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CHARLES TOWN, Va., Nov. 2, 1859 - What says a man when he has assayed to play the role of liberator outside the law, has finally directed his I handful of followers in combat with uniformed troops of the government, and has lost; when he knows that beyond all appeal he will dangle from a gallows?
John Brown said it here today, in open court, after receiving that sentence which no power on earth could avert. How did he say it? He said it calmly and with great lucidity, as though each syllable were a brick carefully laid in a pillar of argument that was to be his memorial.
In five minutes, the leader of out- laws who seized the arsenal at Harper's Ferry nearby, and who surrendered only after a detachment of Marines under Colonel Robert E. Lee, had killed 10 of their number, may have gone far toward changing his reputation in the future from that of erratic firebrand and outlaw to that of martyr.
History must. judge. Today, however, It was a grizzled, bearded man of 59 years - the father of a whole squad of sons - who spoke his piece in the calm, plain language of the prairies from whence he came.
"I never did intend murder," he told the court. "I feel no consciousness of guilt."
So spoke the man, who has obtained a small national reputation as "Old Brown of Oswatom," the Abolitionist and active member of the underground for spiriting slaves to freedom.
The facts of this trial were fairly simple; more complicated was its background. On the night of last October 16, Brown and 21 followers crossed the Potomac River from Charles Town, near where he rented a farm earlier this year, and captured without much resistance the Federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry. Once inside it, he remained quietly while the local militia blocked the roads. That night Colonel Lee came out with a company of marines and the following morning stormed the arsenal.
The attacking force killed 10 of Brown's men, so stubbornly did they resist, and wounded their leader. Five of the attacking force, were killed. The casualties made the trial for insurrection inevitable. Today Brown was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead. Then he spoke his piece.
But there is more to the affair than that - long activities as an embattled Abolitionist ranging from Kansas to Pennsylvania, and a deliberate ambush in Kansas back in 1855 by Brown, four of his sons and two friends, who killed in cold blood, five pro-slavery men living on the banks of the Pottawatamie River. For this deed he escaped punishment.
After that he actively enlisted men to seize some unknown area and establish a sanctuary for escaped slaves and such Negro freedmen as might care to join them. In all this, be it remarked, John Brown was more a symbol than an individual, a bravado acting openly in a field where more and more of his kind are acting covertly. But he got cornered.
These words he spoke today:
I have, may it please the Court, a few words to say. In the first place, I deny everything but what I have all along admitted: of a design on my part to free slaves. I intended certainly to have made a clean thing of that matter, as I did last winter, when I went into Missouri and there took slaves without the snapping of a gun on either side, moving them through the country, and finally leaving them in Canada. I designed to have done the same thing again on a larger scale. That was all I intended. I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection.
I have another objection, and that is that it is unjust that I should suffer such a penalty. Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved - for I admire the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case - had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right. Every man in this Court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.
This Court acknowledges, too, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed, which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament, which 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 the 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, I did 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 say, let it be done.
Let me say one word further. I feel entirely satisfied with the treatment I have received on my trial. Considering all the circumstances, it has been more generous than I expected. But I feel no consciousness of guilt. I have stated from the first what was my intention, and what was not. I never had any design against the liberty of any person, nor any disposition to commit treason or incite slaves to rebel or make any general insurrection. I never encouraged any man to do so, but always discouraged any idea of that kind.
Let me say, also, in regard to the statements made by some of those who were connected with me, I hear it has been stated by some of them that I have induced them to join me. But the contrary is true. I do not say this to injure them, but as regretting their weakness. Not one but joined me of his own accord, and the greater part at his own expense. A number of them I never saw, and never had a word of conversation with, till the day they came to me, and that was for the purpose I have stated. Now, I have done.
~ Postlogue ~
John Brown was hanged at Charles Town, Va., (now West Virginia) on December 2, 1859. He immediately became a legend in which interest grew with the years.
The gentle Colonel Lee, meticulous I and firm as a military commander and probably chosen for this assignment by the War Department because of the correct manner in which he would handle it, served for two more years in the uniform he wore to Harper's Ferry.
Then, facing his own choice in the hard divisions over the many issues that divided the North and the South, he turned his own back on the government he served and went on to become the gallant leader of the foredoomed cause of the Confederacy. Robert E. Lee was never an orator or a public speaker. Perhaps what he felt was fairly summed up by a distinguished fellow Southerner, with gifts that might have carried him to the Presidency of the United States - Jefferson Davis. Instead, Davis, like Lee, went to the South, there to become the only president of a nation which never was.