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I pity the poor in bondage that have none to help them; that is why I am here; not to gratify any personal animosity, revenge, or vindictive spirit. It is my sympathy with the oppressed and the wronged, that are as good as you, and as precious in the sight of God.

hanging-john-brown
On December 2, 1859, John Brown was executed for his attempt to end slavery through an armed insurrection.

I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.

The prophet’s words rang true, as the Civil War began 17 months after Brown’s execution. Brown’s action drew public admiration from both Frederick Douglass and Henry David Thoreau. Douglass offered high praise and “homage” for ” a truly great soul.”

zeal in the cause of my race […] far greater than mine – it was as the burning sun to my taper light – mine bounded by time, his stretched away to the boundless shores of eternity. I could live for this slave, but he could die for him. The crown of martyrdom is high, far beyond the reach of ordinary mortals, and yet happily no special greatness or superior mortal excellence is necessary to discern and in some measure appreciate a truly great soul. […] When we are brought in contact with a man of commanding mold, towering high and alone above the millions, free from all conventional fetters, true to his own moral convictions, a “law unto himself,” ready to suffer misconstruction, ignoring torture and death for what he believes to be right, we are compelled to do him homage.

In “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” Henry David Thoreau makes the case, not for Brown’s “life, but for his character.” Brown was well known for his upstanding morality and honor, and his own words reflect this.

Any questions that I can honorably answer, I will; not otherwise. So far as I am myself concerned, I have told everything truthfully. I value my word, sir.

Thoreau’s speaks to the insanity that accompanies the populace’s groupthink, the pervasive violence that underlays society and his admiration for Brown’s actions.

Insane! A father and six sons, and one son-in-law, and several more men besides, — as many at least as twelve disciples, — all struck with insanity at once; while the sane tyrant holds with a firmer gripe than ever his four millions of slaves, and a thousand sane editors, his abettors, are saving their country and their bacon!

We preserve the so-called peace of our community by deeds of petty violence every day. Look at the policeman’s billy and handcuffs! Look at the jail! Look at the gallows! Look at the chaplain of the regiment! We are hoping only to live safely on the outskirts of this provisional army. So we defend ourselves and our hen-roosts, and maintain slavery.

He was a superior man. He did not value his bodily life in comparison with ideal things. He did not recognize unjust human laws, but resisted them as he was bid. For once we are lifted out of the trivialness and dust of politics into the region of truth and manhood. No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature, knowing himself for a man, and the equal of any and all governments. In that sense he was the most American of us all. He needed no babbling lawyer, making false issues, to defend him. He was more than a match for all the judges that American voters, or office-holders of whatever grade, can create. He could not have been tried by a jury of his peers, because his peers did not exist. When a man stands up serenely against the condemnation and vengeance of mankind, rising above them literally by a whole body, — even though he were of late the vilest murderer, who has settled that matter with himself, — the spectacle is a sublime one, — […] and we become criminal in comparison. Do yourselves the honor to recognize him. He needs none of your respect.

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