The end of that is not yet

We’re kind of killing time here. John Brown has been convicted and sentenced to hang and sits in prison in Charles Town, Virginia. His hanging marks the next Sesquicentennial on December 2nd. Meanwhile, he was writing letters. The letters and the interview with him in the Charles Town jail on the 31st of October can tell us a lot about what kind of man he was.

It may be most helpful to keep in mind that he was the kind of man who could watch his two sons hack men to death with broadswords, and then put a bullet into one of the victims to make sure he was dead. He was the kind of man who believed very deeply and passionately in the cause of abolition, and risked his own life repeatedly for it before he finally lost a gamble.

He was a contradictory man, was John Brown. From the interview with him in prison:

Mr. Vallandigham:(who had just entered). Mr. Brown, who sent you here?

Brown: No man sent me here; it was my own prompting and that of my Maker, or that of the Devil,-whichever you please to ascribe it to. I acknowledge no master in human form.
. . .
[Senator] Mason. How do you justify your acts?

Brown: I think, my friend, you are guilty of a great wrong against God and humanity,-I say it without wishing to be offensive,-and it would be perfectly right for anyone to interfere with you so far as to free those you wilfully and wickedly hold in bondage. I do not say this insultingly.

Mason. I understand that.

Brown: I think I did right, and that others will do right who interfere with you at any time and at all times. I hold that the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as ye would that others should do unto you,” applies to all who would help others to gain their liberty.
. . .
Mason. What wages did you offer?

Brown: None.

[Lieutenant J. E. B.] Stuart. “The wages of sin is death.”

Brown: I would not have made such a remark to you if you had been a prisoner, and wounded, in my hands.
. . .
A Bystander: Do you consider this a religious movement?

Brown: It is, in my opinion, the greatest service man can render to God.

Bystander: Do you consider yourself an instrument in the hands of Providence?

Brown: I do.

Bystander: Upon what principle do you justify your acts?

Brown: Upon the Golden Rule. I pity the poor in bondage that have none to help them: that is why I am here; not to gratify any personal animosity, revenge, or vindictive spirit. It is my sympathy with the oppressed and the wronged that are as good as you and as precious in the sight of God.
. . .
Reporter: I do not wish to annoy you; but if you have anything further you would like to say, I will report it.

Brown: I have nothing to say, only that I claim to be here in carrying out a measure I believe perfectly justifiable, and not to act the part of an incen­diary or ruffian, but to aid those suffering great wrong. I wish to say, furthermore, that you had better-all you people at the South-prepare yourselves for a settlement of this question, that must come up for settlement sooner than you are prepared for it. The sooner you are prepared the better. You may dispose of me very easily,-I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is still [to] be settled,-this negro question I mean; the end of that is not yet. These wounds were inflicted upon me-both saber cuts on my head and bayonet stabs in different parts of my body-some minutes after I had ceased fighting and had consented to surrender, for the benefit of others, not for my own. I believe the Major would not have been alive; I could have killed him just as easy as a mosquito when he came in, but I supposed he only came in to receive our surrender. There had been loud and long calls of “surrender” from us,-as loud as men could yell: but in the confusion and excitement I suppose we were not heard. I do not think the Major, or anyone, meant to butcher us after we had surrendered.

You get a picture, reading John Brown’s words, of a man who is utterly strong in his faith. It’s clear from the tone of the questioning that his interrogators think he’s crazy, and it’s clear from one of Brown’s answers that he thinks the same of them:

[An Officer]. Brown, suppose you had every nigger in the United States, what would you do with them?

A. Set them free.

Q. Your intention was to carry them off and free them?

A. Not at all.

A Bystander: To set them free would sacrifice the life of every man in this community.

Brown: I do not think so.

Bystander. I know it. I think you are fanatical.

Brown: And I think you are fanatical. “Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad,” and you are mad.

History, of course, proved John Brown correct on this point. One feature of the Civil War was its total lack of widespread carnage as slaves were de facto emancipated by the advance of the Union Army. In Roll, Jordan, Roll, Eugene Genovese makes the point that some emancipated slaves even helped their former masters with money and goods after the war. In The Slaves’ War by Andrew Ward, we hear the voices of the formerly enslaved people themselves speaking of goodwill they bore toward their former owners.

I’ve come away from reading the interview with a sense of John Brown’s calm, a calm he asserted again and again in letters to his wife while he was in prison. But there’s also a sense of an undercurrent of frantic fear from his questioners, at the uprooting of their entire social structure that John Brown represents.

I think it’s possible to pity their fear without condoning that social structure, without endorsing slavery. Theirs was a failure of imagination, they could not believe in their own worth and safety in a world in which they had no legal privilege to own slaves. Those sad, frightened men, they stand in contrast to the firm conviction and dignified certainty of John Brown.

Or maybe that’s just how we remember it.

Congressman Clement Vallandigham was an Ohio unionist, and an anti-war Copperhead after hostilities broke out.

Virginia Senator James Mason’s wife would later get into an argument in print with L. Maria Child over John Brown.

Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart, present as an aide to Colonel Robert E. Lee, would go on to become famous in the Confederate cavalry.

The full text of the interview.


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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. […] this world you have no abiding place In my last entry I briefly touched on John Brown’s letters from prison before haring off and ignoring them […]

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