In A Plea for Captain John Brown, Thoreau writes:

A man does a brave and humane deed, and at once, on all sides, we hear people and parties declaring, “I didn’t do it, nor countenance him to do it, in any conceivable way. It can’t be fairly inferred from my past career.” I, for one, am not interested to hear you define your position. I don’t know that I ever was, or ever shall be. I think it is mere egotism, or impertinent at this time. Ye needn’t take so much pains to wash your skirts of him. No intelligent man will ever be convinced that he was any creature of yours. He went and came, as he himself informs us, “under the auspices of John Brown and nobody else.” The Republican party does not perceive how many his failure will make to vote more correctly than they would have them. They have counted the votes of Pennsylvania & Co., but they have not correctly counted Captain Brown’s vote. He has taken the wind out of their sails, the little wind they had, and they may as well lie to and repair.

I read the last sentence like so: He has taken some of their support-base, the little that they had, and they may as well lie and rest. I have done some research, yet the following remains unclear to me:

  1. What was Pennsylvania & Co. and what was their role then in the Republican party?

  2. Why is it written [...], and they may as well lie to and repair.?
    instead of [...], and they may as well lie and repair.? Whom might the Republicans lie to?


1 Answer 1


There are two questions here, one historical (what was meant by “the votes of Pennsylvania & Co.”), and one grammatical (the meaning of “they may as well lie to and repair”).

Taking the historical question first, Thoreau was speaking on October the 30th, 1859 (ten days after John Brown’s raid on Harper’s ferry), while Brown was on trial in Charles Town, Virginia (in modern-day West Virginia.) As a strong abolitionist, Thoreau strongly supported Brown and his actions. In referring to “the votes of Pennsylvania” Thoreau is clearly referring to some recent event, sufficiently important that the audience immediately knew to what he is referring. Of course more than 160 years later it is hard for us to see what would have been so obvious to the crowd. I believe that there is just one strong candidate: the mid-term elections for James Buchanan’s government.

These took place from 1858 - 1859, depending on the state, and were catastrophic for Buchanan. To simplify his position, Buchanan wanted to preserve the status quo, while the election gave a strong swing toward the newly-formed Republican party that opposed slavery. Wikipedia notes that:

Winning a plurality for the first time, Republicans benefited from multiple factors… and a sharp decline in President Buchanan's popularity due to his perceived fecklessness. In Pennsylvania, his home state, Republicans made particularly large gains.

In an article in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, the importance of this election is emphasised even further, terming it a “crucial breakthrough”:

the crucial breakthrough for the Republicans occurred in 1858, when the state went dramatically against the Democrats. President Buchanan wrote in October: "We have met the enemy in Pennsylvania and we are theirs. This I have anticipated for three months, and was not taken by surprise except as to the extent of our defeat. . . . It is so great that it is almost absurd."

So as Thoreau remarked, the Republicans had already taken, or “counted”, the votes of Pennsylvania and the other states that rejected Buchanan and his policies. He goes on to say “but they have not yet correctly counted Captain Brown’s vote”, meaning that Brown’s action will cause even more voters to turn against Buchanan and support the Republicans.

Thoreau then continues with a nautical metaphor, “He has taken the wind out of their sails, the little wind they had, and they may as well lie to and repair”. To “take the wind out of someone’s sails” originates from a sailing ship being deprived of wind by another sailing ship upwind, intercepting the current of air. From this it has come to mean “causing someone to lose confidence or energy” (Merriam-Webster). The Republican party had built up some movement towards Abolitionism, but this small progress has been completely eclipsed (to use a different metaphor) by Brown’s direct action. As a result they may as well “lie to and repair”. This is an extension of the nautical metaphor; when a ship lies to, it steers into the wind so that it comes to a stop. It is not connected to the more common use of “lie” as in “to tell falsehoods”. “Repair” is used here in the sense of “to come together and rally”.

So in summary, following Brown’s dynamic action, the Republicans may as well abandon their cautious steps, and gather together to decide how to proceed in the future. Presumably Thoreau would like them to throw their support firmly behind Brown.

  • 2
    Although the place where he was tried would later be West Virginia, it was only broken off during the American Civil War. It was Virginia at the time.
    – Mary
    Commented Apr 17, 2023 at 1:35
  • Would you agree that repair means here to pair again (Brown's followers and the Republicans)? en.wiktionary.org/wiki/repair#Verb_3
    – John Smith
    Commented Apr 17, 2023 at 8:38
  • @JohnSmith No, I don't think so. That sounds like interpreting "repair" as "re-pair", which is not a very common usage. I irather nterpret it in sense 1b of Merriam-Webster, merriam-webster.com/dictionary/repair#dictionary-entry-3 "to come together: rally" Commented Apr 17, 2023 at 8:58

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