Another chapter down in the Folio Society‘s book on Historical Trials. This time we are back in the USA in 1859. for the John Brown raid on Harper’s Ferry.I’ve never been a fan of John Brown, or comfortable with this adulation. I tend to take the North’s view of matters of the time, but Brown isn’t ‘on my side’. The Pottawatomie massacre, where he killed 5 settlers in reprisal for the pro-Slavery Border Ruffian‘s attack and sack of Lawrence, Kansas puts him outside the pale. I won’t say he wasn’t provoked, as the other side’s crimes were severe, but that doesn’t excuse him.
At Harper’s, Brown wanted to raise a slave insurrection and have the slaves defend an area in the South. While this was ‘better’ than the violence at Pottawatomie, it still was violence if more of a paramilitary than criminal kind. And of course, it was also wildly irrational. Most slaves were not willing to erupt into violence, and even those that might have been couldn’t see that fighting the forces that the Southern states and the US could have brought to bear made a lot of sense.
After a short siege and assault, Brown was wounded and captured, and after a short trial where most of Brown’s requests for delays because of his lack of counsel and his wounds were refused, sentenced to death. I understand the need for Virginia to get this over with to avoid any trouble with the slaves, but given their unresponsiveness to the original assault a delay of a few days could not hurt. Look what Boston did for the perpetrators of the Boston Massacre.
Brown’s bearing at the trial and execution impressed many, and not only those in the North or abolitionists. The real effects of the raid were not on the slaves, but the masters. Even the isolated and marginalized support for Brown in the north infuriated the slaveholders and boosted the political power of the secessionists. In about a year, they would make their own move, which was only a bit more rational than Brown’s and precipitate the Civil War.
John Brown got his way in the end.
- Notable Historical Trials IV – Dr. William Palmer (kilobooks.wordpress.com)
- Ralph Waldo Emerson on John Brown’s Holy War To End Slavery (isak.typepad.com)
- Prewar Harpers Ferry in art… and some thoughts (cenantua.wordpress.com)