On November 18, 1859, John Brown was living under a death sentence for the raid he led on a military arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, an act intended to arm slaves and help them escape the most brutal and bloody of American monstrosities. That night in late autumn, at the Tremont Temple in Boston, Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke passionately about Brown's case at a meeting of those who wanting to provide relief aid for Brown's family. (His remarks are collected in The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson.) The two men had been friends. Brown was a dinner guest at Emerson's Concord home when the abolitionist was in town for meetings.
In the heat of the political moment, Emerson spoke of public hunger for every detail about Brown's life, which Emerson tidily connected to the many ways we can all relate to "the hero of Harpers Ferry." Emerson told those gathered about Brown's life as a farmer, a legacy in his family that stretched back to his ancestor on the Mayflower. Emerson named the places of birth of Brown and his family, knowing location is yet another way that people can feel a personal connection to him. As he orates, he frequently titles his friend: "Captain John Brown." And he speaks of the man who would be dead by execution in two weeks as an American ideal.
For himself, (Captain John Brown) 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.
He believes in the United States, and he conceives the only obstruction to the Union is Slavery, and for that reason, as a patriot, he works for abolition. The governor of Virginia has pronounced his eulogy in a manner that discredits the moderation of our two 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 on 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."
It is easy to see what a favorite he will be with history, which plays such pranks with temporary reputations.
Quite prescient indeed. Consider, for example, artist Jacob Lawrence's "Legend of John Brown" series, or the John Brown Museum in Kansas, or the John Brown Wax Museum in West Virginia, or the John Brown House Museum in Rhode Island, or Pennsylvania's John Brown Farm, Tannery, & Museum, which you will find on John Brown Road. The Harpers Ferry raid also figures into Marilynne Robinson's novel, Gilead. His is a story, it seems, that we love to tell.
Emerson goes on, speaking of the mismatch between bureaucracy and idealism.
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?
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 facts behind the forms. They assume that the United States can protect its witness or its prisoner.
The great transcendentalist works up some bile, speaking of the differing applications of justice in Massachusetts and in Utah and in Kansas, and he excoriates the uselessness of honoring judges as "venerable and learned" if they cannot ultimately protect the life and freedom of citizens -- to the point where Emerson suggests that "at a pinch, they are no more use than idiots. After a mischance they wring their hands, but they had better never been born." These seem awfully brutal words for a man of the nonviolent persuasion, and I believe it relays the emotion Emerson felt about Brown's case.
A Vermont judge, Hutchinson, who has the Declaration of Independence in his heart; a Wisconsin judge, who knows the 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.
And then, moments later, Emerson cuts off the fire. He walks off the stage with a gracious gesture at the work to be done.
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.
John Brown hanged on December 2, 1858. Emerson would speak about him again, this time in a speech in Salem in January. But he purposefully didn't speak long. Better, he indicated, "to cling to (John Brown's) history ... or let him speak for himself."