Thoreau: Justice by Any Means

John Brown

Henry David Thoreau met John Brown early in 1858, when Brown was searching for funding to help the anti-slavery cause in Kansas.  Thoreau was impressed with Brown, even if Brown suspiciously refused to state his intentions once he made enough money.31  One thing is of little doubt, Brown did not use the money for political negotiation.

Because of his righteous cause and the violence with which he pursued it, the legacy of John Brown is still hotly contested today, 150 years later. One effect of Douglas’ Kansas-Nebraska Act was that the issue of slavery in Kansas would be decided by democratic vote.  Pro-slavery zealots, abolitionists, and Free-Soilers poured into Kansas.  Sporadic violence was constant and the anti-slavery faction set up their own government after blatant fraud gave the state to pro-slavery forces.

With abolitionist minister Henry Ward Beecher sending rifles to one side and Missouri Senator David Atchison suggesting the other side should “kill every God-damned abolitionist in the district,” it was in an extremely tense and volatile time.32  John Brown’s arrival did not help the situation.  In the Pottawatomie Massacre, Brown and his men kidnapped five pro-slavery men and beheaded them with a broadsword.

In late 1959, Brown led more men in an attack on the Federal Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, hoping to start a general slave rebellion.  No slaves revolted however, and Brown’s small force was quickly overwhelmed. Before the year ended, John Brown was swinging from the gallows. After an early positive reception in the North, public opinion across the nation soon condemned Brown’s raid.  This prompted Henry David Thoreau to make an impassioned plea on the behalf of John Brown.33

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