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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau, and the martyrdom of John Brown

Margaret Kimberley, on her Freedom Rider blog, muses, “if anyone ever won by losing, it is John Brown”; her sentiment echoes the complex mix of feelings that contemporaries felt on the day of Brown’s execution, December 2, 1859.

“This will be a great day in our history,” wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in that day’s diary entry, “the date of a new Revolution,—quite as much needed as the old one.” Longfellow believed that by hanging Brown, the Virginians were “sowing the wind to reap the whirlwind, which will come soon.”

Brown envisioned arming an insurrection of Southern slaves by capturing the arsenal at Harpers Ferry. His assault and occupation on October 16 lasted less than thirty-six hours and cost the lives of three townspeople, one marine, and ten of Brown’s eighteen men, including two of his sons. Beyond his initial recruits, no slaves answered his call.

Three weeks before, Brown had hoped to enlist Frederick Douglass by outlining the plan for the raid to him. Douglass thought it suicidal, as he details in Life and Times:
I at once opposed the measure with all the arguments at my command. To me such a measure would be fatal to all running off slaves . . . and fatal to all engaged in doing so. All his arguments, and all his descriptions of the place, convinced me that he was going into a perfect steel-trap, and that once in he would never get out alive . . . I looked at him with some astonishment . . . and felt that he was about to rivet the fetters more firmly than ever on the limbs of the enslaved.
After being jailed, Brown refused to plead insanity or to be rescued. As he told his brother, “I am worth inconceivably more to hang, than for any other purpose.” Brown’s dignified demeanor during his briskly paced trial and the publication of his moving letters to his wife began a swell of sympathy in the North. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his Journal, “if Brown is hung, the gallows will be as sacred as the cross.”

Brown had met with Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in 1857—most of Brown’s funding came from northern abolitionists. Following the raid Thoreau sprang to his defense, eager to correct what he believed to be inaccurate press accounts. “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” which he delivered in Concord on October 30 and again on November 3, was reprinted and discussed in all the Boston papers. It will surprise anyone who thinks of Thoreau as the apostle of nonviolence:
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. . . 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.
Two more essays on Brown would follow: “Martyrdom of John Brown” and “The Last Days of John Brown,” the latter for a memorial service on July 4, 1860. Three days after Brown’s hanging Thoreau wrote in his Journal:
Of all the men who are said to be my contemporaries—it seems to be that John Brown is the only one who has not died. I meet him at every turn. He is more alive than ever he was. . . He is no longer working in secret. John Brown has earned immortality.
Also of Interest: Biographer and scholar Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. devotes his blog to the life and times of John Brown: Abolitionist.

Related LOA works: Frederick Douglass: Autobiographies; Henry David Thoreau: Collected Essays and Poems


  1. How about poetry on John Brown? John Greenleaf Whittier, Bronson Alcott, and Lydia Maria Child (off the top of my head) wrote poems dedicated to him.

  2. Nice article on John Brown and his contemporaries! Thank you!


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