Henry David Thoreau
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Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, and the Underground Railroad conclusion

A Calliope Fact Sheet
Copyright 2001 Calliope Film Resources, Inc.
Student Permission

Part IV: "The Twilight of Politics"

1859: "A Plea for Captain John Brown" - insurrection defended.

Thoreau parted company even with the mass of abolitionists in 1859 by defending, in the face of widespread hostility, the actions of John Brown, who had been captured and condemned for leading the deadly abolitionist raid of October 16, 1859, on the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Viriginia), as part of his mission to liberate the slave population. Note 18.

In impassioned speeches that surprised audiences and for a time reversed his reputation for nonviolence and disdain of organized action, Thoreau declared he could approve of violence in the name of abolishing slavery.

Thoreau delivered "A Plea for Captain John Brown" in the Concord Town Hall "as if it burned him." "Many of those who came to scoff remained to pray," a visitor remarked.

Then Thoreau was asked to give the same lecture in one of Boston's largest auditoriums - filling in for the scheduled speaker, Frederick Douglass, who needed to put himself out of the authorities' reach at the last minute.

Attracted more by Brown's ideals and courage than by his actions, Thoreau pleaded, not to spare Brown's life, but to uphold the principled character he saw in him.

Reported in many papers, Thoreau's speech was "full of …strong expressions, hitting the politicians in the hardest manner… The church also, as a body, came in for a share of whipping, and it was laid on right earnestly… The lecture was full of noble, manly ideas, though perhaps a little extravagant in its eulogy of Capt. Brown."

A full house listened as Thoreau declared a willingness to support violence as a last resort to end a social wrong: "I do not wish to kill or be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both these things would be by me unavoidable. …It was [Brown's] 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." Note 19.

Applause greeted many of Thoreau's statements. But antislavery editors he had criticized, including Garrison, slapped back, rightly reminding people that only their media's patient efforts to win the public had made that applause possible for someone like the solitary Thoreau--

"Editors like those of The [N.Y.] Tribune and The Liberator, …while the lecturer [Thoreau] was cultivating beans and killing woodchucks on the margin of Walden Pond, made a public opinion strong enough on Anti-Slavery grounds to tolerate a speech from him in defense of insurrection." Note 20.

In the spring of 1862 death took Henry David Thoreau at age 44, just as the enormity of America's Civil War approached its second year. That autumn, Lincoln proclaimed the emancipation of slaves in the free states.

"We were waiting and listening as for a bolt from the sky... we were watching by the dim light of the stars for the dawn of a new day," declared Frederick Douglass. "We were longing for the answer to the agonizing prayers of centuries."

In 1865 the defeat of the slave-owning Confederacy ended the war and led to the ratification of the Constitution's Thirteenth Amendment. The Liberator ceased publication, its aim having been achieved.

Yet as the world knows, black Americans' struggle for truly equal rights had just begun.

Read Martin Luther King Jr.'s own words about Thoreau.

Students! You have our permission to quote from (not copy from) these pages about Thoreau, abolitionism, and the Underground Railroad -- provided that you acknowledge it in your bibliography as follows. And don't forget the references in the footnotes.

Calliope Film Resources. "Thoreau, Civil Disobedience and the Underground Railroad." Copyright 2001 CFR. http://www.calliope.org/thoreau/thurro/thurro4.html
[And add the date on which you visited this web page.]

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Updated Feb. 20, 2010