Boston, Massachusetts: Tremont Temple
“THE CHARACTER AND ACTIONS OF CAPT. JOHN BROWN”
NARRATIVE OF EVENT: (See lecture 65 above) Late on 31 October 1859, the day after delivering his lecture on Capt. John Brown in the vestry of the First Palish Meetinghouse in Concord, Thoreau received the following urgent telegram, addressed to him or to Emerson, from Charles W. Slack of Boston: “Thoreau must lecture for Fraternity Tuesday Evening—Douglas fails—Letter mailed” (C, p. 564). Slack was the chairman of the Lecture Committee for the Fraternity Course, which was a “literary association” established in January 1859 within Theodore Parker’s Twenty-Eighth Congregational Society. The purpose of the association was to give Parker and his friends a wider latitude for topics than lecture platforms usually allowed. Fraternity lectures were delivered in Boston’s Tremont Temple each Tuesday evening during the lecture season.1
”Douglas,” the scheduled lecturer who had failed, was the famed orator and anti-slavery agitator Frederick Douglass, who was allegedly implicated in Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry and had fled to Canada in an effort to avoid arrest by the U.S. Marshall. Douglass was able to get word to Slack late Monday—the day before the lecture—that he would not be able to keep his lecture engagement, whereupon Slack, apparently having received word of Thoreau’s lecture in Concord the day before, sent his telegram to Thoreau. According to the New-York Daily Tribune of 4 November, the topic Douglass had earlier announced for the fifth Fraternity lecture was “Self-Made Men.”
Slack may have scrambled to make Thoreau’s last-minute substitution for Douglass as widely known as he could under the circumstances, but on the day of the lecture advertisements appeared in only two of Boston’s major daily newspapers, the Boston Daily Evening Traveller and the Boston Daily Evening Transcript, both mentioning that Henry D. Thoreau would deliver the fifth Fraternity, lecture on the subject of “Capt. John Brown, of Ossawottomie” doors to open at 6:.30 p,m., a “few Single tickets” available at the office of the Tremont Temple at 7:15 p.m. for twenty-five cents, and the lecture to commence at 7:30 p.m. precisely.”
The lectures of the Fraternity Course invariably attracted large crowds, and the crowd that assembled the night of 1 November was no different. The New-York Daily Tribune of 4 November reported an audience of twenty-five hundred, and several of the Boston newspapers mentioned that the hall was full, but not uncomfortably so. The Liberator of 4 November pointed out that the hall was filled half an hour prior to the commencement of the lecture. According to the Boston Atlas and Daily Bee of 2 November, Slack went to the podium before the lecture began and told the audience:
At a late hour on Monday, a message had been received from [Douglass], at a point which need not be mentioned, and imparting intelligence which could not properly be disclosed. In this communication Mr Douglass ex-pressed his regret that the fulfillment of his engagement to lecture was not in his power. A freeman … by right of taking that which to him belonged, as well as by purchase, a citizen of the Empire State, Frederick Douglas would not, that night, be safe in the city of Boston. However differently the audience might view the events in the South, there were few present who did not honor the manly bravery of John Brown, in this hour of his deep distress. If they had not one with them who, many think, was engaged in the scheme with Brown, they had one who sympathized with him in his enterprise—Henry D, Thoreau, of Concord.
The same proceedings were reported in the Boston Daily Journal of 2 November in the following manner:
CHARLES W. SLACK, Esq., said that the Lecture Committee shared the disappointment of the audience in the absence of the speaker announced for this evening—Frederick Douglass, At a late hour on Monday the Lecture Committee had received a communication from Mr. Douglass, written at a point not necessary to state, and the letter contained information he was not permitted to divulge. But the reason that the lecturer did not appear was that he, a free man by his original right as well as by purchase, would not be safe this night in Boston.
Whatever different political opinions were entertained by the persons in the audience, he believed all had admired the courage and firmness of John Brown under his present trying circumstances. (Applause)
Douglass would not be safe here because he was suspected of being connected with that enterprise, of which the brave John Brown was the leader. But if they did not have the pleasure of listening to Mr. Douglass, they had one present who had a keen appreciation of the character of Capt. Brown—Henry D. Thoreau of Concord, who had volunteered to supply the vacant place before the society.
Mr. Thoreau was then introduced to the audience.
Thoreau then went to the podium and said, “The reason why Frederick Douglass is not here is the reason why I am.”2 He then read from his manuscript for the next hour and a half or so, giving what seems to have been one of his best performances on the lecture platform, for the newspaper reports indicate that the audience listened with enthusiastic approval and that Thoreau’s speech was several times interrupted by applause.
Although ill during the day, Caroline H. Dall sat in the Tremont Temple that night, listened to Thoreau’s lecture, and wrote in her journal afterward, “Many of the sharpest things he said were in very bad taste—but it was on the whole a grand tribute to the truest American who has lived since George Washington.—I was surprised for I had thought Mr Thoreau, only a philosopher.”3
More than forty years later, on 4 March 1890, Thoreau’s friend H. G. O. Blake responded to Samuel Arthur Jones’s gift of “Thoreau: A Glimpse,” which Jones had published in the Unitarian of January, February, and March 1890, “The John Brown episode on who you dwell considerably [in the article], brought out strongly the manly & heroic side of [Thoreau], but I think he felt, as I [see?] you feel, that it was largely a disturbing & painful circumstance in his career. He interests me most when, as is usually the case, he is not aroused by indignation….”4 The feeling Blake shared with Jones, that the John Brown episode was for Thoreau something of an interlude to his larger career, seems to be borne out when one notes that Thoreau’s John Brown writings—both published and recorded in his journal—represent a brief, anomalous foray into “social” or “political” territory that he did not otherwise travel after the publication of Walden. With the sole exception of his writings about Brown, Thoreau seems to have held steadfastly to the resolution he apparently formulated in late 1854, when he wrote at the top of his “Walking, or the Wild” lecture draft, “I regard this [lecture] as a sort of introduction to all I may write hereafter” (see lecture 45 above, especially note 10). We take this sentence to mean that shortly after the publication of Walden, Thoreau had resolved to write only upon natural history subjects. Indeed, in his lecture on Brown and in the, essay version published later Thoreau wrote, “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 many may have other affairs to attend to” (RP, p. 133). Those “other affairs” for Thoreau were the natural history ones he had introduced in his “Walking, or the Wild” lecture.
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: Thoreau’s delivery of this lecture in Boston was one of his most widely reported performances. Virtually all the Boston daily, semi-weekly, and weekly newspapers reported the event, a few of them at great length. The day after the lecture a 177-sentence summary—the longest newspaper summary of any Thoreau lecture, so far as we know—appeared in the Boston Atlas and Daily Bee, and the same day the Boston Daily Evening Traveller published a 146-sentence summary of the lecture. Also on 2 November, the Boston Daily Journal published an eighty-nine sentence summary, the Boston Daily Advertiser summarized the lecture in thirty-six sentences, and the Boston Daily Courier summarized the lecture in seven sentences. The Semi-Weekly Advertiser and the Boston Daily Messenger of 2 November both reprinted the thirty-six-sentence summary that had appeared in the Daily Advertiser, and the 177-sentence summary in the Atlas and Daily Bee was reprinted three days later in the New York Herald.
On 3 November, the Springfield Republican published the following paragraph in a column titled “The ‘Irrepressible Conflict'”:
There is not much doubt that Fred Douglass has fled to Canada, and is still there, to escape arrest for complicity in John Brown’s plot. He probably had more to do with it than yet appears. He had an engagement to lecture in the Fraternity course at Boston, Tuesday evening, and his place was supplied by Henry D. Thoreau of Concord, who delivered a eulogy on John Brown, commending not only his general character and intentions but his Harper’s Ferry affair, and said he most feared to hear of his deliverance, for no life could do so much good as his death. This Thoreau seems to be a thorough fanatic—why don’t he imitate Brown and do good by rushing to the gallows?
The same day this bit of advice appeared in the Republican, the Worcester Daily Spy also noted that Frederick Douglass was unable to keep his appointment to deliver the fifth Fraternity lecture in Boston and that Thoreau had to fill the vacancy, but the Spy offered Thoreau no advice. The same note was republished in the Massachusetts Weekly Spy on 9 November.
On 4 November, the following article appeared in the Liberator over the initials “C. K. W.”—probably Charles King Whipple, who was a frequent contributor to the newspaper and a close colleague of the editor, William Lloyd Garrison:
FIFTH FRATERNITY LECTURE. The programme of this course of lectures had promised one by Frederick Douglass of Rochester, N. Y, as the fifth in order.—It was understood that he was to discourse on ‘Self-made Men,’ a subject on which he is well qualified to speak. Mr. Douglass, however, did not appear, and the explanation of his absence by the Committee gave us to understand that he does not now consider himself safe in any part of the United States, in consequence of his alleged implication in the Harper’s Ferry invasion.
The vacancy thus made at a late hour had been filled by the voluntary offer of Henry D. Thoreau of Concord, who took for his subject ode in whom all mankind are now interested, ‘Captain John Brown of Ossawattomie.’ This exciting theme seemed to have awakened ‘the hermit of Concord’ from his usual state of philosophic indifference, and he spoke with real enthusiasm for an hour and a half giving much information respecting Captain Brown’s earlier life, and bestowing hearty praise upon the enterprize at Harper’s Ferry, and as hearty dispraise upon the apathy and reserve shown in regard to it by those portions of the periodical press which did not take the equally shameful ground of direct censure.
Mr. Thoreau took special pains to include the Liberator in the censure which he had at first bestowed upon the press generally. In doing this, he ignored the fact that Mr. Garrison has bestowed high and hearty eulogy upon Captain Brown, representing him as not only (Judged from the ordinary stand-point of patriotism) superior in nobleness to the heroes of the American Revolution, but entitled to the higher praise of faithfully practising towards the most oppressed people of our country the lessons of the Golden Rule; and, moreover, he distorted Mr. Garrison’s first statement, (made on receipt of the first day’s telegraphic reports,) that the attempt was apparently an insane one, into a charge that he had represented Captain Brown as insane.
A very large audience listened to his lecture, crowding the hall half an hour before the time of its commencement, and giving hearty applause to some of the most energetic expressions of the speaker.
Under its “Personal” column for 4 November, the New-York Daily Tribune published the following paragraph:
—FREDERICK DOUGLASS having failed to appear on the 1st, and deliver his lecture on “Self-Made Men,” in the Fraternity Course at Boston, HENRY D. THOREAU of Concord, Mass., took his place at short notice, and lectured on John Brown of Osawatamie and Harper’s Ferry, to an audience of twenty-five hundred. Mr. Thoreau is an Abolitionist of the non-voting Garrisonian school and of course gave the Republican party back-handed blessing, but declined to speak of the Democratic party, saying that he regarded it as too debased for notice. He justified and applauded Brown’s course throughout insisting that the worst thing ever said of this country was that, in the middle of the Nineteenth Century, she could find no better use for a man but to hang him. The lecture was an hour and a half long, and was heard to the end with enthusiastic approval.
Far less flattering were the reports of Thoreau’s lecture printed in the Democratic newspapers, the Boston Post and the Boston Press and Post, both of which on 3 November had attacked Wendell Phillips’s lecture, “The Lesson of the Hour,” as the “miserable sentiments of a fanatic” who “advocated treason” and who was nothing more than a “foul-mouthed blasphemer,” a “ribald vulture who sniffs the stench of his own mental corruption.” Under the title “Cause and Effect,” both newspapers, the Post on 4 November and the Press and Post on 9 November, panned “the ribald lecture of one Mr Thoreau, on John Brown, in the Tremont Temple, wherein he exalted the outlaw above the Revolutionary heroes”—forgetting that those heroes were themselves outlaws during the Revolution—“extolled [Brown] for opposing law and government, and declared he would rather see [Brown’s] statue in the State House than that of any other man, all of which the audience applauded…. ” For added measure, both the Post and the Press and Post also printed the following report:
Mr Thoreau, in his Fraternity Lecture, says there are at least a million free citizens of the United States who would have been glad if Old Brown’s attempt to incite the slaves of Maryland and Virginia to murder defenceless women and children had succeeded! He blasphemously likened Brown to Christ, who “suffered little children to come unto him and forbade them not, for of such are the Kingdom of Heaven,” instead of taking their lives. Thoreau would also “rather see the statue of John Brown in the State House yard than that of any other man he knew. (Applause).”
On 6 November, young William Dean Howells wrote to his father from Columbus, Ohio, expressing reservations about the recent wavering of support for Brown and his companions by former congressman Joshua R. Giddings, who had been implicated in Brown’s raid and whose speech appeared four days later in the Ashtabula, Ohio, Sentinel, which Howells’s father edited. Howells told his father:
I did hope to see something violent in the Sentinel on the subject of Harper’s Ferry. I trust that old Gid stands firm. There was something in his speech, I didn’t like; and I was glad when a Boston man in a lecture hit him for it. He had said: “The history of this event will occupy but a brief page in the history of [the] country.” “If this be true,” said Thoreau (he is the author of Walden, by the way,) “how long will be the paragraph that records the history of the Republican party?”—Brown has become an idea—a thousand times purer and better and loftier than the Republican idea, which I’m afraid is not an idea at all.”5
The next day Bronson Alcott wrote to Thoreau’s friend Daniel Ricketson, “Thoreau has just come back from reading to Parker’s company a revolutionary Lecture on Osawatomie Brown, a hero and martyr after his own heart and style of manliness….I wish the towns might be his auditors throughout the length and breadth of states and country. He thinks of printing it in pamphlet and spreading it far and wide, North and South.”6 Also on 7 November, Mary Jennie Tappan of Bradford, New Hampshire, who had likely read one of the newspaper reports of the lecture, wrote to Thoreau:
I wish to thank you for the utterance of those brave, true words in behalf of the noble Saint and self-forgetting hero of Harper’s Ferry; just the words I so longed to have some living voice speak, loud, so that the world might hear—In the quiet of my home among the hills I read them tonight and feel that my thought has found a glorified expression and I am satisfied, and through the distance I reach forth my hand to thank you—I hope you will not think this note, born of this moments impulse an unpardonable intrusion—I believe you will not—you are not so bound by conventionalisms—to me you are not so much a stranger as I to you.—
God keep you!7
Finally on 9 November, the New-York Daily Tribune printed the following stinging paragraph under a column titled “From Boston”:
Henry D. Thoreau delivered a lecture on John Brown at the Tremont Temple on Tuesday evening. It was one of the “Fraternity” course. There were some just and striking remarks in it, and many foolish and ill-natured ones. Sneers at the Republicans were quite frequent. Men like General Wilson, and editors like those of The Tribune and The Liberator, who, while the lecturer was cultivating beans and killing woodchucks on the margin of Walden Pond, made a public opinion strong enough on Anti-Slavery grounds to tolerate a speech from him in defense of insurrection, deserve better treatment than they receive from some of the upstart Abolitionists of the day.
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: See lecture 65 above.
2. We distill this quotation from the following three sentences in the 2 November 1859 issues of the Boston Daily Advertiser, the Boston Daily Evening Traveller, and the Boston Daily Journal, respectively: The reason why Douglass was not there, Mr. Thoreau began, was the reason why he was”; “MR. THOREAU, in commencing, said the reason why Frederick Do~glass was not here, was the reason why he (Mr. T.) was here”; and “He said in commencing, the reason why Douglass is not here is the reason of my being here.”
3. Quoted from Dall’s manuscript journal, MHi.
4. Toward the Making of Thoreau’s Modern Reputation: Selected Correspondence of S. A. Jones, A. W. Hosmer, H. S. Salt, H. G. O. Blake, and D. Ricketson, ed. Fritz Oehlschlaeger and George Hendrick (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979) p. 65.
5. William Dean Howells, Selected Letters, ed. George Arms et al., 6 vols. (Boston: Twayne, 1979-83), 1:48-49. Howells’ attitude toward Brown changed dramatically during late October and early November, mirroring a change in the attitudes of many abolitionists of the time. In an earlier letter to his father dated 20 October, Howells had written, “I suppose you are all dredfully stirred up about the Harper’s Ferry business….In some respects, it is the most absurd and laughable event of the age; but I’m sorry for poor crazy Brown” (l:49n7)
6. Daniel Ricketson: Autobiographic and Miscellaneous, pp. 130-31.
7. Quoted from a transcript in the Thoreau Textual Center, CU-SB: the MS is in the Sewall Collection in the Thoreau Society Archives, MCo.
Reprinted with permission