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The Tribunal: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid

The Tribunal: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid

by John Stauffer (Editor), Zoe Trodd (Editor)

When John Brown led twenty-one men in an attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry on October 16, 1859, he envisioned a biblical uprising of millions of armed bondsmen, thus ridding the nation of the scourge of slavery. The insurrection did not happen, and Brown and the other surviving raiders were quickly captured and executed. This landmark anthology, which


When John Brown led twenty-one men in an attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry on October 16, 1859, he envisioned a biblical uprising of millions of armed bondsmen, thus ridding the nation of the scourge of slavery. The insurrection did not happen, and Brown and the other surviving raiders were quickly captured and executed. This landmark anthology, which collects contemporary speeches, letters, newspaper articles, journals, poems, and songs, demonstrates that Brown’s actions nonetheless altered the course of American history.

John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd have assembled an impressive and wide-ranging collection of responses to Brown’s raid: Brown’s own words, northern and southern reactions, international commentary, and reflections from the Civil War and Reconstruction era. Represented here are all the figures one would expect to see (Lincoln, Thoreau, Frederick Douglass), many surprises (John Wilkes Booth, Karl Marx, Giuseppe Garibaldi), as well as free and enslaved blacks and white citizens. The result is a book that views Brown from multiple vantage points.

The Introduction describes the panic that Harpers Ferry created in the South, splitting the Democratic Party along sectional lines and altering the outcome of the 1860 presidential election. Without Brown, it speculates, the Civil War and emancipation would have been delayed by another four years—probably more—which in turn might have disrupted emancipation movements in Brazil, Cuba, and even Russia. The Tribunal is essential reading for anyone interested in the Civil War era and the history of social protest movements.

Editorial Reviews

John Burt
Beautifully, even lyrically written, The Tribunal shows the kind of even judgment that can only arise from long immersion in the materials. The editors are aware of how complex a figure Brown is, and how easy it would be, but also how fatal, to take a tendentious line about him.
R. Blakeslee Gilpin
The Tribunal is an illuminating and indispensable resource. The responses themselves are truly the best that history has to offer on John Brown … a dynamic and vibrant collection.
Wall Street Journal - David S. Reynolds
The life of John Brown, the militant abolitionist who helped trigger the Civil War by waging a holy war against slavery in the 1850s, raises provocative questions. Not least: Can someone who murders for a noble cause be embraced as a heroic freedom fighter? ...The Tribunal: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid, skillfully edited by John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd, allows us to experience firsthand the debate that Brown generated during his lifetime. Reprinted in this bountiful volume are dozens of 19th-century writings--letters, speeches, articles, poems, diary entries--that bring this important debate alive...[It] demonstrates just how central John Brown was to the cultural and political life of his time. Included in the book are powerful writings about Brown by some of the century's most notable people: Walt Whitman, Henry Ward Beecher, Jefferson Davis, Herman Melville, Stephen Douglas, Louisa May Alcott, Victor Hugo and Karl Marx, to name a few...The Tribunal doesn't whitewash Brown. To the contrary, it recognizes his flaws and provides a broad sampling of just criticism. But it reveals as well that those most hostile toward Brown were pro-slavery types who felt threatened by his forward-looking views. Some of Brown's strongest defenders were people like Thoreau, who had formerly espoused nonresistance but who came to realize that only violence could uproot an institution so deeply entrenched as slavery...Stauffer and Trodd should be commended for making available so many documents that were formerly hard to find and that reveal so much about this key figure in American history. The Tribunal confirms what has become increasingly clear in recent years: To understand America fully, we would do well to reflect on John Brown-on what he stood for and the ideals he embodied for some of the nation's deepest thinkers.
Times Literary Supplement - Stephanie McCurry
In the current climate, 500 pages on John Brown is a shock and a tonic. Few men in American history (other than Lincoln) are so subject to myth-making as the militant abolitionist who attacked Harpers Ferry, Virginia in October 1859...The documents reward reading, none more so than those written by Brown himself.
New York Review of Books - Christopher Benfey
The voices assembled in The Tribunal include Northern abolitionists and Southern slaveholders, a Union spy and a Confederate assassin, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, influential international figures like Karl Marx and Victor Hugo, journalists, poets, soldiers, and widows, along with Hawthorne, Whittier, Emerson, and Thoreau...[A] valuable compilation.
Choice - R. Walsh
With The Tribunal, Stauffer and Trodd have assembled a fantastic collection of speeches, letters, newspaper articles, and journal entries that respond to one of the most significant antebellum moments. Following an erudite overview that proffers an excellent introduction to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid of October 1859...This impressive collection is a welcome addition to the study of this period.
New Republic - Andrew Delbanco
Stauffer's and Trodd's main contribution is to provide a convenient assemblage of documents illustrating how Brown's action accelerated the mutual alienation between North and South, but their book is valuable also for its selection of responses from abroad, including comments by Marx, Garibaldi, and John Stuart Mill.
Modern Intellectual History - Richard H. King
John Stauffer’s and Zoe Trodd’s The Tribunal is an invaluable resource for understanding Brown and his apotheosis. Their long introduction of forty pages is a model of clarity and usefulness. Its essential thesis is that although John Brown’s raid was a military failure, it was a political success, not in helping moderate but in exacerbating the sectional crisis.
Library Journal
No one is likely to have the last word on John Brown, the abolitionist and leader of the 1859 Harpers Ferry raid that cut to the marrow of the slavery question and convinced many Southerners that the North had gone mad and wanted to incite slave rebellion. However, this superb collection of documents comes very close to doing so. In the wide sweep of texts collected here—150 speeches, editorials, letters to editors, pamphlets, poems, songs, and more, each neatly set in historical context by the editors—Northerners, Southerners, and foreign commentators are shown to be, in Frederick Douglass's phrase, both "curious and contradictory" in weighing the meaning of John Brown and his act. The documents display a mixture of awe and anger, hope and horror, at the man, especially after he went bravely to the gallows proclaiming the justice of his cause. And, as the documents further attest, Brown and his raid remained contentious in history and myth thereafter. VERDICT To understand the power of conviction and the crisis of fear that brought on civil war, reading this brilliant collection is essential. From it, one will see that John Brown is not a-moldering in his grave. He haunts us yet today.—Randall M. Miller, St. Joseph's Univ., Philadelphia

Product Details

Publication date:
John Harvard Library Series , #100
Product dimensions:
6.60(w) x 9.30(h) x 2.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Introduction: The Meaning and Significance of John Brown

On October 16, 1859, John Brown launched an attack against the institution of slavery. With a band of five black men and sixteen whites he captured the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, about 60 miles northwest of Washington, D.C. The band was overpowered early in the morning on October 18, and Brown was tried for murder, treason and conspiring to incite a slave insurrection.

In a letter of November 28, written in prison four days before his execution on December 2, Brown pondered the other “tribunal” that would judge him. “The great bulk of mankind estimate each other’s actions and motives by the measure of success or otherwise that attends them through life,” he noted. “I leave it to an impartial tribunal to decide whether the world has been the worse or the better of my living and dying in it.” Two days later, Brown returned in his last family prison letter to the theme of posterity and made one last effort to shape his own image for the “tribunal,” telling his readers to feel no shame on his behalf, to receive him as martyr and to recognize his example and teach it to their children. By December 2, he was dead.

The retrospective “tribunal” that he imagined in prison has been far from “impartial.” Immediately after his raid and death, Brown became one of the most contentious figures in American culture, a national symbol embodying contradictions: a Christ-like hero and satanic demon, a martyr and madman, a meteor of peace and of war. In the 150 years since his raid, Americans have continued to view Brown’s legacy, and his relation to American values, with a deep sense of ambivalence. For some he has been the nation’s archetypal freedom fighter; for most, a dangerous fanatic, to be relegated to the historical dustbin with a corps of other easily forgotten quixotic madmen.

Renewed interest in John Brown spiked in the wake of 9/11. More than at any other period since the Civil War, he has become an exemplary figure representing both the American commitment to freedom and the dangers posed to that commitment by religiously inspired terrorism. On the 150th anniversary of Brown’s execution, the journalist and Brown biographer Tony Horwitz called Harpers Ferry “the 9/11 of 1859” and Brown “the most successful terrorist in American history.” This was, of course, a loaded analogy. Horwitz did not mean to demonize Brown; instead he sought to complicate a contemporary political discourse in which terror was treated as the exclusive instrument of America’s enemies. If the analogy was historically a bit misleading—few contemporaries called Brown a “terrorist” (“fanatic” being the more favored term of abuse)—it nevertheless demonstrated the extent to which his legacy continues to unsettle Americans.

Meet the Author

John Stauffer is Chair of History of American Civilization and Professor of English and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, and the author of Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.

Zoe Trodd is Professor of American Literature at the University of Nottingham.

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