Ralph Waldo Emerson praises abolitionist John Brown

Ralph Waldo Emerson praises John Brown in this 1859 speech

During the trial for his involvement in the raid on Harpers Ferry, abolitionist John Brown declared: "If it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice and mingle my blood 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." The October 16th raid had been a failure -- no slaves were freed and fully half of his men died -- and, after only forty-five minutes of deliberation, John Brown was sentenced to death by hanging.

Brown was to leave behind a large family (he fathered 20 children, of whom 11 survived to adulthood) and in the months following the sentencing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Amos Bronson Alcott, and others held meetings in Massachusetts to raise money for their support. The speeches provide a striking example of these 19th-century figures’ fervent support of the abolitionist cause, and the original manuscript copies of the speeches were collected, annotated, and later published.

The page you see here is from a speech given by Emerson at Tremont Temple in Boston on November 18, 1859. Emerson praises John Brown as an "idealist" who "put [his ideas] into action." The penciled notes ("Emerson” at the top of the page and “Applause” in the middle) were likely added by fellow abolitionist Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, who retained and organized these speeches after the meetings, or by James Redpath, the editor who compiled the speeches in Echoes of Harper’s Ferry(Boston: Thayer and Eldridge, 1860).

Mr. Morgan purchased this volume of speeches from the book collector Stephen H. Wakeman in 1909, along with original manuscripts by Emerson, Thoreau, and other important 19th-century American writers including Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

For more information about this collection, click here.

The Leon Levy Foundation is generously underwriting a major project to upgrade catalog records for the Morgan's collection of literary and historical manuscripts. The project is the most substantive effort to date to improve primary research information on a portion of this large and highly important collection.

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