Thursday, July 20, 2017

Sages of Concord #59: A SLACKER AND A HYPOCRITE?

" . . .for all his nature loving, he also loved tools and machines and gadgets. Carpenter, house painter, boatwright, arborist—he truly was as close to self-sufficient as anyone could be in 19th century America. He was Concord’s handyman—the ideal handyman in what might be considered America’s ideal town, since Thoreau’s clients for home repair and gardening included Emerson, Hawthorne, and the Alcotts."

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Sages of Concord #58 Opening Address at Thoreau Bicentennial

Wen Stephenson’s opening address at Thoreau Bicentennial

Adapted from Wen Stephenson’s opening address at the Thoreau Bicentennial  gathering in Concord, MA, on July 12, 2017—Thoreau’s 200th birthday—and from his Beacon Press book, What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Climate Justice.
There’s a popular image of Henry David Thoreau as an apolitical hermit, a recluse, aloof and detached, even misanthropic, a crank indulging his private fantasy in his cabin in the woods. This has always been a caricature; his active involvement in the Underground Railroad and resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act put the lie to it. We know that he helped multiple fugitives on their way to Canada, guarding over them in his family’s house—the Thoreau family were committed abolitionists, especially his mother and sisters—even escorting them onto the trains, which entailed no small personal risk. And of course, we know that he wrote and spoke forcefully and without compromise against slavery and for human freedom.
But in the fall of 1859, Thoreau’s principles would be put even further to the test. When the news arrived in Concord, in October 1859, of John Brown’s deadly raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, reactions were sharply divided. The whole country was in an uproar. Even Brown’s erstwhile supporters quickly distanced themselves. Most of his co-conspirators—many with close ties to Concord—went into hiding, several fleeing to Canada. The atmosphere was not just tense but dangerous for anyone voicing solidarity with Brown.
Into this picture steps forty-two-year-old Henry Thoreau. He was incensed by what he saw as the timid and hypocritical reactions of his neighbors, and of the press, and let it be known that he would speak in support of Brown at Concord’s First Church on October 30. Thoreau rang the town bell himself to announce the speech because Concord’s selectmen had refused. The address he gave was “A Plea for Captain John Brown.”
It was Thoreau’s most radical moment. He was the first in Concord, and among the first and most prominent in the country, to come to Brown’s defense. Within days he would repeat the speech to large audiences in Worcester and Boston—where he stood in at the last moment for Frederick Douglass, who had been chased into Canada by federal marshals despite having played no part in the Harpers Ferry raid.
The speech itself is stunning. What Thoreau was saying in his “Plea” for Brown was the same thing he’d said a decade earlier in “Civil Disobedience”—“action from principle…is essentially revolutionary”—only now in far stronger terms, and this time with real skin in the game. What was once a kind of philosophical exercise was now in deadly earnest: Brown’s raid and certain execution—and the risk of publicly aligning oneself with him—made Thoreau’s night in jail look like child’s play.
On December 2, Brown was hanged in Virginia. The next day, Thoreau himself would become an accomplice to the escape of a desperate Harpers Ferry conspirator, Francis Jackson Merriam, personally taking him out of Concord by wagon to the train in Acton. Thoreau didn’t know Merriam’s identity (he was told only to call him “Lockwood”), but he surely knew what he was doing and the risk he was taking—that this was a wanted man, with a price on his head.
.   .   .
On July 4, 1854, with Walden in final page proofs, Thoreau mounted a platform at Harmony Grove in Framingham—alongside William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth, and other prominent abolitionists—and addressed a fiery antislavery rally (literally fiery: Garrison lit copies of the Fugitive Slave Act and US Constitution on fire). His speech, called “Slavery in Massachusetts,” is merciless, indicting the commonwealth for the moral complacency and hypocrisy of its participation in human bondage, sending escaped slaves, free human beings, back into slavery. It was enough to shake even Thoreau’s sense of nature’s harmony:
I walk toward one of our ponds, but what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base?…Who can be serene in a country where both the rulers and the ruled are without principle? The remembrance of my country spoils my walk.
And yet, there in the final moments of the speech, he finds some reassurance:
But it chanced the other day that I scented a white water-lily, and a season I had waited for had arrived.…What confirmation of our hopes is in the fragrance of this flower! I shall not so soon despair of the world for it, notwithstanding slavery, and the cowardice and want of principle of Northern men. It suggests what kind of laws have prevailed the longest and widest, and still prevail, and that the time may come when man’s deeds will smell as sweet. Such is the odor which the plant emits. If Nature can compound this fragrance still annually, I shall believe her still young and full of vigor, her integrity and genius unimpaired, and that there is virtue even in man, too, who is fitted to perceive and love it. It reminds me that Nature has been partner to no Missouri Compromise. I scent no compromise in the fragrance of the water-lily.
Sorry, but the person who wrote and spoke those words was not “pond scum,” he was not a misanthrope, regardless of what anyone at The New Yorker  magazine may say. Like all of us, he had his flaws—and yes, he could be annoying as hell. But no misanthrope speaks and acts—indeed, risks his own neck—on behalf of his fellow human beings in the way Henry Thoreau did.
“The remembrance of my country spoils my walk.”
You see, I don’t believe that. I don’t believe that the remembrance of his country merely spoiled Thoreau’s walk. I think the remembrance of his country revealed the walk’s true purpose. I believe his solitary and profoundly moral, even spiritual awakening in nature led him back to society and to a radical political engagement on behalf of other people—his neighbors, whether follow citizens of Concord or the fugitives who took refuge in Walden’s woods. Because for Henry Thoreau, to live in harmony with nature is to act in solidarity with our fellow human beings.
About the author 

Wen StephensonWen Stephenson
, an independent journalist and activist, writes for The Nationand is the author of What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Climate Justice. Follow him on Twitter at @wenstephenson.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Sages of Concord #57: A Fourth of July Rally

from Massachusetts Historical Society: 
Broadside advertising a Fourth of July rally sponsored by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in 1854. Noted abolitionists including William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth, and Henry David Thoreau addressed the crowd. In a dramatic climax, Garrison burned copies of the Fugitive Slave Law and the United States Constitution.

A sweltering day in July

"And let all the people say, Amen!" exclaimed William Lloyd Garrison. The hundreds of abolitionists assembled at Harmony Grove, a splendid picnicking area in Framingham, about sixteen miles outside of Boston, roared back "Amen!" again and again. More than the extreme heat of July, as one unsympathetic Boston newspaper shrugged, had excited the passion of the crowd. For the Commonwealth's abolitionist community, July 4, 1854 would be a day to recognize the nation's greatest sin and to mourn the death of freedom.

Kindling for the fire

At the end of May, after furious national debate, Congress turned the Kansas-Nebraska act into law, thus permitting western settlers to legally establish slavery in the territories. The legislation, in effect, repealed the Compromise of 1820 and opened the continent, perhaps even the North, to slavery. Northerners who previously had rejected the abolitionists' dire warnings began to see the expansive and explosive power of slave owners and their allies in the North. With the nation burning red hot over enforcement of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, the Kansas-Nebraska Law created a raging blast furnace of hate and fear. Free Soil and Liberty party members, political abolitionists of varying stripes, and "Conscience" Whigs forged a coalition, soon labeled the Republican party, that dedicated itself to halting the spread of slavery.
The same month, state and federal authorities in Boston, Massachusetts, seized Anthony Burns as a fugitive slave. After an interracial abolitionist rescue effort failed to free Burns, authorities surrounded the courthouse holding him with an iron chain and rings of police, cavalry, and several artillery companies. Judge Edward G. Loring declared Burns an escaped slave and ordered him returned to his owner in Virginia. Hundreds of U.S. military bayonets, at a cost of $100,000, insured Burns's safe conduct through the streets of Boston to the city wharf and then to reenslavement. Loring's disgraceful order, according to Garrison, had converted a man into a thing, the Declaration of Independence into a lie, "the Golden Rule [into] an absurdity, and Jesus of Nazareth [into] an imposter."

At the rally in Framingham, a spark ignites

To mark the dark days of 1854, the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society called for a rally on July 4 amid the bucolic oaks of Framingham's Grove. The Society conducted July 4 ceremonies at the same spot at Harmony Grove between 1846 and 1865, but this one would be particularly memorable. Organizers had formed a small amphitheater before a stage decorated with two white flags bearing the names of Kansas and Nebraska and banners proclaiming "Virginia" and "Redeem Massachusetts." Above, hung an inverted U.S. flag draped with black crepe. Just before the speakers took to the platform, the irrepressible William C. Nell hurriedly placed a portrait of Garrison between the two state's banners, symbolically breaking the chains binding Massachusetts to Virginia.
The rally began with a prayer and a hymn. Then Garrison launched into one of the most controversial performances of his career. "To-day, we are called to celebrate the seventy-eighth anniversary of American Independence. In what spirit?" he asked, "with what purpose? to what end?" The Declaration of Independence had declared "that all men are created equal ... It is not a declaration of equality of property, bodily strength or beauty, intellectually or moral development, industrial or inventive powers, but equality of RIGHTS--not of one race, but of all races."
Since the early 1830s, Garrisonian antislavery advocates had adopted the message of black abolitionists in denouncing the sin of slavery and of racial prejudice. In words familiar to his audience, Garrison repeated the decades-old warnings that freedom did not exist in the South; who there, he declared, could "avow his belief in the inalienable rights of man, irrespective of complexional caste?" The church in the South, a frequent target of abolitionists, lay outside of Christendom, and was nothing but a "cage of unclean birds, and the synagogue of Satan." Garrison ventured into new territory with his warning that slavery had strengthened--not weakened--since he had begun his antislavery career. Slavery and its minions jeopardized freedom everywhere and its advocates, he warned, intended to tighten their grasp over the Caribbean, expand into Central and South America, and even extend the cursed institution into the Pacific. Freedom was disappearing. What could there be to celebrate on July 4? he asked.
Garrison then produced a copy of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law and put a match to it. Amid cries of "Amen" the hated document burned to a cinder. Then he produced copies of Judge Edward G. Loring's decision to send Anthony Burns back to slavery and Judge Benjamin R. Curtis's comments to the U.S. grand jury considering charges of constructive treason against those who had participated in the failed attempt to free Burns. As Martin Luther had burned copies of canon law and the papal bull excommunicating him from the Catholic Church for heresy, Garrison consigned each to the flames. Holding up a copy of the U.S. Constitution, he branded it as "the source and parent of all the other atrocities--'a covenant with death, and an agreement with hell.'" As the nation's founding document burned to ashes, he cried out: "So perish all compromises with tyranny!"

The public reacts

Most of the audience roared its approval but some hissed and groused. Later, many of the state's daily newspapers condemned Garrison's actions. Charles Remond, the great African American abolitionist from Salem, immediately leapt from his seat to defend his good friend. Garrison had acted, Remond announced to the multitudes, in the name of three million slaves. Moncure Daniel Conway, a student at the Harvard Divinity School, mounted the stage and confessed that he was from Virginia and knew his fellow Southerners well. On the subject of slavery, their minds were "diseased," perfectly "insane." He was astonished to have been born in a place where "white men owned slaves" and now, because of what had happened to Anthony Burns, he lived in a place where "white men were slaves."
After the rally broke for a long and well-deserved lunch, Sojourner Truth addressed the throng, warning that God "would yet execute his judgments upon the white people for their oppression and cruelty." Wendell Phillips, Lucy Stone, John Pierpont, Stephen S. Foster, and others added their voices to Garrison's. At about 3:30 p.m., Henry David Thoreau mounted the speaker's platform. With Walden fresh in the bookstores and the Burns affair eating at his conscience, Thoreau uttered his disgust for those in Massachusetts who willingly aided slavery. In an address that would later be published as "Slavery in Massachusetts," Thoreau advised the gathering that the "Law will never make men free; it is men who have got to make the law free."
At the close of the meeting, Garrison resumed his place beneath the banners and flags. When he had begun agitating against the institution of slavery more than twenty years earlier, nearly everyone believed that the institution of slavery would not survive a close scrutiny of the nation's founding documents. Abolitionists assumed that the Founding Fathers had intended to put slavery on the road to extinction. Even the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society had appended copies of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence to their pamphlets, believing that if anyone actually read those sacred words slavery would have to end. But when James Madison's notes from the Constitutional Convention were published in the early 1840s, the truth proved shocking. Many abolitionists who had believed in an antislavery interpretation of the Constitution discovered that the Fathers had traded union and white liberty for black slavery. No longer could Garrison and his allies believe in the Union, much less see the Constitution as inherently antislavery. It was, they sadly discovered, a wicked document, the true underpinning for the institution of slavery. "The only remedy in our case," Garrison exclaimed at the close of the July 4 ceremonies, "is A DISSOLUTION OF THE UNION."

Suggestions for further reading

Finkleman, Paul. "Garrison's Constitution: The Covenant with Death and How it was Made." Prologue: A Quarterly Publication of the National Archives and Records Administration (Winter 2000): 231-245.
Garrison, Wendell Phillips and Francis Jackson Garrison. William Lloyd Garrison, 1805-1879: The Story of his Life Told by his Children, Vol. 3, 1841-1860. New York: Century Co., 1889.
The Liberator, vol. 24, nos. 27-29 (July 7, 14, 21, 1854). These issues contain descriptions of the rally and excerpts of the speeches given.

Mayer, Henry. All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.
Merrill, Walter M. Against Wind and Tide: A Biography of William Lloyd Garrison. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963.
Perry, Lewis. Radical Abolitionism: Anarchy and the Government of God in Antislavery Thought. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1973. For more information on the Anthony Burns affair, see our February 2002, "From our cabinet" feature. For detailed information about Thoreau's speech at Harmony Grove see the website of the Walden Woods Project.