Address of John Brown to the Virginia Court at Charles Town, Virginia on November 2, 1859

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Address of John Brown to the Virginia Court at Charles Town, Virginia on November 2, 1859


By: John Brown

Date: November 2, 1859

Source: John Brown. "Address of John Brown to the Virginia Court at Charles Town, Virginia on November 2, 1859." Charles Town, W.V.: 1859.

About the Author: John Brown, an abolitionist, was born in Torrington, Connecticut on May 9, 1800. A tanner by trade, he moved to Richmond, Pennsylvania in 1826 to set up a tannery and use his barn as a station for the Underground Railroad. A succession of business failures forced him to move frequently. In 1855, Brown moved to Kansas to help establish a free state. Along with his sons, he murdered five pro-slavery settlers in 1856 at Pottawatomie Creek. Forced out of Kansas, Brown then decided to attack the army arsenal at Harper's Ferry as part of an effort to liberate slaves. In October 1859, he captured the arsenal. During the assault, Brown's group killed five people and lost ten men. Brown was tried for murder, treason, and conspiring with slaves to rebel. He was hanged in Charles Town, Virginia (now Charles Town, West Virginia) on December 2, 1859.


John Brown was one of many abolitionists who risked their lives in an attempt to end slavery. More successful and more violent than most, he became a martyr to the abolitionist cause. His death prefaced the United States Civil War.

Raised by an abolitionist family, Brown was a devout Calvinist who believed that abolition was God's cause. In 1851, Brown helped found the League of Gileadites, which attracted progressive whites, free blacks, and runaway slaves. The primary aim of this radical group was to encourage physical resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and to protect runaway slaves from pursuing slaveowners. Despite this activism, Brown's violent streak did not fully emerge until his journey to Kansas.

In Kansas, supporters and opponents of slavery debated with guns whether Kansas would enter the Union as a free or slave state. After one failed attempt to destroy Lawrence, a free-state town, proslavery forces attacked again on May 21, 1856, and destroyed it. Three days later, Brown and his group sought out five Southern settlers along Pottawatomie Creek and butchered them. Brown picked up the nickname of "Pottawatomie Brown" and came to symbolize a holy crusade against slavery. He firmly believed that God had chosen him for a special destiny, that of ending slavery.

Brown decided that God wanted him to liberate the slaves by invading the South and inciting a slave uprising. As he gathered a handful of conspirators behind him, he vindicated his war on slavery on several grounds: the institution was a barbaric and unjustifiable war on blacks, it violated God's Commandments, and it contradicted the cherished ideals of the Declaration of Independence. By the late 1850s, Brown contended, slavery had become so entrenched in the U.S. that only violent revolution could eradicate it.

The federal armory at Harper's Ferry in northern Virginia was well stocked with arms and strategically well placed for easy access to the South through the Appalachian Mountain range. Brown planned to establish a free state in the mountains to use as a base to attack slaveowners. With twenty-one followers including two former slaves, Brown assaulted the arsenal on October 16, 1859. The raid was well planned but not well executed. Thirty-six hours later and after fifteen deaths, including several of his own sons, Brown was captured by Colonel Robert E. Lee. Taken to Charles Town, Brown impressed many people in the South and the North with the courage that he displayed as he went to his death on the scaffold.


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—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 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 do 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, 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, 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 endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say, I am 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 despied 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.

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. I feel no consciousness of my 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 any kind.

Let me say also, a word in regard to the statements made by some to those connected with me. I hear it has been said 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.


John Brown's attack on Harper's Ferry in 1859 helped set the stage for the Civil War. As he noted, the crimes of the United States would only be purged away by blood.

Upon his execution for attempting to free slaves, Brown became a martyr to the abolitionist cause. The letters that he had written from jail gave him the image of being a Christ-like man willing to die for the sins of others. He assumed especially heroic propor-tions among African Americans because of his commitment to the cause of black freedom.

The execution of Brown underlined that no matter how much Southerners claimed that they were fighting for states' rights, slavery was at the heart of the sectional crisis. Southerners would use the events at Harper's Ferry to muster popular support for secession from the Union.

While most Northerners praised Brown's principles, they disagreed with his methods. However, "John Brown's Body," sung to a Methodist hymn became a popular song among the Union troops. In 1862, Julia Ward Howe used some of the lyrics of "John Brown's Body" to create the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." The song, especially the line, "John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave, but his soul goes marching on," became synonymous with the Union cause.



DeVillers, David. The John Brown Slavery Revolt Trial: A Headline Court Case. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow Publishers, 2000.

His Soul Goes Marching On: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid, edited by Paul Finkelman. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1995.

Toledo, Gregory. The Hanging of Old Brown: A Story of Slaves, Statesmen, and Redemption. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2002.

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Address of John Brown to the Virginia Court at Charles Town, Virginia on November 2, 1859

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