October 21, 1859 – John Brown Justifies His Actions at Harpers Ferry

On October 16, 1859 abolitionist John Brown led a small force in an attack on the Federal Armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. His stated purpose was to steal weapons in an attempt to rally to his cause and arm both local slaves and abolitionist whites. He carried with him two documents denouncing slaveholders and emphasizing that citizenship should be guaranteed without respect to race or sex.

His plan was not well-conceived, however, and the raid was unsuccessful. Brown was wounded and captured by a force of marines led by Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee of the U.S. Army. Brown was tried, convicted of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, and sentenced to be hanged.

A contemporary newspaper illustration showing the interior of the engine house at Harpers Ferry immediately before the door is broken down by US armed forces.

A contemporary newspaper illustration showing the interior of the engine house at Harpers Ferry immediately before the door is broken down by US armed forces.

Shortly after the raid, John Brown was interviewed by a group of citizens that included a reporter for the New York Herald who published an account of the interview on this day in history. The transcript included the following:

Bystander – Upon what principle do you justify your acts?

Mr. Brown – Upon the golden rule. I pity the poor in bondage that have none to help them; that is why I am here; not to gratify any personal animosity, revenge or vindictive spirit. It is my sympathy with the oppressed and the wronged that are as good as you and as precious in the sight of God.

Bystander – Certainly. But why take the slaves against their will?

Mr. Brown – I never did. . . . I want you to understand gentlemen – (and to the reporter of the Herald) you may report that – I want you to understand 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 cry of distress of the oppressed is my reason, and the only thing that prompted me to come here. . .

Reporter of the Herald – I do not wish to annoy you; but if you have anything further you would like to say I will report it.
 
Mr. Brown . . . I wish to say, furthermore, that you had better – all you people at the South – prepare yourselves for a settlement of that question that must come up for settlement sooner than you are prepared for it. The sooner you are prepared the better. You may dispose of me very easily. I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is still to be settled – this negro question I mean; the end of that is not yet. . .”

An 1846 daguerreotype of Brown

An 1846 daguerreotype of Brown

[In particular, one has to love the question from the “Bystander”: “Why take the slaves against their will?”]

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