Monday, September 7, 2015

Thoreau on Slavery and a Pre-Civil War Poem by Thomas J. Lees

Many of us when we think of Thoreau think of Walden, of peaceful reflection, of quiet and contemplation. We recall to mind the influence his ideas on nonviolent resistance had on men like Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But people are seldom so one-dimensional as to be summed up in such a snappy pigeon-hole, and Thoreau is no exception.

While reading this summer I came across a reference to Thoreau's support for the actions of John Brown* and it sent me to inquire further.

For those unfamiliar, John Brown's 1859 raid is usually cited as a critical event leading up to the Civil War. The raid was an attempt by Brown, a radical abolitionist, to start an armed slave revolt by seizing a United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Brown's raid was defeated by a detachment of U.S. Marines led by Col. Robert E. Lee, whose opinion of the man was that he was insane.

In response to John Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry, Henry David Thoreau two weeks later delivered a speech in support of John Brown's actions.

Thoreau had delivered his lecture “The Character and Actions of Capt. John Brown” for the first time in the vestry of the First Parish Meetinghouse in Concord... He delivered the speech that evening to a crowd of twenty five hundred at the Tremont Temple, and the lecture was widely reported in the newspapers.**

What struck me about this is how contradictory it seemed to and at odds with what many would believe to be his Pacifism. How could Thoreau endorse John Brown's use of violence to achieve a noble end?

Though we associate Thoreau with the idea of non-violent resistance, here in his Tremont Temple lecture Thoreau gives the strongest support possible to a man who three years earlier lead a group of anti-slavery partisans to assault and kill five pro-slavery settlers in Kansas in the Pottawatomie massacre. Thoreau makes John Brown out to be a hero. It would appear that when it comes to changing society Thoreau's support for Brown seems to put him more in alignment with the Black Panthers and Irish Republican Army (IRA) than the non-violent attitudes of Gandhi and Dr. King.

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Last week I acquired a copy of Stories and Verse of West Virginia, compiled by Ella May Turner (copyright 1923.)  The following poem, titled Slavery, appears on pages 34-35. The poem by Thomas J. Lees, a native of New Jersey, was written while he was living in Wheeling in what was then Virginia before it broke off in 1863. He also wrote poems that addressed women's issues, how little they were paid for their labors and their limited rights as people.


On seeing a drove of Africans pass through  certain town in Virginia, Bound in Chains

Hark to the clang! What means that sound?
'Tis slavery shakes its chains--
Man dragging Man in fettes bound,
And this where freedom reigns!

Say, what have these poor wretches done,
That claims their lot should be?
Are they not punished to atone
For some great robbery?

Or deeds of bloody homicide,
Or treason 'gainst the land?
Ah! no--to pamper human pride,
Man chains his fellow man!

God's noblest work, through thirst for gol,
Is thus to market driven
Like herds of cattle, bought and sold,
By Christians! heirs of heaven!

Great God! does such hypocrisy
Not call for vengeance due?
Shall Freemen shout for Liberty,
And act the tyrant too!

Columbia's Sons, why will ye nurse
The serpent on your soil?
Why hug ye that which threats to curse
The fruit of all your toil?

Think ye that heav'n will bless the hand
That deals in huan blood? ----
It cannot be--this impious land
Must feel the wrath of God!

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