On Thoreau’s 200th Birthday: His Plea For Captain John Brown
by Chris Mahin
July 12, 2017 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the writer Henry David Thoreau. Much of the commentary about this occasion has focused on Thoreau’s love of nature. This is understandable, given the current attacks on the environment.
But while “Walden” is justly celebrated, nothing Thoreau ever wrote did more good than the heartfelt essay he crafted on short notice to defend the opponents of slavery who attacked the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in the autumn of 1859.
Just two weeks after John Brown and his compatriots staged their daring raid, Thoreau stood up in a church in Concord, Massachusetts to defend them. On Sunday evening, October 30, 1859, he read aloud his essay, “A Plea for Captain John Brown.”
Describing Brown’s character, Thoreau said:
“He was like the best of those who stood at Concord Bridge once, on Lexington Common, and on Bunker Hill, only he was firmer and higher principled than any I have chanced to hear of as there. … They could bravely face their country’s foes, but he had the courage to face his country herself, when she was in the wrong. …
“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.”
In the days and weeks after the Harpers Ferry raid, Americans were stunned. Many were willing to let Brown and his men hang. Thoreau’s early, brave stance helped pave the way for other Northern intellectuals to speak out in defense of Brown and his compatriots.
I have been to Walden Pond. I have been to the church in Concord where Thoreau uttered his plea.
Both are shrines.
- Chris Mahin
For more information about the Harpers Ferry raid and Thoreau’s role afterward, see the article “Harpers Ferry: Courage and clarity changed history once – and will do it again” in Rally, Comrades!, Vol. 19, Number 5, September-October 2009.
To read the complete text of Thoreau’s “Prayer for Captain John Brown,” click this link.
A commemorative U.S. postage stamp in honor of Henry David Thoreau has just been issued, which you can read about here.