"A Plea for Captain John Brown" by Henry David Thoreau
from the introduction...
The following text probably needs no introduction, as it is possibly one of the greatest speeches in American history. I was enthusiastically reminded of it by a close friend and comrade, and it seemed an appropriate birthday present to her to reprint it here.
Written and presented at a small gathering in Massachusetts in 1859, on the eve of the execution of the abolitionist insurrectionary John Brown, Thoreau’s “Plea for Captain John Brown” presents not just an impassioned defense of Brown’s actions in the face of near universal condemnation, but also tremendously affecting critiques of pacifism, Christian hypocrisy, racism, political parties, and the intellectual and spiritual laziness of the modern bourgeois individual.
It is worth reprinting because, despite this and other famous texts, Thoreau is largely remembered for his works Walden and Civil Disobedience. While both of these are interesting pieces in their own way, this legacy has led to the general perception of Thoreau as a sort of mystic and pacifist, neither of which are true descriptions of the man or his ideas. People have thereby avoided wrestling with some of Thoreau’s more radical ideas, excellently characterized , for example, by a few short quotes from this speech:
“It was his peculiar doctrine that a man has a perfect right to interfere by force with the slaveholder, in order to rescue the slave. I agree with him….I do not wish to kill or be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both these things would be by me unavoidable. We preserve the so-called peace of our community by deeds of violence every day. Look at the policeman’s billy and handcuffs! Look at the gaol! Look at the gallows! Look at the chaplain of the regiment!”
And while this speech is a snapshot of a country on the verge of Civil War, poignantly condemning both Southern oppression and Northern hypocrisy, it also asserts timeless critiques of alienation and politics, as relevant today as 150 years ago:
“We dream of foreign countries, of other times and races of men, placing them at a distance in history or space; but let some significant event like the present occur in our midst, and we discover, often, this distance and this strangeness between us and our nearest neighbors. They are our Austrias, and Chinas, and South Sea Islands. Our crowded society becomes well spaced all at once, clean and handsome to the eye- a city of magnificent distances. The thoughtful man becomes a hermit in the thoroughfares of the market-place.”
Thoreau’s defense of Brown’s attempted insurrection, and Brown’s own statements, are passionately, persistently moral in their framework. Brown was well aware that from the “practical” perspectives of politics and economics his rebellion made no sense. It was precisely his moral, not to mention theological, grounding that rose above these practical objections. Contrasted with the dominant contemporary political narratives of irony and centrism, not to mention vague anarchist critiques of “morality,” this ethical positioning remains at times for me the most compelling case for violent revolution. In a situation as difficult as ours, with prospects so bleak, that rebellion is the right thing to do, rather than a materially or existentially self-interested exercise, still makes sense.
As Howard Zinn once wrote, Brown was hung with federal complicity for attempting to do with small-scale violence what that same federal government would later do with a massive war—end slavery. Because slavery still exists, in every factory and coffee shop, every factory farm and every prison, we can be sure there will be more insurrections, more John Browns. When the liberals and progressives and politicians and do-gooders and journalists and NGO’s and nonprofits of the 21st century condemn the next rebellion and its participants, we ought to remember these words of Thoreau:
“ I foresee the time when the painter will paint that scene, no longer going to Rome for a subject; the poet will sing it; the historian record it…when at least the present form of slavery shall be no more here. We shall then be at liberty to weep for Captain Brown. Then, and not till then, we will take our revenge.”