“Was John Brown Insane?” – Dennis Frye

570 words


VIDEO: “Was John Brown Insane?” – Dennis Frye TRT: 4:45

Dennis Frye

Was John Brown insane? Well, I think it’s very important to put quotation marks around the word “insane,” because insanity, although it can be legally defined and it can also be analytically defined, you are an insane person and here is the prognosis to back that up – John Brown is much more complex. Now, you know the definition of “insanity” could go on and on and on. You and I could have a long debate about “what is insanity?” but, for John Brown, is cause “insanity?” This is the question.

Now you might say “it is indeed insane,” because what Brown is so focused on in life. He’s what we would refer to as a mono-maniac. He is so entranced and entrenched in one focus, one purpose. The only reason Brown exists – he will tell you this – is because he must dedicate his life to the termination, the elimination of slavery.

He will tell you that that’s not his mission. That’s God’s mission. God has told him that his mission in life is to eliminate slavery in the United States.

Now, is he insane because he’s listening to God? Is John Brown insane because he’s following God’s will?

Is Brown insane because he believes God is giving him direction?

This is what Brown bases his actions on. “God told me to do this.” Is that insanity?

Now Brown would argue he wasn’t insane. In fact, when he came to trial, the defense attorneys believed that the only way they could possibly save Brown from the gallows was through an insanity plea.

Otherwise, this man will lose his life. He will be executed. Brown fired his defense attorneys. He said: “I’m not going to have any of that. I mean, I am a sane person. I know what I’m doing. You may not agree with what I’m doing, but that doesn’t make me insane.” That’s a disagreement and so Brown fires his defense attorneys. The insanity plea is not presented and Brown defends himself; or it has other attorneys coming in from the north that defend him for his actions. Now, of course, he will be found guilty of murder, treason, slave insurrection

and he ultimately will pay the price: execution. But Brown felt that he was totally sane.

The country, in many respects, thought he was insane because

3:22 Brown put the law of the land beneath the law of God . . .

and for most people the law of the land is what you live by. The law of the land prevents anarchy, the law of the land prevents chaos, the law of the land gives discipline and order, the law of the land prevents killing or should help deter murder, the law of the land says you can’t commit treason, the law of the land says that slave insurrection is illegal.

So the battle became between man’s law, which can look at Brown and say: “you are insane for violating our laws, our common laws, our common protections, our commonality – and God’s law which said to Brown: “I have selected. You are the individual who will destroy slavery,” and so the question is, not so much over insanity. It’s more a question of the clash over morality: the clash of man’s law versus God’s law. Brown chose God’s law.


Frye, Dennis. “Was John Brown Insane?.” American Military University Civil War Scholars. 14 April 2011. Web. 2 May 2011. Posted:

Flickr Set:

File:John Brown Painting.JPG
“Tragic Prelude” by John Steuart Curry (Kansas State Capitol in Topeka). Wikipedia English. Latest update 27 Oct. 2009. Web. 2 May 2011.

“John Brown, 1872, Oil on canvas by Ole Peter Hansen Balling.”
Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. 11 June 2008. Web. 3 May 2011.

Strother, David H. “Drawings of David Hunter Strother.” West Virginia History Online Digital Collections. 9 Nov. 1999 Web. 10 Feb. 2011.