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The Trial Of John Brown
Verdicts Of History: III -- Even his abolitionist friends thought his attack on Harpers Ferry insane, but the old Kansas raider sensed that his death would ignite the nation’s conscience.
August 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 5
His plea was ignored, and shortly after noon the following day, October 26, 1859, Brown was summoned to hear his indictment. When he refused to rise from his jail bed, declaring he was too weak and disabled by his “wounds,” which consisted mainly of cuts about the head, he was carried into the courtroom on a cot, a position he obviously found congenial. He had already demonstrated his skill at debating on his back when, a few hours after his capture, he had been confronted by Governor Henry A. Wise of Virginia, Congressman C. L. Vallandigham of Ohio, and Virginia's Senator James M. Mason, among others. It was then that Brown had begun his performance. For this was what the spectators in the small Virginia courtroom were watching—a performance that fanaticism and sectional hatred magnified into a terrible kind of truth.
John Brown was acting out a myth—“Old Brown of Osawatomie,” the hero of the fight against slavery in Kansas. To play this part with a skill that combined desperation and grandeur, Brown was summoning every form and source of courage at his command. To win the only victory left for his fierce puritan soul, he was prepared to lie and dissemble again and again.
From boyhood Brown had dreamt grandiose dreams. Searching his Bible he had found quotation after quotation to support his conviction that God had destined his righteous servant for great things. But through a long and intricate life, in which he had sired twenty children by two wives, success had perpetually eluded him. Before 1855 his life was a series of bankruptcies and lawsuits. Only a kind of faith that transcended reality could have sustained a man in the face of such a series of defeats.
Although he did little or nothing about it in a practical sense, a hatred of slavery ran like a dark thread through much of Brown’s early life. In 1846, when he was working as a wool merchant, he was sufficiently well known as an abolitionist to receive a visit from Frederick Douglass, the ex-slave who had become a well-known lecturer in the North. As a believer in the peaceful abolition of slavery, Douglass was more than a little alarmed to hear Brown say: “No political action will ever abolish the system of slavery. It will have to go out in blood. Those men who hold slaves have even forfeited their right to live.”
When the wool business failed, Brown persuaded philanthropist Gerrit Smith to give him a portion of the 120,000 acres of Smith’s upstate New York patrimony which he had thrown open to refugee Negroes. There Brown lived as a farmer and stern paterfamilias to the handful of colored people who took advantage of Smith’s hospitality and braved the rigors of the cruel climate and the hostilities of the local whites.
But it was Kansas, whence five of his sons had gone in search of land and opportunity, that gave Brown his true mission. The doctrine of “squatter sovereignty” had made the fledgling state a cauldron of North-South animosity, and Brown had responded to his sons’ call for help by abandoning the New York farm and joining them as “Captain” Brown, a title chosen in memory of his ancestor John Brown, who had died of illness in 1776 while serving in that rank in the Revolutionary Army.
Brown swiftly revealed a talent for guerrilla warfare in its vilest form. On May 24-25, 1856, he led his sons and a few followers in a raid on a handful of pro-southern settlers living on Pottawatomie Creek; the raiders dragged five defenseless victims, including the father and two oldest sons of the Doyle family, out of their homes and brutally murdered them. The slaughter—several of the victims were hacked almost to pieces by sabers—caused such a general revulsion of feeling that Brown and his sons had to flee like common criminals. But it was here that Brown first learned the technique of the big lie. James Redpath, an ardently abolitionist reporter, found Brown hiding out in a Kansas creek bed and published an extensive interview with him in which Brown piously declared that he had had nothing whatsoever to do with the Pottawatomie murders, although he “approved of them” as reprisal for murders committed by the pro-slavers.
The propaganda, plus his courage in several Kansas skirmishes, particularly his heroic battle at Osawatomie against proslavery forces, made John Brown a hero among a small circle of Boston abolitionists who advocated violence to overthrow slavery. From them and Smith, Brown raised several thousand dollars to finance a subsequent slave-and-horse-stealing expedition into Missouri and eventually to launch what was covertly referred to as “the well-matured plan.”
This was the attack on Harpers Ferry, which Brown made on Sunday night, October 16, 1859. With twenty-one armed followers he seized the federal arsenal just across the Potomac River from Maryland and converted it into a fortress to which, Brown was confident, every Negro in the area would flee. Aroused Virginians the next day drove Brown and his band out of the arsenal and into the adjacent fire-engine house; a furious fire fight raged for the next day and a half, until all but seven of the raiders were killed, captured, or dispersed.