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Thoreau: A Plea for Captain John Brown
“Is it not possible that an individual may be right and a government wrong?”
So asks an ailing but still strong-willed Henry David Thoreau, in a journal entry marked October 22nd, 1859. It had been less than a week since John Brown’s fateful raid and subsequent capture at Harper’s Ferry, an event which had branded him a treasonous madman, and had widened the gap between north and south. As Captain Brown languished in prison, Thoreau put his own thoughts to paper: “Are laws to be enforced simply because they were made, and declared by any number of men to be good, when they are not good?” Sentiments of individual conscience such as these were at the root of the abolitionist movement. As violence increased between pro- and anti-slavery factions, thinkers like Thoreau became increasingly dissatisfied with the federal government’s position on the issue. He would soon organize these impassioned journal entries into a speech to be delivered several times before Brown’s eventual execution, and then published in essay form, under the title A Plea for Captain John Brown. Thoreau's was the loudest of only a handful of voices to openly support Brown and his efforts, while the government and the press saw the wild-eyed insurrectionary as woefully misguided, if not completely insane.
Thoreau was a a champion of justice, truth and freedom who used his gift for words to improve the world around him. He was a product of his time, born in Concord, Massachusetts in 1817, a year of relative peace that would deteriorate rapidly in his lifetime. Two years later, the economy would plummet and America would experience its first national financial crisis, known today as the Panic of 1819. The issue of slavery bitterly divided the country, forcing the government to attempt to tamp the friction with reconciliatory legislation like the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (a meager bandage for a gaping wound). The writings of abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison were influencing the formation of various anti-slavery societies across the country, and back in Concord, the entire Thoreau household was becoming quite active in the growing movement. In 1837, Thoreau’s mother and two sisters founded the “Female Anti-Slavery Society”, and the Thoreau home served as a stop along the Underground Railroad. By the 1840s, Concord was a hotbed for abolition and social reform.
In 1857, Henry Thoreau met John Brown, an abolitionist that would become one of the most controversial figures in American history, and arguably the spark that would light the flames of civil war. With the induction of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the conflict between pro- and anti-slavery factions was becoming uncontrollably volatile. The new state of Kansas was given the power to decide whether slavery would be allowed in their state, a decision of the federal government which would have violent consequences. On going violence broke out between the free-state abolitionists and the pro-slavery “border ruffians” from Missouri, a period which would come to be called “Bleeding Kansas” by historians. When the ruffians attacked the free-state city of Lawrence in 1856, Brown organized a merciless retaliation. He led a group into the pro-slavery town of Pottawatomie under the cover of night, and brutally murdered five men. It became increasingly clear that a peaceful solution to the question of slavery would not be forthcoming.
John Brown resorted to violence again in the name of the abolitionist cause, in his most famous episode, the raid at Harper’s Ferry. His plan was to raid the arsenal, arm the slaves (whom he was sure would rise up and join his fight), and spread the campaign southwards. Brown and his men successfully captured the arsenal, but rather than an uprising of rebellious slaves, they were met by an uprising of indignant townspeople. The men of Harper’s Ferry besieged the armory, until federal troops, led by Robert E. Lee, arrived to subdue the insurrectionists. The raid had failed, and the slaves had not revolted. However, the subsequent trial and execution of John Brown would have even grander consequences. It would galvanize the north and unify the south, precipitating the growing secessionist movement and, inevitably, civil war.
Thoreau’s essay A Plea for Captain John Brown came at a time when anti-slavery activists had lost all faith in the government’s ability to manage the issue of slavery. The essay is passionate, inflammatory, and critical of both the government and the people, designed to instigate and rile-up a public audience. The press had painted a picture of John Brown as a mentally unstable anomaly, not to be respected or indulged. It was Thoreau’s opinion, though, that John Brown represented a true ideal of freedom and justice, calling him:
“A man of rare common sense and directness of speech, as of action; a transcendentalist above all, a man of ideas and principles, - that was what distinguished him.”
Thoreau considered it his duty to elucidate Brown’s noble intentions and create a martyr out of him, even comparing him to Christ several times in his essay. He felt that John Brown’s willingness to sacrifice life and liberty for the freedom of slaves deserved the public’s praise and advocacy, and that Brown was not insane but rather “…a superior man. He did not value his bodily life in comparison with ideal things.” Such an idealized portrayal is indicative of the transcendentalist perspective for which Thoreau was such an important figure. Reminiscent of the Greek heroes of Thoreau’s classical education, Brown came to embody the criterion for decisive action and sacrifice. Though John Brown would meet his end at the gallows, the conflict over slavery was only just beginning.
Like the revolutionary Thomas Paine, who had wanted to abolish slavery at the time of America’s independence, Thoreau attempts to point out the hypocrisy of a supposedly Christian society engaging in the barbarous and inhumane activity of human enslavement. He vilifies the government, asking “What shall we think of a government to which all the truly brave and just men in the land are enemies…?” He goes on to condemn the populace as cowards and the newspapers for pandering to government pressure and fear. Like many of his writings, Thoreau’s Plea presents us with an author of unique integrity and intensity, a master wordsmith who believed in the power of language to shape history.