October 16, 1859 – John Brown and His Followers Seize Harpers Ferry

On October 16, 1859, abolitionist John Brown (a white man known for his violent opposition to slavery) and 21 armed followers seized the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). The would-be revolutionaries, including three free blacks, one freed slave, and one fugitive slave, hoped to incite a rebellion of freed slaves and overturn the institution of slavery by force.

John Brown as a younger man

John Brown as a younger man

Brown’s goal was to do whatever it took to get slaves released from bondage; he felt anything less would make a mockery of God’s words as Brown understood them. As he told his interrogators after his arrest:

I want you to understand, gentlemen, that I respect the rights of the poorest and weakest of colored people, oppressed by the slave system, just as much as I do those of the most wealthy and powerful.”

The small band was no match for the U.S. Marines however, and on October 18, under Colonel Robert E. Lee, the Marines stormed the armory, freed the hostages, and arrested Brown and his men.

Brown was tried for treason by the state of Virginia, but stated that he believed he was doing “God’s work” in trying to end slavery.

On November 2, 1859, in his last speech, given in court, he averred:

This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to ‘remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.’ I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say, I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!”


The jury trial ended in Brown’s conviction and death sentence. Brown was executed December 2, 1859.

If you are familiar with Lincoln’s speeches, you may have noticed the similarities between Brown’s last speech and Lincoln’s second inaugural address, when Lincoln declaimed:

If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”


In point of fact, many of those opposed to slavery voiced the same ideas at this time in history. Harbingers of Lincoln’s speeches can be found throughout the period. In general, however, Lincoln managed to express the sentiments better than others. (See, for example, some of the many analyses of Lincoln’s first inaugural speech, in which he changed Secretary of State Seward’s proposed words to sound more felicitious.)

One other connection between Brown and Lincoln was more unfortunate. John Wilkes Booth hated both men passionately; he came up to Harper’s Ferry in 1859 to witness Brown’s execution and help ensure there would be no attempts to rescue him by supporters. On April 14, 1865, he saw to the execution of Lincoln himself.


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