John Brown and Henry David Thoreau

John Brown and Henry David Thoreau eText - Primary Source

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John BrownJohn Brown's raid on a federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, outraged and frightened Southernerswho supported slavery. Published by Gale Cengage Getty Images, Inc.
Henry David Thoreau was a leading writer and thinker of mid-nineteenth century America. His defense of John Brown was in support of individuals who have the courage of their own convictions. Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress.Henry David Thoreau was a leading writer and thinker of mid-nineteenth century America. His defense of John Brown was in support of individuals who have the courage of their own convictions. Published by Gale Cengage Library of Congress

"Now I Have Done"
Statement delivered on November 2, 1859

Exerpt from "A Plea for Captain John Brown"
First printed in 1859

"I believe that to have interfered as I have done—as I have always freely admitted I have done—in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right."

John Brown
"Some eighteen hundred years ago Christ was crucified; this morning, perchance, Captain Brown was hung. These are the two ends of a chain that is not without its links. He is not Old Brown any longer; he is an angel of light."

Henry David Thoreau

John Brown (1800–1859) was an abolitionist whose actions spoke louder than words. On December 2, 1859, he was hanged in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, for having plotted to provide arms to African American slaves and lead them to freedom in Canada. Brown had been convicted by a military court one month earlier; at his trial, he delivered his last speech.

Two weeks before his trial, on October 16, 1859, Brown and his army of twenty-one abolitionists had raided a federal armory to seize guns and provide them to slaves living nearby. Instead, Brown and his companions were captured by a U.S. Army colonel named Robert E. Lee—who soon would command the Confederate Army—and brought to trial on charges of treason against the state of Virginia.

By some measures, John Brown could be considered a terrorist. He had vowed to use violence to achieve a political goal—the abolition of slavery—and had taken civilians hostage in Harpers Ferry. His raid failed to draw support, however; even fellow abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison declared that the raid in Virginia (now part of West Virginia) was "insane."

On the day he was found guilty, after a trial that lasted a week, John Brown was allowed to make a statement to the court that became part of the court record. In it, he explained that he had attacked an out-post of the U.S. government in order to pursue his obsession: freeing slaves. In his opinion, John Brown was answering to a higher authority than the rule of law. Brown maintained that a law that allowed one man to enslave another was not worthy of obeying.

Shortly thereafter, the writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) published an essay titled "A Plea for Captain John Brown." Thoreau, himself an abolitionist, heaped scorn on those who expressed ridicule or contempt for John Brown. Thoreau said that most men simply mark time from birth to death, and the world barely notices when they die. But a man who would die for a noble cause like abolitionism had at least lived his life with a purpose; everyone would know when he was gone.

Both Brown and Thoreau make the same point: that it is noble and right to act according to one's principles, even if such actions appear to be against the law. The power of government does not make a law right when it upholds an immoral principle like enslaving another human being.

Many terrorists act from principles—principles they believe are superior to the law or to the power of the government. History judges these activists: some are viewed to have been right, and others to have been wrong.

Things to remember while reading exerpts from "Now I Have Done" and "A Plea for Captain John Brown":

  • John Brown viewed his actions at Harpers Ferry much differently than did the government prosecutors. Here, Brown argues that his only mission was to free human beings forced to live as slaves. He points to the presence of a Bible in the courtroom, and he wonders what role the lessons contained in it are meant to play. His speech dramatizes the frequent conflict between religious teaching and civil law.
  • John Brown was widely hailed as a hero by abolitionists in the North while being held in contempt as a criminal in the South. Less than two years after his execution, the North and South would go to war with one another, largely over the issue of slavery. The man hanged as a criminal in 1859 would become the subject of an inspirational verse sung by the Union Army to the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic: "John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave. … His truth goes marching on."

Excerpt from "Now I Have Done"

I have, may it please the Court, a few words to say.

In the first place, I deny everything but what I have all along admitted—the design on my part to free the slaves. I intended certainly to have made a clean thing of that matter, as I did last winter, when I went into Missouri and there took slaves without the snapping of a gun on either side, moved them through the country, and finally left them in Canada. I designed to have done the same thing again, on a larger scale. That was all I intended. I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection.

I have another objection; and that is, it is unjust that I should suffer such a penalty. Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved (for I admire the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case)—had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends—either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class—and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.

This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to "remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them." I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say, I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done—as I have always freely admitted I have done—in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments—I submit; so let it be done!

Let me say one word further….

I feel entirely satisfied with the treatment I have received on my trial. Considering all the circumstances, it has been more generous than I expected. But I feel no consciousness of guilt. I have stated from the first what was my intention, and what was not. I never had any design against the life of any person, nor any disposition to commit treason, or excite slaves to rebel, or make any general insurrection. I never encouraged any man to do so, but always discouraged any idea of that kind.

Let me say, also, a word in regard to the statements made by some of those connected with me. I hear it has been stated by some of them that I have induced them to join me. But the contrary is true. I do not say this to injure them, but as regretting their weakness. There is not one of them but joined me of his own accord, and the greater part of them at their own expense. A number of them I never saw, and never had a word of conversation with, till the day they came to me; and that was for the purpose I have stated.

Now I have done.

Henry David Thoreau, best known for his book Walden, or Life in the Woods, wrote a spirited essay defending not just John Brown, but all individuals who act on their convictions. He compares the abolitionist Brown with the American rebels in the Revolutionary War (1775–81) who took up arms to defend the cause of freedom.

Excerpt from "A Plea for Captain John Brown"

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 Revolutionary War heroes, 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. John Brown had led his sons in fighting pro-slavery forces in Kansas in 1855 during a struggle over whether the new state would allow slavery. 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 … 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….

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 Biblesy.

The momentary charge at Balaklava, in obedience to a blundering command, proving what a perfect machine the soldier is, has, properly enough, been celebrated by a poet laureate; but the steady, and for the most part successful, charge of this man, for some years, against the legions of Slavery, in obedience to an infinitely higher command, is as much more memorable than that as an intelligent and conscientious man is superior to a machine. Do you think that that will go unsung?…

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…. 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 are 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.

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….

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….

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 State-House yard than that of any other man whom I know. I rejoice that I live in this age, that I am his contemporary….

John Brown was a famous abolitionist years before he and a group of twenty-one others attacked a federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859. The raid stirred controversy in the United States: Southerners saw him as an outlaw, while antislavery NorJohn Brown was a famous abolitionist years before he and a group of twenty-one others attacked a federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859. The raid stirred controversy in the United States: Southerners saw him as an outlaw, while antislavery Northernerssaw him as a hero. Published by Gale Cengage The Boston Athenaeum
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 four millions of 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….

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 there. 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 sentences. He could afford to lose his Sharp's rifles, while he retained his faculty of speech—a Sharp's rifle of infinitely surer and longer range….

"All is quiet at Harpers Ferry," say the journals. What is the character of that calm which follows when the law and the slaveholder prevail? I regard this event as a touchstone designed to bring out, with glaring distinctness, the character of this government…. When a government puts forth its strength on the side of injustice, as ours to maintain slavery and kill the liberators of the slave, it reveals itself a merely brute force, or worse, a demoniacal force…. This most hypocritical and diabolical government looks up from its seat … and inquires with an assumption of innocence: "What do you assault me for? Am I not an honest man? Cease agitation on this subject, or I will make a slave of you, too, or else hang you."

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! …

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! …

I hear many condemn these men because they were so few. When were the good and the brave ever in a majority? Would you have had him wait till that time came?—till you and I came over to him? The very fact that he had no rabble or troop of hirelings about him would alone distinguish him from ordinary heroes. His company was small indeed, because few could be found worthy to pass muster. Each one who there laid down his life for the poor and oppressed was a picked man, culled out of many thousands, if not millions; apparently a man of principle, of rare courage, and devoted humanity; ready to sacrifice his life at any moment for the benefit of his fellow-man. It may be doubted if there were as many more their equals in these respects in all the country—I speak of his followers only—for their leader, no doubt, scoured the land far and wide, seeking to swell his troop. These alone were ready to step between the oppressor and the oppressed. Surely they were the very best men you could select to be hung. That was the greatest compliment which this country could pay them. They were ripe for her gallows. She has tried a long time, she has hung a good many, but never found the right one before.

When I think of him, and his six sons, and his son-in-law, not to enumerate the others, enlisted for this fight, proceeding coolly, reverently, humanely to work, for months if not years, sleeping and waking upon it, summering and wintering the thought, without expecting any reward but a good conscience, while almost all America stood ranked on the other side—I say again that it affects me as a sublime spectacle…. It was his 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….

We preserve the so-called peace of our community by deeds of petty violence every day. Look at the policeman'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 Sharp's 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 Sharp's rifles and the revolvers were employed in a righteous cause. The tools were in the hands of one who could use them. … No man has appeared in America, as yet, who loved his fellow-man so well, and treated him so tenderly. He lived for him. He took up his life and he laid it down for him. What sort of violence is that which is encouraged, not by soldiers, but by peaceable citizens, not so much by laymen as by ministers of the Gospel, not so much by the fighting sects as by the Quakers, and not so much by Quaker men as by Quaker women? …

Newspaper editors argue also that it is a proof of his insanity that he thought he was appointed to do this work which he did—that he did not suspect himself for a moment! They talk as if it were impossible that a man could be "divinely appointed" in these days to do any work whatever; as if vows and religion were out of date as connected with any man's daily work; as if the agent to abolish slavery could only be somebody appointed by the President, or by some political party. They talk as if a man's death were a failure, and his continued life, be it of whatever character, were a success.

When I reflect to what a cause this man devoted himself, and how religiously, and then reflect to what cause his judges and all who condemn him so angrily and fluently devote themselves, I see that they are as far apart as the heavens and earth are asunder.

Who is it whose safety requires that Captain Brown be hung? Is it indispensable to any Northern man? Is there no resource but to cast this man also to the Minotaur? If you do not wish it, say so distinctly. While these things are being done, beauty stands veiled and music is a screeching lie. Think of him—of his rare qualities!—such a man as it takes ages to make, and ages to understand; no mock hero, nor the representative of any party. A man such as the sun may not rise upon again in this benighted land. To whose making went the costliest material, the finest adamant; sent to be the redeemer of those in captivity; and the only use to which you can put him is to hang him at the end of a rope! You who pretend to care for Christ crucified, consider what you are about to do to him who offered himself to be the savior of four millions of men.

Any man knows when he is justified, and all the wits in the world cannot enlighten him on that point. The murderer always knows that he is justly punished; but when a government takes the life of a man without the consent of his conscience, it is an audacious government, and is taking a step towards its own dissolution. Is it not possible that an individual may be right and a government wrong? Are laws to be enforced simply because they were made? or declared by any number of men to be good, if they are not good? Is there any necessity for a man's being a tool to perform a deed of which his better nature disapproves? Is it the intention of law-makers that good men shall be hung ever? Are judges to interpret the law according to the letter, and not the spirit? What right have you to enter into a compact with yourself that you will do thus or so, against the light within you? Is it for you to make up your mind—to form any resolution whatever—and not accept the convictions that are forced upon you, and which ever pass your understanding? I do not believe in lawyers, in that mode of attacking or defending a man, because you descend to meet the judge on his own ground, and, in cases of the highest importance, it is of no consequence whether a man breaks a human law or not. Let lawyers decide trivial cases. Businessmen may arrange that among themselves. If they were the interpreters of the everlasting laws which rightfully bind man, that would be another thing. A counterfeiting law-factory, standing half in a slave land and half in a free! What kind of laws for free men can you expect from that?

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 eighteen hundred 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.

"Misguided!" "Garrulous!" "Insane!" "Vindictive!" So ye write in your easy-chairs, and thus he wounded responds from the floor of the armory, clear as a cloudless sky, true as the voice of nature is: "No man sent me here; it was my own prompting and that of my Maker. I acknowledge no master in human form."

And in what a sweet and noble strain he proceeds, addressing his captors, who stand over him: "I think, my friends, you are guilty of a great wrong against God and humanity, and it would be perfectly right for any one to interfere with you, so far as to free those you willfully and wickedly hold in bondage."

And, referring to his movement: "It is, in my opinion, the greatest service a man can render to God."

"I pity the poor in bondage that have none to help them; that is why I am here; not to gratify any personal animosity, revenge, or vindictive spirit. It is my sympathy with the oppressed and the wronged, that are as good as you, and as precious in the sight of God."

You don't know your testament when you see it.

"I want you to understand that I respect the rights of the poorest and weakest of colored people, oppressed by the slave power, just as much as I do those of the most wealthy and powerful."

"I wish to say, furthermore, that you had better, all you people at the South, prepare yourselves for a settlement of that question, that must come up for settlement sooner than you are prepared for it. The sooner you are prepared the better. You may dispose of me very easily. I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is still to be settled—this Negro question, I mean; the end of that is not yet."

I foresee the time when the painter will paint that scene, no longer going to Rome for a subject; the poet will sing it; the historian record it; and, with the Landing of the Pilgrims and the Declaration of Independence, it will be the ornament of some future national gallery, when at least the present form of slavery shall be no more here. We shall then be at liberty to weep for Captain Brown. Then, and not till then, we will take our revenge.

Did you know …

  • Before the raid on Harpers Ferry, John Brown had become notorious for fighting against slavery in the Kansas Territory in 1855 and 1856. In one incident, he and his raiders attacked a community of pro-slavery residents along Pottawatomie Creek. Unarmed residents were dragged out and hacked to death with swords. John Brown became known as "Old Brown of Osawatomie," after the name of the river where he and his sons first settled in Kansas.
  • Henry David Thoreau in his essay warns Southern slave-holders that a settlement over slavery will come sooner than they think, and that they should prepare themselves for it. The settlement came when the Northern states defeated the South in the American Civil War, whichbegan less than two years after Thoreau wrote his defense of John Brown and the abolitionist was hanged.

For More Information

Abels, Jules. Man On Fire: John Brown and the Cause of Liberty. New York: Macmillan, 1971.

Brown, John. "Address of John Brown to the Virginia Court at Charles Town, Virginia, on November 2, 1859." Available at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h2943.html (accessed October 23, 2002).

Boyer, Richard Owen. The Legend of John Brown: A Biography and a History. New York: Knopf, 1973.

Du Bois, W. E. B. John Brown. First published in 1909; reprinted: New York: Modern Library, 2001.

Eiselein, Gregory. Literature and Humanitarian Reform in the Civil War Era. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996.

Graham, Lorenz B. John Brown, A Cry for Freedom. New York: Crowell, 1980.

Meyer, Michael. Several More Lives to Live: Thoreau's Political Reputation in America. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Civil Disobedience: Authoritative Texts, Background, Reviews, and Essays in Criticism, edited by Owen Thomas. New York: W. W. Norton, 1966 (source of Thoreau excerpt).