"Hardly the Voice of the Same Man": "Civil Disobedience" and Thoreau's Response to John Brown

By Donahue James J. | The Midwest Quarterly, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

"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). …

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