John Brown’s Final Speech
John Brown’s Final Speech
by John Brown
THE LITERARY WORK
A speech given at the courthouse in Charles Town, Virginia Inow West Virginia!; delivered on Wednesday, Novemher 2, 1859.
On the sixth day of his trial for leading an antislavery raid at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, John Brown made a speech in his defense. He denied the charges of murder and treason and proclaimed his willingness to die to free the slaves.
John Brown was born in Connecticut in 1800 but raised in Ohio, where his values were shaped by a stern, Puritan upbringing. He was taught that God’s will should be carried out without compromise. An antislavery crusader who believed that organized abolitionists were too mild in their tactics, he grew increasingly violent in his own methods. In 1859 he led a raid on the United States Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Killing several citizens, he and his men held the town briefly before their capture by government troops. In his speech defending these acts, Brown claimed that he had been motivated by deep religious and moral beliefs and that his deeds did not amount to murder and treason.
Slavery and abolition
During the 1800s the Northern states fostered the development of commerce and industry, while the Southern economy remained largely an agricultural one. Southern plantation owners relied heavily upon slave labor to produce the sugar, tobacco, wheat, and cotton crops that had become the mainstay of the Southern economy. By mid-century, close to one out of every five Southerners owned slaves.
During the nineteenth century, antislavery sentiments mounted in the North. By the mid-1800s, an organized abolition movement had arisen led by crusaders such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and William Lloyd Garrison. Many abolitionists hailed from Quaker or other pacifist backgrounds. However, there were also militant abolitionists, such as John Brown, who became increasingly willing to use violence in their fight.
Though they risked harsh punishments, many slaves did participate in acts of personal resistance. Options ranged from passively neglecting one’s chores to openly rebelling. The most famous such insurrection occurred in 1831, when the black slave Nat Turner and his followers rose up against their masters in Southampton County, Virginia. “Nat Turner’s Revolt” lasted for two days, during which time he and his followers killed more than fifty whites. In retaliation, local residents captured and killed about seventy slaves. Turner managed to hide in the nearby woods for nearly two months before he was apprehended and hanged.
Most slaves, however, generally lacked the opportunity and the resources necessary to organize a revolt. The Alabama Slave Code of 1852, for example, prohibited slaves from carrying a gun or other weapon, forbade them from owning property or a dog, and made illegal the gathering of more than five male slaves anywhere outside of the plantation.
Although it was difficult for slaves to resist openly, they often defied their lot in covert ways, hiding their actions behind a mask of subservience. Common tactics might involve losing farm tools, damaging equipment, or feigning illness. Arson also became an effective form of slave resistance; it was especially hard to detect who was responsible for setting a fire.
Many slaves resisted their owners by running away. Escapes often failed, and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 made such flights particularly risky. An affidavit swearing that a black person was not in fact free but a slave was all the legal proof needed to seize a man, woman, or child off the street and have them hauled before a federal commissioner. Commissioners received $10 for each black person returned to slavery and $5 for each one released under the skewed system. The Fugitive Slave Law provided not only a strong incentive to seize and enslave, or re-enslave, black persons, but it also offered them no guarantee of legal protection. Those accused under the law had no access to trial by jury, nor could they give testimony challenging their capture.
Anyone found helping or harboring runaway slaves faced heavy penalties: fines amounting to $2,000 and six months’ imprisonment were stipulated under the law. If caught, fugitive slaves might face crippling beatings or maiming by specially trained “Negro dogs.” The risk of being sold into even crueler conditions of servitude in the Deep South was never far from a fugitive’s mind. Still, several hundred slaves a year were willing to face the risk. Traveling by night and resting by day to avoid detection, some runaways fled to the swamps and mountains in the South. More fled to the free states in the North or Canada. In any case, the majority of these runaways were caught and returned to their owners.
Though most fugitive slaves made the escape on their own, some were fortunate enough to receive help from the “Underground Railroad.” Established around 1804, this series of secret routes to freedom ran mostly through Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. Its stops were not, in fact, part of any actual railroad but rather places where fugitives could take shelter along the way. Often moving by night to avoid detection, black or white “conductors” on the “railroad” would guide runaways one leg at a time to safety in the North. Along the way, slaves slept outdoors or rested at hiding places, often in the homes of Quaker abolitionists.
John Brown’s friend Harriet Tubman, one of the Underground Railroad’s most famous conductors, helped three hundred slaves flee the South, doing so on nineteen separate trips. John Fairfield, another famous conductor, posed as a slaveowner, slavetrader, or peddler to gain the confidence of Southern slave owners, thereby helping large groups of slaves escape without arousing suspicion. In one daring episode, he led twenty-eight slaves to freedom by having them pose as members of a funeral procession.
Slaves faced physical and emotional hardships on a daily basis. A field slave might easily work ten to fourteen hours a day planting and tending the crops. During harvest time, the workday lasted as long as eighteen hours. Organized into groups under the watchful eye of the driver, slaves often suffered whippings if their work was deemed slow or shoddy. Slaves on cotton plantations were expected to pick approximately 130 pounds of cotton each day. On sugar plantations they worked in snake-infested fields under intense heat from the sun. Cuts and lacerations from the sharp-edged sugar cane were routine, and subsequent infections from these wounds were also common.
The raid at Harper’s Ferry
On October 16, 1859, John Brown led a group of twenty-one men in a raid conducted on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. According to modern historians, Brown hoped to seize enough ammunition to stage a massive insurrection against Virginia slaveholders, part of a larger abolition plan he had formulated. Beginning in Northern Virginia, the site of Harper’s Ferry, Brown planned to move through the Appalachian Mountains and into the Deep South. He believed the size of his forces would grow along the way until there was strength enough to establish a territory of free black and white people.
This vision of large-scale revolt was swiftly cut short on October 16. Brown and his followers invaded the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, taking several hostages. The government was quickly alerted and dispatched troops to capture the insurgents. During a siege lasting nearly thirty-six hours, Brown’s men shot and killed several local citizens. Ten of Brown’s men died, eight during the afternoon fighting and two when a company of marines, led by Robert E. Lee, stormed the arsenal. Among the dead were two of Brown’s sons, and Brown himself was beaten, stabbed, arrested, and placed in a prison cell and chained to its floor. Three citizens and one marine had been felled by Brown’s men during the standoff.
The Alabama Slave Code of 1852 required all free white men to participate in patrol duty at least one night a week. Patrols kept watch for any suspicious slave activity or runaway slaves in their area and exercised the power to enter any plantation to look for subversive activity. Anyone failing to report for patrol duty was fined $10, a significant sum at the time. Wealthy plantation owners might pay for someone to replace them on patrol, but less affluent white men could not afford the expense and so had to appear in person, even if they belonged to the minority of Southern whites who opposed the idea of slavery.
The authorities charged Brown with murder, fomenting slave insurrection, and treason against the state of Virginia. Weak and wounded, he appeared before the court lying on a thin wooden cot. Several of his friends sought a reprieve from Virginia’s Governor Wise in order to secure Brown’s release from prison, but Brown refused and stated that he “would not walk out of the prison if the door was left open” (Brown in Sanborn, p. 632). Upon hearing his death sentence pronounced, Brown said, “I think that my great object will be nearer to its accomplishment by my death than by my life” (Brown in Sanborn, p. 623).
The aftermath of Harper’s Ferry
Although it lasted just a day and a half, the Harper’s Ferry raid electrified the nation. While many Northerners hailed John Brown as a hero and a martyr, others voiced strong disapproval of his violent methods. In the South, widespread rumors that abolitionists planned to stage further insurrections surfaced after the Virginia incident. Such hearsay gave Southern slaveowners the impression that abolitionists would stop at nothing to destroy slavery, and thus the entire region went on alert. Troops began drilling and militia leaders demanded more weapons and ammunition, all in escalation of the South’s readiness to fight.
The Harper’s Ferry raid helped push the nation toward Civil War. One year later, on November 6, 1860, Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln was elected president. Lincoln opposed the spread of slavery but originally had no intention of destroying it altogether. He was nevertheless unpopular in the slave states, ten of which gave him no electoral votes at all. Prior to the election, pro-slavery factions of Democrats charged that important Republican leaders knew about Brown’s plan to attack Harper’s Ferry before it occurred. As a result of such insinuation, some antislavery Republicans welcomed claims that Brown was insane, which allowed them to distance themselves from the controversy surrounding his actions.
John Brown’s final letters home
On November 8, 1859, after receiving his sentence to hang, John Brown wrote a letter to his wife and children. Brown expressed continuing optimism that through his death he was achieving a worthy goal. “P.S.” wrote Brown. “Yesterday I was sentenced to be hanged.... I am still quite cheerful” (Brown in Sanborn, p. 580). He comforted his family, asking them not to not feel sad or degraded by the court’s sentence. Remember, he wrote, that Jesus “suffered a most excruciating death on the cross as a felon” (Brown in Sanborn, p. 586).
On December 2, 1859, the morning of his execution, Brown handed his final letter to one of his guards. It read, “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think vainly, flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done” (Brown in Sanborn, p. 620).
The verdict of guilty came back on the sixth day of Brown’s trial, on Wednesday, November 2, 1859. The clerk asked him if he had anything to say in response. Brown rose from the cot upon which he had lain throughout his trial and spoke in a clear, strong voice.
I have, may it please the Court, a few words to say. In the first place, I deny everything but what I have all along admitted, of a 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, moving them through the country, and finally leaving them in Canada. I designed to have done the same thing again on a larger scale. That was all I intended to do. I never did intend murder or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite the slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection.
I have another objection, and that is that 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 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.
The Court acknowledges, too, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed, which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament, which 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 endeavored to act up to that instruction.
I say that 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, is no 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 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 say let it be done.
Let me say one word further. 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 liberty 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 in regard to the statements made by some of those who were connected with me, I fear 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. Not one but joined me of his own accord, and the greater part 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 stated. Now, I am done.
(Brown, pp. 94-5)
John Brown’s motives
As soon as the news of the raid broke, speculation arose about Brown’s motives. Such conjecture has continued, and often involves the question of his grasp on reality. In illustrations, he was often portrayed as a wild-eyed man with a mess of hair and an unkempt beard. His supporters at the Harper’s Ferry trial urged him to plead insanity, hoping that doing so would insure his acquittal. Others hoped that portraying Brown as unbalanced would discredit his behavior and deny him the “divisive symbolic importance that Brown and his northern sympathizers wanted” (Warch and Fanton, p. 85).
WITNESS TO THE EXECUTION
Present at John Brown’s execution was John Wilkes Booth, a member of the Virginia Militia. Booth, who would later assassinate Abraham Lincoln, reportedly marched pompously around the scaffold, delighting in the execution.
However, many regarded Brown as of a fanatically religious bent rather than simply insane. His speech to the court makes one thing clear: his actions came out of a religious background that made them, as he saw it, entirely appropriate; indeed, the speech itself sounds at times like a sermon. Raised according to Christian values, Brown had a Puritan concept of God, one based more on the stern and punishing figure of the Old Testament than on the merciful one of the New Testament. It was said that the abolitionist had committed to memory the entire Bible.
Brown simply saw himself as “acting up to” (living up to) the words that the rest of society claimed to follow—those found on the pages of the Bible. His interpretation of the religious text left him no choice: only by freeing slaves could he follow God’s wishes. As he says in his speech, he never meant to kill or cause a revolt or commit treason. He meant only to free slaves and
nothing more. If others objected, then so be it. He dealt with critics of his goal in the uncompromising terms of an Old Testament prophet, terms by which he not only lived, but also died.
In a deposition given to the court on November 14, 1859, his associate E. N. Smith described John Brown as a fine but peculiar man. Although Smith admired Brown’s courage and devotion to his beliefs, he voiced doubts about his sanity. When it came to slavery, Smith said, “he is surely a monomaniac as any inmate of any lunatic asylum in the country” (Smith in Warch and Fanton, p. 86). Others who knew Brown shared this belief. Friends and relatives cited a family history of mental imbalance in their attempts to obtain an acquittal by reason of insanity. Yet John Brown’s wife staunchly defended her husband’s state of mind, stating that his actions were the result of his strongest convictions. Brown himself firmly rejected the insanity plea.
Although Brown helped runaway slaves, he never joined any formal abolitionist organizations. He read the works of William Lloyd Garrison’s militant followers, and he was influenced by the teachings of Frederick Douglass, whom he met once in Springfield, Massachusetts. Brown even invited him to join in the raid on Harper’s Ferry, but Douglass refused.
Brown’s own writing and actions can be viewed as sources contributing to his final speech. Masquerading as a black man, John Brown had written an 1847 essay titled “Sambo’s Mistakes,” published in the black newspaper, The Ram’s Horn. Allegedly a first-person account of slave resistance, “Sambo’s Mistakes” rejected the tactics of peaceful abolitionists. Encouraging slaves to reject their submissive status using whatever means necessary, the essay included some sarcasm: “I have always expected to secure the favor of the whites by tamely submitting to every species of indignity contempt & wrong instead of nobly resisting their brutal aggressions from principle & taking my place as a man & assuming the responsibilities of a man” (Brown in Warch and Fanton, pp. 6-7).
Nine years after writing “Sambo’s Mistakes,” Brown put his words into action in a violent manner. During the early 1850s, proslavery forces in Missouri had begun invading the neighboring free territory of Kansas, where five of Brown’s sons had moved. In letters to their father they described these brutal guerrilla raids, which led the press to call the territory “Bleeding Kansas.” At first, he thought merely of settling there with his sons, but their letters soon aroused another aim: to fight alongside the “Free-Soil” Kansas. Collecting weapons from fellow militant abolitionists in New York, Massachusetts, and Ohio, Brown himself went to Kansas in 1855. In response to the sacking of the Free-Soil town of Lawrence, Kansas, Brown led a counter-raid into Missouri in 1856. With four of his sons (one had been slain by proslavery forces), Brown and two others hacked five defenseless proslavers to death with sabers. As was true of his later actions at Harper’s Ferry, Brown felt no remorse for this deed.
The single most important foundation for Brown’s speech is the Bible. Brown cites passages that would have been well known to his audience, including the golden rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”). Perhaps most importantly, in Brown’s words the Bible taught him “to remember them that are in bonds as bound with them.” In other words, Brown believed that the Bible commanded all to feel enslaved as long as slavery existed for some. It should also be noted that his father, Owen Brown, had instilled in his son an unswerving commitment to obeying God’s commandments.
How the speech was received
Frederick Douglass praised John Brown, as did Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Victor Hugo. Brown’s influence on transcendentalists such as Emerson and Thoreau was tremendous. They disagreed with the characterization of Brown as insane. In fact, Emerson described Brown as a hero of “simple, artless goodness”; to Thoreau, Brown was “an angel of light” (Emerson and Thoreau in Boyer, p. 3). The French writer Victor Hugo saw Brown’s life and death within the context of America’s political and moral situation. Brown was executed not by the judge, or the people of Virginia, or the governor, or the hangman, Hugo wrote. Instead, his executor “is the whole American republic.... Politically speaking, the murder of Brown will be an irrevocable mistake” (Hugo in Sanborn, p. 630).
By contrast, editorials in the New York Times reflect the conflicting feelings Brown more commonly provoked. On November 3, the day after Brown gave the speech, the Times said, “Brown’s speech classifies him at once, and in a class of one. He is a fanatic” (Warch and Fanton, p. 124). Yet a month later, after the execution, the Times admitted:
But there is a very wide and profound conviction in the public mind that he was personally honest and sincere,—that his motives were such as he deemed honorable and righteous, and that he believed himself to be doing a religious duty in the work which he undertook.... We do not believe that one-tenth of the people of the Northern States would assent to the justice of Brown’s views of duty, or deny that he had merited the penalty which has overtaken his offence. But we have just as little doubt that a majority of them pity his fate and respect his memory, as that of a brave, conscientious and misguided man. (Warch and Fanton, pp. 125-26)
Boyer, Richard O. The Legend of John Brown: A Biography and a History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973.
Brown, John. “Speech and Sentence of Brown.” In The Life, Trial and Execution of Captain John Brown, known as “Old Brown of Ossawatomie.” Compiled by R. M. De Witt. New York: Da Capo, 1969.
Furnas, J. C. The Road to Harper’s Ferry. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1959.
Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery, 1619-1877. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.
Sanborn, F. B., ed. Life and Letters of John Brown, Liberator of Kansas, and Martyr of Virginia. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1885.
Warch, Richard, and Jonathan F. Fanton, eds. John Brown. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973.