On two separate occasions, Emerson delivered speeches on John Brown. The first speech, John Brown — Speech at Boston, was given before a meeting for the relief of the family of John Brown at Tremont Temple in Boston on November 18, 1859. At that time John Brown was in prison in Virginia, having been tried and awaiting his scheduled hanging on December 2nd for the raid at Harper’s Ferry.
Emerson’s speech is short and to the point. He begins by making Brown out to be a humble farmer from generations of humble farmers, right back to Peter Brown who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620. He goes on to praise Brown as “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 is possessed with “simple, artless goodness, joined with his sublime courage.”
Emerson quotes from John Brown’s final speech given during his trial (he was, apparently, a very charismatic speaker):
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.
Emerson states that it is easy to see that Brown will be a favorite in history, that no one in the civilized world will be able to resist being sympathetic to him.
On this, Emerson was wrong. Brown is a controversial figure in history. When I was in high school I remember learning about the Raid on Harper’s Ferry and I thought Brown was a hero because he tried to free the slaves. But the more I have been reading about him lately, the less I think of him as a hero. His cause, however good and righteous, was forwarded by armed insurrection and murder. I can’t help but wonder if Brown hadn’t been so successful, perhaps there may have been a way for the country to find a way to avoid civil war as well as a peaceful dissolution to slavery.
But nonviolence was not Brown’s way, and I find it interesting that both Emerson and Thoreau, men who believed ardently in nonviolent civil disobedience, could so wholeheartedly support a man like Brown.
Emerson’s second speech, John Brown — Speech at Salem, was delivered at Salem on January 6, 1860. Brown had been dead for a little over a year and the start of the Civil War was just a little over a year in the future. Here Emerson seems to be attempting to memorialize Brown.
Emerson spends much time on Brown’s biography, almost mythologizing him by including a bit about how as a boy Brown had befriended a twelve-year-old slave and had seen the cruelty to which he was subjected. So Brown “swore an oath of resistance to slavery as long as he lived.” Emerson stresses that Brown grew up both religious and poor and as such was
without any vulgar trait; living to ideal ends, without any mixture of self-indulgence or compromise, such as lowers the value of benevolent and thoughtful men we know; abstemious, refusing luxuries, not sourly and reproachfully, but simply as unfit for his habit; quiet and gentle as a child in the house.
Emerson says he sees why so many politicians don’t like the man, and why so many “sensible and self-respect[ing]” people do.
Emerson ends his speech by asking,
Who makes the abolitionist? The slave-holder. The sentiment of mercy is the natural recoil which the laws of the universe provide to protect man-kind from destruction by savage passions. And our blind statesmen go up and down, with committees of vigilance and safety, hunting for the origin of this new heresy. They will need a very vigilant committee indeed to find its birthplace, and a very strong force to root it out. For the arch-abolitionist, older than Brown, and older than the Shenandoah Mountains, is Love, whose other name is Justice, which was before Alfred, before Lycurgus, before slavery, and will be after it.
Notice he says “who” and not “what” makes an abolitionist? All the blame is laid squarely on the slave holder, neglecting to take into account history, politics, economics, and culture. He oversimplifies, implying that ending slavery is easy. He also exonerates Brown by implying that his being an abolitionist was not his fault.
Of course it is easy from my position in the 21st century to look back and speculate, to indulge in “if only.” But I can’t support Brown like Emerson did. Brown’s cause was just, but his methods, not so much.
Next week’s Emerson: American Civilization