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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
I feel entirely satisfied with the treatment I have received on my trial. Considering all the circumstances, it has been more generous than I expected. But I feel no consciousness of guilt. I have stated from the first what was my intention, and what was not. I never had any design against the life of any person, nor any disposition to commit treason, or excite slaves to rebel, or make any general insurrection. I never encouraged any man to do so, but always discouraged any idea of that kind.
Let me say, also, a word in regard to the statements made by some of those connected with me. I hear it has been stated by some of them that I have induced them to join me. But the contrary is true. I do not say this to injure them, but as regretting their weakness. There is not one of them but joined me of his own accord, and the greater part of them at their own expense. A number of them I never saw, and never had a word of conversation with, till the day they came to me; and that was for the purpose I have stated.
Now, I have done.
Subtract the paragraphs on religion, and this speech, which Emerson was to compare to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, was one long lie. Even the minor detail of his Missouri raid Brown distorted in the name of propaganda. His lieutenant, Stevens, had killed a slaveowner on that foray. But the larger lie concerned the intentions of his Harpers Ferry raid. A study of the correspondence of other members of the band and of the memoirs of those who knew Brown makes it clear that he never intended to repeat his Missouri raid “on a larger scale.” His provisional constitution meant what it said.
Not for nothing had he insisted on confiscating George Washington’s old sword; it was obviously intended for symbolic use. Two weeks before the attack, one of the younger raiders, William H. Leeman, wrote home: “I am now in a Southern Slave State and before I leave it, it will be a free state, Mother. …” Only a few days before the raid, another member of the band, Edward Kagi, wrote John Brown, Jr., in Ohio to send no more recruits “until we open the way clear up to the line (M. & D.’s) from the South.” Douglass later recalled watching John Brown run his finger down a map of the Alleghenies from the border of New York into the southern states. “These mountains,” Brown had said, “are the basis of my plan. God has given the strength of these hills to freedom; they were placed here to aid the emancipation of your race.”
“With twenty-five picked men,” Brown told Douglass, he would create an armed force in “the very heart of the South.” These men were to gather recruits from the slave population, arm them and keep “the most restless and daring” in their ranks and send the others north. As his numbers grew, he planned to extend his operations to “more than one locality.” Thus Brown’s Harpers Ferry plan was the very opposite of his Missouri raid. His destination was south, not north. As for not inducing his followers to join him, he had, from the available evidence, cajoled all but one with promises of plunder far beyond anything they had seen in Kansas.
But few, north or south, were capable of analyzing or investigating John Brown’s story. Even before he made his historic oration, newspapers were reporting the trial from a more and more partisan point of view. Virginia’s conduct of the trial had lost the sympathy even of the conservative New York Times, which had deplored Brown’s raid and castigated all those who supported him. The Times lamented Parker’s refusal to grant delays and found particular fault with Hunter’s Saturday night remarks about the jurors wanting to go home, and about Virginia’s “trembling females.”
It was on November 2 that Judge Parker sentenced John Brown to death by hanging. The sentence was to be carried out on December 2, a month from the day. Now a new kind of contest began. From all over the nation men wrote to Governor Wise threatening, exhorting, and pleading with him not to hang John Brown. From Massachusetts, Amos Lawrence, who had given Brown money, warned the Governor, “From his blood would spring an army of martyrs.” Fernando Wood, the pro-southern mayor of New York, thought the same way. “Dare you do a bold thing and temper ‘justice with Mercy'?” he wrote Wise. “Have you nerve enough to send Brown to the State Prison instead of hanging him?”
On the other hand, bellicose types in the South were eager to see Brown die no matter what the consequences. “Though it convert the whole Northern people, without an exception, into furious armed abolition invaders,” the Richmond Whig declared, “yet old Brown will be hung!”
The headstrong Wise did not need advice from any direction. Two days after Brown’s sentence he wrote to Fernando Wood: “My mind is inflexibly made up.” He rejected the argument that the hanging would make Brown a martyr. He could see no difference, so far as martyrdom was concerned, between the noose and a life sentence in a Virginia prison.