ohn Brown's Body

Paul Merrylees, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

In "A Plea for Captain John Brown", Thoreau sets down something far more full of conviction, rhetorical eloquence, and passionate declamation than a mere plea. It is no simple appeal that something be re-considered in light of new arguments; it is a thundering, righteous, full-steam-ahead assertion of the moral and spiritual ascendancy of John Brown, who at the time of writing was in the custody of the state for having raided and defended just about to the death, with a handful of fanatical followers, a federal armory in Virginia, with the intention of starting a militant revolution among the slaves of the southern states. In the process of making his argument, Thoreau again and again contrasts the virtue and liveliness of Brown with the essential deadness and moral deafness of those who detract him.

I hear another one 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 worldy 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 get any thing 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... 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.

Over the course of these paragraphs, Thoreau uses the images of full pockets, new boots, a vote of thanks, four-and-sixpence a day, "take the year round", to characterize the worldly, material, fleeting cheapness of those that object to the actions of Brown and to the argument that he is advancing, while he describes Brown himself with images of the soul, and seed bursting into fruit. He goes on to say that the democratic journals which regularly condemn brown "are not human enough to affect me at all", and that those who write the condemnations are "but helpless tools in this great work", "ineffectual in speech in action". He paints his opposition in the harshest possible light, as dead, worthless men who do not even have the right to death, while he champions Brown without any reservation, speaking in a kind of holy devotion, rendered in biblical language and imagery.

Is this extreme contrast of light and darkness, that will not admit the possibility of intelligent opposition, an effective way to argue? Does Thoreau cheapen his own case with his fervor?

Has Thoreau advanced an argument that is his own, or has he simply proclaimed his belief in the superiority of Brown and his principles?


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Last modified 7 October 2003