On the meaning of John Brown

(An essay on the concept of self-authenticity)


Defenders and detractors of John Brown may disagree about many things, but few will deny that he was, at the very least, a fascinating character. In his lifetime he was even more famous—more loved and more loathed—than he is now. From the Transcendentalists to the governor who hanged him, from the Union soldiers to Ku Klux Klan members, people have been fascinated by him. Why is this? It isn’t only because of his daring raid on Harpers Ferry, for other men have done daring things without becoming objects of fascination. Rather, the cult of John Brown seems to derive from his single-mindedness of purpose, his unshakeable conviction of righteousness, his willingness to commit violence in pursuit of a noble end (a holy end, for him), combined with his intelligence, his eloquence, his courage. In short, what intrigues people, at least implicitly, is the contrast between him and his age. He had integrity, he was an old Puritan, an anachronistic Puritan from the days of Oliver Cromwell, he was “authentic”; his age was hypocritical, confused, self-estranged (as evidenced by its Civil War). This is the impression one gets from the outraged literature of the time, and from the testaments of Brown’s character given by Thoreau, Emerson, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Henry A. Wise (governor of Virginia), and others.[1] In this paper I will investigate such claims. That is, I will explore the relation between Brown and his age, between Brown and the Transcendentalists in particular, in the hope that doing so will yield insights not only into the phenomena I’m “directly” discussing (namely the Transcendentalists, Brown, and their society) but also into the meaning and nature of “authenticity” itself, this concept that is central to Brown’s mystique.


First I will examine pieces of Thoreau’s writing and compare them to Brown’s, in order to shed light on the former’s relative “inauthenticity.” Then I’ll clarify what I mean by “authenticity,” drawing on Hegel and Dostoyevsky. Last, I’ll speculate on the causes of the character-differences between Brown, on the one hand, and Emerson and Thoreau on the other.




A reasonable place to start is Thoreau’s speech “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” delivered first in Concord on October 30, 1859 and then in other New England towns in the weeks before Brown’s execution. The speech was also published in newspapers. It is a stirring document, full of righteous fury, and it roused Emerson to join the ranks of Brown’s defenders. Brown’s trial was still going on; the country was reeling from the implications of his October 16th raid. The national consensus was that Brown was a fanatic, a criminal, a madman, a murderer; the South, however, differed from the North in seeing him as representative of the Republican party, of abolitionists all across the North. Perhaps, thought the South, he was uniquely courageous, but he was symbolic of the North’s dangerous individualism, its Puritanism, its evil abolitionism, its determination to attack the South and suppress slavery once and for all. Most Northerners, on the other hand, disowned Brown, viewing him as a freak, an anomaly; and the Republican party certainly had no connection to the Harpers Ferry raid. Even Abolitionists were reluctant to praise him—or at least they tempered their praise with criticism of his methods—for the majority of them were pacifists. William Lloyd Garrison, a founder of Abolitionism, declared the raid to be “a misguided, wild, and apparently insane, though disinterested and well-intended effort”; Horace Greeley called it a “deplorable affair…the work of a madman.”[2]


Meanwhile, however, Brown was giving interviews and writing letters in which he appeared decidedly clear-headed, in fact honorable, principled, full of integrity and intelligence. As his words were published in newspapers everywhere, the nation came to see him, paradoxically, as both an admirable man and a murderer, both humane and treasonous. Governor Wise of Virginia, who talked to Brown in the hours after the raid, said he was “firm, truthful, and intelligent…cool, collected, and indomitable…a man of fortitude and simple ingenuousness”[3]—yet at the same time he called him a criminal and a traitor. The nation was torn between these positive and negative interpretations of the man, with the negative, however, predominating everywhere.


The 1850s were a culturally frenzied time. In his book Beneath the American Renaissance, David Reynolds emphasizes the ferment and confusion of antebellum America—the cultural experimentation, the impulse for reform of every variety, the coexistence of every conceivable cultural extreme. It was the age, after all, of Transcendentalism and evangelical reform, of sensationalist literature and Poe’s irrationalist fiction, of Moby Dick and Leaves of Grass, of resurgent Puritanism and atheism and free-love movements, of Emily Dickinson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and, in general, of battles between conservative ideologies and an emerging radical democracy in both culture and politics. Slavery, though, was arguably the dominant issue, especially after the passage in 1850 of the Fugitive Slave Act and in 1854 of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which led to widespread proslavery and antislavery violence in Kansas. (The name “Bleeding Kansas” designated this time.) By the end of the 1850s, Emerson was writing that the country had to be purged through war.


It was in this environment that Thoreau wrote “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” hoping it would help raise Brown’s name from infamy. I will quote a few passages to give the reader a sense of its style (which will be important to my argument). Referring to Brown’s interviews with proslavery men after Harpers Ferry, Thoreau says,


Read his admirable answers to Mason and others. How they are dwarfed and defeated by the contrast! On the one side, half-brutish, half-timid questioning; on the other, truth, clear as lightning, crashing into their obscene temples. They are made to stand with Pilate, and Gessler, and the Inquisition. How ineffectual their speech and action! and what a void their silence!


…[John Brown] 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. In his case there is no idle eloquence, no made, nor maiden speech, no compliments to the oppressor. 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…


…Treason! Where does such treason take its rise? I cannot help thinking of you as you deserve, ye governments. Can you dry up the fountains of thought? High treason, when it is resistance to tyranny here below, has its origin in, and is first committed by, the power that makes and forever recreates man. When you have caught and hung all these human rebels, you have accomplished nothing but your own guilt, for you have not struck at the fountain-head…


The contemporary reader tends to enjoy this Thoreauvian heroic style. One enjoys the imagery, the vigor, the pithiness—but only because one knows that it was written a long time ago. A speech written in the same style now would be ridiculed as over-ornate, over-eloquent, absurdly grandiose and magniloquent, stylistically naïve, hopelessly out of touch with the zeitgeist. It would be considered badly written. But because it is not a product of our time, we are able to look upon it with admiration, even, perhaps, to lament that such writing has gone out of fashion.


In other words, our reaction is inseparable from nostalgia. But what is nostalgia? It is a longing for, or fondness of, an idealized past. Usually the idealization involves the perception that the past was simple, certain, “whole,” full of an authenticity that has been lost. The appeal of Thoreau’s writing for us is not purely literary, since it contains literary flaws (such as exaggeration and excessive romanticism). The appeal consists also in its perceived authenticity,[4] its being an upsurge from a more authentic, naïve time than our self-conscious present. It contains almost no hint of a divided consciousness such as characterizes postmodernity; it is pervaded by a spirit of relative certainty, an almost religious devotion to principles. The pithy, forceful language expresses a sort of certainty of self. Thus, Thoreau’s culture, while riven by internecine conflicts and full of collective doubt, was yet more authentic, less “self-conscious,” than ours, a fact that made possible the appreciative reception of Thoreau’s speech.


Emerson’s language is equally revelatory: he refers to Brown as “that new saint, than whom none purer or more brave was ever led by love of men into conflict and death,—the new saint awaiting his martyrdom, and who, if he shall suffer, will make the gallows glorious like the cross.”[5]


The Transcendentalists’ enthusiasm for John Brown parallels our appreciation of the Transcendentalists’ writings and our nostalgia for a culture that could produce such writing. The Northern intellectuals who supported Brown, such as Thomas Higginson, Wendell Phillips, Frank Sanborn, Emerson, Thoreau, and others, seem to have viewed him as an evolutionary throwback, a reincarnation of Oliver Cromwell. The degree of his religiousness is well-known: like every good Puritan from the 1600s, he “possessed a most unusual memory of [the Bible’s] entire contents” and considered himself an instrument of God.[6] He was certain that slavery was “the mother of all abominations”;[7] he therefore devoted his life (especially his last ten years) to its abolition. So little does he appear to have doubted himself or his cause that he never even considered compromise with “evil”; compromise would have been a betrayal of God and of Brown’s mission on Earth. This complete integrity and self-certainty is evident in the final speech he gave to the court that sentenced him to death:


…This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed, which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament, which teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to remember them that are in bonds as bound with them. I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done, in behalf of His despised poor, I did no wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say, let it be done.[8]


Upon comparing this speech with Thoreau’s, one begins to see what it is that the Transcendentalists found so magnetic about Brown. Thoreau speaks, writes and thinks in literary terms, which is to say in terms of the effect he wants to have on his audience. He is a self-conscious intellectual, a man perfectly familiar with self-doubt and the feeling of inadequacy, who is “aware of himself as an object of someone else’s observation”[9] and is thus critically aware of himself, a fact that comes across in his carefully constructed, inflated sentences. Brown, on the other hand, simply states his convictions clearly and without ulterior motive. Without literary embellishments. He is too self-certain for inessential embellishments, for artificial devices that come from the writer’s desire for applause. As Thoreau says, “Truth is [Brown’s] inspirer, and earnestness the polisher of his sentences.” Moreover, this observation is expressly intended to contrast with Thoreau himself, for in the prior sentence he has stated with a hint of self-disapproval, “In [Brown’s] case there is no idle eloquence, no made, nor maiden speech”—which is precisely what Thoreau is giving, a “made speech” characterized by “idle eloquence.”


Thoreau has already made the point explicitly when he says, “[Brown] was too fair a specimen of a man to represent the like of us.” And earlier in the speech he has gone so far as to say, “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.”


For Thoreau and Emerson, therefore, as for most of the Transcendentalists, Brown is the ideal man not only because he guides his actions by his conscience and devotes himself to fighting for a higher principle (which, in his case, is the eradication of slavery), but also because he does so in the most “manly” of ways, viz. by knowing himself for a man. In the eyes of his admirers he suffers from no “divided consciousness,” and in this sense differs both from New England intellectuals and from American culture as a whole in the 1850s. He symbolizes the ideal of authenticity. He is Emerson’s “hero,” the man whose essence is “self-trust,” who “speaks the truth and is just, generous, hospitable, temperate, scornful of petty calculations and scornful of being scorned.”[10]


In short, Brown “knew himself for a man” more fully than Thoreau and Emerson knew themselves as such: they were well aware that, while Brown acted, they merely wrote. However, what does the word “authentic” really mean? And what causes a person or a culture to be inauthentic? In thus contrasting the Transcendentalists with Brown, what exactly are we doing?


In a sense, the first question is not hard to answer. Inauthenticity can mean various things: self-deception; “playing a role” or “wearing a mask”; being compulsively self-conscious to the extent that you don’t have a clear sense of who you are; failing, for whatever reason, to “realize” (or real-ize) yourself (i.e., your potential), for example by watching TV all day every day; immersing yourself in superficial, commonplace pastimes that don’t touch your “inner self,” for instance by living like a New Yorker who rushes from place to place day after day, shopping, eating, drinking, watching movies, meeting friends, without ever pausing and self-reflecting for the sake of “staying in touch with” himself. What these modes of inauthenticity have in common is that they are ways of not being oneself. They imply a dichotomy between the “real self” and the “false self,” between reality and appearance. The truly authentic person lives in a “fullness of being”; he suffers from no self-suppression or self-stuntedness or insecurity.


There are other ways to express the meaning of inauthenticity. For instance, one could use Hegelian language and say that inauthenticity at its most extreme is characterized by a “disintegrated consciousness.” The example that Hegel chooses to illustrate what he means by this term is the Nephew in Diderot’s dialogue Rameau’s Nephew, the character who is so confused about his identity that he can be anyone and everyone, he can adopt whatever mask it pleases him to adopt in a given moment.[11] This character effectively has no self: his “self” is merely a series of masks floating in air, masks on top of masks all the way down to the “core”—but there is no core. There is only an infinite floating in a vacuum-of-identity. Dostoyevsky provides an even more extreme example of the disintegrated consciousness in Notes from the Underground, which comprises a series of self-reflections by the “Underground Man.” The Underground Man’s paradox is that he knows nothing about himself precisely because he knows everything. He is compulsively self-conscious, which means he never stops questioning himself, never stops wondering who he “truly” is, to the point that he considers himself to lack an identity:


…I did not know how to become anything; neither spiteful nor kind, neither a rascal nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect… [A] man in the nineteenth century must and morally ought to be pre-eminently a characterless creature; a man of character, an active man is pre-eminently a limited creature…[12]


In other words, the disintegrated consciousness, which is the most alienated, least “authentic,” of all consciousnesses, is obsessed, tortured, by its consciousness of freedom in relation to itself. According to the famous psychoanalyst R. D. Laing, schizophrenia is the (patho)logical conclusion of this disintegration of consciousness.


What does all this have to do with John Brown and the Transcendentalists? First of all, it clarifies what we mean by saying that Brown is comparatively “authentic”: we mean that his consciousness and behavior are farther away from the extreme of “dis-integration” than Emerson’s and Thoreau’s are. In other words, his actions are simple extensions of his sense of self to a relatively high degree. Emerson and Thoreau (I’ll call them “ET” for short, and treat them as instantiations of a single mode of consciousness) are characterized by a greater division between their “inner,” “true,” “ideal” self and the self they present to the world, the self that determines much of their behavior. The division is reflected also in their writing, for as they write they are continuously, of necessity, making compromises between what they believe and would like to say and what they think will be acceptable and most effective in light of their audience.[13] That is, they are adjusting their behavior in the light of social norms and people’s expectations, which presupposes and reinforces a separation in their consciousness between what is “false” (in their behavior and writing) and what is “true.” Their sense of self, therefore, suffers from a partial lack of integration with itself, a lack of un-mediated “wholeness” and self-certainty, corresponding to the split between their inner self/behavior and the self/behavior they present to others.


Freud believed that the pathological is a clue to the “ordinary,” the “healthy.” They exist on a continuum; there is no radical separation between mental health and mental ill-health. This Freudian belief supports my claim that John Brown and ET represent different places in a continuum from complete authenticity or self-certainty—as manifested, for instance, in an infant’s consciousness, in which there is no self-awareness, no self–other division—to, perhaps, schizophrenia, if R. D. Laing’s interpretation of schizophrenia is right. One could also say that ET is more authentic, less mediated by critical self-consciousness, less intensely “aware of [itself] as an object of someone else’s observation,” than many postmodern intellectuals, whose writings are saturated with compulsive self-consciousness. The writer David Foster Wallace is a good example of such an intellectual; so is Samuel Beckett, even Sylvia Plath—writers whose works testify to the cultural and personal insecurity that exists in this age.


The question arises, then, as to the causes of these various degrees of self-insecurity and inauthenticity. What factors caused Brown to be more self-certain than the Transcendentalists, and why were they more self-certain than many contemporary intellectuals are? To answer this question we have to look at the social environments in which these people grew up, the environments that formed them.


John Brown matured in the wilderness, on the frontier. Much of his youth was spent in Ohio, working at his father’s tannery, living in the log cabin his father had built. These were rough conditions; his family never—throughout his life, in fact—transcended its poverty. Moreover, Brown’s parents were severe with him, readily punishing and whipping him for his wild behavior.[14] He did not feel unloved, though. Quite the contrary. His mother died when he was eight, but he cherished her memory. His parents were also extremely devout Calvinists, a characteristic that they would pass on to their son. He grew up to be a stern, self-confident, commanding figure who disliked “‘vain and frivolous’ conversation and people.”[15] Almost the entirety of his life would be lived in outposts in the wilderness, be they in Kansas, Ohio, or upstate New York.


Emerson and Thoreau, by contrast, spent most of their lives in or around Boston, Massachusetts. They both studied at Harvard and taught school briefly afterwards. Their continuous contact with civilization is reflected in their writings, which preach a return to nature, a rejection of laws and institutions that conflict with one’s conscience, a reliance on intuition rather than established religion or anything predominantly social in character. The individual should, in a sense, have priority over society. In short, they were firmly convinced that society was corrupting, that it was false, sometimes evil, and that if the individual was not careful, its falsity could become his falsity.


The main reasons they had such an adverse reaction to “society” are also the main causes of their inauthenticity relative to Brown. Quite simply, modern society imposes roles on people, modes of behavior they have to adopt if they are to survive the hustle and bustle and not become social outcasts. Social structures constrain one’s freedom. Moreover, they fragment the populace, atomize people, make them strangers to one another, which ultimately makes them mutually suspicious. The end-result is mass insecurity and self-consciousness. The necessity of spending most of one’s time playing various roles, worrying about people’s reactions to one’s behavior, worrying if one is fulfilling the designated roles properly, and so on, can have destructive implications with respect to one’s sense of self. An individual may even lose his sense of himself, which is to say he no longer knows who he is. Emerson and Thoreau probably did not suffer from this pathology, but their emphasis on the individual’s need to “trust himself” shows at least that they were not strangers to the modern problem of a loss of identity.


Brown, however, was a stranger to this problem because he was not formed by the social structures of American city-life. His identity was forged on the frontier, where it was unnecessary to adopt a plethora of identity-confusing “roles.” He was raised by strict Calvinists and he became a single-minded Calvinist. His world was not ambiguous.


To be sure, his innate psychological endowment obviously had a lot to do with his character. But so did his background. It is not unreasonable to suppose that the differences between his background and Emerson’s (and Thoreau’s) partly determined the differences between their characters.


The foregoing reflections have a number of implications that might stimulate further thought. For instance, it would seem that societies, at least as “ideal-types,” necessarily evolve in the direction of encouraging greater and greater inauthenticity among their denizens, inasmuch as they tend to proceed from a relatively primitive, “natural” state of little social differentiation or “role-playing” to an increasingly “civilized” state of economic and social coercion in the form of interwoven norms and roles—roles that emerge from the evolving state of technology, of the division of labor, of urban centers, of social structures. It would make sense, then, to call a society “self-conscious” or “inauthentic” to the degree that its institutions and social relations are such as to promote these traits in its inhabitants, i.e., to encourage the latter to adjust their behavior in the light of how they see themselves and think they are seen by others (which is just to put on an act[16]).


Alternatively, one might approach the Transcendentalists’ writings in terms of what they reveal about, e.g., the self-consciousness of certain sectors of American culture at certain times, and how that self-consciousness evolved towards greater self-doubt and despair—as well as the social causes that might have led to such an evolution in the 1840s, ’50s, and ’60s. Similarly, one might examine John Brown’s writings as clues to how a relatively “authentic” person thinks and acts in given social conditions. They are clues to the mental structure of a certain kind of person.


Such investigations, however, lie beyond the purview of this paper. My purpose has been only to sketch a few telling differences between the characters of John Brown and his Transcendentalist admirers, and to speculate on why they so admired him. It appears, in the end, that their admiration was evoked by one thing above all: their sense that he was a more “genuine man” than they. —The cult of masculinity and the cult of authenticity overlap.

[1] See David Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights (New York: Vintage Books, 2005).


[2] Ibid., p. 340.


[3] Ibid., p. 332.


[4] Throughout this paper I am using the word “authenticity” in a non-moral sense. I don’t mean to imply that “inauthentic” people or cultures are thereby inferior or somehow immoral; the term is purely descriptive, not evaluative.


[5] From Emerson’s lecture “Courage,” delivered on November 8, 1859.


[6] Benjamin Quarles, Allies for Freedom (New York: Da Capo Press, 2001), p. 12. The quotation is from an autobiographical letter Brown wrote to Henry Stearns in 1857.


[7] Ibid.


[8] Quoted in Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist, p. 354.


[9] R. D. Laing, The Divided Self (New York: Pantheon Books, 1960), p. 113.


[10] From Emerson’s essay “Heroism.”


[11] See Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, the chapter entitled “Self-alienated Spirit.” See also Lionel Trilling’s Sincerity and Authenticity, which is an illuminating discussion of all these themes.


[12] Notes from the Underground, chapter 1.


[13] Comparisons between Thoreau’s journal and his “Plea for Captain John Brown” support that point. In the journal his wording was often stronger than in his speech, evidently because he thought his audience wouldn’t appreciate his more strongly worded sentiments.


[14] Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist, p. 32.


[15] Ibid., p. 36.


[16] The act may deceive the actor himself, but it nevertheless retains some of its ‘act-ive’ character as long as the actor adjusts his behavior—perhaps involuntarily—in response to a discrepancy between how he perceives himself and how he wants to be perceived (by himself and others).


© 2014-2020 by Chris Wright