In The Last Days of John Brown, Thoreau writes:

All through the excitement occasioned by his remarkable attempt and subsequent behavior, the Massachusetts Legislature, not taking any steps for the defence of her citizens who were likely to be carried to Virginia as witnesses and exposed to the violence of a slaveholding mob, was wholly absorbed in a liquor-agency question, and indulging in poor jokes on the word “extension.” Bad spirits occupied their thoughts. I am sure that no statesman up to the occasion could have attended to that question at all at that time,—a very vulgar question to attend to at any time!

Does Thoreau have Frederick and Harriet in mind when speaking of witnesses from Massachusetts? To what liquor-agency question and to what jokes on the word “extension.” does the author allude?

2 Answers 2


This is only a partial answer. I may add more information later, if I have time and can find out anything else.

Who are the "witnesses"?

I don't know, but probably not Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman.

Thoreau specifically refers to "her citizens", "her" being the Massachussetts Legislature. So these would be people living in Massachusetts at the time of John Brown's raid (late 1859).

Frederick Douglass did not reside in Massachusetts at that time; he had moved to Rochester, New York in 1847. Harriet Tubman, as far as I can tell, never lived in Massachusetts at all.

What was the "liquor-agency question"?

Massachusetts had passed a law in 1852 putting severe restrictions on the manufacture and sale of liquor. Only government agents could sell liquor, and only for "medicinal, chemical, or mechanical purposes". Later (I think), a State Liquor Agency was set up to centralize the purchasing of liquor and the testing of liquor for adulterants; the state agency then sold the liquor on to the city and town agents.

In 1859, there was a scandal in the state agency. The Liquor Commissioner had been keeping sloppy books, selling liquor outside the state, allowing (or possibly even conspiring with) manufacturers to increase profits by mixing the cheapest alcohol into the good stuff, etc. The Legislature was investigating that and changing the law in response.

What were the "poor jokes on the word 'extension'"?

I don't know.

  • resident of Massachusetts, not citizen, please.
    – Lambie
    May 10 at 2:18

1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act raised the possibility that slavery could be extended into territories where it had once been banned. "Extension" was very controversial.

The Massachusetts Legislature didn't support John Brown: instead they were making dick jokes about "extension".

OK, that last bit is just supposition. The jokes might have been about the probable "extension" of John Brown (actually carried out December 2, 1859)


http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/1inaug.htm https://hd.housedivided.dickinson.edu/node/40402 https://hd.housedivided.dickinson.edu/index.php/node/23454

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