Consenting to Violence: Henry David Thoreau, John Brown, and the Transcendent Intellectual

  • Andrew Taylor


In Henry David Thoreau’s most extensive commentary on the Harper’s Ferry episode, his 1859 address “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” we find a curious but, I want to suggest, telling temporal anomaly. Discussing Brown’s “immortality,” his transfiguration from “Old Brown” to “an Angel of Light,” Thoreau declares: “I see now that it was necessary that the bravest and humanest man in all the country should be hung… I almost fear that I may yet hear of his deliverance, doubting if a prolonged life, if any life, can do as much good as his death” (Thoreau 1996, 156). These lines, of course, announce Thoreau’s sense of the inevitability of Brown’s fate; yet they also locate Brown’s execution as a completed deed, not as something still to be enacted. Thoreau’s address was delivered in Concord on October 30; Brown was hanged on December 2. The deployment of a past tense here (“was necessary”) is indicative of the degree to which Brown’s life takes on a trajectory for Thoreau that transcends the problematic particularities of it. To read Brown’s narrative as a completed, teleological arc allows Thoreau to dispense with those elements of his radicalism that might challenge conventional notions of the relationship between acts of individual, often violent will and the necessity for social and legal structures to regulate and, at times, prevent such acts.


Intellectual Life Cultural Mediation TAYLOR Identity Righteous Anger Stone Image 
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Copyright information

© Andrew Taylor and Eldrid Herrington 2005

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  • Andrew Taylor

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