Contact Us

The Magnet and the Iron: John Brown and George L. Stearns The Stories Behind the Busts

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson was a transcendentalist writer and one of the “Concord literati” in Concord, Massachusetts. Emerson and his family were close friends with George L. Stearns of Medford and his family. Their sons often traveled to see each other in Concord and in Medford and went on excursions together, such as to a skating party on Walden Pond with Henry David Thoreau in 1859.

Emerson was a supporter of John Brown. He was the one to introduce Stearns to Franklin Sanborn; the latter two later became members of the “Secret Six” who funded Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. Emerson spoke at a fundraiser for Brown’s family held at the Tremont Temple after Brown’s arrest; he said of Brown:

"He believes in two articles—two instruments, shall I say?—the Golden Rule and the Declaration of Independence; and he used this expression in conversation here concerning them, 'Better that a whole generation of men, women and children should pass away by a violent death than that one word of either should be violated in this country.'"

The day Brown was executed, December 2, 1859, Mary E. Stearns spent the day with the Emersons in Concord, since her husband was in hiding in Canada. (Mary Stearns also worked with Amos Bronson Alcott to print a commemorative book titled Ralph Waldo Emerson: An Estimate of His Character and Genius: In Prose and Verse and dedicated it to Emerson for his 62nd birthday. A bust of Emerson was part of the Stearns estate willed to Tufts College after Mary’s death.)

Emerson attended the Jubilee Concert held at the Boston Music Hall to celebrate the Emancipation Declaration on January 1, 1863. There he gave a public reading of his “Boston Hymn.” That night he also attended the “John Brown Party” held at the Stearns estate in Medford. Emerson also helped recruit for the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. In 1863, he wrote the poem “Voluntaries” about the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regimen. His words appear on the Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Infantry Regiment Memorial in Boston:

Stainless Soldier on the walls

Knowing this and knows no more

Whoever fights whoever falls

Justice conquers evermore

Emerson delivered the eulogy at both the private funeral and public memorial service for Stearns in Medford in 1867. He said of Stearns, "He was no boaster, but a man for up-hill work." The marker on Stearns's grave makes mention of Emerson: "The virtues of this rare man were celebrated at this death by the eloquence of Emerson."