John Brown's Trial

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Mixing idealism with violence, abolitionist John Brown cut a wide swath across the United States before winding up in Virginia, where he led an attack on the U.S. armory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Supported by a “provisional army” of 21 men, Brown hoped to rouse the slaves in Virginia to rebellion. But he was quickly captured and, after a short but stormy trial, hanged on December 2, 1859.

Brian McGinty provides the first comprehensive account of the trial, which raised important questions about jurisdiction, judicial fairness, and the nature of treason under the American constitutional system. After the jury returned its guilty verdict, an appeal was quickly disposed of, and the governor of Virginia refused to grant clemency. Brown met his death not as an enemy of the American people but as an enemy of Southern slaveholders.

Historians have long credited the Harpers Ferry raid with rousing the country to a fever pitch of sectionalism and accelerating the onset of the Civil War. McGinty sees Brown’s trial, rather than his raid, as the real turning point in the struggle between North and South. If Brown had been killed in Harpers Ferry (as he nearly was), or condemned to death in a summary court-martial, his raid would have had little effect. Because he survived to stand trial before a Virginia judge and jury, and argue the case against slavery with an eloquence that reverberated around the world, he became a symbol of the struggle to abolish slavery and a martyr to the cause of freedom.

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Editorial Reviews

Steven Lubet
John Brown's Trial is an important book on an important subject. Brian McGinty's impressive research sheds much new light on a crucial--and previously underappreciated--event in American legal history.
Frank J. Williams
There have been many books about John Brown, but none provides as comprehensive an account of the famous trial as does McGinty's. His well-written narrative is compelling and lucid. I especially appreciated his analysis of whether Brown received a fair trial. Here is another winner from the author of Lincoln and the Court.
Thomas J. Craughwell
McGinty casts the spotlight on one of the great courtroom dramas of the nineteenth century, the trial of John Brown. This is Brown as we have never seen him before--not the martyr, nor the fanatic, but a man in complete control, who manages to transform his treason trial into a searing indictment of slavery in America.
Roanoke Times - Doug Cumming
[McGinty] so judiciously arrays the facts and law of the four-day trial in a Western Virginia courtroom, we are given a fresh perspective on the meaning of John Brown...McGinty's narrative is not confined to the trial and the legal issues of his argument. All the fascinating details are here, from Brown's background to the poetic legacy...Worth reading.
Roanoke Times

[McGinty] so judiciously arrays the facts and law of the four-day trial in a Western Virginia courtroom, we are given a fresh perspective on the meaning of John Brown...McGinty's narrative is not confined to the trial and the legal issues of his argument. All the fascinating details are here, from Brown's background to the poetic legacy...Worth reading.
— Doug Cumming

Publishers Weekly
You'd think little new could be said about one of the most famous trials in American history. But McGinty (Lincoln and the Court) comes to his work as attorney as well as historian. The result is a fresh perspective on the trial of John Brown, a work that adds appreciably to our understanding of the coming of the Civil War. Brown's trial, after his 1859 attack on the federal arsenal in Harper's Ferry, Va. , caused a sensation for its bold challenge to slavery. McGinty makes clear that it was Brown's conduct and words during the trial itself, for treason against Virginia, more than his armed assault that made him a hero for many Northerners, and even some Southerners admired his courage. McGinty takes us carefully, if sometimes tediously, through the short trial. The author's legal knowledge illuminates the proceedings' intricacies and shortcomings, and reveals how Brown's brief closing statement, considered among the most eloquent words in the nation's history, had a more lasting impact than his armed raid. Brown's statement, writes McGinty, “transformed his public image from that of a violent fanatic into one of a public hero.” McGinty makes a strong and plausible case. 19 b&w illus. (Oct.)
Library Journal
McGinty (Lincoln and the Court) gives us a detailed account of the trial and execution of abolitionist John Brown in 1859 for his raid on Harpers Ferry. Through studying the trial records, period newspapers, and accounts by trial participants, the author raises several important points regarding the fairness of the proceedings. First, the Commonwealth of Virginia tried Brown even though the Harpers Ferry arsenal was the property of the federal government. The prosecutor, Andrew Hunter, had had a relative by marriage who was killed by Brown's men, a factor that should have removed him from the trial. Both of Brown's original defense attorneys had witnessed the raid. After the jury returned the guilty verdict, Brown's appeals were quickly denied, and Governor Henry Wise of Virginia refused to grant clemency. In short, the government of Virginia was determined to be rid of Brown. The results, however, went against Virginia and the South: Brown's eloquent defense of his actions, denunciation of slavery, and execution transformed him into a symbol for the end of slavery. VERDICT McGinty has written an important account emphasizing Brown's trial rather than the raid itself as a significant turning point in the struggle between North and South prior to the Civil War. Recommended for all readers interested in the Civil War.—Stephen L. Hupp, West Virginia Univ. Lib., Parkersburg
The Barnes & Noble Review
Eight days after the militant abolitionist John Brown was arrested while raiding the federal armory at Harpers Ferry in 1859, he stood trial for treason and murder in a Virginia court. Brian McGinty persuasively contends that Brown's trial was even more consequential than the raid itself -- for had he died during the fighting, he would have been easier to ignore. But with the prosecution came an opportunity to defend, coolly and eloquently, his audacious attack on slavery, transforming him from kook to martyr -- the "meteor of the war," in Melville's phrase. McGinty offers a concise and engaging survey of the trial, but despite his enthusiasm, it presented only one legally interesting issue: whether Virginia could prosecute a non-resident for treason, since that crime is defined as the betrayal of an allegiance -- and a non-resident presumably owes none. The trial's real significance was in human and political terms. Reporters arrived from all over the country, and one of the pleasures of John Brown's Trial is its fine collection of their lithographs and courtroom sketches. Brown took full responsibility for his actions, deploring his court-appointed lawyers' attempts to have him declared insane and insisting that he was right to "interfere" with slavery, even violently. After the jury found him guilty and before the judge sentenced him to hang, Brown rose and made one of the great courtroom speeches in American history -- Emerson ranked it alongside the Emancipation Proclamation -- culminating in these unrepentant words:
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.
--Michael O'Donnell
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674035171
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 10/15/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Brian McGinty is an attorney and writer specializing in American history and law.
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Table of Contents

  • Introduction

  1. To Free the Slaves
  2. Carrying the War into Africa
  3. Framing the Charges
  4. The Indictment
  5. The Jury Is Summoned
  6. The Testimony Begins
  7. The Name and the Shadow of a Fair Trial
  8. The Quiet Was Deceptive
  9. The Verdict
  10. The Sentence
  11. The Execution
  12. Marching On

  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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