“To Citizen John Brown”

John Brown
Cyprian Kamil Norwid

  • George Washington
  • Tadeusz Kościuszko

American history and identity were fundamentally shaped by abolitionism, a movement that sought to end slavery in the United States. It was active from the colonial era until the American Civil War (1861-1865), which led to the abolition of slavery in the country. John Brown (1800-1859) was an iconic figure in the abolitionist movement and was treated by its members as a heroic martyr of the cause. In 1859, Brown led a raid on the federal armory in Virginia, intending to start a slave uprising. He was captured by local militia and hastily tried for treason. Found guilty of all counts, he was then hanged. He was the first person executed for treason in the history of the United States. As a profoundly religious man, Brown believed he was “an instrument of God”, predestined to strike the death blow to American slavery. He treated the fight against the practice as his “sacred obligation”. Brown was deeply convinced that violence was necessary to end slavery, since peaceful efforts had not been successful. He stressed that in working to free the African-Americans he was following the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which stated that “all men are created equal”. Brown became immortalized in literature and art, not only in the US but across the world. For instance, Cyprian Kamil Norwid (1821 –1883), a great Polish poet, painter, and sculptor, wrote two poems praising Brown.

Norwid’s family came from the region of Samogitia in Lithuania, where the village of Norvydai still can be found. According to Tomas Venclova, a prominent contemporary Lithuanian poet, prose writer, scholar, and translator of literature, the Norwid surname means “the one who wants to see” in Lithuanian. One of Norwid’s maternal ancestors was the Polish King John III Sobieski (1674-1696), who was strongly linked with Red Ruthenia (Western Ukraine), where he was born and spent a large part of his life. In 1852 Norwid decided to emigrate to the United States of America. He arrived in New York City at the beginning of 1853 and obtained a well-paying job at a graphics firm. However, by autumn of the same year he had learned of the outbreak of the Crimean War (1853-1856). Hoping that it would result in Poland regaining its independence, he returned to Europe in 1854.

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John Brown’s execution, Source: Shutterstock

During John Brown’s trial, Norwid wrote a now famous poem about the abolitionist simply called To citizen John Brown. The poem was added to the public letter that Norwid sent to the Polish diaspora living in the US. In the poem Norwid expressed his great disappointment with the United States, the country that he had always considered a bastion of freedom and focused on progress. Meanwhile, Brown’s fate showed that American society had turned out to be deeply divided and riven with intolerance and racism. Norwid’s bitterness was strengthened by the fact that his own country had failed to gain its independence. However, he still hoped:

That America, having recognized her son,
Will not shout at her twelve stars:
"Extinguish the feigned fires of my crown,
Night falls -- a black night with the face of a Negro!

In the last stanza, Norwid invoked the historical figures of George Washington and Tadeusz Kościuszko:

Then, before Kosciuszko's phantom and Washington's

Both figures were not recalled for no reason. For Norwid, Kościuszko was a symbol of abolitionism and Washington, the Founding Father of a truly democratic republic.