Let’s consider an extreme example, a stark instance of the decision between doing something and talking about it. The abolitionist John Brown, fed up with the endless wrangling and political maneuvering over slavery in the early Nineteenth Century, decided to take matters in his own hands. He led a group that attacked a US military arsenal with the intention of seizing the weapons—Sharps rifles, which were a state-of-the-art weapon of the time, and arming slaves. Brown was captured, and, in the case of the State of Virginia Versus John Brown, Brown was charged with murder, incitement to riot, and treason. Brown was hanged for his actions.
But that’s not the action I want to consider.
One of the financial contributors to John Brown’s violent plan was Henry David Thoreau. Nowadays Thoreau’s reputation is mostly as an individualist and a naturalist. But in his own time, he was seen by many as a fiery abolitionist and as an anarchist.
There was never any doubt that John Brown would be convicted and hanged. The debated question—and it is still alive in American popular culture—is whether or not John Brown was crazy. (Look at the pictures and portraits of Brown sometime to see what I mean.)
Slavery sympathizers insisted that Brown had to be crazy: No white man in his right mind would arm slaves.
Abolitionists, on the other hand, insisted that the horror of slavery had driven Brown to this extremity, and that, the longer slavery existed, the more Browns there would be. Thoreau went on a lecture tour in support of this view, presenting everywhere he could a lecture that became an essay called “A Plea for Captain John Brown.” There Thoreau says,
I do not think it is quite sane for one to spend his whole life in talking or writing about this matter, unless he is continuously inspired, and I have not done so. A man may have other affairs to attend to. I do not wish to kill nor to be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both these things would be by me unavoidable. 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. I know that the mass of my countrymen think that the only righteous use that can be made of Sharps rifles and revolvers is to fight duels with them, when we are insulted by other nations, or to hunt Indians, or shoot fugitive slaves with them, or the like. I think that for once the Sharps rifles and the revolvers were employed in a righteous cause. The tools were in the hands of one who could use them.
Dangerous words in 1859. Thoreau the anarchist appears in these lines:
The only government that I recognize—and it matters not how few are at the head of it, or how small its army—is that power that establishes justice in the land, never that which establishes injustice. What shall we think of a government to which all the truly brave and just men in the land are enemies, standing between it and those whom it oppresses? A government that pretends to be Christian and crucifies a million Christs every day!
Clearly, Thoreau believed that working for justice includes direct action and taking to the street.
While the John Brown affair clearly energized Thoreau, it put his friend and supporter Ralph Waldo Emerson in a bind. Though Emerson was a leading progressive intellectual at the time, and friends or acquaintances with most of the leading abolitionists, Emerson had been very careful in his words about the abolition of slavery. Emerson did not put much faith in political solutions. Or politics, for that matter.
When news of the capture of John Brown reached him, Emerson wrote to his son, ”We are all very well, in spite of the sad Harper’s Ferry business, which interests us all who had Brown for our guest twice . . . He is a true hero, but lost his head there.”
No, neither Emerson nor Thoreau thought much of governments in general or of democracy. They were individualists and elitists. Emerson once said, “Democracy becomes a government of bullies tempered by editors.” He might nowadays rephrase that as, “Democracy becomes a government of bullies manipulated by media.”
The question was what to do about it. Thoreau said take direct action; Emerson said sit back and think about it, what we might call the “the pen is mightier than the sword” approach. These two had a clear choice: contemplative or activist? Scholar or reformer? Bomb thrower or navel gazer?
This tension has long plagued religions and the religious. Here’s what Thoreau thought about that, speaking of John Brown:
Emerson and Thoreau are good examples of the antipodes, the opposites, of those who think and those who do. Consider: Emerson and Thoreau lived before psychoanalysis. The word “narcissism” wasn’t coined until 1899. Emerson and Thoreau never heard the term “mental health.” Or “introvert” or “extrovert.” But Thoreau knew he had to get outside his own stuff—that he had to stop navel gazing—and get to work saving the lives of those Americans who were suffering injustice.
It’s easy to think Thoreau was right all along, now that we know how it all worked out. Thoreau didn’t live to see how it all worked out. He died in 1862. He never had a chance to put his values to the test in the war. He never saw slavery abolished.
In that way, Thoreau was like the rest of us: we may never see the outcome of our struggles for justice. Thoreau is here to remind us that that is not an excuse.