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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
Whether one called it tragical or farcical or ridiculous, Hunter added, Brown’s conduct showed clearly that his raid was not intended to carry off slaves. His provisional government was “a real thing and no debating society.” It clearly showed that the property of slaveholders all over the South was to be confiscated and that any man found in arms was to be shot down.
Of course Brown had treated his prisoners well, Hunter pointed out. Why should he kill them and incite the country? He wanted to lull the citizens of Virginia into letting him “usurp the government, manumit our slaves, confiscate the property of slave holders and without drawing a trigger or shedding blood permit him to take possession of the Commonwealth. …” Brown’s plan was “almost too abhorrent” to contemplate. Hunter asked that Brown be convicted in order that “the majesty of the laws” might be vindicated.
Throughout these orations Brown lay on his back with his eyes closed. Chilton now asked Judge Parker to instruct the jury that they could not convict Brown of treason, but Parker denied the motion. Chilton then asked the Judge to rule on the question of jurisdiction. Parker affirmed the court’s jurisdiction, and the jury retired. For three-quarters of an hour the court was in recess. Then the spectators swarmed back to hear the foreman of the jury announce that John Brown had been found guilty on all counts.
Reporters had expected whoops of elation, a storm of jeers, or at least wild applause, but there was not a sound in the hushed courtroom. Virginia was trying to prove with decorum the justice of John Brown’s fate. No one, from the Governor to the lowliest groundling, seemed to understand that dignity was no match for John Brown’s histrionics.
Chilton now moved for an arrest of judgment, citing the well-debated errors in the indictment. Judge Parker promised to hear arguments on it the following day, and the court adjourned after impanelling a jury to try Edwin Coppoc.
On Wednesday, November 2, everyone expected an early ruling by Judge Parker. But when Parker arrived in court he found the jury for the trial of Coppoc already in their seats. He therefore refrained from reading his opinion until Coppoc’s guilt was confirmed by the jury that afternoon. Brown was summoned to the courtroom, and Parker ruled against the motion for an arrest of judgment. Then the clerk asked Brown, still prone on his cot, whether he wished to say anything before the sentence was pronounced.
Brown arose, flustered. He had not expected sentencing so soon. He was under the impression that he and his confederates would be sentenced in a body. “I have, may it please the court,” he said hesitantly, “a few words to say.” Then he braced himself and seemed to realize, fully and totally, that he was a dead man. The law had condemned him, and he no longer needed to worry about arguments that satisfied judge and jury. In a voice that was to echo down bitter decades, John Brown spoke to America:
In the first place, I deny everything but what I have all along admitted: the design on my part to free slaves. I intended certainly to have made a clean thing of that matter, as I did last winter, when I went into Missouri and there took slaves without the snapping of a gun on either side, moved them through the country and finally left them in Canada. I designed to have done the same thing again, on a larger scale. That was all I intended. I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection.
I have another objection; and that is, it is unjust that I should suffer such a penalty. Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved—for I admire the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case—had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.
This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here, which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament, that teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to “remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” I endeavor to act up to that instruction. I say, I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done, in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!
Let me say one word further.