In A Plea for Captain John Brown, Thoreau writes:

“Served him right”—“A dangerous man”—“He is undoubtedly insane.” So they proceed to live their sane, and wise, and altogether admirable lives, reading their Plutarch a little, but chiefly pausing at that feat of Putnam, who was let down into a wolf’s den; and in this wise they nourish themselves for brave and patriotic deeds some time or other. The Tract Society could afford to print that story of Putnam. You might open the district schools with the reading of it, for there is nothing about Slavery or the Church in it; unless it occurs to the reader that some pastors are wolves in sheep’s clothing. “The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions” even, might dare to protest against that wolf. I have heard of boards, and of American boards, but it chances that I never heard of this particular lumber till lately. And yet I hear of Northern men, and women, and children, by families, buying a “life membership” in such societies as these. A life-membership in the grave! You can get buried cheaper than that.

I have done some research, yet the following remain unclear to me:

  1. Who is Putnam, what was his feat, and of what wolf's den does the author speak?

  2. What is the Tract Society?

2 Answers 2


Israel Putnam was a farmer who in 1742 shot the last known wolf in Connecticut. Putnam tracked the wolf down to its lair because it had been killing many sheep on his farm. He and others of the hunting party stayed outside the lair waiting for the wolf to emerge. When it had not come out after many hours, Putnam persuaded his companions to lower him into the lair by a rope, and he then shot the wolf. The story is told at the website of the New England Historical Society.

A tract society is any organization that publishes Christian stories to inspire faith in readers. Thoreau is being ironic when he says that Putnam's story is ideal for a tract society. He is juxtaposing Putnam's story with that of Daniel in the Lion's Den, from chapter 6 of the Book of Daniel. Both Daniel and Putnam are lowered into a den of dangerous animals, and both survive unharmed. The story of Daniel is fairly typical of the sort of story tract societies would publish as examples of the power of faith.

But the Book of Daniel begins with Daniel being taken as a captive to King Nebuchadnezzar II. It's clear that the king is to be considered villainous for seizing the Jewish youth and making him a slave far from his native land. It would be rather awkward for Christians who supported slavery to discuss this aspect of the Daniel story. Thoreau, a lifelong abolitionist, thought it hypocritical that nominal Christians could justify slavery, using for example the common excuse that slaves were living out Noah's curse that his son Ham's descendants would be slaves. Thoreau wryly suggests that Putnam could serve as a more convenient subject for a biblical tract, as his story avoids the tricky subject of slavery altogether.

Thoreau was also a transcendentalist, meaning that he thought of nature as both necessary and sufficient for establishing God's presence in the universe. He therefore had little patience for conventional pieties such as church missions, tracts, etc. The latter half of the passage you quote shows his irreverent attitude toward the trappings of Christian morality.


A "Tract Society" is an organization devoted to the purpose of publishing and disseminating tracts of "improving" literature, that is to say, short pamphlets which provide some moral example, usually taken from christianity literature. A typical example is the American Tract Society which wikipedia describes as:

a nonprofit, nonsectarian but evangelical organization founded on May 11, 1825, in New York City for the purpose of publishing and disseminating tracts of Christian literature. ATS traces its lineage back through the New York Tract Society (1812) and the New England Tract Society (1814) to the Religious Tract Society of London, begun in 1799.

Putnam was a farmer in Connecticut around the middle of the eighteenth century. His name became synonymous with great acts of bravery, when he descended alone into a wolf's lair to kill the animal which had been preying of the farmers' flocks of sheep, a story which became known as Putnam and the Wolf. A detailed account of his adventure is given here. The story becane so famous that a historical marker was erected to mark the location, with the inscription:

Following her tracks through one day and night in the early snow of December 1742 to the Connecticut River and back, the early settlers of this region here discovered the den of the She Wolf that had for years devastated their flocks and had so far eluded all attempts at capture after all other methods had failed. With both servant and dog held back, Israel Putnam, 70 of whose sheep had been slaughtered at 10 o‘clock at night, with a rope tied to his feet, first with a torch, again with a musket, entered this cave, and by the light of her angry eyes, shot and killed the marauder and entering a third time, dragged forth the body of the last wolf in Connecticut.

“He dared to lead where others dared to follow”

This is exactly the kind of uplifting and morally improving anecdote that would be written in a tract, and as Thoreau noted, had the advantage of not mentioning religion or slavery.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.