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Title: A Plea for Captain John Brown
 - Read to the citizens of Concord, Massachusetts on Sunday evening, October thirtieth, eighteen fifty-nine
Author: Thoreau, Henry David
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.

*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "A Plea for Captain John Brown
 - Read to the citizens of Concord, Massachusetts on Sunday evening, October thirtieth, eighteen fifty-nine" ***


 By Henry David Thoreau 

[Read to the citizens of Concord, Mass.,

Sunday Evening, October 30, 1859.]

I trust that you will pardon me for being here. I do not wish to force
my thoughts upon you, but I feel forced myself. Little as I know of
Captain Brown, I would fain do my part to correct the tone and the
statements of the newspapers, and of my countrymen generally,
respecting his character and actions. It costs us nothing to be just.
We can at least express our sympathy with, and admiration of, him and
his companions, and that is what I now propose to do.

First, as to his history. I will endeavor to omit, as much as possible,
what you have already read. I need not describe his person to you, for
probably most of you have seen and will not soon forget him. I am told
that his grandfather, John Brown, was an officer in the Revolution;
that he himself was born in Connecticut about the beginning of this
century, but early went with his father to Ohio. I heard him say that
his father was a contractor who furnished beef to the army there, in
the war of 1812; that he accompanied him to the camp, and assisted him
in that employment, seeing a good deal of military life, more, perhaps,
than if he had been a soldier, for he was often present at the councils
of the officers. Especially, he learned by experience how armies are
supplied and maintained in the field—a work which, he observed,
requires at least as much experience and skill as to lead them in
battle. He said that few persons had any conception of the cost, even
the pecuniary cost, of firing a single bullet in war. He saw enough, at
any rate, to disgust him with a military life, indeed to excite in him
a great abhorrence of it; so much so, that though he was tempted by the
offer of some petty office in the army, when he was about eighteen, he
not only declined that, but he also refused to train when warned, and
was fined for it. He then resolved that he would never have anything to
do with any war, unless it were a war for liberty.

When the troubles in Kansas began, he sent several of his sons thither
to strengthen the party of the Free State men, fitting them out with
such weapons as he had; telling them that if the troubles should
increase, and there should be need of him, he would follow, to assist
them with his hand and counsel. This, as you all know, he soon after
did; and it was through his agency, far more than any other’s, that
Kansas was made free.

For a part of his life he was a surveyor, and at one time he was
engaged in wool-growing, and he went to Europe as an agent about that
business. There, as everywhere, he had his eyes about him, and made
many original observations. He said, for instance, that he saw why the
soil of England was so rich, and that of Germany (I think it was) so
poor, and he thought of writing to some of the crowned heads about it.
It was because in England the peasantry live on the soil which they
cultivate, but in Germany they are gathered into villages, at night. It
is a pity that he did not make a book of his observations.

I should say that he was an old-fashioned man in respect for the
Constitution, and his faith in the permanence of this Union. Slavery he
deemed to be wholly opposed to these, and he was its determined foe.

He was by descent and birth a New England farmer, a man of great common
sense, deliberate and practical as that class is, and tenfold more so.
He was like the best of those who stood at Concord Bridge once, on
Lexington Common, and on Bunker Hill, only he was firmer and higher
principled than any that I have chanced to hear of as there. It was no
abolition lecturer that converted him. Ethan Allen and Stark, with whom
he may in some respects be compared, were rangers in a lower and less
important field. They could bravely face their country’s foes, but he
had the courage to face his country herself, when she was in the wrong.
A Western writer says, to account for his escape from so many perils,
that he was concealed under a “rural exterior”; as if, in that prairie
land, a hero should, by good rights, wear a citizen’s dress only.

He did not go to the college called Harvard, good old Alma Mater as she
is. He was not fed on the pap that is there furnished. As he phrased
it, “I know no more of grammar than one of your calves.” But he went to
the great university of the West, where he sedulously pursued the study
of Liberty, for which he had early betrayed a fondness, and having
taken many degrees, he finally commenced the public practice of
Humanity in Kansas, as you all know. Such were _his humanities_, and
not any study of grammar. He would have left a Greek accent slanting
the wrong way, and righted up a falling man.

He was one of that class of whom we hear a great deal, but, for the
most part, see nothing at all—the Puritans. It would be in vain to kill
him. He died lately in the time of Cromwell, but he reappeared here.
Why should he not? Some of the Puritan stock are said to have come over
and settled in New England. They were a class that did something else
than celebrate their forefathers’ day, and eat parched corn in
remembrance of that time. They were neither Democrats nor Republicans,
but men of simple habits, straightforward, prayerful; not thinking much
of rulers who did not fear God, not making many compromises, nor
seeking after available candidates.

“In his camp,” as one has recently written, and as I have myself heard
him state, “he permitted no profanity; no man of loose morals was
suffered to remain there, unless, indeed, as a prisoner of war. ‘I
would rather,’ said he, ‘have the small-pox, yellow fever, and cholera,
all together in my camp, than a man without principle.... It is a
mistake, sir, that our people make, when they think that bullies are
the best fighters, or that they are the fit men to oppose these
Southerners. Give me men of good principles,—God-fearing men,—men who
respect themselves, and with a dozen of them I will oppose any hundred
such men as these Buford ruffians.’” He said that if one offered
himself to be a soldier under him, who was forward to tell what he
could or would do, if he could only get sight of the enemy, he had but
little confidence in him.

He was never able to find more than a score or so of recruits whom he
would accept, and only about a dozen, among them his sons, in whom he
had perfect faith. When he was here, some years ago, he showed to a few
a little manuscript book,—his “orderly book” I think he called
it,—containing the names of his company in Kansas, and the rules by
which they bound themselves; and he stated that several of them had
already sealed the contract with their blood. When some one remarked
that, with the addition of a chaplain, it would have been a perfect
Cromwellian troop, he observed that he would have been glad to add a
chaplain to the list, if he could have found one who could fill that
office worthily. It is easy enough to find one for the United States
army. I believe that he had prayers in his camp morning and evening,

He was a man of Spartan habits, and at sixty was scrupulous about his
diet at your table, excusing himself by saying that he must eat
sparingly and fare hard, as became a soldier or one who was fitting
himself for difficult enterprises, a life of exposure.

A man of rare common sense and directness of speech, as of action; a
transcendentalist above all, a man of ideas and principles,—that was
what distinguished him. Not yielding to a whim or transient impulse,
but carrying out the purpose of a life. I noticed that he did not
overstate anything, but spoke within bounds. I remember, particularly,
how, in his speech here, he referred to what his family had suffered in
Kansas, without ever giving the least vent to his pent-up fire. It was
a volcano with an ordinary chimney-flue. Also referring to the deeds of
certain Border Ruffians, he said, rapidly paring away his speech, like
an experienced soldier, keeping a reserve of force and meaning, “They
had a perfect right to be hung.” He was not in the least a rhetorician,
was not talking to Buncombe or his constituents anywhere, had no need
to invent anything but to tell the simple truth, and communicate his
own resolution; therefore he appeared incomparably strong, and
eloquence in Congress and elsewhere seemed to me at a discount. It was
like the speeches of Cromwell compared with those of an ordinary king.

As for his tact and prudence, I will merely say, that at a time when
scarcely a man from the Free States was able to reach Kansas by any
direct route, at least without having his arms taken from him, he,
carrying what imperfect guns and other weapons he could collect, openly
and slowly drove an ox-cart through Missouri, apparently in the
capacity of a surveyor, with his surveying compass exposed in it, and
so passed unsuspected, and had ample opportunity to learn the designs
of the enemy. For some time after his arrival he still followed the
same profession. When, for instance, he saw a knot of the ruffians on
the prairie, discussing, of course, the single topic which then
occupied their minds, he would, perhaps, take his compass and one of
his sons, and proceed to run an imaginary line right through the very
spot on which that conclave had assembled, and when he came up to them,
he would naturally pause and have some talk with them, learning their
news, and, at last, all their plans perfectly; and having thus
completed his real survey he would resume his imaginary one, and run on
his line till he was out of sight.

When I expressed surprise that he could live in Kansas at all, with a
price set upon his head, and so large a number, including the
authorities, exasperated against him, he accounted for it by saying,
“It is perfectly well understood that I will not be taken.” Much of the
time for some years he has had to skulk in swamps, suffering from
poverty and from sickness, which was the consequence of exposure,
befriended only by Indians and a few whites. But though it might be
known that he was lurking in a particular swamp, his foes commonly did
not care to go in after him. He could even come out into a town where
there were more Border Ruffians than Free State men, and transact some
business, without delaying long, and yet not be molested; for said he,
“No little handful of men were willing to undertake it, and a large
body could not be got together in season.”

As for his recent failure, we do not know the facts about it. It was
evidently far from being a wild and desperate attempt. His enemy, Mr.
Vallandigham, is compelled to say, that “it was among the best planned
and executed conspiracies that ever failed.”

Not to mention his other successes, was it a failure, or did it show a
want of good management, to deliver from bondage a dozen human beings,
and walk off with them by broad daylight, for weeks if not months, at a
leisurely pace, through one State after another, for half the length of
the North, conspicuous to all parties, with a price set upon his head,
going into a court room on his way and telling what he had done, thus
convincing Missouri that it was not profitable to try to hold slaves in
his neighborhood?—and this, not because the government menials were
lenient, but because they were afraid of him.

Yet he did not attribute his success, foolishly, to “his star,” or to
any magic. He said, truly, that the reason why such greatly superior
numbers quailed before him was, as one of his prisoners confessed,
because they _lacked a cause_—a kind of armor which he and his party
never lacked. When the time came, few men were found willing to lay
down their lives in defence of what they knew to be wrong; they did not
like that this should be their last act in this world.

But to make haste to _his_ last act, and its effects.

The newspapers seem to ignore, or perhaps are really ignorant of the
fact, that there are at least as many as two or three individuals to a
town throughout the North who think much as the present speaker does
about him and his enterprise. I do not hesitate to say that they are an
important and growing party. We aspire to be something more than stupid
and timid chattels, pretending to read history and our bibles, but
desecrating every house and every day we breathe in. Perhaps anxious
politicians may prove that only seventeen white men and five negroes
were concerned in the late enterprise, but their very anxiety to prove
this might suggest to themselves that all is not told. Why do they
still dodge the truth? They are so anxious because of a dim
consciousness of the fact, which they do not distinctly face, that at
least a million of the free inhabitants of the United States would have
rejoiced if it had succeeded. They at most only criticise the tactics.
Though we wear no crape, the thought of that man’s position and
probable fate is spoiling many a man’s day here at the North for other
thinking. If any one who has seen him here can pursue successfully any
other train of thought, I do not know what he is made of. If there is
any such who gets his usual allowance of sleep, I will warrant him to
fatten easily under any circumstances which do not touch his body or
purse. I put a piece of paper and a pencil under my pillow, and when I
could not sleep, I wrote in the dark.

On the whole, my respect for my fellow-men, except as one may outweigh
a million, is not being increased these days. I have noticed the
cold-blooded way in which newspaper writers and men generally speak of
this event, as if an ordinary malefactor, though one of unusual
“pluck,”—as the Governor of Virginia is reported to have said, using
the language of the cock-pit, “the gamest man he ever saw,”—had been
caught, and were about to be hung. He was not dreaming of his foes when
the governor thought he looked so brave. It turns what sweetness I have
to gall, to hear, or hear of, the remarks of some of my neighbors. When
we heard at first that he was dead, one of my townsmen observed that
“he died as the fool dieth”; which, pardon me, for an instant suggested
a likeness in him dying to my neighbor living. Others, craven-hearted,
said disparagingly, that “he threw his life away,” because he resisted
the government. Which way have they thrown _their_ lives, pray?—Such as
would praise a man for attacking singly an ordinary band of thieves or
murderers. I hear another ask, Yankee-like, “What will he gain by it?”
as if he expected to fill his pockets by this enterprise. Such a one
has no idea of gain but in this worldly sense. If it does not lead to a
“surprise” party, if he does not get a new pair of boots, or a vote of
thanks, it must be a failure. “But he won’t gain anything by it.” Well,
no, I don’t suppose he could get four-and-sixpence a day for being
hung, take the year round; but then he stands a chance to save a
considerable part of his soul,—and _such_ a soul!—when _you_ do not. No
doubt you can get more in your market for a quart of milk than for a
quart of blood, but that is not the market that heroes carry their
blood to.

Such do not know that like the seed is the fruit, and that, in the
moral world, when good seed is planted, good fruit is inevitable, and
does not depend on our watering and cultivating; that when you plant,
or bury, a hero in his field, a crop of heroes is sure to spring up.
This is a seed of such force and vitality, that it does not ask our
leave to germinate.

The momentary charge at Balaclava, in obedience to a blundering
command, proving what a perfect machine the soldier is, has, properly
enough, been celebrated by a poet laureate; but the steady, and for the
most part successful, charge of this man, for some years, against the
legions of Slavery, in obedience to an infinitely higher command, is as
much more memorable than that, as an intelligent and conscientious man
is superior to a machine. Do you think that that will go unsung?

“Served him right”—“A dangerous man”—“He is undoubtedly insane.” So
they proceed to live their sane, and wise, and altogether admirable
lives, reading their Plutarch a little, but chiefly pausing at that
feat of Putnam, who was let down into a wolf’s den; and in this wise
they nourish themselves for brave and patriotic deeds some time or
other. The Tract Society could afford to print that story of Putnam.
You might open the district schools with the reading of it, for there
is nothing about Slavery or the Church in it; unless it occurs to the
reader that some pastors are _wolves_ in sheep’s clothing. “The
American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions” even, might dare
to protest against _that_ wolf. I have heard of boards, and of American
boards, but it chances that I never heard of this particular lumber
till lately. And yet I hear of Northern men, and women, and children,
by families, buying a “life membership” in such societies as these. A
life-membership in the grave! You can get buried cheaper than that.

Our foes are in our midst and all about us. There is hardly a house but
is divided against itself, for our foe is the all but universal
woodenness of both head and heart, the want of vitality in man, which
is the effect of our vice; and hence are begotten fear, superstition,
bigotry, persecution, and slavery of all kinds. We are mere
figure-heads upon a hulk, with livers in the place of hearts. The curse
is the worship of idols, which at length changes the worshipper into a
stone image himself; and the New Englander is just as much an idolater
as the Hindoo. This man was an exception, for he did not set up even a
political graven image between him and his God.

A church that can never have done with excommunicating Christ while it
exists! Away with your broad and flat churches, and your narrow and
tall churches! Take a step forward, and invent a new style of
out-houses. Invent a salt that will save you, and defend our nostrils.

The modern Christian is a man who has consented to say all the prayers
in the liturgy, provided you will let him go straight to bed and sleep
quietly afterward. All his prayers begin with “Now I lay me down to
sleep,” and he is forever looking forward to the time when he shall go
to his “_long_ rest.” He has consented to perform certain old
established charities, too, after a fashion, but he does not wish to
hear of any new-fangled ones; he doesn’t wish to have any supplementary
articles added to the contract, to fit it to the present time. He shows
the whites of his eyes on the Sabbath, and the blacks all the rest of
the week. The evil is not merely a stagnation of blood, but a
stagnation of spirit. Many, no doubt, are well disposed, but sluggish
by constitution and by habit, and they cannot conceive of a man who is
actuated by higher motives than they are. Accordingly they pronounce
this man insane, for they know that _they_ could never act as he does,
as long as they are themselves.

We dream of foreign countries, of other times and races of men, placing
them at a distance in history or space; but let some significant event
like the present occur in our midst, and we discover, often, this
distance and this strangeness between us and our nearest neighbors.
_They_ are our Austrias, and Chinas, and South Sea Islands. Our crowded
society becomes well spaced all at once, clean and handsome to the eye,
a city of magnificent distances. We discover why it was that we never
got beyond compliments and surfaces with them before; we become aware
of as many versts between us and them as there are between a wandering
Tartar and a Chinese town. The thoughtful man becomes a hermit in the
thoroughfares of the market-place. Impassable seas suddenly find their
level between us, or dumb steppes stretch themselves out there. It is
the difference of constitution, of intelligence, and faith, and not
streams and mountains, that make the true and impassable boundaries
between individuals and between states. None but the like-minded can
come plenipotentiary to our court.

I read all the newspapers I could get within a week after this event,
and I do not remember in them a single expression of sympathy for these
men. I have since seen one noble statement, in a Boston paper, not
editorial. Some voluminous sheets decided not to print the full report
of Brown’s words to the exclusion of other matter. It was as if a
publisher should reject the manuscript of the New Testament, and print
Wilson’s last speech. The same journal which contained this pregnant
news, was chiefly filled, in parallel columns, with the reports of the
political conventions that were being held. But the descent to them was
too steep. They should have been spared this contrast, been printed in
an extra at least. To turn from the voices and deeds of earnest men to
the _cackling_ of political conventions! Office seekers and
speech-makers, who do not so much as lay an honest egg, but wear their
breasts bare upon an egg of chalk! Their great game is the game of
straws, or rather that universal aboriginal game of the platter, at
which the Indians cried _hub, bub!_ Exclude the reports of religious
and political conventions, and publish the words of a living man.

But I object not so much to what they have omitted, as to what they
have inserted. Even the _Liberator_ called it “a misguided, wild, and
apparently insane ... effort.” As for the herd of newspapers and
magazines, I do not chance to know an editor in the country who will
deliberately print anything which he knows will ultimately and
permanently reduce the number of his subscribers. They do not believe
that it would be expedient. How then can they print truth? If we do not
say pleasant things, they argue, nobody will attend to us. And so they
do like some travelling auctioneers, who sing an obscene song in order
to draw a crowd around them. Republican editors, obliged to get their
sentences ready for the morning edition, and accustomed to look at
everything by the twilight of politics, express no admiration, nor true
sorrow even, but call these men “deluded fanatics”—“mistaken
men”—“insane,” or “crazed.” It suggests what a _sane_ set of editors we
are blessed with, _not_ “mistaken men”; who know very well on which
side their bread is buttered, at least.

A man does a brave and humane deed, and at once, on all sides, we hear
people and parties declaring, “I didn’t do it, nor countenance _him_ to
do it, in any conceivable way. It can’t be fairly inferred from my past
career.” I, for one, am not interested to hear you define your
position. I don’t know that I ever was, or ever shall be. I think it is
mere egotism, or impertinent at this time. Ye needn’t take so much
pains to wash your skirts of him. No intelligent man will ever be
convinced that he was any creature of yours. He went and came, as he
himself informs us, “under the auspices of John Brown and nobody else.”
The Republican party does not perceive how many his _failure_ will make
to vote more correctly than they would have them. They have counted the
votes of Pennsylvania & Co., but they have not correctly counted
Captain Brown’s vote. He has taken the wind out of their sails, the
little wind they had, and they may as well lie to and repair.

What though he did not belong to your clique! Though you may not
approve of his method or his principles, recognize his magnanimity.
Would you not like to claim kindredship with him in that, though in no
other thing he is like, or likely, to you? Do you think that you would
lose your reputation so? What you lost at the spile, you would gain at
the bung.

If they do not mean all this, then they do not speak the truth, and say
what they mean. They are simply at their old tricks still.

“It was always conceded to him,” _says one who calls him crazy_, “that
he was a conscientious man, very modest in his demeanor, apparently
inoffensive, until the subject of Slavery was introduced, when he would
exhibit a feeling of indignation unparalleled.”

The slave-ship is on her way, crowded with its dying victims; new
cargoes are being added in mid ocean; a small crew of slaveholders,
countenanced by a large body of passengers, is smothering four millions
under the hatches, and yet the politician asserts that the only proper
way by which deliverance is to be obtained, is by “the quiet diffusion
of the sentiments of humanity,” without any “outbreak.” As if the
sentiments of humanity were ever found unaccompanied by its deeds, and
you could disperse them, all finished to order, the pure article, as
easily as water with a watering-pot, and so lay the dust. What is that
that I hear cast overboard? The bodies of the dead that have found
deliverance. That is the way we are “diffusing” humanity, and its
sentiments with it.

Prominent and influential editors, accustomed to deal with politicians,
men of an infinitely lower grade, say, in their ignorance, that he
acted “on the principle of revenge.” They do not know the man. They
must enlarge themselves to conceive of him. I have no doubt that the
time will come when they will begin to see him as he was. They have got
to conceive of a man of faith and of religious principle, and not a
politician or an Indian; of a man who did not wait till he was
personally interfered with, or thwarted in some harmless business,
before he gave his life to the cause of the oppressed.

If Walker may be considered the representative of the South, I wish I
could say that Brown was the representative of the North. He was a
superior man. He did not value his bodily life in comparison with ideal
things. He did not recognize unjust human laws, but resisted them as he
was bid. For once we are lifted out of the trivialness and dust of
politics into the region of truth and manhood. No man in America has
ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human
nature, knowing himself for a man, and the equal of any and all
governments. In that sense he was the most American of us all. He
needed no babbling lawyer, making false issues, to defend him. He was
more than a match for all the judges that American voters, or
office-holders of whatever grade, can create. He could not have been
tried by a jury of his peers, because his peers did not exist. When a
man stands up serenely against the condemnation and vengeance of
mankind, rising above them literally _by a whole body_,—even though he
were of late the vilest murderer, who has settled that matter with
himself,—the spectacle is a sublime one,—didn’t ye know it, ye
Liberators, ye Tribunes, ye Republicans?—and we become criminal in
comparison. Do yourselves the honor to recognize him. He needs none of
your respect.

As for the Democratic journals, they are not human enough to affect me
at all. I do not feel indignation at anything they may say.

I am aware that I anticipate a little, that he was still, at the last
accounts, alive in the hands of his foes; but that being the case, I
have all along found myself thinking and speaking of him as physically

I do not believe in erecting statues to those who still live in our
hearts, whose bones have not yet crumbled in the earth around us, but I
would rather see the statue of Captain Brown in the Massachusetts
State-House yard, than that of any other man whom I know. I rejoice
that I live in this age, that I am his contemporary.

What a contrast, when we turn to that political party which is so
anxiously shuffling him and his plot out of its way, and looking around
for some available slaveholder, perhaps, to be its candidate, at least
for one who will execute the Fugitive Slave Law, and all those other
unjust laws which he took up arms to annul!

Insane! A father and six sons, and one son-in-law, and several more men
besides,—as many at least as twelve disciples,—all struck with insanity
at once; while the same tyrant holds with a firmer gripe than ever his
four millions of slaves, and a thousand sane editors, his abettors, are
saving their country and their bacon! Just as insane were his efforts
in Kansas. Ask the tyrant who is his most dangerous foe, the sane man
or the insane? Do the thousands who know him best, who have rejoiced at
his deeds in Kansas, and have afforded him material aid there, think
him insane? Such a use of this word is a mere trope with most who
persist in using it, and I have no doubt that many of the rest have
already in silence retracted their words.

Read his admirable answers to Mason and others. How they are dwarfed
and defeated by the contrast! On the one side, half brutish, half timid
questioning; on the other, truth, clear as lightning, crashing into
their obscene temples. They are made to stand with Pilate, and Gessler,
and the Inquisition. How ineffectual their speech and action! and what
a void their silence! They are but helpless tools in this great work.
It was no human power that gathered them about this preacher.

What have Massachusetts and the North sent a few _sane_ representatives
to Congress for, of late years?—to declare with effect what kind of
sentiments? All their speeches put together and boiled down,—and
probably they themselves will confess it,—do not match for manly
directness and force, and for simple truth, the few casual remarks of
crazy John Brown, on the floor of the Harper’s Ferry engine-house,—that
man whom you are about to hang, to send to the other world, though not
to represent _you_ there. No, he was not our representative in any
sense. He was too fair a specimen of a man to represent the like of us.
Who, then, _were_ his constituents? If you read his words
understandingly you will find out. In his case there is no idle
eloquence, no made, nor maiden speech, no compliments to the oppressor.
Truth is his inspirer, and earnestness the polisher of his sentences.
He could afford to lose his Sharp’s rifles, while he retained his
faculty of speech,—a Sharp’s rifle of infinitely surer and longer

And the _New York Herald_ reports the conversation _verbatim!_ It does
not know of what undying words it is made the vehicle.

I have no respect for the penetration of any man who can read the
report of that conversation, and still call the principal in it insane.
It has the ring of a saner sanity than an ordinary discipline and
habits of life, than an ordinary organization, secure. Take any
sentence of it—“Any questions that I can honorably answer, I will; not
otherwise. So far as I am myself concerned, I have told everything
truthfully. I value my word, sir.” The few who talk about his
vindictive spirit, while they really admire his heroism, have no test
by which to detect a noble man, no amalgam to combine with his pure
gold. They mix their own dross with it.

It is a relief to turn from these slanders to the testimony of his more
truthful, but frightened, jailers and hangmen. Governor Wise speaks far
more justly and appreciatingly of him than any Northern editor, or
politician, or public personage, that I chance to have heard from. I
know that you can afford to hear him again on this subject. He says:
“They are themselves mistaken who take him to be a madman.... He is
cool, collected, and indomitable, and it is but just to him to say,
that he was humane to his prisoners.... And he inspired me with great
trust in his integrity as a man of truth. He is a fanatic, vain and
garrulous,” (I leave that part to Mr. Wise) “but firm, truthful, and
intelligent. His men, too, who survive, are like him.... Colonel
Washington says that he was the coolest and firmest man he ever saw in
defying danger and death. With one son dead by his side, and another
shot through, he felt the pulse of his dying son with one hand, and
held his rifle with the other, and commanded his men with the utmost
composure, encouraging them to be firm, and to sell their lives as dear
as they could. Of the three white prisoners, Brown, Stephens, and
Coppoc, it was hard to say which was most firm....”

Almost the first Northern men whom the slaveholder has learned to

The testimony of Mr. Vallandigham, though less valuable, is of the same
purport, that “it is vain to underrate either the man or his
conspiracy.... He is the farthest possible removed from the ordinary
ruffian, fanatic, or madman.”

“All is quiet at Harper’s Ferry,” say the journals. What is the
character of that calm which follows when the law and the slaveholder
prevail? I regard this event as a touchstone designed to bring out,
with glaring distinctness, the character of this government. We needed
to be thus assisted to see it by the light of history. It needed to see
itself. When a government puts forth its strength on the side of
injustice, as ours to maintain Slavery and kill the liberators of the
slave, it reveals itself a merely brute force, or worse, a demoniacal
force. It is the head of the Plug Uglies. It is more manifest than ever
that tyranny rules. I see this government to be effectually allied with
France and Austria in oppressing mankind. There sits a tyrant holding
fettered four millions of slaves; here comes their heroic liberator.
This most hypocritical and diabolical government looks up from its seat
on the gasping four millions, and inquires with an assumption of
innocence: “What do you assault me for? Am I not an honest man? Cease
agitation on this subject, or I will make a slave of you, too, or else
hang you.”

We talk about a _representative_ government; but what a monster of a
government is that where the noblest faculties of the mind, and the
_whole_ heart, are not _represented_. A semi-human tiger or ox,
stalking over the earth, with its heart taken out and the top of its
brain shot away. Heroes have fought well on their stumps when their
legs were shot off, but I never heard of any good done by such a
government as that.

The only government that I recognize,—and it matters not how few are at
the head of it, or how small its army,—is that power that establishes
justice in the land, never that which establishes injustice. What shall
we think of a government to which all the truly brave and just men in
the land are enemies, standing between it and those whom it oppresses?
A government that pretends to be Christian and crucifies a million
Christs every day!

Treason! Where does such 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, when it is resistance to tyranny here below, has
its origin in, and is first committed by, the power that makes and
forever recreates man. When you have caught and hung all these human
rebels, you have accomplished nothing but your own guilt, for you have
not struck at the fountain head. You presume to contend with a foe
against whom West Point cadets and rifled cannon _point_ not. Can all
the art of the cannon-founder tempt matter to turn against its maker?
Is the form in which the founder thinks he casts it more essential than
the constitution of it and of himself?

The United States have a coffle of four millions of slaves. They are
determined to keep them in this condition; and Massachusetts is one of
the confederated overseers to prevent their escape. Such are not all
the inhabitants of Massachusetts, but such are they who rule and are
obeyed here. It was Massachusetts, as well as Virginia, that put down
this insurrection at Harper’s Ferry. She sent the marines there, and
she will have to pay the penalty of her sin.

Suppose that there is a society in this State that out of its own purse
and magnanimity saves all the fugitive slaves that run to us, and
protects our colored fellow-citizens, and leaves the other work to the
government, so-called. Is not that government fast losing its
occupation, and becoming contemptible to mankind? If private men are
obliged to perform the offices of government, to protect the weak and
dispense justice, then the government becomes only a hired man, or
clerk, to perform menial or indifferent services. Of course, that is
but the shadow of a government whose existence necessitates a Vigilant
Committee. What should we think of the oriental Cadi even, behind whom
worked in secret a Vigilant Committee? But such is the character of our
Northern States generally; each has its Vigilant Committee. And, to a
certain extent, these crazy governments recognize and accept this
relation. They say, virtually, “We’ll be glad to work for you on these
terms, only don’t make a noise about it.” And thus the government, its
salary being insured, withdraws into the back shop, taking the
Constitution with it, and bestows most of its labor on repairing that.
When I hear it at work sometimes, as I go by, it reminds me, at best,
of those farmers who in winter contrive to turn a penny by following
the coopering business. And what kind of spirit is their barrel made to
hold? They speculate in stocks, and bore holes in mountains, but they
are not competent to lay out even a decent highway. The only _free_
road, the Underground Railroad, is owned and managed by the Vigilant
Committee. _They_ have tunnelled under the whole breadth of the land.
Such a government is losing its power and respectability as surely as
water runs out of a leaky vessel, and is held by one that can contain

I hear many condemn these men because they were so few. When were the
good and the brave ever in a majority? Would you have had him wait till
that time came?—till you and I came over to him? The very fact that he
had no rabble or troop of hirelings about him would alone distinguish
him from ordinary heroes. His company was small indeed, because few
could be found worthy to pass muster. Each one who there laid down his
life for the poor and oppressed was a picked man, culled out of many
thousands, if not millions; apparently a man of principle, of rare
courage, and devoted humanity, ready to sacrifice his life at any
moment for the benefit of his fellow man. It may be doubted if there
were as many more their equals in these respects in all the country—I
speak of his followers only—for their leader, no doubt, scoured the
land far and wide, seeking to swell his troop. These alone were ready
to step between the oppressor and the oppressed. Surely they were the
very best men you could select to be hung. That was the greatest
compliment which this country could pay them. They were ripe for her
gallows. She has tried a long time, she has hung a good many, but never
found the right one before.

When I think of him, and his six sons, and his son-in-law, not to
enumerate the others, enlisted for this fight, proceeding coolly,
reverently, humanely to work, for months if not years, sleeping and
waking upon it, summering and wintering the thought, without expecting
any reward but a good conscience, while almost all America stood ranked
on the other side—I say again that it affects me as a sublime
spectacle. If he had had any journal advocating “_his cause_,” any
organ, as the phrase is, monotonously and wearisomely playing the same
old tune, and then passing round the hat, it would have been fatal to
his efficiency. If he had acted in any way so as to be let alone by the
government, he might have been suspected. It was the fact that the
tyrant must give place to him, or he to the tyrant, that distinguished
him from all the reformers of the day that I know.

It was his peculiar doctrine that a man has a perfect right to
interfere by force with the slaveholder, in order to rescue the slave.
I agree with him. They who are continually shocked by slavery have some
right to be shocked by the violent death of the slaveholder, but no
others. Such will be more shocked by his life than by his death. I
shall not be forward to think him mistaken in his method who quickest
succeeds to liberate the slave. I speak for the slave when I say, that
I prefer the philanthropy of Captain Brown to that philanthropy which
neither shoots me nor liberates me. 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 man may have other affairs to attend to. I do not wish to kill
nor to be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both these
things would be by me unavoidable. We preserve the so-called peace of
our 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 we defend ourselves and
our hen-roosts, and maintain slavery. I know that the mass of my
countrymen think that the only righteous use that can be made of
Sharp’s rifles and revolvers is to fight duels with them, when we are
insulted by other nations, or to hunt Indians, or shoot fugitive slaves
with them, or the like. I think that for once the Sharp’s rifles and
the revolvers were employed in a righteous cause. The tools were in the
hands of one who could use them.

The same indignation that is said to have cleared the temple once will
clear it again. The question is not about the weapon, but the spirit in
which you use it. No man has appeared in America, as yet, who loved his
fellow man so well, and treated him so tenderly. He lived for him. He
took up his life and he laid it down for him. What sort of violence is
that which is encouraged, not by soldiers, but by peaceable citizens,
not so much by laymen as by ministers of the gospel, not so much by the
fighting sects as by the Quakers, and not so much by Quaker men as by
Quaker women?

This event advertises me that there is such a fact as death—the
possibility of a man’s dying. It seems as if no man had ever died in
America before; for in order to die you must first have lived. I don’t
believe in the hearses, and palls, and funerals that they have had.
There was no death in the case, because there had been no life; they
merely rotted or sloughed off, pretty much as they had rotted or
sloughed along. No temple’s veil was rent, only a hole dug somewhere.
Let the dead bury their dead. The best of them fairly ran down like a
clock. Franklin,—Washington,—they were let off without dying; they were
merely missing one day. I hear a good many pretend that they are going
to die; or that they have died, for aught that I know. Nonsense! I’ll
defy them to do it. They haven’t got life enough in them. They’ll
deliquesce like fungi, and keep a hundred eulogists mopping the spot
where they left off. Only half a dozen or so have died since the world
began. Do you think that you are going to die, sir? No! there’s no hope
of you. You haven’t got your lesson yet. You’ve got to stay after
school. We make a needless ado about capital punishment,—taking lives,
when there is no life to take. _Memento mori!_ We don’t understand that
sublime sentence which some worthy got sculptured on his gravestone
once. We’ve interpreted it in a grovelling and snivelling sense; we’ve
wholly forgotten how to die.

But be sure you do die nevertheless. Do your work, and finish it. If
you know how to begin, you will know when to end.

These men, in teaching us how to die, have at the same time taught us
how to live. If this man’s acts and words do not create a revival, it
will be the severest possible satire on the acts and words that do. It
is the best news that America has ever heard. It has already quickened
the feeble pulse of the North, and infused more and more generous blood
into her veins and heart, than any number of years of what is called
commercial and political prosperity could. How many a man who was
lately contemplating suicide has now something to live for!

One writer says that Brown’s peculiar monomania made him to be “dreaded
by the Missourians as a supernatural being.” Sure enough, a hero in the
midst of us cowards is always so dreaded. He is just that thing. He
shows himself superior to nature. He has a spark of divinity in him.

     “Unless above himself he can
     Erect himself, how poor a thing is man!”

Newspaper editors argue also that it is a proof of his _insanity_ that
he thought he was appointed to do this work which he did,—that he did
not suspect himself for a moment! They talk as if it were impossible
that a man could be “divinely appointed” in these days to do any work
whatever; as if vows and religion were out of date as connected with
any man’s daily work; as if the agent to abolish Slavery could only be
somebody appointed by the President, or by some political party. They
talk as if a man’s death were a failure, and his continued life, be it
of whatever character, were a success.

When I reflect to what a cause this man devoted himself, and how
religiously, and then reflect to what cause his judges and all who
condemn him so angrily and fluently devote themselves, I see that they
are as far apart as the heavens and earth are asunder.

The amount of it is, our “_leading men_” are a harmless kind of folk,
and they know _well enough_ that _they_ were not divinely appointed,
but elected by the votes of their party.

Who is it whose safety requires that Captain Brown be hung? Is it
indispensable to any Northern man? Is there no resource but to cast
these men also to the Minotaur? If you do not wish it, say so
distinctly. While these things are being done, beauty stands veiled and
music is a screeching lie. Think of him,—of his rare qualities!—such a
man as it takes ages to make, and ages to understand; no mock hero, nor
the representative of any party. A man such as the sun may not rise
upon again in this benighted land. To whose making went the costliest
material, the finest adamant; sent to be the redeemer of those in
captivity. And the only use to which you can put him is to hang him at
the end of a rope! You who pretend to care for Christ crucified,
consider what you are about to do to him who offered himself to be the
savior of four millions of men.

Any man knows when he is justified, and all the wits in the world
cannot enlighten him on that point. The murderer always knows that he
is justly punished; but when a government takes the life of a man
without the consent of his conscience, it is an audacious government,
and is taking a step towards its own dissolution. Is it not possible
that an individual may be right and a government wrong? Are laws to be
enforced simply because they were made? or declared by any number of
men to be good, if they are _not_ good? Is there any necessity for a
man’s being a tool to perform a deed of which his better nature
disapproves? Is it the intention of law-makers that _good_ men shall be
hung ever? Are judges to interpret the law according to the letter, and
not the spirit? What right have _you_ to enter into a compact with
yourself that you _will_ do thus or so, against the light within you?
Is it for _you_ to _make up_ your mind,—to form any resolution
whatever,—and not accept the convictions that are forced upon you, and
which ever pass your understanding? I do not believe in lawyers, in
that mode of attacking or defending a man, because you descend to meet
the judge on his own ground, and, in cases of the highest importance,
it is of no consequence whether a man breaks a human law or not. Let
lawyers decide trivial cases. Business men may arrange that among
themselves. If they were the interpreters of the everlasting laws which
rightfully bind man, that would be another thing. A counterfeiting
law-factory, standing half in a slave land and half in a free! What
kind of laws for free men can you expect from that?

I am here to plead his cause with you. I plead not for his life, but
for his character,—his immortal life; and so it becomes your cause
wholly, and is not his in the least. Some eighteen hundred years ago
Christ was crucified; this morning, perchance, Captain Brown was hung.
These are the two ends of a chain which is not without its links. He is
not Old Brown any longer; he is an Angel of Light.

I see now that it was necessary that the bravest and humanest man in
all the country should be hung. Perhaps he saw it himself. I _almost
fear_ that I may yet hear of his deliverance, doubting if a prolonged
life, if _any_ life, can do as much good as his death.

“Misguided”! “Garrulous”! “Insane”! “Vindictive”! So ye write in your
easy-chairs, and thus he wounded responds from the floor of the Armory,
clear as a cloudless sky, true as the voice of nature is: “No man sent
me here; it was my own prompting and that of my Maker. I acknowledge no
master in human form.”

And in what a sweet and noble strain he proceeds, addressing his
captors, who stand over him: “I think, my friends, you are guilty of a
great wrong against God and humanity, and it would be perfectly right
for any one to interfere with you so far as to free those you willfully
and wickedly hold in bondage.”

And referring to his movement: “It is, in my opinion, the greatest
service a man can render to God.”

“I pity the poor in bondage that have none to help them; that is why I
am here; not to gratify any personal animosity, revenge, or vindictive
spirit. It is my sympathy with the oppressed and the wronged, that are
as good as you, and as precious in the sight of God.”

You don’t know your testament when you see it.

“I want you to understand that I respect the rights of the poorest and
weakest of colored people, oppressed by the slave power, just as much
as I do those of the most wealthy and powerful.”

“I wish to say, furthermore, that you had better, all you people at the
South, prepare yourselves for a settlement of that question, that must
come up for settlement sooner than you are prepared for it. The sooner
you are prepared the better. You may dispose of me very easily. I am
nearly disposed of now; but this question is still to be settled,—this
negro question, I mean; the end of that is not yet.”

I foresee the time when the painter will paint that scene, no longer
going to Rome for a subject; the poet will sing it; the historian
record it; and, with the Landing of the Pilgrims and the Declaration of
Independence, it will be the ornament of some future national gallery,
when at least the present form of Slavery shall be no more here. We
shall then be at liberty to weep for Captain Brown. Then, and not till
then, we will take our revenge.

*** End of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "A Plea for Captain John Brown
 - Read to the citizens of Concord, Massachusetts on Sunday evening, October thirtieth, eighteen fifty-nine" ***

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