Speech to the Court that Sentenced Him to Death Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

On 2 November 1859, John Brown stood before a Virginia courtroom. The standing was itself dramatic. All the while Brown had been on trial–since October 25–he had been lying on a cot, injured and unable to sit. Brown, a man of fifty-nine years, was in this condition because in the previous weeks he had led a band of men to assault the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, believing that it would inspire a slave uprising in the heart of the slave-holding South. Brown’s plan failed; he was caught and put on trial. After a quick trial, he was sentenced to death. When asked if he had a response, Brown stood and delivered a direct speech that denied the charges against him and justified his active opposition to slavery. Brown’s speech, coupled with his actions, would send shockwaves through both the North and the South and push both sections down the road to Civil War.

Summary Overview

On 2 November 1859, John Brown stood before a Virginia courtroom. The standing was itself dramatic. All the while Brown had been on trial–since October 25–he had been lying on a cot, injured and unable to sit. Brown, a man of fifty-nine years, was in this condition because in the previous weeks he had led a band of men to assault the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, believing that it would inspire a slave uprising in the heart of the slave-holding South. Brown’s plan failed; he was caught and put on trial. After a quick trial, he was sentenced to death. When asked if he had a response, Brown stood and delivered a direct speech that denied the charges against him and justified his active opposition to slavery. Brown’s speech, coupled with his actions, would send shockwaves through both the North and the South and push both sections down the road to Civil War.

Defining Moment

John Brown’s “Speech to the Court” gained great traction because of the moment in which it occurred in the late 1850s, a time of moral and political argument over slavery. Americans North and South passionately considered both the practical question of slavery’s expansion and the moral question of slavery’s existence in the nation.

These moral concerns were strongly charged by religious convictions. As American Christianity had appealed to the common man in the preceding decades, it had simultaneously shaped attitudes while opening itself up to multiple interpretations. A “democratic” Christianity opened up Scriptural interpretation and application to everyone, whether they were formally trained or not. When conclusions differed, as they invariably did, religious passions ran high. Southerners, for example, had developed a defense of slavery which they believed was rooted in the Bible. A different reading of the Bible produced a strong religious anti-slavery. Christian anti-slavery provided a compelling motivation to oppose and work against slavery. This could take various forms, from the extremes of William Lloyd Garrison to the more tempered convictions of Massachusetts abolitionists to the willingness of evangelical students at Oberlin College in Ohio to resist the Fugitive Slave Law.

For some anti-slavery supporters, opposing slavery meant freeing slaves. From this developed the Underground Railroad, an arrangement of helping southern slaves run away and then hiding them and aiding their escape through northern states to Canada. Although Harriet Tubman might be the best known “conductor” of the Railroad, much work was done by individual citizens scattered throughout the North.

Politically, the tensions of the 1850s often were expressed over questions of slavery’s expansion, especially into Kansas Territory. The Kansas question produced both a political battleground and a physical battleground on which pro- and anti-slavery forces squared off. Politically, the debate began when Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois advanced the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), which would open both Kanas and Nebraska territories to the possibility of slavery on the grounds of “popular sovereignty,” allowing citizens in those territories to decide about slavery. Once citizens began to move into Kansas, they quickly produced two opposing state constitutions, a Lecompton Constitution which was pro-slavery and a Lawrence Constitution which opposed it. In the debates over how to proceed with Kansas, violence broke out in the Capitol. When abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner declaimed about “The Crime against Kansas,” he insulted several Southern senators, including Andrew Butler of South Carolina. A relative of Butler, Preston Brooks, grew so enraged that he marched into the Senate chamber and began beating Sumner on the head with his cane.

Not only did violence erupt in Congress; it came quickly to Kansas. Both Northerners and Southerners wanted to populate Kansas with representatives of their side. Such a goal was easier for Southerners, since slave-holding Missouri was adjacent. Often, Missourians would go into Kansas briefly to influence a political decision or enact violence on their opponents. Northerners, meanwhile, organized emigration campaigns to plant anti-slavery advocates in Kansas. They also sent them armed. Rev. Henry Ward Beecher’s congregation in New York became famous for sending “Beecher’s Bibles,” namely rifles shipped in boxes marked “Bibles.” The resulting conflict led to violence throughout the territory, earning the title “Bleeding Kansas.” In this violence, which occurred on both sides, John Brown played a part.

Finally, as abolitionists opposed slavery, they grew concerned about the possibility of unchecked slave expansion, due to the Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott vs. Sandford (1857). The decision ruled against Dred Scott, who claimed that his living in free territory for a number of years guaranteed his freedom. Chief Justice Roger Taney’s decision pronounced the constitutional right for slaveholders to take their slaves anywhere in the nation. The implication was that there was nothing a state or territory could do to stop the spread of slavery, even if the citizens desired it. The Dred Scott decision raised anti-slavery passions everywhere, and it motivated an Illinois lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, to grow increasingly invested in Republican politics.

Put together, these forces meant anti-slavery forces felt both highly motivated to oppose slavery yet threatened if they did so. They appeared to be fighting for a just cause in the face of both political and judicial opposition. The moral right of their cause, however, suggested their justification in taking increasingly extreme actions against slavery.

Author Biography

It is against this background that John Brown’s life and actions can be better understood. Born in obscurity in 1800, Brown may not have seemed the character that could disrupt the entire Union. He spent much of his life in New England and Ohio and followed a partially-successful career as a tanner. In religious matters, he cultivated an unbending commitment to morally upright activity. His knowledge of the Scriptures was vast, but his preference ran to the more severe passages of the Old Testament, with an affinity for the dramatic words and deeds of the Prophets.

In the late 1840s and early 1850s, his actions drew him more and more into abolitionist activity, especially in Kansas as the battleground over slavery. Brown joined a free soil militia in 1855, but he soon took matters into his own hands. Enraged over a pro-slavery attack on Lawrence, Brown decided to enact his own vengeance. In May 1856, he and his sons kidnapped five of their pro-slavery neighbors (who had not been involved in the violence) along Pottawatomie Creek and then proceeded to murder them with broadswords. Although Brown’s property was burned, he escaped legal proceedings and slipped off the scene.

Between 1856 and 1859, Brown kept a lower profile. Significantly, in 1858 he led a band into Missouri which liberated eleven slaves. In the process, another team led by Aaron Stevens killed a slaveholder, David Cruise. Brown also traveled between Kansas and New England, raising funds for the free soil cause in Kansas. He thereby developed contacts with leading abolitionists, who came to believe in him and his plans. Brown became close to Frederick Douglass, although Douglass discouraged him from making his doomed 1859 raid. More significant were a group of wealthy abolitionists who supported Brown and would come to be called “the Secret Six”: Gerrit Smith, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Theodore Parker, Samuel Gridley Howe, George L. Stearns, and Franklin B. Sanborn. These six would bankroll Brown’s most audacious plan yet, to execute the Missouri rescue on a much larger scale, setting slaves free and setting up a pocket of slave resistance in the Appalachian mountains of the South. The launching point of this campaign would be Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.

Brown hoped that he could seize the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry and use those weapons to arm the slaves of the region who would rise up, flee, and come together under Brown’s leadership. Brown rented a farm in Maryland and gathered a force that he believed would start the uprising–twenty-two men, three of whom were his sons.

Brown’s preparation for the raid neglected most important logistical concerns–it barely went beyond capturing the armory. He did not even warn the region’s slaves of when the uprising was to happen. When Brown triggered the raid on October 16, he and his men quickly captured the armory, but nothing else happened. Slaves did not rise up, and they quickly came under fire by local residents and militia. They were overwhelmed inside the armory on the 18th by a company of marines, led by future Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart. Brown was taken to prison and a quick trial ordered.

Document Analysis

In John Brown’s “Speech to the Court ,” he attempted to accomplish two purposes: denial and assertion. A large segment of the speech involved denying the charges leveled against him and testimony made during the trial. The second part of the speech consisted of religious assertions about slavery. Brown performed a political sermonette before the court. With these words, and Brown’s final message on the way to the gallows, students in the present can see what Brown believed he was doing and hear the words which he hoped would galvanize resistance to slavery.

Brown’s first large purpose was to deny the legal charges brought against him. In his first paragraph he bluntly stated, “I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection.” Whereas the court had charged him with these crimes and sentenced him to death for them, Brown attempted to distance himself from the guilt the court had found. Instead, Brown claimed that he had all along admitted of only one thing: “a design on my part to free slaves.” Brown claimed that his had been a type of Underground Railroad mission “on a larger scale.” In this he compared it to the rescue mission he had been a part of the year before, in Missouri. In that case, he boasted that he had rescued slaves “without the snapping of a gun on either side.” Brown thus decried violence for its own sake and expressed his belief that he could facilitate slave rescues without either violence or upsetting the social and political order.

Near the end of his address, Brown returned to the point of denying claims against him. He first repeated the denials he had made at first. Since he did not consider those charges against him accurate, he felt “no consciousness of guilt.” He then denied testimony made against him, specifically that he had recruited his compatriots. Under oath, some of them had stated “that I [Brown] have induced them to join me.” Brown denied any encouragement to his co-conspirators. He stated each came to him “of his own accord, and the greater part at their own expense.” Further, he claimed that he had had minimal contact with many of them before their meeting for the operation; some he “never had a word of conversation with” before their meeting.

Taking a step back, however, Brown’s denials ring hollow on at least three fronts. Most importantly his claim that his slave rescue had nothing to do with treason, slave insurrection, or violence would make no sense to Southerners–or even to most unbiased observers. Brown had led the way to assault the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. In so doing, he had challenged an installation of the federal government, without authorization. By attacking federal property, he had set himself against federal authority, directly challenged the government, and committed treason. Such actions for whatever purpose could not be tolerated. To Southerners, Brown threatened an even greater violence. Any attack–especially a planned, coordinated attack–on the practice of slavery would be perceived as an attack on the institution as a whole. If the racial order broke down violently, Southerners truly feared a racial war. Further, in arming escaped slaves, Brown was aiding a type of slave insurrection. Second, Brown claimed that his earlier expedition into Missouri had succeeded without violence. This could be true only on the narrowest of grounds. Brown’s party escaped without violence, but the larger effort had included the killing of the slaveholder Cruise. Thus every slave rescue had the potential for violence. Finally, Brown’s compatriots may have come of their own free will, but Brown could be incredibly convincing. Those who knew him knew he had tremendous charisma, coupled with a firm sense of rightness. Relatedly, even those Brown did not meet until the last minute were recruited from somewhere. Moreover, it was Brown who had organized the party, making him responsible for its ultimate composition. As a result of all of these factors, Brown’s denials may have stood up in his own mind, but they faltered in the face of other evidence.

A Political Sermonette

Brown, however, was interested in more than denying charges; he came to the court prepared to make positive claims about what he had done and why. He thus launched into a political sermonette, which combined American political ideals with Biblical language for a potent portrayal of the extreme anti-slavery position.

Brown began this section with a basic claim about political justice. “[I]t is unjust that I should suffer such a penalty,” he claimed. He then explained why he believed this to be so. Justice was related to fairness and equality of treatment, which the presence of slavery flatly denied. His attempt at a slave rescue should be hailed as heroic, rather than treasonous. For, according to Brown, “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,” his actions would have been fully approved. When those same deeds were spent on behalf of slaves and then condemned by society, the inequality and injustice of a slave society was laid bare.

Appeals to justice and equal treatment had a long pedigree in American society. Calls for equal treatment had their roots in Jeffersonian Republicanism and by the 1850s were accepted throughout American political culture. That they did not extend to slaves was to Brown a marker of extreme political hypocrisy. Further, this inequality of treatment pointed to injustice, and an unjust law could be broken. Abolitionists had reached this position in the face of their frustrated attempts to fight slavery. In so doing, they combined with other thinkers, such as Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau had so objected to the Mexican War that he had refused to pay a poll tax. His resulting reflections in On Civil Disobedience leant one more justification for abolitionists to question the legal regime–and on its outer edge to support Brown’s insurrection.

Brown’s claim was not only political, however; it reached to Scriptural injunctions. Brown, in looking around the courtroom, observing “a book kissed, which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament.” From this he drew the lesson that the court acknowledged “the validity of the law of God.” If this was so, then Brown felt confident in stringing together biblical passages that supported his position. He began with the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:14) and suggested that slaves were every bit as entitled to the fair and self-regarding treatment as others. The principle of doing unto others as you would be done by, acknowledged universally, Brown believed inescapably pointed to opposition to slavery. Next, he quoted Hebrews 13:3, a command to “Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” Brown believed he was fully following “that instruction”–just as he suggested that his persecutors were not. Finally, he denied that God “is any respecter of persons,” which he drew from Acts 10:34. If God saw no difference between black and white, how could Americans? Put together, these biblical passages argued for an ending to slavery. If an unjust society would not do it, Brown felt compelled to take the lead in helping better the lot of God’s “despised poor.” In so doing, by forfeiting his life and mingling his blood with the slaves, Brown would be suffering as a Christ-like figure, dying for others’ rescue. These were weighty words, and they resonated across the North, far beyond the courtroom audience.

The Prophecy

Finally, we should note Brown’s last message, a prophecy of doom. As he was being led to the scaffold on December 2, he handed to his captors this final message: “I, John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land: will never be purged away; but with Blood. I had as I now think: vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed; it might be done.” The theme of blood , which had played a role in his “Speech to the Court,” now returned with pithy vengeance. Blood being shed to purge a land of guilt had strong Old Testament origins, with its record of animal sacrifices. For American Christians, those ideas of blood found even greater weight in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Now Brown, about to be executed, could call upon the weight of bloodshed. Undoubtedly he believed his blood would contribute to that effect. Further, he now testified to his belief that even more bloodshed would be necessary, perhaps a great deal more. Although he could not articulate how, perhaps he believed that his sacrifice would start the flow of blood which would cleanse the nation of its slavery-induced guilt. In no small way, he succeeded in that goal.

Essential Themes

Brown’s prediction of “Blood” was a prophecy that his own actions did much to make come true. In the North, Brown was hailed as a saint and a martyr. His scriptural argumentation against slavery spoke to many Northern Protestants. He was welcomed as a martyr, his saintliness being confirmed by his willingness to give up his life for the just cause of freeing slaves. By contrast, in the South, Brown was condemned as a violent madman. Brown became the face of abolitionism, as a man who would instigate rebellion, treason against the federal government, and ultimately race war–the continuing nightmare for the white South. Each section was then shocked by the opposing interpretation of the other. As they compared their beliefs, the interpretation of John Brown was one more wedge between the sections. His actions had increased the divisions, making Civil War of greater likelihood.

Once the Civil War began, John Brown’s sacrifice helped motivate Union enlistment. Although many soldiers fought simply to preserve the Union, many others saw in the War a righteous crusade to end slavery. Brown’s death embodied the type of sacrifice they might be asked to undergo. The connection between Brown’s actions and the larger Union cause might be typified by a doggerel marching song: “John Brown’s body lies a’mouldering in the grave, but his truth is marching on!” Julia Ward Howe, however, took the melody and some of the sentiments and from it produced “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” This more classical song portrayed the Union sacrifices as Christ-like and redemptive–and carried Brown’s vision forward into the future.

  • McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford UP, 1988. Print.
  • Potter, David M. The Impending Crisis, 1848–1861. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. Print.
  • Reynolds, David S. John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights. New York: Knopf, 2005. Print.
  • Villard, Oswald Garrison. John Brown, 1800–1859: A Biography Fifty Years After. 1910, reprint, Gloucester: Peter Smith, 1965. Print.
Additional Reading
  • De Caro, Jr., Louis A. Fire from the Midst of You: A Religious Life of John Brown. New York: New York University Press, 2002. Print.
  • Guelzo, Allen. Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. Print.
  • Noll, Mark. America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. New York: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.
  • Oates, Stephen B. The Approaching Fury: Voices of the Storm, 1820–1861. New York: HarperPerennial, 1998. Print.
  • Oates, Stephen B. To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown. New York: Harper & Row, 1970. Print.
  • Rossbach, Jeffery. Ambivalent Conspirators: John Brown, the Secret Six, and a Theory of Slave Violence. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press, 1982. Print.
  • Stauffer, John and Benjamin Soskis. The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song that Marches On. New York: Oxford UP, 2013. Print.
  • Varon, Elizabeth. Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789–1859. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina Press, 2008.
Categories: History