North Elba, New York; Gravesite of John Brown
“THE LAST DAYS OF JOHN BROWN”
NARRATIVE OF EVENT: (See also lectures 65–68 above.) Thoreau was asked to speak at a John Brown Memorial Celebration in North Elba, New York, where a monument on the grave of the executed radical abolitionist was to be dedicated on 4 July. R. J. Hinton, the meeting’s secretary, stopped in Concord on his way to the event and was given a brief address by Thoreau to be read in Thoreau’s absence. Hinton read a number of absentee communications from such notable anti-slavery figures as Frederick Douglass, Thomas W. Higginson, Franklin B. Sanborn. and James Redpath. While most of the absentees sent apologies and explanations for their failure to be there, Thoreau did not. Hinton read Thoreau’s paper as the last of the absentee messages, prefacing it with this account of the delivery of the manuscript to him in Concord:
In conclusion, Mr. President, I desire to read the manuscript I hold. It was handed to me at Concord, with a note, while on my way here, by one whom all must honor who know him—Henry D. Thoreau. Of a fearless, truthful soul, living near to Nature, with ear attuned to catch her simplest and most subtle thought, and heart willing to interpret them to his eager brain, he often speaks undisguised, in most nervous Saxon, the judgment upon great events which others, either timid or powerless of speech, so long to hear expressed. So it was last fall, Mr. Thoreau’s voice was the first which broke the disgraceful silence or hushed the senseless babble with which the grandest deed of our time was met. Herein, Mr. Thoreau gives us some recollections of that eventful period:—
The contents of the note referred to by Hinton are not known; however, Hinton’s introduction and Thoreau’s paper were printed in the Liberator on 27 July 1860 (RP, pp. 363-64). According to the 28 July issue of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, an estimated one thousand to twelve hundred people attended the event.
On 8 July, Thoreau mentioned the North Elba event and other anti-slavery matters in a letter to Sophia, who was visiting friends in Campton, New Hampshire, The letter, one of his most charming, notes a sprained thumb that caused his writing to be even poorer than usual. The thumb, no doubt, was not the reason for his absence at the Memorial Celebration itself:
Mother reminds me that I must write to you, if only a few lines, though I have sprained my thumb, so that it is questionable whether I can write legibly, if at all. I can’t bear on much. What is worse, I believe that I have sprained my brain too— i.e. it sympathizes with my thumb. But there is no excuse, I suppose, for writing a letter in such a case, is, like sending a newspaper, only a hint to let you know that “all is well”—but my thumb….
Is there no friend of N. P. Rogers who can tell you where the “lions” are. Of course I did not go to North Elba, but I sent some reminiscences of last fall[.]
I hear that John Brown jr has just come to Boston for a few days. Mr Sanborn’s case, it is said, will come on after some murder cases have been disposed of—here.
I have just been invited, formally, to be present at the annual picnic of Theodore Parker’s society (that was) at Waverly next Wednesday, & to make some remarks. But that is wholly out of my line—I do not go to picnics even in Concord you know…. I believe that I have fairly scared the kittens away, at last, by my pretended fierceness—which was humane merely.
& now I will consider my thumb—& your eyes. (C, pp. 581-82)
The editors of Thoreau’s correspondence note that “Rogers (he died in 1846) had been a strong New Hampshire antislavery man; presumably the ‘lions’ Thoreau mentions in connection with him are abolitionist ones.” They add as well that “‘Mr. Sanborn’s case’ was the indictment against not Sanborn but the federal deputies who had attempted to arrest him for not testifying before the Senate in its John Brown investigation” (C, p. 582).
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: The 7 July 1860 National Anti-Slavery Standard expressed eager anticipation for as yet unreceived reports of the celebration and mentioned Thoreau as among the invited speakers. In its issues of 28 July and 4 August, the same publication reported on the celebration. The 4 August issue cited a story in the New Orleans Picayune titled “The Fanatics at Their Orgies,” in which Thoreau was called the “Rev. H. D. Thoreau.”
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: The text Hinton read for Thoreau, we assume, was the same asthe one printed in the Liberator on 27 July 1860. That text was used as copy-text for “The Last Days of John Brown” in RP, pp. 145-53.
Reprinted with permission