What was supposed to happen at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, October 16, 1859, was a full-blown slave rebellion. That was the design and purpose. What John Brown and his rag-tag abolitionists had in mind was thousands of slaves rising up out of bondage, throwing off their irons, and declaring their freedom. It was all about freeing human beings.
Sounds righteous--and it was. Brown himself was known among his men for prayers so robust they grew tedious. The man meant very, very well. But the raid, almost immediately, got bloody and messy. People were slain, innocent people, and the whole thing went bust in little more than a day. Ten of his men were killed, including two of John Brown's own sons.
That ill-omened raid may have ended quickly, but Brown's cause. . .well, "Glory, glory, hallelujah; his truth goes marching on."
Brown himself took a slashing blow from a saber to the back of the neck, a blow that left him unconscious. It wasn't until his sentencing, post-trial, that he was able to sit up in the court where he'd been found guilty of treason and murder.
That story is so far behind us that it's difficult to understand, yet perfectly imaginable in a wicked way. What slave-holding Southerners feared more than New England abolitionists was a slave insurrection, outright rebellion. Runaway slaves meant money lost, but what slavers really feared was a slave uprising, precisely what John Brown wanted.
The trials took place in Virginia, a slave state. Some anti-slavery Virginians might have sat there in court the day Brown was sentenced, but it's unlikely. Those who hated him filled the seats. Brown's attempt at a slave revolution had resulted in the death of some perfectly innocent local people, including, ironically and first of all, a freed slave who confronted the abolitionists. It was--it had to be--a seething courtroom hungry and thirsty for bloody revenge.
The indictment made clear that Brown wasn't simply a rebel, he was in league with the devil. He and his treason-ists sought to destroy Virginia itself "not having the fear of God before their eyes, but being moved and seduced by the false and malignant counsel of other evil and traitorous persons and the instigations of the devil."
But when Brown spoke at his sentencing, having walked into court for the first time that morning and not been carried in, the Virginian crowd went into profound silence. He told the judge he hadn't meant for anyone to be killed, a questionable assertion, certainly.
Then this, standing for the first time:
Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved, 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; every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.And more.
This court acknowledges, too, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here, which I suppose to be the bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things'whatsoever would men should do to me I should do ever so to them.' It teaches me, further, to 'remember them that are in bonds as abound with them.' I endeavored to act up to these instructions.And then, finally, this: "I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done, in behalf of His despised poor, was no wrong but right."
Finally, the most famous words:
Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further 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 submit. So let it be done!Those words and his stony confidence somehow silenced the people in that courthouse, no matter how full of hatred they likely were. Swiftly, the judge gave sentence: "You, John Brown, be hanged by the neck until you are dead." And, "May God have mercy on your soul."
For me at least, what followed is the unforgettable moment. The gallery was full of people who said absolutely nothing, but sat, Tony Horwitz says in Midnight Rising, in "solemnity and silence."
But for one man who started to clap his hands at the judge's ruling.
"This indecorum," a reporter observed at the time, "was promptly suppressed and much regret was expressed by citizens at its occurrence."
I don't know why, to me, that moment is so amazing, but it likely has something to do with the sheer noise of politics today and this race especially. That moment of profound silence, that regard, that seeming honor, even to an enemy is something laudatory but almost surely gone, behind us.
There they sat, his sworn enemies, "in solemnity and silence," somehow and for some reason, respectful.
Maybe that's the word I'm looking for.