In Slavery in Massachusetts, Thoreau writes:

Again it happens that the Boston Court-House is full of armed men, holding prisoner and trying a MAN, to find out if he is not really a SLAVE. Does any one think that justice or God awaits Mr. Loring’s decision? For him to sit there deciding still, when this question is already decided from eternity to eternity, and the unlettered slave himself, and the multitude around have long since heard and assented to the decision, is simply to make himself ridiculous. We may be tempted to ask from whom he received his commission, and who he is that received it; what novel statutes he obeys, and what precedents are to him of authority. Such an arbiter’s very existence is an impertinence. We do not ask him to make up his mind, but to make up his pack.

Having looked up pack in Wiktionary, methinks the author may allude here to assembling (making up) the people responsible for the enforcement of his judicial decision (a pack of dogs / wolves that hunts an innocent victim, i.e. Anthony Burns). Does Thoreau mean here something else?

1 Answer 1


Rather than meaning "pack" in the sense you suggest (a pack of dogs/wolves) Thoreau here is expressing his wish for the judge to stop sitting in the court-house and just leave the premises. A more common way of saying this would be for the judge to "pack up and leave", i.e. to pack his bags and go. This way of expressing it has the merit of echoing the first half of the line to make the sentence more memorable:

We do not ask him to make up his mind, but to make up his pack

This is actually using "pack" in the first sense given by Wiktionary:

  1. A bundle made up and prepared to be carried; especially, a bundle to be carried on the back, but also a load for an animal, a bale.

In a preceding work available at the Project Gutenberg link, A Yankee in Canada, Thoreau uses this expression in its literal sense:

My pack, in fact, was soon made, for I keep a short list of those articles which, from frequent experience, I have found indispensable to the foot-traveller;

to describe the process of him packing up the things he needed, into a bundle for his trip.

  • 1
    It's the sense of "pack" from which we get "backpack".
    – Barmar
    Apr 26, 2023 at 14:11
  • 1
    The previous sentence ("Such an arbiter’s very existence is an impertinence") is a strong context clue that "make up his pack" is some sort of idiomatic, colorful way of saying "leave".
    – zwol
    Apr 26, 2023 at 15:00
  • While this noun-version of pack is rather rare nowadays, it's verb form is quite common: "We ask him to pack up [his stuff]"
    – Hobbamok
    Apr 27, 2023 at 15:10

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