John Brown

History Overview

In 1859, John Brown led a raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry that sought to begin an insurrection against the oppression of slavery. The raid was unsuccessful, and John Brown was sentenced to hang. Many mourned the death of John Brown, writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau among them. However, most people in the north and the south viewed Brown and his cohort as violent and far too extreme in their abolitionist beliefs. Brown’s arrest and subsequent execution sparked outrage across the United States and became a defining moment in the abolitionist movement. Abolitionists moved to defend and honor Brown, while the south further entrenched itself in their view that the north was full of radicals, just like John Brown and his fellow abolitionists.

VA SOLs: VS.1, VS.6, VS.7, USI.1, VUS.1

Learning Goals


Henry David Thoreau’s essay entitled A Plea For Captain John Brown, delivered and subsequently published on October 30th, 1859, gives students the necessary context to understand the militant abolitionist movement that advanced anti-slavery politics. Thoreau’s essay perfectly incorporates all of the ideas he is most well known for while also providing an eloquent defense for the abolitionist cause and the lengths the movement would go to achieve its goals. While Thoreau defends John Brown’s causes and purposes, he is also highly critical of the northern states for not being more anti-slavery/abolitionist.

Coupling Thoreau’s synopsis of the abolitionist movement with the North Carolina Register’s article on John Brown, students will be able to contrast what they have just learned about the radical nature of the abolitionist movement but also the radical lens through which the pro-slavery South viewed the entirety of the North. The Register completely contradicts Thoreau’s criticisms of the North and instead suggests the exact opposite, that the North was full of radical abolitionists.  This is all in spite of the fact that only about 4% of northerners were abolitionists who called for the immediate abolition of slavery and embraced some semblance of civil equality for Black people.

Excerpt from Thoreau’s

“…I wish I could say that Brown was the representative of the North. 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 … No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature… He needed no babbling lawyer… to defend him. He was more than a match for all the judges… He could not have been tried by a jury of his peers, because his peers did not exist. Do yourselves the honor to recognize him. He needs none of your respect.”

“What have Massachusetts and the North sent a few sane representatives to Congress for, of late years..? All their speeches put together and boiled down… do not match for manly directness and force.., the few casual remarks of crazy John Brown, on the floor of the Harper’s Ferry engine-house,–that man whom you are about to hang, to send to the other world, though not to represent you there. No, he was not our representative in any sense. He was too fair a specimen of a man to represent the like of us. Who, then, were his constituents? If you read his words understandingly you will find out… Truth is his inspirer, and earnestness the polisher of his sentences. He could afford to lose his Sharpe’s rifles, while he retained his faculty of speech,–a Sharpe’s rifle of infinitely surer and longer range.”

Suggested Guiding Questions

These suggested questions are best used in a guided discussion about John Brown and are aligned with the learning goals outlined above. The full text and other resources have been provided.

• Thoreau says he wishes John Brown was a “representative” of the North. In what ways does he say Brown was NOT a representative of the North?

•  Where does Thoreau say the majority of the North DISAGREES with John Brown?

• In what ways does the perspective of the NC Register differ from Thoreau’s?