, were to sit down the pris­oner of Mas­sa­chu­setts, that State which is so anx­ious to foist the sin of slav­ery upon her sister, — though at pres­ent she can dis­cover only an act of in­hos­pi­tal­ity to be the ground of a quar­rel with her, — the Leg­is­la­ture would not wholly waive the sub­ject the fol­low­ing win­ter. [¶21]

Un­der a gov­ern­ment which im­pris­ons any un­justly, the true place for a just man is also a prison. The prop­er place to-day, the only place which Mas­sa­chu­setts has pro­vided for her freer and less de­spond­ing spirits, is in her pris­ons, to be put out and locked out of the State by her own act, as they have al­ready put them­selves out by their prin­ci­ples. It is there that the fu­gi­tive slave, and the Mex­ican pris­oner on pa­role, and the In­dian come to plead the wrongs of his race, should find them; on that sep­a­rate, but more free and hon­or­able ground, where the State places those who are not with her but against her, — the only house in a slave-state in which a free man can abide with honor. If any think that their in­flu­ence would be lost there, and their voices no longer af­flict the ear of the State, that they would not be as an en­emy within its walls, they do not know by how much truth is stronger than er­ror, nor how much more el­o­quently and ef­fec­tively he can combat in­jus­tice who has ex­pe­ri­enced a lit­tle in his own per­son. Cast your whole vote, not a strip of pa­per merely, but your whole in­flu­ence. A mi­nor­ity is pow­er­less while it con­forms to the ma­jor­ity; it is not even a mi­nor­ity then; but it is ir­re­sist­ible when it clogs by its whole weight. If the al­ter­na­tive is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slav­ery, the State will not hes­i­tate which to choose. If a thou­sand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a vi­o­lent and bloody meas­ure, as it would be to pay them, and en­able the State to com­mit vi­o­lence and shed in­no­cent blood. This is, in fact, the def­i­ni­tion of a peace­able rev­o­lu­tion, if any such is pos­si­ble. If the tax-gath­erer, or any other pub­lic of­ficer, asks me, as one has done, “But what shall I do?” my an­swer is, “If you really wish to do any­thing, re­sign your of­fice.” When the sub­ject has re­fused al­le­giance, and the of­ficer has re­signed his of­fice, then the rev­o­lu­tion is ac­com­plished. But even sup­pose blood should flow. Is there not a sort of blood shed when the con­science is wounded? Through this wound a man’s real man­hood and im­mor­tal­ity flow out, and he bleeds to an ever­lasting death. I see this blood flow­ing now. [¶22]

I have con­tem­plated the im­pris­on­ment of the of­fender, rather than the sei­zure of his goods, — though both will serve the same pur­pose, — be­cause they who as­sert the pur­est right, and con­se­quently are most dan­ger­ous to a cor­rupt State, com­monly have not spent much time in ac­cu­mu­lat­ing prop­erty. To such the State ren­ders com­par­a­tively small serv­ice, and a slight tax is wont to ap­pear ex­or­bi­tant, par­tic­u­larly if they are obliged to earn it by spe­cial la­bor with their hands. If there were one who lived wholly with­out the use of money, the State it­self would hes­i­tate to de­mand it of him. But the rich man — not to make any in­vid­ious com­par­i­son — is al­ways sold to the in­sti­tu­tion which makes him rich. Ab­so­lutely speak­ing, the more money, the less vir­tue; for money comes be­tween a man and his ob­jects, and ob­tains them for him; it was cer­tainly no great vir­tue to ob­tain it. It puts to rest many ques­tions which he would other­wise be taxed to an­swer; while the only new ques­tion which it puts is the hard but su­per­flu­ous one, how to spend it. Thus his moral ground is taken from un­der his feet. The op­por­tu­ni­ties of liv­ing are di­min­ished in pro­por­tion as what are called the “means” are in­creased. The best thing a man can do for his cul­ture when he is rich is to en­deav­our to carry out those schemes which he en­ter­tained when he was poor. Christ an­swered the Hero­di­ans ac­cord­ing to their con­di­tion. “Show me the tri­bute-money,” said he; — and one took a penny out of his pocket; — If you use money which has the image of Cæ­sar on it, and which he has made cur­rent and valu­able, that is, if you are men of the State, and gladly en­joy the ad­van­tages of Cæ­sar’s gov­ern­ment, then pay him back some of his own when he de­mands it; “Ren­der there­fore to Cæ­sar that which is Cæ­sar’s, and to God those things which are God’s,” — leav­ing them no wiser than be­fore as to which was which; for they did not wish to know. [¶23]

When I con­verse with the freest of my neigh­bors, I per­ceive that, what­ever they may say about the mag­ni­tude and se­ri­ous­ness of the ques­tion, and their re­gard for the pub­lic tran­quil­lity, the long and the short of the mat­ter is, that they can­not spare the pro­tec­tion of the ex­ist­ing gov­ern­ment, and they dread the con­se­quences of dis­o­be­di­ence to it to their prop­erty and fam­i­lies. For my own part, I should not like to think that I ever rely on the pro­tec­tion of the State. But, if I deny the au­thor­ity of the State when it pres­ents its tax-bill, it will soon take and waste all my prop­erty, and so ha­rass me and my chil­dren with­out end. This is hard. This makes it im­pos­si­ble for a man to live hon­estly and at the same time com­fort­ably in out­ward re­spects. It will not be worth the while to ac­cu­mu­late prop­erty; that would be sure to go again. You must hire or squat some­where, and raise but a small crop, and eat that soon. You must live within your­self, and de­pend upon your­self, always tucked up and ready for a start, and not have many affairs. A man may grow rich in Tur­key even, if he will be in all re­spects a good sub­ject of the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment. Con­fu­cius said, — “If a State is gov­erned by the prin­ci­ples of rea­son, pov­erty and mis­ery are sub­jects of shame; if a State is not gov­erned by the prin­ci­ples of rea­son, riches and hon­ors are the sub­jects of shame.” No: un­til I want the pro­tec­tion of Mas­sa­chu­setts to be ex­tended to me in some dis­tant south­ern port, where my lib­erty is en­dan­gered, or un­til I am bent solely on build­ing up an es­tate at home by peace­ful en­ter­prise, I can af­ford to re­fuse al­le­giance to Mas­sa­chu­setts, and her right to my prop­erty and life. It costs me less in ev­ery sense to in­cur the pen­alty of dis­o­be­di­ence to the State, than it would to obey. I should feel as if I were worth less in that case. [¶24]

Some years ago, the State met me in be­half of the church, and com­manded me to pay a cer­tain sum to­ward the sup­port of a cler­gy­man whose preach­ing my father at­tended, but never I my­self. “Pay,” it said, “or be locked up in the jail.” I de­clined to pay. But, un­for­tu­nately, an­other man saw fit to pay it. I did not see why the school­mas­ter should be taxed to sup­port the priest, and not the priest the school­mas­ter; for I was not the State’s school­mas­ter, but I sup­ported my­self by vol­un­tary sub­scrip­tion. I did not see why the ly­ceum should not pres­ent its tax-bill, and have the State to back its de­mand, as well as the church. How­ever, at the request of the se­lect­men, I con­de­scended to make some such state­ment as this in writ­ing: — “Know all men by these pres­ents, that I, Henry Thoreau, do not wish to be re­garded as a member of any in­cor­po­rated so­ci­ety which I have not joined.” This I gave to the town-clerk; and he has it. The State, hav­ing thus learned that I did not wish to be re­garded as a member of that church, has never made a like de­mand on me since; though it said that it must ad­here to its orig­i­nal pre­sump­tion that time. If I had known how to name them, I should then have signed off in de­tail from all the so­ci­e­ties which I never signed on to; but I did not know where to find a com­plete list. [¶25]

I have paid no poll-tax for six years. I was put into a jail once on this ac­count, for ; and, as I stood con­sid­er­ing the walls of solid stone, two or three feet thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick, and the iron grat­ing which strained the light, I could not help be­ing struck with the fool­ish­ness of that in­sti­tu­tion which treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up. I won­dered that it should have con­cluded at length that this was the best use it could put me to, and had never thought to avail it­self of my serv­ices in some way. I saw that, if there was a wall of stone be­tween me and my towns­men, there was a still more dif­fi­cult one to climb or break through, be­fore they could get to be as free as I was. I did not for a mo­ment feel con­fined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mor­tar. I felt as if I alone of all my towns­men had paid my tax. They plainly did not know how to treat me, but be­haved like per­sons who are un­derbred. In ev­ery threat and in ev­ery com­pli­ment there was a blun­der; for they thought that my chief de­sire was to stand the other side of that stone wall. I could not but smile to see how in­dus­tri­ously they locked the door on my med­i­ta­tions, which fol­lowed them out again with­out let or hin­drance, and they were really all that was dan­ger­ous. As they could not reach me, they had re­solved to pun­ish my body; just as boys, if they can­not come at some per­son against whom they have a spite, will abuse his dog. I saw that the State was half-wit­ted, that it was timid as a lone woman with her sil­ver spoons, and that it did not know its friends from its foes, and I lost all my re­main­ing re­spect for it, and pit­ied it. [¶26]

Thus the State never in­ten­tion­ally con­fronts a man’s sense, in­tel­lec­tual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with su­pe­rior wit or hon­esty, but with su­pe­rior phys­i­cal strength. I was not born to be forced. I will breathe af­ter my own fash­ion. Let us see who is the strong­est. What force has a mul­ti­tude? They only can force me who obey a higher law than I. They force me to be­come like them­selves. I do not hear of men be­ing forced to live this way or that by mas­ses of men. What sort of life were that to live? When I meet a gov­ern­ment which says to me, “Your money or your life,” why should I be in haste to give it my money? It may be in a great strait, and not know what to do: I can­not help that. It must help it­self; do as I do. It is not worth the while to snivel about it. I am not re­spon­si­ble for the suc­cess­ful work­ing of the ma­chin­ery of so­ci­ety. I am not the son of the en­gi­neer. I per­ceive that, when an acorn and a chest­nut fall side by side, the one does not re­main in­ert to make way for the other, but both obey their own laws, and spring and grow and flour­ish as best they can, till one, per­chance, over­shad­ows and de­stroys the other. If a plant can­not live ac­cord­ing to its na­ture, it dies; and so a man. [¶27]

The night in prison was novel and in­ter­est­ing enough. The pris­oners in their shirt-sleeves were en­joy­ing a chat and the eve­ning air in the door-way, when I en­tered. But the jailer said, “Come, boys, it is time to lock up;” and so they dis­persed, and I heard the sound of their steps re­turn­ing into the hol­low apart­ments. My room-mate was in­tro­duced to me by the jailer as “a first-rate fel­low and clever man.” When the door was locked, he showed me where to hang my hat, and how he man­aged mat­ters there. The rooms were white­washed once a month; and this one, at least, was the whit­est, most simply fur­nished, and prob­a­bly the neat­est apart­ment in the town. He nat­u­rally wanted to know where I came from, and what brought me there; and, when I had told him, I asked him in my turn how he came there, pre­sum­ing him to be an hon­est man, of course; and, as the world goes, I be­lieve he was. “Why,” said he, “they ac­cuse me of burn­ing a barn; but I never did it.” As near as I could dis­cover, he had prob­a­bly gone to bed in a barn when drunk, and smoked his pipe there; and so a barn was burnt. He had the rep­u­ta­tion of be­ing a clever man, had been there some three months wait­ing for his trial to come on, and would have to wait as much longer; but he was quite do­mes­ti­cated and con­tented, since he got his board for noth­ing, and thought that he was well treated. [¶28]

He oc­cu­pied one win­dow, and I the other; and I saw, that if one stayed there long, his prin­ci­pal busi­ness would be to look out the win­dow. I had soon read all the tracts that were left there, and ex­am­ined where for­mer pris­oners had bro­ken out, and where a grate had been sawed off, and heard the his­tory of the var­i­ous oc­cu­pants of that room; for I found that even here there was a his­tory and a gos­sip which never cir­cu­lated be­yond the walls of the jail. Prob­a­bly this is the only house in the town where verses are com­posed, which are af­ter­ward printed in a cir­cu­lar form, but not pub­lished. I was shown quite a long list of verses which were com­posed by some young men who had been de­tected in an at­tempt to es­cape, who avenged them­selves by sing­ing them. [¶29]

I pumped my fel­low-pris­oner as dry as I could, for fear I should never see him again; but at length he showed me which was my bed, and left me to blow out the lamp. [¶30]

It was like trav­el­ling into a far coun­try, such as I had never ex­pected to be­hold, to lie there for one night. It seemed to me that I never had heard the town-clock strike be­fore, nor the eve­ning sounds of the vil­lage; for we slept with the win­dows open, which were in­side the grat­ing. It was to see my na­tive vil­lage in the light of the mid­dle ages, and our Con­cord was turned into a Rhine stream, and vi­sions of knights and cas­tles passed be­fore me. They were the voices of old bur­ghers that I heard in the streets. I was an in­vol­un­tary spec­ta­tor and au­di­tor of what­ever was done and said in the kitchen of the ad­ja­cent vil­lage-inn, — a wholly new and rare ex­pe­ri­ence to me. It was a closer view of my na­tive town. I was fairly in­side of it. I never had seen its in­sti­tu­tions be­fore. This is one of its pe­cu­liar in­sti­tu­tions; for it is a shire town. I be­gan to com­pre­hend what its in­hab­i­tants were about. [¶31]

In the morn­ing, our break­fasts were put through the hole in the door, in small ob­long-square tin pans, made to fit, and hold­ing a pint of choc­o­late, with brown bread, and an iron spoon. When they called for the ves­sels again, I was green enough to re­turn what bread I had left; but my com­rade seized it, and said that I should lay that up for lunch or din­ner. Soon af­ter, he was let out to work at hay­ing in a neigh­bor­ing field, whither he went ev­ery day, and would not be back till noon; so he bade me good-day, say­ing that he doubted if he should see me again. [¶32]

When I came out of prison, — for some one in­ter­fered, and paid the tax, — I did not per­ceive that great changes had taken place on the com­mon, such as he ob­served who went in a youth and emerged a tot­ter­ing and gray-headed man; and yet a change had to my eyes come over the scene, — the town, and State, and coun­try, — greater than any that mere time could ef­fect. I saw yet more dis­tinctly the State in which I lived. I saw to what ex­tent the peo­ple among whom I lived could be trusted as good neigh­bors and friends; that their friend­ship was for sum­mer weather only; that they did not greatly pur­pose to do right; that they were a dis­tinct race from me by their prej­u­dices and su­per­sti­tions, as the Chi­na­men and Ma­lays are; that, in their sac­ri­fices to hu­man­ity, they ran no risks, not even to their prop­erty; that, af­ter all, they were not so no­ble but they treated the thief as he had treated them, and hoped, by a cer­tain out­ward ob­ser­vance and a few prayers, and by walk­ing in a par­tic­u­lar straight though use­less path from time to time, to save their souls. This may be to judge my neigh­bors harshly; for I be­lieve that many of them are not aware that they have such an in­sti­tu­tion as the jail in their vil­lage. [¶33]

It was for­merly the custom in our vil­lage, when a poor debtor came out of jail, for his ac­quain­tances to sa­lute him, look­ing through their fin­gers, which were crossed to rep­re­sent the jail win­dow, “How do ye do?” My neigh­bors did not thus sa­lute me, but first looked at me, and then at one an­other, as if I had re­turned from a long jour­ney. I was put into jail as I was going to the shoe­mak­er’s to get a shoe which was mended. When I was let out the next morn­ing, I pro­ceeded to fin­ish my er­rand, and, hav­ing put on my mended shoe, joined a huck­le­berry party, who were im­pa­tient to put them­selves un­der my con­duct; and in half an hour, — for the horse was soon tackled, — was in the midst of a huck­le­berry field, on one of our high­est hills, two miles off, and then the State was nowhere to be seen. [¶34]

This is the whole his­tory of “My Pris­ons.”[¶35]

I have never de­clined paying the high­way tax, be­cause I am as de­sir­ous of be­ing a good neigh­bor as I am of be­ing a bad sub­ject; and, as for sup­port­ing schools, I am doing my part to ed­u­cate my fel­low-coun­try­men now. It is for no par­tic­u­lar item in the tax-bill that I re­fuse to pay it. I simply wish to re­fuse al­le­giance to the State, to with­draw and stand aloof from it ef­fec­tu­ally. I do not care to trace the course of my dol­lar, if I could, till it buys a man, or a mus­ket to shoot one with, — the dol­lar is in­no­cent, — but I am con­cerned to trace the ef­fects of my al­le­giance. In fact, I qui­etly de­clare war with the State, af­ter my fash­ion, though I will still make use and get what ad­van­tages of her I can, as is usual in such cases. [¶36]

If others pay the tax which is de­manded of me, from a sym­pa­thy with the State, they do but what they have al­ready done in their own case, or rather they abet in­jus­tice to a greater ex­tent than the State re­quires. If they pay the tax from a mis­taken in­ter­est in the in­di­vid­ual taxed, to save his prop­erty or pre­vent his going to jail, it is be­cause they have not con­sid­ered wisely how far they let their pri­vate feel­ings in­ter­fere with the pub­lic good. [¶37]

This, then, is my po­si­tion at pres­ent. But one can­not be too much on his guard in such a case, lest his ac­tion be bias­sed by ob­sti­nacy, or an un­due re­gard for the opin­ions of men. Let him see that he does only what be­longs to him­self and to the hour. [¶38]

I think some­times, Why, this peo­ple mean well; they are only ig­no­rant; they would do bet­ter if they knew how: why give your neigh­bors this pain to treat you as they are not in­clined to? But I think, again, this is no rea­son why I should do as they do, or per­mit others to suf­fer much greater pain of a dif­ferent kind. Again, I some­times say to my­self, When many mil­lions of men, with­out heat, with­out ill-will, with­out per­sonal feel­ings of any kind, de­mand of you a few shil­lings only, with­out the pos­si­bil­ity, such is their con­sti­tu­tion, of re­tract­ing or al­ter­ing their pres­ent de­mand, and with­out the pos­si­bil­ity, on your side, of ap­peal to any other mil­lions, why ex­pose your­self to this over­whelm­ing brute force? You do not re­sist cold and hun­ger, the winds and the waves, thus ob­sti­nately; you qui­etly sub­mit to a thou­sand sim­i­lar ne­ces­si­ties. You do not put your head into the fire. But just in pro­por­tion as I re­gard this as not wholly a brute force, but partly a hu­man force, and con­sider that I have re­la­tions to those mil­lions as to so many mil­lions of men, and not of mere brute or in­an­i­mate things, I see that ap­peal is pos­si­ble, first and in­stan­ta­ne­ously, from them to the Maker of them, and, sec­ondly, from them to them­selves. But, if I put my head de­lib­er­ately into the fire, there is no ap­peal to fire 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. [¶39]

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 con­form­ity.

“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.” [¶40]

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? [¶41]

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. [¶42]

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 him but de­fen­sive ones. He is not a leader, but a fol­lower. His lead­ers are the men of . “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 be­hoves a man to do here in Amer­i­can 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 gov­ern­ment 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.”[¶43]

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. [¶44]

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 man­u­fac­tures 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. [¶45]

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. 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 last 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 seen. [¶46]

In the strictest sense, the term “hunter-gatherer” simply refers to people entirely dependent on and only interacting with wild plants and animals. The definition is therefore an inherently economic one, with subsistence regime determining whether a given group is subsumed within this overarching anthropological type based solely on whether the group in question derives its sustenance from fishing, foraging, or hunting wild plants and animals. In the broadest sense, then, hunter-gatherers are people whose basic patterns of life—where they live, who they live with, and both their daily routines and the seasonal variation in those routines—are best explained by their connection to the pursuit and consumption of wild species. They are consequently identified as much by what they consume as by what they do not: in the case of the latter, domesticated plants and animals.

Hunter-gatherers are thus often juxtaposed with agriculturalists (including modern societies supported by industrial agriculture) based on perceived fundamental differences between not only their respective economies, but also their technologies, population densities, and degrees and types of sociocultural complexity. While it is clear that the vast and unprecedented numbers of people currently living in the complex, interconnected, and global modern world could not be supported without reliance on domesticated plants and animals, what is much less clear is how hunting and gathering gave rise to agricultural economies and the degree to which hunting and gathering differs in either kind or quantity from economies relying mainly on domesticates. Within this context, what this chapter presents is fourfold. First, how hunter-gatherer economies have been thought about over time has been conditioned largely by historical circumstance and by changes in the social sciences more broadly. Second, while the drivers of change in hunter-gatherer economies are often linked to changes in climate, environment, and demography, the way these changes play out is often determined by culture as well—kinship, social norms, power relationships, and the like. Third, there is remarkable diversity in hunter-gatherer economies and lifeways, past and present, and this diversity is often marked by many of the characteristics more typically associated with economies reliant on domesticates. Lastly, we show how current and future studies of hunter-gatherer economies hinge on fundamental questions and methods that inform and are informed by intersections with the natural, social, behavioral, and cognitive sciences.

Changing Conceptions of Hunter-Gatherers

While views on hunter-gatherers have changed considerably over time, theoretical approaches to hunter-gatherer economies and lifeways tend to be materialist, focused on the physical conditions faced by hunter-gatherer groups (e.g., environment, climate, and technology). Some of the earliest ideas about hunter-gatherers, for example, emerged during the European age of exploration, when explorers, traders, and colonists encountered indigenous peoples, many of them hunter-gatherers, of which many had already been shunted to marginal environmental settings by the time the first historical descriptions were made of the way they lived (Figure 1). These early accounts cast hunter-gatherers as primitive, disadvantaged, and culturally backwards people who led meager and pitiable lives, where the fear of starvation and death was constant in a life that was, as Hobbes (1962, p. 100) framed it in 1651, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In contrast, in 1672 Dryden (1978, p. 30) coined the term “noble savage” in his play The Conquest of Granada to describe an initial, free, and unencumbered state of human existence, a perspective used by Jean Jacques Rousseau, Michel de Montaigne and other Enlightenment thinkers to draw contrasts between “civilized” Europe and the “savage” peoples of, for instance, the Americas. During the European age of exploration and colonial expansion, the view of hunter-gatherers as primitives who represented a basal state of human socioeconomic and technological development became firmly entrenched in philosophical and scientific works.

This view colored the progressive social evolutionary theory of the 19th and early 20th centuries as set forth by Spencer (1868), Tylor (1871), and others. From this perspective, cultural evolution progressed one way, from simple (lower and primitive) to more complex (higher and more civilized) forms; for example, from savagery to barbarism to civilization in Lewis Henry Morgan’s (1877) seminal evolutionary scheme. Such unidirectional frameworks explicitly viewed material concerns as alleviated by advances in technology, with technological change marking the shift from one stage to the next. For example, the emergence of early agriculture (“Middle Barbarism” to Morgan) moved humanity into an evolutionary stage wherein the acquisition of food was much less a concern than it was in the previous, and more primitive, Hobbesian universe. Freed from the perpetual quest for food, people could focus on more advanced social, moral, and religious concerns. In these scenarios, evolution began with hunter-gatherers—the “zero of human society” (Morgan, 1851, pp. 347–348), whose problems centered around food acquisition by individuals with woefully limited intelligence, information, and technology—to a more social world where the problem was not centered on getting food but rather about getting along with one’s neighbors.

During this time, however, British and American anthropological perspectives varied in terms of how they viewed and evaluated hunter-gatherers and their economies. Herbert Spencer, an Englishman, saw evolution as having reached its apogee in Western culture where the problems of social progress were essentially solved; questions about how hunter-gatherers made their living were therefore irrelevant. In contrast, American scholars (e.g., Powell, 1888) were interested in how and why technologies, economies, and social systems changed, thus making native peoples—many of whom lived within the boundaries of the United States—worthy of study. Between 1880 and 1920 the Americanist tradition emphasized surveys of hunter-gatherers in places like the Pacific Northwest Coast, the Great Lakes region, and the arid lands between the Rocky and Sierra Nevada Mountains. John Wesley Powell, a leader in these efforts, found considerable diversity in how the hunter-gatherers of North America lived and made their living (e.g., from settled, sedentary groups like the Kwakiutl who relied on smoked and stored salmon to small, highly mobile groups like the Ute of the North American Great Basin who relied in large part on pine nuts and small seeds).

In an explicit rejection of progressive social evolution, eugenics, and the social Darwinist policies that emerged in the early 1900s, American anthropologists and archaeologists by 1920 began emphasizing culture historical frameworks in their research. Culture history in archaeology, influenced by Boasian cultural relativism (e.g., Boas, 1940)—the idea that each culture was unique and developed along its own particular trajectory—emphasizes description over explanation. In culture-historical schemes, changes in hunter-gatherer economies were seen as the result of historical processes like the migration of people who carried with them different technologies and ways of making a living, or the diffusion of ideas, technologies, and subsistence practices from one area to the other, either of which could change the material culture identified in archaeological and ethnographical studies. Left unexplained was how novel behaviors and technologies developed in the first place.

Beginning in the 1960s, cultural historical and unilineal evolutionary frameworks were challenged by a new and more nuanced evolutionary one (Flannery, 1968; Lee, 1968). Anthropologists began to recognize that hunter-gatherers did not conform to simple evolutionary models and began comparing notes—most famously at the Man the Hunter conference held at the University of Chicago in 1966 (Lee & Devore, 1968). Though a more-or-less unitary view of hunter-gatherers persisted for nearly another decade following this meeting, by the late 1970s a great deal of diversity in hunter-gatherer lifeways had been recognized and the notion that these differences developed along multiple evolutionary pathways was in vogue. No longer viewed as “unevolved,” hunter-gatherers were now widely acknowledged to have rich, complex social and religious lives and were regarded as masters of their environments. From this perspective, hunter-gatherers were universally adept at creating sophisticated adaptive systems specific to their ecological circumstances. They were advantaged peoples who lived in a state of homeostatic equilibrium and only resorted to agriculture if their way of life was disturbed by colonial or other forces. This of course turned the notion of hunter-gatherers as lowly primitives (and farming as a logical outcome of evolutionary progress) on its head. Now cast as the “original affluent society” (Sahlins, 1968), it seemed that hunter-gatherers were healthier and often worked less than farmers. Lee (1984), for example, showed that the considerable leisure time enjoyed by the Dobe !Kung of the Kalahari desert was due in part to the abundance of mongongo nuts (Schinziophyton rautanenii), though he failed to account for the large amount of work the women did to process those nuts.

Hunter-gatherers, however, were and still are often portrayed as “generalized foragers”: mobile people who live in small groups, have few possessions, store almost nothing, exploit only the seasonal availability of wild food, and lead relatively egalitarian lifestyles. However, as Price and Brown (1985, p. xiii) note, “the traditional dichotomy of forager versus farmer has little significance with regard to the organizational development of society—that means of subsistence do not dictate levels of cultural complexity.” Indeed, there are abundant examples of hunter-gatherers who diverge from this generalization, for example the Ainu of Japan, the various groups from the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America, many California Indians, the Colusa of Florida, and people known only through archaeology such as the Jomon of Japan, European Mesolithic groups, and the Natufian of the Levant. Each of these groups were sedentary or semi-sedentary and their economies entailed some degree of surplus economic production, storage, diverse and specialized technologies, and varying degrees of wealth, power, and prestige-based inequality. Many of these groups were marked by high population densities, in some cases rivaling those of sedentary farming communities (Kelly, 2013).

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Figure 1. Location of hunter-gatherer ethnographic groups (in regular font) and archaeological cultures and sites (in italics) mentioned in the text.

Crisis and Controversy in Understanding Hunter-Gatherer Economies

Opinions vary widely regarding such deceptively simple ideas about what hunter-gatherers actually are and what drives change in hunter-gatherer economies. Controversial topics include fundamental issues of definition and identification, what causes diversity among hunter-gatherer groups, and what drives more intensive economic and technological change within economies dependent only on wild food as well as those economies based on a mixture of both wild and domesticated resources.

What Hunter-Gatherer Economies Are, and Are Not

Hunter-gatherers are people who rely upon and only interact with wild plants and animals. In practice, however, there are important exceptions. Most widespread is hunter-gatherer cultivation of non-food plants such as tobacco (Kroeber, 1941), pen-raising of wild animals, for example eagles for plumage (Drucker, 1937), and the near-universal keeping of domestic dogs as pets, packers, pullers, hunters, sentries, or as food (Barton et al., 2009; Larson et al., 2012). In addition, many ethnographic and modern hunter-gatherers living near agriculturalists borrowed and cultivated the crops of their neighbors on a very small scale. The Southern Paiute living just north of the agricultural American Southwest (Kelly, 1964), for example, grew maize as a dietary supplement. But they did not do so to the extent that it had much effect on preexisting patterns of settlement and social aggregation which had developed to facilitate the procurement and storage of the many important wild plants and animals on which these groups had formerly depended entirely.

That hunter-gatherers engaged in so many forms of environmental manipulation shows that their resistance towards fully adopting plant and animal husbandry was not the result of ignorance, as was commonly assumed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In contrast to the view of hunting and gathering as a lifeway of limitation and ignorance, the archaeological and ethnographic records provide ample evidence that hunter-gatherers understand the natural world in which they live every bit as well as and arguably better than agriculturalists, lacking which they would surely have rapidly perished. While most hunter-gatherers consistently depend on a fairly restricted suite of plants and animals, they routinely maintain and transmit from generation to generation knowledge regarding many times more plants that might be pressed into service during periods of hardship, those which were poisonous and those which were not, and how the poisonous ones might be processed to remove the toxins that would prove fatal if not removed.

Perhaps more pervasive in the current literature is the opposite view that has hunter-gatherers living in balanced harmony with nature—conserving resources for the benefit of themselves and nature at large. Whether humans were ultimately responsible for large-scale megafaunal extinctions in the late Pleistocene, between 10.5 and 15 kya, in the New World (Martin, 1973), or in Australia between 40 and 60 kya (Johnson, 2006), for example, is contentious, but even those scholars inclined to absolve hunter-gatherers of responsibility do not cite innate conservationism as a reason, most of the evidence suggesting the contrary. North American hunter-gatherers occasionally killed much more than they could use, for example, as is well documented at the Olsen-Chubbuck Bison Kill Site in Colorado, where roughly 9,500 years ago a band of hunter-gatherers, having driven a herd of perhaps 200 of the now-extinct species Bison occidentalis into a steep arroyo, intensively butchered only a fraction and left a significant portion largely or completely untouched (Wheat, 1967). Conservation certainly did not guide Native groups who participated in the extermination of the buffalo from the American Plains in the early 19th century. Euro-Americans bear greatest responsibility but Native Americans played a part—not thinking it necessary to limit their take of a shrinking resource, reasoning from traditional knowledge that buffalo herd size and reproduction were the result of forces beyond human control (Krech, 1999). Indeed, social customs may work against resource conservation even where hunter-gatherers are aware of the problem. Raven (1990) documents a case in which Torres Strait hunters-gatherers continued to target ever-shrinking populations of turtle and dugong, in large part because this was an essential male rite of passage, a prerequisite to marriage. Neither does a more general, microeconomic view of foraging support the foragers-as-lay-conservationists thesis. A broad diet—one not exclusively focused on the largest-bodied prey, which may be more vulnerable to overhunting due to slower life histories or more conservative reproductive strategies—may simply be a byproduct of rational decision-making motivated by self-preservation; instances of apparent conservation do not make the Plains buffalo or Torres Strait turtles exceptions to a rule.

Acknowledging and Identifying Hunter-Gatherer Diversity

The forgoing highlights the fact that there are marked differences in hunter-gatherer lifeways across both time and space. These differences hinge on issues relating to subsistence, technology, social organization, and environmental change over long timespans.


That hunter-gatherer adaptation revolves around subsistence makes variation in the relative emphasis on hunting, fishing (including the procurement of marine mammals and shellfish), and gathering critical. Wherever edible plants are available in any abundance—generally between 40° N and 40° S latitude—gathering dominated subsistence, a pattern accounting for 42% of hunter-gatherers worldwide in one ethnographic sample (Binford, 2001). As one moves poleward, fishing and hunting become more important, hunting dominating in about 24% of groups worldwide, fishing in the remaining 35%. The plant-dominated pattern, however, developed relatively late, becoming much more pronounced during the Holocene. Plants were always critical, but when human population densities are low relative to available resources, hunting, particularly of large game, typically produces superior rates of return and is favored over plants. As population grows and demand increases, hunter-gatherers will increasingly turn to plants, if they are available, to fish if they are not (Binford, 2001).

The diet breadth model (MacArthur & Pianka, 1966) makes it possible to compare hunter-gatherer standards of living from one group to another despite substantial differences in subsistence economy. This is accomplished by calculating the marginal rate of return below which hunter-gatherers will ignore a resource as being too costly to warrant procurement and processing. This entails calculating the handling time per calorie (kcal) and the amount of time expended per kcal in pursuing, collecting, and processing a resource once it is encountered. Resources are ranked from highest (least handling time) to lowest (most handling time) and added to the diet in that order, starting with the highest, which is always in the diet. The second ranking resource is added to the diet if its handling time per kcal is less than the time it would take per kcal to search for and locate the first ranked resource (Figure 2). Following this logic, the overall return rate for a hunter-gatherer group cannot be higher than the handling time of the lowest ranked resource in the diet. Analyses from this perspective suggest that despite all outward appearances, hunter-gatherers living in California and dependent on acorn (Quercus, Lithocarpus) (Bettinger, Malhi, & McCarthy, 1997), living in Australia and dependent on seeds (Acacia) (O’Connell & Hawkes, 1981), and the Dobe !Kung living in Africa and dependent on mongongo nuts (Hawkes & O’Connell, 1981; Lee, 1984) were all operating at about the same marginal rate of return, the handling times for all three resources hovering around 750 kcal/hr. At this rate it would take about 10 hours of work a day to feed a family of four consisting of a father consuming 2,500 kcals per day, a mother consuming 2,000 kcals per day, and two children each consuming 1,500 kcals per day.

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Figure 2. Comparison of a low-cost, narrow spectrum diet (left) with a higher-cost, broader-spectrum diet (right). Switching strategies to the broader-spectrum diet to include lower-ranked items is predicated on the abundance of the higher ranked item, which determines search time. In the narrow spectrum diet on the left, the overall rate of return is that of Resource 1, the only item in the diet. In the broader-spectrum diet on the right, the overall rate of return is that of Resource 2, the lowest-ranked item included in the diet.


While hunter-gatherer technology tracks variation in the relative importance of gathering, hunting, and fishing for obvious reasons, there is more to it than that, with the range and severity of seasonal change in precipitation and temperature being particularly important. In tropical environments that are warm year-round, resources are generally available somewhere, making mobility the best response to local resource shortage. As one moves away from the equator toward the poles, temperatures decrease, finally to the point that there are seasons with little or no resources available, a problem that mobility alone will not solve. Here hunter-gatherers must store resources in one season for use in another, which means they must be more efficient at procuring resources in quantity when available, which requires more costly and sophisticated technology. At the same time, storing resources tethers hunter-gatherers to the locations of their stores, reducing mobility (Testart, 1982; but see Morgan, 2012). This produces a generally inverse relationship between hunter-gatherer technological complexity and mobility: mobile hunter-gatherers have fewer and more generalized tools than more sedentary groups that store resources for seasons of shortfall. One observes, on the one hand, very simple and generalized (though highly effective) technology with relatively few tool types among the highly mobile hunter-gatherers of desert Australia like the Alyawara, who stored very little, and on the other hand, the intricately complex and specialized technology of the essentially sedentary Northwest Coast groups like the Tlingit, who relied extensively on stored resources.

Sociopolitical Organization

The vast bulk of ethnographic hunter-gatherers lived in simple bands made of 20–50 individuals (Kelly, 2013). In some cases these consisted of families headed by males related by patrilineal descent (patrilineal bands), in others males unrelated to each other, allied merely by convenience or friendship (bilateral bands), and in some cases much smaller groups consisting of a single nuclear family (family bands) with an assortment of the husband’s or wife’s close relatives who were at the time incapable of living on their own (e.g., an elderly widowed mother or father, unmarried brother or sister, etc.). But much more complex arrangements were possible. In the North American Pacific Northwest, for example, large social groups interacted on the basis of intricate systems of ranking, in theory making it possible to calculate the status of any two individuals relative to each other. While it is tempting to connect Pacific Northwest Coast social complexity with environmental richness (Ames, 1994) and the simpler forms of band organization with lesser resource productivity, it is worth noting that population densities in California rivaled those of hunter-gatherers anywhere, including those on the Pacific Northwest Coast, yet were accompanied by very simple band-like organizations (Bettinger, 2015).

Hunter-Gatherer Adaptation over Long Timespans

There is also substantial variation in hunter-gatherer economies over time. The temporal contrast between Pleistocene (largely hunting-focused, with subsidiary emphases on plants) and Holocene hunter-gatherers (largely plant-focused, predominantly in low and mid-latitude environments) is particularly sharp, for two main reasons. First, the hunting-gathering lifeway is older than our species (Homo sapiens). Accordingly, many behaviors basic to hunter-gatherer adaptation depend on physical capabilities (e.g., capacity for language) that certain of our more ancient predecessors lacked. This alone prevents drawing simple analogies between modern and pre-Homo sapiens hunter-gatherers. Second, Pleistocene and Holocene hunter-gatherers confronted dramatically different environments, the latter much more favorable to plant exploitation. Glacial periods during the Pleistocene, for instance, resulted in substantial decreases in sea level and shifted temperate biomes towards the equator, either of which could have resulted in resource distributions for which there may be no Holocene ecological analog. Pleistocene climate was also wildly variable, marked by repeated cycles of rapid warming during interglacials followed by several centuries of gradual cooling to glacial temperatures. Erratic climate change limited the development and perfection of complex cultural adaptations, behaviors, and innovations uniquely suited to cold conditions as these would have limited application when climate again turned warm. In addition, the Pleistocene atmosphere was carbon dioxide (CO2) poor, thus inhospitable to plants, which, in combination with rapid climate change, prevented the development of the sophisticated behaviors and technologies needed for the kind of intensive plant and animal procurement and environmental manipulation that might first enable and later support agriculture (Richerson, Boyd, & Bettinger, 2001) (Figure 3). This not only affected local resource availability but likely also created strong selective pressure for cultural adaptation, which is faster than genetic adaptation and therefore better able to keep pace with high frequency, high amplitude variations in climate (Richerson, Boyd, & Bettinger, 2009).

In addition to this, at any given time there has been substantial spatial variation in hunter-gatherer behavior and adaptation. These differences accumulated more rapidly in the more favorable and quiescent Holocene, which is particularly evident in the diversity of hunter-gatherer lifeways documented over the last four centuries by observers firsthand, which includes groups with population densities as low as one person per 400 square kilometers in the harsh deserts of Australia, and others with densities as high as one person per .3 square kilometers among the Chumash along the highly productive Santa Barbara coast of California. The ethnographic range in subsistence, technology, and sociopolitical organization is equally impressive.

Given these fundamental differences of biology and environment, most scholars agree that ethnographic accounts cannot be used to interpret Pleistocene records reliably. Wobst (1978) famously described the dangers of uncritical reliance on the ethnographic record: because ethnographic accounts are time-limited, they likely underestimate behavioral diversity, failing to capture important variation in gender- and age-specific activities, and daily, seasonal, and supra-annual foraging objectives, decisions, and outcomes. Moreover, there must surely be behavioral diversity that would be unaccounted for by even a complete and perfectly accurate ethnographic record. That is, all ethnographic data were gathered in an age when hunter-gatherers, no matter how remote, had been in some kind of contact with non-foraging groups. There were also likely prehistoric environments, social configurations, norms, beliefs, etc. for which there are no modern analogues. Identifying diversity unique to the prehistoric past is no simple task and requires modeling potential sources of diversity, a third contentious area of hunter-gatherer economics.

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Figure 3. Top: Filtered δ‎18O Greenland ice core data showing markedly less variable and warmer Holocene versus Pleistocene paleotemperatures (data from Ditlevsen, Svensmark, & Johnsen, 1996). Middle: Reconstruction of Pleistocene and Holocene atmospheric CO2 derived from Antarctic ice core data. Bottom: Reconstruction of Holocene atmospheric CO2 derived from the same Antarctic ice core data (data from Barnola, Raynaud, Korotkevich, & Lorius, 1987; Genthon et al., 1987).

Accounting for Diversity and Change: Intensification, Innovation, and Surplus

The subject of what drove the development of more productive hunter-gatherer economic systems, surplus production, and innovation is critical not only to understanding hunter-gatherers, but also to understanding the factors driving people to develop and adopt other more intensive economic systems, agricultural or otherwise (Boserup, 1965; Morgan, 2015; Morrison, 1994). Many explanations hinge on climate change scenarios where increases in environmental productivity generate the potential for surplus that can support greater human population densities, as was apparently the case after the Pleistocene-Holocene transition (Richerson et al., 2001). Alternatively, decreases in environmental productivity might generate the impetus for extracting more energy from the environment through more labor, technological changes, or greater regional economic articulation. Such was arguably the case, for instance, along the Southern California Bight, where it has been argued that megadroughts associated with the Medieval Climatic Anomaly (ca. 1.1–0.6 kya) led to more trade between Chumash islanders and mainlanders, facilitated by the invention or adoption of the tomol, a technologically-sophisticated sewn-plank canoe (Arnold, 1992). Others, however, see intrinsic rates of population increase driving economic intensification, the idea being that larger populations have to eat lower down the food chain because more calories are ultimately available in lower trophic levels. Doing so, however, comes at a cost, as extracting this energy usually requires substantial increases in labor, as entailed by the California acorn economies of such groups like the Pomo, Miwok, Mono, and Ohlone (Gifford, 1971; McCarthy, 1993). All these groups were marked by population densities rivaling or exceeding those of prehistoric agricultural groups (Baumhoff, 1963) living in what is now the southwestern and southeastern United States, but such densities were paid for in large part on an acorn-based subsistence economy which was remarkably costly in terms of the amount of labor needed to process acorn meal and remove the tannins from the acorns collected from California’s ubiquitous oak groves (Basgall, 1987; Tushingham & Bettinger, 2013). Larger populations, however, are modelled not only as having met the threshold of population density necessary to ensure a higher likelihood of maintaining complex technologies like tomols due to better chance of successful transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next (Henrich, 2004; but see Collard, Buchanan, & O’Brien, 2013), but also in reaping the rewards of the considerable investments made in such technologies because the cost of these investments in terms of labor, materials, and maintenance is scalar: it is born by many (as opposed to a few) people over a long period of time, all of whom reap the benefit of such investments (Bettinger, Winterhalder, & McElreath, 2006).

Critical to any discussion of hunter-gatherer economic intensification is the notion of surplus. It is clear surplus production and storage are found mainly in mid-latitude, seasonal environments (mainly in the northern hemisphere) where salmon, acorns, and tubers were collected in bulk in the summer and fall, stored, and then eaten during the winter (Binford, 1980; Morgan, 2012). No doubt storage is a response to seasonality; the question is, how did it develop when most of what is known about ethnographic hunter-gatherers indicates that sharing (sometimes termed “tolerated theft”), rather than hoarding, is the norm (Jones, 1987; Winterhalder, 1996)? Simple models posit larger and more settled populations are the key, with storage tethering groups of people to fewer locales for extended portions of each year (Testart, 1982). More sophisticated models cope directly with the problem of tolerated theft by identifying the conditions under which the notion of private property might develop, in particular among household economies that can be more-or-less self-sufficient and therefore “pay” for their non-communitarian storage behaviors with meat sharing, which frees households to store the fruits of plant-oriented subsistence labor (Bettinger, 2015). Others see a more top-down causal mechanism, where aggrandizing “big men” garner prestige by throwing lavish feasts. What pays for the feasts is of course surplus production, which is appropriated by charismatic leaders. This is an inherently unstable socioeconomic situation, but one which could also conceivably lead to more permanent, inherited leadership roles and entrenched modes of surplus production, and perhaps even food production and domestication (Hayden, 1990). The key linkage here is one of political economy, where the development of intensive, surplus-generating economies is intrinsically tied to changes in social relations, power dynamics, and sociocultural complexity.

Foundational Advances and Discoveries

Game-changing advances in understanding hunter-gatherer economies hinge on theory, modeling, and empirical discoveries. The main theoretical advances are those found in the theory of cultural ecology, economic and evolutionary modeling, and applications of behavioral ecology to questions of human subsistence and subsistence related behaviors. Bridging the gap between theory and empiricism are discoveries related to the development of modern human economic behavior and the evolution of broad-spectrum diets and low-level food production. In addition to the seminal ethnographic work by people like Richard Lee among the Dobe !Kung, which has already been covered, a sample of empirical observations of groups living in Africa, South America, and Australia in the late 20th century are included here given their import to tracking diversity in hunter-gatherer economies.

Cultural Ecology

Julian Steward was an early proponent of a comparative approach to mapping hunter-gatherer economic diversity; he believed recurrent behavioral patterns found in similar environments were evidence of general ecological adaptations. Steward consequently introduced cultural ecology, a multilinear evolutionary theory designed to explain varied adaptations to different environments (Steward, 1955). Cultural ecology sought to understand how technologies facilitate interaction with local resource structures—the abundance, distribution, and seasonality of targeted foods—to shape other aspects of economic and social life, most notably social structure. Essential in this regard was the culture core, defined as “the constellation of features which are most closely related to subsistence activities and economic arrangements” (Steward, 1955, p. 37). Secondary (or non-core) cultural features distinguish cultures somewhat superficially and include cultural elements that are determined by history and can be transmitted and produced through diffusion or innovation. Perhaps most famously, Steward described “family band” socioeconomic organization—typified by the Great Basin Shoshone and characterized by small, nuclear family groups that are annually mobile and thinly spread on the landscape—as a culture core response to sparse, unpredictable resources procured and processed using relatively sophisticated plant gathering and processing technologies like burden baskets, manos and metates, baskets, seed-beaters, winnowing trays, and baskets (Steward, 1938). Similar technologies used in more productive environments and more complex technologies used in arid environments like those found in the Great Basin should produce different socioeconomic arrangements, as Steward observed elsewhere, including southern Africa, Australia, and the Philippines (Steward, 1955).

Foragers and Collectors

Binford (1980) defined a continuum of “foragers” and “collectors” to explain variability in hunter-gatherer settlement systems and archaeological site formation processes. The model articulates a range of adaptive strategies pursued by mobile groups, with foraging and collecting on either end of the spectrum. Foragers are residentially mobile, a strategy involving moving from place to place frequently and “mapping on” to resources as they become available. Collectors are logistically mobile, a strategy where people are more tethered to residential bases and resource acquisition involves scheduling the exploitation and storage of specific foods obtained by specialized task groups. Collectors (like the Tlingit with their specialized technologies) prepare for an array of activities that will take place at different locations throughout the year, so there is more investment in offsite gear and specialized equipment. Archaeologically, collector strategies are associated with more site types (base camps, temporary camps, locations, caches), home bases tend to have larger assemblages (reflecting longer settlement duration) and contain food refuse brought from distant locations, and artifacts include more curated and specialized tools. Foragers (like the Alyawara with their generalized technologies) tend to be located nearer the equator where seasonal shortages tend to be rare, while collectors tend to be found in more seasonal climates in middle latitudes. Binford argued that tendencies toward one or another of these patterns were predicted by effective temperature, a proxy for environmental productivity and seasonality. Where effective temperature is high (in the tropics and subtropics) and resources are evenly distributed across space and time, hunter-gatherers tend towards the forager end of the spectrum. Where effective temperature is moderate, resources are unevenly distributed in space and time, leading collectors to collect resources en masse when they are available during productive seasons and storing said resources for when resource productivity is low. The model is a deterministic one, with seasonality defining by and large the nature of hunter-gatherer economic behavior. Its implications, however, are profound in that they suggest that surplus-producing economies evolved as responses to both the spread of people into increasingly seasonal latitudes and the development of more pronounced seasonality in these latitudes during the Holocene.

Travelers and Processors

The traveler-processor model (Bettinger, 1999; Bettinger & Baumhoff, 1982) was developed to explain cultural variation and change in the North American Great Basin. The model follows the logic of optimal foraging theory (patch choice and diet breadth models) derived from behavioral ecology and establishes a typology of adaptive strategies that is superficially similar to the forager-collector model, but differs in that it highlights the competitive fitness of groups by defining specific relationships among population, settlement, and subsistence patterns. In the traveler-processor model, as populations move from low densities (travelers) to high densities (processors), people increasingly rely on more costly-to-process plant foods like seeds, nuts, and tubers. Processors have a broad spectrum diet and, because processing tasks typically fall to females, women’s labor becomes more valuable, which may lead to higher populations and lower rates of female infanticide. The model explains the rapid replacement of travelers by Numic-speaking processors in the Great Basin: as the Numa engaged more in more intensive plant collection and processing strategies, population densities increased. These groups consequently gained footholds in territories previously occupied by groups practicing traveler strategies, who only exploited a fraction of the biotic productivity that processors did. In this model, Numic travelers simply out-ate and out-reproduced the people they replaced due to the greater amount of calories available to them relative to the pre-existing travelers, spreading from southeastern California across the Great Basin in about the last 1,000 years. The model is important because it was one of the first to use human behavioral and evolutionary ecology—ways of tracking the evolution of human behavior through microeconomic models—to make explicit predictions as to how competition between two different economic strategies might play out over relatively long timespans (Broughton & Cannon, 2010; Smith & Winterhalder, 1992), with important implications regarding how farming adaptations might displace foraging ones as well (Kennett & Winterhalder, 2006).

Anatomically Modern Humans and the Upper Paleolithic

In general, the evolution and spread of anatomically modern humans (AMH) during the Upper Paleolithic (UP) in Eurasia and Late Stone Age (ca. 50–14 kya) in Africa appears associated with fundamental changes in hominid subsistence economies. Earlier, Middle Paleolithic economies affiliated with species like Neanderthals tended to focus on hunting large game and, in the Mediterranean, slow-moving, slow-growing tortoises and some mollusks (Stiner & Munro, 2002; but see Speth, 2004). In contrast, AMH economies tended towards more diversity and were characterized by exploiting more costly to process, faster-moving, faster-maturing, smaller-bodied prey like rabbits and birds as well as small seeds. This is well expressed in the Middle (MSA) and Late Stone Age (LSA) deposits at Eland’s Bay and Ysterfontein Rockshelter on the South African Coast, where MSA deposits dating before 50 kya are dominated by larger shellfish and tortoise (Klein et al., 2004; Steele & Klein, 2005). LSA deposits contain seabirds and smaller shellfish and tortoise remains. Similar patterns are evident at Vale Boi in Portugal, where the UP ca. 30 kya is marked by increased reliance on shellfish and rabbits (Manne & Bicho, 2009; Manne, Cascalhiera, Evora, Marreiros, & Bicho, 2011), a pattern also seen in Greece and Spain (Bicho & Haws, 2008; Cortés-Sánchez et al., 2008). A complementary pattern is found in Yuchanyan Cave in south China, where very late UP (ca. 16 kya) archaeofaunal data show AMH diet including turtles, small mammals, and aquatic birds (Prendergast, Yuan, & Bar-Yosef, 2009). Finally, there is evidence of a shift to harvesting and baking wild cereals like barley (Hordeum spontaneum) at Ohalo II, in Israel, ca. 23 kya (Piperno, Weiss, Holst, & Nadel, 2004). In sum, AMH subsistence economies appear to be marked by more diverse diets and, on the coast, more marine-based resources than their Neanderthal and other archaic Homo forbearers. These diets focused on smaller-bodied prey like rabbits that yielded fewer calories per unit of time spent pursuing and processing than did earlier diets which were focused on large fauna. Some see this shift as representing a new environmental niche occupied by AMH, one consisting of smaller, more diverse, and more costly resources (Klein, 2008). Others see this change as brought about at least in part by technological innovation or increasing population densities (Tortosa, Bonilla, Ripoll, Valle, & Calatayud, 2002; Steele, 2012). These hypotheses are not mutually exclusive—the shift to a new niche could indeed have been driven by demographic or technological change. What is interesting is the degree to which extracting more calories by exploiting lower-return resources affected overall AMH evolutionary success in light of competition with archaic Homo, the idea being that more calories allowed for the growth of larger populations who, in essence, simply out-ate and out-reproduced the Neanderthals, Denisovans, and other Archaics living across Africa and Eurasia during the Late Pleistocene (Klein, 2001, 2009). The applicability of the traveler-processor model in this regard is telling in that even at this early stage in human economic development, it appears more productive economic systems outcompeted less productive ones.

The Broad Spectrum Revolution

The Broad Spectrum Revolution (BSR) is the term Kent Flannery (1969) used to describe change in hunter-gatherer subsistence practices from narrow (e.g., only large-bodied ungulates) to broad (e.g., including large and small mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, invertebrates, tree nuts, legumes, and grass seeds). This insight was drawn primarily from observations of the late Pleistocene and early Holocene archaeology of the Near East (Braidwood & Howe, 1960; Flannery, 1965; Garrod & Bate, 1937; Hole & Flannery, 1968; Hole, Flannery, & Neely, 1969; Perrot, 1966), and informed by a then-recent recent theoretical contribution from Binford (1968). For Flannery, changes in the resource base of human foragers led to changes in social practices like food storage and gendered division of labor. These set the stage for the domestication of plants and animals, the origins of intensive irrigation, and both the social complexity and environmental deterioration that comes with agricultural economies.

The central logic behind these changes rests on an equilibrium model describing the relationship between human demography and resource availability. In this model, the initial shift to a broad-spectrum diet would not happen in places where narrow-spectrum resources were abundant; rather it would happen on the less-favorable margins of such places. Broad-spectrum diets would therefore enable human groups to live in both kinds of environments without exceeding the limits of the resource base as a whole, and ultimately, exploitation of a broad range of resources would take hold in both places. Likewise, cultivation of wild grasses (for example) would not be necessary in those places where wild grasses were naturally abundant, but would maintain the population-resource equilibrium if practiced “around the periphery of the zone of maximum carrying capacity” (Flannery, 1969

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