The Trial of John Brown Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice . . . in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments—I submit; so let it be done!”

Summary Overview

This article focuses on two excerpts from John Brown’s interrogation, trial, and sentencing in the fall of 1859, after a failed slave rebellion led by Brown in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (today in West Virginia). The first section, set in Harpers Ferry, is from the interrogation and consists of a series of questions about his actions and motivations and Brown’s answers to his captors. Arrested and eventually put on trial for treason and attempting to begin an insurrection and a slave rebellion, John Brown defended himself and the men he led, stating that he only did what he believed to be right and that slavery was wrong and needed to be stopped. The second section is his last speech to the court in Charlestown, Virginia, just before his execution. In this speech, he reprimands the court for its hypocrisy, but also praises the witnesses and those involved for their honest and fair treatment of his case. The two sections reveal John Brown’s character and intent for the failed rebellion. Even his attempt was futile, his life and trial stand as a defining moment in American history.

Defining Moment

The trial of John Brown is one of the famous trials in American history. Before the Civil War started in 1861, the North and South had spent years passing legislation to promote their own interests and building their contempt for one another’s way of life. John Brown grew up in this environment of unease and distrust between the two sections of the United States. While the Civil War was not fought over slavery alone, slavery was a defining issue that led to the South wanting to break away from the Union, and John Brown, as an extremist, contributed to the polarization of the Southern and Northern points of view. Instead of seeing slavery as simply an unjust part of life, Brown deemed slaveholders to be wicked and dedicated his life to stopping them from infringing on the rights of their slaves. This came to a head at in October 1859, when he and twenty-one other would-be liberators seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in an effort to arm enslaved blacks. While they were successful in taking over the town and arsenal, even taking sixty hostages, the insurrection never came to pass. Brown’s small militant band was quickly decimated by local militia and federal troops, and the survivors were captured and tried for their crimes. At trial, Brown said that he was willing to die in order to shine light upon the injustices being done to slaves by “wicked, cruel, and unjust” laws. These excerpts from the trial show a man who was willing to die for what he believed in, and that fortitude rallied others with similar beliefs and terrified Southerners, who began to see all Northerners as supporters of John Brown.

The first excerpt in this section is a part of Brown’s interrogation by the Marines who put down his revolt at Harpers Ferry; its intended audience was his interrogators, but the prosecutor, judge, and the rest of those who were trying him most likely had access to this information as well. The second part of the excerpt was his final speech to the court before he was executed; this intended audience seems to be broader than in the first part, as he addresses his prosecutors, as well as some of his own men and those who spoke for and against him. Through his words, it is clear that Brown lived by the “golden rule,” to treat others as you wish to be treated, and that he valued honesty and truth. These values stemmed from his strict Calvinist upbringing and were driving forces behind his actions. They also created the situation that ultimately led to his death. Because he believed so strongly in those actions that he saw as just, he broke laws that he felt to be unjust and, when caught, was put to death. Through his sacrifice, Brown galvanized others into pushing for change and beginning to end unjust practices.

Author Biography

John Brown was a white man, born in Torrington, Connecticut, on May 9, 1800, to Owen and Ruth Mills Brown. His devoutly religious, strongly antislavery family was poor and spent much of Brown’s young life moving from place to place. Among his various childhood experiences were living near American Indians and making friends with a slave boy in a household where he stayed briefly. The first taught him that all men are equal regardless of the color of their skin, and the second helped shape him into “a most determined Abolitionist,” as he himself asserted (qtd. in Linder). From a very young age, Brown was determined to stop the injustices he saw committed against those around him. At seventeen, Brown publically affirmed his strict Calvinist beliefs and began to put his religion’s teachings to practical use, first by aiding a runaway slave and hiding him in the Brown family home.

He passed on his mindset to his many children, seven of whom were born to his first wife, Dianthe Lusk, and thirteen of whom were born to his second wife, Mary Day. Unfortunately, most of his children died very young and did not live to become adults. His surviving children joined him in his passion for Christian values and freedom for enslaved peoples.

Throughout his life, Brown committed small acts in order to promote equalization of the races without fear of repercussions, such as when he was forbidden to return to his church after inviting black parishioners to sit in “whites-only” pews. This type of civil disobedience was quite common for Brown, but after Elijah Lovejoy, the editor of an antislavery newspaper in Illinois, was murdered by a proslavery mob in 1837, Brown began to take more overt and drastic measures to achieve his goals.

His trial is a direct result of this switch from individual, nonviolent disobedience to violent resistance. In 1839, Brown began to dream of starting a slave rebellion and spent the next twenty years trying to make it happen, driven in part by the increasing amount of proslavery legislation passed in Southern states and at the national level. Brown and some of his sons moved to the newly created territory of Kansas in 1855, during which time the proslavery and antislavery factions clashed for control. After the federal government proclaimed the state open to slavery in May 1856, Brown and six others armed themselves and killed five proslavery settlers. That fall he began to raise funds and recruits for his proposed attack on Harpers Ferry. In late 1858, Brown and his followers raided properties in slaveholding Missouri, leading the slaves they freed to Canada. In mid-October 1859, he and the eleven surviving members of his small “army” were captured by a dozen Marines after seizing the federal armory and arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Tried in state court and pronounced guilty of treason, conspiracy, and murder, Brown was hanged on the morning of December 2, 1859.

Document Analysis

These two excerpts from John Brown’s interrogation and trial mark a turning point in American history, as well as stand as a platform for a man to explain his beliefs and his felonious actions. John Brown could have used his trial as an opportunity to lay the blame on another, to explain his actions, or to try to find a way to escape with his life. Instead, Brown continued to uphold the values by which he had lived his life. He described his own religious fervor, his adherence to the “golden rule,” and his ultimate goal of equality for all men both during the trial and in his final address to the court. Even though his court-appointed lawyer tried to portray him as crazy in an effort to have the case dismissed, Brown maintained a calm and collected manner during his questioning and even praised those who spoke against him for their honesty. His zeal for his cause is apparent in his word choice and the actions he took that landed him in jail, but overall he gives the appearance of a reasonable and well-educated man who was simply pursuing what he thought to be right. It was this contradiction between rational defense and treasonous actions that spurred such interest and controversy around his trial. The fallout from the trial was enormous and caused the breach between Northern and Southern views to widen even further. It even has been declared a cause for the Civil War’s early beginning. Whether or not John Brown’s life and trial altered the course of the nation, it was, without a doubt, a significant moment in history, with long-lasting effects.

The first section of the primary source is a partial transcript of Brown’s interrogation, which took place immediately following his capture at Harpers Ferry. Wounded during the fighting, Brown was then interrogated for several hours by a Mr. Vallandigham, Mr. Mason, and an unnamed “volunteer,” during which time Brown revealed several details about his views and beliefs. These beliefs have caused him to be viewed by different people as either a hero or a terrorist. Even though many Southerners believed Brown to be crazy, his tone throughout his interrogation remains very calm and reasonable. He explains his actions, refuses to answer questions to which he does not know the answer, and even rebuffs the volunteer for criticizing him for his small number of followers. While his word choices reveal him to be an extremist, his demeanor indicates a composed individual who is capable and sound of mind.

Brown clearly lays out his reason for the attack as an interference with those who are “guilty of a great wrong against God and humanity,” for they “wilfully and wickedly hold [others] in bondage.” He further states that he is doing so in order to uphold the “golden rule” and believes himself to be “an instrument in the hands of Providence.” He truly believed in his actions and that he was doing the right thing, upholding the intent of God. In his mind, equality should apply to everyone, not just white men, but black slaves too. This was a revolutionary concept in the South and was contravened by the existence of legal slavery there, as well as such federal laws as the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and the Dred Scott v. Sandford Supreme Court decision in 1857. These setbacks for the abolitionist cause spurred Brown to commit the attack on Harpers Ferry, because he saw the possibility of freedom for slaves through legal means slowly slipping away.

Although his intention was to help free slaves, or create an uprising of slaves, Brown did not want to force any man into doing something against his will. He states this himself as he says that he never “induced” anyone to join him and did not coerce slaves to leave their masters. One of his men who was also questioned during the interrogation, Mr. Stephens, and someone only recorded as a “bystander” made a statement to the contrary. Stephens said that he knew of at least one “negro” who wanted to turn back. While Brown did not reply directly to this statement, it seems unlikely that he would have forced anyone to do something that they were unwilling to do, simply because it would work against his cause. He saw himself as a liberator and a sort of freedom fighter. He could not perpetuate this image if he acted against the wishes of those he was supposed to be helping. Even later in the questioning, he says that he had no intention to “carry them off,” for this phrase has a negative connotation. And later, during his final statement to the court, Brown returns indirectly to Stephens’s statement and seems to chide him for giving false testimony concerning this point.

The diction of Brown, Stephens, and the interrogators is also a factor in understanding this excerpt. Brown and Stephens both refer to blacks as “negroes,” which at the time was a common term with little derogatory meaning. One of the interrogators, on the other hand, asked Brown a question in which he referred to slaves as “niggers,” a somewhat more pejorative term then and extremely offensive now. Furthermore, Brown is very formal in his speech and maintains a calm appearance, even under these accusations. When someone in the room calls him “fanatical,” he simply turns the allegation around on that person. After he says, “‘Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad,’ and you are mad,” there is no further movement on that line of questioning. No one responds to that statement, possibly because there is very little point in accusing a man who does not feel the need to defend his actions or explain away his guilt.

John Brown’s Final Speech to the Court

For a man who was tried while lying in a bed due to the wounds he sustained at Harpers Ferry, John Brown made an impassioned and poignant final speech to the court. One of the characteristics that made John Brown so famous, or infamous, was his unfaltering dedication to his ideals. He begins his final address by freely admitting to his plan to free slaves and admitting to having done so previously. This was a man who felt no guilt for what he did and did not regret his actions, even though he knew that, having committed them, they were now going to cause his death. In one of his final moments before his execution, when he could express whatever emotions or thoughts he had without fear of further reprisal, Brown conducted himself with dignity and did not rage against those who had decided that he was to die. The only words he spoke were to highlight the hypocrisy behind their ruling, to speak of his submission before God, and to express his pity for the weakness of his coconspirators.

In Brown’s second paragraph, he speaks directly to the motivation of his prosecutors. He tells them that they are wrong in their judgment of his actions—they do not actually want to punish him for attempting to free men, but rather for freeing the wrong men. If he had acted in the same way, but as a force for the Southerners, then he would have been praised and not punished. This understanding of his rivals reveals Brown’s ability to truly know his opponents. It takes intelligence to be able to read people in such a way, and although it does not change the outcome of the trial, it helps to make Brown even more memorable. He must have known, during his years planning for the attack on Harpers Ferry, how he would be treated in any court if he was caught, and this may have made other men stop their plans, but not John Brown. Speaking before the court, he shows no fear, only a quiet conviction.

His religious dedication is apparent too in his speech, as is fitting considering what a large role religion played in his life and mindset. He conveys a sense of confusion that almost mocks the court as he talks about seeing a Bible in the room, but the men around it are ignoring the lessons within. As his life’s work was heavily influenced by the Bible, especially such parts as the golden rule and the idea stated in his final speech that those who are in bondage are also bonded to their captors, he sees hypocrisy in the courtroom. Ultimately, he states that he cannot know God’s will, but he is willing to go to his death if that is a necessary part of achieving justice for all men. This confirmed his fanaticism for Southerners at the same time that the Northern abolitionists would have commended him for his devotion to his cause.

Overall, Brown’s speech reflects the individual; it is dignified, expresses his opinions and values, reiterates his motives and intentions, and does so without losing impact to unnecessary tangents and shifting of blame. In his last statements, Brown expresses his appreciation of the manner in which the trial was conducted, fairly and honestly. He also conveys his disappointment in the men who stated that their involvement was not of their own choosing, but that they had been coerced or induced in some way by Brown. All of this emotion, however, is confined and eloquently put into words in a way that most people would not be able to accomplish.

Lasting Impact of John Brown

John Brown lived in a time of great movement toward change. He predated the Civil War but was a part of the upheaval that would eventually culminate in the divide of the United States and its reformation. White supremacy dominated in the North as well as the South, even though many Northerners viewed slavery as wrong. The actual act of freeing the slaves was viewed as a scary and nearly impossible task—for what if the freed slaves moved North and overtook those states or stayed in the South and turned on their former owners? The “Negro question,” as Brown calls it, fueled debate, legislation, violent protest, and more controversy than nearly any other issue. It would take a nearly legendary man, Abraham Lincoln, and a civil war to end slavery in the United States. But it took a man like John Brown to create enough tension and distrust between the different groups to polarize the North and South and bring the conflict to a head.

Slavery had been a part of American life since the mid-seventeenth century, and while many individuals as well as religious groups viewed the practice as wrong, not until 1780 were the first antislavery laws passed. Many Northern states followed this shift in legislation, but federal laws and Southern states did not move with this new turn in thought. This began the tension between the North and South, which only grew as new states entered the Union, having declared themselves to be either free or slave; the Missouri Compromise was outlined in 1820, delineating free and slave territories; and new taxes, seen as disproportionately targeting the South and benefitting the North, were added in the late 1820s and early 1830s. By the time of Brown’s raid, the South had twice threatened to secede from the Union, first in 1832 and later in 1850, partially fueling the Compromise of 1850. This was the era into which John Brown was born, raised, and worked, an atmosphere in which slavery was one of the most visible social and political issues for all Americans. Slave rebellions, such as that led by Nat Turner in Virginia in 1831, and free blacks working to overcome slavery, as did Brown’s friend Frederick Douglass, were not unknown, but Brown broke the mold when he, a white man, attacked a military post in order to arm the slaves he was trying to free. Many actions, both legislative and extralegal, led up to the outbreak of the Civil War, but these were fueled by distrust and dislike on both sides of the conflict. Brown’s plot inflamed these emotions, putting true fear into Southerners and inspiring abolitionists.

John Brown’s legacy took two very different avenues of expression. The first was in the way people viewed his actions, trial, and death. He became a folk hero of sorts and was idolized in song and poetry. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the famous nineteenth-century poet, even stated that John Brown’s death would be remembered as “a great day in our history; the date of a new revolution” (Villard 563). Henry David Thoreau, the famous author, transcendentalist philosopher, and advocate of civil disobedience, even spoke on Brown’s behalf to people in the North, because at first his militant action was poorly received and viewed as too violent. He even wrote the essay “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” in an effort to stir Northern sympathy for Brown after his capture. With such well-known and beloved figures supporting his actions, John Brown became a symbol for the North and showed that, sometimes, drastic measures must be taken to overcome a government or an institution that did not support all of its people.

The second impact was much more immediate and worked with the first to create a paradigm shift in the way people worked for change. Before John Brown’s attack on Harpers Ferry, white men had rarely instigated violence in order to help overturn slavery, and even passive, nonviolent abolitionism was considered extremist. After Brown, this type of nonviolence became the behavior of moderates, which tends to be the bulk of a population. Whether or not he had planned on this outcome, Brown’s actions created shifts—some would say polarization—along the slavery–antislavery spectrum. Even though the North was originally aghast at his actions, Brown turned Northern public opinion more actively toward antislavery. In doing so, historian David S. Reynolds credits Brown with possibly having accelerated the start of the Civil War, following the election of the president who would issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

In these excerpts, John Brown’s own words portray his character and the beliefs on which he based his life. With the combination of reasonable tone, thorough understanding of his adversaries, strict adherence to his own moral code, and nearly unprecedented violence, John Brown further divided the North and South—highlighted by the North turning Brown into a martyr while the South viewed him as a terrorist. He may be one of history’s best-remembered examples of what a few men can do when they refuse to follow a system that they believe to be unjust and are willing to give their lives in the hope of making a significant change.

Essential Themes

In a time when white supremacy was prevalent and slavery was an accepted institution, a single man’s trial was able to galvanize people into realizing that something was wrong with their tolerance of this society. The short- and long-term effects of John Brown’s trial are much the same, the polarization of North and South, the beginning of the Civil War less than two years later, and the overwhelming understanding that no man is without the power to effect change. If a person believes in something enough and refuses to let injustice stand, then even with a few men, that person can make a difference. This was the heroic spirit that was admired in the North and the force of will that was feared in the South. Brown’s unwavering calm, mixed with his utter devotion, made his message unstoppable, even though most people did not actually agree with the crimes he committed. His failed attack on Harpers Ferry is not the reason he is remembered a century and a half after his death. His presence and his effect on his friends, acquaintances, and even those he never met is what made him memorable. Without such people to instigate change, the world would look very different than it does today.

  • American Experience: John Brown’s Holy War. PBS Online/WGBH, 1999. Web. 19 Mar. 2013.
  • Linder, Douglas O. Famous Trials: The Trial of John Brown, 1859. University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law, 2012. Web. 19 Mar. 2013.
  • 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. Charleston: BiblioBazaar, 2011. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Carton, Evan. Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2009. Print.
  • DeCaro, Louis A., Jr. Fire from the Midst of You: A Religious Life of John Brown. New York: NYU, 2002. Print.
  • ---. John Brown: The Cost of Freedom. New York: International, 2007. Print.
  • Du Bois, W. E. B. John Brown. 1909. New York: Sharpe, 1997. Print.
  • John Brown’s Holy War. Dir. Robert Kenner. Narr. Joe Morton. WGBH Educational Foundation, 1999. DVD.
  • Oates, Stephen. To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown. New York: Harper, 1970. Print.
  • Peterson, Merrill D. John Brown: The Legend Revisited. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2002. Print.
  • Redpath, James. The Public Life of Capt. John Brown: With an Auto-Biography of His Childhood and Youth. 1860. Charleston: Forgotten, 2012. Print.
  • Renehan, Edward J. The Secret Six: The True Tale of the Men Who Conspired with John Brown. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1997. Print.
  • Sanborn, F. B., ed. The Life and Letters of John Brown: Liberator of Kansas, and Martyr of Virginia. 1885. Charleston: BiblioBazaar, 2010. Print.

Categories: History