Concord, Massachusetts; Vestry, First Parish Meetinghouse
“THE CHARACTER AND ACTIONS OF CAPT. JOHN BROWN”
NARRATIVE OF EVENT: In 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and allowed new territories to decide for themselves whether they wanted slavery or not. Passage of the Act also set the stage for what would soon become Bleeding Kansas. Settlers from the North, particularly New England, and from the South streamed into Kansas Territory. Each faction, pro-slavery and anti-slavery, busied itself with taking a census of voters and, after conducting elections, established its own territorial government. Before long, however, political contention between the competing factions escalated into violence, with marauding bands of pro-slavery Border Ruffians and anti-slavery Free-Soilers fighting one another. During the summer of 1856, the fighting became especially intense, and the news of each conflict was trumpeted in newspapers throughout the country. One of the more prominently reported incidents was the Battle of Black Jack in which ten Free-Soilers under the command of Captain John Brown captured more than twenty Border Ruffians led by Henry Clay Pate.
The fighting in Kansas relented during the winter of 1856-57, and Captain John Brown took advantage of the hiatus to travel to the Northeast in search of the funds he would need to carry on his campaigns the following spring and summer. One of Brown’s principal supporters was Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, Thoreau’s friend and fellow Concordian, who met Brown earlier in the year while on a leave of absence from the Concord Academy and working as a secretary in the Boston office of the New England Emigrant Aid Society.1 Sanborn arranged for Brown to speak to the Massachusetts legislature in February of 1857, and he afterward brought Brown to Concord, in part so that Brown could deliver a lecture there and ask for contributions. Sanborn at that time was taking his noon meals at the Thoreau family’s table. Accordingly, as Walter Harding reports:
[Sanborn] brought Brown with him for lunch and left him there for the afternoon while he tended school. Thoreau and Brown talked at length, Brown telling Thoreau the details of the battle of Black Jack in Kansas….
That evening Brown spoke at the Concord Town Hall, dramatically displaying a bowie knife he had taken from a Border Ruffian and a chain with which his son had been bound prisoner by the slavery forces. When Brown pleaded for funds, Sanborn gave one hundred dollars, Emerson fifty, and Thoreau’s father ten. Thoreau himself contributed “a trifle” because he was irritated that Brown was not willing to take his supporters more into his confidence and explain what he wished to do with the funds. (Days, pp. 415-16)
Almost two years later, in January 1859, Thoreau spent an afternoon skating on Walden Pond with Emerson and the wealthy abolitionist and Brown supporter George Luther Steams, who “devoted a good part of his time extolling Brown’s virtues to Thoreau, apparently convincing Thoreau of Brown’s heroism” (Days, p. 416). Four months later still, Brown again visited Concord to see Sanborn and raise money by speaking at the Town Hall. Thoreau heard Brown speak there on the evening of 8 May and, according to Sanborn, was more impressed with Brown than he had been two years earlier.2 Alcott had also attended Brown’s lecture and wrote the following entry in his diary, portions of which demonstrate remarkable acuity and prescience:
This evening hear Captain Brown speak at the Town Hall on Kansas affairs and the part taken by him in the late troubles there. He tells his story with surpassing simplicity and sense. impressing us all deeply by his courage and religious earnestness. Our best people listen to his words—Emerson, Thoreau, Judge Hoar, my wife—and some of them contribute something in aid of his plans without asking particulars, such confidence does he inspire with his integrity and abilities.
I have a few words with him after his speech, and find him superior to legal traditions and a disciple of the right, an idealist in thought and affairs of state. He is Sanborn’s guest, and stays for a day only. A young man named Anderson accompanies him. They go armed, I am told, and will defend themselves if necessary. I believe they are now on their way to Connecticut and farther south, but the Captain leaves much in the dark concerning his destination and designs for the coming months. Yet he does not conceal his hatred for slavery nor his readiness to strike a blow for freedom at the proper moment. I infer it is his intention to run off as many slaves as he can, and so render that property insecure to the master. I think him equal to anything he dares, the man to do the deed if it must be done, and with the martyr’s temper and purpose.
Nature obviously was deeply intent in the making of him. He is of imposing appearance, personable tall, with square shoulders and standing, eyes of deep gray, and couchant as if ready to spring at the least rustling; dauntless yet kindly; his hair shooting backward from low down on his forehead; nose trenchant and Romanesque; set lips; his voice suppressed yet metallic, suggesting deep reserves; decided mouth; the countenance and frame charged with power throughout. Since here last he has added a flowing beard, which gives the soldierly air, and port of an apostle. Though sixty years of age, he is agile and alert, resolute, and ready for any audacity in any crisis. I think him about the manliest man I have ever seen, the type and synonym of the Just.3
On 19 October 1859, just over four months after hearing Brown speak at the Concord Town Hall, Thoreau was with Alcott visiting Emerson at the latter’s house when news first arrived of Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (Days, p. 416). The first newspaper accounts of the raid were sketchy at best and falsely indicated that Brown had been killed during the raid. But Thoreau’s journal entry for that day—containing 2,672 words, all but 382 of them about the incident at Harper’s Ferry—is anything but sketchy. His praise for Brown and his scorn for Brown’s many detractors is obvious:
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 he 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.”
Treason! where does 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 which is resistance to tyranny here below has its origin in, and is first committed by, the power that makes and forever re-creates man. When you have caught and hung all of 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 arts of the cannon-founder tempt matter to turn against its Maker? Is the form in which he casts it more essential than the constitution of it and of himself? …
It galls me to listen to the remarks of craven-hearted neighbors who speak disparagingly of Brown because he resorted to violence, resisted the government, threw his life away!—what way have they thrown their lives, pray?—neighbors who would praise a man for attacking singly an ordinary band of thieves or murderers. Such minds are not equal to the occasion. They preserve the so-called peace of their 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 they defend themselves and our hen-roosts, and maintain slavery.
There sits a tyrant holding fettered four millions of slaves. Here comes their heroic liberator; if he falls, will he not still live? (J, 12:400-402)
Thoreau’s initial reaction to Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry was swift, decisive, unequivocal. And as more news came to him through the Boston newspapers, particularly the reports of what Brown said to his captors as he lay wounded on the armory’s engine-house floor, Thoreau’s indignation mounted, as did his respect for Brown’s character. As he was later to confess in his journal, he became so absorbed in Brown’s fate during the last ten days of October that he was surprised whenever he “detected the old routine running still,—met persons going about their affairs indifferent” (J, 12:447). In his journal entry of 19 October, he wrote 2,276 words about the Brown affair; in his entry of 21 October, he wrote 1,792 words; and, astonishingly, he wrote 5,948 words in his entry of 22 October—for a three-day total of 10,016 words. These three long, scathing entries provided him with almost everything he said in his “Lecture on the character & of actions of Capt. John Brown.”4 In fact, the lecture itself appears to have contained about 9,200 words on sixty pages—about 800 words less than the journal of those three day’s.5
Judging from the journal entries, Thoreau seems to have decided while writing his entry on 21 October that he would speak to his townspeople about Brown. The indignation that he spilled into his entry for 19 October is general, not directed to an audience, but his entries of 21-22 October are filled with references to an imaginary audience. In his entry for 21 October, for instance, he wrote, “Who is here so base, that would be a bondsman? Who is here so vile, that will not love his country? If any, speak; for him have I offended. I pause for a reply” (J, 12:417).
Thoreau wrote his lecture on John Brown between 22 and 30 October. During that time he derived some background information about Brown from Boston newspapers and, perhaps, from interviews with Sanborn and other acquaintances of the man. According to Walter Harding, Thoreau announced to the members of his family one morning that he would lecture in public on John Brown, and while two of his family members supported his decision, one opposed (Days, p. 417). After speaking with his family, Thoreau sent a boy around town to announce that he would lecture in defense of John Brown in the vestry of the First Parish Meetinghouse, but members of the Republican Town Committee and some local abolitionists sent word back to Thoreau that they thought a public lecture would be inadvisable.6 Sanborn, in particular, thought a public speech in defense of Brown at that time would be “dangerous” and that “it would be better to wait until there was a better feeling among the people.”7 Although Sanborn’s remark about Thoreau’s decision to speak publicly may seem extreme from today’s vantage point, it should be borne in mind that no one had spoken publicly in defense of Brown and an overwhelming majority of Americans at the time believed Brown to be a monomaniacal traitor, insurrectionist, and murderer. “A considerable part of Concord,” Dr. Josiah Bartlett pointed out later, were “afraid of their own shadows” during the period that the Harper’s Ferry incident was in the headlines.
When Thoreau heard from Sanborn and the others who advised him not to speak, Emerson reported that he said, “I did not send to you for advice but to announce that I am to speak”10 Emerson’s son reported that Thoreau responded, “There is a mistake: I did not ask advice, I said I should speak in the Vestry this evening on John Brown if anyone is there to hear.”11 According to an anonymous admirer of Thoreau’s, Thoreau told the boy he had sent out earlier, “Tell Mr. Sanborn that he has misunderstood the announcement, that there is to be a meeting in the vestry, and that Mr. Thoreau will speak.”12
Tradition has it that Thoreau applied to the Concord town clerk to speak in the Town Hall and that, when denied permission to have the Town Hall’s bell rung to summon his townspeople to the lecture, Thoreau rang the bell himself.13 We regard this tradition as spurious and as arising from the confusion of this lecture with the events of 2 December 1859, the day of Brown’s hanging, when Thoreau and other sympathizers gathered for a service at Concord Town Hall and wanted but were denied permission to have the bell rung (see lecture 68 below). Also, all accounts we have found indicate that Thoreau delivered his lecture on Brown in the First Parish vestry, not at Town Hall, and there is evidence to suggest that Concord’s Town Hall at that time did not even have a bell.14
The vestry was full on the occasion of Thoreau’s talk. Some of those who attended had come, according to Emerson, to scoff at what Thoreau had to say in defense of Brown.15 Others, those who were inclined to support Brown’s character, if not his actions, reportedly slinked into the vestry as if they were afraid to be there.16 “Many persons came to hear,” according to Edward Emerson, “but doubtful what to think”17 Edward also remarked that although Thoreau read his paper with “no oratory” he read it “as if it burned him.”18 Edward’s father noted that the lecture “was heard by all respectfully, by many with a sympathy that surprised themselves.”19 Thoreau’s neighbor Minot Pratt attended the lecture and, on his return home, began a letter to his wife, Maria:
I have just returned, (most 10 o’clock,) from hearing a sort of lecture from Henry Thoreau, on the subject of the affair at Harper’s Ferry, or rather on the character of Capt. Brown. Henry spoke of him in terms of the most unqualified eulogy. I never heard him before speak so much in praise of any man, and did not know that his sympathies were so strong in favor of the poor slave. He thinks Capt. Brown has displayed heroic qualities that will cause him to be remembered wherever and whenever true heroism is admired. The lecture was full of Henry’s quaint and strong expressions: hitting the politicians in the hardest manner, and showing but little of that veneration which is due to our beloved President and all the government officials, who are laboring so hard and so disinterestedly for the welfare of the dear people. The church also, as a body, came in for a share of whipping, and it was laid on right earnestly. In the course of his remarks on Capt. Brown’s heroic character, and actions in the service of freedom and the probability of his being killed therefor, he said he had been very strongly impressed with the possibility of a man’s dying—very few men can die—they never lived, how then can they die! The life they lived was not life—that constant endeavor after self-gratification, with no high aspirations and effort for the race, was too mean an existence to be called life. Brown was a man of ideas and action; whatever he saw to be right, that he endeavored to do with energy, without counting the cost to himself. Such a real, live man could die.
The lecture was full of noble, manly ideas, though, perhaps, a little extravagant in its eulogy of Capt. Brown.20
Edward Emerson noted that “many of those who had come to scoff remained to pray”21
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: On the day of Thoreau’s lecture, Bronson Alcott noted in his diary:
Thoreau reads a paper of his on John Brown, his virtues, spirit, and deeds, at the Vestry this evening, and to the delight of his company I am told—the best that could be gathered on short notice, and among them Emerson. I am not informed in season, and have my meeting at the same time. I doubt not of its excellence and eloquence, and wish he may have opportunities of reading it elsewhere.22
Alcott also wrote to Daniel Ricketson on 7 November and said that Thoreau’s lecture “was received here by our Concord folks with great favor….”23
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: The text Thoreau read in the vestry of the First Parish Meetinghouse in Concord was apparently very similar to text of the essay “A Plea for Capt. John Brown.” Thoreau later added a sentence to the text (see lecture 67 below) and added a footnote explaining that the sentence was added “Nov 3d” (see note 5 in lecture 67 below), but probably because the sentence was topical, he deleted it. The longer and more detailed newspaper summaries of the lecture as Thoreau delivered it in Boston two days later indicate that Thoreau dropped a few other topical passages out of his lecture text before sending it to James Redpath, who published it the following year in Echoes of Harper’s Ferry (Boston: Thayer and Eldridge, 1860).
2. F. B. Sanhorn, Recollections of Seventy Years, 2 vols. (Boston: Richard C. Badger. 1909). 1:163-64.
3. Alcott, Journals, pp. 315-16,
4. Quoted from the title page of the lecture. paged “1.” HM 13203. CSmH.
5. The final page of the lecture, paged “60,” is at CSmH, HM 13203.
6. Days, p. 417; and Henry Seidel Canby, Thoreau (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1939), p. 391.
7. Quoted in George W. Cooke, “The Two Thoreaus,” Independent, 48 (10 December 1896): 1672.
8. Quoted in Canby, Thoreau, p. 391.
9. James Redpath several times made a point of remarking that Thoreau deserved the distinction of having been the first person to speak out on Brown’s behalf (see, for instance, lecture 71 below and our search of the public record—primarily Boston and New York newspapers of the period—supports Redpath’s assertions. The first person after Thoreau to speak publicly in support of Brown was the well-known anti slavery orator Wendell Phillips, who delivered a very widely reported speech titled “The Lesson of the Hour” at Henry Ward Beecher’s Pilgrim Church in Brooklyn, New York, on the evening of 31 October 1859—just twenty-four hours after Thoreau delivered his lecture in Concord.
10. Joel Myerson, “Emerson’s Thoreau”: A New Edition from Manuscript,” STUDIES IN THE AMERICAN RENAISSANCE 1979, p. 41.
11. Edward Emerson, Notes on Thoreau, MCo.
12. Quoted in Cooke, “The Two Thoreaus,” 1672,
13. Canby, Thoreau, p. 391.
14. In his journal entry for 30 November 1859, Thoreau mentions that he had applied to the selectmen for permission to toll the bell of the First Parish Meetinghouse on the occasion of Brown’s execution, even though the meeting commemorating the execution was held at Concord’s Town Hall, which suggests the latter building had no bell to toll.
15. Myerson, “Emerson’s Thoreau,” p. 41.
16. Cooke, “The Two Thoreaus,” 1672.
17. Edward Emerson, Notes on Thoreau, MCo.
18. Edward Emerson, Notes on Thoreau, MCo.
19. Quoted in Canby, Thoreau, p. 395.
20. “When Thoreau Lectured on John Brown,” Concord journal, 8 December 1932,
21. Edward Emerson, Notes on Thoreau, MCo.
22. Alcott, Journals, p. 320.
23. Daniel Ricketson: Autobiographic and Miscellaneous, ed. Anna and Walton Ricketson (New Bedford: Anthony, 1910), p. 130.
Reprinted with permission