A Plea for Heroes

Xiaojue Hu, '06, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

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"A Plea for Captain John Brown" is both a rallying of sympathy for Brown's cause and an expose of a fallen society that would persecute such a just cause. Thoreau flits skillfully between perspectives, at times directly addressing the audience by attacks (as when he shifts his addressee to the government itself) and commands, at times including himself with his listeners in sweeping "we" statements of hope or commiseration, and at other times setting himself apart as sage and Brown's advocate in the individualistic, convention-defying voice he wishes all men capable of achieving. Although Carlyle exposed the decadence of his contemporaries by decrying their uncouth choice of heroes, Thoreau goes straight to claiming that there are virtually no heroes anymore and the ones left are being crucified.

Drawing parallels between Brown and Christ in a gesture probably blasphemous to his nineteenthth-century audience, Thoreau presents Brown as an example of a righteous man, his kind of hero for the age. By recounting Brown's personal history and citing the favorable testimonies of white authorities, Thoreau moves Brown away from preconceptions of the primitive, wild, inferior slave to someone more native to the realm of heroic superiority surpassing that of even Thoreau's white contemporaries. Differentiating men through their "constitution, . . . intelligence, and faith," Thoreau establishes one camp that comprises the petty, cowardly, mechanical men who control a government that "withdraws into the back shop, taking the Constitution with it, and bestows most of its labor on repairing that," as well as of those in media who are enslaved to print only what would sell. The other camp is led by men like Brown, who are the individuals Thoreau presents in both "A Duty to Civil Disobedience" and in this plea as being swayed by personal conscience instead of laws contrived by human institutions. Echoing "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau once again wrests power away from government and places it into the hands of the individual, hoping that this enlightened perception would elicit enlightened actions. Like Carlyle, Thoreau also recognizes the mechanistic nature of institutions such as his present government, whose consequential unsuitability to be completely obeyed is betrayed by its unjust actions, such as slavery and execution of John Brown.

At one point, Thoreau sets Brown's death sentence apart as above all other deaths, implying that this is a death of a truly living man, a scarcity in his age. Playing with the sage's diagnostic role in exposing dire problems, Thoreau laments society's general inability even to die properly anymore:

This event advertises me that there is such a fact as death,--the possibility of a man's dying. It seems as if no man had ever died in America before; for in order to die you must first have lived. I don't believe in the hearses, and palls, and funerals that they have had. There was no death in the case, because there had been no life; they merely rotted or sloughed off, pretty much as they had rotted or sloughed along. No temple's veil was rent, only a hole dug somewhere. Let the dead bury their dead. The best of them fairly ran down like a clock. Franklin,--Washington,--they were let off without dying; they were merely missing one day. I hear a good many pretend that they are going to die; or that they have died, for aught that I know. Nonsense! I'll defy them to do it. They haven't got life enough in them. They'll deliquesce like fungi, and keep a hundred eulogists mopping the spot where they left off. Only half a dozen or so have died since the world began. Do you think that you are going to die, sir? No! There's no hope of you. You haven't got your lesson yet. You've got to stay after school. We make a needless ado about capital punishment,--taking lives, when there is no life to take. Memento mori! We don't understand that sublime sentence which some worthy got sculptured on his gravestone once. We've interpreted it in a groveling and sniveling sense; we've wholly forgotten how to die.

But be sure you do die nevertheless. Do your work, and finish it. If you know how to begin, you will know when to end.

1. Thoreau consistently attacks his audience throughout his address as he does here, often with rhetorical questions designed to impute the criticized characteristics upon their targets. Is Thoreau completely alienating his audience? Does he care more that the audience is provoked into thought and reconsideration than he is that they will rally to his cause in sympathy? Is this address aimed mainly at opponents of Brown, in which case it would be more probable to stir rather than to convert the audience?

2. After vitriolically reassuring the audience that they could never aspire to be heroes like John Brown ("No! There's no hope of you."), Thoreau then proceeds to encourage and advise them to try it anyway. How does this dramatic shift in tone affect the effectiveness of Thoreau's rhetoric?

3. At first, Thoreau uses many "I" statements, speaking as the sage who's discerned the heart of society's ills. However, in the last line of the first section, Thoreau includes himself in the endemic group who has forgotten how to live and die courageously and principled. What effect does sporadically banding himself with the audience have on his authority as the enlightened sage?

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Last modified 21 October 2003