John Brown was born 9 May 1800 in Torrington, Connecticut to parents Owen Brown and Ruth Mills. Raised as a devout Calvinist, Brown inherited his parents’ religious zeal along with his father’s intense belief in universal human rights. Brown’s unique recombination of these two characteristics would eventually lead him to attempt to incite a slave rebellion at Harpers Ferry, Virginia in October 1859.
First introduced to members of the Concord, Massachusetts Transcendentalist circle by Franklin B. Sanborn in March 1857, Brown became acquainted with and financially supported by George Luther Stearns, Gerrit Smith, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Samuel Gridley Howe, and Theodore Parker—the group (including Sanborn) commonly referred to as “the Secret Six”. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were also supporters of Brown and his cause.
Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry began 16 October 1859 and lasted until the 18th. On 19 October Brown and his men were captured and jailed.
Thoreau writes in his journal on the day of Brown’s capture:
When a government puts forth its strength on the side of injustice, as ours (especially to-day) to maintain slavery and kill the liberators of the slave, what a merely brute, or worse than brute, force it is seen to be! A demoniacal force! It is more manifest than ever that tyranny rules. I see this government to be effectually allied with France and Austria in oppressing mankind.
One comment I heard of by the postmaster of this village on the news of Brown’s death: “He died as the fool dieth.” I should have answered this man, “He did not live as the fool liveth, and he died as he lived.”
The following week Emerson writes to William Emerson:
We are all very well, in spite of the sad Harpers Ferry business, which interests us all who had Brown for our guest twice. . . He is a true hero, but lost his head there (The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 5:178).
He also writes to Sara Swain Forbes:
For Captain Brown, he is a hero of romance, & seems to have made this fatal blunder only to bring about his virtues. I must hope for his escape to the last moment (The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 5:179).
At his trial in October 1859 Brown was found guilty of murder, attempting to incite a rebellion, and treason. He was sentenced to death and hanged 2 December 1859 in Charles Town, Virginia. A memorial service for Brown was held in Concord that same day. During a speech he gave at the service, Thoreau credited Brown with having manifested “transcendent moral greatness,” continuing on to say that he was “one of those rare cases of heroes and martyrs for which the ritual of no church has provided” (“The Martyrdom of John Brown”).
Brown is buried in North Elba, New York.
Thoreau writes in his journal three days after Brown’s death:
On the day of his translation, I heard, to be sure, that he was hung, but I did not know what that meant,—and I felt no sorrow on his account; but not for a day or two did I even hear that he was dead, and not after any number of days shall I believe it. Of all the men who are said to be my contemporaries, it seems to me that John Brown is the only one who has not died. I meet him at every turn. He is more alive than ever he was. He is not confined to North Elba nor to Kansas. He is no longer working in secret only. John Brown has earned immortality.
Essays by Thoreau on John Brown
- “After the Death of John Brown” (1906: The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau)
- “The Last Days of John Brown” (1906: The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau)
- “A Plea for Captain John Brown” (1906: The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau)
Lectures by Thoreau on John Brown