John Brown and the Principle of Nonresistance

William Lloyd Garrison

December 16, 1859

A word upon the subject of Peace. I am a non-resistant–a believer in the inviolability of human life, under all circumstances; I, therefore, in the name of God, disarm John Brown, and every slave at the South. But I do not stop there; if I did, I should be a monster. I also disarm, in the name of God, every slaveholder and tyrant in the world. (Loud applause.) For wherever that principle is adopted, all fetters must instantly melt, and there can be no oppressed, and no oppressor, in the nature of things. How many agree with me in regard to the doctrine of the inviolability of human life? How many non-resistants are there here to-night? (A single voice–”I.”) There is one! (Laughter.) Well, then, you who are otherwise are not the men to point the finger at John Brown, and cry “traitor”–judging you by your own standard. (Applause.) Nevertheless, I am a non-resistant, and I not only desire, but have labored unremittingly to effect the peaceful abolition of slavery, by an appeal to the reason and conscience of the slaveholder; yet, as a peace man–an “ultra” peace man–I am prepared to say, “Success to every slave insurrection at the South, and in every slave country.” (Enthusiastic applause.) And I do not see how I compromise or stain my peace profession in making that declaration. Whenever there is a contest between the oppressed and the oppressor,–the weapons being equal between the parties, –God knows that my heart must be with the oppressed, and always against the oppressor. Therefore, whenever commenced, I cannot but wish success to all slave insurrections. (Loud applause.) I thank God when men who believe in the right and duty of wielding carnal weapons are so far advanced that they will take those weapons out of the scale of despotism, and throw them into the scale of freedom. It is an indication of progress, and a positive moral growth; it is one way to get up to the sublime platform of non-resistance; and it is God’s method of dealing retribution upon the head of the tyrant. Rather than see men wearing their chains in a cowardly and servile spirit, I would, as an advocate of peace, much rather see them breaking the head of the tyrant with their chains. Give me, as a non-resistant, Bunker Hill, and Lexington, and Concord, rather than the cowardice and servility of a Southern slave plantation.

The verdict of the world, whether “resistance to tyrants is obedience to God,” has been rendered in the affirmative in every age and clime. Whether the weapons used in the struggle against despotism have been spiritual or carnal, that verdict has been this:–

Glory to those who die in Freedom’s cause!

Courts, judges, can inflict no brand of shame,

Or shape of death, to shroud them from applause!

No, manglers of the martyr’s earthly frame,

Your hangmen fingers cannot touch his fame!

Long trains of ill may pass, unheeded, dumb –

But Vengeance is behind, and Justice is to come!

(Loud applause.)

We have been warmly sympathizing with John Brown all the way through, from the time of his arrest till now. Now he no longer needs our sympathy, for he is beyond suffering, and wears the victor’s crown. Are we to grow morbid over his death, to indulge in sentimental speech, to content ourselves with an outburst of emotional feeling, and not to come up to the work of abolishing slavery? I confess, I am somewhat apprehensive in regard to this powerful and wide-spread excitement, lest there may follow an exhaustion of the system, a disastrous reaction, in consequence of neglecting to make it directly subservient to the cause of emancipation by earnest and self-sacrificing effort. I see in every slave on the Southern plantation a living John Brown–one to be sympathized with far more than ever John Brown needed sympathy, whether in the jail or on the scaffold at Charlestown. I see four millions of living John Browns needing our thoughts, our sympathies, our prayers, our noblest exertions to strike off their fetters. And, by God’s help, will we not do it? What can we do? I do not know that we can do any thing for Virginia. She seems past all salvation–to have been “given over to believe a lie that she may be damned.” But here we stand, with our feet upon the old Pilgrim ground; and I ask the sons of the Fathers, are we not competent to make the old Bay State free to all who tread its soil? (Enthusiastic applause.) Are we to have another Anthony Burns rendition? (“No!” “No!”) Shall we allow any more slave-hunting from Berkshire to Barnstable? (“No!” “No!”) No? How, then, will you prevent it? You must make that decree a matter of record, through your representatives in the State House; and if you want to do an effectual work tomorrow, and to consummate John Brown’s object as far as you can, see to it that you put your names to the petition to the Legislature, now in circulation, asking that body to declare that, henceforth, no human being shall be regarded, tried or treated as a slave within the limits of this Commonwealth. (Immense applause.) But that is “treason,” (laughter,) and John Brown was a “traitor.” The Boston Post and the Boston Courier are very anxious to discover who were the instigators of the Harper’s Ferry rebellion. Most disinterested and patriotic journals! When you read any of their editorials on this subject, just look at the bottom and see in staring capitals–”SOLD TO THE DEVIL, AND PAID FOR.” (Laughter and applause.)

Who instigated John Brown? Let us see. It must have been Patrick Henry, who said–and he was a Virginian– “Give me liberty, or give me death!” Why do they not dig up his bones, and give them to the consuming fire, to show their abhorrence of his memory? It must have been Thomas Jefferson–another Virginian–who said of the bondage of the Virginia slaves, that “one hour of it is fraught with more misery than ages of that which our fathers rose in rebellion to oppose”–and who, as the author of the Declaration of Independence, proclaimed it to be “a SELF-EVIDENT TRUTH, that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with AN INALIENABLE RIGHT TO LIBERTY.” (Applause.) Beyond all question, it must have been VIRGINIA HERSELF, who, by her coat of arms, with its terrible motto, “Sic semper tyrannis,” asserts the right of the oppressed to trample their oppressors beneath their feet, and, if necessary, consign them to a bloody grave! Herein John Brown found the strongest incitement and the fullest justification.

Who instigated the deed at Harper’s Ferry? The people whose motto is, “Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God”–and whose exulting talk is of Bunker Hill and Yorktown, and the deeds of their REVOLUTIONARY sires! Nay, we must go back to the source of life itself: –”So God created man in his own image; male and female created he them.” Thus making an “irrepressible conflict” between the soul of man and tyranny from the beginning, and confirming what Lord Brougham so eloquently uttered years ago–”Tell me not of rights; talk not of the property of the planter in his slaves. I deny the right; I acknowledge not the property. The principles, the feelings of our nature rise in rebellion against it. Be the appeal made to the understanding or to the heart, the sentence is the same that rejects it. In vain you tell me of laws that sanction such a claim. There is a law above all the enactments of human codes–the same throughout the world, the same in all time–it is the law written by the finger of God upon the heart of man; and by that law, unchangeable and eternal, while men despise fraud, and loathe rapine, and abhor blood, they will reject with indignation the wild and guilty phantasy that man can hold property in man.” (Loud applause.)

We have a natural right, therefore, to seek the abolition of slavery throughout the globe. It is our special duty to make Massachusetts free soil, so that the moment the fugitive slave stands upon it, he shall take his place in the ranks of the free. God commands us to “hide the outcast, and bewray not him that wandereth.” I say, LET THE WILL OF GOD BE DONE! That is “the head and front” of my “fanaticism”! That is the extent of my “infidelity”! That comprehends all of my “treason”! THE WILL OF GOD BE DONE! (Great applause.)

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