Concord, Massachusetts; Town Hall
“THE MARTYRDOM OF JOHN BROWN”
NARRATIVE OF EVENT: On 1 November 1859, the day Thoreau delivered his John Brown lecture in Boston, the Executive Committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society met in Boston and adopted the following resolution, which was Widely reprinted in Boston’s non-Democratic daily newspapers the following day:
Resolved, That it is recommended to the friends of impartial freedom throughout the Free States, in case of the execution of Capt. JOHN BROWN, now on trial for his life in Virginia, to observe that tragical event, ON THE DAY OF ITS OCCURRENCE, in such manner as by them may be deemed most appropriate in their various localities,—whether by public meetings and addresses, the adoption of resolutions, private conferences, or any other justifiable mode of action,—for the furtherance of the Anti-Slavery cause and renewedly to consecrate themselves to the patriotic and Christian work of effecting the abolition of that most dangerous, unnatural, cruel and impious system of slavery, which is the fruitful source of all our sectional heart-burnings and conflicts, which powerfully and increasingly tends to promote servile insurrections and civil war, which cannot be more truly, or more comprehensively described than as “THE SUM OF ALL VILLAINIES,” which is a burning disgrace and fearful curse to the whole country, and by the speedy extinction of which, alone, can the land be saved from violence, blood, and utter demoralization.
In reporting this resolution in its own columns on 4 November, the Liberator, which was an unofficial organ of the American Anti-Slavery-Society, further urged that “there be a tolling of the bells for one hour” on the day of Brown’s execution, which had by then been scheduled for 2 December 1859. As it happened, the day the resolution was adopted, Brown’s trial ended in Virginia, and the judge sentenced him to death by hanging—all of which the newspapers in Massachusetts reported the next day, 2 November.
On 9 November, Thoreau visited Bronson Alcott and suggested that “someone from the North should see [Virginia’s] Gov. Wise, or write concerning Capt. Brown’s character and motives, to influence the Governor in his favor.” Alcott believed that Thoreau was himself “the man to write” such a letter, “or Emerson.” But Alcott also concluded his diary entry for that day with the less hopeful, more realistic pronouncement, “Slavery must have its way, and Wise must do its bidding on peril of his own safety with the rest.”1 Ten days later Thoreau, accompanied by Ricketson, dined with the Alcott family and, according to Alcott, talked “truly and enthusiastically about Brown, denouncing the Union, President, the States, and Virginia particularly.” Thoreau also reported on his fruitless efforts to have his earlier talk, now titled “A Plea for Capt. John Brown,” published as a pamphlet and “Sold for the benefit of Capt. Brown’s Family.”2 He wrote in a letter to Calvin Greene dated 24 November, “I exerted myself considerably to get the … discourse printed & sold for the benefit of Brown’s family—but the publishers are afraid of pamphlets & it is now too late” (C, p. 566).
Whether or not moved by the earlier resolution adopted by the Executive Committee of the American Anti-Slavery-Society, Thoreau took what Alcott was to call a “prominent part” in planning a commemorative service on the day of Brown’s execution.3 He apparently contacted the town clerk and reserved Concord’s Town Hall for the evening of 28 November, when he scheduled a preparatory meeting, and for the afternoon of 2 December, the time of the commemorative service itself. Prior to the middle of November he had begun looking over his “extracts of the noblest poetry” in order to select passages that he thought would be most applicable to Brown’s position (J, 12:446); he was still looking on 18 November, when he reported in his journal, “I looked into the Church of England liturgy, printed near the beginning of the last century, to find a service applicable to the case of Captain Brown” (J, 12:448).
On the evening of 28 November, about one hundred and fifty people gathered in Concord’s Town Hall “to make arrangements for celebrating by appropriate services the day of Capt. Brown’s execution.” Thoreau addressed the crowd at that time, as did Simon Brown, Dr. Josiah Bartlett, John Shepard Keyes, and Emerson. Thoreau, Emerson, Brown, and Keyes were chosen a committee to prepare the services.” At some point during the meeting a vote was taken to toll the bell of the First Parish Meetinghouse during the service on 2 December, and one of the five speakers—perhaps Thoreau—even suggested “that the flag ought to be raised upon the Liberty pole, half mast and union down, which would … better represent the present condition of our country”5
In his capacity as a member of the committee, Thoreau on 29 November applied to the selectmen of Concord for permission to toll the bell, and sometime that day he also met with Alcott “on the Brown matter”—a meeting that Edmund A. Schofield asserts was to prove fatal to Thoreau, for Alcott had a serious cold, which Thoreau probably caught from him and which was soon to develop into bronchitis.6 The selectmen deferred their decision until the following night, as Thoreau mentions in his journal entry for that day, 30 November:
Nov 30. I am one of a committee of four, viz. Simon Brown (Ex Lieutenant-Governor), R. W. Emerson. myself, and John Keyes (late High Sheriff), instructed by a meeting of citizens to ask liberty of the selectmen to have the bell of the first parish tolled at the time Captain Brown is being hung, and while we shall be assembled in the town house to express our sympathy with him. I applied to the selectmen yesterday. Their names are George M. Brooks, Barzillai Hudson, and Julius Smith. After various delays they at length answer me to-night that they “are uncertain whether they have any control over the bell, but that, in any case, they will not give their consent to have the bell tolled.” Beside their private objections, they are influenced by the remarks of a few individuals. Dr. Bartlett tells me that Rockwood Hoar said he “hoped no such foolish thing would be done,” and he also named Stedman Buttrick, John Moore, Cheney (and others added Nathan Brooks, senior, and Francis Wheeler) as strongly opposed to it; said that he had heard “five hundred” (!) damn me for it, and that he had no doubt that if it were done some counter-demonstration would be made, such as firing minute-guns. The doctor himself is more excited than anybody, for he has the minister under his wing. Indeed, a considerable part of Concord are in the condition of Virginia to-day, afraid of their own shadows. (J, 12:457-58)
The list of opponents mentioned by Dr. Bartlett and others—and particularly Bartlett’s reference to “five hundred” who had damned Thoreau—strongly suggests that Thoreau was the speaker at the 28 November meeting who had suggested “that the flag ought to be raised upon the Liberty pole, half mast and union down.” Ostensibly, his fellow Concordians would not damn him in particular for carrying out the vote of the meeting and asking to have the bell of the First Parish rung during the commemorative service. In any case, Dr. Bartlett’s remarks to Thoreau, and Thoreau’s own observation about a considerable number of his fellow townspeople being afraid of their shadows, are ample indications of the high level of tension that existed in Concord—and, indeed, around the country—during the days leading up to Brown’s execution. The newspapers of those weeks are rife with reports of local, regional, and sectional bickering, particularly between Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and abolitionists. As historians have long pointed out, Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry and the ensuing distrust and animosity it sowed clearly escalated the pace at which the country careened toward civil war.
On 30 November and again on 1 December, Thoreau met to discuss the commemorative service with Emerson, Alcott, and very likely several others, including Keyes and Brown, the other members of the four-man planning committee. During those two days, according to Alcott, the decision was made not “to have any speeches made on the occasion, but have selected appropriate passages from Brown’s words, from the poets, and from the Scriptures … read by Thoreau, Emerson, and myself, chiefly; and the selection and arrangement is ours.” It was further arranged that Alcott would “read the Martyr Service, Thoreau selections from the poets, and Emerson from Brown’s words.” Sanborn had written a dirge for the occasion, which would be sung, and the Reverend E. H. Sears of Wayland would offer prayer.7 Keyes later recalled, “I had insisted at the preliminary talks that all speakers should be confined to reading other people’s writings as there was too much danger of our giving way to treasonable utterances if we allowed ourselves to speak our own sentiments, and the plan was cordially assented to.”8 And later still Keyes recollected the same agreement: “It had been arranged that all who took part should read suitable selections from books, not trust to their own expression of indignation lest in the intense excitement of the occasion language might be used that would make trouble.”9 Thoreau had arranged to have a broadside printed for the event titled “Martyrdom of John Brown. Exercises at the Town Hall, in Concord, on Friday, December 2nd, 1859, at 2 o’clock p.m.” The broadside presented a sort of agenda for the meeting—“Music, Prayer, Hymn, ‘Go to the grave in all thy glorious prime: Reading of Pertinent Passages, Selections from Brown’s Last Words, Service for the Death of a Martyr”—and the text of Sanborn’s dirge.10 Thoreau also hired Frank Pierce and his father to move a piano into Town Hall so that it could be used for the occasion (Days, p. 420). The day before the commemorative service, the Boston Daily Evening Traveller printed the following letter, which further suggests the high level of tension that existed in Concord on the eve of the meeting:
There is some prospect that the citizens of Old Concord will be permitted to hear the mournful sound of tolling bells on next Friday, a vote to that effect having been made last Monday evening, when about 150 of those who sympathize with John Brown, met in the Town Hall.
Since the meeting there have been some expressions against such a proceeding, and so we shall have to wait and see what will be the result. One speaker thought that the flag ought to be raised upon the Liberty pole, half mast and union down, which would, he thought, better represent the condition of the country. There is no question but that any attempt to thus treat the flag of our country will be strongly opposed.
The weather in Concord the morning of 2 December 1859 was warm, springlike, but oppressively humid. Low, steely clouds presaged the cold front that would move into New England that evening. Either during the night of 1 December or very early on 2 December, a group of Concord’s conservatives hung a life-size effigy of John Brown on a large tree in front of Town Hall. Attached to the body was the following document:
OF JEFFERSON COUNTY, VIRGINIA.
I bequeath to Hon. Simon Brown my execution robe, the emblem of spotless purity and an unswerving politician.
I bequeath to Hon. John S. Keyes my execution cord, made of material warranted to last to hang all the aiders and abettors of Old John Brown.
I bequeath to H. D. Thoreau, Esq., my body and soul he having eulogized my character and actions at Harper’s Ferry above the Saints in Heaven.
I bequeath to my beloved friend, Charles Bowers, my old boots, and emblems of the souls of those I have murdered.
I bequeath to Ralph Waldo Emerson all my personal property, and my execution cap, which contains nearly all the brains I ever had.
I bequeath to Dr. Josiah Bartlett the superintending of the ringing of the bells, and flags at half-mast, union down.11
As soon as it was discovered, the effigy was cut down, and both the effigy and the will were destroyed, although someone—likely one of the perpetrators—saved a copy of the will, which was printed in the Boston Post the following day along with a Synopsis of the day’s events. Thoreau later remarked in his journal, “Certain persons disgraced themselves by hanging Brown in effigy in this town on the 2d. I was glad to know that the only four whose names I heard mentioned in connection with it had not been long resident here, and had done nothing to secure the respect of the town” (J, 13:15).
At the appointed hour, Thoreau and other Brown sympathizers, including “many from the adjoining towns,” met in Concord’s Town Hall.12 Young Augusta Bowers was one of the many who attended, and to her it seemed that “everyone [in Concord] attended, young and old.”13 John S. Keyes later recalled that the hall was “crowded.”14 The Boston Post opined the next day that “The meeting was composed chiefly of ladies,” but because the Post was strongly opposed to Brown and expressions of sympathy for him, its claim ought to be regarded with some skepticism. A Concord correspondent to the Boston Atlas and Daily Bee asserted in a letter dated 2 December but not published till the following day that the meeting “was pretty fully attended by most of the earnest thinking men and women of the town.”
After the opening prayer by the Reverend Sears, the hymn was sung. Thoreau then rose and spoke for a considerable time. If the extant papers from the service correctly reflect what was said at the time, Thoreau read just ten sentences of his own: a four-sentence introduction and the remaining six sentences by way of transition between the extracts he had selected to read from the poetry of Marvell, Shirley, and Raleigh. Someone else, probably Emerson, had selected passages from Collins, Schiller, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Chapman, and Wotton for Thoreau to read; and he finished his performance by reading Emerson’s translation of a passage from Tacitus’s De Vita Ivli Agricolae.15 After Thoreau read, Emerson, Bowers, Keyes, and Alcott read a variety of selections; and the service ended after the audience sang Sanborn’s dirge while standing. Thoreau noted in the papers for the service assembled afterward that some passages Alcott had selected and an original poem Sanborn had written for the occasion “were omitted for want of time.”16
But do the papers from the service reflect what was said during the service? More to the point, during his performance, did Thoreau only read the ten sentences of his own in addition to the poetry extracts and translation? Perhaps not. John S. Keyes has left the following testimonies, which together—and with Thoreau’s own remark about other material having to be “omitted for want of time”—suggest that Thoreau may have departed from his text and violated the agreement he had made by speaking his mind at some length during the commemorative service:
This reminds me that I forgot the John Brown excitement of last year, and I must recall one of its peculiar episodes in Concord. When the day of his execution arrived, we had arranged for a gathering in the Town Hall, and had a wonderful meeting. I had insisted at the preliminary talks that all speakers should be confined to reading other people’s writings as there was too much danger of our giving way to treasonable utterances if we allowed ourselves to speak our own sentiments, and the plan was cordially assented to. The hall was crowded, I think Hoar or Fay in the chair, Mr. Reynolds read from the Bible, Mr. Emerson from Milton, Mr. Alcott from some heathen philosopher, I read the execution of Montrose from Aytoun’s ballads, and never saw a more effective impression made on an audience than did those stirring lines. D. H. Thoreau with his usual egotism broke the agreement and said some rambling incoherent sentences that might have been unfortunate if they had not been unintelligible. Sanborn read something and so did Hoar, but I’ve forgotten what. A hymn was sung, perhaps written by Channing, and the ceremonies serious and sober as a funeral were over. All of us knew Old John, all admired him, and many rejoiced in his attack on slavery; and there was a profound feeling of sorrow for his death.17
One of [Thoreau’s] last public appearances was at the meeting of the citizens of Concord to hold funeral exercises on the day of the Execution of John Brown and was characteristic. It had been arranged that all who took part should read suitable selections from books, not trust to their own expression of indignation lest in the intense excitement of the occasion language might be used that would make trouble; Mr. Emerson, Mr. Alcott, the minister & others all conformed to the agreement but Thoreau made a long speech of his own ideas and opinions!18
According to the Boston Post of the next day, rumors circulated around Concord after the meeting “to the effect that an attempt would be made to toll the bells…. ” But no bells were tolled in Concord that day, and no flags there were flown at half mast or union down, Alcott, for one, was content. “It was more fitting,” he wrote in his diary that evening, “to signify our sorrow in the subdued tones, and silent, than by any clamor of steeples and the awakening of angry feelings.” The service, Alcott thought, had been “affecting and impressive; distinguished by modesty, simplicity, and earnestness; worthy alike of the occasion and of the man.”19
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: In addition to the responses mentioned above, brief articles mentioning the commemorative service appeared on 3 December in the Boston Daily Journal, the Boston Daily Evening Traveller, and the Boston Evening Transcript. On 5 December the Springfield Daily Republican printed an account of the service, as did the New York Evening Express of 6 December. On 9 December the Liberator published Sanborn’s “Dirge,” and the next day a report of the service appeared in the (New York) National Anti-Slavery Standard.
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: The text Thoreau read is “Martyrdom of John Brown” in RP, pp. 139-43, but that text contains Thoreau’s own translation of Tacitus rather than the Emerson translation Thoreau actually read at the commemorative service, which is at NNPM, MA 884, with the other surviving papers of the service.
2. Alcott, Journals, p. 322; Thoreau had written “Sold for the benefit of Capt. Brown’s Family” in pencil just below the title in the MS paged “1,” HM 13203, CSmH, but later he cancelled the sentence in ink.
3. Alcott, Journals, p. 322. Alcott’s remark about Thoreau’s prominent role in planning the commemorative services on 2 December is corroborated by the extant papers used at the services, MA 884, NNPM, “the different sections and the different readers” of which, as Wendell Glick has painted out, “are designated by Thoreau in his own hand, though others (including Emerson and his daughter Ellen) did some of the copying” (RP, p. 356).
4. Alcott, Journals, p. 322.
5. Quoted from a column written by one “Sigma” in the Boston Daily Evening Traveller of 1 December 1859; rpt. Michael Meyer, “Discord in Concord on Day of Brown’s Hanging,” Thoreau Society Bulletin, no. 146 (Winter 1979): 2. “Sigma” seems to have been a resident of Concord with no great sympathy for the views of Thoreau or other supporters of John Brown.
6. J. 12:457: Alcott, MS “Diary for 1859,” entry of 29 November, MH (*59M-308); Edmund A. Schofield, “The Origin of Thoreau’s Fatal Illness,” Thoreau Society Bulletin, no. 171 (Spring 1985): 2.
7. Alcott, Journals, p. 322.
8. “John Shepard Keyes’s Unpublished Account of the Exercises in Memory of John Brown, Concord, Massachusetts, December 2, 1859,” Thoreau Society Bulletin, no. 143 (Spring 1978): 4.
9. “John Shepard Keyes on Thoreau,” Thoreau Society Bulletin, no. 103 (Spring 1968): 2-3.
10. Walter Harding, “A Rare Thoreau Broadside,” Thoreau Society Bulletin, no. 54 (Winter 1956): 2-3.
11. Quoted from a column titled “In Concord” in the Boston Post, 3 December 1859.
12. Alcott, Journals, p. 323.
13. “The Reminiscences of Augusta Bowers French,” Thoreau Society Bulletin, no. 130 (Winter 1975): 6. These reminiscences were recorded on 2 November 1926, sixty-seven years later. The full sentence we quote from reads: “At the time when John Brown was hung, there was a mass meeting held in the town hall, which everyone attended, young and old—”
14. “John Shepard Keyes’s Unpublished Account.” 4.
15. “Martyrdom of John Brown,” in Echoes of Harper’s Ferry, ed. James Redpath (Boston: Thayer and Eldridge, 1860), p. 444; RP, pp. 356-57. Redpath’s account of the commemorative service in Concord on 2 December 1859 appears in Echoes of Harper’s Ferry, pp. 437-54.
16. MA 884, NNPM.
17. “John Shepard Keyes’s Unpublished Account,” 4.
18. “John Shepard Keyes on Thoreau,” 2-3.
19. Alcott, Journals, p. 323.
Reprinted with permission