Nonfiction > Ralph Waldo Emerson > The Complete Works
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882).  The Complete Works.  1904.
Vol. XI. Miscellanies
X. John Brown—Speech at Boston
At a Meeting for the Relief of the Family of John Brown, at Tremont Temple, Boston
November 18, 1859

  “JOHN BROWN in Kansas settled, like a steadfast Yankee farmer,
Brave and godly, with four sons—all stalwart men of might.
There he spoke aloud for Freedom, and the Border strife grew warmer
Till the Rangers fired his dwelling, in his absence, in the night;
            And Old Brown,
            Osawatomie Brown,
Came homeward in the morning to find his house burned down.
Then he grasped his trusty rifle, and boldly fought for Freedom;
Smote from border unto border the fierce invading band:
And he and his brave boys vowed—so might Heaven help and speed ’em—
They would save those grand old prairies from the curse that blights the land;
            And Old Brown,
            Osawatomie Brown,
Said, ‘Boys, the Lord will aid us!’ and he shoved his ramrod down.”

MR. CHAIRMAN, AND FELLOW CITIZENS: 1 I share the sympathy and sorrow which have brought us together. Gentlemen who have preceded me have well said that no wall of separation could here exist. This commanding event which has brought us together, eclipses all others which have occurred for a long time in our history, and I am very glad to see that this sudden interest in the hero of Harper’s Ferry has provoked an extreme curiosity in all parts of the Republic, in regard to the details of his history. Every anecdote is eagerly sought, and I do not wonder that gentlemen find traits of relation readily between him and themselves. One finds a relation in the church, another in the profession, another in the place of his birth. He was happily a representative of the American Republic. Captain John Brown is a farmer, the fifth in descent from Peter Brown, who came to Plymouth in the Mayflower, in 1620. All the six have been farmers. His grandfather, of Simsbury, in Connecticut, was a captain in the Revolution. His father, largely interested as a raiser of stock, became a contractor to supply the army with beef, in the war of 1812, and our Captain John Brown, then a boy, with his father was present and witnessed the surrender of General Hull. He cherishes a great respect for his father, as a man of strong character, and his respect is probably just. For himself, he is so transparent that all men see him through. He is a man to make friends wherever on earth courage and integrity are esteemed, the rarest of heroes, a pure idealist, with no by-ends of his own. Many of you have seen him, and every one who has heard him speak has been impressed alike by his simple, artless goodness, joined with his sublime courage. He joins that perfect Puritan faith which brought his fifth ancestor to Plymouth Rock with his grandfather’s ardor in the Revolution. He believes in two articles,—two instruments, shall I say?—the Golden Rule and the Declaration of Independence; and he used this expression in conversation here concerning them, “Better that a whole generation of men, women and children should pass away by a violent death than that one word of either should be violated in this country.” There is a Unionist,—there is a strict constructionist for you. He believes in the Union of the States, and he conceives that the only obstruction to the Union is Slavery, and for that reason, as a patriot, he works for its abolition. The governor of Virginia has pronounced his eulogy in a manner that discredits the moderation of our timid parties. His own speeches to the court have interested the nation in him. What magnanimity, and what innocent pleading, as of childhood! You remember his words: “If I had interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or any of their friends, parents, wives or children, it would all have been right. But I believe that to have interfered as I have done, for the despised poor, was not wrong, but right.” 2
  It is easy to see what a favorite he will be with history, which plays such pranks with temporary reputations. Nothing can resist the sympathy which all elevated minds must feel with Brown, and through them the whole civilized world; and if he must suffer, he must drag official gentlemen into an immortality most undesirable, of which they have already some disagreeable forebodings. Indeed, it is the reductio ad absurdum of Slavery, when the governor of Virginia is forced to hang a man whom he declares to be a man of the most integrity, truthfulness and courage he has ever met. Is that the kind of man the gallows is built for? It were bold to affirm that there is within that broad commonwealth, at this moment, another citizen as worthy to live, and as deserving of all public and private honor, as this poor prisoner. 3  2
  But we are here to think of relief for the family of John Brown. To my eyes, that family looks very large and very needy of relief. It comprises his brave fellow sufferers in the Charlestown Jail; the fugitives still hunted in the mountains of Virginia and Pennsylvania; the sympathizers with him in all the states; and, I may say, almost every man who loves the Golden Rule and the Declaration of Independence, like him, and who sees what a tiger’s thirst threatens him in the malignity of public sentiment in the slave states. It seems to me that a common feeling joins the people of Massachusetts with him.  3
  I said John Brown was an idealist. He believed in his ideas to that extent that he existed to put them all into action; he said ‘he did not believe in moral suasion, he believed in putting the thing through.’ He saw how deceptive the forms are. We fancy, in Massachusetts, that we are free; yet it seems the government is quite unreliable. Great wealth, great population, men of talent in the executive, on the bench—all the forms right,—and yet, life and freedom are not safe. Why? Because the judges rely on the forms, and do not, like John Brown, use their eyes to see the fact behind the forms. They assume that the United States can protect its witness or its prisoner. And in Massachusetts that is true, but the moment he is carried out of the bounds of Massachusetts the United States, it is notorious, afford no protection at all; the government, the judges, are an envenomed party, and give such protection as they give in Utah to honest citizens, or in Kansas; such protection as they gave to their own Commodore Paulding, when he was simple enough to mistake the formal instructions of his government for their real meaning. 4 The state judges fear collision between their two allegiances; but there are worse evils than collision; namely, the doing substantial injustice. A good man will see that the use of a judge is to secure good government, and where the citizen’s weal is imperilled by abuse of the federal power, to use that arm which can secure it, viz., the local government. Had that been done on certain calamitous occasions, we should not have seen the honor of Massachusetts trailed in the dust, stained to all ages, once and again, by the ill-timed formalism of a venerable bench. If judges cannot find law enough to maintain the sovereignty of the state, and to protect the life and freedom of every inhabitant not a criminal, it is idle to compliment them as learned and venerable. What avails their learning or veneration? At a pinch, they are no more use than idiots. After the mischance they wring their hands, but they had better never have been born. 5 A Vermont judge, Hutchinson, who has the Declaration of Independence in his heart; a Wisconsin judge, who knows that laws are for the protection of citizens against kidnappers, is worth a court-house full of lawyers so idolatrous of forms as to let go the substance. Is any man in Massachusetts so simple as to believe that when a United States Court in Virginia, now, in its present reign of terror, sends to Connecticut, or New York, or Massachusetts, for a witness, it wants him for a witness? No; it wants him for a party; it wants him for meat to slaughter and eat. And your habeas corpus is, in any way in which it has been, or, I fear, is likely to be used, a nuisance, and not a protection; for it takes away his right reliance on himself, and the natural assistance of his friends and fellow citizens, by offering him a form which is a piece of paper.  4
  But I am detaining the meeting on matters which others understand better. I hope, then, that, in administering relief to John Brown’s family, we shall remember all those whom his fate concerns, all who are in sympathy with him, and not forget to aid him in the best way, by securing freedom and independence in Massachusetts.  5
Note 1. Mr. F. B. Sanborn, in his Familiar Letters of Thoreau, says that he introduced John Brown to Thoreau in March, 1857, and Thoreau introduced him to Emerson. This was at the time when Brown came on to awaken the people of Massachusetts to the outrages which the settlers and their families were suffering, and procure aid for them. His clear-cut face, smooth-shaven and bronzed, his firmly shut mouth and mild but steady blue eyes, gave him the appearance of the best type of old New England farmers; indeed he might well have passed for a rustic brother of Squire Hoar. Mr. Emerson was at once interested in him and the story of the gallant fight that the Free-State men in Kansas were making, though Brown was very modest about his own part and leadership. Indeed he claimed only to be a fellow worker and adviser. I think that soon after this time, on one of his visits to Concord, he stayed at Mr. Emerson’s house; certainly he spent the evening there. The last time he came to Concord he was a changed man; all the pleasant look was gone. His gray hair, longer and brushed upright, his great gray beard and the sharpening of his features by exposure and rude experiences gave him a wild, fierce expression. His speech in the Town Hall was excited, and when he drew a huge sheath-knife from under his coat and showed it as a symbol of Missouri civilization, and last drew from his bosom a horse-chain and clanked it in air, telling that his son had been bound with this and led bareheaded under a burning sun beside their horses, by United States dragoons, and in the mania brought on by this inhuman treatment had worn the rusty chain bright,—the old man recalled the fierce Balfour of Burley in Scott’s Old Mortality. It was a startling sight and sent a thrill through his hearers. Yet on earlier occasions his speech had been really more effective, when a quiet farmer of mature years, evidently self-contained, intelligent, truthful and humane, simply told in New England towns what was going on in Kansas, the outrages committed upon the settlers, the violation of their elementary rights under the Constitution,—and all this connived at by the general government. He opened the eyes of his hearers, even against their wills, to the alarming pass into which the slave power had brought the affairs of the country.
  But now wrong and outrage, not only on others but terribly suffered in his own family, had made Brown feel that not he but “Slavery was an outlaw” against which he “held a commission direct from God Almighty” to act. A friend quoted him as having said, “The loss of my family and the troubles in Kansas have shattered my constitution, and I am nothing to the world but to defend the right, and that, by God’s help, I have done and will do.”
  The people were not ready to follow him in revolutionary measures, but when on his own responsibility he had precipitated the inevitable conflict by breaking with a government, then so unrighteous, and offered his life as a sacrifice for humanity, they could not but do homage to him as a hero, who was technically a traitor. He had cut the Gordian knot which they had suffered to be tied tighter.
  Of course Mr. Emerson had known nothing of John Brown’s plan for a raid into the slave states. It was the motive and courage he honored, not the means. He wrote: “I wish we should have health enough to know virtue when we see it, and not cry with the fools and the newspapers, ‘Madman!’ when a hero passes.”
  On the first day of November, John Brown had been sentenced to death. This meeting in Boston, to give aid to his family, was held on the eighteenth, just two weeks before his execution.
  The verses which serve as motto are from Mr. Edmund Clarence Stedman’s poem written at the time, which Mr. Emerson used to read aloud to his family and friends with much pleasure. [back]
Note 2. “This court acknowledges, I suppose, the validity of the Law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or, at least, the New Testament. That teaches me that all things ‘whatsoever I would that men should do unto me, I should do even so to them.’ It teaches me further to ‘remember them which are in bonds as bound with them.’ I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted that I have done, in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children, and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel and unjust enactments—I submit: so let it be done.” From the Speech of John Brown to the Court. [back]
Note 3. Among the sheets of the lecture “Courage” is one which seems to have been used at that time:—
  “Governor Wise and Mr. Mason no doubt have some right to their places. It is some superiority of working brain that put them there, and the aristocrats in every society. But when they come to deal with Brown, they find that he speaks their own speech,—has whatever courage and directness they have, and a great deal more of the same; so that they feel themselves timorous little fellows in his hand; he outsees, outthinks, outacts them, and they are forced to shuffle and stammer in their turn.
  “They painfully feel this, that he is their governor and superior, and the only alternative is to kneel to him if they are truly noble, or else (if they wish to keep their places), to put this fact which they know, out of sight of other people, as fast as they can. Quick, drums and trumpets strike up! Quick, judges and juries, silence him, by sentence and execution of sentence, and hide in the ground this alarming fact. For, if everything comes to its right place, he goes up, and we down.” [back]
Note 4. Commodore Hiram Paulding, in 1857, had broken up Walker’s filibustering expedition at Nicaragua. The arrest of Walker on foreign soil the government did not think it wise wholly to approve. [back]
Note 5. The allusion is to the trials of the fugitives Shadrach, Sims and Burns in Boston. The story of these humiliations is told in full and in a most interesting manner in the diary of Richard H. Dana [Richard Henry Dana; a Biography. By Charles Francis Adams. Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1890. In chapter viii. of this book is a very remarkable account of John Brown and his family at their home at North Elba in 1849, when Mr. Dana and a friend, lost in the Adirondac woods, chanced to come out upon the Brown clearing and were kindly received and aided.], whose zeal in the cause of these poor men did him great honor.
  During the trial of Sims, a chain was put up, as a barrier against the crowd, around the United States Court-House, and the stooping of the judges to creep under this chain in order to enter the court-house was considered symbolic of their abject attitude towards the aggressive slave power. [back]

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