The Absurd Times Climate, Resistance, Civil Disobedience, and Morons

Posted in Uncategorized by @honestcharlie on May 23, 2013


Illustration: Seems as if all the renderings of Henry are very similar to those of Lincoln.

In the most recent (May 27) edition of The Nation, the focus is on the environment. Amongst the articles is one by Wen Stephenson which discusses Thoreau and Civil Disobedience. It is overall an excellent article, but it does opine that Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr., developed his ideas in a more powerful and meaningful way, emphasizing the non-violence aspect. Curiously enough, he mentions Thoreau’s essay on John Brown as an example.

In many ways, the essay on John Brown is more typical of Thoreau’s attitude and far more advanced, going beyond non-violence, anticipating Malcom X. Obviously, this can lead to a great deal of confusion and accusations back and forth. I have no problem with this, but most people will easily do so without ever having read the essay in question. It is available for free online at the Guttenberg Press, and I am reprinting it here (below) and urge people to read it before opening their idiotic mouths about it.

As far as the climate is concerned, and achieving 350 parts per million in the atmosphere in order to survive long term, I am personally convinced that it will not be done. Mankind will cease to exist on this planet as the only species to willingly make itself extinct as it has already set off a chain reaction, or reinforcing loop, sort of a recursive form of self-destruction, to ever reverse it. However, for those who do believe that the planet can be saved, it might be worth expending a bit of effort. You can start by reading the article.

Of one thing I am sure: very few people who do anything in the name of Thoreau have read or even heard of this essay and still are capable of talking in a more-concerned-than-thou manner. Very few people who condemn people who speak out at press conferences, and yet talk about freedom of speech, have read it. In fact, many of the people who get their version of the facts for the media read at all.

While I’m at it, another writer in the same magazine, Alterman, compares Rupert Murdock to the Koch brothers and come out with the conclusion that the Koch brother would give the “Midas Touch” to all the newspapers they are trying to buy, including the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. It is obvious the author does not fully remember the curse that the Midas Touch was and he does not realize that the parable was supposed to teach the moral of being very careful of what you pray for. I forgot who said it, but I do remember the line “When the Gods want to laugh at us, they fulfill our wishes.”

So, either read it or not. I don’t care right now and, in fact, I had better simply post this before I get even more insulting. Which reminds me …

Project Gutenberg’s A Plea for Captain John Brown, by Henry David Thoreau

This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with

almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or

re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included

with this eBook or online at

Title: A Plea for Captain John Brown

Author: Henry David Thoreau

Language: English

Produced by Jason Filley


By Henry David Thoreau

[Read to the citizens of Concord, Mass., Sunday Evening, October 30,


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 actions. It costs us nothing to be just. We can

at least express our sympathy with, and admiration of, him and his

companions, and that is what I now propose to do.

First, as to his history. I will endeavor to omit, as much as possible,

what you have already read. I need not describe his person to you, for

probably most of you have seen and will not soon forget him. I am told

that his grandfather, John Brown, was an officer in the Revolution; that

he himself was born in Connecticut about the beginning of this century,

but early went with his father to Ohio. I heard him say that his father

was a contractor who furnished beef to the army there, in the war of

1812; that he accompanied him to the camp, and assisted him in that

employment, seeing a good deal of military life,–more, perhaps, than if

he had been a soldier; for he was often present at the councils of the

officers. Especially, he learned by experience how armies are supplied

and maintained in the field,–a work which, he observed, requires at

least as much experience and skill as to lead them in battle. He said

that few persons had any conception of the cost, even the pecuniary

cost, of firing a single bullet in war. He saw enough, at any rate,

to disgust him with a military life; indeed, to excite in his a great

abhorrence of it; so much so, that though he was tempted by the offer of

some petty office in the army, when he was about eighteen, he not only

declined that, but he also refused to train when warned, and was fined

for it. He then resolved that he would never have anything to do with

any war, unless it were a war for liberty.

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 his, 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.

For a part of his life he was a surveyor, and at one time he was engaged

in wool-growing, and he went to Europe as an agent about that business.

There, as everywhere, he had his eyes about him, and made many original

observations. He said, for instance, that he saw why the soil of England

was so rich, and that of Germany (I think it was) so poor, and he

thought of writing to some of the crowned heads about it. It was because

in England the peasantry live on the soil which they cultivate, but in

Germany they are gathered into villages, at night. It is a pity that he

did not make a book of his observations.

I should say that he was an old-fashioned man in 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 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.

“In his camp,” as one has recently written, and as I have myself heard

him state, “he permitted no profanity; no man of loose morals was

suffered to remain there, unless, indeed, as a prisoner of war. ‘I would

rather,’ said he, ‘have the small-pox, yellow-fever, and cholera, all

together in my camp, than a man without principle…. It is a mistake,

sir, that our people make, when they think that bullies are the best

fighters, or that they are the fit men to oppose these Southerners.

Give me men of good principles,–God-fearing men,–men who respect

themselves, and with a dozen of them I will oppose any hundred such men

as these Buford ruffians.'” He said that if one offered himself to be a

soldier under him, who was forward to tell what he could or would do,

if he could only get sight of the enemy, he had but little confidence in


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 some one 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. It was like the

speeches of Cromwell compared with those of an ordinary king.

As for his tact and prudence, I will merely say, that at a time when

scarcely a man from the Free States was able to reach Kansas by any

direct route, at least without having his arms taken from him, he,

carrying what imperfect guns and other weapons he could collect, openly

and slowly drove an ox-cart through Missouri, apparently in the capacity

of a surveyor, with his surveying compass exposed in it, and so passed

unsuspected, and had ample opportunity to learn the designs of the

enemy. For some time after his arrival he still followed the same

profession. When, for instance, he saw a knot of the ruffians on the

prairie, discussing, of course, the single topic which then occupied

their minds, he would, perhaps, take his compass and one of his sons,

and proceed to run an imaginary line right through the very spot on

which that conclave had assembled, and when he came up to them, he would

naturally pause and have some talk with them, learning their news, and,

at last, all their plans perfectly; and having thus completed his real

survey he would resume his imaginary one, and run on his line till he

was out of sight.

When I expressed surprise that he could live in Kansas at all, with

a price set upon his head, and so large a number, including the

authorities, exasperated against him, he accounted for it by saying, “It

is perfectly well understood that I will not be taken.” Much of the time

for some years he has had to skulk in swamps, suffering from poverty and

from sickness, which was the consequence of exposure, befriended only

by Indians and a few whites. But though it might be known that he was

lurking in a particular swamp, his foes commonly did not care to go

in after him. He could even come out into a town where there were more

Border Ruffians than Free State men, and transact some business, without

delaying long, and yet not be molested; for, said he, “No little handful

of men were willing to undertake it, and a large body could not be got

together in season.”

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

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 court-room 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 defence 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 criticise the tactics. Though we wear no

crape, 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 any one 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 fellow-men, 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 cock-pit, “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 momentary charge at Balaclava, 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?

“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.

Our foes are in our midst and all about us. There is hardly a house

but is divided against itself, for our foe is the all but universal

woodenness of both head and heart, the want of vitality in man, which

is the effect of our vice; and hence are begotten fear, superstition,

bigotry, persecution, and slavery of all kinds. We are mere figureheads

upon a hulk, with livers in the place of hearts. The curse is the

worship of idols, which at length changes the worshipper into a stone

image himself; and the New-Englander is just as much an idolater as

the Hindoo. This man was an exception, for he did not set up even a

political graven image between him and his God.

A church that can never have done with excommunicating Christ while it

exists! Away with your broad and flat churches, and your narrow and tall

churches! Take a step forward, and invent a new style of out-houses.

Invent a salt that will save you, and defend our nostrils.

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 are themselves.

We dream of foreign countries, of other times and races of men, placing

them at a distance in history or space; but let some significant event

like the present occur in our midst, and we discover, often, this

distance and this strangeness between us and our nearest neighbors. They

are our Austrias, and Chinas, and South Sea Islands. Our crowded society

becomes well spaced all at once, clean and handsome to the eye,–a

city of magnificent distances. We discover why it was that we never got

beyond compliments and surfaces with them before; we become aware of as

many versts between us and them as there are between a wandering

Tartar and a Chinese town. The thoughtful man becomes a hermit in the

thoroughfares of the market-place. Impassable seas suddenly find their

level between us, or dumb steppes stretch themselves out there. It is

the difference of constitution, of intelligence, and faith, and not

streams and mountains, that make the true and impassable boundaries

between individuals and between states. None but the like-minded can

come plenipotentiary to our court.

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 speech-makers,

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

travelling 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.

What though he did not belong to your clique! Though you may not approve

of his method or his principles, recognize his magnanimity. Would you

not like to claim kindredship with him in that, though in no other thing

he is like, or likely, to you? Do you think that you would lose your

reputation so? What you lost at the spile, you would gain at the bung.

If they do not mean all this, then they do not speak the truth, and say

what they mean. They are simply at their old tricks still.

“It was always conceded to him,” says one who calls him crazy, “that

he was a conscientious man, very modest in his demeanor, apparently

inoffensive, until the subject of Slavery was introduced, when he would

exhibit a feeling of indignation unparalleled.”

The slave-ship is on her way, crowded with its dying victims; new

cargoes are being added in mid-ocean; a small crew of slaveholders,

countenanced by a large body of passengers, is smothering four millions

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 or 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


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.

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 slave holder, 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 annul!

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 gripe 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.

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 Harper’s 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.

And the New York Herald reports the conversation verbatim! It does not

know of what undying words it is made the vehicle.

I have no respect for the penetration of any man who can read the report

of that conversation, and still call the principal in it insane. It has

the ring of a saner sanity than an ordinary discipline and habits

of life, than an ordinary organization, secure. Take any sentence of

it,–“Any questions that I can honorably answer, I will; not otherwise.

So far as I am myself concerned, I have told everything truthfully. I

value my word, sir.” The few who talk about his vindictive spirit, while

they really admire his heroism, have no test by which to detect a noble

man, no amalgam to combine with his pure gold. They mix their own dross

with it.

It is a relief to turn from these slanders to the testimony of his more

truthful, but frightened jailers and hangmen. Governor Wise speaks

far more justly and appreciatingly of him than any Northern editor, or

politician, or public personage, that I chance to have heard from. I

know that you can afford to hear him again on this subject. He says:

“They are themselves mistaken who take him to be madman…. He is cool,

collected, and indomitable, and it is but just to him to say, that he

was humane to his prisoners…. And he inspired me with great trust in

his integrity as a man of truth. He is a fanatic, vain and garrulous,”

(I leave that part to Mr. Wise,) “but firm, truthful, and intelligent.

His men, too, who survive, are like him…. Colonel Washington says that

he was the coolest and firmest man he ever saw in defying danger and

death. With one son dead by his side, and another shot through, he felt

the pulse of his dying son with one hand, and held his rifle with the

other, and commanded his men with the utmost composure, encouraging them

to be firm, and to sell their lives as dear as they could. Of the three

white prisoners, Brown, Stephens, and Coppic, it was hard to say which

was most firm.”

Almost the first Northern men whom the slaveholder has learned to


The testimony of Mr. Vallandigham, though less valuable, is of the

same purport, that “it is vain to underrate either the man or his

conspiracy…. He is the farthest possible removed from the ordinary

ruffian, fanatic, or madman.”

“All is quiet at Harper’s 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. We needed to

be thus assisted to see it by the light of history. It needed to

see itself. 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. It is the head of the Plug-Uglies. It is more manifest than ever

that tyranny rules. I see this government to be effectually allied with

France and Austria in oppressing mankind. There sits a tyrant holding

fettered four millions of slaves; here comes their heroic liberator.

This most hypocritical and diabolical government looks up from its

seat on the gasping four millions, 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. 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 fountain-head. 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?

The United States have a coffle of four millions of slaves. They are

determined to keep them in this condition; and Massachusetts is one of

the confederated overseers to prevent their escape. Such are not all the

inhabitants of Massachusetts, but such are they who rule and are obeyed

here. It was Massachusetts, as well as Virginia, that put down this

insurrection at Harper’s Ferry. She sent the marines there, and she will

have to pay the penalty of her sin.

Suppose that there is a society in this State that out of its own

purse and magnanimity saves all the fugitive slaves that run to us, and

protects our colored fellow-citizens, and leaves the other work to

the government, so-called. Is not that government fast losing its

occupation, and becoming contemptible to mankind? If private men are

obliged to perform the offices of government, to protect the weak and

dispense justice, then the government becomes only a hired man, or

clerk, to perform menial or indifferent services. Of course, that is

but the shadow of a government whose existence necessitates a Vigilant

Committee. What should we think of the Oriental Cadi even, behind whom

worked in secret a vigilant committee? But such is the character of our

Northern States generally; each has its Vigilant Committee. And, to

a certain extent, these crazy governments recognize and accept this

relation. They say, virtually, “We’ll be glad to work for you on these

terms, only don’t make a noise about it.” And thus the government,

its salary being insured, withdraws into the back shop, taking the

Constitution with it, and bestows most of its labor on repairing that.

When I hear it at work sometimes, as I go by, it reminds me, at best,

of those farmers who in winter contrive to turn a penny by following

the coopering business. And what kind of spirit is their barrel made to

hold? They speculate in stocks, and bore holes in mountains, but they

are not competent to lay out even a decent highway. The only free

road, the Underground Railroad, is owned and managed by the Vigilant

Committee. They have tunnelled under the whole breadth of the land. Such

a government is losing its power and respectability as surely as water

runs out of a leaky vessel, and is held by one that can contain it.

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


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. If he had any journal advocating ‘his cause,’ any organ, as

the phrase is, monotonously and wearisomely playing the same old

tune, and then passing round the hat, it would have been fatal to his

efficiency. If he had acted in any way so as to be let alone by the

government, he might have been suspected. It was the fact that the

tyrant must give place to him, or he to the tyrant, that distinguished

him from all the reformers of the day that I know.

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. 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 unavoidable. 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.

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

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?

This event advertises me that there is such a fact as death,–the

possibility of a man’s dying. It seems as if no man had ever died in

America before; for in order to die you must first have lived. I don’t

believe in the hearses, and palls, and funerals that they have had.

There was no death in the case, because there had been no life; they

merely rotted or sloughed off, pretty much as they had rotted or

sloughed along. No temple’s veil was rent, only a hole dug somewhere.

Let the dead bury their dead. The best of them fairly ran down like a

clock. Franklin,–Washington,–they were let off without dying; they

were merely missing one day. I hear a good many pretend that they are

going to die; or that they have died, for aught that I know. Nonsense!

I’ll defy them to do it. They haven’t got life enough in them. They’ll

deliquesce like fungi, and keep a hundred eulogists mopping the spot

where they left off. Only half a dozen or so have died since the world

began. Do you think that you are going to die, sir? No! there’s no

hope of you. You haven’t got your lesson yet. You’ve got to stay after

school. We make a needless ado about capital punishment,–taking lives,

when there is no life to take. Memento mori! We don’t understand that

sublime sentence which some worthy got sculptured on his gravestone

once. We’ve interpreted it in a grovelling and snivelling sense; we’ve

wholly forgotten how to die.

But be sure you do die nevertheless. Do your work, and finish it. If you

know how to begin, you will know when to end.

These men, in teaching us how to die, have at the same time taught us

how to live. If this man’s acts and words do not create a revival, it

will be the severest possible satire on the acts and words that do. It

is the best news that America has ever heard. It has already quickened

the feeble pulse of the North, and infused more and more generous blood

into her veins and heart, than any number of years of what is called

commercial and political prosperity could. How many a man who was lately

contemplating suicide has now something to live for!

One writer says that Brown’s peculiar monomania made him to be “dreaded

by the Missourians as a supernatural being.” Sure enough, a hero in

the midst of us cowards is always so dreaded. He is just that thing. He

shows himself superior to nature. He has a spark of divinity in him.

“Unless above himself he can

Erect himself, how poor a thing is man!”

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.

The amount of it is, our “leading men” are a harmless kind of folk, and

they know well enough that they were not divinely appointed, but elected

by the votes of their party.

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. Business men 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

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.

End of the Project Gutenberg EBook of A Plea for Captain John Brown, by

Henry David Thoreau


***** This file should be named 2567.txt or *****

This and all associated files of various formats will be found in:

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