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Daniel W. Voorhees Argument in John E. Cook Trial


ARGUMENT.

WITH THE PERMISSION OF THE COURT–

Gentlemen of the Jury: The place I occupy in standing before you at this time is one clothed with a responsibility as weighty and as delicate as was ever assigned to an advocate in behalf of an unfortunate fellow-man. No language that I can employ could give any additional force to the circumstances by which I am surrounded, and which press so heavily on the public mind as well as on my own. I come, too, as a stranger to each one of you. Your faces I know only by the common image we bear to our Maker; but, in your exalted character of citizens of the ancient and proud Commonwealth of Virginia, and of the American Union, I bear to you a passport of friendship and a letter of introduction.

I come from the sunset-side of your Western mountains--from beyond the rivers that now skirt the borders of your great State; but I come not as an alien to a foreign land, but rather as one who returns to the home of his ancestors, and to the household from which he sprang. I come here not as an enemy, but as a friend; with interests common with yourselves, hoping for your hopes, and praying that the prosperity and glory of Virginia may be perpetual. Nor do I forget that the very soil on which I live in my Western home was once owned by this venerable Commonwealth as much as the soil on which I now stand. Her laws there once prevailed, and all her institutions were there established as they are here. Not only my own State of Indiana, but also four other great States in the "Northwest, stand as enduring and lofty monuments of Virginia's magnanimity and princely liberality. Her donation to the general Government made them sovereign States; and since God gave the fruitful land of Canaan to Moses and Israel, such a gift of present and future empire has never been made to any people. Coming from the bosom of one of these States, can I forget the fealty and duty which I owe to the supremacy of your laws, the sacredness of your citizenship, or the sovereignty of your State? Rather may the child forget its parent and smite with unnatural hand the author of its being!

The mission on which I have visited your State is to me, and to those who are with me, one full of the bitterness and poison of calamity and grief. The high, the sacred, the holy duty of private friendship for a family fondly beloved by all who have ever witnessed their illustrations of the purest social virtues, commands, and alone commands my presence here. And, while they are overwhelmed by the terrible blow which has fallen upon them through the action of the misguided young man at the bar, yet I speak their sentiments as well as my own when I say that one gratification, pure and unalloyed, has been afforded us since our melancholy arrival in your midst. It has been to witness the progress of this Court from day to day, surrounded by all that is calculated to bias the minds of men, but pursuing with calmness, with dignity, and impartiality, the true course of the law and the even pathway of justice. I would not be true to the dictates of my own heart and judgment, did I not bear voluntary and emphatic witness to the wisdom and patient kindness of his Honor on the bench; the manly and generous spirit which has characterized the counsel for the prosecution; the true, devoted, and highly professional manner of the local counsel here for the defence; the scrupulous truthfulness of the witnesses who have testified, and the decorum and justness of the juries who have acted their parts from the first hour of this Court to the present time–I speak in the hearing of the country. An important and memorable page in history is being written. Let it not be omitted that Virginia has thrown around a band of deluded men, who invaded her soil with treason and murder, all the safeguards of her Constitution and laws, and placed them in her Courts upon an equality with her own citizens. I know of what I speak, and my love of truth and sense of right forbid me to be silent on this point.

Gentlemen, I am not here on behalf of this pale-faced, fair-haired wanderer from his home and the paths of duty, to talk to you about legal technicalities of law born of laborious analysis by the light of the midnight lamp. I place him before you on no such ground. He is in the hands of friends who abhor the conduct of which he has been guilty. But does that fact debar him of human sympathy? Does the simple act smite the erring brother with a leprosy which forbids the touch of the hand of affection? Is his voice of repentance and appeal for forgiveness stifled in his mouth? If so, the meek Saviour of the world would have recoiled with horror from Mary Magdalene, and spurned the repentant sorrow of Peter who betrayed him. For my client I avow every sympathy. Fallen and undone; broken and ruined as he is by the fall, yet, from the depths of the fearful chasm in which he lies, I hear the common call which the wretched make for sympathy more clearly than if it issued from the loftiest pyramid of wealth and power. If He who made the earth and hung the sun and moon and stars on high to give it light, and created man a joint heir of eternal wealth, and put within him an immortal spark of celestial flame which surrounds His throne, could remember mercy in executing justice when His whole plan of Divine government was assailed and deranged; when His law was set at defiance and violated; when the purity of Eden had been denied by the presence and counsels of the serpent–why so can I, and can you, when the wrong and the crime stand confessed, and every atonement is made to the majesty of the law which the prisoner has in his power to make.

Let us come near to each other and have a proper understanding. I am laboring with you for an object. I think I know something of the human heart and of the leading attributes by which it is governed throughout the world. By virtue of those attributes, I feel that we may annihilate the distance that separates our homes, sweep away all blinding excitement, and sit down together and reason upon this most tragic and melancholy affair as becomes citizens of the same government, proud of the same lineage, actuated by the same interests, and forever linked to the same destiny. You are not merely empanneled in your capacity as jurors to pass upon the life of this erratic youth before you, but the nation cannot be divorced from a deep and permanent interest in your deliberations. The crime for which the law claims his life as forfeit is one connected with a question of the weightiest national import– a question which, without any fault of yours, has rudely strained and shaken the bonds which embrace and hold together the States of this Union. This trial is incident to that question, and must be met in the face of the whole nation, and in the view of the entire American people, as a matter of universal interest and concern. The very nature of the offence now under discussion lifts us all to a point of observation on which statesmen and patriots have long bent their anxious looks. And the pressing, ever present and determined question of the hour which now sits with you in the jury-box, and will retire with you to your deliberations on your verdict, is, How shall you most fully meet the requirements of the American people at large; best conduce to the peace and repose of the Union; allay the rushing winds that are abroad on the face of the great deep; say peace be still to the angry elements of passion and treasonable agitation, and at the same time do all your duty as honest and conscientious men administering the laws of your State? If it shall be in my power, in some measure, to point out the course by which these great objects may be attained, I shall mark this, otherwise sad day on which I address you, as the brightest to me in the calendar of time. And, further, if these objects are to be attained on your part by invoking into your midst, and following the winning counsels of the meek-eyed and gentle angel of mercy–if you can faithfully discharge your oaths as jurors, and, at the same time, best meet the obligations which rest upon you as American citizens by tempering the bitter cup which justice commends to the lips of the prisoner with the ingredient of clemency, I know you, by the universal law of the human heart, will rejoice in such an opportunity, and join in the public and private happiness which will flow from your verdict. By the help of God, and appealing to Him for the purity of the motives which animate my breast, I now proceed to demonstrate such a course as both just and wise in the case of John E. Cook.

First of all things, gentlemen of the jury, is your duty to Virginia. Whatever she requires at your hands, that you are to give. Your first love belongs to her; she is the matron who has nursed you, and the Queen Mother to whom you owe allegiance. As an advocate, and defender at home of the doctrines of the State-rights men of the school of 1798, I do not come here to ask you to abate one jot or tittle of your affection and jealousy for the honor and interest of Virginia. Indeed, were such an invocation necessary, which I know it is not, I would invoke you by the great names of your history, by the memory of your ancient renown, by the thrilling associations of the classic soil on which we stand, and by the present commanding attitude which your Commonwealth holds before the world, to be true and loyal to what she has been, what she is, and what she hopes to be.

But how stands Virginia in reference to the assault which was made upon her citizens and her soil at Harper's Ferry on the 17th day of October, 1859, and what vindication does she need at your hands for the outrage? Are the circumstances such as to require of her the re-enactment of the Mosaic law, repealed by the benign teachings of the Nazarene on the shores of Galilee? Is she required to say in a stern and inexorable spirit:

"And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life.
Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe?"

Not so. She asks nothing of the kind at your hands. Punishment has already been swift and sure. The measure of her vengeance for the great wrong committed against her is full, and her vindication is ample before the world. She met her invaders on the spot, and those who lifted their hands against her are, most of them, in the graves to which Virginians consigned them; a few bound in her prisons, and a few others wanderers and fugitives on the face of the earth. The Executive and citizens of your State guided the bolt winch fell upon this mad offspring of a loathsome fanaticism, and the invasion perished at a single blow. And, in the spirit of the answer of Cushi to King David, I would say to you: "The enemies of the State of Virginia, and all that rise against her to do her hurt, be as these men are." But as the great King of Israel rose up and went to his chamber, and wept over the untimely fall of Absalom, the rebellious son of his own loins, who had lifted his parricidal hand against the life of an indulgent father, may not the world commend a similar emotion in the breast of a jury of Virginians over the sorrowful fate of the youthful prisoner at the bar! You will probably say that the lives of your citizens have been sacrificed. I answer that it is lamentably true; but it is also true that life has been taken already to atone for life; that the blood of murderers, older and wiser than the prisoner, has been poured out in response to the cry of the blood of your citizens from the ground. You will say that the soil of your State has been polluted by the foot of the traitor. I answer that that footstep rested but as for a moment on your border, and was swept away by a whirlwind of patriotic indignation. You will say that your law has been violated; your dignity and honor as a free people insulted. I answer, that, alas! it is too true; but I answer, also, that it is equally true that your laws have been fully, thoroughly, and justly vindicated. Here in this court, again and again, the sword of justice, wielded by an even hand, has fallen upon the miserable remnant of the confederated band who impiously mocked the integrity of the American Union by assailing the institutions of Virginia. The leader stands at the foot of the gallons, and on its height will expiate many crimes against the peace and laws of this country–not least amongst which is the crime of enlisting young men such as the prisoner, in a cruise of piracy against you and I, and all law-abiding citizens of this happy Union. Let the leader of the mutiny on ship-board perish, but if it appears that young men have followed false guidance, and been bound in the despotism of an iron will, order them back to duty, and give them one more chance to show whether they are worthy of life or death. Virginia can thus afford to act. It is one of the chief blessings of power that it can extend mercy to the weak; and the crown jewel of courage is magnanimity to the fallen.

But there is another point on which Virginia, though mourning for the death of her citizens, has triumphantly met the aspersions and calumnies of the enemies of her domestic institutions by reason of the late outbreak at Harper's Ferry. The institution of domestic slavery to-day stands before the world more fully justified than ever before in the history of this or, indeed, perhaps, of any other country. The liberator, urged on by a false and spurious philanthropy, deceitful and sinister in its origin, and selfish and corrupt in its practice, came into your midst to set the bondsman free, and though violence tore him from his master, though liberty was sounded in his ear, though a leader was proclaimed to lead him to the promised land, though an impiously self-styled Moses of deliverance came in the might of the sword and placed arms of bold attack and strong defence in his hands, yet what a spectacle do we behold! The bondsman refuses to be free; drops the implements of war from his hands; is deaf to the call of freedom; turns against his liberators, and, by instinct, obeys the injunction of Paul by returning to his master! Shall this pass for nothing? Shall no note be made of this piece of the logic of our Government? Shall the voice of the African himself die unheard on the question of his own freedom? No. It shall be perpetuated. It shall be put in the record. The slave himself, under circumstances the most tempting and favorable to his love of freedom, if he has any; surrounded by men and scenes beckoning him on to vengeance, to liberty and dominion; with the power of life and death over his master in his hands, and the world open before him; with the manacle and chain, which was never forged or wielded except in the heated furnace of a riotous and prurient imagination, stricken from his body, turns eagerly and fondly to the condition assigned him by the law not merely of Virginia, not merely of Legislatures and law-makers, but by the law of his being, by the law which governs his relation to the white man wherever the contact exists, by the law which made the hewers of wood and drawers of water under a government formed by God himself, and which, since the world began down to the present time, has made the inferior subordinate to the superior whenever and wherever two unequal races have been brought together. Let this fact go forth to the country. Let it be fully understood by those men. and women who languish and sigh over the condition of your institutions that their sympathy is repudiated, and that they themselves are despised by both races in the South. This, too, Virginia has proven.

Is there anything left to be done by your verdict in peremptorily taking the life of the prisoner, and offering it a sacrifice to heal the wrongs of your State? I humbly conceive that Virginia in no respect needs such a sacrifice. This much I think I have shown.

And now let us turn to the prisoner. If Virginia, through you, can afford to be clement, your inquiry will then be, is the object on whom you are asked to bestow your clemency worthy to receive it? I know the field on which I now enter is filled with preconceived ideas, but in the spirit of truth I shall explore it, and by the truth of what I say I am willing that my unfortunate client may be judged by you, and moreover, by that God in whose presence no hidden things exist, and before whom, at no distant day, you and I shall stand with him and see him and know him as he is, and not as we see him and know him now, encompassed by the dread and awful calamities of the present hour.

Who is John E. Cook? He has the right himself to be heard before you; but I will answer for him. Sprung from an ancestry of loyal attachment to the American Government, he inherits no blood of tainted impurity. His grandfather an officer of the Revolution by which your liberty as well as mine was achieved, and his grey-haired father, who lives to weep over him, a soldier of the war of 1812, he brings no dishonored lineage into your presence. If the blood which flows in his veins has been offered against your peace, the same blood in the veins of those from whose loins he sprang has been offered in fierce shock of battle and foreign invasion in behalf of the people of Virginia and the Union. Born of a parent stock occupying the middle walks of life, and possessed of all those tender and domestic virtues which escape the contamination of those vices that dwell on the frozen peaks, or in the dark and deep caverns of society, he would not have been here had precept and example been remembered in the prodigal wanderings of his short and chequered life. Poor, deluded boy! wayward, misled child! An evil star presided over thy natal hour and smote it with gloom. The hour in which thy mother bore thee and blessed thee as her blue-eyed babe upon her knee is to her now one of bitterness as she stands near the bank of the chill river of death and looks back on a name hitherto as unspotted and as pure as the unstained snow. May God stand by and sustain her, and preserve the mothers of Virginia from the waves of sorrow that now roll over her!

Not only the ancestry of John E. Cook, but all with whom his life is now bound up, stand before the country as your friends, and the friends of the Constitution as handed down to us by the valor and wisdom, of Washington. I will not shrink from the full and absolute recognition of my position. You and I, gentlemen of the jury, can have no secrets in this case from one another. We will withdraw the curtains, and look each other fully in the face. A citizen of the State in which I live, who, by virtue of his brilliant and commanding intellect, and because of his sound and national principles, has been placed at an early period of his life in the highest position in the power of a State to give, is here beside me, and wears near his heart a sister's likeness to this boy. And there is not in the wide world, on the broad green face of the earth, a man, whose heart is not wholly abandoned to selfish depravity, who will not say that his presence here is commended by honor, love, duty, and fidelity to all that ennobles our poor fallen race. Let poor, miserable, despised, loathed, spurned, and abhorred miscreants cavil and revile at this proud act of painful duty. The true and eternal impulses of the human heart, the world over, constitute our appellate court.

But the Governor of the State of Indiana needs neither vindication nor defence as a statesman of catholic opinions, nor as a man fully appreciating the duties of domestic life. Rather do I allude to his presence here and his position as to the agitating questions of the day, to show that something else besides ancestral inheritance or the teachings of family connections, has given the fatal bias to the prisoner's mind, which led him away from the worship of his own household gods, and into the communion of idolaters, aliens and enemies to the pure faith of an American citizen. And it seems to me, in view of the services which those who love this boy have rendered to their country, and in view of their devotion to the true construction of the Constitution and the injunctions of our fathers, I might rehearse and quote to you with propriety a passage from the history of the latter years of the wisest king Israel ever had:

"For it came to pass when Solomon was old that his wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not perfect with the Lord his God as was the heart of David, his father. For Solomon went after Ashteroth, the goddess of the Ionians, and after the abomination of the Ammonites.

"And Solomon did evil in the sight of the Lord, and went not fully after the Lord as did David his father.

"And the Lord was angry with Solomon because his heart was turned from the Lord God of Israel which had appeared unto him twice;

"And had commanded him concerning this thing that he should not go after other gods; but he kept not that which the Lord commanded.

"Wherefore the Lord said unto Solomon, forasmuch as this is done unto thee, and thou hast not kept my covenant and my statutes which I have commanded thee, I will surely rend the kingdom from thee, and will give it to thy servant.

"Notwithstanding, in thy days I will not do it for David thy father's sake."

The King, who was forgiven, and spared not merely his life, but his kingdom also, and his glory during his lifetime, because of the loyalty of his father, who had gone before him, was old and very wise, and full of experience. The prisoner before you has done no more than to disobey your covenants and statutes, and pleads that it has been done in the early morning of life, his first offence, and under the baneful influence of a school of philosophy which he once thought sincere and right, but which he now here, once and forever, to you, and before the world, renounces as false, pernicious, and pestilential. Shall man be more intolerant than God? Shall you be less merciful than He, in whose presence your only plea will be mercy! mercy! mercy! Will you say you dare not recommend mercy to John E. Cook, when divine examples and the appeals of your own consciences are on your side? I will never believe it until the appalling fact is announced by you.

But let us advance. I have spoken of Cook, his parentage and connections. Again comes the question, who is he? And now I proceed to answer it with reference to the transactions at Harper's Ferry, and with reference to the facts of the case. Let us spread broad and wide before us the moving panorama of evil which reaches its denouement at Harper's Ferry. There are hearts and feelings woven in the destiny of the prisoner which shall be relieved and solaced as far as truth, dragged up from the depths of this misfortune, can relieve and solace them. In an evil hour–and may it be forever accursed!–John E. Cook met John Brown on the prostituted plains of Kansas. On that field of fanaticism, three years ago, this fair and gentle youth was thrown into contact with the pirate and robber of civil warfare. To others whose sympathies he has enlisted, I will leave the task of transmitting John Brown as a martyr and hero to posterity. In my eyes he stands the chief of criminals, the thief of property stolen–horses and slaves–from the citizens of Missouri, a falsifier here in this court, as I shall yet show, and a murderer not only of your citizens, but of the young men who have already lost their lives in his bloody foray on your border. This is not pleasant to say, but it is the truth, and as such ought to be and shall be said. You have seen John Brown, the leader. Now look on John Cook, the follower. He is in evidence before you. Never did I plead for a face that I was more willing to show. If evil is there, I have not seen it. If murder is there, I am to learn to mark the lines of the murderer anew. If the assassin is in that young face, then commend me to the look of an assassin. No, gentlemen, it is a face for a mother to love, and a sister to idolize, and in which the natural goodness of his heart pleads trumpet-tongued against the deep damnation that estranged him from home and its principles. Let us look at the meeting of these two men. Place them side by side. Put the young face by the old face; the young head by the old head. We have seen somewhat of the history of the young man. Look now for a moment at the history of the old man. He did not go to Kansas as a peaceable settler with his interests linked to the legitimate growth and prosperity of that ill-fated Territory. He went there, in the language of one who has spoken for him since his confinement here, as the Moses of the slaves' deliverance. He went there to fulfill a dream, which had tortured his brain for thirty years, that he was to be the leader of a sacred Exodus from bondage. He went there for war, and not for peace. He went there to call around him the wayward and unstable elements of a society in which the bonds of order, law, and religion were loosened, and the angry demon of discord was unchained. Storm was his element by his own showing. He courted the fierce tempest. He sowed the wind that he might reap the whirlwind. He invoked the lightning and gloried in its devastation. Sixty summers and winters had passed over his head, and planted the seeds of spring and gathered the harvests of autumn in the fields of his experience. He was the hero, too, of battles there. If laurels could be gained in such a fratricidal war as raged in Kansas he had them on his brow. Ossawatomie was given to him, and added to his name by the insanity of the crazy crew of the North, as Napoleon conferred the names of battle-fields on his favorite marshals. The action of BLACK JACK, too, gave him consideration, circumstance, and condition with philanthropists of bastard quality, carpet-knight heroes in Boston, and servile followers of fanaticism throughout the country. His courage is now lauded to the skies by men who have none of it themselves. This virtue, I admit, he has–linked, however, with a thousand crimes. An iron will, with which to accomplish evil under the skillful guise of good, I also admit to be in his possession–rendering his influence over the young all the more despotic and dangerous. Imagine, if you please, the bark on which this young man at the bar and all his hopes were freighted, laid alongside of the old weather-beaten and murderous man-of-war whose character I have placed before you. The one was stern and bent upon a fatal voyage. Grim-visaged war, civil commotion, pillage and death, disunion and universal desolation thronged through the mind of John Brown. To him law was nothing, the Union was nothing, the peace and welfare of the country were nothing, the lives of the citizens of Virginia were nothing. Though a red sea of blood rolled before him, yet he lifted up his hand and cried, "Forward." Shall he now shrink from his prominence and attempt to shrivel back to the grade of his recruits and subalterns? Shall he deny his bad pre-eminence and say that he did not incite the revolt which has involved his followers to ruin? Shall he stand before this Court and before the country and deny that he was the master-spirit, and gathered together the young men who followed him to the death in this mad expedition! No! his own hand signs himself "Commander-in-Chief," and shows the proper distinction which should be made between himself and the men who, in an evil moment, obeyed his orders. Now turn to the contrast again and behold the prisoner. Young, and new to the rough ways of life, his unsandaled foot tender and unused to the journey before him, a waif on the ocean, at the mercy of the current which might assail him, and unfortunately endowed with that fearful gift which causes one to walk as in a dream through all the vicissitudes of a life-time; severed and wandering from the sustaining and protecting ties of kindred, he gave, without knowing his destination or purpose, a pledge of military obedience to John Brown, "Commander-in-Chief."

Gentlemen of the Jury, there is one character which, in the economy of God's Providence, has been placed upon the earth, but perhaps has never been fully drawn, and is most difficult to draw. It is the character of him who glides down the stream of life in a trance, dreams as he floats along, and sees visions on either shore. Realities exist in this world, no doubt. Practical views are certainly the best. But that impalpable, airy, and unsubstantial creations of the busy imaginations come now and then, and lure the children of men to chase the "Will-o'-the-'Wisp" over the dangerous morass of life, is as true as that we have our allotted pilgrimage of three score years and ten. Who has not beheld the young man of strict moral culture, impressed with high principles of right, and gifted with good intellect, start out upon the dusty and well-beaten highway, which millions have trod before him, only to turn aside at the first inviting grove of pleasure, the first call of some fanciful wood nymph, or to follow over the falls of ruin and death some meandering stream whose beautiful surface caught his eye? To such a one right and wrong are utter abstractions, and have no relation whatever to things that exist. Give to such a mind a promise, however false, and from it will spring a castle in the air, with proportions as true and just as the most faultless architecture ever framed by mathematical skill.

Some lay the foundation of their actions on the rock and are never overthrown. Some build upon the shifting sand, and fall when the storm comes. But in each instance the building may be the same in its symmetry. So with the deductions of the mind. All depends, not upon the reasoning, but upon the basis on which thought rests, and which supports the edifice of our conclusions. The enthusiast and visionary takes his stand-point and fixes the premises of his conduct from caprice and the circumstances which have obtained the ascendancy over his mind. That such has been the character and such the conduct of the prisoner, without one spark of malignity of heart, or a single impulse of depravity, all the evidence in this case clearly establishes. Some general ideas, gilded over by the alluring title of freedom, were held out to him by Brown, and formed the basis of what seemed to him duty and honor. If ever man charged with crime was lifted up by the evidence of his case above the ignoble traits of the ordinary felon, the prisoner is thus distinguished. Instead of the eager and willing bandit, anxious to join a hoary leader bent on mischief–instead of the outlaw in mind and character, gloomily and fiercely pondering revenge against his fellow men for fancied, or real injuries–we see from the evidence a kind though wayward heart, a cheerful, obliging, though visionary mind. With children every where he has been a favorite; and since little children crept upon the knee of the Saviour eighteen hundred years ago, they have been the most infallible judges of a gentle and affectionate heart. Amiability and sweetness of temper he has carried with him through the world, and he brings that trait now here before you to show that strong inducements and powerful incentives must have been brought to bear in order to engage him in an enterprise so desperate as that for which his life is now so sadly imperiled. What motive controlled him to this action? A crime without a motive cannot exist. Was it the motive of bloodshed? His character forbids the thought. Was it the motive of disloyalty to a government cemented by the blood of his ancestors, and defended by all who are near him by the ties of kindred? Not a syllable of proof warrants such a conclusion. Was his motive robbery and- unholy gain? Other fields are more inviting to the land pirate; but the thought of plunder never crossed a mind like his. One answer, and one alone, is to be given to all these questions. John Brown was the despotic leader, and John E. Cook was an ill-fated follower of an enterprise whose horror he now realizes and deplores. I defy the man, here or elsewhere, who has ever known John E. Cook, who ever looked once fully into his face, and learned any thing of his history, to lay his hand on his heart and say that he believes him guilty of the origin or the results of the outbreak at Harper's Ferry.

Here, then, are the two characters whom you are thinking to punish alike. Can it be that a jury of Christian men will find no discrimination should be made between them? Are the tempter and the tempted the same in your eyes? Is the beguiled youth to die the same as the old offender who has pondered his crime for thirty years? Are there no grades in your estimation of guilt? Is each one, without respect to age or circumstance, to be beaten with the same number of stripes? Such is not the law, human or divine. We are all to be rewarded according to our works, whether in punishment for evil, or blessings for good that we have done. You are here to do justice, and if justice requires the same fate to befal Cook that befals Brown, I know nothing of her rules, and do not care to learn. They are as widely asunder in all that constitutes guilt as the poles of the earth, and should be dealt with accordingly. It is in your power to do so, and by the principles by which you yourselves are willing to be judged hereafter, I implore you to do it!

Come with me, however, gentlemen, and let us approach the spot where the tragedy of the 17th of October occurred, and analyze the conduct of the prisoner there. It is not true that he came as a citizen of your State and gained a home in your midst to betray you. He was ordered to take his position at Harper's Ferry, in advance of his party, for the sole purpose of ascertaining whether Col. Forbes of New York had divulged the plan. This order came from John Brown, the "Commander-in-Chief," and was doubtless a matter of as much interest to others of prominent station as to himself. Cook simply obeyed–no more. There is not a particle of evidence that he tampered with your slaves during his temporary residence. On the contrary, it is admitted on all hands that he did not. His position there is well defined. Nor was he from under the cold, stern eye of his leader. From the top of the mountain his chief looked down upon. him, and held him as within a charmed circle. Would Cook have lived a day had he tried to break the meshes which environed him? Happy the hour in which he had made the attempt, even had he perished; but, in fixing the measure of his guilt, the circumstances by which he was surrounded must all be weighed. At every step we see him as the instrument in the hands of other men, and not as originating or advising any thing. His conduct towards that elegant and excellent gentleman, Col. Washington, is a matter of sore regret to his friends and also to himself. It is the one act most difficult of all others to reconcile with the well-known character of the man. But even there his offence is palliated by the dictatorship which governed him. At first glance, we see a high-toned gentleman's hospitality abused. This has been used to aggravate his acknowledged offences. But the truth is, that when Cook first visited Colonel Washington's house and received from him various acts of kindness, the thought that soon he was to be ordered back over that threshold in a hostile manner had never entered his brain. The act was not Cook's, but Brown's. The mere soldier is never punished for the outrages of his commander. And when you allow that the prisoner's great error was his enlistment under the leadership of Brown in the first place, then you must admit that everything else has followed in logical sequence. Obedience and fidelity upon a leader in a false and pernicious cause are entitled to offset, in some measure at least, the evil that has flown from them. But the prisoner took certain weapons hallowed by great and sacred associations from the possession of Col. Washington. Ah! in this he is once more consistent with the visionary and dreamy cast of his mind. The act was not plunder, for he pledged their safe return to their owner, and has faithfully kept that pledge to the full extent of his power. But his wayward fancy was caught with the idea that a spell of enchantment hung around them, and that, like the relics of a saint, they would bless and prosper any cause in which they were invoked. The sword of Frederick the Great and the pistols of Lafayette linked to the name and family of Washington! With what a charm such associations would strike the poetic temperament of a young enthusiast, embarked in an enterprise presenting to his perverted imagination the incentives of danger and glory; and if a new order of things was to be inaugurated, and storm and revolution were to shake the country and the world, like the heart of the Bruce or the eagles of Napoleon, these warlike incentives of heroes were to fascinate and allure followers, and hallow the battles in which they were lifted. The mind of the prisoner is fully capable of dreaming such dreams and nursing such visions.

But it is said that Cook left the scene at Harper's Ferry at an early hour to avoid the danger of the occasion, and thus broke faith with his comrades in wrong. Even this is wholly untrue. Again we find the faithful, obedient subaltern carrying out the orders of his chief, and when he had crossed; the river and fulfilled the commands of Brown, he did what Brown's own son would not do–by returning and exposing himself to the fire of the soldiers and citizens for the relief' of Brown and his party. We see much, alas! too much, to condemn in his conduct, but nothing to despise; we look in vain for an act that belongs to base or malignant nature. Let the hand of chastisement fall gently on the errors of such as him, and reserve your heavy blows for such as commit crime from motives of depravity. Up to this point I have followed the prisoner, and traced his immediate connexion with this sad affair. You have everything before you. You have heard his own account of his strange and infatuated wanderings up and down the earth with John Brown and his coadjutors; how like a fiction it all seems, and yet how lamentably true; how unreal to minds like ours; how like the fever-dream of a mind warped and disordered to the borders of insanity does the part which the prisoner has played seem to every practical judgment! Is there nothing in it at all that affords you the dearest privilege which man has on earth–the privilege of being merciful? Why, the very thief on the cross, for a single moment's repentance over his crimes, received absolute forgiveness and was rewarded with paradise. But, gentlemen, in estimating the magnitude of this young man's guilt, there is one fact which is proven in his behalf by the current history of the day which you cannot fail to consider. Shall John E. Cook perish, and the real criminals who for twenty years have taught the principles on which he acted hear no voice from this spot? Shall no mark be placed on them? Shall this occasion pass away, and the prime felons who attacked your soil and murdered your citizens at Harper's Ferry escape? The indictment before us says that the prisoner was seduced by the false and malignant counsels of other traitorous persons. Never was a sentence written more just and true. "False and malignant counsels" have been dropping for years, as deadly and blighting as the poison of the Bohun Upas tree, from the tongues of evil and traitorous persons in that section of the Union to which the prisoner belongs. They have seduced not only his mind, but many others, honest and misguided like him, to regard the crime at Harper's Ferry, as no crime, your right as unmitigated wrongs, and the Constitution of the country as a league with hell and a covenant with death. On the skirts of the leaders of abolition fanaticism in the North is every drop of blood shed in the conflict at Harper's Ferry; on their souls rests the crime of murder for every life there lost; and all the waters of the ocean could not wash the stains of slaughter from their treacherous and guilty hands. A noted Boston abolitionist, (Wendell Phillips,) a few days ago, at Brooklyn, New York, in the presence of thousands, speaking of this tragic occurrence, says: "It is the natural result of anti-slavery teaching. For one, I accept it. I expected it." I, too, accept it in the same light, and so will the country. Those who taught, and not those who believed and acted, are the men of crime in the sight of God. And to guard other young men, so far as in my power, from the fatal snare which has been tightened around the hopes and destiny of John E. Cook, and to show who are fully responsible for his conduct, I intend to link with this trial the names of wiser and older men than he; and if he is to be punished and consigned to a wretched doom, they shall stand beside him in the public stocks; they shall be pilloried forever in public shame as the evil and traitorous persons who seduced him to his ruin by their false and malignant counsels.

The chief of these men, the leader of a great party, a Senator of long standing, has announced to the country that there is a higher law than the Constitution, which guaranties to each man the full exercise of his own inclination. The prisoner before you has simply acted on the law of Wm. H. Seward, and not the law of his fathers. He has followed the Mahomet of an incendiary faith. Come forth, ye sages of abolitionism, who now cower and skulk under hasty denials of your complicity with the bloody result of your wicked and unholy doctrines, and take your places on the witness stand. Tell the world why this thing has happened. Tell this jury why they are trying John E. Cook for his life. You advised his conduct and taught him that he was doing right. You taught him a higher law and then pointed out to him the field of action. Let facts be submitted. Mr. Seward, in speaking of slavery, says: "It can and must be abolished, and you and I must do it." "What worse did the prisoner attempt? Again he said, upon the same subject, "Circumstances determine possibilities;" and doubtless the circumstances with which John Brown had connected his plans made them possible in his estimation; for it is in evidence before the country, unimpeached and uncontradicted, that the great Senator of New York had the whole matter submitted to him, and only whispered back, in response, that he had better not been told. He has boldly announced an irrepressible conflict between the free and slave States of this Union. These seditious phrases, "higher law" and "irrepressible conflict," warrant and invite the construction which the prisoner and his young deluded companions placed upon them. Yet they are either in chains, with the frightful gibbet in full view, or sleep in dishonored graves, while the apostle and master-spirit of insurrection is loaded with honors and fares sumptuously every day. Such is poor, short-handed justice in this world.

An old man, and for long years a member of the National Congress from Ohio, next shall testify here before you that he taught the prisoner the terrible error which now involves his life. Servile insurrections have forever been on the tongue and lips of Joshua R. Giddings. He says "that when the contest shall come, when the thunder shall roll and the lightning flash, and when the slaves shall rise in the South in imitation of the horrid scenes of the West Indies, when the Southern man shall turn pale and tremble, when your dwellings shall smoke with the torch of the incendiary, and dismay sit on each countenance, he will hail it as the approaching dawn of that political and moral millennium which he is well assured will come upon the world." The atrocity of these sentiments chills the blood of honest patriots, and no part of the prisoner's equals their bloody import. Shall the old leader escape and the young follower die? Shall the teacher whose doctrines told the prisoner that what he did was right, go unscathed of the lightning which he has unchained? If so, Justice has fled from her temples on earth, and awaits us only on high to measure out what is right between man and man. The men who have misled this boy to his ruin shall here receive my maledictions. They shrink back from him now in the hour of his calamity. They lift up their hands and say, Amen! to the bloody spectacle which their infernal orgies have summoned up. You hear them all over the land ejaculating through false, pale, coward lips, "Thou canst not say I did it," when their hands are reeking with all the blood that has been shed and which yet awaits the extreme penalty of the law. False, fleeting, perjured traitors; false to those who have acted upon your principles; false to friends as well as country, and perjured before the Constitution of the Republic–ministers who profess to be of God who told this boy here to carry a Sharp's rifle to Kansas instead of his mother's Bible–shall this jury, this court, and this country forget their guilt and their infamy because a victim to their precepts is yielding up his life before you? May God forget me if I here, in the presence of this pale face, forget to denounce with the withering, blighting, blasting power of majestic truth, the tall and stately criminals of the Northern States of this Union.

The visionary mind of the prisoner heard from a member of Congress from Massachusetts that a new constitution, a new Bible and a new God were to be inaugurated and to possess the country. They were to be new, because they were to be anti-slavery, for the old constitution, and the old Bible, and the God of our fathers, the ancient Lord God of Israel, the same yesterday, to-day, and forever, were not on the side of abolitionism. Is there no mitigation for his doom in the fact that he took his life in his hand, and aimed at that which a coward taught him, but dared not himself attempt? Base, pusillanimous demagogues have led the prisoner to the bar; but while he suffers–if suffer he must–they, too, shall have their recreant limbs broken on the wheel. I will not leave the soil of Virginia, I will not let this awful occasion pass into history, without giving a voice and an utterance to its true purport and meaning, without heaping upon its authors the load of execration which they are to bear henceforth and forever. Day after day and year after year has the baleful simoon of revolution, arnachy [sic], discord, hostility to the South and her institutions, swept over that section of the country in which the lot of the prisoner has been cast. That he has been poisoned by its breath, should not cut him off from human sympathy; rather should it render every heart clement toward him. He never sought place or station, but sought merely to develop those doctrines which evil and traitorous persons had caused him to believe were true. Ministers, editors, and politicians–Beecher, Parker, Seward, Giddings, Sumner, Hale, and a host of lesser lights of each class–who in this court-room, who in this vast country, who in the wide world who shall read this trial, believes them not guilty, as charged in the indictment in all the courts, to a deeper and far more fearful extent than John E. Cook? Midnight gloom is not more sombre in contrast with the blazing light of the meridian sun than is the guilt of such men in comparison with that which overwhelms the prisoner. They put in motion the maelstrom which has engulphed him. They started the torrent which has borne him over the precipice. They called forth from the caverns the tempest which wrecked him on a sunken reef. Before God, and in the light of Eternal truth, the disaster at Harper's Ferry is their act, and not his May the ghost of each victim to their doctrines of disunion and abomination sit heavy on their guilty souls! May the fate of the prisoner, whatever it may be, disturb their slumbers and paralyze their arms When they are again raised against the peace of the country and the lives of its citizens!

I know by the gleam of each eye into which I look in this jury-box, that if these men could change places with young Cook, you would gladly say to him, "Go, erring and repentant youth, our vengeance shall fall on those who paid their money, urged on the attack, and guided the blow." Let me appeal to you, gentlemen of the jury, in the name of Eternal truth and everlasting right, is nothing to be forgiven to youth, to inexperience, to a gentle, kind heart, to a wayward and peculiar though not vicious character, strangely apt to be led by present influences? I have shown you what those influences, generally and specially, have been over the mind of the prisoner. I have shown you the malign influence of his direct leader. I have shown you, also, the "false and malignant counsels" in behalf of this sad enterprise, emanating from those in place, power, and position. It might have been your prodigal son borne away and seduced by such counsels, as well as my young client. Do with him as you would have your own child dealt by under like circumstances. He has been stolen from the principles of his ancestors and betrayed from the teachings of his kindred. If he was your own handsome child, repentant and confessing his wrong to his country, what would you wish a jury of strangers to do? That do yourselves. By that rule guide your verdict; and the poor boon of mercy will not be cut off from him.

He thought the country was about to be convulsed; that the slave was pining for an opportunity to rise against his master; that two-thirds of the laboring population of the country, North and South, would flock to the standard of revolt; that a single day would bring ten, fifty–yea, a hundred thousand men–to arms in behalf of the insurrection of the slaves. This is in evidence. Who are responsible for such terribly false views? and what kind of a visionary and dreaming mind which has so fatally entertained them? That the prisoner's mind is pliant to the impressions, whether for good or for evil, by which it is surrounded, let his first interview in prison with Gov. Willard, in the presence of your Senator, Col. Mason, bear witness. His error was placed before him. His wrong to his family and his country was drawn by a patriotic, and, at the same time, an affectionate hand. His natural being at once asserted its sway. The influence of good, and not of evil, once more controlled him as in the days of his childhood; and now here, before you, he has the merit at least of a loyal citizen making all the atonement in his power for the wrong which he has committed. That he has told strictly the truth in his statement, is proven by every word of evidence in this cause.

Gentlemen, you have this case. I surrender it into your hands the issues of life and death. As long as you live, a more important case than this you will never be called to try. Consider it, therefore, well in all its bearings. I have tried to show you those facts which go to palliate the conduct of the prisoner. Shall I go home and say that in justice you remembered not mercy to him? Leave the door of clemency open; do not shut it by a wholesale conviction. Remember that life is an awful and a sacred thing; remember that death is terrible–terrible at any time, and in any form.

"Come to the Bridal Chamber, Death–
Come when the mother feels,
For the first time, her first-born's breath;
Come when the blessed seals
That close the pestilence are broke,
And crowded cities wail its stroke;
Come in Consumption's ghastly form,
The Earthquake's shock, the Ocean's storm;
Come when the heart beats high and warm
With banquet song, and dance and wine,
And thou art terrible. The groan,
The knell, the pall, the bier,
And all we know, or dream, or fear
Of agony are thine."

But when to the frightful mien of the grim monster, when to the chill visage of the spirit of the glass and scythe, is added the hated, dreaded spectre of the gibbet, we turn shuddering from the accumulated horror. God spare this boy, and those who love him, from such a scene of woe.

I part from you now, and most likely forever. When we next meet–when I next look upon your faces and you on mine–it will be in that land and before that Tribunal where the only plea that will save you or I from a worse fate than awaits the prisoner, will be mercy. Charity is the paramount virtue; all else is as sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal. Charity suffereth long, and is kind. Forbid it not to come into your deliberations; and, when your last hour comes, the memory that you allowed it to plead for you erring brother, John E. Cook, will brighten your passage over the dark river, and rise by your side as an interceding angel in that day when your trial, as well as his, shall be determined by a just but merciful God.

I thank the Court, and you, gentlemen, for your patient kindness, and I am done.

Source: Addresses of Hon. Daniel W. Voorhees, of Indiana. Richmond, VA: West & Johnston, 1861.


Chapter Eleven: The Commonwealth of Virginia v. John Brown and His Men

His Soul Goes Marching On

West Virginia Archives and History