A Plea For Captain John Brown
I trust that you will pardon me for being here. I do not wish to
force my thoughts upon you, but I feel forced myself. Little as I
know of Captain Brown, I would fain do my part to correct the tone
and the statements of the newspapers, and of my countrymen generally,
respecting his character and actions. It costs us nothing to be
just. We can at least express our sympathy with, and admiration
of, him and his companions, and that is what I now propose to do.
First, as to his history. I will endeavor to omit, as much
as possible, what you have already read. I need not describe his
person to you, for probably most of you have seen and will not
soon forget him. I am told that his grandfather, John Brown, was an
officer in the Revolution; that he himself was born in Connecticut
about the beginning of this century, but early went with his
father to Ohio. I heard him say that his father was a contractor
who furnished beef to the army there, in the war of 1812; that he
accompanied him to the camp, and assisted him in that employment,
seeing a good deal of military life,--more, perhaps, than if he
had been a soldier; for he was often present at the councils of
the officers. Especially, he learned by experience how armies are
supplied and maintained in the field,--a work which, he observed,
requires at least as much experience and skill as to lead them in
battle. He said that few persons had any conception of the cost,
even the pecuniary cost, of firing a single bullet in war. He saw
enough, at any rate, to disgust him with a military life; indeed,
to excite in his a great abhorrence of it; so much so, that though
he was tempted by the offer of some petty office in the army, when
he was about eighteen, he not only declined that, but he also refused
to train when warned, and was fined for it. He then resolved that
he would never have anything to do with any war, unless it were a
war for liberty.
When the troubles in Kansas began, he sent several of his sons
thither to strengthen the party of the Free State men, fitting them
out with such weapons as he had; telling them that if the troubles
should increase, and there should be need of his, he would follow,
to assist them with his hand and counsel. This, as you all know,
he soon after did; and it was through his agency, far more than
any other's, that Kansas was made free.
For a part of his life he was a surveyor, and at one time he was
engaged in wool-growing, and he went to Europe as an agent about
that business. There, as everywhere, he had his eyes about him,
and made many original observations. He said, for instance, that
he saw why the soil of England was so rich, and that of Germany
(I think it was) so poor, and he thought of writing to some of the
crowned heads about it. It was because in England the peasantry
live on the soil which they cultivate, but in Germany they are
gathered into villages, at night. It is a pity that he did not
make a book of his observations.
I should say that he was an old-fashioned man in respect for the
Constitution, and his faith in the permanence of this Union. Slavery
he deemed to be wholly opposed to these, and he was its determined
He was by descent and birth a New England farmer, a man of great
common-sense, deliberate and practical as that class is, and tenfold
more so. 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 that I have chanced to hear of as
there. It was no abolition lecturer that converted him. Ethan
Allen and Stark, with whom he may in some respects be compared, were
rangers in a lower and less important field. They could bravely
face their country's foes, but he had the courage to face his country
herself, when she was in the wrong. A Western writer says, to
account for his escape from so many perils, that he was concealed
under a "rural exterior"; as if, in that prairie land, a hero
should, by good rights, wear a citizen's dress only.
He did not go to the college called Harvard, good old Alma Mater
as she is. He was not fed on the pap that is there furnished. As
he phrased it, "I know no more of grammar than one of your calves."
But he went to the great university of the West, where he sedulously
pursued the study of Liberty, for which he had early betrayed a
fondness, and having taken many degrees, he finally commenced the
public practice of Humanity in Kansas, as you all know. Such were
his humanities and not any study of grammar. He would have left a
Greek accent slanting the wrong way, and righted up a falling man.
He was one of that class of whom we hear a great deal, but, for
the most part, see nothing at all,--the Puritans. It would be in
vain to kill him. He died lately in the time of Cromwell, but he
reappeared here. Why should he not? Some of the Puritan stock
are said to have come over and settled in New England. They were
a class that did something else than celebrate their forefathers'
day, and eat parched corn in remembrance of that time. They
were neither Democrats nor Republicans, but men of simple habits,
straightforward, prayerful; not thinking much of rulers who did not
fear God, not making many compromises, nor seeking after available
"In his camp," as one has recently written, and as I have myself
heard him state, "he permitted no profanity; no man of loose morals
was suffered to remain there, unless, indeed, as a prisoner of war.
'I would rather,' said he, 'have the small-pox, yellow-fever, and
cholera, all together in my camp, than a man without principle....
It is a mistake, sir, that our people make, when they think that
bullies are the best fighters, or that they are the fit men to oppose
these Southerners. Give me men of good principles,--God-fearing
men,--men who respect themselves, and with a dozen of them I will
oppose any hundred such men as these Buford ruffians.'" He said
that if one offered himself to be a soldier under him, who was
forward to tell what he could or would do, if he could only get
sight of the enemy, he had but little confidence in him.
He was never able to find more than a score or so of recruits whom
he would accept, and only about a dozen, among them his sons, in
whom he had perfect faith. When he was here, some years ago, he
showed to a few a little manuscript book,--his "orderly book" I
think he called it,--containing the names of his company in Kansas,
and the rules by which they bound themselves; and he stated that
several of them had already sealed the contract with their blood.
When some one remarked that, with the addition of a chaplain, it
would have been a perfect Cromwellian troop, he observed that he
would have been glad to add a chaplain to the list, if he could have
found one who could fill that office worthily. It is easy enough
to find one for the United States army. I believe that he had
prayers in his camp morning and evening, nevertheless.
He was a man of Spartan habits, and at sixty was scrupulous about
his diet at your table, excusing himself by saying that he must
eat sparingly and fare hard, as became a soldier, or one who was
fitting himself for difficult enterprises, a life of exposure.
A man of rare common-sense and directness of speech, as of action;
a transcendentalist above all, a man of ideas and principles,--that
was what distinguished him. Not yielding to a whim or transient
impulse, but carrying out the purpose of a life. I noticed that he
did not overstate anything, but spoke within bounds. I remember,
particularly, how, in his speech here, he referred to what his
family had suffered in Kansas, without ever giving the least vent
to his pent-up fire. It was a volcano with an ordinary chimney-flue.
Also referring to the deeds of certain Border Ruffians, he said,
rapidly paring away his speech, like an experienced soldier,
keeping a reserve of force and meaning, "They had a perfect right
to be hung." He was not in the least a rhetorician, was not talking
to Buncombe or his constituents anywhere, had no need to invent
anything but to tell the simple truth, and communicate his own
resolution; therefore he appeared incomparably strong, and eloquence
in Congress and elsewhere seemed to me at a discount. It was like
the speeches of Cromwell compared with those of an ordinary king.
As for his tact and prudence, I will merely say, that at a time
when scarcely a man from the Free States was able to reach Kansas
by any direct route, at least without having his arms taken from
him, he, carrying what imperfect guns and other weapons he could
collect, openly and slowly drove an ox-cart through Missouri,
apparently in the capacity of a surveyor, with his surveying compass
exposed in it, and so passed unsuspected, and had ample opportunity
to learn the designs of the enemy. For some time after his arrival
he still followed the same profession. When, for instance, he saw
a knot of the ruffians on the prairie, discussing, of course, the
single topic which then occupied their minds, he would, perhaps,
take his compass and one of his sons, and proceed to run an
imaginary line right through the very spot on which that conclave
had assembled, and when he came up to them, he would naturally
pause and have some talk with them, learning their news, and, at
last, all their plans perfectly; and having thus completed his real
survey he would resume his imaginary one, and run on his line till
he was out of sight.
When I expressed surprise that he could live in Kansas at all,
with a price set upon his head, and so large a number, including
the authorities, exasperated against him, he accounted for it by
saying, "It is perfectly well understood that I will not be taken."
Much of the time for some years he has had to skulk in swamps,
suffering from poverty and from sickness, which was the consequence
of exposure, befriended only by Indians and a few whites. But
though it might be known that he was lurking in a particular swamp,
his foes commonly did not care to go in after him. He could even
come out into a town where there were more Border Ruffians than
Free State men, and transact some business, without delaying long,
and yet not be molested; for, said he, "No little handful of men
were willing to undertake it, and a large body could not be got
together in season."
As for his recent failure, we do not know the facts about it. It
was evidently far from being a wild and desperate attempt. His
enemy, Mr. Vallandigham, is compelled to say, that "it was among
the best planned executed conspiracies that ever failed."
Not to mention his other successes, was it a failure, or did it
show a want of good management, to deliver from bondage a dozen
human beings, and walk off with them by broad daylight, for weeks
if not months, at a leisurely pace, through one State after another,
for half the length of the North, conspicuous to all parties, with
a price set upon his head, going into a court-room on his way and
telling what he had done, thus convincing Missouri that it was not
profitable to try to hold slaves in his neighborhood?--and this,
not because the government menials were lenient, but because they
were afraid of him.
Yet he did not attribute his success, foolishly, to "his star,"
or to any magic. He said, truly, that the reason why such greatly
superior numbers quailed before him was, as one of his prisoners
confessed, because they lacked a cause,--a kind of armor which he
and his party never lacked. When the time came, few men were found
willing to lay down their lives in defence of what they knew to
be wrong; they did not like that this should be their last act in
But to make haste to his last act, and its effects.
The newspapers seem to ignore, or perhaps are really ignorant of the
fact, that there are at least as many as two or three individuals
to a town throughout the North who think much as the present speaker
does about him and his enterprise. I do not hesitate to say that
they are an important and growing party. We aspire to be something
more than stupid and timid chattels, pretending to read history and
our Bibles, but desecrating every house and every day we breathe
in. Perhaps anxious politicians may prove that only seventeen
white men and five negroes were concerned in the late enterprise;
but their very anxiety to prove this might suggest to themselves
that all is not told. Why do they still dodge the truth? They
are so anxious because of a dim consciousness of the fact, which
they do not distinctly face, that at least a million of the free
inhabitants of the United States would have rejoiced if it had
succeeded. They at most only criticise the tactics. Though we wear
no crape, the thought of that man's position and probable fate is
spoiling many a man's day here at the North for other thinking.
If any one who has seen him here can pursue successfully any other
train of thought, I do not know what he is made of. If there is
any such who gets his usual allowance of sleep, I will warrant him
to fatten easily under any circumstances which do not touch his
body or purse. I put a piece of paper and a pencil under my pillow,
and when I could not sleep, I wrote in the dark.
On the whole, my respect for my fellow-men, except as one may outweigh
a million, is not being increased these days. I have noticed the
cold-blooded way in which newspaper writers and men generally speak
of this event, as if an ordinary malefactor, though one of unusual
"pluck,"--as the Governor of Virginia is reported to have said, using
the language of the cock-pit, "the gamest man he ever saw,"--had
been caught, and were about to be hung. He was not dreaming of his
foes when the governor thought he looked so brave. It turns what
sweetness I have to gall, to hear, or hear of, the remarks of some
of my neighbors. When we heard at first that he was dead, one of my
townsmen observed that "he died as the fool dieth"; which, pardon
me, for an instant suggested a likeness in him dying to my neighbor
living. Others, craven-hearted, said disparagingly, that "he
threw his life away," because he resisted the government. Which
way have they thrown their lives, pray?--such as would praise a man
for attacking singly an ordinary band of thieves or murderers. I
hear another ask, Yankee-like, "What will he gain by it?" as if he
expected to fill his pockets by this enterprise. Such a one has
no idea of gain but in this worldly sense. If it does not lead to
a "surprise" party, if he does not get a new pair of boots, or a
vote of thanks, it must be a failure. "But he won't gain anything
by it." 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. No doubt you can get more in your market for a quart
of milk than for a quart of blood, but that is not the market that
heroes carry their blood to.
Such do not know that like the seed is the fruit, and that, in the
moral world, when good seed is planted, good fruit is inevitable,
and does not depend on our watering and cultivating; that when you
plant, or bury, a hero in his field, a crop of heroes is sure to
spring up. This is a seed of such force and vitality, that it does
not ask our leave to germinate.
The momentary charge at Balaclava, in obedience to a blundering
command, proving what a perfect machine the soldier is, has, properly
enough, been celebrated by a poet laureate; but the steady, and
for the most part successful, charge of this man, for some years,
against the legions of Slavery, in obedience to an infinitely higher
command, is as much more memorable than that, as an intelligent
and conscientious man is superior to a machine. Do you think that
that will go unsung?
"Served him right,"--"A dangerous man,"--"He is undoubtedly insane."
So they proceed to live their sane, and wise, and altogether admirable
lives, reading their Plutarch a little, but chiefly pausing at that
feat of Putnam, who was let down into a wolf's den; and in this
wise they nourish themselves for brave and patriotic deeds some
time or other. The Tract Society could afford to print that story
of Putnam. You might open the district schools with the reading of
it, for there is nothing about Slavery or the Church in it; unless
it occurs to the reader that some pastors are wolves in sheep's
clothing. "The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions"
even, might dare to protest against that wolf. I have heard of
boards, and of American boards, but it chances that I never heard
of this particular lumber till lately. And yet I hear of Northern
men, and women, and children, by families, buying a "life membership"
in such societies as these. A life-membership in the grave! You
can get buried cheaper than that.
Our foes are in our midst and all about us. There is hardly
a house but is divided against itself, for our foe is the all but
universal woodenness of both head and heart, the want of vitality
in man, which is the effect of our vice; and hence are begotten
fear, superstition, bigotry, persecution, and slavery of all kinds.
We are mere figureheads upon a hulk, with livers in the place of
hearts. The curse is the worship of idols, which at length changes
the worshipper into a stone image himself; and the New-Englander is
just as much an idolater as the Hindoo. This man was an exception,
for he did not set up even a political graven image between him
and his God.
A church that can never have done with excommunicating Christ while
it exists! Away with your broad and flat churches, and your narrow
and tall churches! Take a step forward, and invent a new style
of out-houses. Invent a salt that will save you, and defend our
The modern Christian is a man who has consented to say all the
prayers in the liturgy, provided you will let him go straight to
bed and sleep quietly afterward. All his prayers begin with "Now
I lay me down to sleep," and he is forever looking forward to the
time when he shall go to his "long rest." He has consented to
perform certain old-established charities, too, after a fashion,
but he does not wish to hear of any new-fangled ones; he doesn't
wish to have any supplementary articles added to the contract, to
fit it to the present time. He shows the whites of his eyes on the
Sabbath, and the blacks all the rest of the week. The evil is not
merely a stagnation of blood, but a stagnation of spirit. Many,
no doubt, are well disposed, but sluggish by constitution and by
habit, and they cannot conceive of a man who is actuated by higher
motives than they are. Accordingly they pronounce this man insane,
for they know that they could never act as he does, as long as they
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. We discover
why it was that we never got beyond compliments and surfaces with
them before; we become aware of as many versts between us and them
as there are between a wandering Tartar and a Chinese town. The
thoughtful man becomes a hermit in the thoroughfares of the
market-place. Impassable seas suddenly find their level between us,
or dumb steppes stretch themselves out there. It is the difference
of constitution, of intelligence, and faith, and not streams and
mountains, that make the true and impassable boundaries between
individuals and between states. None but the like-minded can come
plenipotentiary to our court.
I read all the newspapers I could get within a week after this event,
and I do not remember in them a single expression of sympathy for
these men. I have since seen one noble statement, in a Boston
paper, not editorial. Some voluminous sheets decided not to print
the full report of Brown's words to the exclusion of other matter.
It was as if a publisher should reject the manuscript of the New
Testament, and print Wilson's last speech. The same journal which
contained this pregnant news, was chiefly filled, in parallel
columns, with the reports of the political conventions that were
being held. But the descent to them was too steep. They should
have been spared this contrast,--been printed in an extra, at least.
To turn from the voices and deeds of earnest men to the cackling
of political conventions! Office-seekers and speech-makers, who
do not so much as lay an honest egg, but wear their breasts bare
upon an egg of chalk! Their great game is the game of straws,
or rather that universal aboriginal game of the platter, at which
the Indians cried hub, bub! Exclude the reports of religious and
political conventions, and publish the words of a living man.
But I object not so much to what they have omitted, as to what they
have inserted. Even the Liberator called it "a misguided, wild,
and apparently insane--effort." As for the herd of newspapers and
magazines, I do not chance to know an editor in the country who
will deliberately print anything which he knows will ultimately
and permanently reduce the number of his subscribers. They do not
believe that it would be expedient. How then can they print truth?
If we do not say pleasant things, they argue, nobody will attend
to us. And so they do like some travelling auctioneers, who sing
an obscene song, in order to draw a crowd around them. Republican
editors, obliged to get their sentences ready for the morning
edition, and accustomed to look at everything by the twilight of
politics, express no admiration, nor true sorrow even, but call these
men "deluded fanatics,"--"mistaken men,"--"insane," or "crazed."
It suggests what a sane set of editors we are blessed with, not
"mistaken men"; who know very well on which side their bread is
buttered, at least.
A man does a brave and humane deed, and at once, on all sides, we
hear people and parties declaring, "I didn't do it, nor countenance
him to do it, in any conceivable way. It can't be fairly inferred
from my past career." I, for one, am not interested to hear you
define your position. I don't know that I ever was, or ever shall
be. I think it is mere egotism, or impertinent at this time. Ye
needn't take so much pains to wash your skirts of him. No intelligent
man will ever be convinced that he was any creature of yours. He
went and came, as he himself informs us, "under the auspices of
John Brown and nobody else." The Republican party does not perceive
how many his failure will make to vote more correctly than they
would have them. They have counted the votes of Pennsylvania & Co.,
but they have not correctly counted Captain Brown's vote. He has
taken the wind out of their sails,--the little wind they had,--and
they may as well lie to and repair.
What though he did not belong to your clique! Though you may not
approve of his method or his principles, recognize his magnanimity.
Would you not like to claim kindredship with him in that, though
in no other thing he is like, or likely, to you? Do you think that
you would lose your reputation so? What you lost at the spile,
you would gain at the bung.
If they do not mean all this, then they do not speak the truth,
and say what they mean. They are simply at their old tricks still.
"It was always conceded to him," says one who calls him crazy, "that
he was a conscientious man, very modest in his demeanor, apparently
inoffensive, until the subject of Slavery was introduced, when he
would exhibit a feeling of indignation unparalleled."
The slave-ship is on her way, crowded with its dying victims; new
cargoes are being added in mid-ocean a small crew of slaveholders,
countenanced by a large body of passengers, is smothering four
millions under the hatches, and yet the politician asserts that the
only proper way by which deliverance is to be obtained, is by "the
quiet diffusion of the sentiments of humanity," without any "outbreak."
As if the sentiments of humanity were ever found unaccompanied by
its deeds, and you could disperse them, all finished to order, the
pure article, as easily as water with a watering-pot, and so lay
the dust. What is that that I hear cast overboard? The bodies
of the dead that have found deliverance. That is the way we are
"diffusing" humanity, and its sentiments with it.
Prominent and influential editors, accustomed to deal with politicians,
men of an infinitely lower grade, say, in their ignorance, that
he acted "on the principle of revenge." They do not know the man.
They must enlarge themselves to conceive of him. I have no doubt
that the time will come when they will begin to see him as he
was. They have got to conceive of a man of faith and of religious
principle, and not a politician or an Indian; of a man who did not
wait till he was personally interfered with or thwarted in some
harmless business before he gave his life to the cause of the
If Walker may be considered the representative of the South, 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. He needed no babbling lawyer,
making false issues, to defend him. He was more than a match for
all the judges that American voters, or office-holders of whatever
grade, can create. He could not have been tried by a jury of
his peers, because his peers did not exist. When a man stands up
serenely against the condemnation and vengeance of mankind, rising
above them literally by a whole body,--even though he were of late
the vilest murderer, who has settled that matter with himself,--the
spectacle is a sublime one,--didn't ye know it, ye Liberators, ye
Tribunes, ye Republicans?--and we become criminal in comparison.
Do yourselves the honor to recognize him. He needs none of your
As for the Democratic journals, they are not human enough to affect
me at all. I do not feel indignation at anything they may say.
I am aware that I anticipate a little,--that he was still, at the
last accounts, alive in the hands of his foes; but that being the
case, I have all along found myself thinking and speaking of him
as physically dead.
I do not believe in erecting statues to those who still live in
our hearts, whose bones have not yet crumbled in the earth around
us, but I would rather see the statue of Captain Brown in the
Massachusetts State-House yard, than that of any other man whom I
know. I rejoice that I live in this age, that I am his contemporary.
What a contrast, when we turn to that political party which is so
anxiously shuffling him and his plot out of its way, and looking
around for some available slave holder, perhaps, to be its candidate,
at least for one who will execute the Fugitive Slave Law, and all
those other unjust laws which he took up arms to annul!
Insane! A father and six sons, and one son-in-law, and several
more men besides,--as many at least as twelve disciples,--all struck
with insanity at once; while the same tyrant holds with a firmer
gripe than ever his four millions of slaves, and a thousand sane
editors, his abettors, are saving their country and their bacon!
Just as insane were his efforts in Kansas. Ask the tyrant who is
his most dangerous foe, the sane man or the insane? Do the thousands
who know him best, who have rejoiced at his deeds in Kansas, and
have afforded him material aid there, think him insane? Such a use
of this word is a mere trope with most who persist in using it,
and I have no doubt that many of the rest have already in silence
retracted their words.
Read his admirable answers to Mason and others. How they are
dwarfed and defeated by the contrast! On the one side, half-brutish,
half-timid questioning; on the other, truth, clear as lightning,
crashing into their obscene temples. They are made to stand with
Pilate, and Gesler, and the Inquisition. How ineffectual their
speech and action! and what a void their silence! They are but
helpless tools in this great work. It was no human power that
gathered them about this preacher.
What have Massachusetts and the North sent a few sane representatives
to Congress for, of late years?--to declare with effect what kind of
sentiments? All their speeches put together and boiled down,--and
probably they themselves will confess it,--do not match for
manly directness and force, and for simple truth, the few casual
remarks of crazy John Brown, on the floor of the Harper's Ferry
engine-house,--that man whom you are about to hang, to send to
the other world, though not to represent you there. No, he was not
our representative in any sense. He was too fair a specimen of a
man to represent the like of us. Who, then, were his constituents?
If you read his words understandingly you will find out. In his
case there is no idle eloquence, no made, nor maiden speech, no
compliments to the oppressor. Truth is his inspirer, and earnestness
the polisher of his sentences. He could afford to lose his Sharpe's
rifles, while he retained his faculty of speech,--a Sharpe's rifle
of infinitely surer and longer range.
And the New York Herald reports the conversation verbatim! It does
not know of what undying words it is made the vehicle.
I have no respect for the penetration of any man who can read the
report of that conversation, and still call the principal in it insane.
It has the ring of a saner sanity than an ordinary discipline and
habits of life, than an ordinary organization, secure. Take any
sentence of it,--"Any questions that I can honorably answer, I
will; not otherwise. So far as I am myself concerned, I have told
everything truthfully. I value my word, sir." The few who talk
about his vindictive spirit, while they really admire his heroism,
have no test by which to detect a noble man, no amalgam to combine
with his pure gold. They mix their own dross with it.
It is a relief to turn from these slanders to the testimony of his
more truthful, but frightened jailers and hangmen. Governor Wise
speaks far more justly and appreciatingly of him than any Northern
editor, or politician, or public personage, that I chance to have
heard from. I know that you can afford to hear him again on this
subject. He says: "They are themselves mistaken who take him to
be madman.... He is cool, collected, and indomitable, and it is
but just to him to say, that he was humane to his prisoners....
And he inspired me with great trust in his integrity as a man of
truth. He is a fanatic, vain and garrulous," (I leave that part
to Mr. Wise,) "but firm, truthful, and intelligent. His men, too,
who survive, are like him.... Colonel Washington says that he
was the coolest and firmest man he ever saw in defying danger and
death. With one son dead by his side, and another shot through, he
felt the pulse of his dying son with one hand, and held his rifle
with the other, and commanded his men with the utmost composure,
encouraging them to be firm, and to sell their lives as dear as
they could. Of the three white prisoners, Brown, Stephens, and
Coppic, it was hard to say which was most firm."
Almost the first Northern men whom the slaveholder has learned to
The testimony of Mr. Vallandigham, though less valuable, is of the
same purport, that "it is vain to underrate either the man or his
conspiracy.... He is the farthest possible removed from the ordinary
ruffian, fanatic, or madman."
"All is quiet at Harper's Ferry," say the journals. What is the
character of that calm which follows when the law and the slaveholder
prevail? I regard this event as a touchstone designed to bring
out, with glaring distinctness, the character of this government.
We needed to be thus assisted to see it by the light of history.
It needed to see itself. When a government puts forth its strength
on the side of injustice, as ours to maintain slavery and kill the
liberators of the slave, it reveals itself a merely brute force, or
worse, a demoniacal force. It is the head of the Plug-Uglies. It
is more manifest than ever that tyranny rules. I see this government
to be effectually allied with France and Austria in oppressing
mankind. There sits a tyrant holding fettered four millions of
slaves; here comes their heroic liberator. This most hypocritical
and diabolical government looks up from its seat on the gasping
four millions, and inquires with an assumption of innocence: "What
do you assault me for? Am I not an honest man? Cease agitation
on this subject, or I will make a slave of you, too, or else hang
We talk about a representative government; but what a monster of
a government is that where the noblest faculties of the mind, and
the whole heart, are not represented. A semi-human tiger or ox,
stalking over the earth, with its heart taken out and the top of
its brain shot away. Heroes have fought well on their stumps when
their legs were shot off, but I never heard of any good done by
such a government as that.
The only government that I recognize,--and it matters not how few
are at the head of it, or how small its army,--is that power that
establishes justice in the land, never that which establishes
injustice. What shall we think of a government to which all the
truly brave and just men in the land are enemies, standing between
it and those whom it oppresses? A government that pretends to be
Christian and crucifies a million Christs every day!
Treason! Where does such treason take its rise? I cannot help
thinking of you as you deserve, ye governments. Can you dry up
the fountains of thought? High treason, when it is resistance to
tyranny here below, has its origin in, and is first committed by,
the power that makes and forever recreates man. When you have caught
and hung all these human rebels, you have accomplished nothing but
your own guilt, for you have not struck at the fountain-head. You
presume to contend with a foe against whom West Point cadets and
rifled cannon point not. Can all the art of the cannon-founder
tempt matter to turn against its maker? Is the form in which the
founder thinks he casts it more essential than the constitution of
it and of himself?
The United States have a coffle of four millions of slaves. They
are determined to keep them in this condition; and Massachusetts
is one of the confederated overseers to prevent their escape. Such
are not all the inhabitants of Massachusetts, but such are they
who rule and are obeyed here. It was Massachusetts, as well as
Virginia, that put down this insurrection at Harper's Ferry. She
sent the marines there, and she will have to pay the penalty of
Suppose that there is a society in this State that out of its own
purse and magnanimity saves all the fugitive slaves that run to
us, and protects our colored fellow-citizens, and leaves the other
work to the government, so-called. Is not that government fast
losing its occupation, and becoming contemptible to mankind? If
private men are obliged to perform the offices of government, to
protect the weak and dispense justice, then the government becomes
only a hired man, or clerk, to perform menial or indifferent
services. Of course, that is but the shadow of a government who
existence necessitates a Vigilant Committee. What should we think
of the Oriental Cadi even, behind whom worked in secret a vigilant
committee? But such is the character of our Northern States generally;
each has its Vigilant Committee. And, to a certain extent, these
crazy governments recognize and accept this relation. They say,
virtually, "We'll be glad to work for you on these terms, only
don't make a noise about it." And thus the government, its salary
being insured, withdraws into the back shop, taking the Constitution
with it, and bestows most of its labor on repairing that. When I
hear it at work sometimes, as I go by, it reminds me, at best, of
those farmers who in winter contrive to turn a penny by following
the coopering business. And what kind of spirit is their barrel
made to hold? They speculate in stocks, and bore holes in mountains,
but they are not competent to lay out even a decent highway. The
only free road, the Underground Railroad, is owned and managed
by the Vigilant Committee. They have tunnelled under the whole
breadth of the land. Such a government is losing its power and
respectability as surely as water runs out of a leaky vessel, and
is held by one that can contain it.
I hear many condemn these men because they were so few. When were
the good and the brave ever in a majority? Would you have had him
wait till that time came?--till you and I came over to him? The
very fact that he had no rabble or troop of hirelings about him
would alone distinguish him from ordinary heroes. His company was
small indeed, because few could be found worthy to pass muster.
Each one who there laid down his life for the poor and oppressed
was a picked man, culled out of many thousands, if not millions;
apparently a man of principle, of rare courage, and devoted humanity;
ready to sacrifice his life at any moment for so much by laymen as
by ministers of the Gospel, not so much by the fighting sects as
by the Quakers, and not so much by Quaker men as by Quaker women?
This event advertises me that there is such a fact as death,--the
possibility of a man's dying. It seems as if no man had ever died
in America before; for in order to die you must first have lived.
I don't believe in the hearses, and palls, and funerals that they
have had. There was no death in the case, because there had been
no life; they merely rotted or sloughed off, pretty much as they had
rotted or sloughed along. No temple's veil was rent, only a hole
dug somewhere. Let the dead bury their dead. The best of them
fairly ran down like a clock. Franklin,--Washington,--they were
let off without dying; they were merely missing one day. I hear
a good many pretend that they are going to die; or that they have
died, for aught that I know. Nonsense! I'll defy them to do it.
They haven't got life enough in them. They'll deliquesce like
fungi, and keep a hundred eulogists mopping the spot where they
left off. Only half a dozen or so have died since the world began.
Do you think that you are going to die, sir? No! there's no hope
of you. You haven't got your lesson yet. You've got to stay after
school. We make a needless ado about capital punishment,--taking
lives, when there is no life to take. Memento mori! We don't
understand that sublime sentence which some worthy got sculptured
on his gravestone once. We've interpreted it in a grovelling and
snivelling sense; we've wholly forgotten how to die.
But be sure you do die nevertheless. Do your work, and finish it.
If you know how to begin, you will know when to end.
These men, in teaching us how to die, have at the same time taught
us how to live. If this man's acts and words do not create a
revival, it will be the severest possible satire on the acts and
words that do. It is the best news that America has ever heard.
It has already quickened the feeble pulse of the North, and infused
more and more generous blood into her veins and heart, than any
number of years of what is called commercial and political prosperity
could. How many a man who was lately contemplating suicide has
now something to live for!
One writer says that Brown's peculiar monomania made him to be
"dreaded by the Missourians as a supernatural being." Sure enough,
a hero in the midst of us cowards is always so dreaded. He is just
that thing. He shows himself superior to nature. He has a spark
of divinity in him.
"Unless above himself he can
Erect himself, how poor a thing is man!"
Newspaper editors argue also that it is a proof of his insanity
that he thought he was appointed to do this work which he did,--that
he did not suspect himself for a moment! They talk as if it were
impossible that a man could be "divinely appointed" in these days
to do any work whatever; as if vows and religion were out of date
as connected with any man's daily work; as if the agent to abolish
slavery could only be somebody appointed by the President, or by
some political party. They talk as if a man's death were a failure,
and his continued life, be it of whatever character, were a success.
When I reflect to what a cause this man devoted himself, and how
religiously, and then reflect to what cause his judges and all who
condemn him so angrily and fluently devote themselves, I see that
they are as far apart as the heavens and earth are asunder.
The amount of it is, our "leading men" are a harmless kind of folk,
and they know well enough that they were not divinely appointed,
but elected by the votes of their party.
Who is it whose safety requires that Captain Brown be hung? Is it
indispensable to any Northern man? Is there no resource but to
cast this man also to the Minotaur? If you do not wish it, say
so distinctly. While these things are being done, beauty stands
veiled and music is a screeching lie. Think of him,--of his
rare qualities!--such a man as it takes ages to make, and ages to
understand; no mock hero, nor the representative of any party. A
man such as the sun may not rise upon again in this benighted land.
To whose making went the costliest material, the finest adamant;
sent to be the redeemer of those in captivity; and the only use
to which you can put him is to hang him at the end of a rope! You
who pretend to care for Christ crucified, consider what you are
about to do to him who offered himself to be the savior of four
millions of men.
Any man knows when he is justified, and all the wits in the world
cannot enlighten him on that point. The murderer always knows
that he is justly punished; but when a government takes the life
of a man without the consent of his conscience, it is an audacious
government, and is taking a step towards its own dissolution. Is
it not possible that an individual may be right and a government
wrong? Are laws to be enforced simply because they were made? or
declared by any number of men to be good, if they are not good?
Is there any necessity for a man's being a tool to perform a deed
of which his better nature disapproves? Is it the intention of
law-makers that good men shall be hung ever? Are judges to interpret
the law according to the letter, and not the spirit? What right
have you to enter into a compact with yourself that you will do
thus or so, against the light within you? Is it for you to make
up your mind,--to form any resolution whatever,--and not accept
the convictions that are forced upon you, and which ever pass
your understanding? I do not believe in lawyers, in that mode of
attacking or defending a man, because you descend to meet the judge
on his own ground, and, in cases of the highest importance, it is
of no consequence whether a man breaks a human law or not. Let
lawyers decide trivial cases. Business men may arrange that among
themselves. If they were the interpreters of the everlasting
laws which rightfully bind man, that would be another thing. A
counterfeiting law-factory, standing half in a slave land and half
in free! What kind of laws for free men can you expect from that?
I am here to plead his cause with you. I plead not for his life,
but for his character,--his immortal life; and so it becomes your
cause wholly, and is not his in the least. 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
I see now that it was necessary that the bravest and humanest man
in all the country should be hung. Perhaps he saw it himself. I
almost fear that I may yet hear of his deliverance, doubting if a
prolonged life, if any life, can do as much good as his death.
"Misguided"! "Garrulous"! "Insane"! "Vindictive"! So ye write
in your easy-chairs, and thus he wounded responds from the floor of
the Armory, clear as a cloudless sky, true as the voice of nature
is: "No man sent me here; it was my own prompting and that of my
Maker. I acknowledge no master in human form."
And in what a sweet and noble strain he proceeds, addressing his
captors, who stand over him: "I think, my friends, you are guilty
of a great wrong against God and humanity, and it would be perfectly
right for any one to interfere with you so far as to free those
you willfully and wickedly hold in bondage."
And, referring to his movement: "It is, in my opinion, the greatest
service a man can render to God."
"I pity the poor in bondage that have none to help them; that is
why I am here; not to gratify any personal animosity, revenge, or
vindictive spirit. It is my sympathy with the oppressed and the
wronged, that are as good as you, and as precious in the sight of
You don't know your testament when you see it.
"I want you to understand that I respect the rights of the poorest
and weakest of colored people, oppressed by the slave power, just
as much as I do those of the most wealthy and powerful."
"I wish to say, furthermore, that you had better, all you people
at the South, prepare yourselves for a settlement of that question,
that must come up for settlement sooner than your are prepared for
it. The sooner you are prepared the better. You may dispose of
me very easily. I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is
still to be settled,--this negro question, I mean; the end of that
is not yet."
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; and, with the Landing of the Pilgrims and the Declaration
of Independence, it will be the ornament of some future national
gallery, 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.