By Henry David Thoreau
I trust that you will pardon me for being here. I do not wish to force my
thoughts upon you, but I feel forced myself. Little as I know of Captain Brown,
I would fain do my part to correct the tone and the statements of the
newspapers, and of my countrymen generally, respecting his character and
When the troubles in Kansas began, he sent several of his sons thither to
strengthen the party of the free state men, fitting them out with such weapons
as he had; telling them that if the troubles should increase and there should be
need of him, he would follow to assist them with his hand and counsel. This, as
you all know, he soon after did; and it was through his agency, far more than
any other's, that Kansas was made free....}
I should say that he was an old-fashioned man in his respect for the
Constitution and his faith in the permanence of this Union. Slavery he deemed to
be wholly opposed to these, and he was its determined foe.
He was by descent and birth a New England farmer, a man of great common
sense, deliberate and practical as that class is, and tenfold more so. He was
like the best of those who stood at Concord Bridge once, on Lexington Common,
and on Bunker Hill, only he was firmer and higher principled than any that I
have chanced to hear of as there. It was no Abolition lecturer that converted
him. Ethan Allen and Stark, with whom he may in some respects be compared, were
rangers in a lower and less important field. They could bravely face their
country's foes, but he had the courage to face his country herself when she was
in the wrong. A Western writer says, to account for his escape from so many
perils, that he was concealed under a "rural exterior"; as if, in that
prairie land, a hero should, by good rights, wear a citizen's dress only.
He did not go to the college called Harvard, good old Alma Mater as she is.
He was not fed on the pap that is there furnished. As he phrased it, "I
know no more of grammar than one of your calves." But he went to the great
university of the West, where he sedulously pursued the study of liberty, for
which he had early betrayed a fondness, and, having taken many degrees, he
finally commenced the public practice of humanity in Kansas, as you all know.
Such were his humanities, and not any study of grammar. He would have
left a Greek accent slanting the wrong way and righted up a falling man.
He was one of that class of whom we hear a great deal, but, for the most
part, see nothing at all?the Puritans. It would be in vain to kill him. He died
lately in the time of [English revolutionary Oliver] Cromwell, but he reappeared
here. Why should he not? Some of the Puritan stock are said to have come over
and settled in New England. They were a class that did something else than
celebrate their forefathers' day and eat parched corn in remembrance of that
time. They were neither Democrats nor Republicans but men of simple habits,
straightforward, prayerful; not thinking much of rulers who did not fear God,
not making many compromises, nor seeking after available candidates....}
He was never able to find more than a score or so of recruits whom he would
accept, and only about a dozen, among them his sons, in whom he had perfect
faith. When he was here, some years ago, he showed to a few a little manuscript
book?his "orderly book," I think he called it?containing the names of
his company in Kansas and the rules by which they bound themselves; and he
stated that several of them had already sealed the contract with their blood.
When someone remarked that, with the addition of a chaplain,
it would have been a perfect Cromwellian troop, he observed that he would have
been glad to add a chaplain to the list if he could have found one who could
fill that office worthily. It is easy enough to find one for the United States
Army. I believe that he had prayers in his camp morning and evening,
He was a man of Spartan habits, and at sixty was scrupulous about his diet at
your table, excusing himself by saying that he must eat sparingly and fare hard
as became a soldier or one who was fitting himself for difficult enterprises, a
life of exposure.
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?not yielding to a whim or transient impulse but carrying out
the purpose of a life. I noticed that he did not overstate anything but spoke
within bounds. I remember, particularly, how, in his speech here, he referred to
what his family had suffered in Kansas, without ever giving the least vent to
his pent-up fire. It was a volcano with an ordinary
chimney flue. Also referring to the deeds of certain border ruffians, he said,
rapidly paring away his speech, like an experienced soldier, keeping a reserve
of force and meaning, "They had a perfect right to be hung."
He was not in the least a rhetorician, was not talking to Buncombe or his
constituents anywhere, had no need to invent anything but to tell the simple
truth and communicate his own resolution; therefore, he appeared incomparably
strong, and eloquence in Congress and elsewhere seemed to me at a discount....}
As for his recent failure, we do not know the facts about it. It was
evidently far from being a wild and desperate attempt. His enemy Mr.
Vallandigham is compelled to say that "it was among the best planned and
executed conspiracies that ever failed."
Not to mention his other successes, was it a failure, or did it show a want
of good management, to deliver from bondage a dozen human beings and walk off
with them by broad daylight, for weeks if not months, at a leisurely pace,
through one state after another for half the length of the North, conspicuous to
all parties, with a price set upon his head, going into a courtroom on his way
and telling what he had done, thus convincing Missouri that it was not
profitable to try to hold slaves in his neighborhood? And this, not because the
government menials were lenient but because they were afraid of him.
Yet he did not attribute his success, foolishly, to "his star" or
to any magic. He said, truly, that the reason why such greatly superior numbers
quailed before him was, as one of his prisoners confessed, because they lacked
a cause?a kind of armor which he and
his party never lacked. When the time came, few men were found willing to lay
down their lives in defense of what they knew to be wrong; they did not like
that this should be their last act in this world.
But to make haste to his last act and its effects.
The newspapers seem to ignore, or perhaps are really ignorant of the fact,
that there are at least as many as two or three individuals to a town throughout
the North who think much as the present speaker does about him and his
enterprise. I do not hesitate to say that they are an important and growing
party. We aspire to be something more than stupid and timid chattels, pretending
to read history and our Bibles, but desecrating every house and every day we
breathe in. Perhaps anxious politicians may prove that only seventeen white men
and five Negroes were concerned in the late enterprise; but their very anxiety
to prove this might suggest to themselves that all is not told.
Why do they still dodge the truth? They are so anxious because of a dim
consciousness of the fact, which they do not distinctly face, that at least a
million of the free inhabitants of the United States would have rejoiced if it
had succeeded. They at most only criticize the tactics. Though we wear no crepe,
the thought of that man's position and probable fate is spoiling many a man's
day here at the North for other thinking. If anyone who has seen him here can
pursue successfully any other train of thought, I do not know what he is made
of. If there is any such who gets his usual allowance of sleep, I will warrant
him to fatten easily under any circumstances which do not touch his body or
purse. I put a piece of paper and a pencil under my pillow, and when I could not
sleep, I wrote in the dark.
On the whole, my respect for my fellowmen, except as one may outweigh a
million, is not being increased these days. I have noticed the cold-blooded way
in which newspaper writers and men generally speak of this event, as if an
ordinary malefactor, though one of unusual "pluck"?as the governor of
Virginia is reported to have said, using the language of the cockpit, "the
gamest man he ever saw"?had been caught and were about to be hung. He was
not dreaming of his foes when the governor thought he looked so
brave. It turns what sweetness I have to gall to hear, or hear of, the remarks
of some of my neighbors.
When we heard at first that he was dead, one of my townsmen observed that
"he died as the fool dieth"; which, pardon me, for an instant
suggested a likeness in him dying to my neighbor living. Others, craven-hearted,
said disparagingly, that "he threw his life away," because he resisted
the government. Which way have they thrown their lives, pray? such as
would praise a man for attacking singly an ordinary band of thieves or
murderers. I hear another ask, Yankee-like, "What will he gain by it?"
as if he expected to fill his pockets by this enterprise. Such a one has no idea
of gain but in this worldly sense. If it does not lead to a "surprise"
party, if he does not get a new pair of boots, or a vote of thanks, it must be a
failure. "But he won't gain anything by it."
Well, no, I don't suppose he could get four-and-sixpence a day for being
hung, take the year round; but then he stands a chance to save a considerable
part of his soul?and such
a soul!?when you
do not. No doubt you can get more in your market for a quart of milk than for a
quart of blood, but that is not the market that heroes carry their blood to.
Such do not know that like the seed is the fruit and that, in the moral world,
when good seed is planted good fruit is inevitable and does not depend on our
watering and cultivating; that when you plant, or bury, a hero in his field, a
crop of heroes is sure to spring up. This is a seed of such force and vitality,
that it does not ask our leave to germinate....}
The modern Christian is a man who has consented to say all the prayers in the
liturgy, provided you will let him go straight to bed and sleep quietly
afterward. All his prayers begin with "Now I lay me down to sleep,"
and he is forever looking forward to the time when he shall go to his "long
rest." He has consented to perform certain old, established charities, too,
after a fashion, but he does not wish to hear of any new-fangled ones; he
doesn't wish to have any supplementary articles added to the contract to fit it
to the present time. He shows the whites of his eyes on the Sabbath, and the
blacks all the rest of the week.
The evil is not merely a stagnation of blood but a stagnation of spirit.
Many, no doubt, are well-disposed but sluggish by constitution and by habit, and
they cannot conceive of a man who is actuated by higher motives than they are.
Accordingly, they pronounce this man insane, for they know that they
could never act as he does as long as they were themselves....}
I read all the newspapers I could get within a week after this event, and I
do not remember in them a single expression of sympathy for these men. I have
since seen one noble statement, in a Boston paper, not editorial. Some
voluminous sheets decided not to print the full report of Brown's words to the
exclusion of other matter. It was as if a publisher should reject the manuscript
of the New Testament and print Wilson's last speech. The same journal which
contained this pregnant news was chiefly filled, in parallel columns, with the
reports of the political conventions that were being held. But the descent to
them was too steep. They should have been spared this contrast, been printed in
an extra at least.
To turn from the voices and deeds of earnest men to the cackling of
political conventions! Office seekers and speechmakers who do not so much as lay
an honest egg but wear their breasts bare upon an egg of chalk! Their great game
is the game of straws, or rather that universal aboriginal game of the platter,
at which the Indians cried hub, bub! Exclude the reports of religious and
political conventions and publish the words of a living man.
But I object not so much to what they have omitted as to what they have
inserted. Even the Liberator called
it "a misguided, wild, and apparently insane?effort." As for the herd
of newspapers and magazines, I do not chance to know an editor in the country
who will deliberately print anything which he knows will ultimately and
permanently reduce the number of his subscribers. They do not believe that it
would be expedient. How then can they print truth? If we do not say pleasant
things, they argue, nobody will attend to us. And so they do like some traveling
auctioneers, who sing an obscene song in order
to draw a crowd around them.
Republican editors, obliged to get their sentences ready for the morning
edition and accustomed to look at everything by the twilight of politics,
express no admiration, nor true sorrow even, but call these men "deluded
fanatics," "mistaken men"?"insane" or
"crazed." It suggests what a sane
set of editors we are blessed with, not "mistaken men"; who
know very well on which side their bread is buttered, at least.
A man does a brave and humane deed, and at once, on all sides, we hear people
and parties declaring, "I didn't do it, nor countenance him to do
it, in any conceivable way. It can't be fairly inferred from my past
career." I, for one, am not interested to hear you define your position. I
don't know that I ever was or ever shall be. I think it is mere egotism or
impertinent at this time. Ye needn't take so much pains to wash your skirts of
him. No intelligent man will ever be convinced that he was any creature of
yours. He went and came, as he himself informs us, "under the auspices of
John Brown and nobody else." The Republican Party does not perceive how
many his failure will make to vote
more correctly than they would have them. They have counted the votes of
Pennsylvania & Co., but they have not correctly counted Captain Brown's
vote. He has taken the wind out of their sails, the little wind they had, and
they may as well lie to and repair....}
The slave ship is on her way, crowded with its dying victims; new cargoes are
being added in midocean; a small crew of slaveholders, countenanced by a large
body of passengers, is smothering 4 million under the hatches; and yet the
politician asserts that the only proper way by which deliverance is to be
obtained is by "the quiet diffusion of the sentiments of humanity,"
without any "outbreak." As if the sentiments of humanity were ever
found unaccompanied by its deeds, and you could disperse them, all finished to
order, the pure article, as easily as water with a watering pot, and so lay the
dust. What is that that I hear cast overboard? The bodies of the dead that have
found deliverance. That is the way we are "diffusing" humanity and its
sentiments with it.
Prominent and influential editors, accustomed to deal with politicians, men
of an infinitely lower grade, say, in their ignorance, that he acted "on
the principle of revenge." They do not know the man. They must enlarge
themselves to conceive of him. I have no doubt that the time will come when they
will begin to see him as he was. They have got to conceive of a man of faith and
of religious principle, and not a politician nor an Indian; of a man who did not
wait till he was personally interfered with or thwarted in some harmless
business before he gave his life to the cause of the oppressed.
If Walker may be considered the representative of the South, I wish I could
say that Brown was the representative of the North. He was a superior man. He
did not value his bodily life in comparison with ideal things. He did not
recognize unjust human laws but resisted them as he was bid. For once we are
lifted out of the trivialness and dust of politics into the region of truth and
manhood. No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for
the dignity of human nature, knowing himself for a man and the equal of any and
all governments. In that sense he was the most American of us all.
He needed no babbling lawyer, making false issues, to defend him. He was more
than a match for all the judges that American voters, or office holders of
whatever grade, can create. He could not have been tried by a jury of his peers,
because his peers did not exist. When a man stands up serenely against the
condemnation and vengeance of mankind, rising above them literally by a whole
body?even though he were of late the
vilest murderer who has settled that matter with himself?the spectacle is a
sublime one?didn't ye know it, ye Liberators, ye Tribunes, ye Republicans? and
we become criminal in comparison. Do yourselves the honor to recognize him. He
needs none of your respect.
As for the Democratic journals, they are not human enough to affect me at
all. I do not feel indignation at anything they may say.
I am aware that I anticipate a little, that he was still, at the last
accounts, alive in the hands of his foes; but that being the case, I have all
along found myself thinking and speaking of him as physically dead.
I do not believe in erecting statues to those who still live in our hearts,
whose bones have not yet crumbled in the earth around us, but I would rather see
the statue of Captain Brown in the Massachusetts Statehouse yard than that of
any other man whom I know. I rejoice that I live in this age?that I am his
What a contrast, when we turn to that political party which is so anxiously
shuffling him and his plot out of its way and looking around for some available
slaveholder, perhaps, to be its candidate, at least for one who will execute the
Fugitive Slave Law, and all those other unjust laws which he took up arms to
Insane! A father and six sons, and one son-in-law, and several more men
besides?as many, at least, as twelve disciples?all struck with insanity at once;
while the same tyrant holds with a firmer grip than ever his 4 million slaves,
and a thousand sane editors, his abettors, are saving their country and their
bacon! Just as insane were his efforts in Kansas. Ask the tyrant who is his most
dangerous foe, the sane man or the insane. Do the thousands who know him best,
who have rejoiced at his deeds in Kansas,
and have afforded him material aid there, think him insane? Such a use of this
word is a mere trope with most who persist in using it, and I have no doubt that
many of the rest have already in silence retracted their words.
Read his admirable answers to Mason and others. How they are dwarfed and
defeated by the contrast! On the one side, half-brutish, half-timid questioning;
on the other, truth, clear as lightning, crashing into their obscene temples.
They are made to stand with Pilate, and Gesler, and the Inquisition. How
ineffectual their speech and action! And what a void their silence! They are but
helpless tools in this great work. It was no human power that gathered them
about this preacher.
What have Massachusetts and the North sent a few sane
representatives to Congress for, of late years? to declare with effect what kind
of sentiments? All their speeches put together and boiled down?and probably they
themselves will confess it?do not match for manly directness and force, and for
simple truth, the few casual remarks of crazy John Brown, on the floor of the
Harpers Ferry engine house?that man whom you are about to hang, to send to the
other world, though not to represent you
No, he was not our representative in any sense. He was too fair a specimen of
a man to represent the like of us. Who, then, were
his constituents? If you read his words understandingly, you will find out. In
his case there is no idle eloquence, no made nor maiden speech, no compliments
to the oppressor. Truth is his inspirer and earnestness the polisher of his
We talk about a representative government; but what a monster of a
government is that where the noblest faculties of the mind, and the whole
heart, are not represented. A semi-human tiger or ox, stalking over the
earth, with its heart taken out and the top of its brain shot away. Heroes have
fought well on their stumps when their legs were shot off, but I never heard of
any good done by such a government as that.
The only government that I recognize?and it matters not how few are at the
head of it or how small its army?is that power that establishes justice in the
land, never that which establishes injustice. What shall we think of a
government to which all the truly brave and just men in the land are enemies,
standing between it and those whom it oppresses? A government that pretends to
be Christian and crucifies a million Christs every day!
Treason! Where does such treason take its rise? I cannot help thinking of you
as you deserve, ye governments. Can you dry up the fountains of thought? High
treason, when it is resistance to tyranny here below, has its origin in, and is
first committed by, the power that makes and forever recreates man. When you
have caught and hung all these human rebels, you have accomplished nothing but
your own guilt, for you have not struck at the fountainhead. You presume to
contend with a foe against whom West Point cadets and rifled cannon point
not. Can all the art of the cannon founder tempt matter to turn against its
maker? Is the form in which the founder thinks he casts it more essential than
the constitution of it and of himself?...}
It was [Brown's] peculiar doctrine that a man has a perfect right to
interfere by force with the slaveholder in order to rescue the slave. I agree
with him. They who are continually shocked by slavery have some right to be
shocked by the violent death of the slaveholder, but no others. Such will be
more shocked by his life than by his death. I shall not be forward to think him
mistaken in his method who quickest succeeds to liberate the slave. I speak for
the slave when I say that I prefer the philanthropy of Captain Brown to that
philanthropy which neither shoots me nor liberates me. At any rate, I do not
think it is quite sane for one to spend his whole life in talking or writing
about this matter, unless he is continuously inspired, and I have not done so. A
man may have other affairs to attend to. I do not wish to kill nor to be killed,
but I can foresee circumstances in which both these things would be by me
We preserve the so-called peace of our community by deeds of petty violence
every day. Look at the policemen's billy and handcuffs! Look at the jail! Look
at the gallows! Look at the chaplain of the regiment! We are hoping only to live
safely on the outskirts of this provisional army. So we defend ourselves
and our hen roosts and maintain slavery. I know that the mass of my countrymen
think that the only righteous use that can be made of Sharps rifles and
revolvers is to fight duels with them when we are insulted by other nations, or
to hunt Indians, or shoot fugitive slaves with them, or the like. I think that
for once the Sharps rifles and the revolvers were employed in a righteous cause.
The tools were in the hands of one who could use them.
The same indignation that is said to have cleared the temple once will clear
it again. The question is not about the weapon but the spirit in which you use
it. No man has appeared in America, as yet, who loved his fellowman so well and
treated him so tenderly. He lived for him. He took up his life and he laid it
down for him....}
I am here to plead his cause with you. I plead not for his life but for his
character?his immortal life; and so it becomes your cause wholly and is not his
in the least. Some 1,800 years ago, Christ was crucified; this morning,
perchance, Captain Brown was hung. These are the two ends of a chain which is
not without its links. He is not Old Brown any longer; he is an angel of light.
I see now that it was necessary that the bravest and humanest man in all the
country should be hung. Perhaps he saw it himself. I almost fear that I
may yet hear of his deliverance, doubting if a prolonged life, if any
life, can do as much good as his death.