Identity of an American Opposed to America

Charles Vallely '06, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

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In "A Plea for Captain John Brown," Henry David Thoreau grapples with the definition of American identity, on the one hand celebrating what he perceives of as the embodiment of American ideals, while, on the other, acknowledging the perversion of those ideals by the dominant society and governmental machines. He finds his American ideal in the figure of John Brown, a man he praises for his steadfast devotion to what he deems just, and his disregard of governmental impediments. At the same time, Thoreau observes a clashing image of America: "the trivialness and dust of politics" (p. 7), and the American majority that chooses indifference and doubt. Thus, Thoreau mourns that Americans no longer see the ideals that he believes have defined them, and sides with the pariahs who make those principles their duty, and seek, with their actions and blood, to reawaken Americans to themselves.

If Walker may be considered the representative of the South, 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 as he was bid. For once we are lifted out of the trivialness and dust of politics into the region of truth and manhood. 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. In that sense he was the most American of us all. He needed no babbling lawyer, making false issues, to defend him. He was more than a match for all the judges that American voters, or office-holders of whatever grade, can create. He could not have been tried by a jury of peers, because his peers did not exist. When a man stands up serenely against the condemnation and vengeance of mankind, rising above them literally by a whole body,-even though he were of late the vilest murderer, who has settled that matter with himself, -- the spectacle is a sublime one, -- didn't ye know it, ye Liberators, ye Tribunes, ye Republicans? -- and we become criminal in comparison. Do yourself the honor to recognize him. He needs none of your respect.


1. Are there any similarities between Thoreau's analysis of Captain John Brown and Ruskin's of soldiers? If so, what's the significance of Ruskin's soldiers being admired by the greater public, while John Brown is scorned by them?

2. How is this text changed by its being speech? How does it shape the argument, structurally and stylistically? Are the metaphors and figures of speech that punctuate paragraphs a product of this?

3. What does Thoreau mean when he writes that John Brown "rising above them literally by a whole body" (p. 9)? What is the effect of the multiple connotations of this word choice?

4. Does Thoreau suggest that the John Brown's of this world can only have an impact as martyrs?

5. When Thoreau tells the gathered Concordians that John Brown "needs none of your respect" (p. 7), does he suggest that their respect would in someway belittle what he did without their approval? Does this have any relation to Carlyle's "Hudson's Statue"?

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Last modified 23 March 2005