John Brown at Harpers Ferry: A Contemporary Analysis
By Lawrence F. Barmann, S. J.
When the temper of a people is taut and the national emotions have been so aroused as to subordinate reason to their passion, then incidents, which in another time would hardly have been remembered, assume proportions and significance far beyond their essential merit. When John Brown, old Osawatomie Brown of Kansas notoriety, captured the Federal Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia in the autumn of 1859, he proved, more than anything else, how highly strung the nation's nerves really were. The incident at Harpers Ferry, in itself, was a complete fiasco; but this incident, placed against the backdrop of American social and political life in the late 1850's, was disastrous. In considering Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry and the national uproar which it created, one must keep always in mind a long train of incidents Uncle Tom, "Bully" Brooks, Kansas-Nebraska, Black Republicanism, Dred Scott which preceded it and which helped both to indicate the extent of separation already existing between North and South and to widen the rapidly expanding gulf. The public reaction in the different sections of the United States to the Harpers Ferry affair made Seward's "irresponsible conflict" seem not at all unlikely.
To shed some light on the thoughts and fears and passions of those troubled days and to attempt to indicate the historical significance of John Brown's work will be the goal of these pages. the primary means for achieving this end will be through an analysis of the contemporary editorials on Brown's raid written in the New York Times. Henry Jarvis Raymond, the editor of the Times when the affair at Harpers Ferry took place, while politically affiliated with Thurlow Weed and William H. Seward, was rapidly gaining a reputation in both the political and journalistic worlds for his editorial independence. Raymond's newspaper was conspicuously conservative in the journalistic New York of Horace Greeley's Tribune and James Gordon Bennett's Herald. Because of the growth in circulation and prestige which the Times had gained in the eight years from its precarious inception in 1851 to the Brown raid in 1859, the position taken by its editors can safely be assumed as representative of a considerable number of Northern conservatives. While not attempting to generalize on the basis of merely the Times editorials, some insight can be gained, nevertheless, into the mind of the era through a careful scrutiny of the reaction of this particular organ to the Harpers Ferry affair. Before analyzing the Times editorials, however, a brief resume of the raid itself, with its previous and subsequent ramifications, must be made.
John Brown's fate at the hands of historians has been interesting and varied. And this fate is simply an extension of the fate of the man himself. While this bearded, tall old man, reminiscent of the Jewish prophets, spent his final days in a back-county jail in Virginia, the people of the nation and their presses passed judgement. In Boston, the Liberator taunted the South with verse:
So you've convicted old John Brown! brave old
Brown of Osawatomie!
And you gave him a chivalrous trial, lying
groaning on the floor,
With his body ripped with gashes, deaf with
pain from sabre slashes,
Over the head received, when the deadly
fight was o'er;
Round him guns with lighted matches, judge
and lawyers pale as ashes
For he might, perhaps, come to again, and put
you all to flight,
Or surround you, as before!
In Richmond, on the other hand, the Whig advised Governor Wise to "put to immediate death all the white villains engaged in the Harpers Ferry affair, and dispose of the question of jurisdiction afterwards." And the Fredericksburg Herald had warned that "shooting is a mercy they should be denied." Was john Brown, then, a villain or a martyr? To Wendell Phillips and the others in the North he was "St. John the Just"; to many in the South he was a traitor and a murderer. While this difference in judgement is based proximately on the sectional prejudices and fears of the men judging, the remote basis for the judgement is the man himself. Many in the North agreed with the sentiment which motivated Brown and consequently they overlooked the manner in which he carried out his conviction; the South, on the other hand, while not agreeing with his sentiment, tended to concentrate entirely on the misguided deed to which it led.
John Brown had fought the pro-slavery men in Kansas in 1856. He had lost a son there; his property, too, had been attacked, and his conviction that Slavery was a moral evil had deepened with his experience of its effects extended into section strife. One who knew him well, both in the Kansas days and later, wrote that this man, who "was always an enigma, a strange compound of enthusiasm and cold, methodic stolidity, a volcano beneath a mountain of snow," was deeply sensitive to the national selfishness which characterized this expanding nation of the fifties. He was depressed by the political corruption, by the land speculation, and especially the flourishing institution of Slavery which were problems of the times. He saw in all of these evils, but especially in Slavery, an irreconcilable opposition to his notion of Christianity, and he dedicated himself to its eradication. During the winter of 1858-'59, Brown led a quiet raid into Missouri where he freed some few Negroes, without bloodshed or battle, and saw them safely into Canada. He later returned to New England, visited with certain Abolitionists, even speaking in Concord's Town Hall, and eventually, moving through Pennsylvania, he took up residence at a farmstead known as Kennedy Farm, located just across the Maryland border a few miles above Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia).
Apparently, during the summer of 1859 Brown determined the form his opposition to Slavery would take. According to the testimony of one of Brown's own men, and to the judgement made in the "Mason Report" to the Senate, Brown confided the details of his plan to no one. A colored clergyman, however, who attended a meeting in the West in the summer of 1858 at which Brown spoke and developed his idea of how he hoped to counteract Slavery, quotes Brown as saying:
I design to make a few midnight raids upon the plantations, in order to give those who are willing among the slaves an opportunity of joining us or escaping; and it matters little whether we begin with many or few. Having done this for two or three times, until the neighborhood becomes alarmed and the generality of the slaves encouraged, we will retire to the fastnesses of the mountains, and, ever and anon, strike unexpected though bloodless blows upon the Old Dominion; in the meantime sending away those slaves who may desire to go to the North. We shall by this means conquer without bloodshed, awaken the slaves to the possibility of escape, and frighten the slaveholders into a desire to get rid of slavery.
The ideas quoted by the clergyman coincided with Brown's own testimony regarding his intentions when questioned after his arrest. Too, this plan of action, as outlined in the summer of 1858, while vague enough to be adaptable to many circumstances, was also specific enough to explain why he chose Harpers ferry as the place to begin. Harpers Ferry was at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains into whose "fastnesses" Brown, his men, and the liberated slaves, might "retire." At the same time it was on the Maryland border at a spot where it would be easy enough to move "those slaves who may desire to go to the North" through the mountains into Pennsylvania and eventually further. But Harpers Ferry could also become a trap for an invader who tarried too long. The town was flanked on the south and north by the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers which came into confluence at its eastern extremity. One bridge crossed the Potomac into Maryland. A delay in the town which would allow the bridge to fall into the hands of an alerted enemy would leave only the alien highlands of western Virginia as an avenue of escape. Time was essential to even so far-fetched a plan as the one Brown intended to implement, and time was the one element of which he failed utterly to take cognizance.
During the early days of May, 1858, Brown and a number of his supporters and followers had held a "Convention" at Chatham, Canada, across the border from Detroit. The purpose of the meeting had been to express their mutual animosity toward Slavery and to draw up a platform or plan for putting into action the common desire to destroy the hated institution. Brown was commissioned Captain of the movement; several of his sons and others of the group were created Lieutenants. The sole survivor of the Harpers Ferry raid wrote in 1861 of the convictions which motivated the meeting and its subsequent results at Harpers Ferry.
He (Brown) regards Slavery as a state of perpetual war against the slave, and was fully impressed with the idea that himself and his friends had the right to take liberty, and to use arms in defending the same. Being a devout Bible Christian, he sustained his views and shaped his plans in conformity to the Bible; and when setting them forth, he quoted freely from the Scripture to sustain his position. He realized and enforced the doctrine of destroying the tree that bringeth forth corrupt fruit. Slavery was to him the corrupt tree, and the duty of every Christian man was to strike down slavery, and to commit its fragments to the flames. He was listened to with profound attention, his views were adopted, and the men whose names form a part of the minutes of that in many respects extraordinary meeting aided yet further in completing the work.
Thus it was that the Kennedy Farm in Maryland was leased by Brown in the summer of 1859, and from July to October men and arms drifted in to help him in his crusade against Slavery. The war was about to begin, though only Brown himself knew the place and the hour.
On Sunday morning, October 16, 1859, John Brown and his little band of twenty-one followers rose early and began the day with Scripture reading and a commentary by the Captain. The remainder of the day, until dusk, was spent in preparing arms and equipment which all now understood would be used within the next twenty-four hours. Under the concealment of night, the group loaded a single farm wagon with guns, ammunition, and pikes (to put into the hands of the liberated Negroes), and set off down the road towards Harpers Ferry, two by two, each man carrying a rifle. Brown's final charge to his men reiterated his naive belief that his intentions were capable of fulfillment without bloodshed.
And now, Gentlemen, let me impress this one thing upon your minds. You all know how dear life is to you, and how dear your life is to your friends. And in remembering that, consider that the lives of others are as dear to them as yours are to you. Do not, therefore, take the life of anyone, if you can possibly avoid it; but if it is necessary to take life in order to save your own, then make sure work of it.
A strange command, surely, to be issued by the man who, but three short years before, had thought five lives at Pottawatomie a cheap thing to use as a warning to his enemies!
Four of his men left on the Maryland side of the bridge over the Potomac into Harpers Ferry. Those four were to guard the supply of guns left at that spot and to bring up fresh supplies from the Kennedy Farm. The others crossed the bridge, securing it, cutting the telegraph wires on both the Maryland and Virginia sides of the River, and heading for the Arsenal of the Federal Government located not very many yards from the bridge. Aside from the fact that Harpers Ferry was geographically ideal for Brown's plans, it also contained the Arsenal which, to Brown's way of thinking, would forever relieve him of any anxiety for arms. The guard at the Arsenal was easily taken prisoner; one of the baggage attendants at the Baltimore and Ohio station close by the bridge was mortally wounded when he refused to "halt" at the command of one of the raiders. When the Baltimore and Ohio's night train came into Harpers Ferry from the west, on its journey to Baltimore, Brown's men detained it until morning, then allowed the locomotive to proceed on its way. At the first telegraph stop, the news of the raid at Harpers Ferry was wired to railroad authorities and through them to state and national authorities. Brown must have realized that this would be the case, and should have foreseen that his precarious position in the town could be maintained but briefly. As the townspeople of Harpers Ferry awoke that morning of October 17th, they found themselves in the hands of invaders and compelled to remain off the streets. A local doctor rode to the nearby village and spread the alarm. Church bells were set ringing throughout the area, and so, while Governor Wise ordered out the state militia at Richmond, and Major-General George H. Stewart ordered out the First Light Division, Maryland Volunteers, at Baltimore, and President Buchanan ordered out the national marines under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee at Washington, local groups, too, prepared to march for Harpers Ferry, or at least to straggle in with their squirrel rifles. Still Brown delayed. During the night, before the town realized that it had been invaded, he had made prisoners of many of the town's leading citizens, among them Colonel Lewis Washington the great-grandnephew of the First President, to hold as hostages. Although the invaders had spread the word among slaves on local plantations and farms that they were being liberated, the rush to arms or to freedom which Brown had expected was not forthcoming. With the coming of dawn, Brown's men had entrenched themselves behind the heavy masonry of several buildings in the Federal Arsenal group, the engine-house, containing two large fire engines, being the central point.
From late morning until early evening casual shots were exchanged between Brown's men and the local and neighboring militia men. Several of the raiders were killed and wounded, and several townspeople were also killed, including the unarmed mayor. At
11 P. M. Colonel Robert E. Lee arrived in the town to take charge of the marines who had arrived early with Lieutenant Israel Green. The night was spent in plan-making, and, at the first light of dawn on Tuesday, October 18th, Lieutenant Jeb Stuart, Lee's aide on this expedition, carried the Colonel's terms to Brown at the enginehouse. Brown refused the conditions, demanding to be allowed to cross into Maryland carrying the prisoners with him as assurance
of safe-conduct. With the refusal, Stuart signaled Lee who gave the command for Green to charge the engine-house. A small group of marines knocked in the door with a heavy ladder lying in the vicinity and after three minutes of battle had subdued the "insurgents." One marine was killed, several wounded; ten of Brown's men had been killed in the fighting at Harpers Ferry, including two of his own sons, and five were captured at the engine-house. Two escaped from the Arsenal only to be captured and executed later. Those yet alive were carried to the nearby county jail at Charles Town, Virginia to await trial.
With the capture of the engine-house and the Captain, the effectiveness of Brown's anti-Slavery activity would seem to be at an end. However, such was not to be the case, for these were no ordinary times. John Brown in prison, on trial, on the scaffold, and in the grave, was to be far more effective than John Brown alive and free. When Thomas Brigham Bishop was later to write that although John Brown's body was "a-mouldering in the grave, his soul goes marching on," he was recording an historical fact. For an examination and evaluation of that fact, the New York Times editorial response to the affair at Harpers Ferry will act as guide.
Since the Times would have been going to press at the same time that Brown was entering Harpers Ferry under cover of night and, therefore, before anyone but the raiders themselves was aware of the movement, the issue of Monday morning, October 17th, has no mention of John Brown whose name will fill its columns for days to come. Even on Tuesday, October 18th, the remarks are few, since, again, the outcome of the movement would not even yet have been decided with the printing of this issue. The front page of the Tuesday issue carried no information on the affair, though the editorial page did have a few sentences under the heading "News of the Day." Readers were told that a "threatening insurrection" had broken out at Harpers Ferry led by Negroes and white men "numbering two hundred and fifty." The exaggerated numbers attributed to Brown's group were not manufactured by the Times. These numbers were the estimates of the first frantic telegraph messages sent from Monocacy and other towns near Harpers Ferry to Baltimore, Richmond, and Washington, and from those centers to the rest of the nation. The Times went on to say that, although the town was at the time of printing held by the insurgents, Government troops were on their way from Washington. The reason for the insurrection was not yet known, but the paper gave two opinions which were apparently current alternatives: either an Abolitionist movement or a robbery attempt on the large amount of Government money recently deposited at the pay-house of the Arsenal at Harpers Ferry. The Brown raid for the only time in many weeks ahead played a very secondary roll on the Times editorial page, subordinated to considerations of the New Orleans sponsored filibuster attempt against Nicaragua on the steamer Philadelphia, of Kossuth's remarks on the Villafranca arrangements, and even of the Episcopal General Convention at Richmond and the Fireman's Parade in New York.
The front page news on Wednesday, October 19th, in type as bold as the paper used at that time, told of "servile insurrection," "general stampede of slaves," and "Federal troops on the march." Telegrams from Washington, Baltimore, and Monocacy were printed in full, each one registering the fear and imaginative exaggeration which would eventually give the affair its tragic undue influence. The editorial page carried a lengthy comment. From the very first paragraph of its first editorial on John Brown's raid, the Times reduced the affair to its due proportion. The raid had been terrifying at first, the newspaper reported, but only because its real size and influence were unknown. It was not the result of any movement among the slaves; it was only the "clumsy plot" concocted by the "fearless, fanatical, energetic, old man" of Kansas notoriety; and it was extremely short-lived. There was as yet no evidence that the plot had any extensive connections or support. Probably, as happened in Missouri after Brown's raids, the Times surmised, Virginians would feel the insecurity of their slave property in a border State and would make arrangements to transfer the slaves further south. The editorial concluded on a pessimistic note by acknowledging that the violently partisan journals would undoubtedly make the most of the affair. As yet, however, no political party was implicated, and the Times felt certain that the raid was the effort of one fanatic who "will probably pay the penalty of his rash insanity with his life, and leave, we trust, no inheritors of his passion or his fate."
By Thursday the motives of Brown's raid and much evidence to support his testimony was front page news. After his capture Brown had made several statements regarding his purpose both to the press and to the military authorities who had thwarted his plans. A search of the Kennedy Farm had also revealed a considerable amount of correspondence between Brown and Northern Abolitionists and various documents such as the minutes of the Chatham Convention. In its editorial the Times took occasion to rebuke the attitudes taken by other New York papers towards the Harpers Ferry incident and to point up what it considered to be the real lesson of the affair. All of these papers had used this occasion to make a point against the South and its "peculiar institution" and the Times felt this to be but a partial and unjust approach to the affair. The Tribune had even gone so far as to agree with Brown in principle and to censure him only for his lack of prudence in the manner of carrying out his convictions. Aside from all considerations of rights and of law, the Times found the insurrection unjustifiable even in its aims. For, said the paper, an insurrection would be justified only if it were assured of resulting in a better state of society than that now existing. And if the slaves were to throw off their servitude at once, they could not possibly initiate a state of society better than that in which they now exist. The final paragraph of the editorial attacked the Herald for trying to alarm the South and make her think that Brown's raid was only a small part of a great Northern crusade about to descend on the Southern States. The Times repudiated this pose of much of the Northern political press, and insisted that "the people of the North have neither agency in this movement, nor excuse, apology, or an instant's toleration for it." And the South was assured that the people of the North were not assassins and conspirators, nor did they have sympathy for such. Finally, if any New Yorker be shown to have contributed by money or any other way to Brown's efforts, the paper hoped that Governor Morgan would see that he be surrendered "for trial by a jury of his country."
The Times, perhaps, was too optimistic. Its own evaluation of the Harpers Ferry raid was balanced and clear-headed, and, while realizing the radicalism existing in both North and South, hoped that clear thinking would rule the day and that the hot-heads could be silenced. The Times realized the potential dynamite of the Brown raid for intensifying sectional strife to the breaking point. In the succeeding days the paper's optimism was to give way to less hopeful thoughts as it commented on the course that North and South pursued in their blind interpretation of the symbol of John Brown.
On October 21st the Times took the opportunity to comment on "Party Spirit and the Insurrection in Virginia." The position taken here, that matters of life and death and disruptions of whole communities are affairs of higher consideration than partisan supremacy, is one that the paper would stress over and over again. As the Republicans had made capital of Senator Broderick's death by accusing the Buchanan Administration of responsibility, so now the Democrats were making the most of the opportunity to link the Republican Party with Brown's raid and Abolitionism. There was some basis for each accusation the Times admitted, especially in the latter case. Senator Seward had had an obligation to make
himself perfectly clear when he spoke at Rochester and not to use "vague and enigmatical phrases upon topics so vitally important to the peace and well being of the community." But he had not made himself clear, and people were alarmed. Since the Rochester meeting, the Abolitionists and the Republican Party had become closer and closer identified in the public mind. Nevertheless, urged the Times, everyone in the North, regardless of party affiliations, should condemn and be ashamed of the recent Virginia affair. People like Gerrit Smith, Fred Douglass, William L. Garrison, who, the Times asserted, do not love the slave so much as they hate the white, could be expected to support Brown. But, aside from that small group of fanatics, any Northerner who sincerely has his country's interests at heart should decry all such movements and should refrain from making them politically significant.
With these comments on the Northern reaction to Harpers Ferry, the Times turned to review and judge the reaction in the South in its editorial for October 22nd entitled "The South and the Insurrection." In the South, and especially in Virginia, a real panic followed upon Brown's raid; this was understandable. Southerners live in the midst of a huge slave population, and the possibility of a slave insurrection with all its terrible consequences was always a remote fear (and sometimes not so remote). The Harpers Ferry insurrection brought that fear to the surface. But now that the affair was settled, that it was shown to have been the work of a single fanatic with less than two dozen followers, the South was only harming herself by listening to those who would have her believe that the whole of the North agreed with Brown's action or that his raid was but part of a great crusade movement against the South. The New York Herald was one of the most vociferous Northern journals in trying thus to frighten the South. But what was even worse, the Times thought, was that Southern newspapers seemed united in their effort to exaggerate and misrepresent the affair to such an extent that they would seriously harm themselves by giving their own people a false view of Northern sentiment and by encouraging other Northern fanatics to renew the endeavor in which Brown had failed.
The arrest of one of the escaped Harpers Ferry insurgents in Pennsylvania, selections from the letters of Brown's group and from the diary of one of Brown's sons, together with remarks from the Southern press which indicated that the Brown raid would figure prominently in the presidential campaign of 1860, all made front page reading for the Monday morning Times public on October 24th. The day's editorial on the Brown affair, brief, but following the same line the paper had thus far taken, consisted mainly in
offering congratulations to the Judiciary of Virginia for its very just and dispassionate charge to the Grand Jury which was to find the bill against Brown and his companions. The actual trial would soon be under way, and with its progress the Times would lose all hope of saving the Brown affair from the worst distortion and misuse by both sides. The editorial exhorted Virginia to continue throughout the trial in the same calm and just manner in which it had begun, well realizing, no doubt, how difficult and unlikely that would be. In closing it commented on how wrong and impolitic the efforts of certain Democratic groups in Washington and Philadelphia were to encourage the sacking of offices of Anti-Slavery groups in those cities. "If the history of this Slavery agitation teaches anything clearly," concluded the Times, "it teaches the folly of endeavoring to combat it by illegal force."
For the first time in a week, the affair at Harpers Ferry was not front page headline news when the Times came off the presses on October 25th. A brief editorial under that date advised Times readers that Brown's trial would probably begin that day and that the Times would carry the telegraphic reports of the proceedings received by the Associated Press. It went on to urge the Southern press to cease its ranting and raving, since this was doing a great deal of harm to the South herself by turning these men into martyrs instead of murderers in Northern opinion. Again the idea that Brown's raid had extensive Northern support and approval was rejected, and the hope that the investigations made at the trial would clarify this issue once and for all was stressed.
Since Brown's trial did not, as a matter of fact, get underway until October 27th, European news of the Italian nationalistic movement and of the new steamer the Great Eastern furnished the main news items for October 26th. On the 27th the Times carried a resume editorial on the real significance of Harpers Ferry under the heading "John Brown's Work." This particular editorial was almost prophetic in its clear delineation of the national condition at the time and of the results which would necessarily issue from such national policy unless it should be acted against at once. When the Brown raid first took place, said the Times, Virginians were almost insane with terror as their telegraph lines hummed with exaggerated and frantic alarms. Now that the event was seen in its entirety and with perspective, Southerners tended to go to the opposite extreme of complacency in pointing out the harmlessness in holding slaves since none joined the insurrection whose very success depended entirely on the cooperation of the slaves. But the Harpers Ferry story, in itself, proves nothing of immediate political or social significance, warns the Times. "It neither establishes the predominance of Abolitionism at the North, nor the security of Slavery at the South." Its real meaning is much deeper.
It is a portent certainly not to be lightly pondered, that such a grotesquely frightful episode should have been possible in our current history; but if we are to profit by the shock it has administered, we must honestly look the fact in the face, that this occurrence shows us, as nothing else could, what vast possibilities of evil sleep in our angry sectional politics. We have been suffering the extremists of one or another party to go on trading for years in the fiercest of internecine passions as composedly as if no mischief could ever come of such light matters to so great a nation as ours. Mad john Brown has done the State this service at least, that he has dashed this false and foolish confidence in pieces. If we are not really the blindest people that ever existed, and judicially set apart for destruction, we ought now to begin to see that the most important political work we have to do is to combine as one people in the resolve to put this tremendous Social question of Slavery out of reach of parttisan [sic] agitators. It is a madness, to which the madness of John Brown was statesmanlike good sense, to trifle any longer in caucuses and conventions with issues so full of the very life blood of one great section of the Confederacy. The South owes it to herself to press this view of the matter calmly upon the Northern mind; and she may rest assured that her appeal to the practical conservatism of the Free States will not be made in vain, if it be made temperately, earnestly, and in good faith.
Although the Times was, as it were, but a "voice crying in the wilderness" as far as its own era was concerned, this editorial passage cannot be surpassed today, with a hundred years of perspective and infinitely less passion, for its deep insight into the significance of John Brown at Harpers Ferry. From the vantage point of a century, contemporary historians find little difficulty in concurring in the judgment of that editorial. But for one in the middle of the conflict, with Brown still alive and on trial, such a dispassionate and penetrating appraisal is extraordinary. From this editorial forward the Times would continue to appeal to the conservatives of the South as alone being able to save the nation from the terrible situation into which she had drifted. The specter of civil war was, indeed, stalking the land.
John Brown's trial got underway in Charles Town, Virginia on Thursday, October 27th, and the Times for Friday morning carried its first report of the proceedings. In connection with the trial, letters of Northern Abolitionists to John Brown, found at the Kennedy Farm after the raid, had been published in the various newspapers of the nation, and the Times took occasion on the 28th to editorialize on "Practical Abolitionism." For years past now, said the paper, certain New England Abolitionists had been playing a little game of make-believe. On the 4th of July and other such appropriate occasions they would meet together in "some pleasant piny grove" where they would denounce the Constitution and the Union for allowing Slavery to exist and would work themselves into a frenzy of self-pity as though they were the tribe of Israel in exile in an idolatrous nation. This little game, they felt, was all well and good, since they were convinced, really, that the Union was strong and would endure. However, the question of Slavery was not a holiday topic. In accord with the principle of Popular Sovereignty, the Times asserted, the question of Slavery should never have been brought "into the political arena at all beyond the borders of the sovereign communities which it immediately concerns." The Times went on to explain how Slavery had become the bete noire of the national political arena. Somehow, a few decades previous to the Brown affair, New Englanders tampered with the subject and helped the notion get abroad that the institution of Slavery depended on the Federal Government for its existence and that therefore the Slavery question was open to national debate. Thus sectional disputes, based on this question, arose. "Abolitionism did duty as the locomotive of the Republican train." The attack on Sumner and the Kansas question of '56 only aided the sectional drifting apart. And though, even yet, the Times went on, in spite of the damage already done, Abolitionism still existed. These fanatics were fully capable of organizing a military crusade and leading a servile insurrection against the South, though, judging from the published letters to Brown, the present numbers and resources of these men gave little cause of alarm. But the fact that these men were allowed to continue unchecked alarmed the Times. "The virtue of patriotism has not yet succumbed to the violence of fanaticism; and public men will never find it safe to wink at schemes which menace the peace of the country and the integrity of the Union."
On October 29th the Times editorial criticized the State of Virginia for not allowing Brown the delays and opportunities pleaded for by his counsel. It criticized Governor Wise for his harsh words to the people of Harpers Ferry for their terrified conduct at the time of Brown's raid. But the chief point of the editorial comment was to indicate to Virginia and the South in general that Brown's raid was really a "blessing in disguise" if they would just use it. The North, said the Times, had been as shocked by Brown's raid as the South had been terrified. If only the South would now capitalize on this majority pro-South sympathy in the North by carrying out Brown's trial in a calm and judicious manner, they could do themselves and the nation a great amount of good. The peace of the Union, as the Times saw it, was now in the hands of the South. Again the Times appealed to Southern conservatism to take the lead. If the South would only unite with the conservative North in keeping the whole question of Slavery out of Congress and beyond national dispute, Brown's interference in Virginia would prove to be an occasion of greater national unity. The appeal of the Times was sane and judicious, but the Slavery question was out of control and the men who could have, perhaps, controlled it were not always as sane, judicious, and especially as objective, as the Times.
Brief mention was made in the Times on October 31st of documents and papers belonging to Brown which had been discovered. His Constitutions, drawn up at the Chatham Convention, were mentioned and dismissed as implicating no other public man in the North than Gerrit Smith. Smith's implication was not a new revelation, though it was after this revelation that Smith went temporarily insane. On the following day the Times told its public in front page headlines that Brown had been found guilty of treason, insurrection, and murder. The editorial page bitterly criticized Virginia for the type of trial that had been accorded Brown and had thereby allowed the fanatics in the North to make a martyr of him. Brown had been quite seriously wounded by sabre and bayonet when his group was captured, and, although his wounds healed surprisingly rapidly, rather than delay the trial until he was capable of attending on his own he had been brought to court on a pallet on which he lay throughout the proceedings. Moreover, he had not at first been allowed to procure counsel from the North which made any Southern counsel given him practically useless. And when friendly counsel was forthcoming, the man was made to address the jury late Saturday night upon evidence he had not even heard. The reasons which the court gave for refusing the plea of Brown's counsel for adjournment until Monday was that the jurors wanted to go home to their families over the weekend and that every female in Virginia "was trembling with anxiety and apprehension." The Times rather bitterly pointed out the absurdity and injustice of these excuses, and remarked that a man's life was weighed against men's desires for a week-end picnic and trembling females, and lost! "Talk like this used to be heard in England in the days of Jeffries and in Scotland when Lord Braxfield adorned the Court of Sessions; but it is something new on this side of the water, and we hope we shall hear no more of it."
On the evening of Tuesday, November 1, 1859, Wendell Phillips delivered a lecture from the pulpit of Henry Ward Beecher's Church in Brooklyn, New York. The talk made the point that the majority of Americans did not live up to the principles they professed. They were accused of hiding behind the forms of Church, Government, Community Society, and so forth, but they did not in fact operate on the principles which these institutions stood for. John Brown was different, Phillips said. He, at least, was not afraid to act upon the truth. And having made his point, Phillips asserted that "John Brown has twice as much right to hang Governor Wise, as Governor Wise has to hang him." The Times editorial the following morning was a peculiar thing. Disavowing all belief in any deep seriousness on Phillips' part in delivering the lecture, the Times asserted that the audience was amused at the speaker's sarcasm, wit, and brilliance, but could hardly take him seriously. Phillips had remarked that the New York press would probably blast him for what he had to say. The Times remarked that "he did both himself and the press scanty justice in this prediction," and then proceeded to take all of the sting out of Phillips' well-tempered barbs.
John Brown was sentenced to death on November 2nd. Before the Court was dismissed Brown delivered an address to the Judge and assembled Court with a simplicity and calm sincerity which was quite unnerving for all concerned. The Times on November 3rd commented on Brown's speech. His intentions,it said, were those of a fanatic, but his devotion to his principles was heroic. One could not read his address without a "half-compassionate admiration," but realizing Brown's genuine faith in his cause one must also realize his great intellectual blindness in the carrying out of his principles. The Times thought Brown a fanatic sui generis. "He is simply John Brown of Kansas; a man logical after the narrow fashion of the Puritan individualism; a law unto himself, and a believer with all his might in theological abstractions as applied to human society and politics." Unfortunately, lamented the paper, there was no way his execution could now be carried out without its being converted to inflammatory purposes by sectional partisans.
Throughout the month of November Brown's cause faded from headline and editorial commentary, although the affair at Harpers Ferry was frequently referred to in connection with other matters. The Times continued to deplore the attitude of the Southern press and fanatics who seemed bent on convincing the world that the whole North was one armed camp merely awaiting the signal to descend upon the South.
On December 2nd, late in the morning, John Brown was hanged. The morning Times told New Yorkers that the execution would take place that morning with a guard of 5,000 soldiers and cadets around the Southern gallows, while the bells in Northern church-towers tolled in mournful cadence and thousands prayed and wept as they received their new "martyr." The Times, of course, condemned both extremes and again bemoaned the fact that Virginia had made possible the martyr approach of Northern radicals.
The following morning's headlines told of Brown's execution, his final visit with his wife, and of the general reaction in the North. Editorially the Times commented on Northern reaction and Southern obligations. Although many people in the North sympathized with Brown, it was not his actions but his sincerity which won them. With sectional differences at the pitch they then were, the remedy seemed to the Times to be entirely in the hands of the Southern conservatives. They must resist and stem heated ultraism, insisted the Times, and they must give the North evidence that reason and patriotic feelings are still alive in the South and that they feel the Union worth preserving. Concluding on an alarming note, the paper told the South that if she desired disunion she could probably have it, but she should weigh the cost in advance instead of learning it only at the terrible price of experience.
Shortly after Brown's execution, Governor Wise sent a formal message to the Virginia Legislature. The Times printed the whole message, and editorially attacked the Governor for the great disservice he had done the South and the nation. At least one recent author believes that Wise, out of favor in Virginia for his stand against Buchanan on the Lecompton Constitution, attempted to regain his lost popularity by his "melodramatic handling of the John Brown Raid." At any rate, the Times told its readers that Wise's
message occupied more space than all the messages, addresses, orders of the day, and official reports of Napoleon III during the whole course of the Italian War, and that it would not be the Governor's fault if Brown's raid did not assume a larger place on History's pages than the march of the French armies through the Plains of Lombardy. The Times accused Wise of magnifying facts to justify his official acts to the point of making the speech a piece of imaginative literature. Wise accused the entire North of supporting Brown's raid, and the Times, admitting the complicity of Howe, Smith, Forbes, and a few others, told the Governor that "he cannot be so utterly demented as to regard them as in any sense, or to any extent, representatives of the people of the Northern States." The only Northerners who countenanced Brown's acts were the Abolitionists, and these men did not represent the North. In short, the Governor completely misrepresented the North at the expense of considerable harm to the South and the country as a whole. "But," asserted the Times, "we are confident that time will dissipate the delusion under which he labors, and prevent the most serious of the calamities which his official action is so well calculated to involve." But the optimism of the Times was destined to be shattered on the rocks of partisan politics and sectional emotions after all.
Brown's raid and execution were but the culminating symbol of a long series of events which had shattered all hope of agreement between North and South. The Times in its editorial commentary during the excitement of the Brown affair had been a beacon, pointing out, at times even brilliantly, the rocks and shoals upon which the Ship of State might wreck herself, and the channels through which safe harbor could be reached. But the winds of the fanatics blew too violently, and the shock of one more rock, the Republican victory of 1860, was all that was needed to hurl the nation into civil conflict. On the very day of Brown's execution, Victor Hugo had written from his exile on Jersey that "viewed in a political light, the murder of Brown would be an irreparable fault. It would penetrate the Union with a gaping fissure which would lead in the end to its entire disruption." And in the Senate of the United States, on February 29, 1860, in his speech on "The Admission of Kansas" Seward told his audience that "this attempt to execute an unlawful purpose in Virginia by invasion, involving servile war, was an act of sedition and treason, and criminal in just the extent that it affected the public peace and was destructive of human happiness and human life." He went on to declare that posterity would decide where political responsibility for Brown's act lay and to insist that posterity would vindicate the Republican Party from the charge of hostility to the South. But even now, after a hundred years, the lines of innocence and guilt are not clearly drawn. The issue was too complex, and it was an issue of emotions rather than of reason. In this atmosphere of strife appeared old John Brown. In his act he summed up and symbolized all the conflicts of the time. In summarizing and symbolizing the issues he also hastened their bloody struggle. John Brown had, indeed, succeeded.
1 Francis Brown, Raymond of the TIMES (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1951), pp. 159, 160, 318.
2 The circulation of the Times by 1854 surpassed 28,000, and within the first few weeks of the Civil War circulation jumped from 45,000 to 75,000. Cf Brown, op. Cit., pp. 123 and 276.
3 Quoted at the end of: Osborne P. Anderson, A Voice From Harper's Ferry (Boston: 1861).
4 New York Times, Saturday, October 22, 1859, p. 4. (Quoted in an editorial.)
6 W. A. Phillips, "Three Interviews with Old John Brown," The Atlantic Monthly, Dec. 1879 , pp. 738-739.
7 These sentiments of Brown's are recalled from a talk which W. A. Phillips had with him in Kansas. Cf. Phillips, Ibid.
8 Brown himself told of this event in his final speech before the Court in Charles Town, Virginia after his condemnation in November, 1859. Cf. John Brown, "Testimonies of Captain John Brown, at Harper's Ferry, with His Address to the Court," Anti-Slavery Tracts, #7 (New York: The American Anti-Slavery Society, 1860).
9 New York Times, Monday, October 24, 1859, p. 1.
10 Anderson, op. cit., p. 19. Although Anderson, as one of Brown's men, would be expected to be prejudiced in his testimony, and though many of his statements are inaccurage, this article frequently uses his pamphlet A Voice From Harper's Ferry in those matters which agree with statements from the New York Times and from the Report of the Select Committee of the Senate appointed to inquire into the Harper's Ferry affair and commonly known as the "Mason Report."
11 The Congressional Globe, 1st Session of the 36th Congress, p. 3006.
12 This evidence is given by a friend and enthusiastic supporter of Brown: F. B. Sanborn, "the Virginia Campaign of John Brown," The Atlantic Monthly, Dec. 1875, p. 706.
13 New York Times, Thursday, October 20, 1859, p. 1.
14 Anderson, op. cit., pp. 39-43.
15 Ibid., pp. 8-11.
16 Ibid., pp. 9-10
17 Ibid., pp. 19-25.
18 The Congressional Globe, 1st Session of the 36th Congress, p. 3006.
19 Anderson, op. cit., p. 28.
20 Ibid., p. 29.
22 The Congressional Globe, 1st Session of the 36th Congress, p. 3006.
23 Anderson, op. cit., pp. 30-35.
24 The Congressional Globe, 1st Session of the 36th Congress, p. 3006.
25 Anderson, op. cit., pp. 37-39.
26 Ibid., pp. 30-31.
27 The Congressional Globe, 1st Session of the 36th Congress, p. 3006.
28 New York Times, Thursday, October 20, 1859, p. 1.
29 The Congressional Globe, 1st Session of the 36th Congress, p. 3006
31 John Bartlett, Familiar Quotations (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1956), p. 669b.
32 New York Times, Tuesday, October 18, 1859, p. 4.
33 New York Times, Wednesday, October 19, 1859, p. 1.
34 New York Times, Tuesday, October 18, 1859, p. 4.
35 New York Times, Tuesday, October 18, 1859, p. 1.
36 New York Times, Wednesday, October 19, 1859, p. 1.
37 Ibid., p. 4.
39 New York Times, Thursday, October 20, 1859, p. 1.
40 Ibid., p. 4.
43 New York Times, Friday, October 21, 1859, p. 4.
45 New York Times, Saturday, Oct. 22, 1859, p. 4.
46 New York Times, Monday, Oct. 24, 1859, p. 1.
47 Ibid., p. 4.
49 New York Times, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 1859, p. 4.
50 New York Times, Thursday, Oct 27, 1859, p. 4.
53 New York Times, Friday, Oct. 28, 1859, p. 4.
59 New York Times, Saturday, Oct. 29, 1859, p. 4.
61 Ralph Volney Harlow, "Gerrit Smith and the John Brown Raid," The American Historical Review, Oct., 1932, p. 55.
62 New York Times, Tuesday, Nov. 1, 1859, p. 1.
63 Ibid., p. 4.
67 Wendell Phillips, Speeches, Lectures and Letters (Boston: Walker, Wise and Co., 1864) p. 269 ff.
68 Ibid., p. 272.
69 New York Times, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 1859, p. 4.
71 John Brown, "Testimonies of Captain John Brown, at Harper's Ferry, with His Address to the Court," Anti-Slavery Tracts, #7, (New York: The American Anti-Slavery Society, 1860, pp. 15-16.
72 "John Brown is as valiant in soul as he is vagrant in mind." New York Times, Thursday, Nov. 3, 1859, p. 4.
75 New York Times, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 1859, p. 4.
76 New York Times, Friday, Dec. 2, 1859, p. 1.
77 New York Times, Saturday, Dec. 3, 1859, p. 1.
78 Ibid., p. 4.
79 New York Times, Thursday, Dec. 8, 1859, p. 4.
80 Clement Eaton, "Henry A. Wise: A Study in Virginia Leadership, 1850-1861," West Virginia History, April 1942, p. 197.
81 New York Times, Thursday, Dec. 8, 1859, p. 4.
84 This letter was written to the Editor of the London News from Hauteville House on Jersey on December 2nd. It was printed within a mattger of months by the American Anti-Slavery Society of Boston.
85 William H. Seward, "The Admission of Kansas: A Speech Delivered in the Senate of the United States, February 29, 1860," (New York. Office of the New York Tribune, 1860). Pages 10 through 12 deal with this matter especially.
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