Thoreau and Bradford: Differences on Life’s Necessities

Every man is different and unique from one another. However, despite these differences many of us want and require the same things out of life. While all men is the same and created equally, we each put value and importance in different things. One man may find importance in the simple things in life such as food, family, and good health; another man may find that material things are of more importance due to the luxury and ease it provides. The differences between what one man may value or require of another is expressly seen in the works of William Bradford’s Mayflower Compact and Henry Thoreau’s Walden Pond, Economy. By observing the different things in which these two men value, one can better understand what is considered important to the life of man.

In the beginning of Thoreau’s chapter entitled, Economy, Thoreau makes it clear to the reader that man has placed value and importance on meaningless things. He calls man a “machine” who merely works to live and lives to work. This is seen as men work to provide for themselves the things they need in life. “So occupied with the factitious acres and superfluously course labors of life that the finer fruits cannot be plucked by them” (Thoreau 6). This is because a man will work to pay bills and sustain his household and quality of life. However, once the work is done and he has paid his dues, he must go back to work to pay his dues again. In this way, man is observed as an object that toils effortlessly in a continuous cycle that seems to never end. Due to this cycle and the toil that men undergo Thoreau takes on the machine. He observes it as a negative force that has taken over the life of many people who work only as a source of survival.

William Bradford, among many other English men, ventured to the New World seeking freedom and opportunity. While many sought foreign shores for religious freedom, others came seeking riches, land, and trade. Although people came to the New World for different reasons, they had one thing in common. “Many of the Pilgrims aboard realized that they were in land uncharted by the London Company”, (The Mayflower Compact 2). Everyone who arrived in America aboard the Mayflower had no law, no rules, and no foundation in which to colonize. Under these conditions man had no restraints, able to do whatever their heart desired. Weather this was to commit evil deeds or preach the gospel, it was every man for himself. Due to this situation, Bradford was able to create a common ground with strangers who found themselves in the same predicament. Under these constraints, Bradford developed a need that all the people wanted and of life’s necessities, this is to create a stable community based on respect and equality.

The quality of life Bradford was attempting to create is observed by Thoreau when he states, “men’s capacities have never been measured; nor are we to judge of what he can do by any precedents, so little has been tried” (Thoreau 12). In this statement, Thoreau asserts that the men who came before us had already set the stage of our lives. Laws have already been made, rules established, and society has already determined its norms and needs. In this way, everyone knows what is expected of them. It suggests that most of the hard work has already been done for us. However, although these things are already established it does not indicate that man cannot continue to carry the torch. Thus, there are things that still need to be done, established and created that can help and assist others. Thoreau, then encourages us to try to do new things and find new ways of living life. Things cannot happen or be created, without first trying. Trying then, is the first step to creating a life that is filled with all the things we need and not what we want.

Bradford, however, is a man who did just that. In the New World and colonized amongst strangers, he fears what may come of this new society. People will do what they want without regard for others. He is fearful that anarchy and immorality may grow in abundance in a land without rules, laws, or government. In addition to this, the only norms and customs that are present are the ones that the people aboard the mayflower brought with them. Therefore, Bradford imagines colonial destruction when structure and rules are absent. This fear causes Broadford to create the Mayflower Compact in which he encourages the first American Colony to promise one another equality, respect, and unity. This is evident in the Compact where Bradford describes the use of the agreement, to “combine ourselves together into a civil body politic for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid”, (3). Therefore, by providing structure to their new society, the colony can live peacefully among one another without grievance or injustice.

Although Thoreau lived centuries after Bradford, it is apparent that Bradford’s quest was one that Thoreau would have viewed in a positive light. This is indicated when Thoreau states, “What a man thinks of himself… determines, or rather indicates, his faith” (8). Bradford and the people of the Mayflower came from different backgrounds. Some were rich while others were servants or tradesmen. Despite this, they found truth and integrity in the New World. As such, their different levels of education, background, and experience did not hinder them from thriving in a land that was completely foreign. They thought of themselves worthy enough of this opportunity. So much so that some people gave away years of their life to servitude at the opportunity of occupying a new land that was rich and promising. As Thoreau suggested, these colonialist put everything they had into this journey for their personal survival. It is this blind faith and self-determination that allowed them to unite and agree with one another to become a self-governing society.

In order to grow and prosper, the colonialist had to give up some independence and individual rights. As such, the Compact instructed them to, “promise all due submission and obedience” (Mayflower Compact 3). This submission was the promise of equality and mutual respect of each member. Because there was no one or entity to make a promise to, they had to promise themselves. By making this promise they must keep their word to one another. In this way, the colonialist did not handle this situation without thought or significance. Instead they took the situation with care. This is because they were about to create a new society and had only each other to rely on for guidance and support. It was a compact that was given precision as each man was encouraged to sign his or her name to seal the commitment made. Thoreau describes this best when he says, “the finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling” (6).

Thoreau states that the most important necessities of life include food, shelter clothing, and fuel (17). However, when reading the Mayflower Compact it is clear that man needs more than these things. Man also needs social structure, order, and respect. Although these are not the necessities of survival, these are the necessities to live freely and equally among others. This need to self-govern was a theme that was completely ignored by great minds such as Thoreau. However, Bradford well understood this need when placed in a unique situation where men had true and immeasurable freedom.  Blind to the need for social structure and self-government, Thoreau instead focused his thought on things that man has lost sight of. This includes placing value on these that are without value. Encouraging people to get closer to life’s true meaning is significant so one not become the machine of work that provide life’s pleasure. Although Thoreau pushed people to think more and to become self-sufficient, one statement he made directly relates the Bradford, colonialist, and the people of the Mayflower. “It would be some advantage to live a primitive and frontier life… if only to learn what are the gross necessities of life” (Thoreau 16). Ironically enough, Bradford did just that and indeed discovered another of life’s necessities: justice and social structure that can be found through self-government. By going back to life’s basics, people can not only learn more about themselves and the people around them, but also about the needs of the society. As social people, we gather together, commune, and unite for similar interest. Therefore, without social structure, rules, and norms of society, there would be anarchy, lack of respect, and injustice. By doing away with the luxuries and monotony of everyday life, people can be come closer to what is most important.


Works Cited

The Mayflower Compact. The Federalist Papers Project. Ed. Bill Bailey. 2012. Retrieved from:

Thoreau, Henry. Walden Pond. Chapter 1 Economy. 1906. Emerson Hill Publications. Boston, MA.  Retrieved from:


About Russia Robinson

I use my writing talents, and skills I’ve learned through academics and experience, to benefit the greater good of society. Conducting research, writing articles, essays, and blogging, I give informative information on a variety of topics and issues that affect society. I also write creative works like children’s books, short stories, poems, and a novel in progress. I earned a BA in English creative writing and American literature from San Francisco State and graduate studies in Technical Writing at Kennesaw State University. Through my career in education and mental health I have spent more than 10 years’ helping young people succeed. I am a certifiable Language Arts teacher, working in education, social services, and mental health. Interested in my writing services? Feel free to contact me via email.
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