Thoreau: Justice by Any Means

A Plea for Captain John Brown

“A Plea for Captain John Brown” finds Thoreau completely abandoning the principle of nonviolent resistance.  Brown was “a transcendentalist above all, a man of ideas and principles.”34  This was enough to make him a hero to Thoreau.  Although Thoreau disliked violence, he had come to the realization that he disliked slavery even more.

“Plea” provides Thoreau’s justification of the righteousness of Brown’s actions.  He mentions that Brown helped the Free State men in Kansas and claims that it was “through his agency, far more than any other’s, that Kansas was made free.”35  With this statement, it is clear that Thoreau believes that, at least in respect to Bleeding Kansas, the end justified the means.  He acknowledged that violence was done by Brown and his men, but that they also made Kansas free. In this case, because slavery is a greater evil than violence, Thoreau saw Brown’s actions as justifiable.

However, it was not Brown’s actions or achievements that impressed Thoreau most, but his principle.  Brown was a man after Thoreau’s heart.  “I would rather have the small-pox, yellow-fever, cholera, all together in my camp,” Brown said, “than a man without principle…Give me men of good principles…and with a dozen of them I will oppose any hundred such men as these Buford ruffians.”36  Thoreau later writes

Prominent and influential editors, accustomed to deal with politicians…do not know the man. They must enlarge themselves to conceive of him…They have got to conceive of a man of faith and of religious principle…who did not wait till he was personally interfered with or thwarted in some harmless business before he gave his life to the cause of the oppressed…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… 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… He could not have been tried by a jury of his peers, because his peers did not exist.37

Thoreau praised John Brown as a man who knew his government was wrong and gloriously acted upon that principle.  Thoreau’s previous dislike of violent resistance is completely gone.  He was now praising a man of righteous violence as an “Angel of light.”38  In his support of John Brown, Thoreau crossed the line between using violent imagery to inspire people to nonviolently resist and advocating violence as a tool to establish a just government.

The implication of “A Plea for Captain John Brown” is simple.  If a person acts on principle for a righteous cause, they are justified in using any means necessary to bring about that virtuous end. Although it sounds like a completely different Henry David Thoreau, this is actually a highly conditional justification of force. Clearly, the evil a person opposes must be great if violence is a justifiable response. The systematic enslavement of an entire race is obviously a great evil. However, there is no evidence that Thoreau’s opinion about justified responses to taxes changed with the Raid on Harper’s Ferry.  There is nothing to suggest that Thoreau abandoned passive resistance in respect to topics such as tariffs, taxes, or other forms of government interference which Thoreau detested.

The intentions of the crusader must be called into question as well. Motivations such as revenge or profit are not acceptable.  For Thoreau, the transcendental nature of the violence is critical.  For violence to be acceptable to Thoreau, it must be done for the common good; to protect one’s or someone else’s natural rights.  The violence must be in defense of the laws of God and not the laws of government.  If a person acts in the interests of themselves or their country, their motives are questionable.  Because transcendental beliefs are innately spiritual, only actions taken in the interests of others or humanity as a whole can be considered transcendental.

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