John Brown Trial: 1859

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John Brown Trial: 1859

Defendant: John Brown
Crime Charged: Insurrection and murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Lawson Botts, Thomas C. Green, Samuel Chilton, and Hiram Griswold
Chief Prosecutor Andrew Hunter
Judge: Richard Parker
Place: Charles Town, Virginia
Dates of Trial: October 27-November 2, 1859
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Death by hanging

SIGNIFICANCE: Tried for leading a famous but unsuccessful raid on the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, with the object of arming Southern slaves, John Brown's trial and execution by the Commonwealth of Virginia made him a martyr to Northerners determined to abolish slavery.

"A house divided cannot stand." These five words have been used by statesmen and historians alike to describe the condition of the United States in the years leading up to the Civil War. The tension between the Southern slave states and the Northern free states, which had never been resolved by the founding fathers, grew steadily worse after 1800 as the economic importance of cotton and slavery to the South increased. Despite repeated attempts at compromise, no satisfactory political formula could be found to reconcile North and South.

The schism widened as the newly settled territories of the West applied for admission to the Union in the early and middle decades of the 19th Century. Northerners wanted new states to be Free, and thus off limits to slavery. Southerners wanted new states to be Slave, and thus potential areas of expansion for the plantation economy of the South. Both sides wanted to have the votes of the representatives that a new state would send to Washington, particularly in the U.S. Senate, where every state, large or small, has two votes. As pro-slavery and antislavery forces from inside and outside the territories contested bitterly for control of these soon-to-be states, they turned to violence to resolve the issue.

Brown Raises Sword of Abolition

Sometimes great events thrust ordinary and obscure people into the limelight. Certainly this was true of John Brown, born in 1800 to Yankee farmers Owen Brown and Ruth Mills Brown. The Browns made a modest living from the family farm near Torrington, Connecticut, enough to permit their son to enter school for training as a minister. John Brown was a poor student, however, and shortly returned to the family farm after failing his classes. This failure was to be the first of many. John Brown went on to try and fail at earning a living as a farmer, surveyor, real estate investor, postmaster, teacher, racehorse breeder, tanner, and wool merchant.

Unsuccessful in business throughout his life, Brown was already past 50 when he took up the cause of abolition. Some wealthy east coast businessmen and philanthropists gave Brown the support and financing necessary to set up a farm in North Elba, New York, where runaway slaves would be taught how to become independent farmers. Brown soon lost interest in the project, however, and set out for the "front lines" of the abolitionist struggle. In the mid-1850s, Brown took his wife and some of his many sons to the little hamlet of Osawatomie, Kansas.

Kansas at the time was a battleground, known as "Bleeding Kansas" for the undeclared war raging then between the Free and Slave state forces. Brown lost no time in joining the fray. From Osawatomie, Brown led his sons and several followers in a raid on the neighboring pro-slavery settlement of Pottawatomie that left five dead. After this massacre, Brown and his followers became fugitives, engaging in hit-and-run raids against pro-slavery forces in Kansas and elsewhere.

Despite his unabashed use of violence, Brown continued to attract wealthy and influential backers. Of his backers, the most important were the "Secret Six": Gerrit Smith, heir to a large fortune who had financed temperance and prison reform movements before turning to abolition; Franklin B. Sanborn, a young Massachusetts patrician with a Harvard education; George Luther Stearns, who financed Brown's activities with the profits from Stearns' thriving business; Samuel Gridley Howe, a prominent abolitionist who preached violence in the cause of ending slavery and looked to Brown to practice it; Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a liberal minister; and Ralph Waldo Emerson, the famous poet. In 1859, Brown obtained support from these men for a proposed raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. The plan was to seize the arsenal, arm the hordes of slaves who would supposedly flock to Brown's cause, and march on Southern state capitals to end slavery forever.

On October 16, 1859, Brown and 21 raiders succeeded in seizing the Harpers Ferry arsenal by surprise. Instead of attracting black followers, however, the raid only succeeded in bringing out the armed and angry local white residents, who surrounded the arsenal until federal troops arrived. Ironically, the soldiers sent to protect federal property were commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee, the famous general of the Confederacy during the Civil War. After a brief siege, the arsenal was stormed. Brown, together with his few surviving followers, was captured and taken under guard to nearby Charles Town, Virginia. (Harpers Ferry and Charles Town later became part of West Virginia.)

Virginia Tries Brown for Treason

When news of Harpers Ferry reached Richmond, Henry A. Wise, the politically ambitious governor, had an important decision to make. Under the division of power that existed between state and federal governments before the Civil War, it was Wise's prerogative to decide whether Brown would be tried in a Virginia court for violating the laws of the commonwealth or turned over to the national authorities for prosecution in the federal courts. The Virginia court at Charles Town, where a grand jury was already in session, would be quicker. A federal court, however, would not be as open to charges of Southern bias. Whether out of fear that a mob would lynch Brown if he were not tried quickly, or out of a desire to score political prestige for himself and Virginia, Governor Wise decided to proceed with a state trial.

It fell to Andrew Hunter, the district attorney for Charles Town, to be the prosecutor. Hunter shared Governor Wise's desire to prosecute Brown quickly. To defend Brown, a magistrate appointed Lawson Botts, a local Virginia attorney, and Thomas C. Green, an attorney who was also the mayor of Charles Town. From his prison cell, Brown wrote his abolitionist allies for outside legal counsel.

Judge Richard Parker, justice of the circuit court for the town of Charles Town, was also an advocate of speedy justice. Judge Parker's grand jury returned an indictment against Brown within 24 hours. Further, Judge Parker denied Botts' and Green's request that the trial be delayed until Brown could recover from injuries sustained when the troops stormed the arsenal. As a result, when Brown's trial began on October 27, he attended the proceedings lying in a cot, nursing his wounds.

Brown's Lawyers Search for a Defense

Brown's attorneys had to put together a defense in the face of opposition not only from Judge Parker and prosecutor Hunter, but from Brown himself. When the trial began, Botts made a critical motion to Judge Parker. Botts asked him to declare Brown insane, using a telegram from a certain A.H. Lewis of Akron, Ohio, to support this plea. Lewis, who apparently had known Brown from when the family lived in Akron, wrote, "Insanity is hereditary in that family. These facts can be conclusively proven by witnesses residing here, who will doubtless attend the trial if desired."

A successful insanity defense could have saved Brown from the gallows, leaving him to live out his life in an asylum. Brown himself, however, closed the door on the issue. Protesting from his cot, he said angrily: "I look upon this as a miserable pretext of those who ought to take a different course in regard to me, if they took any at all. I am perfectly unconscious of insanity, and I reject, so far as I am capable, any attempt to interfere on my behalf on that score." This outburst effectively destroyed the chances for any insanity defense, despite some later attempts to revive the issue.

Despite their Virginia roots and the weight of Southern opinion, Botts and Green had gone out on a limb for Brown by asserting "hereditary insanity" and were soon out of the case. They were replaced by Hiram Griswold, a lawyer from Cleveland, Ohio, and Samuel Chilton, a lawyer from Washington, D.C. Judge Parker would not permit the momentum of Hunter's prosecution to slacken for one instant, however, and refused to give Griswold and Chilton any extra time to organize their defense. Hunter had more than enough witnesses ready to testify.To support the charge of murder, witnesses described the killings by Brown and his men during the Harpers Ferry raid. The charge of insurrection was supported by the testimony of witnesses who had overheard Brown talk of arming runaway slaves to fight their masters.

Despite the disadvantages he labored under, Griswold put together an aggressive closing statement. He attacked the charge of insurrection, claiming that as a non-Virginian Brown didn't owe the commonwealth any duty of loyalty. This last line of defense fared no better than the insanity argument. After less than an hour of deliberation, the jury returned a guilty verdict. Judge Parker then held the trial in recess for a few days while one of Brown's fellow raiders was tried in the same courtroom. On November 2, the trial was reconvened and Judge Parker sentenced Brown to hang on December 2, 1859.

Brown's Martyrdom Secures Victory in Death

When he stood before Judge Parker on November 2, 1859, to receive his sentence, John Brown must have known he faced certain execution. Affirmation of the sentence by the Virginia Court of Appeals would be a formality. Brown used the occasion, however, to make a stirring statement that would galvanize Northern public opinion against slavery and the South:

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 endeavored 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 donein 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!

In the month following Brown's sentencing, Governor Wise received thousands of letters and petitions pleading for mercy. Some came from astute Southerners, who realized that Brown's execution would rally anti-slavery forces. Nevertheless, Wise let the sentence stand. On December 2, 1859, before he went to the gallows, Brown delivered his final message to North and South alike, one that predicted and sealed in the minds of many Americans the inevitability of the Civil War:

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.

Stephen G. Chrisrianson

Suggestions for Further Reading

Ansley, Delight. The Sword and the Spirit. A Life of John Brown. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1955.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "John Brown," Emerson's Complete Works. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1878 and 1883.

"The Ghost at Harpers Ferry." American Heritage (November 1988): 30-31.

McGlone, Robert E. "Rescripting a Troubled Past: John Brown's Family and the Harpers Ferry Conspiracy." Journal of American History (March 1989): 1179-1200.

Oates, Stephen B. To Purge This Land W1ith Blood. A Biography of John Brown. New York: Harper &Row, 1970.

Ruchames, Louis. John Brown: The Alaking of a Revolutionary. New York: Grossett & Dunlap, 1969.

Sanborn, Franklin B. The Life and Letters of John Brown. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1885.

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