“Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
Henry David Thoreau. from the chapter, “Conclusion.” Walden.
I have read this quote through the years and wondered at the context. If you drop the initial question, then the appealing image of "different drummer" can be stretched to wrap around various shapes and purposes. Placing it in Thoreau's context, I suspect it is autobiographical.
Thoreau was writing before the Civil War and some 60 years following the Revolutionary War and with less than 20 years after the War of 1812. We tend to think that our federal government sprang into full-blown being with everyone on board. There was still divisive sentiment for and against England. Building in intensity was the slavery issue driving a wedge between the growing industrial north and the agricultural south.
It was 1845 when Thoreau built a cabin on property owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thoreau did not live isolated in his cabin near Walden Pond. He regularly hiked into town for dinner and conversation with friends. “…where I was well entertained, and after learning the kernels and very last sieveful of news, what had subsided, the prospects of war and peace, and whether the world was likely to hold together much longer….”
He stood on the stoop of the general store and watched the varied population march to the drummer of land development, mercantile expansion, and social progress. The legal system was developing and he occasionally walked on the wrong side when he refused to pay a tax or “recognize the authority of the State which buys and sells men, women and children, like cattle….” When released from the primitive jail, he returned to his woods to gather his dinner of huckleberries on Fair Haven Hill.
We loved living in New Jersey for 16 months exploring historical sites. New England states are compact enough that one can visit two or three in a day. In 2004 we passed Walden Pond, although Thoreau’s cabin is now a replica of the original. As Thoreau might have, we enjoyed coffee in a shop on a main street in Concord chatting with the proprietor. The visitor’s center provided us with a map to the North Bridge where the first confrontation of the Revolutionary War took place in 1775. On our return into town we found it curious that a group of locals were marching with signs opposing war, perhaps descendants of dissenters in 1775.
To commemorate those who challenged the British at the North Bridge, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a poem. The embattled farmers definitely fit Thoreau's description.
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.
On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set today a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.
Spirit, that made those spirits dare
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.