Robert McHenry: John Brown's Body

Roundup: Talking About History

[Robert McHenry is a former editor-in-chief of Encyclopaedia Britannica and author of How to Know.]

We’ve just passed another of those anniversaries that I am wont to write about, this one rather more somber than many. On October 16, 1859, a strange man by the name of John Brown and 18 or 20 followers occupied the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). Their idea was to seize arms for a proposed guerrilla base in the mountains from which freed slaves and their white allies could mount raids on slaveholding areas nearby and liberate more slaves. For some reason they remained in the arsenal, holding hostages, and were then surrounded by local Virginia militia. One of the soldiers serving in that militia was John Wilkes Booth. On October 18th a company of U.S. Marines under the command of Col. Robert E. Lee retook the arsenal. Brown and his surviving men were captured. A week later Brown was indicted for treason.

John Brown was one of those eccentric, self-driven men who pop up in history when some mania propels them into the light. He had been, in conventional terms, a failure most of his life. In his 40s he had little to show but 20 children and a mountain of debt. Then he involved himself in the antislavery cause, and everything changed. In 1855 he moved to Kansas, and the following year his involvement in the Pottawatomie Massacre established his Free-Soil leadership and his notoriety. Abolitionist sympathizers, especially in and around Boston, subscribed his plan for provoking a general slave uprising, and Harpers Ferry was the consequence.

He refused to plead insanity at his trial in Charlestown. Upon being convicted on November 2, he addressed the court thus:

I have, may it please the Court, a few words to say.

In the first place, I deny everything but what I have all along admitted, of a design on my part to free the 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, moved them through the country, and finally leaving them in Canada. I designed to have done the same thing again, on a larger scale. That was all I intended to do. I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite the slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection…....

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