Thoreau's Savior

Natasha N. Bronn '07, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

Henry David Thoreau found a savior for America. This savior came in the form of the revolutionary Captain John Brown, whose famous attempt to free slaves in Harpers Ferry, Virginia is still read by students and is on American history AP syllabi everywhere. In his essay "A Plea for Captain John Brown" which was read aloud to the citizens of Concord, Massachusetts on October 30th, 1859, Thoreau makes a passionate cry to save the life or at least forcefully preserve the memory of John Brown.

The bulk of Thoreau's essay is a comparison between the Captain and the rest of the nation. He paints an unusual and provocative picture of Brown, portraying him as a kind of savior, but not one who would be widely recognized. Thoreau is careful to point out that Brown "did not go to the college called Harvard, good old Alma Meter as she is," and that he is noted as saying "I know no more of grammar than one of your calves." But it is through Thoreau's depiction of Brown as such an unlikely hero that he underlines to all the rest that they could never be what John Brown was for "he could never be tried by a jury of his peers, because his peer's do not exist."

At times in his speech, Thoreau sounds vindictive, initially using "we," and including himself in the masses, but quickly switching to "you," setting himself as one who is disgusted by the rest of this nation who condemned his savior. His words are powerful, though at times preaching, talking of morals and "paying the penalty of sin." But, despite his seemingly blind fervor, Thoreau makes very interesting social commentary and clearly illustrates to us why he sees the events of Captain John Brown as most telling of the true state of the nation:

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impossible that a man could be "divinely appointed" in these days to do any work whatever; as if vows and religion were out of date as connected with any man's daily work; as if the agent to abolish slavery could only be somebody appointed by the President, or by some political party.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.

In this selection, Thoreau astutely points out the contradictory moral and belief systems of the nation. This argument is quite aptly placed toward the end of Thoreau's essay, because I find that it, more then any of his other examples or passionate cries, underlines the increasingly political, and decreasingly humane, state of America at that time. His essay is exquisitely crafted and infused with fervor to such an extent that I would imagine even the most mundane man would stir upon hearing it.

1. In his speech, Thoreau switches back and forth between addressing the crowd as "we" and as "you." What were his motives in doing so? What is the tone of this speech?

2. Thoreau writes "the modern Christian is a man who has consented to say all the prayers in liturgy, provided you will let him go straight to bed and sleep quietly afterward." What is Thoreau attempting to point out with these words? Can any connection with the thoughts of Thomas Ruskin be made?

3.Thoreau's speech seems quite factual and logical, but he does make John Brown out to be a kind of Christ-like figure, evening going so far as to write that the government "pretends to be Christian and crucifies a million Christs every day," and that John Brown is "an angel of light." Does Thoreau's savior-like interpretation of Brown take away from his credit as someone to be believed? or does it simply make him seem like a fanatic?


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Last modified 7 October 2003