A talk at the African Meeting House - 31 Jan 2013
Early in the summer of 1859 a farm was rented about five miles from Harper’s Ferry. There John Brown collected his men and prepared for his coup. On the night of October 16 they descended upon Harper’s Ferry; took possession of the United States armories; imprisoned a number of the inhabitants; and persuaded a few slaves to join them. By noon militia companies arrived from nearby Charlestown and blocked his only road to escape. The next night a company of United States marines commanded by Col. Robert E. Lee appeared, and, at dawn, when Brown refused to surrender, stormed the engine-house in which Brown, his surviving men, and his prisoners were barricaded. Fighting with matchless coolness and courage over the body of his dying son, he was overpowered and arrested.
Ten men had been killed or mortally wounded, among them two of Brown’s own sons, and eleven captured in the assault.
The reporter of the New York Herald describes the scene during his cross-examination: “In the midst of enemies, whose home he had invaded; wounded, a prisoner, surrounded by a small army of officials, and a more desperate army of angry men; with the gallows staring him full in the face, he lay on the floor, and, in reply to every question, gave answers that betokened the spirit that animated him.” John Brown steadfastly insisted that a single purpose was behind all his actions: to free the Negroes, “the greatest service a man can render to God.” A bystander interrogated: “Do you consider yourself an instrument in the hands of Providence?”—“I do.”—“Upon what principle do you justify your acts?”—“Upon the golden rule. I pity the poor in bondage that have none to help them; that is why I am here; not to gratify my personal animosity, revenge, or vindictive spirit. It is my sympathy with the oppressed and the wronged, that are as good as you and as precious in the sight of God.”
Indicted for “treason to the Commonwealth” and “conspiring with slaves to commit treason and murder,” John Brown was promptly tried by a state court and sentenced to death.
During his stay in prison John Brown rose to the most heroic heights. His dignified bearing, his kindliness won his jailors, his captors, and his judges. His letters from the prison where he awaited execution were imbued with the same resolute determination and calm, conscious acceptance of his sacrifice in the cause of freedom, as the letters of Bartholomeo Vanzetti, his fellow revolutionist. To friends who contemplated his rescue, he answered: “I am worth infinitely more to die than to live.” To another he wrote: “I do not feel conscious of guilt in taking up arms; and had it been in behalf of the rich and powerful, the intelligent, the great—as men count greatness—of those who form enactments to suit themselves and corrupt others, or some of their friends, that I interfered, suffered, sacrificed and fell, it would have been doing very well.... These light afflictions which endure for a moment shall work out for me a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.... God will surely attend to his own cause in the best possible way and time, and he will not forget the work of his own hands.”
On December 2, 1859, a month after his sentence, fifteen hundred soldiers escorted John Brown to the scaffold in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains which had for so many years held out to him the promise of freedom for the slaves. With a single blow of the sheriff’s hatchet, he “hung between heaven and earth,” the first American executed for treason. The silence was shattered by the speech of the commander in charge. “So perish all such enemies of Virginia! All such enemies of the Union. All such foes of the human race!”
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