"Hardly the Voice of the Same Man": "Civil Disobedience" and Thoreau's Response to John Brown
Donahue James J., The Midwest Quarterly
How rarely I meet with a man who can be free, even in thought! We live according to rule. Some men are bedridden; all, world-ridden. Henry David Thoreau. Journal, May 10, 1857
HENRY DAVID THOREAU LIVED in a society teeming with political strife. In his introduction to Thoreau: People, Principles, and Politics, Milton Meltzer writes that "Thoreau was born in time to hear reminiscences of the American Revolution from local survivors of those battles, and he died as the Civil War was creating another generation of veterans" (ix). Thoreau's life was framed by wars that helped to shape the political and cultural borders of America. Further, he was witness to the use of violent action as a means of effecting political change. However, he himself was not an activist, at least not violent; rather, as Michael Meyer points out, "his greatest strengths as a social critic was his diagnoses" ("Black Emigration," 380). Rather than committing himself to any use of physical warfare, Meltzer continues, "[h]e was committed to another war ... against injustice and slavery" (ix). Meltzer contrasts Thoreau's "inner war" of conscience to the "outer wars" against the Indians and Mexico, wars that Thoreau took no active part in (unless one reads his night in jail for refusing to pay taxes as an overt act). In either ease, what is important to note here is the non-confrontational nature of Thoreau's political activism.
Although political injustice was a complaint as old as the country itself, slavery was bringing the country closer to imminent warfare. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1851 increased the outrage of Northern abolitionists--including Thoreau--and helped to strike the match that would eventually help spark the Civil War (1861-1865). An informed and civic-minded thinker who spent much time writing on his own thoughts (often revising his journals into public addresses), Thoreau's writings from the period reflect his own understanding of and responses to various contemporary issues. Specifically, Thoreau's pieces in support of John Brown reflect his views on the issue of slavery in the United States.
However, one cannot simply read "A Plea for Captain John Brown" (1859) and "The Last Days of John Brown" (1860) and appreciate Thoreau's political and ethical arguments. In order to understand the complexities and contradictions that are often noted in these two pieces, one must read them as a development in his political thinking, specifically with regard to the issue of slavery--a development that runs through "Civil Disobedience" (1849) and "Slavery in Massachusetts" (1854). Although Thoreau's sympathies to John Brown and his violence are seemingly more extreme than his earlier statements in "Civil Disobedience," such a change reflects not a break with his Transcendental ideals but rather the identification of his metaphysical ideals in the person of John Brown. More specifically, Thoreau's seemingly contradictory attempts to link his ethics to John Brown's acts represent the move from the abstract and more general world of ideas ("Civil Disobedience") to the more concrete world of politics ("Slavery in Massachusetts" and "A Plea for John Brown"), before turning once again to the abstract and universal in "The Last Days of John Brown."
Thoreau was not the only public figure to champion Brown. Brown's friend Frederick Douglass voiced his support in a now-famous letter of October 31, 1859, in the Rochester Democrat (though widely reprinted). Having fled to Canada for fear of arrest as an accomplice at Harpers Ferry, Douglass states that "I am ever ready to write, speak, publish, organize, combine, and even to conspire against Slavery" (qtd. in Quarles, 9). However, Douglass's letter was inspired primarily to answer a charge of cowardice made by John E. Cook, one of Brown's captured conspirators. Douglass notes that "Mr. Cook may be perfectly right in denouncing me as a coward. I have not one word to say in defense or vindication of my character for courage" (8). Douglass further makes clear that, though ever ready to join forces with those who would topple America's peculiar institution, his "field of labor for the abolition of Slavery has not extended to an attack upon the United States Arsenal" (9). If it here appears that Douglass does not support Brown's efforts, he later states that "every man [should] work for the abolition of Slavery in his own way. I would help all and hinder none" (10). This letter, from one the period's greatest masters of abolitionist rhetoric, evidences a common paradox with regard to Brown: how does one support the motives behind his actions without supporting the violence of the actions themselves? How does one champion abstract notions of sweeping political change without supporting its violent instruments? These questions become particularly interesting with respect to John Brown, whose violence was widely known. By 1856 (three years before Harpers Ferry), as F. B. Sanborn makes clear, "Brown's name had become such a terror, that wherever the enemy were attacked they believed he was in command" (309), and Brown was personally named in many letters as leading parties of aboilitionists to murder in Kansas. John Brown, then, created a complex test case for many abolitionists, and especially the Transcendentalists, with respect to their calls for an immediate end to slavery in America.
In her study of Thoreau and Daniel Berrigan (Vietnam-era political activist), Laraine Fergenson argues:
One problem inherent in Transcendental politics is the contradiction between the inner-spiritual aspect of Transcendentalism and its turning outward, its impetus toward social reform, which sprang paradoxically from the very inwardness of the Transcendentalist philosophy.... Another facet of the problem at the heart of Transcendental politics--one that is related to the incongruity between its inner-spiritual-individualistic tendencies and the outer-secular-collective mode of the radical political action it has inspired--is ... the conflict between reason and passion. (104-5)
Fergenson would have us believe that not only must the Transcendental political thinker be separate from the Transcendental political activist, but that this is also a problem, seen in her reading of "Resistance to Civil Government" as "at once a passionate statement of individual conviction and a reasoned argument calling for unified mass action" (105). However, no justification for the problematic nature of Transcendental political activism is provided, other than the argument that passion and reason exist only as a paradox, as if mutually exclusive. In terms of Thoreau's relationship to Brown, Thoreau would apparently embody reason, and Brown, passion. This relationship is only paradoxical, in terms of Thoreau's defense of Brown, if one understands Brown to be representative of the political ethic outlined in "Civil Disobedience." This relationship is not paradoxical, however, if one understands Thoreau's four political essays as developmental, and if one understands Thoreau's relationship to Brown to be complementary.
Leon Edel argues that "[h]is defense of John Brown, with his espousal of violence in that instance, is hardly the voice of the same man" (qtd. in Goodwin, 156). Though correct, Edel's observation is not as problematic as critics such as Fergenson may be inclined to believe. For as James Goodwin points out:
in crucial instances [Thoreau's] thought appears to be more closely aligned to a doctrine of individual nihilism than to the philosophy of mass nonviolence. One such instance is contained in Thoreau's response to John Brown. (156).
In other words, to understand Thoreau's political stance as simply one of "mass nonviolence" is faulty, given that he does not in fact come out and espouse such an understanding in his political writings. Although he did espouse nonviolent protest--for instance in his night spent in jail for refusing to pay taxes, which action later influenced such significant nonviolent protesters as Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.--reading him simply as a proponent of nonviolent activism is an oversimplification of the political tensions found in his work. Instead, Goodwin understands Thoreau to focus on the individual, whatever his response, and as such individual acts of rebellion. And it is in this respect that one can begin to understand Thoreau's defense of Brown. Goodwin writes:
In John Brown, Thoreau believed he had at last found an individual whose conduct transcended conflicts of conscience and whose action eliminated disparity between the ideal and the real ... [understood] not as a departure from or a moderation of transcendental individualism but as a further radicalization of its tenets and an escalation of its goals. (158)
Thoreau's reaction to Brown, then, is not a break from his individualistic political views, but an identification of such values in the figure of Brown. In defining the ideal figure of Transcendental political action, Goodwin further observes:
The transcendental hero, for Thoreau, is the individual who proves himself to be utterly superior to the common mass. Here, however, it should be emphasized that in his published statements and letters Brown consistently identifies himself with the multitude suffering in slavery. (163)
This definition is significant for two reasons. First, nowhere in any of Thoreau's political pieces is there any explicit prohibition of violence as a means to achieve an end, even if such is often read into his own nonviolent actions. This is noted by Michael Meyer when he argues for Thoreau's "having to shift his ground to sustain his faith in moral law," understanding that "nonviolent resistance--practiced individually or collectively--could not effectively further the cause of abolitionism" ("Problem," 153). It was the times, not a move away from moral law, that prompted Thoreau to sympathize with Brown's actions, as well as necessitated Brown's actions in the first place. Second, where Thoreau holds Brown to be the ideal embodiment of Transcendental political ethics, Brown considered himself as just a man among the mass of men. It is in this respect that Thoreau can not only discuss Brown's actions in terms of Transcendentalism, but can also construct a reading of Brown as Christ. However, this is only the case if Thoreau's political pieces are read as developing from an abstract discussion of politics to the specific person of Brown and his actions at Harper's Ferry. "Civil Disobedience" is a statement against the idea of oppressive government, with local examples for illustration. "Slavery in Massachusetts" is a general argument against the institution of slavery, again with local supporting examples. Finally, the John Brown pieces provide at first a focused defense of one particular man in whom Thoreau has identified the solution to slavery, followed by an abstract eulogy for a Transcendental hero. It is with respect to this move from the abstract to the specific and back again that Thoreau's developing political ethic must be read.
Laying the Groundwork: "Civil Disobedienee" and "Slavery in Massachusetts"
If "Civil Disobedience" works as the cornerstone upon which Thoreau's developing political views are built, then it stands to reason that it should be as general as possible, to allow for the broadest base upon which Thoreau can construct his political ethic. The essay, then, is not so much an anti-slavery tract as an ideological statement outlining the problems with government. One of these problems is, of course, slavery. It is for this reason that critics such as Fergenson can write of "Civil Disobedience":
Thoreau is a major influence on American political protest, and yet his writings, taken as a whole, are a tissue of self-contradiction. In "Civil Disobedience" itself one does not find a consistent theory but rather a series of brilliant insights and a faint shadow of a program for a "peaceable revolution," which is undercut by other statements made in the same essay. (115)
To address her first point, one would be oversimplifying Thoreau's political development in taking his writings as a whole, as representative of one ideal. But more importantly is her problematizing of the "unresolved contradiction" she finds between "collective and individual action" (115). This contradiction only exists if one expects the essay to provide such a "program," and the contradiction dissolves if one reads the text as an abstract declaration of personal independence from the idea of oppressive government. In fact, the text is more the statement of a moral facilitator than the outline of a political theorist.
The abstract nature of the piece is evident in its use of general, even at times vague, political claims. At the start Thoreau writes "That government is best which governs least," and follows with "That government is best which governs not at all" (36). Leaving aside the general political theory he begins to map out, the language itself sets off the abstract tone. "That government" can apply to any government. Shortly following, Thoreau rebuts, "[b]ut to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government" (37-8). Thoreau here writes as a citizen, implicitly a citizen of the United States, but more explicitly a citizen in general, one who is governed. Although he later discusses American government more explicitly--such as when he poses the question: "How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today?" (39), or when he discusses the current situation with Mexico--by opening his piece with abstract gestures toward the idea of government, Thoreau allows for his essay to be read as an abstract piece of moral facilitation, which uses specific examples in American government and history to support its general claims. However, even in his use of American references, he still keeps the tone abstract. This is apparent both in his question mentioned above, generalizing his audience now rather than his subject, and in his references to the American Revolution.
In claiming that "[a]ll men recognize the right to revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government" (40)--and note here the generalizing of both subject and object--Thoreau brings the reader back to "the Revolution of '75" (40). He later questions why "government" will "always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels" (44). Here, the use of specific American figures works to both provide a direct American example for his audience and construct a more mythic chain of morally justified individuals whom history has since glorified (in the same way Thoreau will later expect Brown to be glorified, by adding him to this chain and linking him with Christ). By the time of this piece, the Revolutionary War had become a part of history, and references to it operate more abstractly than references to current politics. By mentioning these specific actors who instigated various "revolutions" against oppressive systems of rule (a list which will later include Brown), Thoreau sets the reader up to then read any man, including himself, in Thoreau's claim that "[w]hen the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished" (47). Often taken as a defense of nonviolent revolutionary action, nothing in this statement precludes the type of violence Thoreau will later implicitly defend in his support of Brown. The individual refusal of allegiance can be nothing more than refusal to pay taxes to a government waging unjust war, or it can be the taking up of arms in an effort to free slaves from that same government. It is the state of mind of the subject, not the form of protest he commits himself to, that Thoreau is emphasizing here. And it is from this general, abstract foundation of personal revolutionary measures that one can begin to see the development of Thoreau's later defense of Brown.
"Civil Disobedience" does, however, include a direct appeal to abolish slavery:
In other words, when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. (40)
Even though the United States is implicated, as is the possibility of violent protest, the language remains abstract, indicting any government that tolerates such practices. But within the span of five years, Thoreau will address the American people yet again, only this time discussing the specific issue of slavery for his specific nation.
In "Slavery in Massachusetts," Thoreau more clearly discusses the most significant ethical dilemma facing the United States and ties together the ethical and political strings he begins weaving in "Civil Disobedience." Again addressing the place of government in the ethical considerations of the people, Thoreau takes a staunchly individualistic, anti-governmental stand against the sitting government. Speaking of the governor of Massachusetts, Thoreau writes: "I think that I could manage to get along without one" (110), "[h]e is no governor of mine. He did not govern me" (111). These statements regarding his immediate local government more clearly articulate his sentiments in "Civil Disobedience" regarding the subject's refusal of allegiance, for he clearly shows none to the authority of Massachusetts. Note also the sustained, albeit weakened, abstract nature of his remarks; rather than naming the governor, Thoreau addresses his complaint to the seat of authority, allowing for the reader to associate any governor, any elected official, with this complaint. The abstract nature of Thoreau's piece is furthered by his statement regarding voting:
The fate of the country does not depend on how you vote at the polls--the worst man is as strong as the best at that game; it does not depend on what kind of paper you drop into the ballot box once a year, but in what kind of man you drop from your chamber into the street every morning. (119)
Hinting further at the necessity for such a man as Brown, Thoreau keeps his discussion of government institutions abstract. A further abstraction addressed is the idea of law itself:
The law will never make men flee; it is men who have yet to make the law flee. They are the lovers of law and order who observe the law when the government breaks it. (115)
However, even this abstraction is connected to the specific issue of American law in his reference to the Fugitive Slave Law:
The question is, not whether you or your grandfather, seventy years ago, did not enter into any agreement to serve the devil, and that service is not accordingly now due; but whether you will not now, for once and at last, serve God--in spite of your own past recreancy, or that of your ancestor--by obeying that eternal and only just CONSTITUTION, which HE, and not any Jefferson or Adams, has written in your Being. (118-9)
Thoreau now addresses not only his explicit audience but also clearly articulates both the problem with the laws imposed by the government and the very foundation of the government itself, with his refusal to accept the Constitution of the United States as the statement of his rights and freedoms.
Near the beginning of his speech, Thoreau brings to the attention of his audience the Thomas Sims ease: "Again it happens that the Boston Courthouse is full of armed men, holding prisoner and trying a man, to find out if he is not really a slave. Does any one think justice or God awaits Mr. Loring's decision?" (110). By referring to a specific ease, even naming the official involved, Thoreau means his audience to apply the abstract critique of government found in the text to the specific case now in front of them. Further, looking at the development of Thoreau's political ethic, one is able to apply his abstract discussions of politics in "Civil Disobedience" to this direct statement against slavery. The result is to see how Thoreau has come to understand the necessity for more direct action, even if he does not take it upon himself to act as Brown does. As Thoreau writes near the end of his speech:
Show me a free state, and a court truly of justice, and I will fight for them, if need be; but show me Massachusetts, and I refuse her my allegiance, and express contempt for her courts. (120-1)
Here we have not only a hint at the necessity for more direct action against injustice (now to be understood as the American government's institution of slavery), but the combining of Thoreau's theory of individual revolution and violent action. Where the call in "Civil Disobedience" to "refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government" (40), as well his claim that once "the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished" (47), can be read as supporting nonviolent, passive resistance to create the "revolution of one," here the refusal of allegiance to government is linked with direct, possibly violent action. Even if Thoreau entertains this option only hypothetically (stating the sentiment conditionally), the recognition of violence as a possible response to slavery has been made, and it is just such a sentiment that will allow Thoreau to see in Brown the only possible, the only ethical, abolitionist action. By tracing out Thoreau's developing political stance through "Civil Disobedience" and "Slavery in Massachusetts," one can now fully appreciate his recognition of Transcendental political ethics in the figure of a violent abolitionist, and the act of a bloody assault.
John Brown: Transcendental Messiah
"A Plea for Captain John Brown" does not simply support the use of violence as a means to end slavery. Rather, it raises Brown's character to a higher moral plateau from which his actions are to be read as ethically superior, and as such out of the bounds of any human consideration of law and order (working more in the Transcendental realm of just vs. unjust). He does this in part, as Kent Ljungquist points out, when he "modifies images from the newspaper accounts (blindness vs. sight, darkness vs. light, coherence vs. inchoateness) to establish Brown's moral preeminence" (678). Another way Thoreau was able to raise Brown to a higher moral plateau was by discussing him in light of the abstract principles he outlined in "Civil Disobedience" and more clearly articulated in "Slavery in Massachusetts." One such example is when Thoreau says of Brown that "only he was firmer and higher principled," and that "he had the courage to face his country herself when she was in the wrong" (171). In Brown, Thoreau sees a man refusing allegiance to his country, resisting unjust laws, answering only to the "higher law" (175). Thoreau makes this explicit when he argues that Brown had no interest in any aspect of common socio-economic, political ethics:
Well, no, I don't suppose he could get four-and-sixpence a day for being hung, take the year round; but then he stands a chance to save a considerable part of his soul--and such a soul!--when you do not. (176)
It is at this point that Thoreau, as in "Slavery in Massachusetts," turns the attention back to his audience. As in his earlier pieces, Thoreau works to establish the moral superiority of his claims by comparing them to the lack of such morals in his audience. In this way, Thoreau attempts to separate Brown from "the common man" as much as possible, and as such remove him and his actions from "common" considerations of law and order.
In an effort to set Brown apart from the common man, Thoreau writes:
I wish I could say that Brown was the representative of the North. He was a superior man. He did not value his bodily life in comparison with ideal things. He did not recognize unjust human laws, but resisted them as he was bid. For once we are lifted out of the trivialness and dust of politics into the region of truth and manhood. No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature, knowing himself for a man, and the equal of any and all governments. In that sense he was the most American of us all. (181)
First, note the emphasis on the metaphysical, as opposed to the simply physical that the common man represents. Thoreau then says of Brown: "No man has appeared in America, as yet, who loved his fellow man so well, and treated him so tenderly. He lived for him" (187). Not only is Brown enacting the rights and duties entrusted to Americans as Thoreau defines them in "Civil Disobedience," but he is also the ultimate expression of those values; he is not only "equal" to any government by nature of his being human but he is superior to any American, those who consider themselves to be the most free, as well as the most moral. In fact, Thoreau pays Brown an even higher compliment. Where in "Civil Disobedience" he uses himself as the exemplum through which one is to understand the workings of moral law under an unjust government, here Thoreau subordinates himself to Brown, clearly the better man: "I rejoice that I live in this age, that I am his contemporary" (181). It is by such subordination that Thoreau is able to express his excitement over his proximity to such a figure, one Thoreau knows will transcend both history as well as the contemporary censure of the common people. He may walk among us, but is certainly not one of us, Thoreau argues: "No, he was not our representative in any sense. He was too fair a specimen to represent the like of us" (152). Where in "Civil Disobedience" Thoreau points out that unjust governments will "always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels" (44), and so ties Brown's revolutionary actions to a larger, now mythical tradition of civil disobedience, "A Plea for Captain John Brown" does more than tie Brown to such a tradition; instead, Thoreau identifies Brown with the most powerful figure on that list: Christ.
Following an attack on its failings, Thoreau levies a now-familiar charge against government: "A government that pretends to be Christian and crucifies a million Christs every day!" (184). Now before one is tempted to read this solely as a generalized statement, reading every slave as a Christ-figure (which is certainly one way to read this statement, considering the over-generalizing nature of Thoreau's other works), one must consider the growing trend in Thoreau's writings on slavery away from the abstract, toward the specific. In this light, one is able to understand how this statement works to support Thoreau's identification of Brown with Christ: by playing off of the Christian sympathies of his audience, asking them to read acts of martyrdom as acts of Christ-figures, Thoreau is able to create the tone by which he can identify Brown as--not with--Christ. In counting Brown's band of men, Thoreau identifies "as many at least as twelve disciples" (182). Thoreau later reads Brown as Christ by way of symbolic approximation: the "same indignation that is said to have cleared the temple once will clear it again" (187). Further, in discussing the death of the mass of men, he writes that "[n]o temple's veil was rent" (188). By referring to these two instances in Christ's life--his teaching in the temple of Jerusalem and the reaction in that temple to his death on the cross--Thoreau is allowing his audience to understand Brown as the second coming of Christ: the temple will be cleared again as a result of Brown's significant act of disobedience, and Brown's eventual death at the hands of his oppressors will have the same result.
Not only does Brown show "himself superior to nature," but he also "has a spark of divinity in him" (189). Brown is more than "divinely appointed," but is "such a man as it takes ages to make, and ages to understand; no mock hero, nor the representative of any party" (189). And that government which persecutes him has done no more than "pretend to care for Christ crucified" (189). Brown is now linked to Christ directly:
Some eighteen hundred years ago Christ was crucified; this morning, perchance, Captain Brown was hung. These are the two ends of a chain which is not without its links. He is not Old Brown any longer; he is an angel of light. (190)
But this linking is not enough to understand the full significance of Brown's fulfillment of Thoreau's developing Transcendental moral and political ethic.
In "The Last Days of John Brown," Thoreau delivers a powerful eulogy for a man he knew would be recognized for his adherence to a higher moral law, even if contemporary America had mixed feelings about his actions. He begins his piece with a bold statement on the nature of Brown's heroism:
If any person, in a lecture or conversation at that time, cited any example of heroism, such as Cato or Tell or Winkelried, passing over the recent deeds and words of Brown, it was felt by any intelligent audience of Northern men to be tame and inexcusably far-fetched. (192)
Thoreau recognized that it is only in the North, and even then only among intelligent men, that Brown is justly considered heroic. But Thoreau also knew that such would pass with time, as the legacy of Brown transcended common humanity. Speaking of him now, not in the specific language he employed in his criticism of slavery and plea for Brown's cause, but in the abstract language that is used in "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau says of Brown that "I was so absorbed in him as to be surprised whenever I detected the routine of the natural world surviving still, or met persons going about their affairs indifferent" (192-3). Brown, for Thoreau at least, is an all-encompassing figure, whose legacy operates outside of both human and natural routines. Speaking of him in relation to the purely abstract, Thoreau claims that Brown was one "who actually carried out the golden rule" (194), a simplified, even abstract, name for the "higher law" of Transcendentalism. Even more so, unlike his audience, Brown knew "about living or dying for a principle" (196). And it was specifically in his death that he was fully realized as transcendent.
Goodwin writes of Thoreau's apprehension for the sparing of Brown's life as revealing.
According to the logic of transcendental individualism, ideal political conduct would necessarily culminate in self-sacrifice. Thus, the most convincing evidence of Brown's integrity is the certainty of his death at the hands of the state. (160)
Not that Brown's death at the hands of the state was ever in doubt, given the nature and locale of Brown's revolt, but Thoreau--and the abolitionist movement--needed a martyr. Neither "The Last Days of John Brown" nor "A Plea for Captain John Brown" were written, as David G. Fuller reminds us, to save him from the gallows: Thoreau's "purpose was to 'plead' Brown's 'cause,' not to plead 'for his life' " (167). Thoreau's celebration of Brown's martyrdom is made clear in the conclusion of "The Last Days of John Brown":
What a transit was that of his horizontal body alone, but just cut down from the gallows tree! ... Thus like a meteor it shot through the Union from the Southern regions toward the North! No such freight had the cars borne since they carried him southward alive. On the day of his translation, I heard, to be sure, that he was hung, but I did not know what that meant; I felt no sorrow on that account, but not for a day or two did I even hear that he was dead, and not after any number of days shall I believe it. Of all who were said to be my contemporaries, it seemed to me that John Brown was the only one who had not (tied. I never hear of a man named Brown now--and I hear of them pretty often--I never hear of any particularly brave and earnest man, but my first thought is of John Brown, and what relation he may be to him. He has earned immortality. He is not confined to North Elba nor to Kansas. He is no longer working in secret. He works in public, and in the clearest light that shines on this land. (198)
Brown, like Christ, was of such singular character that whoever--or whatever, as with the train cars--came into contact with him was forever changed by the association. Like Christ, Brown did not die, but was "translated" from one mode of existence to another--transcended, in fact, the world of common humanity, with its unjust laws and repressive sense of order, moving on to a higher moral existence. And more importantly, his legend his spirit, his character, his influence--live on and continue to work. John Brown was the man in whom Thoreau found the ideals of Transcendentalism put into action.
The Missing Link
"But," one may ask after working through Thoreau's texts on John Brown, "why does Thoreau not once discuss the violence, the murder, the bloodshed of the event? Is he blind to the horror of it?" In short, no; and yes. Thoreau was well aware of the violent nature of Brown's assault--he consumed every newspaper he could find on the event (Fuller). But more importantly, it wasn't the most significant aspect of Brown's raid. As Meyer points out, "[b]ecause Thoreau chose moral truth over political expediency, what concerned him was not how slavery was to be ended but that it be ended immediately" ("Black Emigration," 380). Thoreau recognized the importance of ending slavery by whatever means necessary. As Meyer further argues: "Freedom for Thoreau could never be a gift; it had to be earned and established by the person who would be free" ("Black Emigration," 393). This is why Thoreau himself could never effectively take part in the physical war: it was not his freedom at stake. John Brown was just that man, who "would be free" not only in relation to the common laws of humanity--which was the immediate goal for him and the slaves he fought to free--but also in terms of a higher moral freedom, which Thoreau and few others at the time recognized, but which is more universally recognized now. As Barry Kritzberg suggests:
As a young man, Thoreau had once boastfully claimed that a single individual, if he would but take the simple, sincere first step, might accomplish two-thirds of the world's reform by himself (I, 247). Henry did not propose to do the job himself, but it was his way of emphasizing what he believed to be the inadequacies of cautious reformers who attacked the branches of evil, but never the roots. (551-2)
Thoreau recognized in Brown one who attacked the roots of the slavery problem, and despite the violent measures used in this attack, it was the effort made--by an individual man of superior moral conscience against an unjust government--that was important to Thoreau, and is arguably the primary reason why history has not forgotten him.
Kritzberg further notes that
John Brown did, indeed, strike a new chord in Thoreau, but it was not manifested by any marked change in principles. Nearly all of the radical expressions of 1859 have antecedents in his earlier writings. (536)
Thoreau's writings on Brown, when read not just in light of, but as a development from, "Civil Disobedience," reveal to the reader not only that violence was certainly a foreseeable response to American slavery, but that support of a man who employed such violence to achieve his ends is not antithetical to Thoreau's philosophy. Rather, as a man of superior moral conscience, the rules of law and limiting definitions of order set by common man simply don't apply to Brown. Thoreau avoids discussing the violence of the Harpers Ferry raid for the same reason he avoids discussing the failure of the event. Yes, the revolt failed, the protesters were brought to trial, and Brown was hung. But the importance of this event lay not in the immediate human gains, but in the universal, moral triumph. In terms of Thoreau's politics, Morris B. Kaplan defines the "democratic individual" as
necessarily engaged in the business of politics to some extent, partially immersed in a network of social and natural relations. However, such persons are also capable of transcending these relationships in the direction of an authentic realization of their own ultimate possibilities. (38)
He further writes that "Thoreau's writing evinces a deep awareness of the moral ambiguities of self-formation" (57). For Thoreau, Brown was more than simply a "democratic individual." Nor was Thoreau at all morally ambiguous about Brown's self-formation. Where Kaplan may be able to apply these concepts to Thoreau and his work, the importance for Thoreau lay in reading Brown and his work as an admirable progression therefrom. In "Martyrdom of John Brown," his short piece written just prior to "The Last Days of John Brown," Thoreau translated from Tacitus's selections of topical pieces on martyrdom: "[l]et us honor you by our admiration, rather than by short-lived praises, and, if nature aid us, by our emulation of you" (Rosenblum, 162).
Douglass, Frederick. "'Letter of Monday, Oct. 31, 1859." Blacks on John Brown. Ed. Benjamin Quarles. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972. 7-10.
Fergenson, Laraine. "Thoreau, Daniel Berrigan, and the Problem of Transcendental Politics." Soundings: an interdisciplinary journal, 65 (Spring 1982), 103-22.
Fuller, David G. "Correcting the Newspapers: Thoreau and 'A Plea for Captain John Brown.'" The Concord Saunterer, N. S. 5 (Fall 1997), 165-75.
Goodwin, James. "'Thoreau and John Brown: Transcendental Politics." ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, 25:3 (1979), 156-68.
Kaplan, Morris B. "Civil Disobedience, Conscience, and Community: Thorean's "Double Self' and the Problematic of Political Action." The Delegated Intellect: Emersonian Essays on Literature, Science, and Art in Honor of Don Gifford. Ed. Donald E. Morse. American University Studies: Series XXIV--American Literature. Vol. 57. New York: Peter Lang, 1995. 37-63.
Kritzberg, Barry. "Thoreau, Slavery, and Resistance to Civil Government." The Massachusetts Review: A Quarterly of Literature, the Arts, and Public Affairs'. Winter 1989, 535-65.
Ljungquist, Kent. "'Meteor of the War': Melville, Thoreau, and Whitman Respond to John Brown." American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography. 61:4 (December 1989), 674-80.
Meltzer, Milton, ed. Thoreau: People, Principles, and Politics. New York: Hill and Wang, 1963.
Meyer, Michael. "Thoreau and Black Emigration." American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography. 61:4 (December 1981), 380-96.
--. "'Civil Disobedience' and the Problem of Thoreau's 'Peaceable Revolution.'" Approaches to Teaching Thoreau's Walden and Other Works. Ed. Richard J. Schneider. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1996. 150-54.
Rosenblum, Nancy L., ed. Thoreau: Political Writings. Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Sanborn, F. B., ed. The Life and Letters of John Brown: Liberator of Kansas, and Martyr of Virginia.(1859) New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.
Warch, Richard, and Jonathan F. Fanton, eds. John Brown. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1973.
Woodson, Thomas. "The Title and Text of Thoreau's 'Civil Disobedience.'" Bulletin of Research in the Humanities, 81 (Spring 1978), 103-12.…
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Publication information: Article title: "Hardly the Voice of the Same Man": "Civil Disobedience" and Thoreau's Response to John Brown. Contributors: Donahue James J. - Author. Journal title: The Midwest Quarterly. Volume: 48. Issue: 2 Publication date: Winter 2007. Page number: 247+. © Not available. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
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