The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History Advanced Placement United States History Study Guide

Period 5: 1844-1877

John Brown’s final speech, 1859

 John Brown, “Address of John Brown to the Virginia Court..." December, 1859 (Gilder Lehrman Collection)

On Sunday evening, October 16, 1859, radical abolitionist John Brown led a party of twenty-one men into the town of Harpers Ferry, Virginia, with the intention of seizing the federal arsenal there. Encountering no resistance, Brown’s men seized the arsenal, an armory, and a rifle works. Brown then sent out several detachments to round up hostages and liberate slaves.

Brown’s plan soon went awry. Angry townspeople and local militia companies trapped his men in the armory. About twenty-four hours later, US troops commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee arrived and stormed the engine house. Five of Brown’s party escaped, ten were killed, and seven, including Brown himself, were taken prisoner. Brown was tried in a Virginia court, although he had attacked federal property.

The trial’s high point came at its end when Brown was permitted to make a speech, which appears on this broadside printed in December 1859 by the abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator. In his address, Brown asserted that he “never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite Slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection,” but rather wanted only to “free Slaves.” He defended his actions as righteous and just, saying that “to have interfered as I have done—In behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong but right.”

Brown also told the court that he was at peace with his actions and their consequences, proclaiming: “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 submit; so LET IT BE DONE.”

Brown’s speech convinced many northerners that this grizzled man of fifty-nine was not an extremist but rather a martyr to the cause of freedom.

The Virginia court, however, found him guilty of treason, conspiracy, and murder, and he was sentenced to die. Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859, and his body was buried on his family farm at North Elba, New York.

A full transcript is available.

Excerpt

In the first place, I deny every thing but what I have already 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 desired to have done the same thing again, on a much 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.

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