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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 ...
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.
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.