Excerpts from H.D. Thoreau’s journals (late 1859)

This is part twelve of a collection of excerpts from the journals of Henry David Thoreau concerning law, government, man in society, war, economics, duty, and conscience. This part covers Thoreau’s journals (the John Brown entries). For other parts, see:

This collection of journal excerpts is also available as a book: The Price of Freedom: Political philosophy from Thoreau’s journals.

These are based on the journals transcribed by Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen in their The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau (). Footnotes are mine unless otherwise noted.

Contents:

When a government puts forth its strength on the side of injustice, as ours (esp. to-day) to maintain slavery & kill the liberators of the slave, what a merely brute, or worse than brute, force it is seen to be it reveals itself a mere brute, or worse! A demoniacal force. It is more manifest than ever that tyranny rules. I see this government to be effectually allied with France & Austria in oppressing mankind.1

One comment I heard of by the P.M. of this village on the news of Brown’s death: “He died as the fool dieth.” I should have answered this man, “He did not live as the fool liveth, & he died as he lived.”2

Treason! Where does such treason against an unjust take its rise? I cannot help thinking of you as you deserve — ye governments. Can you dry up the fountains of thought? High Treason — which is resistance to tyranny here below — has its origin in, & is first committed by, the power that makes & forever re-creates man. You When you have caught & hung all of 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 & rifled cannon point not. Can all the arts of the cannon founder tempt matter to turn against its Maker? Is the form in which he the founder casts it more essential than the constitution of it, & of himself?3

I see that the same journal that contains this pregnant news from Harper’s Ferry is chiefly filled, in parallel columns, with the reports of the political conventions that are now being held. But the descent is too steep to them; they should have been spared this contrast — printed in an Extra at least. To turn from the voices & deeds of earnest men to the cackling of political conventions! Office seekers and speech makers, who do not lay so much as lay an honest egg, but wear their breasts bare upon an egg of chalk. Their business is counting chickens or votes before they are hatched upon… Their great game is the game of straws — or rather that universal & aboriginal game of the platter, at which the Indians cried, Hub-bub. Some of them generals forsooth.4

It galls me to listen to the remarks of craven-hearted neighbors who speak disparagingly of Brown because he resorted to underst violence, resisted the government, threw his life away! (what way have they thrown their lives, pray?) — neighbors who would praise a man for attacking singly an ordinary band of thieves or murderers.5 Such minds are not equal to the occasion. They preserve the so called peace of the community by deeds of petty violence every day. Look at the police man’s baton billy & handcuffs! Look at the jail! Look at the gallows! Look at the chaplain of the regiment! We are hoping only to live safely on the outskirts of this provisional army. So they defend themselves & their our hen-roosts, and maintain slavery.6

There sits a tyrant holding fettered 4 millions of slaves. Here comes their heroic liberator. If he falls, will he not still live?7

The remarks of my neighbors upon Brown’s death & supposed fate, with very few exceptions, are, “He is undoubtedly insane,” “Died as the fool dieth,” “Served him right;” & so they proceed to live their sane, & wise, & 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 (that is quite the strongest pap that Young America is fed on); & so they nourish themselves for brave and patriotic deeds.8

What is the character of that calm which follows the success when the law & the slaveholder prevail?9

A government that pretends to be christian & crucifies a million Christs every day.10 Our foes are in our midst & all about us. Hardly a house but is divided against itself.11 For our foe is the all but universal woodenness (both of head & heart), the want of vitality, of man — the effect of vice — whence are begotten fear & superstition & bigotry & persecution & slavery of all kinds. Mere figure-heads upon a hulk, with livers in the place of hearts. A church that can never have done with excommunicating Christ while it exists.12 Our plains were over run the other day with a flock of adjutant generals the other day, as if a brood of cockerels had been let loose there, waiting to use their spears in what sort of glorious cause, I ask. What more probable in the future, what more certain heretofore, than grinding in the dust 400,000 of feeble & timid men, women, & children. The United States exclaims: “Here are 4 millions of human creatures which we have stolen. We have abolished among them the relations of father, mother, children, wife, & we mean to keep them in this condition. Will you, O Massachusetts, help us to do so?” & Massachusetts promptly answers, “Aye!” The cause is the worship of idols, which at length changes the worshipper into a stone image himself.

Everyman worships his ideal of power and goodness, or God, & 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 & his God.13

The momentary charge at Balaclava,14 in obedience to a blundering command (proving what a perfect machine the soldier is) — has been celebrated by a poet laureate; but the steady & for the most part successful charge against the legions of Slavery kept up for some years in Kansas by John Brown in obedience to an infinitely higher command, is unsung. As much more memorable than that, as an intelligent & conscientious man is superior to a machine.15

The brutish, thick-skinned herd, who do not know a man by sympathy, make haste home from their ballot boxes & churches to their Castles of Indolence — perchance to cherish their valor there with some nursery tale of knights & dragons.

A whole nation will for ages cling to the memory of its Arthur, or other imaginary hero — who perhaps never assailed its peculiar institution or sin, &, being imaginary, never failed — when they are themselves the very freebooters & craven knights whom he routed, while they forget their real heroes.

The publishers & the various boards of wooden heads can afford to reprint that story of Putnam’s — you might open the district schools with the reading of it — because there is nothing about slavery or the church in it; unless it occurs to the reader that the pastors are wolves in sheep’s clothing.16

I have seen no hearty approbation for this man in any abolition journal; as if it were not consistent with their policy to express it, or maybe they did not feel it. & as for the herd of newspapers, I do not chance to know one in the world country that will deliberately print anything that will ultimately & permanently reduce the number of their its subscribers. They do not believe it would be expedient. How then can they print truth? If we do not say pleasant things, they argue, no body will attend to us. & so they are like some auctioneers, they who sing an obscene song in order to draw a crowd around them.17

Another neighbor asks, yankee-like, “What will he gain by it?” as if he expected to fill his pockets by this enterprise. They have 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 & a vote of thanks, it must be a failure.18

Such do not know that like the seed is the fruit, & that, in the moral world, when good seed is planted, good fruit is inevitable & does not depend on our watering & 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 & vitality that it does not ask our leave to germinate.19

Some 1800 years ago Christ was crucified; this morning (perhaps) John Brown was hung. These are the two ends of a chain which, I rejoice to know, is not without its links.20

The Republican editors, obliged to get their sentences ready for the morning edition — & their dinner ready before afternoon — speak of these men, not in a tone of admiration for their disinterestedness & heroism, not of sorrow even for their fate, but calling them “mistaken men,” “insane,” or “crazed.” Did it ever occur to you what a sane set of editors we are blessed with! — not “mistaken men” — who know very well on which side their bread is buttered!21

The noble Republican Party is in haste to exculpate itself from all sympathy with these “misguided men.” Even the very men who would rejoice if he had succeeded, though in spite of all odds, are estranged from & deny him because he failed.

A “dangerous man”! All the worthies & martyrs were such dangerous men. We wish that these editors & ministers were a little more Dangerous22

It is mentioned against him & as an evidence of his insanity, that he was “[It was always conceded to him 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.” (Boston Journal, .)23

If Christ should appear on earth he would on all hands be denounced as a mistaken, misguided man, insane & crazed.

The Liberator calls it “a misguided, wild, & apparently insane … effort.”24

“The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions,” which have just met in Philadelphia, did not dare as a body to protest even against the foreign slave trade, which even many domestic slave traders holders traders are ready to do. & I hear of northern men, women, & children by families buying a “life-membership” in this society. A life-membership in the grave! You can get buried cheaper than that.25

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; & here he was is called insane by all who cannot could not appreciate such magnanimity. He needed no babbling lawyer, making false issues to defend him. He was more than a match for all judges that American voters, or office-holders of whatever grade, can appoint create. He could not have been tried by a jury of his peers, because his peers did do not exist.

When a man stands up serenely against the condemnation & vengeance of mankind, rising above them literally by a whole body — though he were a slave, though he were a freeman, 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 Garrisons, Liberators, ye Tribunes, Republicans, ye Buchanans, ye politicians, Attorney Generals — & we become criminal in comparison. Do yourselves the honor to recognize him. He needs none of your respect. What though he did not belong to your clique!26

I do not believe in erecting statues to those who still live in our minds & hearts, whose bones have not yet crumbled in the earth around us, but if we are to erect I would rather see the statue of John Brown in the Massachusetts’ state house yard than that of any other man whom I know.27

What a contrast, when we turn to that political party which is so anxiously shaking its skirts clean of him & his friends, & looking round for some available slaveholder to be their its candidate!28 At least for some one who will execute the fugitive slave law & all those other laws which he took up arms to annul.

The evil is not merely a stagnation of blood, but a stagnation of Spirit. Of course, the mass of men, even the well disposed but sluggish souls who are ready to abet when their conscience or sympathies are reached, cannot conceive of a man who is actuated by higher motives than they are. Accordingly they pronounce him insane, for they know that they would never act as he does as long as they are themselves…29 This most hypocritical & diabolical government looks up from its seat upon 4 millions of gasping slaves & inquires with an assumption of innocence, “What do you assault me for? Am I not an honest man?” “WhAh, sir, but your seat — your footstool — my father & mother — get off — get off!” But there sits the Incubus with all his weight, & stretching ever more & more, & for all reply answers, “Why won’t you cease agitation upon this subject?”30

The only government that I recognize is that power that establishes justice in the land — never that which establishes injustice.31 Suppose that there is a private company in Massachusetts that out of its own purse & magnanimity saves all the fugitive slaves that run to us, and protects our colored fellow citizens, & leaves the other work to the government, so called. Is not that government fast losing its occupation & becoming contemptible to mankind? If private men are obliged to perform the offices of government, to protect the weak & dispense justice, then the government becomes only a hired man or clerk, to do perform menial or indifferent things services. Of course, that is but the shadow of a government whose existence necessitates a Vigilance Committee. But such is the character of our northern states generally; each has its Vigilance Committee. And, to a certain extent, these crazy governments recognize & 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.”

Such a government is losing its power & respectability as surely as water runs out of a leaky vessel & is held by one that can contain it.32


Thoreau reworked much of this journal entry into A Plea for Captain John Brown. See Thoreau and his Audience: “A Plea for Captain John Brown” by Robert C. Albrecht (American Literature, ) for an interesting look into this process.

  1. See Austro-Sardinian War. Thoreau reworked this paragraph for A Plea for Captain John Brown.
  2. At this point, it was widely believed that John Brown had died during the raid he led on the armory Harpers Ferry. Thoreau used some of this paragraph in A Plea for Captain John Brown.
  3. Thoreau used this paragraph in A Plea for Captain John Brown.
  4. Thoreau reworked this paragraph for A Plea for Captain John Brown.
  5. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown.
  6. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown.
  7. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown.
  8. Plutarch & Israel Putnam. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown.
  9. Thoreau used this paragraph in A Plea for Captain John Brown.
  10. Thoreau used this paragraph in A Plea for Captain John Brown.
  11. Perhaps an allusion to Lincoln’s “House Divided” Speech
  12. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown.
  13. Thoreau reworked these two paragraphs for A Plea for Captain John Brown.
  14. See Charge of the Light Brigade and the poem of that name.
  15. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown.
  16. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown.
  17. Thoreau reworked this in A Plea for Captain John Brown, specifically mentioning William Garrison’s The Liberator, which was timid and reserved in its praise of Brown.
  18. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown.
  19. Thoreau used this in A Plea for Captain John Brown.
  20. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown.
  21. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown.
  22. Thoreau expressed similar sentiments in A Plea for Captain John Brown.
  23. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown.
  24. Thoreau included this in A Plea for Captain John Brown
  25. American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown.
  26. William Lloyd Garrison & James Buchanan. Thoreau reworked these two paragraphs for A Plea for Captain John Brown.
  27. Thoreau included this in A Plea for Captain John Brown
  28. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  29. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  30. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  31. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  32. Vigilance Committee. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown

Insane! A father & 7 sons, & several more men besides — as many, at least, as 12 disciples — all struck with insanity at once; while the same tyrant holds with a firmer gripe than ever his 4 millions of slaves, and a thousand sane editors, his abettors, are saving their country & their bread & butter bacon!

Just as insane were their efforts in Kansas. Ask the tyrant who is his most dangerous foe, the sane man or the insane.1

If some Capt. Ingraham threatens to fire into an Austrian vessel, we clap our hands all along the shore. It won’t hit us; it won’t disturb our tyranny. But let a far braver than he attack the Austria within us — we turn, we actually fire those same guns upon him, and cry, “insane.”2

The government, its salary being insured, withdraws into the back shop, taking the Constitution with it, as farmers in the winter contrive to turn a penny by following the coopering business.3 When the contributor reporter to the Herald (!) reports the conversation ofverbatim,” he does not know of what undying words he is made the reporter vehicle.4

Read his admirable answers to Mason & others.5 How they are dwarfed & 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.6 How ineffectual their speech & action! & what a void their silence!7 I speak to the stupid & timid chattels of the north, pretending to read history & their bibles, desecrating every house and every day they breathe in!8

True, like the clods of the valley, they are incapable of perceiving the light, but I would fain arouse them by any stimulus to an intelligent life.

Throughout the land, they not of equal magnanimity talk of vengeance & insanity.

Away with your broad & flat churches, & your tall narrow & tall churches. Take a step forward, bestir yourselves, & invent a new style of out-houses. Invent a salt that will save you & defend our nostrils.9

The slave ship is on her way, crowded with its dying hundreds — a small crew of slave holders is smothering 4 millions under the hatches — & yet the politician asserts that the only proper way by which deliverance is to be obtained is by “the quiet diffusion of sentiments of humanity,”10 without any “outbreak”! And in the same breath they tell us that all is quiet now at Harper’s Ferry. What is that that I hear cast overboard! The bodies of the dead, who have found deliverance. That is the way we are diffusing humanity & all its sentiments with it.11

Prominent & influential editors, accustomed to deal with politicians, or 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, if this is of any importance, the time will come when they will begin to see him as he was.

They have got to conceive of a man of ideas & of principle, hard as it may be for them, & not a politician or a Mohawk 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.12

I know that there have been a few heroes in the land, but no man has ever stood up in America for the dignity of human nature so devotedly, persistently, & so effectively as this man.13 Ye need not trouble yourselves, Republican or any other Party, to wash your skirts of him. No intelligent person will ever be convinced that he was any creature of yours. He went and came, as he informs us, “under the auspices of John Brown, & nobody else.”14

Ethan Allen & Stark, though worthy soldiers in their day, were rangers in a far lower field & in a less important cause.15

Insane! Do the thousands who knew him best, who have rejoiced at his deeds in Kansas and who have afforded him material aid, think him insane?16

It costs us nothing to be just. It enriches us infinitely to recognize greater qualities than we possess in another. We can at least express our sympathy with, & admiration for, John Brown & his companions, & that is what I now propose to do.17

What has Massachusetts & the north sent a few sane Senators to Congress for, of late years? — to declare with effect what kind of sentiments?

All their speeches put together & boiled down — and prob. they themselves will allow it — do not match for direct simple & manly directness, force & effectiveness, the few casual remarks of insane John Brown, on the floor of the Harper’s Ferry Engine house. To be sure, he was not our representative. He is 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 is it. No complements found to the oppressor. Truth is his inspirer, & earnestness his critic & the polisher of his sentences. He could afford to lose his Sharps rifles while he retained his faculty of speech — a Sharpes rifle of infinitely surer & longer range.18

“But he won’t gain anything by it.” Well, no! I don’t suppose he could get 4 & 6 pence a day for being hung, take the year round. But then he stands a chance to save a considerable part of his soul — & such a soul! — when you do not. No doubt you can get more in the 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.19

So ye write in your easy chairs, & thus he, wounded, responds from the floor of the Armory of the Harper’s Ferry engine house: “No man sent me here; it was my own prompting and that of my Maker. I acknowledge no master in human form.”20 & in what a sweet, & noble kindly strain he proceeds, addressing those who held him prisoner: “I think, my friends, you are guilty of a great wrong against God & humanity… & it would be perfectly right for any one to interfere with you so far as to free those you willfully & wickedly hold in bondage.”21

& referring to his movement: “It is, in my opinion, the greatest service a man can render to God!”22

& “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 & the wronged, that are as good as you, and as precious in the sight of God.”23 You don’t know your Testament when you see it. “I want you to understand that I respect the rights of the poorest & weakest of colored people, oppressed by the slave peop system, just as much as I do those of the most wealthy and powerful.”24

Thus the insane man preaches, while the representatives of so called Christians (I refer to the Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions),25 who pretend to be interested in the heathen, have not so much as protest against the foreign slave trade!

“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 your 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 questioned is still to be settled — this negro question, I mean; the end of that is not yet.”26

You will perceive that not a single forcible or noticeable word is uttered by his questioners; they stand there the helpless tools in this great work. It was no human power that gathered them about this preacher.27

What should we think of the Oriental C’adi behind whom worked in secret a vigilance committee?28 What shall we think of a government to which all the truly brave & just men in the land are enemies, standing between it & those whom it oppresses?29 Do not we Protestants know the likeness of Luther, Fox, Bunyan, when we see it?30 Shall we still be put to bed with our story books, not knowing day from night?

We talk about a representative government, but what a monster of a government is that where the noblest faculties of the mind, & the whole heart, are not represented. A semi-human tiger or ox stalking over the earth, with its heart taken out & the top of its brain shot away.31

In California & Oregon, if not nearer home, it is common to treat men exactly like deer which are hunted, & I read from time to time in Christian newspapers how many “bucks,” that is, Indian men, their sportsmen have killed.

“Who is here so base, that would be a bondman? Who is here so vile, that will not love his country? If any, speak; for him I have offended. I pause for a reply.”

We dream of other foreign countries, of other times & races of men — placing them at a distance in history or space — but let some significant event like the present occur in our midst, & we discover, often, this distance & this strangeness between us & our nearest neighbors. They are our Austrias & Chinas & South Sea Islands. Our crowded society becomes well spaced all at once, clean & handsome to the eye — a city of magnificent distances. We discover why it was that we never got beyond compliments & surfaces with them before. We become aware of as many versts32 between us & them as there are between a wandering Tartar or Pawnee & a Chinese or American 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.33

I do not complain of any tactics that are effective of good, whether one wields the quill or the sword, but I shall not think him mistaken who quickest succeeds to liberate the slave.34 I will judge of the tactics by the fruits.

It is the difference of constitution — of intelligence & Faith — & not streams & mountains, that make the true & impassable boundaries between individuals & states. None but the like minded can have full power to treat with us come plenipotentiary to our court.35

They who are continually shocked by slavery have some right to be shocked by the violent death (as well as by the life) of the slaveholder, but no others. Such will be more shocked by his life than by his death.35


Thoreau reworked much of this journal entry into A Plea for Captain John Brown. See Thoreau and his Audience: “A Plea for Captain John Brown” by Robert C. Albrecht (American Literature, ) for an interesting look into this process.

  1. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  2. See Duncan Ingraham Ingraham threatened to open fire on an Austrian ship where a Hungarian, Martin Koszta, who was in the process of applying for American citizenship, had been confined; this eventually led to Koszta’s release. The U.S. Congress awarded Ingraham a medal for his initiative.
  3. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  4. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  5. See John Brown’s Interview in the Charlestown (or Charles Town) Prison
  6. Pilate & Gesler & the Inquisition
  7. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  8. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  9. Thoreau used this in A Plea for Captain John Brown. Here he inserts a note referring to a section of the entry.
  10. This quote comes Horace Greeley, in an editorial reacting to the Harper’s Ferry raid from Greeley’s New York Tribune, a newspaper representing the views of the new Republican Party. Here he inserts a note referring to a section of the entry.
  11. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  12. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  13. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  14. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  15. Ethan Allen & John Stark. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  16. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown. He makes a note here to see further down in the day’s entry.
  17. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  18. Sharpe’s rifles. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  19. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  20. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  21. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  22. Thoreau used this in A Plea for Captain John Brown
  23. Thoreau used this in A Plea for Captain John Brown
  24. Thoreau used this in A Plea for Captain John Brown
  25. American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions
  26. Thoreau used this in A Plea for Captain John Brown
  27. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  28. Oriental Cadi & Vigilance Committee. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  29. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  30. Martin Luther, George Fox, John Bunyan
  31. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  32. versts
  33. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  34. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  35. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  36. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown

One would say that the modern Christian was a man who had consented to say all the prayers in their liturgy, provided you would let him go straight to bed & sleep quietly afterward. All his prayers begin with “Now I lay me down to sleep.” He has consented to perform certain old established charities, too, after a fashion, but he doesn’t wish to hear of any new fangled ones; he doesn’t want to have any codicils added to the contract, to fit it to the present time in unexpected demands made on him after he has said his prayers. He shows the whites of his eyes on the sabbath & the blacks all the rest of the week.1

It was evidently far from being a wild and desperate & insane attempt. It was a well matured plan.2

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.3 He would have no rowdy or swaggerer, no profane swearer, for, as he said, he always found these men to fail at last. He would have only men of principle, & they are few.4 When it was observed that if he had had a chaplain his would have been a perfect Cromwellian company, he said that he would have had a chaplain if he could find one who could perform that service suitably.5

Each one who there laid down his life for the poor & oppressed was thus a picked man, culled out of many thousands if not millions; men a man of principle, of rare courage & of devoted humanity; ready to lay down their lives at any moment for the weak & enslaved.

It may be doubted if there were any more their equals in all the land country, for their leader scoured the land far & wide, seeking to swell his troop.

These alone stood forward, prepared to step between the oppressor & the oppressed. Surely they were the very best men you could select to be hung. That was the greatest compliment this country could pay them. They were ripe for the her gallows.6

I regard this event as a touchstone designed to bring out with glaring distinctness the character of this government.7

A man of Spartan habits, who at 60 has scruples about his diet at your table, must eat sparingly & fare hard, as becomes a soldier, he says, & one who is ever fitting himself for difficult enterprises a life of exposure & hardship.8

A man of rare common sense & directness of speech — or, of action — a transcendentalist above all, a man of ideas & principles — that was what distinguished him. Of unwavering purposes, not to be dissuaded but by an experience & wisdom greater than his own. Not yielding to a whim or lif transient impulse, but carrying out the purpose of a life.9

He did not go to the college called Harvard (good old institution as she is — alma mater) — 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) & having taken many degrees, he finally commenced the public practice of Humanity, in Kansas, as you all know.10 He has become a complete man. Such were his humanities — not any study of grammar. I don’t believe he would stop to fix a Greek accent if he saw a mark slanting the wrong way. He would have left a Greek accent aslant & righted up a falling man.

I see now that it was necessary that the bravest & humanest man in all the country should be hung — perhaps he saw it himself.11 If any leniency were shown him, any compromise made with him, any treating with him at all, by the government, he might be suspected.12

We needed to be thus assisted to see our government by the light of history. It needed to see itself.13

Compare the platform of any or all of the political parties — which deem themselves sane — with the platform on which he lay & uttered these things!!

I foresee the sce the time when the painter will paint that scene, the poet will sing it, the historian record it, & with the Landing of the Pilgrims & the Declaration of Independence, it will be the ornament of some future national gallery, when at least the present form of slavery is shall be no more. We shall then be excused if we at liberty to weep for Capt. John Brown.

Then & not till then we will have take our revenge.14 I rejoice that I live in this age, that I was his contemporary.15

When I consider the spectacle of himself & his six sons & his son in law (not to enumerate the others) enlisted for this fight, proceeding coolly, reverently, humanely to work, while almost all America stood ranked on the other side, I say again that it affects me as a sublime spectacle.

For months if not years, sleeping & waking upon it, summering & wintering the thought, without expecting any reward but a good conscience & the gratitude of those made free.

If he had had any journal advocating “his cause,” it would have been fatal to his efficiency — any “organ,” as the phrase is, monotonously & wearisomely playing that same old tune, & then passing round the hat [& all of political parties 6 v bottom]. If he had acted in any way so as to gain the respect or toleration of (or 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 it the Tyrant, that distinguished him from all other reformers of the day that I know of the day.16

For once the Sharpes’ rifles & the revolver were employed in a righteous cause. The tools were in the hands of one who could use them.

I know that the mass of my neighbors think that the only righteous use that can be made of them is to fight duels with them when we are insulted by other nations, or hunt Indians, or shoot fugitive slaves with them.17

Talk of political parties & their platforms. He could not have any platform but that of the Harper’s Ferry Engine house.

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 find myself most naturally thinking & speaking of him as physically dead.18

The same indignation that 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 & treated them him so tenderly. He lived for him; he took up his life & he laid it down for him.19

Though you may not approve of his methods or his principles, cease to call names, to cry mad dog. The method is nothing; the spirit is all in all. It is the deed, the devotion, the soul of their man. For you this is at present a question of magnanimity. If the schoolboy, forgetting himself, rushed to the rescue of his drowning playmate, what though he knock down some body on his way, what though he does not go to the same church with you, or his father vote belong to the same political party! Would you not like to claim kindred with him in this, though in no other thing he is like, or likely, to you?20

Heroes have fought well on their stumps when their legs were shot off, but I never heard of any good done by a government that had no heart, or at least had not brains of a very high order.21

This is not the time to hear what Tom, Dick, or Harry is doing, or in such a case would have done. We shall have time enough to find that out in (if we do not know it already). We ask you to the extent of your ability to appreciate this man & his deed. In spite of the difference between you & him. Who cares whether he belonged to your clique or party or sect or not?

A man does a brave & humane deed, & at once, on all sides, we hear people & parties declaring: “I did not do it, nor countenance him to do it, in any conceivable way. It can’t fairly be inferred from my past career.” Now, I am not interested to hear you define your position. I don’t know that I ever was, or ever shall be. I am not now, at any rate: I think it is mere egotism, & impertinent.22

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 & men generally speak of this event, as if an ordinary malefactor, though one of unusual pluck — as the Governor of Virginia, using the language of the cockpit, says: “The gamest man he ever saw” — had been caught & were about to be hung. He was not dreaming of his foes when the governor thought he looked so brave.23

Think of him — of his rare qualities! — such a man as it takes ages to make, and ages to understand — no mock hero, not the representative of any party. A man such as the sun may never rise upon again in this benighted land — to whose making went the costliest material, the finest adamant, the purest gold — sent to be the redeemer of those in captivity — & the only use to which you can put him, after mature deliberation, is to hang him at the end of a rope.

I need not describe him — he has stood where I now stand — you have all seen him.

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 4 millions of men!24

I wish to correct the tone & some of the statements of the news papers respecting the life & character & last action of John Brown.25 The news papers seem to ignore, or perhaps are really ignorant of the fact, that there are at least as many as one or 2 individuals to a town throughout the North who think much as I do about him & his enterprise. I do not hesitate to assert that they are an important and growing party.26

I speak for the slave when I say that I prefer the philanthropy of John Brown to that philanthropy which neither shoots me nor liberates me. His peculiar doctrine that a man has a perfect right…27

Talk of failure and throwing his life away — he is not dead yet in any sense, & if he were dead he would still live. Were the battles of Black Jack & Ossawatomie & a hundred many encounters of less note useless & a failure?28 I think that it was he more than any other who made Kansas as free as she is, who taught the slaveholder that it was not safe for him to carry his slaves thither.29 None of the political parties have ever accomplished anything of the sort. & Was it a failure to he who taught Missouri that it was not profitable to hold slaves in that neighborhood. Was it a failure to walk off deliver from bondage a dozen 13 human beings & walk off with them by broad day-light, for weeks if not months, at a leisurely pace, through one state after another for half the length of the north, through sickness, conspicuous to all parties, with a price set upon his head, going into a court room on his way & telling what he had done?30 To face singly in his work of righteousness the whole power of this unrighteous government, & successfully too. Who has gained the most ground within 5 years — Brown or the Slave Power? And this, not because the government was lenient, but because none of its menials dared to touch him.31 They counted the cost & concluded that a thousand dollars was not enough.

There are a few — there are more than you suppose — who cannot help thinking of that man now in the clutches of the enraged slaveholder.

He is one of that class of whom we hear a great deal, but, for the most part, see nothing at all — the Puritans. It is 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 & settled in New England. They were a class that did something else than celebrate their forefathers day time & eat parched corn in remembrance of their ancestors. They were neither Democrats nor Republicans. They were men of simple habits, straightforward, prayerful; not thinking much of rulers who did not fear God, not making many compromises, or seeking after available candidates.32

He is of the same age with the century. He is what is called a thin & wiry looking man, being composed of nerves instead of flesh, some 5 ft 9 or 10 inches high, with a sharp eye, and the last time he was hereabouts33 wore a long white beard; with a very soldier-like bearing.

I understand his grandfather was an officer in the revolution; that he himself was born in Connecticut, but early went to Ohio with his father. His father was a contractor who furnished beef to the army there in the last war,34 and young Brown, accompanying his father to the camp & assisting him in his employment, saw considerable of military life — more perhaps than if he had been a soldier, for he was sometimes present at the councils of the officers. He saw enough at any rate to disgust him with war & excite in him a great abhorrence of it; so much so that, though he was offered some petty office in the army, he not only refused it, but also refused to train when he was fined warned, & was fined for it. He was then about eighteen.

He said that most people few persons had any conception of the cost, even the pecuniary cost, of firing a single bullet in war.

Above all, he learned by experience how armies were collected, supplied, & maintained in the field for a length of time — a work which required at least as much experience & skill as to lead them in battle.

And he then resolved that he would never have anything to do with war, unless it were a war for liberty & then he shoud feel it his duty to give.35 I should say that he was an old fashioned man in his respect for the Constitution & the Declaration of Independence, and his faith in the permanence of this Union. Slavery he saw to be wholly opposed to all of these, & he was its determined foe.36

When the troubles first broke out in Kansas, 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 if the troubles should increase & there should be need of him, he should follow to assist them with his hand & counsel.37 It was not long before he felt it to be his duty to give the free people state men of Kansas, who had no leader of experience, the benefit of what experience he had had.

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 firelocks & other weapons he could collect, openly drove an ox-cart through Missouri, with his surveyors compass exposed in it — & passing for a simple surveyor, who by his profession must be neutral, he met with no resistance & in the course of his leisurely journey became thoroughly acquainted with the plans of the border ruffians.

For some time after his arrival he pursued, before he was known, similar tactics. When, for instance, he saw a knot of the Ruffians on the prairie, discussing, of course, the single topic that then occupied their minds, he would take his compass & one of his sons, & perhaps proceed to run an imaginary line which passed — he surveyed it right through the very spot on which that conclave had assembled, and then of course when he came up to them he would have some talk with them, learn their news & their plans perfectly, & when he had learned all they had to impart, he would resume his surveying, & run on his line till he was out of sight.38 This is enough to show that his plans were not crazily laid.

For a good part of his life he was a surveyor, part of the time, I think, in Illinois. At one time he was engaged in wool-growing, and went to Europe once as the agent of some wool growers; & there too he carried his common sense with him. I have been told for instance that he made such a remark as this — that he saw why the soil of England was so rich & that of Germany (or part of it at least) so exhausted, & he thought of writing to some of the crowned heads about it. It was because in England the peasantry lived on the soil which they cultivated, while in Germany they were gathered into villages at night. It would be worth the while to have collected all the remarks of such a traveller.39

Of course, he is not so foolish as to ask or expect any favors from the government, nor probably will his friends for him.

No wonder it struck the politicians & preachers generally very forcibly that either he was insane or they, & they, being the painters, or judges, this time, decided, naturally enough, that it must be he. Such, however, as far as I learn, has not been, nor is likely to be, the decision of those who have recently stood face to face to him & who are now about to hang him. They have not condescended to such insult. The parties who have really dealt with him — the slave-holders & their slaves — are not likely sincerely to question his sanity, but rather political or religious parties, who stand further off from a living man.

I almost fear to hear of his deliverance, doubting if a prolonged life — if any life — can do as much good as his death.40

No doubt many of you have seen the little manuscript book which he carried about him during the Kansas troubles — his “orderly book” as I think he called it — containing the names of his small company, a score at most & half of them his own family, & the rules which bound them together — There was one a contract which many of them have sealed with their blood.41 There was one rule, as I remember, which prohibited prophane swearing in his camp.42

I believe that he never was able to find more than a score or so of recruits whom he would accept, and only 10 or a dozen in whom he had perfect faith.43

Perhaps anxious politicians may prove that only 17 white men & 5 negroes were concerned in this enterprise, but their anxiety to prove this shows might suggest to themselves that all is not told. Why do you they still dodge the truth? Do they not realize why they are so anxious? It is because of a dim consciousness of the fact, which they do not distinctly face, that at least five millions of the inhabitants of the United States would h who were not pining to attempt, would have rejoiced if it had succeeded. They at most only criticise the tactics.44

He said that if any man offered himself to be a soldier under him who was forward to tell what he wou could or would do if he could only get sight of the enemy, he had but little confidence in him.45

One writer says, I know not with what motive, that it is a fact “illustrative of Brown’s insanity, that he has charts of nearly all the great battle-fields of Europe.” I fear that his collection is not to be compared for completeness with that which this government possesses, however his sanity may be compared with its, though it did not make them itself, but there are 2 or 3 fields in Kansas of which he did not need to make any chart.

For my own part At any rate, I do not think it is sane for one to spend one’s whole life talking or writing about this matter, & I have not done so. I A man may have other affairs to attend to.46

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 toward its own dissolution. Is it not possible that an individual may be right & a government wrong? Are laws to be enforced simply because they were made, & declared by any number of men to be good, ap when they are not good? Is there any necessity for a man’s being a tool to perform a deed of which he his higher 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, or and not the spirit?47 Who is it whose safety requires that Capt. Brown be hung? Is it indispensable to any northern man? If you do not wish it, say so distinctly.48 Is there no resource but to cast these men also to the Minotaur? While these things are being done beauty stands veiled & music is a screeching lie. What right have you to enter into a compact with yourself (even) that you will do thus or so, against your better nature the light within you? Is it for you to make up your mind — to mold up form any resolution whatever — & not accept the convictions that are forced upon you, & which even pass your understanding?

Any man knows when he is justified, & not all the wits in the world can enlighten him on that point.

I do not believe in lawyers — in that mode of defending or attacking a man — because you descend to meet the judge on his own ground, & 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. It is comparatively a different matter. If lawyers they were interpreters of the everlasting laws which rightfully bind man, that would be another thing.49

Just as we are doing away with duelling & fighting one another with pistols, I think that we may in course of time do away with fighting one another with lawyers. Such improvements are not quite altogether unheard of. A counterfeiting law-factory, standing half in a slave land & half in a free — what kind of laws for freemen can you expect from that?50 Substantial justice? What justice!? There’s nothing substantial about it, but the Judge’s salary & the lawyer’s fee.51

The thought of that man’s position & probable fate is spoiling many a man’s day here at the north for other thinking. We do not think of buying any crape this time.52

It seems that one of his abettors had lived there for years, & Brown took all his measures deliberately. The country was mt-ous, & it was given out that he was they were concerned in mining operations, & to play this part required very little invention on his part, such had been his previous pursuits & habits. Having been a surveyor, he would not make a strange figure in the fields & woods; this, too, would account for quantities of spades & pick-axes, & strangers from time to time visiting & conferring with him in a somewhat mysterious manner.

I have no respect for the judgement of any man who can read the report of that conversation & still call the principal insane. It has the ring of a saner sanity than an ordinary discipline & habits of life — than an ordinary organization, secures. 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.”53

He never I noticed that he did not overstated anything, but spoke within bounds. I remember particularly how, in his speech here, he referred to what his family had suffered in Kansas, never giving the least vent to his pent up fire. It was a volcano with an ordinary chimney escape 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 & meaning, “They had a perfect right to be hung.”54

I would fain do my best part to correct, &c, little as I know of him.55

But I believe, without having any outward evidence, that many have already silently retracted their words.56

They (Allen & Stark) may have possessed some of his indignation & courage & love of liberty, to face their country’s foes, but they had not the rare qualities — the peculiar courage & self reliance — which could enable them to face their country itself, & all mankind, in behalf of the oppressed.57

He could give you information on various subjects, for he had travelled widely & observed closely. He said that the Indians of with whom he dealt in Kansas were perhaps the richest people in a pecuniary sense on the earth. The money that this government annually paid them gave more so much to each member of the community. They were, moreover, more intelligent than the mass of Border ruffians, or that class of the inhabitants of Missouri.

Much of the time of late years he has had to skulk in the swamps of Kansas with a price set upon his head, suffering from sickness & poverty & exposure, befriended only by Indians & few White-men. When surprise was expressed that he was not taken, he accounted for it by saying that it was perfectly well understood that he would not be taken alive. He would even show himself openly in towns which were half composed of border ruffians, and transact some business, without delaying long, & yet nobody attempted to arrest, because, as he said, as a small party did not like to undertake it, & a large one could not be got together in season.”58

I thought the same of his speech which I heard some years ago — that he was not in the least a rhetorician, was not talking to Buncombe or his constituents anywhere, who had no need to invent anything, but to tell the simple truth & communicate his own resolutions. Therefore he appeared inpecomparably strong, & eloquence in Congress or elsewhere was seemed to me at a discount. It was like the speeches of Cromwell compared with those of an ordinary king.59

They have tried a long time, they have hung a good many, but never found the right one before.60

Dispersing the sentiments of humanity — as if they were ever found unaccompanied by its deeds — as if you could disperse them, all finished to order, as easily as water with a watering pot, & found out they were good only to lay the dust with!61

A few ministers are doing their duty in New York. This use of the word “insane” has got to be a mere trope.62

News-paper editors 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 a man’s death were a failure & his continued life, be it of whatever character, were a success. They 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!63

If they do not mean this, then they do not speak the truth & say what they mean. They are simply at their old tricks still.64

He said truly that the reason why such greatly superior numbers quailed before him with a handful of men only was, as some of his prisoners stated, that the former lacked a cause — a kind of armor which he & his party never lacked. He said that when the time arrived, even few men were found willing to lay down their lives in defense of what they knew to be wrong. They did not like that this should be their last act in this world.65

As if the agent to abolish slavery could only be somebody “appointed” by the President or some political party.66

All think his insanity — monomania, says one — &c made him to be “dreaded by the Missourians as a super natural being.” My dear sir 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 doth erect himself
 how poor a thing is man!”67

I have read all the newspapers I could get within a week, & I do not remember in them a single expression of sympathy for these men.68

Most of them decided not to print the full report of Brown’s words in the Armory “to the exclusion of other matter.”69 Why they have matterated, and there is no safety for them but in excluding the dead part & giving place to the living and healthy. Exclude from them these reports of political & religious conventions — & publish the words of a living man. But I object not so much to what they have not done, as to what they have done.70

He was by descent & birth a New England farmer, a man of great common sense, deliberate & practical as that class, & tenfold more so. He was like the best of those who stood at our bridge once, on Lexington Common & on Bunker Hill, only he was firmer & higher principled than any that I chanced to have heard of as there. It was no Abolition lecturer that converted him.71

A Western paper 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 citizens’ dress only.72 It would appear from published letters that the women of the land are where the men should be. What sort of violence is that which is encouraged not by soldiers but by citizens, not so much by lay men as by ministers of the gospel, not so much by the fighting sects as by Quakers, and not so much by Quaker men as Quaker women!73 The enemy may well Quake at the thought of it. Is not that a righteous war where the best are thus opposed to the worst?

Gov Wise speaks far more justly & admiringly of him than any northern editor that I have heard of. “They are themselves mistaken who take him to be madman.… He is cool, collected, & 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 & garrulous (!!), but firm, truthful, & intelligent. His men, too, who survive, are like him.” … “Col Washington says that he was the coolest & firmest man he ever saw in defying danger & death. With one son dead by his side, & another shot through, he felt the pulse of his dying son with one hand, & held his rifle with the other, and commanded his men with the utmost composure, encouraging them to be firm, & to sell their lives as dear as they could. Of the 3 white prisoners, Brown, Stephens, & Coppic, it was hard to say which was most firm.”74 Almost the first northern men whom the slave holder has learned to respect.

There is another man with whom the south and a good part of the north heartily sympathize. His name is Walker.75

I subscribed a trifle when he was here 3 years ago. I had so much confidence in the man — that he would do right — but it would seem that he had not confidence enough in me, nor in anybody else that I know, to communicate his plans to me or them us.

I do not wish to kill or to be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both of these things would be by me unavoidable.76 In extremities I could even be killed.

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 & palls & 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, as if the death being not hard. No temple’s veil was rent, only a hole dug somewhere. The best of them fairly ran down like a clock. [Franklin, Washington, had not but one…] 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, & keep a hundred eulogists mopping the spot where they left off. Only half a dozen or so have died since the world began. Memento mori! they don’t understand that sublime sentence which some worthy had got sculptured on his hea grave stone once. They’ve understood respected it in a groveling & sniveling sense. They’ve wholly forgotten how to die. But be sure you die. Do your work & finish your work it & if you know how to begin your work, [know] when to leave off. Men make a needless ado about taking lives — capital punishment. Where is there any life to take? You don’t know what it means to let the dead bury the dead.77

Beauty stands veiled the while & music is a screeching lie.78

These men, in teaching us how to die, have at the same time taught us how to live.

If this man’s acts & words do not create a revival, it will be the severest possible satire on the deeds acts & words of those who are said to have effected that do such things.79

Do you think you have died, or are going to die, sir? No — there is no hope for of your, sir. You haven’t got your lesson yet. You’ve got to stay after school.80

It is the best news that America has ever heard.81

Franklin — Washington — they were let off without dying; these were merely missing one day.82 [We make a needless ado about capital punishment — condemn him when there is no life to take]

It has already quickened to the public pulse of the north — than a it has infused more, & more generous, blood into her veins & heart than any number of years of what is called commercial & political prosperity could do. How many a man who was lately contemplating or propositioning suicide has now something to live for!83

Mr. Giddings84 says of them that “their sad fate will occupy a brief page in the history of our nation!” Does he think that the history of the Republican Party — (hitherto, for it may be re-created by his death) — will be in the proportion of a sentence to that page?

When I reflect to what a cause this man devoted himself, & how religiously, & then reflect to what cause his judges & all who condemn him so angrily & fluently devote themselves, I see that they are as far apart as the heavens & earth are asunder. The amount of it is our “leading men” are a harmless kind of folk, & they know well enough that they were not divinely appointed, but elected by the votes of their party.85

The most sensible of the apparently editorial articles on this event that I have met with is in the Wheeling Intelligence. Vide Supplement to Journal, .86

Walker is the representative of the South, I wish I could say that Brown was the representative of the North.


Thoreau reworked much of this journal entry into A Plea for Captain John Brown. See Thoreau and his Audience: “A Plea for Captain John Brown” by Robert C. Albrecht (American Literature, ) for an interesting look into this process.

  1. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  2. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  3. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  4. Thoreau replaced this with quotes from Brown for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  5. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  6. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  7. Thoreau used this in A Plea for Captain John Brown. Here he wrote a margin note pointing to the paragraph “We needed…” further down.
  8. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  9. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  10. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  11. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  12. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  13. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  14. Thoreau reworked this to conclude A Plea for Captain John Brown
  15. Thoreau used this in A Plea for Captain John Brown
  16. Thoreau reworked these two paragraphs for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  17. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  18. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  19. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  20. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  21. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  22. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  23. The Governor of Virginia. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  24. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  25. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  26. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  27. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  28. Battle of Black Jack & Battle of Osawatomie
  29. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  30. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  31. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  32. The Puritans & Cromwell. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  33. On 9 May 1859, Brown had spoken in Concord.
  34. The War of
  35. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  36. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  37. Bleeding Kansas and Free-Stater. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  38. Border Ruffians. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  39. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  40. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  41. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  42. Thoreau mentioned this rule also in A Plea for Captain John Brown
  43. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  44. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  45. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  46. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown. See also Resistance to Civil Government in which Thoreau had said: “It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him…”
  47. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  48. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  49. Thoreau reworked these two paragraphs and the last part of the previous one for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  50. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  51. See also in which Thoreau writes: “The judges may discuss the question of the courts & law over their nuts & raisins & mumble forth the decision that ‘substantial justice is done’ but I must believe they mean that they do really get paid a ‘substantial’ salary.”
  52. Crape. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  53. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  54. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  55. Thoreau reworked this further (it is itself a reworking of an earlier paragraph in this journal entry) for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  56. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown, but more strongly: “I have no doubt that many…”
  57. Ethan Allen & John Stark. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  58. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  59. Buncombe. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  60. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  61. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  62. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  63. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  64. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  65. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  66. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  67. The lines are from Samuel Daniel’s poem To the Lady Margaret, Countess of Cumberland. Thoreau reworked the paragraph including these lines for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  68. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  69. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  70. Concord Bridge, Lexington Common, & Bunker Hill. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  71. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  72. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  73. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  74. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  75. Likely William Walker. Thoreau mentions Walker once in A Plea for Captain John Brown
  76. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  77. Memento mori. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  78. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  79. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  80. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  81. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  82. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  83. Thoreau reworked this for A Plea for Captain John Brown
  84. Joshua Reed Giddings
  85. Thoreau reworked this for two paragraphs in A Plea for Captain John Brown
  86. Thoreau found the Wheeling Intelligencer editorial in a Boston Daily Journal supplement dated .

I do not know how to distinguish between our waking life & a dream. Are we not always living the life that we imagine we are? Fear creates danger — & courage dispels it.

There was a remarkable sunset (I think the ). The sunset sky reached quite from west to east, & it was the most varied in its forms & colors of any that I remember to have seen. At one time the clouds were most softly & delicately rippled, like the ripple marks on sand. But it was hard for me to see its beauty then, when my mind was filled with Capt. Brown. So great a wrong as his fate implied overshadowed all beauty in the world.


All through the excitement occasioned by Brown’s remarkable attempt & subsequent behavior, the Massachusetts’ legislature, not taking any steps for the defence of her citizens who are likely to be carried to Virginia as witnesses & exposed to the violence of a slaveholding mob, is absorbed in a Liquor Agency question. That has, in fact, been the all absorbing question with it!! I am sure that no person up to the occasion, or who perceived the significance of the former event, could at present attend to this question at all. As for the Legislature, bad spirits occupied their thoughts.1

If any person, in a lecture or conversation, should now cite any ancient example of heroism, such as Catos, or as Tell, or Winkelried, passing over the recent deeds & words of John Brown, I am sure that it would be felt by any intelligent audience of Northern men to be tame & inexcusably far-fetched.2 I do not know of such words, uttered under such circumstances, in Roman or English, or any history. [What a variety!]3

It is a fact proving how universal & widely related any transcendent greatness is — like the apex of a pyramid to all beneath it — that when I now look over my extracts of the noblest poetry, the best is oftenest applicable in part or wholly to this man’s position case. Almost any noble verse may be read either as his elegy or eulogy, or be made the text of an oration on him. Indeed, such are now first discerned to be parts of a divinely established liturgy, applicable to those rare cases for which the ritual of no church has provided — the case of heroes, martyrs, & saints.

This is the formula established on high — their burial service — to which every great genius has contributed its line or syllable.4

Of course the ritual of no church which is wedded to the state can contain a service applicable to the case of a state criminal unjustly condemned — a martyr.5

The sense of grand poetry, read by the light of this event is brought out distinctly like an invisible writing held to the fire.6

A lady who was suitably indignant at the outrage on Senator Sumner,7 lamenting to me To-day the very common insensibility to such things, said that one woman to whom she described the deed & on whom she thought that she had made some impression, lately inquired of her with feeble curiosity: “How is that young man who had his head hurt? I haven’t heard anything about him for a good while.”


  1. Thoreau reworked this for The Last Days of John Brown
  2. Cato, William Tell, Arnold von Winkelried. Thoreau reworked this for The Last Days of John Brown
  3. Thoreau reworked this for The Last Days of John Brown (The “What a variety!” note is marked by him with a reference to his entry)
  4. Thoreau reworked this for his Remarks After the Death of John Brown
  5. Thoreau made this a more specific jab at the Church of England in The Last Days of John Brown (see also 18 November 1859)
  6. Thoreau reworked this for his Remarks After the Death of John Brown
  7. In , two days after Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner had denounced the Kansas Border Ruffians and their supporters in Congress, he was brutally attacked with a cane on the Senate floor by South Carolina Senator Preston Brooks.

I have been so absorbed of late in Capt. Brown’s fate as to be surprised whenever I detected the old routine running still — met persons going about their affairs indifferent. It appeared strange to me that the little dipper should be still diving in the river as of yore; & this suggested that this grebe might be diving here when Concord shall be no more. Any affecting human event may blind our eyes to natural objects.


Thoreau reworked this for The Last Days of John Brown


I looked into the a Church of England Liturgy, printed near the beginning of the last century, to find a service applicable to the case of Capt. Brown. The only martyr recognized & provided for by it was King Charles the first!! Of all the inhabitants of England & of the world, he was the only one whom the Church made a martyr & saint of!! & now for more than ½ a century it had celebrated his martyrdom! by an annual service. What a satire on the Church is that!1

An apothecary in N.B. told R. the other day that a man (a Mr. Leonard) of Springfield told him that he once attended a meeting in Springfield where a woman was exhibited as in a mesmeric state, insensible to pain — a large & fleshy woman — & the spectators were invited to test her condition with pins or otherwise. After some had tried, one among them came forward with a vial of cowage, & after stating to the company that it would produce intolerable irritation in the skin, he proceeded to rub a little on the woman’s bare arm & on her neck. She immediately winced under it, whereupon he took out another vial containing sweet oil, & applying a little of that, relieved her. He then stated that any one present might apply to his skin as much as he pleased. Some came forward & he laid bare his breast & when they applied it sparingly & hesitatingly, he said, “Rub away, gentlemen — as much as you like,” & he betrayed no sign of irritation. That was John Brown.


I am one of a committee of 4 (viz. Simon Brown, ex-Lieut. Gov, R.W. Emerson, myself, & John Keyes, Late High Sheriff), app instructed by a meeting of citizens to ask liberty of the Selectmen to have the bell of the first parish tolled at the time Capt Brown is being hung — & while we shall be assembled in the town house to express our sympathy with him. I applied to the selectmen yesterday. Their afte names are Geo. M. Brooks, Barzillai Hudson, & Julius Smith. After various delays they at length answer me tonight, 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 says tells me that Rockwood Hoar said “that “he “hoped no such foolish thing would be done,” & he also named Stedman Buttrick, John Moore, Cheney, (& others added Nathan Brooks Senior & Francis Wheeler, Holbrook &c. of course old burnt ones) as strongly opposed to it; said that he had heard “500”! damn me for it — & that he had no doubt that if it were done some counter demonstration would be made, such as firing minute guns. The Dr. himself is more excited than any body, for he has the minister under his wing. Indeed, a considerable part of Concord are in the condition of Virginia today — afraid of their own shadows.


X1 was betrayed by his eyes, which had a glaring film over them & no serene depth into which you could look.

Inquired particularly the way to Emerson’s & the distance, & when I told him, said he knew it as well as if he saw it. Resolved to turn & proceed to his house. Told me one or 2 things which he asked me not to tell S.2

Said, “I know I am insane,” — & I knew it too. Also called it “nervous excitement.” At length, when I made a certain remark, he said, “I don’t know but you are Emerson — are you? You look somewhat like him.” He said as much 2 or 3 times, & added once, “But then Emerson would’nt lie.” Finally put his questions to me, of Fate &c &c as if I were Emerson.

Getting to the woods, I remarked upon them, & he mentioned my name, but never to the end suspected who his companion was. Then “proceeded to business” — “since the time was short” — & put to me the questions he was going to put to Emerson.

His insanity exhibited itself chiefly by his incessant excited talk — scarcely allowing me to interrupt him — but once or 2ce apologizing for his behavior. What he said was for the most part connected & sensible enough.

When I hear of John Brown & his wife weeping at length — it is as if the rocks sweated.


  1. Torrey & Allen note: “X, whom Thoreau drove this morning to Acton, was literally an unknown quantity to him at the time. He did not learn till afterward that it was Francis Jackson Merriam, one of John Brown’s men, on his way to Canada.”
  2. Franklin Benjamin Sanborn

His late career — these 6 weeks, I mean — has been meteor-like, flashing through the darkness in which we live. I know of nothing more miraculous in all history.1

Nothing could his enemies do but it redounded to his infinite advantage — the advantage of his cause. They did not hang him at once; they reserved him to preach to them.

& here is another great blunder — they have not hung his 4 followers with him; that scene is still to come, & so his victory is prolonged & completed.

No theatrical manager could have arranged things so wisely, to give effect to his behavior & words. & who, think you, was the Manager? Who placed the slave woman & her child for a symbol which he stooped to kiss between his prison & the gallows?2 No northern woman did &

The preachers — the Bible men — they who talk about principle & doing to others as you would that they should do unto you — how could they fail to recognize him? by far the greatest preacher of them all, with the bible on his lips, & in his acts, the embodiment of principle, who actually carried out the golden rule. All whose moral sense is aroused, who have a calling from on high to preach, have sided with him.

It may prove the occasion, if it has not proved it already, of a new sect of Brownites being formed in our midst.3

I see now, as he saw, that he was not to be pardoned or rescued by men. That would have been to disarm him, to restore to him a material weapon, a Sharpe’s rifle, when he had taken up the sword of the spirit — the sword with which he has really won his greatest & most memorable victories. Now he has not laid aside the sword of the spirit. For he is pure spirit himself, & his sword is pure spirit also.4

On the day of his translation, I knew well enough heard, to be sure, that he was hung — but I did not know what that meant, & I felt no sorrow on his account. But not for a day or two did I hear even hear that I he was dead, & not after any number of days shall I believe it.

Of all the men who are said to be my contemporaries, it seemed to me that John Brown is the only one who has not died. [I never hear of a man by the name of Brown now but John often thought is it any relation of him.] I meet John Brown at every turn. He is more alive than ever he was. He is not confined to Kansas North Elba, as to Kansas. He is no longer working in secret (only. John Brown He has earned immortality.5

Men have been hung in the south before for attempting to rescue slaves, & the north was not much stirred by it. Whence, then, this wonderful difference? We were not so sure of their devotion to principles. We have made a subtle distinction, have forgotten human laws, & do homage to an idea. The north is suddenly all transcendental. It goes behind the human law, it goes behind the apparent failure, & recognizes eternal justice & glory.

It is a more generous than the spirit which actuated our forefathers, for it is an revolution in behalf of another, & an oppressed people.6


  1. Thoreau reworked this to open The Last Days of John Brown
  2. Thoreau reworked these two paragraphs for a paragraph in The Last Days of John Brown. That legendary last kiss Brown gave to the slave woman’s child did indeed become a popular symbol (see James Malin’s The John Brown Legend in Pictures: Kissing the Negro Baby).
  3. Thoreau reworked this for The Last Days of John Brown
  4. Thoreau reworked this for The Last Days of John Brown
  5. North Elba. Thoreau reworked this to conclude The Last Days of John Brown
  6. Thoreau reworked these two paragraphs for a paragraph in The Last Days of John Brown

What a transit that of his horizontal body alone, but just cut down from the gallows tree. We read that at such a time it passed through Philadelphia, & by had reached New York. Thus like a meteor it passed through the union from the southern regions toward the North.

No such freight have the cars borne since they carried him southward alive.1

What avail all your scholarly accomplishments & learning, compared with wisdom and manhood? To omit his other behavior — see what a work this comparatively unread & unlettered man has written within 6 weeks! Where is our professor of belles-lettres, & or of logic & rhetoric, who can write so well? He has written in prison, not a history of the world like Raleigh, for his time was short, but an American book which shall live longer, than Raleigh’s history that. [I do not know of…]2

The death of Irving, which at any other time would have attracted universal attention, having occurred while these things were transpiring, goes almost unobserved. I shall read it at last in the biography of authors.

Literary gentlemen, editors, & critics think that they know how to write because they have studied grammar & rhetoric; but the art of composition is as simple as the discharge of a bullet from a rifle, & its master pieces imply an infinitely greater force behind it.

This unlettered man’s speaking & writing is standard American English. Some words & phrases deemed vulgarisms & Americanisms before, he has made standard American. “It will pay.”

It suggests that the one great rule of composition — and their if I were a professor of rhetoric I should insist on this — is to speak the truth. This first, this 2d, this 3d. This demands earnestness & manhood chiefly.3

I felt that he, a prisoner in the midst of his enemies, & under sentence of death, if consulted as to his next step, could answer more wisely than all his country men beside. He best understood his position. He contemplated it most calmly. All other men, N. and S., were beside themselves.

Our thoughts could not revert to any greater or wiser or better man with whom to compare him, for he was above them all.

The man this country was about to hang was the greatest & best in it.4

Commonly men live according to a formula, & are satisfied if the order of law is observed — but in this instance they returned to original perceptions, & there was a revival of old religion, & they saw that what was called order was confusion, what was called justice, injustice — that the best was deemed the worst.5

Most northern men, & not a few southern ones, have been wonderfully stirred by Brown’s behavior & words they have seen and felt that they were great, heroic, noble, & that there has been nothing quite equal to them in this country, if in the recent history of the world. But the minority have been unmoved by them. They have only been surprised by the and provoked by the attitude of their neighbors. They have seen that Brown was brave & believed that he had done right, but they have not detected any further peculiarity in him — not being accustomed to make fine distinctions or to appreciate noble sentiments. They have read his speeches & letters as if they read them not — they have not known when they burned. They have not felt that he spoke with authority, & hence they have only remembered that the law must be executed. They have remember the old formula; they do not hear the new revelation. The man who does not recognize in Brown’s words a wisdom & nobleness, & therefore an authority, superior to our laws, is a modern democrat! This is the test by which to try him. He is not willfully but constitutionally blind, & he is consistent with himself. Such has been his past life. I have no doubt of it. In like manner he has read history & his bible, & he accepts, or seems to accept, the last only as an established formula, & not because he has been convicted by it. You will not find kindred sentiments in his commonplace book.6

And in these 6 weeks what a variety of themes he has touched on. There are words in that letter to his wife, respecting the education of his daughters, which deserve to be framed & hung over every mantel piece in the land. Compare their earnest wisdom with that of Poor Richard!7

“He nothing common did or mean
 Upon that memorable scene,
 …
 Nor called the gods with vulgar spite, To vindicate his helpless right;
 But bowed his comely head, down, as upon a bed.”8

Years are no longer required for a revolution of public opinion; days, nay hours, produce marked changes. 50 who were ready to say, on going into some meeting in honor of him, that he ought to be hung, will not say it when they come out. They hear his words read, every one of which “conveys the perfect charm.” They see the earnest faces of the congregation & perhaps they join in singing the hymn in his praise.9

What confessions it has extorted from the cold & conservative10 — witness the Newton letter.

The order of instruction has been reversed. I hear that the preacher thinks says that his act was a failure, while to some extent he eulogizes the man. The class teacher, after the services, tells his grown up pupils that at first he thought as the preacher does now, but now he thinks that John Brown was right. But it is understood that the pupils are as much ahead of the teacher as he is ahead of the priest; & the very little boys at home had ask their parents why God did not save him.11

They, whether within the church or out of it, who adhere to the spirit & abandon the letter, & who are accordingly called infidel, have taken the l been foremost in this movement.12


  1. Thoreau reworked this for The Last Days of John Brown
  2. Walter Raleigh. Thoreau reworked this for The Last Days of John Brown (The “I do not know of…” margin note is linked by Thoreau to the entry)
  3. Washington Irving. Thoreau reworked this for two paragraphs in The Last Days of John Brown
  4. Thoreau reworked this for The Last Days of John Brown
  5. Thoreau reworked this for The Last Days of John Brown
  6. Thoreau reworked this for The Last Days of John Brown
  7. Poor Richard & John Brown’s letter to his wife. Thoreau reworked this for The Last Days of John Brown
  8. Thoreau used these lines from Andrew Marvell’s An Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell’s Return From Ireland in The Last Days of John Brown
  9. Thoreau reworked this for The Last Days of John Brown
  10. Thoreau reworked this for The Last Days of John Brown
  11. Thoreau reworked this for The Last Days of John Brown
  12. Thoreau reworked this for The Last Days of John Brown

When a noble deed is done, who is likely to appreciate it? They who are noble themselves.

I am not surprised that certain of my neighbors speak of John Brown as an ordinary felon. Who are they? They have but much flesh, or at least much coarseness of some kind. They are not ethereal natures. Or the dark qualities predominate in them, they have much of surface substance, or they have much office. Several of them are decidedly pachydermatous.

How can a man behold the light who has no answering inward light?

They are true to their sight, but when they look this way they see nothing, they are blind. For the children of the light to contend with them is as if there should be a contest between eagles & owls.

Show me a man who feels bitterly toward John Brown, & then let me hear what noble verse he can repeat.1

Certain persons in this disgraced themselves by hanging Brown in effigy in this town on . I was glad to know that the only 3 4 whose names I heard mentioned in connection with it were n had not been long resident here, & had done nothing to secure the respect of the town.

It is not every man who can be a christian, whatever education you give him. It is a matter of constitution & temperament of the will. I have known many a man who pretended to be a christian in whom it was ridiculous, for he had no genius for it.2

The expression “a liberal education” originally meant one worthy of free men. Such is education simply in a true & broad sense. But education ordinarily so called — service it the learning of trades & professions which is designed to enable men to earn their living, or to fit them for a particular station in life — is servile.3


  1. Thoreau reworked this for The Last Days of John Brown
  2. Thoreau reworked this for The Last Days of John Brown
  3. Thoreau expanded on this for The Last Days of John Brown

Editors are still pretty generally saying that Brown’s was a “crazy scheme,” & their one only evidence & proof of it is that it cost him his life. I have no doubt that, if he had gone with 5000 men, liberated 1000 slaves, killed a hundred or 2 slaves-holders, & had as many more killed on his own side, but not lost his own life — such would have been prepared to call it by another name. Yet he has been far more successful than that. They seem to have known nothing about living or dying for a principle.


Thoreau reworked this for The Last Days of John Brown


There is a certain Irish woodchopper who, when I come across him at his work in the woods in the winter, never fails to ask me what time it is, as if he were in haste to take his dinnerpail & go home. This is not as it should be. Every man, & the woodchopper among the rest, should love his work as much as the poet does his. All good political arrangements proceed on this supposition. If labor mainly, or to any considerable degree, serves the purpose of a police, to keep men out of mischief, it indicates a rottenness at the foundation of our community.

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