A Story You Probably Didn’t Know about John Brown’s Body, Douglass, Emerson, and Thoreau

Today we present a story in two parts, part of which you probably already know and part of which you probably didn’t know before. 

PART I is a summary of the story of John Brown, Harper’s Ferry, and American Anti-Slavery from AAS volunteer Colin Fitzgerald:

'The Harper's Ferry Insurrection' from Frank Leslie's Illustrated, October 29 1859

For three days in October 1859, radical abolitionist John Brown conducted an armed raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, (West) Virginia. Considered a seminal event in the years prior to the Civil War, Brown’s raid signified the growing intensity of the American anti-slavery movement. One of the raid’s main purposes involved acquiring weapons (rifles and pikes) for African-American slaves in the surrounding communities. Brown believed the raid would be a quick stop followed by a strong push southward along the Appalachian Mountains. He also believed that hundreds of slaves would join. He was wrong.

Before Harper’s Ferry, Brown’s interest in abolition had developed over many years. Having been profoundly inspired by notions of religious equality and anti-slavery, which emerged in the Second Great Awakening of the 1820s and 1830s, he intended to become a Christian minister. But after the murder of abolitionist minister Rev. Elijah P. Lovejoy in 1837, Brown’s anti-slavery views radicalized, as he wished to abolish slavery by any means necessary. For example, in the mid-1850s, Brown traveled to Kansas to clash with pro-slavery forces and make Kansas into a free state. Despite their futility, Brown’s forays in Kansas served as a dress rehearsal for Harper’s Ferry.

'John Brown Ascending the Scaffold Preparatory to Being Hanged' from Frank Leslie's Illustrated, December 17, 1859
Harper’s Ferry changed the terrain of the American Anti-Slavery movement in ways that John Brown could never have fully anticipated, starting with Brown’s death.


Part 2 of our story reveals new details about the immediate afterlife of John Brown, as told by AAS’s Librarian and curator of manuscripts, Tom Knoles:

AAS recently acquired an extraordinary grouping of three hitherto unknown letters that shed new light on a pivotal event in American history – and also on a significant literary response to that event. The letters, purchased on the Harry G. Stoddard Memorial Fund, were written by three of the most important figures in nineteenth century American thought: Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau.

The series of letters starts with one from Frederick Douglass:

My Dear Sir:
Seventeen Marshalls are
on the look out for me in the
States, and to avoid arrest I
must avoid a journey to Boston…”

So former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote from Canada on October 28, 1859, to Charles W. Slack in Boston informing Slack that Douglass would be unable to keep his engagement to speak in Boston on November 1. Slack was the organizer of the Fraternity Course, a popular series of lectures sponsored by Theodore Parker’s Congregational parish, and Douglass had been scheduled to speak on the topic “Self Made Men.” Less than two weeks earlier, John Brown’s raid on the government arsenal at Harper’s Ferry had rocked the nation. Douglass had visited Brown in Virginia in August, bringing money from contributors in the northeast. Consequently, he was implicated in the raid and was sought for his alleged role in planning it. The Douglass letter now at AAS shows his state of mind during the days following Brown’s capture:

“I should have written before – but for the hope that the clouds that now overshadow me would pass away. Instead of this they grow darker every hour.”

From Canada, Douglass went to Great Britain, only returning to the United States the following year after Brown had been hanged and the government was no longer interested in prosecuting others involved in the affair.

In the second of these three letters, Ralph Waldo Emerson writes to Slack on October 31:

“I understand that there is some doubt about Mr. Douglass’s keeping his engagement for Tuesday next. If there is a vacancy, I think you cannot do a greater public good than to send for Mr. Thoreau, who has read last night here a discourse on the history & character of Captain John Brown, which ought to be heard or read by every man in the Republic.”

On October 30, Thoreau had delivered his lecture “The Character and Actions of Capt. John Brown” for the first time in the vestry of the First Parish Meetinghouse in Concord. Emerson was present, and reports in this letter:

“He read it with great force & effect, & though the audience was of widely different parties, it was heard without a murmur of dissent.”

Thoreau wrote to Slack the following day to make arrangements: “I will come to Boston as desired. My subject will be ‘Capt. John Brown’….” He delivered the speech that evening to a crowd of twenty five hundred at the Tremont Temple, and the lecture was widely reported in the newspapers.

The outline of the story told in these letters is well known, particularly because Thoreau’s discourse, first published the following year as “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” became one of his most famous essays. Nonetheless the letters now at AAS provide many new details about Douglass’s fear of being apprehended by federal authorities, about how Thoreau came to replace Douglass on the podium, and also about Emerson’s enthusiastic reaction to the lecture.

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AAS Volunteer Colin FitzGerald

AAS Volunteer

One thought on “A Story You Probably Didn’t Know about John Brown’s Body, Douglass, Emerson, and Thoreau”

  1. Hi Tom,

    Thank you for posting this. I took a John Brown seminar at UMass with Gerald McFarland. We read through many primary sources and saw for ourselves the fine line between martyr and lunatic. But we didn’t read these.

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