Tag Archives: Henry David Thoreau

When I lay me down to Sleep, …


Myself

By T. V. Antony Raj

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John Brown by Augustus Washington

John Brown (May 9, 1800 – December 2, 1859) was an American radical abolitionist who believed in and advocated armed insurrection as the only way to overthrow the institution of slavery in the United States. He had 20 children of which 11 survived to adulthood.

In mid-October 1859, John Brown and 21 other men seized the federal armoury at Harper’s Ferry, the holding place for approximately 100,000 rifles and muskets, with the hope of arming slaves and start a violent slave liberation movement that would spread south through the mountainous regions of Virginia and North Carolina.

Within 36 hours, the revolt was suppressed by local farmers, militiamen, and US Marines, the latter led by Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Confederate States. The raid resulted in thirteen deaths – twelve rebels and one U.S. Marine.

John Brown was hastily tried for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, the murder of five men (including 3 blacks), and inciting a slave insurrection. He was found guilty on all counts. He was the first person convicted of treason in the history of the country.

Henry David Thoreau.

On Sunday Evening of October 30, 1859, two weeks after John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862), the American essayist, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, tax resister, historian, development critic, and transcendentalist read to the citizens of Concord, Massachusettes, “A Plea for Captain John Brown” and repeated it several times before Brown’s execution on December 2, 1859. It was later published as an essay as a part of Echoes of Harper’s Ferry in 1860.

In his “A Plea for Captain John Brown“, Thoreau vents his rage at the scores of Americans who have voiced their displeasure and scorn for John Brown. Thoreau says, the same people, who say their prayers and then go to sleep aware of injustice but doing nothing to change it can’t relate to Brown because of their concrete stances and “dead” existences.

Joseph Addison by Sir Godfrey Kneller

About 148 years before, on March 8, 1711, Joseph Addison (May 1, 1672 – June 17, 1719), an English essayist, poet, playwright, and politician wrote an essay that appeared in The Spectator in which he says:

When I lay me down to Sleep,
I recommend my self to his Care;
when I awake, I give my self up to his Direction.

All the bedtime prayers of the modern pious Christians, then and now, begin with one of the variants of this classic children’s bedtime prayer from the 18th century which is sometimes combined with the “Black Paternoster”, one version of which goes:

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,
Bless the bed that I lie on.
Four corners to my bed,
Four angels round my head;
One to watch and one to pray
And two to bear my soul away.

In his “A Plea for Captain John Brown“, Thoreau criticized contemporary Christians by saying that “The modern Christian is a man who has consented to say all the prayers in the liturgy, provided you will let him go straight to bed and sleep quietly afterwards. All his prayers begin with “Now I lay me down to sleep.”

In plain English, the modern pious Christian does not wish to be disturbed. He looks forward to a future of inactivity. All effort, especially intellectual effort, is distasteful to him and is apt to offend and unsettle him. Hence the intellectual life must not be real; what must be real is the sleep. Sleep seems to be his quest, and in the words of Thoreau “he is forever looking forward to the time when he shall go to his ‘long rest.’

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