Dennis Frye – Did John Brown Succeed?

642 words (Frye)
970 words (John Brown’s final statement in court after verdict, before sentencing)

VIDEO: Dennis Frye – Did John Brown Succeed? TRT: 4:34

Dennis Frye

Did John Brown succeed? This is one of those great questions of history that historians still debate that the public still debates. You know, it all depends on the definition of success. John Brown himself would say that he did not succeed in the execution of his military plan – the plan to to move into southern states to free slaves using guerilla tactics to move them into the mountains and then move them north. He didn’t succeed in doing that. So, by that standard, Brown failed. He himself said that he was a failure with regard to what his plan was. He certainly didn’t get out of Harpers Ferry. The plan was to get out of Harpers Ferry. He didn’t succeed in capturing the weapons. Well, he actually did capture them, but he didn’t move them. He didn’t get them out of Harpers Ferry. He himself would be captured in Harpers Ferry. So, if you just finish him at Harpers Ferry, he’s a failure, an absolute failure. But the point is that Brown was not finished there. He was not killed. He survives and he is permitted to go on trial in Virginia. Indeed, he’s in prison, but during that trial, Brown wisely understands that he no longer has the sword to fight against slavery, but he’s got something much more powerful than the sword, and that’s the word. “The word let me preach against slavery, let me use this court, in this courtroom as my pulpit to attack slavery and let the world hear my words resonate.”

Virginians, being the civilized people as they like to think of themselves, allowed Brown to do this. They saw Brown as a barbarian. They saw Brown as an absolute traitor to humanity. They saw Brown as being beneath them, but they also understood that they needed to allow law to prevail. They felt that they could not possibly be assailed by anyone if the law was allowed to rise and to try John Brown. So Brown is tried for murder. People died during the raid. Treason: he wanted to create his own country in the deep south, and inciting slave rebellion – all of those are capital offenses and he was found guilty on all three counts. Of course, he would be executed, but all during that time Brown is allowed to write letters. He is allowed to conduct interviews; and, of course, in the court itself he will give a short but powerful and dynamic speech address, right after his sentencing on why he had come to Virginia and what his purpose was. Newspapers from all over the United States had correspondents in Charlestown to cover the John Brown trial. It was a sensation of its time and Brown’s words soon were read in papers from Boston to Atlanta, from New York to New Orleans and, depending on where you resided, you read those words differently. Depending on where you lived, you had a different understanding of John Brown and his intentions. I guess the way to answer John Brown and the question of did he succeed is to use Brown’s words himself on the day of his execution. He wrote out in longhand a note that he would hand to his jailer. He would give this to him before he would climb the scaffold. Ultimately the execution occurs on December the 2nd 1859, and after the execution, the jailer will recall that Brown had handed him something and he pulled it out of his pocket and he opened the note and he reads the final words of Brown and this is what it says: I, John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

The Court gave his decision on the motion for an arrest of judgment, overruling the objections made. In the objection that treason cannot be committed against a State, he ruled that wherever allegiance is due, treason may be committed. Most of the States have passed laws against treason. The objections as to the form of the verdict rendered, the Court also regarded as insufficient.

The Clerk then asked Mr. Brown whether he had anything to say why sentence should not be pronounced upon him.

Mr. Brown immediately rose, and in a clear, distinct voice, said:

“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 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 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. I have another objection, and that is that it is unjust that I should suffer such a penalty. Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved–for I admire the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case–had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right, and every man in this Court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment. This Court acknowledges, too, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed, which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament, which teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me further to remember them that are in bonds as bound with them. I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I any I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as

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I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done in behalf of His despised poor, is no wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood farther 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 say let it be done. Let me say one word further. I feel entirely satisfied with the treatment I have received on my trial. Considering all the circumstances, it has been more generous than I expected. But I feel no consciousness of guilt. I have stated from the first what was my intention, and what was not. I never had any design against the liberty of any person, nor any disposition to commit treason or excite slaves to rebel or make any general insurrection. I never encouraged any man to do so, but always discouraged any idea of that kind. Let me say also in regard to the statements made by some of those who were connected with me, I fear it has been stated by some of them that I have induced them to join me, but the contrary is true. I do not say this to injure them, but as regretting their weakness. Not one but Joined me of his own accord, and the greater part at their own expense. A number of them I never saw, and never had a word of conversation with till the day they came to me, and that was for the purpose I have stated. Now, I am done.”

While Mr. Brown was speaking, perfect quiet prevailed, and when he had finished the Judge proceeded to pronounce sentence upon him. After a few primary remarks, he said, that no reasonable doubt could exist of the guilt of the prisoner, and sentenced him W be hung in public, on Friday, the 2d of December next.

Mr. Brown received his sentence with composure.

The only demonstration made was by the clapping of the hands of one man in the crowd, who is not a resident of Jefferson County. This was promptly suppressed, and much regret is expressed by the citizens at its occurrence.

After being out an hour the Jury came in with a verdict that Coppie was guilty on all the counts in the indictment. His counsel gave notice of a motion for arrest of judgment, as in Mr. Brown’s case.

The Court then adjourned.



Including Cooke’s Confession, and all the Incidents of the Execution.


Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1859, by
In the Clerks’s Office of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York