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John Brown Defends His Raid, 1859
On October 16, 1859 abolitionist John Brown led a small force in an attack on the Federal Armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (see John Brown's Raid, 1859). His purpose was to steal weapons in an attempt to rally and arm local slaves and abolitionist whites to his cause. His raid was unsuccessful. Brown was wounded and captured. He was tired, convicted of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia and sentenced to be hanged. His sentence was carried out at Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia) on December 2 1859.

"You may dispose of me very easily. I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is still to be settled."

Shortly after the raid, John Brown was interviewed by a group of citizens that included Senator Mason and Congressman Vallandigham of Ohio. Still suffering from his wounds and speaking from a bed, Brown revealed his motivation and expectations regarding the raid. Among those present was a reporter for the New York Herald who filed the following report:

"Mr. Vallandigham (member of Congress from Ohio, who had just entered) - Mr. Brown, who sent you here?

Mr. Brown - No man sent me here; it was my own prompting and that of my Maker, or that of the devil, which ever you please to ascribe it to. I acknowledge no man [master] in human form.

Mr. Vallandigham - Did you get up the expedition yourself?

Mr. Brown - I did. . . .

Mr. Mason - What was your object in coming?

Mr. Brown - We came to free the slaves, and only that.

A Young Man (in the uniform of a volunteer company) - How many men in all had you?

Mr. Brown - I came to Virginia with eighteen men only, besides myself.

Volunteer - What in the world did you suppose you could do here in Virginia with that amount of men?

Mr. Brown -Young man, I don't wish to discuss that question here.

Volunteer - You could not do anything.

Mr. Brown - Well, perhaps your ideas and mine on military subjects would differ materially.

Mr. Mason - How do you justify your acts?

Mr. 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 willfully and wickedly hold in bondage. I do not say this insultingly.

Mr. Mason - I understand that.

Mr. Brown - I think I did right, and that others will do right who interfere with you at any time and all times. I hold that the golden rule, "Do unto others as you would that others should do unto you," applies to all who would help others to gain their liberty. . .

Mr. Vallandigham - Have you had any correspondence with par¬ties at the North on the subject of this movement?

Mr. Brown - I have had correspondence.

A Bystander - Do you consider this a religious movement?

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

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

Mr. Brown - I do.

Bystander - Upon what principle do you justify your acts?

Mr. 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.

Bystander - Certainly. But why take the slaves against their will?

Mr. Brown - I never did. . . . I want you to understand gentlemen - (and to the reporter of the Herald) you may report that - I want you to understand that I respect the rights of the poorest and weakest of colored people, oppressed by the slave system, just as much as I do those of the most wealthy and powerful. That is the idea that has moved me, and that alone. We expected no reward except the satisfaction of endeavor¬ing to do for those in distress and greatly oppressed as we would be done by. The cry of distress of the oppressed is my reason, and the only thing that prompted me to come here. . .

Mr. Vallandigham - Did you expect to hold possession here till then?

Mr. Brown - Well, probably I had quite a different idea. I do not know that I ought to reveal my plans. I am here a prisoner and wounded, because I foolishly allowed myself to be so. You overrate your strength in supposing I could have been taken if I had not allowed it. I was too tardy after commencing the open attack - in delaying my movements through Monday night, and up to the time I was attacked by the government troops. It was all occasioned by my desire to spare the feelings of my prisoners and their families and the community at large. I had no knowledge of the shooting of the negro (Hey¬wood). . . .

Mr. Vallandigham - Where did you get arms to obtain possession of the armory?

Mr. Brown - I bought them.

Mr. Vallandigham - In what State?

Mr. Brown - That I would not state. . . .

Reporter of the Herald - I do not wish to annoy you; but if you have anything further you would like to say I will report it.

Mr. 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 that 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. . . .

Bystander - Suppose you had every [negro] in the United States, what would you do with them?

Mr. Brown - Set them free.

Bystander - Your intention was to carry them off and free them?

Mr. Brown - Not at all.

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

Mr. Brown - I do not think so.

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

Mr. Brown - And I think you are fanatical. 'Whom the gods would destroy they first made mad,' and you are mad."

   This eyewitness account was originally published in: the New York Herald, October 21, 1859, republished in: Hart, Albert Bushnell, American History Told by Contemporaries v. 5 (1929).

How To Cite This Article:
"John Brown Defends His Raid, 1859" EyeWitness to History, (2009).