A Plea for Captain John Brown is an essay by Henry David Thoreau. It is based on a speech Thoreau first delivered to an audience at Concord, Massachusetts on October 30, 1859, two weeks after John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, and repeated several times before Brown’s execution on December 2, 1859. It was later published as a part of Echoes of Harper's Ferry in 1860.1
John Brown, a radical abolitionist, and twenty-one other men seized the federal armory at Harper's Ferry, the holding place for approximately 100,000 rifles and muskets, hoping to arm slaves and create a violent rebellion against the south. However, after thirty-six hours the revolt was suppressed by federal forces led by Robert E. Lee and Brown was jailed. The raid resulted in thirteen deaths, twelve rebels and one U.S. Marine. After being found guilty of murder, treason, and inciting a slave insurrection, Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859. Although largely called a failure at the time, the raid and Brown's subsequent execution impelled the American Civil War.
Thoreau's essay espoused John Brown and his fight for abolition. In opposition with popular opinion of the time– Thoreau vehemently refuted the claims of newspapers and his fellow countrymen who characterized Brown as foolish and insane– he painted a portrait of a peerless man whose embracement of a cause was unparalleled. Brown's commitment to justice and adherence to the United States Constitution forced him to fight state-sponsored injustice, one he was only affected by in spirit.
A unique man, Thoreau proclaimed in admiration, Brown was highly moral and humane. Independent, "under the auspices of John Brown and nobody else," and direct of speech, Brown instilled fear, which he attributed to a lack of cause, into large groups of men who supported slavery. Incomparable to man, Thoreau likens Brown's execution– he states that he regards Brown as dead before his actual death– to Christ's crucifixion at the hands of Pontius Pilate with whom he compares the American government.
Thoreau vents at the scores of Americans who have voiced their displeasure and scorn for John Brown. The same people, Thoreau says, can't relate to Brown because of their concrete stances and "dead" existences; they are truly not living, only a handful of men have lived. Thoreau also criticizes contemporary Christians, who say their prayers and then go to sleep aware of injustice but doing nothing to change it. Similarly, Thoreau states those who believe Brown threw his life away and died as a fool, are fools. Brown gave his life for justice, not for material gains, and was completely sane, perhaps more so than any other human being. Rebutting the arguments based on the small number of rebels, Thoreau responds "when were the good and the brave ever in a majority?" Thoreau also points out the irony of The Liberator, a newspaper, labeling Brown's actions as misguided.
While many agree that Brown fought bravely and independently for justice, something his government failed to provide. Instead the politicians killed liberators and enslaved four million, others deplore the brutality of many of his methods in Kansas, though some feel the ends justified the means.
- A Plea for Captain John Brown– Wikisource
- A Plea for Captain John Brown– Project Gutenberg
- Thoreau on John Brown– includes A Plea and two additional works