The Sons of Anak: Thoreau & John Brown


The Sons of Anak

Concord – Fall 1859

 “It is only when we forget all our learning that we begin to know.”

Journal, October 4, 1859

On September 5, 1859, Concord was seasonably cool after strong winds (those that pelted the fifty-six-year-old Emerson’s yard with unripe pears),[1] prevailed two days previous.  Green urgent sprouts of corn emerged from Concord’s fertile loam and pumpkins, “yellow and yellowing,” blazed the earth creating what Thoreau described as a “genuine New England scene.”[2]  On this day Thoreau sauntered through the Acton woods searching for a millstone suitable for crushing plumbargo into the fine powder he sold to electrotyping firms.  (An advertisement in local newspapers of the day states: “PLUMBARGO Prepared EXPRESSLY FOR ELECTROTYPING by JOHN THOREAU, PENCIL MAKER, CONCORD MASS.”)  The business was a responsibility inherited (along with the lead mill) solely by Thoreau after the passing of John Sr. in February 1859.  Within the first weeks of that year, Thoreau had initiated a period that would begin and end with the presence of death, that of his father and, in December, a distant acquaintance named John Brown.

The sudden burden of officiating over business matters exacted its toll on Thoreau. He regretted time spent away from the fields, woods, and ponds of Massachusetts. Interacting with stereotype foundries like Hobart & Robbins of Boston required dedicated toil. Writing to Harrison Blake, Thoreau stated that he felt and thought of late “too much like a business man, having some very irksome affairs to attend to these months and years on account of my family.”[3]  The hours spent away from his real calling are well documented within the pages of his journal and in letters to contemporaries.  (What isn’t documented is the toll graphite and lead may have gradually exacted upon his respiratory tract. Minute as it may have been, it could only have compounded the effects of a cold he may have caught from Bronson Alcott on November 29, 1860, the night before embarking on a cold wet journey.  One could reasonably conjecture that the sudden responsibility of operating the lead mill may have exacerbated the weakening of the tubercular lesions that took his life less than four years later.  Graphite and black lead, when inhaled for any period of time, will irritate the respiratory tract.  Thoreau, already predisposed with tuberculosis, was extremely susceptible to pneumoconiosis, or “black lung,” an ailment usually associated with coal miners.)

In the ensuing days (September 7–9) Thoreau resented the presence of the state’s military regiment gathering in Concord to muster: “[Concord] is fuller of dust and more uninhabitable than I knew it to be before.”  The muster camp itself, Thoreau estimated, was approximately two miles away (near Concord’s North Bridge) from his home.

Other irksome matters offered distraction to Thoreau that fall.  In early October he received a letter from a Boston lawyer, Edward Bangs, who was representing Thoreau’s aunt, Maria Thoreau.  Mrs. Thoreau was disputing the erecting of a “spite fence” by an irate neighbor.  Thoreau was summoned, through Bangs, by his aunts who urged Henry to take the “next train” to the 1st Session of the Superior Court.  He was needed to testify the “descendance” from the “Orrocks” “which is necessary to be proved in this case vs. Miss Pallies.”  The paternal grandmother of Thoreau, Jane Burns, was the daughter of a Boston Quaker, Sarah Orrock.  She, in turn, was the daughter of Hannah Tillet and David Orrock.  Eliza Pallies, noted as a “remarkably aggressive woman” by Harding,[4] entered Maria Thoreau’s yard and struck down the fence that enclosed it.  She then erected in its stead a spite fence (a fence erected to annoy a neighbor), a mere foot and a half away from Thoreau’s door and the windows of her house.  Pallies claimed that she had a right of way to do so.  The case was resolved months later in favor of Maria Thoreau.  The court ordered Miss Pallies to pay $1.00 for restitution.

Despite business stresses and familial demands, Thoreau’s notations of nature are exemplary for this period.  To Daniel Ricketson, Thoreau wrote of sawing wood by moonlight, which he found more beneficial than meditation: “I have found some solace in the companionship of the woods near by, and the concert of their wind harps.”[5]  His autumn evening walks were occasionally accompanied by the startled flight of Passenger Pigeons overhead.  (The Passenger Pigeon was probably once the most abundant bird species on the planet.  In its prime of existence, it made its domicile in the manifold acreage of primary forest that once covered North America east of the Rocky Mountains.  Dark flocks blotting out the sun sometimes reached as much as one mile wide and three hundred miles long.  In Thoreau’s day, the population estimates ranged from one to four billion.  Overhunting—like that committed by Eseek Coombs of Concord, who indiscriminately shot raptors as well—and indiscriminate forest clearing drove the bird to extinction during the nineteenth century.  Ironically, despite Thoreau’s frequent mentions of the bird in his journal, he did not know that the bird was well on its way to extinction by the 1850s.[6]

Botanically, Concord’s emerging autumn was suffused with newly-bloomed flora and fauna.  Goldenrods waved bright flowerets of yellow over the withered grass.  Bluestems (Andropogon furcatus) added contrast to the dry yellowish grass.  Purple loosestrife grew in clumps along the mossy banks of rivers and, even more profusely, among the cattails and reeds of the thousands of Massachusetts ponds and swamps.  Thoreau absorbed the subtle interplay of contrasting shapes and hues:  “Who that had botanized here in the previous month could have foretold this more profuse and teeming crop?”[7]  Along the groomed hedges, under the dividing walls and growing from trees, a tangle of “wild fruits” coexisted; elderberries, black cherries, acorns, ripened Concord grapes, huckleberries, and blackberries competed for Thoreau’s enraptured attention.

It was an ideal time for Thoreau to pursue his interest in natural history for, in 1859, Boston was perched at decade’s end in natural history research.  America at large, as if to make up for slavery’s moral quagmire, was making enormous strides in both science and technology.  The state of Massachusetts funded a grant for Louis Agassiz to open a new museum of comparative zoology.  Thoreau was appointed as a member of the Harvard Visiting Committee in Natural History that was under the leadership of notable botanist, Asa Gray, who had recently presented to Boston’s American Academy of Arts and Sciences his theory that distinct plant species found in Eastern North America and East Asia shared a common ancestor.

Both Thoreau and Gray, though ardently admiring Agassiz’s founding of an institution solely committed toward furthering natural history research, were opposed to his ideology that ancient geological disturbances had separated land masses and, subsequently, divided the races of humans.  Furthermore, because of this separation, Agassiz ideologized that, it being “God’s” design, one species (or race) should not hybridize with another inferior species (race).  Using Agassiz’s flawed theory to support their flawed ideology, pro-slavery advocates were able to partially justify, through science, racial segregation. Agassiz pursued passionately his theory to the extent that he contributed to the book Types of Mankind by Josiah Nott and George R. Gliddon.[8]  Along with several other scientists of his day, Agassiz was long a supporter of polygenesis, the theory that some members of the human race derived from distinct origins.  His belief stemmed from American anthropologist Samuel George Morton who introduced and, ultimately, converted Agassiz to the theory of polygenesis.  Morton’s belief—usually illustrated with a variety of human skulls as his evidence—was that the human races of the earth were created separately.  The Caucasian male, predictably, belonged to the superior species.  The oppressive sense of obligation to align scientific theory with Christian orthodoxy, inadvertently, skewed many scientific findings.  As Agassiz wrote, “The primitive distribution of all organized beings has been the result of the decrees of the Creator, and not the result of mere natural influences.”[9]

In the middle of the nineteenth century, particularly in the United States, the belief in polygenesis was widespread.  In December 1846, Agassiz delivered a lecture entitled “The Plan of Creation in the Animal Kingdom,” during which he asserted, among other things, that all human varieties belonged to a singular species—with the exception of “Negroes.”  Negroes, he claimed, could not be traced back to Noah, therefore they belonged to a distinctly different zoological province.  The strength of this lecture inspired Thoreau to begin collecting animal specimens for Agassiz.  (It isn’t certain whether he actually attended the lecture or simply read a transcription of it).  Until the Civil War, Agassiz hid his virulent racism behind a veneer of science.  His prevailing influence, reinforced by his solid reputation as a scientist through the early and mid-nineteenth century, could have successfully “thrown his influence across the barrier of evolutionary thought,” as Andrew Dickson White wrote in his groundbreaking study, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1898).  The advent of Charles Darwin would all but obliterate Agassiz’s legacy as the nineteenth-century’s most-coveted and respected scientist.

Despite Agassiz’s underhanded way of supporting the cause of slavery, Thoreau and Emerson saw no contradiction in their social or professional ties to him.  Thoreau did shun the Boston Saturday Club, which was founded in 1855 as a society of regional male intellectuals.  The members met on the fourth Saturday of every month at the brand-new, posh Parker House Hotel on Cambridge’s Tremont Street.  The social gatherings attracted such intellectual luminaries as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Dickens (in 1867), Charles Sumner, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.  It also attracted the constant attendance of Agassiz and Emerson.  Despite his reticence to subscribe to Agassiz’s prejudices, Thoreau still continued to collect specimens for him through 1859.

Thoreau’s noted absence at the Boston Saturday Club raises questions on why he would avoid a gathering that feasted upon all of the concerns to which he would otherwise be drawn.  He commented to H. G. O. Blake in January 1859:

[S]ome of my acquaintance would fain hustle me into the almshouse for the sake of society, as if I were pining for that diet, when I seem to myself a most befriended man, and find constant employment. However, they do not believe a word I say. They have got a club, the handle of which is in the Parker House at Boston, and with this they beat me from time to time, expecting to make me tender or minced meat, so fit for a club to dine off.[10]

Thoreau had gone to the Parker House once “when the Club was away.”  His chief complaint, the constant haze of cigar smoke, was only one-upped by the idle sight of reclining men “thick as legs of bacon in a smoke-house.”  It was, in Thoreau’s estimation, “all smoke, and no talk.”  He instead preferred to attend social gatherings in the Gentlemen’s Room at the Fitchburg Depot in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, where he caught his train back into Concord.  He especially favored the lack of secondhand smoke (smoking was not allowed).  Thoreau was not alone in this; Asa Gray also avoided the club.  One could raise the speculation that neither one wished to break bread or participate in casual conversation with their employer; each was unwilling to feast upon the theoretical spewing that undermined the beliefs that each regarded for themselves— Thoreau as an abolitionist, Gray as a Darwinian botanist.

Gray received a copy of Darwin’s Origin of the Species in November 1859. Immediately, he wrote one of the first reviews (favorable) of the groundbreaking book for the American Journal of Science in December 1859.  Gray’s nephew, Charles Loring Brace, received his copy and had it with him when he came to Concord on New Year’s Day in 1860 to visit the home of F. B. Sanborn.  Attending the New Year’s Day dinner were Bronson Alcott and Thoreau.  Beforehand, Thoreau demonstrated a relatively uninformed notion of the full capacity of Agassiz’s flawed science.  Gray’s vehement support of Darwin and the subsequent impression left upon Thoreau slowly changed Henry’s scientific outlook.  However impressive was Darwin’s theory, it wasn’t enough to compel Thoreau to interrupt his heated discourse on John Brown. Still foremost a Goethe-inspired botanist, Thoreau slowly adapted Darwin’s theories into his own findings.  Gray published many articles articulating his theories of worldwide plant distribution.  Apparently, Thoreau either did not read them or soundly ignored them in favor of his own lay methodology.  By the time Thoreau could display an informed judgment of the Darwinian thesis and possibly break Gray and Agassiz’s deadlock, he was too ill to contribute.

For now, Thoreau’s contributions to natural history were genuinely his own.  Culling extracts from two chief sources—his journal and his natural history commonplace book—Thoreau began conceptualizing a new work, Notes on Fruits, which would synthesize his understanding of the workings of nature with the personal influence wielded by Coleridge’s Hints toward the formation of a more comprehensive theory of life (edited by Seth B. Watson, Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1848).

Utilizing material from the past decade, Thoreau enclosed the manuscript pages within a heavy-duty wrapper.  The contents of these pages comprised his Wild Fruits, the working title of the book, based to a large extent on his journal extracts.  On the wrapper he wrote, “Matter to be used in completing Wild Fruits.  Journal examined as far as October 19, 1859—only first commonplace book examined.”[11]  As posthumously published and edited by the late Bradley P. Dean, this chaotic and scattered manuscript reveals a concise working order set up chronologically to ultimately reflect a calendar year observing botany.  These entries, also culled from a chart organized by months and years, served as a cross-reference to ultimately establish a basis for the archetypal calendar-year based in Concord.

*  *  *  *  *

The constant marching near the North Bridge shook the soil loose in the field. Subsequently, the powder dusted sections of Concord with a layer of fine silt.  The presence of the government via the regiment muster and its accompanying legislature exacerbated Thoreau’s disdain for government affairs.  Compelled by his disgust, Thoreau purchased a bolt for the door of his family’s house.  The storekeeper informed Thoreau that of late there had been frequent purchases of door bolts “for our protectors were coming.”[12]  Inspirited by his rebellious mood, Thoreau replaced a requested “Autumnal Tints” for “Life Misspent” instead.

Thoreau was responding to E. G. Dudley’s request to give a lecture for Theodore Parker’s lecture series at Boston’s Twenty-Eighth Congregational Society.  Parker, the church’s current pastor, had recently gone to Europe in order to grasp a hold upon his precarious health.  A Unitarian minister by trade, Parker was also one of Boston’s more notorious abolitionists, a social reformer, and a self-described transcendentalist.  He was notorious for challenging dogmatism in organized religion and favored a more practical approach to Bible study in a way that was useful to both clergy and lay people.  He also (uncharacteristically for the times) favored the rights of women.  Parker’s friendships with Emerson and Bronson Alcott fueled many of these interests.  Emerson’s assessment of him in 1880 was especially favorable, fixing him as a progressive man of letters often in conflict with his times:  “Theodore Parker was our Savonarola,[13] an excellent scholar, in frank and affectionate communication with the best minds of his day, yet the tribune of the people, and the stout Reformer to urge and defend every cause of humanity with and for the humblest of mankind.”

Assigned the responsibility of finding replacements for Parker, and acting upon suggestions by Emerson and Alcott, Dudley sought out Thoreau.  Mutually, they recommended Thoreau’s “Autumnal Tints” as most appropriate for the season at hand and for the mixed audience.  However, Thoreau set aside the natural history lecture and instead took up the subject of self-cultivation.

Thoreau’s chosen lecture was one that he had given under a succession of differing titles.  Its original conception—initially “The Connection between Man’s Employment and His Higher Life” and then “What Shall It Profit?”—Thoreau again altered.  One obvious change was the eradication of the first line from which the latter title derived: “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”  Instead, he initiated the tone of the lecture with his opening: “Let us consider the way in which we spend our lives.”  Because he altered its implication, the lecture was apt for him to revise the title once again.  Of a curious note, Thoreau dropped the Biblical aphorism before delivering his lecture before a church-going audience.  As Thoreau scholar Joel Myerson conjectures, did Thoreau decide against pandering to an audience with preordained expectations?  Other significant changes were made after Thoreau resorted to his journal entries made between 1855 and 1859.  From them Thoreau extracted six paragraphs and incorporated them into “Life Misspent.”  By doing so, he recycled the lecture into a newer one of more timely import and tenor.  The lecture was a natural progression from others with similar thematic constructions (like “The Rights and Duties of the Individual in Relation to Government” in 1848 and “Slavery in Massachusetts” in 1854).  “Life Misspent” preached the virtues of individual integrity as well as civic and personal responsibility.

Thoreau departed for Boston on October 6 to examine hawk specimens at the Boston Society of Natural History.  He had acquired the feathers from his hunter / trapper friend, Eseek Coombs, who’d been hunting American Passenger Pigeons as well as the hawks that, in turn, were hunting his game.  Thoreau theorized that the surplus of Passenger Pigeons thrived on white pine seeds.   Coombs was a reliable source of bird specimens for Thoreau, who was still collecting for Louis Aggasiz.  The hawk feathers Coombs surrendered to Thoreau gave the latter reason to go to Boston.  Thoroughly perplexed as to the exact identification of the hawk, Thoreau took the wing feathers to Dr. Samuel Kneeland, a Boston physician and medical profession reformer.  (Later, he was a founding member and professor of zoology and physiology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1865; he also authored The Wonders of the Yosemite Valley, and of California [1872] and served as the recording secretary for the Boston Society of Natural History.)  In his opinion, the feathers were that of a pigeon hawk.[14]  Ever the hands-on seeker, Thoreau depended on independent research to determine a firm identification.  One year later, he’d make a similar request for identification to Kneeland when Thoreau came into possession of the skull and skin of a female Canada Lynx, killed in Carlisle’s Estabrook County.  During his sojourn into the city, Thoreau also went to Cambridge to charge some books from Harvard College: West’s Journals; C. D. Badham’s seminal study of edible fungi, Treatise on the Esculent Funguses of England (1847); Edward Newman’s A History of British Ferns (1844); and Pierre Boucher’s Histoire Veritable et Naturelle (1644).

*  *  *  *  *

The remainder of 1859, for Thoreau, would be one of significant change in both his attitude toward social reform and approach to natural history.  The federal execution of militant abolitionist John Brown and the appearance of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection on November 24, 1859 (which Thoreau borrowed from Charles Sanborn shortly after its publication) were each seismic shifts to Thoreau’s emotional and intellectual sensibilities.

Returning to Boston for the morning of October 9, Thoreau stood before a congregation at the Boston Music Hall and delivered his appointed lecture. The next day, October 10, 1859, the Boston Daily Courier summarized the event as such:

Mr. Henry D. Thoreau delivered an address on “Misspent Lives,” yesterday morning, before the Twenty-Eighth Congregational Society, at the Music Hall.  Mr. Thoreau commenced by saying that when he was called upon to deliver an address, he always supposed the audience wanted to hear what he thought, and not merely things which might please the listeners; he should therefore give them a strong dose of himself.

The critical reception of “Life Misspent” was mixed as four newspapers reported on it the following day. Tersely, Thoreau was again critiqued as a mere imitator of Emerson despite his own singular accomplishments.  The Boston Atlas & Daily, however, was more favorable:

A Hermit in the Pulpit—An Address on Misspent Lives. Henry D. Thoreau, who is sometimes called “The Hermit of Concord,” supplied the desk at Music Hall yesterday.  Mr. Thoreau is an eccentric individual, having lived until within a short time, in a hut, in the woods, between Concord and Lincoln.  He is at present a resident of the village of Concord, follows surveying as a business, and is an intimate friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson.  His subject yesterday was “The Way in Which We Spend Our Lives.”  It was an original, racy, and erratic production, and was listened to the close with interest.

Other periodicals viewed Thoreau’s message of life fulfillment with contempt.  The Boston Post summarized the lecture thusly:

The gentleman commenced his remarks with a general attack upon all forms of individual industry—followed the same with deprecatory remarks upon the subject of mechanical improvements, with special reference to the steam engine—proceeded to arraign one after another, in incoherent succession, the following facts, circumstances and things—generally and specifically—with more or less of biliousness of temper, as the case might be, namely: The Church; the State of California, on account of its material progress; Virginia, because of slavery; Government, as a general thing—our own in particular; then legislation, then war, then politics—(taking pride in the fact, as he said, that he never had read a President’s Message in his life); then newspapers, (God save the mark!); then science, then the expedition of Dr. Kane, then Free Masonry, then the Lyceum, then Kossuth, and the enthusiasm attending his career in the United States; then Camp Massachusetts; and then and lastly, the Judicial system—Judges, jurors, and all.  And this was the Sabbath service upon which a large and apparently approving audience of the good city of Boston attended on Sunday last.  What wonder that fanaticism should rule the hour, when such sentiments can find a response in any considerable portion of the public mind.

Finally, the patriotic Banner of Light assessed Thoreau’s “Life Misspent” lecture as follows:

Mr. Thoreau proceeded to express his unmeasured contempt of politics and government.  He never reads the political columns of the newspapers; and the time and labor bestowed by our Presidents on their messages seems to have been in great part wasted, as Mr. Thoreau has never read one of them.

 *  *  *  *  *

Thoreau spent the ensuing weeks of October observing the gradation of the seasonal frost, seed experimentation, the ripening of berries, and pre-migration warbler and hawk activity.

Offhandedly, Thoreau conceptualized intuitively the idea that would later come to fruition in America only thirteen years later: “Each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest, of five hundred or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation.”[15]  Pointedly, he used Walden Woods as an example.  Only two years earlier, Thoreau had bemoaned the “barren sand” surrounding the site of his former Walden Pond cabin.  During the previous spring of 1859, Thoreau corrected this by planting four-hundred pine trees and one-hundred larches.  Though his intention was clear, the concept of conservation was not original to him.  But that he went out of the way to make it happen at the Walden cabin site made the assertion all the more important.[16]  Such extracts points to Thoreau’s faith in the preservation of nature as an enduring necessity.  (On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill to create the country’s first national part system.)

Thoreau felt differently about the posterity of his fellow man.  When Dr. Bartlett solicited Thoreau to subscribe for a statue of Horace Mann, he declined: “I thought a man ought not any more to take up room in the world after he’s dead.  We shall lose one advantage of a man’s dying if we are to have a statue of him forthwith.”[17]  Thoreau, uncharacteristically, would contradict himself within one month when he felt a statue of radical abolitionist John Brown should be erected: “I would rather see the statue of John Brown in the Massachusetts State House yard than that of any other man whom I know.”[18]

Sometime between October 18 and October 30, 1859, Thoreau began assembling a new text for lecturing.  Brown’s attempted raid of Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, seized the American public’s imagination by force.  The occasion was of special import since the ensuing events—including Brown’s false demise (initially presumed dead by Thoreau’s fellow Concordians because of inaccurately zealous news reports)—aligned with Thoreau’s own fervid sentiments toward the abolition of slavery.  Eventually, John Brown’s failed gambit and its bloody outcome polarized the nation with impassioned sentiments for and against slavery thus firmly galvanizing each side.

*  *  *  *  *

In 1857 John Brown explained to potential financiers that he and a band of men were seeking to assist those slaves who had managed to run away from their oppressors.  His underlying intent, in order to make this happen, was to initiate a series of physical assaults on slaveholders.  By 1858, once he had acquired the manpower and finances to act on his convictions, his plan had morphed into a full-blown guerilla strategy.  What he neglected to explain to his financiers was his violent and lethal intentions that their contributions would fund.  On May 24, 1856, Brown and seven men mercilessly attacked five pro-slavery men (Drury Doyle, William Doyle, James P. Doyle, William Sherman, and Allen Wilkinson) at Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas.  The New York Herald noted on November 5, 1859 (reprinting from its original source, the Herald of Freedom’s October 29 article):

All were found the next morning, by the road side, or in the highway, some with a gash in their heads and sides, and their throats cut; others with their skull split open in two places, with holes in their breasts and hands cut off; and others had holes through their breasts with their fingers cut off.

Brown’s further plans were thwarted when one of his followers, after failing to convince him to postpone his plans, attempted to blackmail him.  When blackmail failed, the co-conspirator exposed Brown and his militia to the authorities, thereby compelling Brown to slip away into hiding.

One year later, Brown was eager to start anew.  The band of determined abolitionists trekked to Maryland and rented a farm on the shores of the Potomac.  Across the river was their next conquest: the federal arsenal of Harper’s Ferry.  While he accumulated his weaponry, Brown awaited the arrival of more men.  Adversely, while waiting for “reinforcements,” Brown lost the commitment of some of the men he had whom began retreating from Brown’s hazrdous plan.  Of paramount importance was total confidence in Brown, something they obviously lacked.

Around August 1859, Brown met with Frederick Douglass and disclosed his plans to seize the federal arsenal by force.  Douglass was hardly enthused by what he heard and duly warned Brown that doing so would be like “walking into a perfect steel-trap.”

He told him bluntly, “You will never get out alive.”

On October 16, after sundown—a day Thoreau spent paddling his boat, observing muskrat dens along the shore, and searching for arrowheads exposed after a fresh rain—Brown rowed across the Potomac to Harpers Ferry accompanied by twenty-one men, two of whom were his sons and five of whom were black.  Persevering through a deluge of rain, they reached the town early the following morning.  The men severed the telegraph wires before assaulting the armory.  After capturing Halls Rifle Works (the suppliers of arms for the federal government), Brown rounded up sixty of the most prominent town citizens and held them hostage.  He hoped that the slaves, once forcibly freed, would join in allegiance and attack their oppressors.

But they did not.

Instead, they stayed back and watched the grim conclusion, as Brown and his men’s fate was permanently sealed.  Under duress, Brown sent one of his sons to negotiate with the civil militia under the waving banner of a white flag.  Immediately, the militia shot and killed him.  An express train conductor, en route to Baltimore, transported the news till eventually it reached the ear of President James Buchanan.  The president immediately deployed soldiers under the leadership of Colonel Robert E. Lee.  By the time Lee arrived, Brown’s makeshift twenty-two-man militia had been reduced by eight deaths.  Lee sent his army in and quickly ended the standoff.  In total, ten men were killed (including Brown’s other son), while five others had fled the scene leaving Brown and a few of the remaining men alone.

Brown was gravely wounded.  Lee’s soldiers took him to Charlestown, Virginia, where he was hastily tried and sentenced to execution.  During the trial Brown, who lay wounded on a cot in the courtroom, made his statements, which the gathered press transmitted to the nation.  He was formally charged with murder, insurrection, and treason against the state of Virginia.  Brown asked that the trial be delayed for one day to give his lawyer time to arrive, but the court denied his request.  Instead, he was assigned a lawyer, who immediately set out to prove that John Brown’s treason was a by-product of his “insanity.”  Brown protested the plea vehemently; he was found guilty (and likely so, for Thoreau states that Brown could not be tried by a “jury of his peers” since Brown had no peers).

Asked if there was a reason why he should not be sentenced to death, Brown, unprepared, stood up from his cot and addressed the court.  His intention, he assured the court, was never to destroy life or property.  Nor did he intend to incite the slaves to rebellion.  Rather, he referred to the Holy Bible when he asserted that his mission was one driven by mercy for the oppressed races of the nation: “To interfere as I have done,” he said, “in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right.”

*  *  *  *  *

As Thoreau and Bronson Alcott visited Emerson at his home, the news of John Brown’s raid reached Concord.  Thoreau read the news item in a local journal, among other articles (“I read all the newspapers I could get within a week after this event”).[19]  Later, he physically heard it from a Concord postmaster, who dismissed the news of Brown’s raid as nothing more than zealous foolhardiness: “He died as the fool dieth.”[20]  Driven by an uncommon display of emotion, Thoreau commenced filling his journal pages with an unusually high degree of emotion.  Over the ensuing nights, he kept his journal by his bedside and wrote even more.

In Thoreau’s view, America, the same that was foresworn to protect the inalienable rights of its citizens, had violated its sacred credo to ensure its citizens of those rights.  The United States, he thought, was no better than France and Austria in “oppressing mankind.”  His fellow townspeople, who easily shrugged off Brown and his actions, disconcerted Thoreau:

It galls me to listen to the remarks of craven-hearted neighbors who speak disparagingly of Brown because he resorted to violence, resisted the government, threw his life away!—what may have they thrown their lives, pray?—neighbors who would praise a man for attacking singly an ordinary band of thieves or murderers.  Such minds are not equal to the occasion.  They preserve the so-called peace of their community by deeds of petty violence every day[21]

Brown’s fervent cause, senseless to the majority of the public, was plainly obvious to Thoreau: “There sits a tyrant holding fettered four millions of slaves. Here comes their heroic liberator; if he falls will he not still live?”[22]  What incensed him most was the notion of how the public—specifically those “Yankee-like” citizens of Concord—had misconstrued Brown’s intentions.  “‘What will he gain by it?’ as if he expected to fill his pockets by this enterprise.”  Analogizing Brown to Christ, Thoreau felt they were “two ends of a chain which I rejoice to know is not without its links.”  Reading from the October 21, 1859 issue of the Boston Journal, Thoreau noted that the press understood Brown as a “conscientious man, very modest in his demeanor, that he was apparently inoffensive, until the subject of slavery was introduced, when he would exhibit a feeling of indignation unparalleled.”  Brown was like Jesus Christ, who, if he appeared in present-day America, would be “denounced as a mistaken, misguided man, insane and crazed,” much as Brown was denigrated as “misguided, wild, and apparently insane.”[23]  At once, he began to prepare a lecture to inform his fellow citizens.

In contrast to this impassioned perception, if Thoreau had read the newspapers immediately following the news of Brown’s capture (specifically the New York Herald) as he claimed he did, then he would’ve come across the gruesome accounts of the murders at Pottawatomie Creek.  The reputation of Brown as a ruthless cutthroat either eluded Thoreau’s notice or he evaded it by simply choosing not to believe or even to acknowledge it.  One revealing passage in Thoreau’s journal may cast a light on his willed decision to look the other way:

A man receives only what he is ready to receive, whether physically or morally, as animals conceive at certain seasons their kind only.  We hear and apprehend only what we already half know.  If there is something which does not concern me, which is out of my line, which by experience or by genius my attention is not drawn to, however novel and remarkable it may be, if it is spoken, we hear it not, if it is written, we read it not, or if we read it, it does not detain us.  Every man thus tracks himself through life, in all his hearing and reading and observation and traveling.  His observations make a chain.  The phenomenon or fact that cannot in any wise be linked with the rest which he has observed, he does not observe.  By and by we may be ready to receive what we cannot receive now. [24]

Thoreau’s defense of John Brown and his refusal to let the violent facts of Pottawatomie cloud his judgment reveal an extremely subjective sensibility.  Thoreau analogized a similar approach:

I find, for an example, in Aristotle something about the spawning, etc., of the pout and perch, because I know something about it already and have my attention aroused; but I do not discover till very late that he has made other equally important observations on the spawning of other fishes, because I am not interested in those fishes.[25]

Thoreau’s selectivity—choosing what concerns him and disregarding the rest—is therefore typical.  To acknowledge the events of Pottawatomie would topple his thesis of the American man standing up “so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature.”[26]  Brown “resolved that he would never have anything to do with any war, unless it were a war for liberty.”[27]  On November 6, as if to question Brown’s heroism, the Herald ran the condemning article again.  “Why,” the Herald asked its readers, “Should John Brown Not Be Hanged?”  News of the Pottawatomie slayings reached closer to Concord when the Democratic papers, the Boston Daily Courier and the Boston Post [on November 7 and 8 respectively], reprinted the Herald of Freedom’s graphic blow-by-blow.  Their motive was simple: to cast an attack on the Republican Party and to weaken the momentum of Brown’s sympathizers.  One such sympathizer, James Redpath, a New York Tribune correspondent, boldly questioned the validity of the newspaper’s claims.

Having physically reported for the Tribune from Kansas in 1856, Redpath’s accounts were undoubtedly biased.  His ceaseless crusade to loosen the chokehold of America’s tolerance of enforced slavery was increased significantly by his chance meeting with John Brown.  After the bloodshed at Pottawatomie, bands of determined militia consisting of U.S. and Missouri troops scoured the countryside for Brown.  It was Redpath who found him by a campfire after inadvertently stumbling into his encampment deep in the Kansas woods.  According to Redpath, Brown was reduced to tattered attire; his toes protruded from a worn pair of boots.  Like Thoreau, Redpath cast his newly- found renegade as an American hero.  It isn’t clear whether he too had chosen to disregard Brown’s involvement with the Pottawatomie killings.  However, Brown’s violent siege of Ossawatomie weeks later secured his heroic status with the Free-Soilers and, perhaps even more so, with James Redpath.  The future biographer of John Brown after his execution, Redpath chronicled and heralded the feats of the notorious abolitionist to the New York Tribune.  It is perhaps Redpath’s accounts that held full sway with Thoreau’s perceptions of Brown.  It was to Thoreau (and Emerson) that Redpath dedicated his biography of Brown.

*  *  *  *  *

Thoreau’s eradication of the violent exploits of Pottawatomie, Ossawatomie, and his appreciation for Brown’s disastrous siege upon Harper’s Ferry become evident in his journal.  Thoreau did not relate at length the specifc occasions; instead he focused on Brown’s ideals.  Throughout the pages of his October 1859 journal entries, Thoreau addresses Brown’s perceived “insanity”; the hypocrisy of civil government; Brown’s testimony on trial; the role of the Modern Christian; the “sublime spectacle” of Brown’s persistence to assure freedom to the oppressed masses; the ignorance of the free press; and the audacity of the government to take the life of a man “without the consent of his conscience.”[28]  In Thoreau’s assessment, Brown was a “superior man,” who cherished righteousness over personal gain; he valued the evenhanded doling out of justice over the sanctity of his own life: “He did not recognize unjust human laws, but resisted them, as he was bid; and now he is called insane by all who cannot appreciate such magnanimity.”  To his credit, the stoic abolitionist did not tolerate profanity or “loose morals” in his camp.  Brown, Thoreau reminds his listeners / readers, would have preferred an infectious contagion like yellow fever, cholera, or small-pox than the infectious power of a “man without principle.”  Slavery, Thoreau felt, was inherently evil; more than a “stagnation of blood,” it was a “stagnation of spirit.”  The government, according to Thoreau, governed from a throne of hypocrisy and conducted its matters diabolically.  Reaching back to the spirit of his lecture on civil disobedience, Thoreau’s indignation, though not as violently proactive, was certainly as volatile as Brown’s: “The only government that I recognize is that power that establishes justice in the land, never that which establishes injustice.”

Thoreau’s acquaintance with John Brown in 1857 (after the latter left Boston by train to Concord and dined at Cynthia Brown’s boarding house table) caused Thoreau to perceive him as an “old-fashioned man in respect for the constitution, and in faith of the permanence of this Union.”  His kinship with the “heroic Liberator” was his New England roots, the enduring qualities of his principles, and the hellfire of his fury toward American slavery.  Thoreau’s method of attack was to avoid belittling the minds that could only comprehend conflict when it interfered with the earning of their bread, but rather to expose the hypocrisy of religion—to be exact, Christianity, which was a “government that pretends to be Christian and crucifies a million Christs every day,” as he first wrote in his journal on October 19.  The “modern Christian” was the one willing to pray before the “liturgy,” as long as he could “go straight to bed and sleep quietly afterward.”  Religious hypocrisy was the damning force behind his countrymen’s motivations: “He shows the whites of his eyes on the Sabbath, and the blacks all the rest of the week.”

For his lecture, Thoreau drew from his journal entries dated October 19, 21, and 22.  The determined scrawl amounted to 10,016 words over three days, the bulk of these revised and polished for his October 30 lecture.  Between October 20 and 30, Thoreau wrote his lecture using the daily newspapers as a resource.  He informed his immediate family of his intentions and, with the exception of one, they consented.  He wrangled a local boy to deliver the news in the streets that he intended to lecture at the First Parish Meetinghouse.  Shortly thereafter, members of the Republican Town Committee informed him that such an occasion would be inadvisable.  Since Brown was perceived in the press and on the streets as a traitor and zealot, he had yet to garner his countrymen’s respect.  It was Thoreau’s mission to change all that—at least in Concord.  He would be the first person, at least in the northeast region of the country, to speak publicly in defense of John Brown while he was still alive.  Only twenty-four hours after Thoreau’s October 30 lecture, Wendell Phillips delivered his own take on the Brown affair, “The Lesson of the Hour,” at Henry Beecher Stowe’s Pilgrim Church in Brooklyn, New York, on the evening of October 31, 1859.

Franklin Benjamin Sanborn also made an attempt to forestall Thoreau’s plans.  Allegedly by one account, Thoreau sent the boy he’d used earlier back out to tell Sanborn “that he has misunderstood the announcement, that there is to be a meeting in the vestry, and that Mr. Thoreau will speak.”  Sanborn may have been concerned more for his own welfare than Thoreau’s.  Being an acquaintance of Brown, he knew of the militant’s intentions for Harpers Ferry.  When Sanborn toured the west during the summer of 1856 to report upon the progress of Free-Soil agitation, he met John Brown.  In 1857, he brought him to Concord to help raise money for Brown’s cause.  His insight into the events of Harpers Ferry became public knowledge and subsequently he was asked to testify before the Senate during Brown’s trial.  Sanborn refused and was arrested.  Judge Ebeneezer Rockwood Hoar prepared a writ of habeas corpus and presented it to Sanborn’s captors who, then, departed Concord.

The vestry of the Town Hall was filled to capacity.  There were those who made it their express mission to decry Thoreau’s “plea for John Brown.”  Those who supported Thoreau’s opinion arrived inconspicuously so as not to arouse conflict with the significantly larger opposition.  And, of course, there were those who had no opinion at all.  Edward Emerson’s “Notes on Thoreau” recalled: “Many persons came to hear, but doubtful what to think.”  He remembered that Thoreau’s words “burned him.” His delivery, read from the leaning pulpit and clutching a sheaf of papers, was impassioned, purposeful.  Ralph Waldo noted that Thoreau’s words were “heard by all respectfully, by many with a sympathy that surprised themselves.”  Minot Pratt, a neighbor of Thoreau’s, wrote to his wife after the lecture: “Henry spoke of [Brown] in terms of the most unqualified eulogy.  I never heard him before speak so much in praise of any man, and did not know his sympathies were so strong in favor of the poor slave.”  Most impressionable to Pratt was Thoreau’s attack on American politics and the “church.”  Both institutions did not ennoble men as much as a heroic action toward a worthy selfless cause did: “In the course of his remarks on Capt. Brown’s heroic character, and actions in the service of freedom and the probability of his being killed therefore, he said he had been strongly impressed with the possibility of a man’s dying—very few men can die—they never lived, how can they die!  The life they lived was not life.”[29]

Bronson Alcott reported on the proceedings from the safe distance of his diary: “Thoreau reads a paper of his on John Brown, his virtues, spirit, and deeds, at the vestry this evening, and to the delight of his company I am told—the best that could be gathered on short notice, and among them Emerson.  I am not informed in season, and have my meeting at the same time.  I doubt not of its excellence and eloquence, and wish he may have opportunities of reading it elsewhere.”

Thoreau’s assessment of Brown’s principles, character, and raid upon Harpers Ferry fared well with his Concord audience.  It was, in a way, the most successful lecture of his career.  Partially, it was the sensational newsworthiness, for its timing coincided with Brown’s incarceration and trial.  The lecture, titled by Thoreau as “The Character of Capt. Brown, Now in the Clutches of the Slaveholder,” was also given in Boston and Worcester during the first week of November.

Although he may not have reached Brown’s critics at large, many New Englanders were thoroughly intrigued by Thoreau’s plea.  On November 7, Mary Jennie Tappan from New Hampshire wrote Thoreau:

I wish to thank you for the utterance of those brave, true words in behalf of the noble Saint and self-forgetting hero of Harpers Ferry; just the words I so longed to have some living voice speak, loud so that the world might hear—In the quiet of my home among the hills I read them tonight and feel that my thought has found a glorified expression and I am satisfied, and through the distance I reach forth my hand to thank you—bless you—I hope you will not think this note, born of this moments impulse an unpardonable intrusion—I believe you will not—you are not so bound by conventionalisms—to me you are not so much a stranger as I to you.—God keep you![30]

*  *  *  *

Writing to H. G. O. Blake, Thoreau glowed with the success of his endeavor.  Its success does not mean that he had relayed the tenor of his convictions convincingly: “I think that we should express ourselves at once, while Brown is alive.  The sooner the better.”[31]  Although Thoreau’s impassioned efforts to save John Brown were ennobling, like other supporters of the abolitionist, he was unaware that Brown had already rejected in principle their life-saving notions.  The prospect of being executed did not stop Brown from speaking out against slavery.  Aware that forces were building in support of his war against slavery, Brown stoically refused deliverance.  It was through martyrdom, some theorized, that his message would effectively live.

Charles W. Slack (lawyer and editor of the Boston Commonwealth) sent a telegram via the American Telegram Company to Concord on October 31 addressed either to Thoreau or Emerson as recipients: “Thoreau must lecture for Fraternity Tuesday evening—Douglas fails—Letter mailed.”  Slack expressed dissatisfaction that their original speaker had fled to Canada.  Following the indictments for the Harpers Ferry raid, Frederick Douglass had abandoned all of his commitments in order to elude arrest by the Federal Marshall.  The day before the lecture, Douglass had somehow contacted Slack to notify him of the cancellation.  Having received a favorable report of Thoreau’s Concord lecture, Slack sent the telegrammed invitation, which Thoreau accepted wholeheartedly.  Ironically, the scheduled topic for Douglass’s lecture had been “Self-Made Men,” which Thoreau categorically fulfilled in the most extreme sense of the concept.

Two Boston newspapers, the Boston Daily Evening Traveller and the Boston Daily Evening Transcript, advertised the lecture at short notice.  The doors opened at 6:30 on November 1, with tickets selling for twenty-five cents, and the lecture commenced promptly at 7:00 p.m.  Thoreau stood at the lectern of Tremont Temple in Boston.  No doubt he felt assured and motivated after the successful reception two days earlier.  Thoreau had once again changed his lecture’s title to “The Character and Actions of John Brown.”

Fraternity Course’s lectures tended to attract a significant audience and, for Thoreau, it was no different.  Some estimates were of 2,500 audience members.  Slack approached the podium and informed those present of the reasons for Douglass’s absence:

A freeman . . . by right of taking that which to him belonged, as well as by purchase, a citizen of the Empire State, Frederick Douglass would not, that night, be safe in the city of Boston.  However differently the audience might view the events in the South, there were few present who did not honor the manly bravery of John Brown, in this hour of his deep distress.   If they had not one with them who, many think, was engaged in the scheme with Brown, they had one who sympathized with him in his enterprise—Henry D. Thoreau, of Concord.[32]

After being introduced, Thoreau approached the podium and informed his audience: “The reason why Frederick Douglass is not here is the reason why I am.”  Although the title had changed, the running theme and content was the same as the October 30th lecture.  When one audience member challenged him, Thoreau answered curtly and confidently.  The man said, “The history of this event will occupy but a brief page in the history of [the] country.”  Thoreau responded, “If this be true, how long will be the paragraph that records the history of the Republican Party?”  Over the course of an hour and a half, broken occasionally by thunderous applause, Thoreau won the listeners over with his impassioned oratory, with some believing that he was no less than a “philosopher.”  One woman, Caroline H. Dall, wrote in her journal that, though Thoreau tended to utter things she deemed to be in “bad taste,” his lecture was celebratory of a true American: “[I]t was on the whole a grand tribute to the truest American who has lived since George Washington.”[33]  This different side of Thoreau surprised many—the witty philosopher was now a fiery social reformer.  The lecture, as H. G. O. Blake remembered years later to the Unitarian, “brought out strongly the manly & heroic side of [Thoreau], but I think he felt, as I see you feel, that it was largely a disturbing & painful circumstance in his career.”[34]  This impassioned plea, Blake recognized, was an anomaly for Thoreau, immersed as he was in a wealth of natural history forays.

The press reports varied, but, in general, they were quite favorable.  The Springfield Republican was the harshest, recommending that Thoreau, the “thorough fanatic,” imitate Brown by “rushing to the gallows.”[35]  The New York Daily Tribune stated its opinion of Thoreau and his lecture in one paragraph.  The article, titled “From Boston,” opined that there were “some just and striking remarks in it, and many foolish and ill-natured ones.  Sneers at the Republicans were quite frequent.  Men like General Wilson, and editors like those of The Tribune and The Liberator, who, while the lecturer was cultivating beans and killing woodchucks on the margin of Walden Pond, made a public opinion strong enough on Anti-Slavery grounds to tolerate a speech from him in defense of insurrection, deserve better treatment than they receive from some of the upstart Abolitionists of the day.”[36]

Bronson Alcott wrote to Daniel Ricketson: “Thoreau has just come back from reading to Parker’s company a revolutionary Lecture on Osawatomie Brown, a hero and martyr after his own heart and style of manliness. . . .  I wish the towns might be his auditors throughout the length and breadth of states and country.  He thinks of printing it in pamphlet and spreading it far and wide, North and South.”[37]

*  *  *  *  *

Brown’s trial in Virginia ended on November 1.  Predictably, the court sentenced him to death by hanging one month later.  The ailing Theodore Parker, writing from Rome to friend Francis Parker, received the news by telegraph brought by a Boston steamer and lamented, “I could not help wishing I was at home again to use what poor remnant of power is left to me in defense of the True and Right.”[38]

In Boston, the Executive Committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society convened.  Together they authored and adopted a new resolution to observe the death of John Brown when it occurred:

Resolved, That it is recommended to the friends of impartial freedom throughout the Free States, in case of the execution of Capt. John Brown, now on trial for his life in Virginia, to observe that tragical event, on the day of its occurrence, in such manner as by them may be deemed most appropriate in their various localities,—whether by public meetings and addresses, the adoption of resolutions, private conferences, or any justifiable mode of action, —for the furtherance of the Anti-Slavery cause and renewedly to consecrate themselves to the patriotic and Christian work of effecting the abolition of that most dangerous, unnatural, cruel and impious system of slavery, which is the fruitful source of all our sectional heart-burnings and conflicts, which powerfully and increasingly tends to promote servile insurrections and civil war, which cannot be more truly or more comprehensively described than as “the sum of all villainies,” which is a burning disgrace and fearful curse to the whole country, and by the speedy extinction of which, alone, can the land be saved from violence, blood, and utter demoralization.[39]

It was also recommended that towns toll their church bells for one hour on the day of Brown’s death.

*  *  *  *  *

Thoreau stressed his desire to lecture in Worcester on the subject of John Brown to H. G. O. Blake on October 31.  Thoreau asked only that his expenses be paid, never soliciting additional payment.  Blake, in turn, rented the second floor of the brand-new Mechanics Hall of Worcester (built in 1857).  The hall’s second floor boasted an eighty-by-fifty-foot meeting room, steam heating in each room, and lustrous gas lighting.  On November 3, the day of Thoreau’s scheduled appearance, the hall was quickly filled to capacity.  Again, Bronson Alcott was present and recorded his impressions of the proceedings in his journal:

Thoreau calls and reports about the reading of his lecture on Brown at Boston and Worcester.  Thoreau has good right to speak fully his mind concerning Brown, and has been the first to speak and celebrate the hero’s courage and magnanimity.  It is these which he discerns and praises.  The men have much in common: the sturdy manliness, straight-forwardness and independence.  It is well they met, and that Thoreau saw what he sets forth as no one else can.  Both are sons of Anak,[40] and dwellers in Nature—Brown taking more to the human side and driving straight at institutions whilst Thoreau contents himself with railing at them and letting them otherwise alone.  He is the proper panegyrist of the virtues he owns himself so largely, and so comprehends in another.[41]

Although the lecture this time was very similar to the previous Concord and Boston outings, Thoreau made minor revisions to his text.  At the end of his reading copy, “Captain Brown was hung” was altered to read “on the 2nd of December Brown will be hung.”  At the end, Thoreau tagged on, “And you have read today his speech to the court that sentenced him; clear as a cloudless sky; true as the voice of nature is.”

Thoreau visited Bronson Alcott’s home on November 9.  He suggested to Alcott that someone be elected (“from the North”) to visit or write to the Virginia governor to vouch for John Brown’s “character and motives” in order to forestall Brown’s death sentence.  Alcott opined that either Thoreau or Emerson was best qualified to speak for the northern states.  However, in his private jottings, Alcott felt that “Slavery must have its way, and Wise must do its bidding on peril of its own safety with the rest.”[42]  Thoreau, however, would not give up so easily.  On another visit to Alcott, where he dined along with Daniel Ricketson, he remained enthusiastic about Brown while denouncing in the bitterest terms the Union, its president, all the states in general, and Virginia in particular.  Thoreau expressed displeasure at his failure to publish in pamphlet form his lecture, now titled “A Plea for Capt. John Brown.”[43]  Writing to Calvin Greene on November 24, Thoreau stated that he “exerted myself considerably to get the . . . discourse printed & sold for the benefit of Brown’s family—but the publishers are afraid of pamphlets & it is now too late.”[44]

Thoreau also remained proactive in enacting the American Anti-Slavery Society’s resolution of observance for John Brown.  Contacting Concord’s town clerk, Thoreau reserved the Town Hall for the evening of November 28 for a preparatory meeting and space for the commemorative service itself on December 2.  In preparation, he scoured his journals and notebooks for extracts of poems that he deemed appropriate for Brown’s service.  In his journal he noted: “I looked into the Church of England liturgy, printed near the beginning of the last century, to find a service applicable to the case of Capt. John Brown.”[45]

Approximately 150 people attended Concord’s Town Hall on November 28.  The proceedings established that Thoreau would enjoin a committee:  “Nov. 30.  I am one of a committee of four, viz. Simon Brown (Ex-Lieutenant-Governor),

  1. W. Emerson, myself, and John Keyes (late High Sheriff), instructed by a meeting of citizens to ask liberty of the selectmen to have the bell of the first parish tolled at the time of Captain Brown being hung, and while we shall be assembled in the town house to express our sympathy with him.”[46]

Thoreau applied to three selectmen: George M. Brooks, Barzillai Hudson, and Julius Smith. After a period of time, they replied to Thoreau that they thought the request beyond the measure of their power to permit and withdrew consent.  Thoreau believed that people like Rockwood Hoar influenced the selectmen.  Dr. Bartlett told Thoreau that Hoar “hoped no such foolish thing would be done.”  Others in opposition were high-profile figures like John Moore, Stedman Buttrick, John Moore, and Francis Wheeler.  Thoreau’s concluded that Concord was no different than Virginia, both “afraid of their own shadows.”[47]  At the meeting Thoreau expressed a desire to hang the United States flag at half-mast and the “union down.”  What stands out remarkably is Thoreau’s willingness to take part in a committee that seemed to contradict starkly his pronounced individualism.  However, in his view, the cause was just.  Brown and his actions were committed purely out of principle, which was just cause enough for Thoreau to forego his staunch refusal to partake in committee-driven ventures.

*  *  *  * *

The weeks leading up to John Brown’s execution cast a pall of distrust, animosity, and bickering between the two opposing factions.  Although there were individuals in both camps who remained either indecisive or neutral, the majority were staunchly opposed to its counterpart.  States, in particular the northern ones, were bottlenecked with a high level of tension.

It was no different in Concord.

Thoreau met with Alcott and Emerson on November 30 and, again, on December 1 to peruse the details of the commemorative service.  Unanimously, they decided not to have any “speeches made on the occasion, but have selected appropriate passages from Brown’s words, from the poets, and from the Scriptures . . . read by Thoreau, Emerson, and myself [Alcott], chiefly; and the selection and arrangement is ours.”  The passages were divided among them, with Thoreau presenting the appropriate extracts of poetry he’d already chosen, Emerson reading the words of John Brown, and Bronson Alcott “reading the Martyr Service.”[48]  Sanborn had written an original “dirge” to be sung in honor of Brown.  It was construed that for each to speak with their respective prejudices intact would seriously threaten the occasion with “treasonable utterances if we allowed ourselves to speak our own sentiments.”  “The plan,” John Shephard Keyes later recalled, “was cordially assented to.”[49]

Thoreau had also arranged to have a broadside printed for the commemorative; “Martyrdom of John Brown. Exercises at the Town Hall, in Concord, on Friday, December 2, 1859, at 2 o’clock p.m.”  The intention of the meeting was made plain on the broadside: “Music, Prayer, Hymn, ‘Go to the grave in all thy glorious prime,’ Reading of Pertinent Passages, Selections from Brown’s Last Words, Service for the Death of a Martyr.”  A piano was moved into Town Hall by help Thoreau had hired.  A notice appeared on December 1 in the Boston Daily Evening Traveller warning that the tolling of the bell and the lowering of the flag at half mast “will be strongly opposed.”[50]

During the late evening of December 1 or early morning hours of December 2, a life-sized effigy of John Brown was strung up in front of Concord’s Town Hall.  A paper was attached to the likeness inscribed with the following:


Last Will and Testament of John Brown, of

Jefferson County, Virginia.

I bequeath to Hon. Simon Brown my execution Robe, the emblem of spotless purity and an unswerving Politician.

     I bequeath to Hon. John S. Keyes my execution Cord, made of material warranted to last to hang all the Aiders and abetters of Old John Brown.

     I bequeath to H.D. Thoreau, Esq., my body and Soul, he having eulogized my character and actions at Harper’s Ferry above Saints of Heaven.

     I bequeath to my beloved friend, Charles Bowers, My old boots, and emblems of the souls of those I have Murdered.

     I bequeath to Ralph Waldo Emerson all my Personal property, and my execution cap, which Contains nearly all my brains I ever had.

      I bequeath to Dr. Josiah Bartlett the superintending of the ringing of the bells, and flags at half-mast, union down.[51]

Shortly after discovery, the ugly effigy was cut down and destroyed along with the attached will.  A copy of the will still managed to reach the editorial offices of the Post.  In Thoreau’s journal, he commented, “Certain persons disgraced themselves by hanging Brown in effigy in this town on the 2d.  I was glad to know that the only four whose names I heard mentioned in connection with it had not been long resident here, and had done nothing to secure the respect of the town.”[52]

On the morning of December 2, Brown wrote a letter to his wife and a note to his fellow countrymen: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.  I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”  Foregoing religious clergy to see him through his final hours (he was assured himself that they were pro-slavery and, thus, part and parcel of the government), Brown instead read from his personal copy of the Bible and finalized the details of his Last Will and Testament.  An hour before noon, he was escorted by a sheriff, his assistants, and a militia guard as they walked through a throng of 2,000 spectators.  One of his guards, reserved and smartly-polished in a militia uniform, was the future assassin of Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth.  At 11:15 a.m. Brown was hanged and pronounced dead forty-five minutes later.  The body was removed with the rope still around the bruised neck.  Brown was dumped into a cheap wooden coffin, his lifeless form no better or worse the wear than the burnt effigy that bore his form approximately 450 miles north of where his body lie.

Concord was not unique in its observance of Brown’s death in the United States.  Similar demonstrations were held in numerous cities and towns throughout the country.  Sympathizers of John Brown gathered at Concord Town Hall mere hours after Brown’s execution.  They, a hodgepodge of demographics, came from surrounding towns as far as Boston,: young and old, black and white, man and woman, sympathizers and condemners.  Reverend Sears opened the proceedings with a hymn.  Thoreau followed.  His selection commenced with an introduction:

So universal and widely related is any transcendent moral greatness—so nearly identical with greatness every where and in every age, as a pyramid contracts the nearer you approach its apex—that, when I now look over my commonplace book of poetry, I find that the best of it is oftenest applicable, in part or wholly, to the case of Captain Brown.  Only what is true, and strong, and solemnly earnest will recommend itself to our mood at this time.  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 discerned to be the parts of a universal liturgy, applicable to those rare cases of heroes and martyrs, for which the ritual of no church has provided.  This is the formula established on high,—their burial service—to which every great genius has contributed its stanza or line.[53]

He then transitioned into selected poetry extracts—including Andrew Marvell, Sir Walter Raleigh, and James Shirley—followed with extracts chosen by Emerson.  Thoreau finished his reading with a translation by Emerson of Tacitus’s De Vita Ivli Agricolae.  Emerson, Keyes, Bowers, and Alcott followed Thoreau.  At the service’s conclusion, the onlookers joined in a singing of Sanborn’s dirge.

Despite Thoreau’s recollection, others contradicted the information with memories of their own.  John S. Keyes observed that Thoreau “with his usual egotism broke the agreement and said some rambling incoherent sentences that might have been unfortunate if they had not been unintelligible.”  This suggests that Thoreau did go against the wishes of the collective and read his own material.  “It had been arranged,” recalled Keyes, “that all who took part should read suitable selections from books, not trust to their own expression of indignation lest in the intense excitement of the occasion language might be used that would make trouble; Mr. Emerson, Mr. Alcott, the minister & others all conformed to the agreement, but Thoreau made a long speech of his own ideas and opinions.”

Contrary to the Liberator’s plea for, and Thoreau’s intentions to have the bells tolled, none did that day.

Alcott noted, “It was more fitting to signify our sorrow in the subdued tones, and silent, than by any clamor of steeples and the awakening of angry feelings.”  The service, in Alcott’s opinion, was “affective and impressing; distinguished by modesty, simplicity, and earnestness; worthy alike of the occasion and of the man.”[54]

Sixteen months later, Brown’s prophecy was fulfilled.

The Civil War had started.

[1] Letter from RWE to William Emerson, Sept. 8, 1859

[2]  Journal, September 4, 1859

[3]  Letter from Thoreau to Harrison Blake, pp. 557–59

[4]  Correspondence, p. 559

[5]  Thoreau to Ricketson, October 14, 1859

[6]  Weidensaul, S. 1991. The Birder’s Miscellany. Simon & Schuster, New York, NY., p. 135

[7]  Journal, September 11, 1859

[8]  “Thoreau as Scientist: American Science in the 1850s,” Thoreau’s World & Ours (North American Press, USA 1993), pp. 43–44

[9]  “Geographic Distribution of Animals,” Agassiz – 1850

[10]  Thoreau to H. G. O. Blake – January 1, 1859


[11] Despite the date, some additions were made in the manuscript from 1860.  Wild Fruits, p. 287

[12]  Journal –  September 8, 1859

[13] Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498) was an Italian religious and political figure and reformer.  He was born of familial nobility at Ferrara, Italy.   In 1474, in Bologna, he entered the Dominican order.  His stay at a convent at Brescia won him attention for his merited zealous devotion and his preaching of the sinfulness and apostasy of the time was a popular triumph.  Some hailed him as an inspired prophet.

[14] The raptor, Falco columbarius, is a species of hawk common to the northern hemisphere in both North America and Europe.

[15] October 15, 1859

[16] Leabaux, Thoreau’s Seasons, pp. 319–20

[17]  Journal, September 18, 1859

[18]  Ibid., October 19, 1859

[19]  “A Plea for John Brown,” Reform Papers, p. 122

[20]  Ibid., p. 118

[21]  Journal, October 19, 1859

[22]  Ibid., October 19, 1859

[23]  The Liberator, October 21, 1859

[24]  Journal – January 5, 1860

[25]  Ibid., January 5, 1860

[26]  “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” Reform Papers, p. 125

[27]  Ibid., p. 112

[28]  JournaL, October 22, 1859

[29]  Letter from Minot Pratt to Maria Pratt, undated

[30]  Letter from Mary Jennie Tappan to Thoreau,  November 7, 1859

[31]  Thoreau to Blake, October 31, 1859

[32]  Boston Atlas & Daily Bee, November 2, 1859


[33]  Caroline H. Dall, journal entry – November 1, 1859

[34]  Letter from H.G.O. Blake to Samuel Arthur Jones, March 4, 1890

[35]  Springfield Republican, November 3, 1859

[36]  New York Daily Tribune, November 9, 1859

[37]  Daniel Ricketson: Autobiographic & Miscellaneous, pp. 130–31

[38]  Parker to Francis Jackson, November 24, 1859 – Theodore Parker: An Anthology, Beacon Press, 1960

[39]  Liberator, November 4, 1859

[40] Sons of Anak (Hebrew): In the Bible, the Sons of Anak were an ancient race of giants.  When Moses sent Joshua to the land of Canaan in order to spy, the people he saw there were “men of a great stature.  And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight” (Numbers 13:32–3).

[41]  Alcott, Journals, p. 321

[42]  Ibid.

[43]  Ibid.

[44]  Letter from Thoreau to Calvin Greene, November 24, 1859

[45]  Journal, November 18, 1859

[46]  Ibid., November 30, 1859

[47]  Journal 12

[48]  Alcott, Journals, p. 322

[49]  Keyes, TSB: “Unpublished Account of the Exercises in Memory of John Brown, Concord, Massachusetts, December 2, 1859,” Thoreau Society Bulletin, no.143 (Spring 1985):2

[50]  Boston Daily Evening Traveller, December 1, 1859

[51]  “In Concord,” Boston Post, December 3, 1859

[52]  Journal, December 8, 1859

[53]  Reform Papers, “The Martyrdom of John Brown”

[54]  Alcott, Journals, p. 323

Author: Paul Maher Jr.

Author and Editor of Kerouac: The Definitive Biography (2005); Empty Phantoms (2006); Jack Kerouac's American Journey (2007); Miles on Miles: Interviews and Encounters with Miles Davis (2009); Tom Waits on Tom Waits (2011); Extracts Related to the Indians (Henry Thoreau) - Notebooks 1 & 2. Maher is currently filming a natural history film based on the journal of Henry Thoreau.

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