Primary Source: John Brown's Address to the Virginia Court in 1859

Instructor: David Wilson

David has taught college history and holds an MA in history.

One of the most important figures in the lead-up to the Civil War, John Brown attempted to seize a government armory in 1859. He hoped to provide the weapons to black slaves and start a mass rebellion.

John Brown, Abolitionist

No issue in American history proved more divisive than that of slavery, the core cause of the Civil War of 1861 to 1865. In the years immediately proceeding the Civil War itself, abolitionists (anti-slavery activists) and anti-abolitionists clashed, sometimes violently, over the question of slavery's morality and legality. Abolitionists viewed slavery as an evil institution; anti-abolitionists believed it to be crucial to the Southern states' agrarian economy and some further believed it to be justified based on the biblical 'Curse of Ham', which blackened the skins of the sinners.

Many famous abolitionists attempted to bring about an end to slavery by whatever means possible, and John Brown was arguably the most famous abolitionist in American history. He helped the abolitionist cause by providing a stopover on the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves. He further aggravated the 'Bleeding Kansas' conflict, itself precipitated by the question of whether Kansas would be a slave state like next-door Missouri or a free state, by leading fighters in small-scale skirmishes throughout Kansas. Finally, he decided it was necessary for a full-scale slave insurrection, as had previously happened in Caribbean islands like Haiti, where the slave masses rose up and won independence.

Brown and a group of followers seized the government armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, in 1859. He hoped that he and his men could arm the slaves quickly enough to foment rebellion, but Brown lost too many followers in the fighting, while too few slaves came to help his cause, and a detachment of soldiers (under the command of future Confederate general Robert E. Lee) quickly took back the armory. The state of Virginia put Brown on trial for his life, charging him with treason. He gave a brief speech to the court but was found guilty and hanged, making him the first person in American history to be found guilty of treason. He became a martyr for the abolitionist cause and was famously referenced in the Battle Hymn of the Republic, a Union marching song: 'John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave; his soul's marching on.' The raid on Harper's Ferry, furthermore, only led to greater polarization between pro- and anti-abolition causes.

Let's take a look at his speech to the court now.

Text of John Brown's Address to the Virginia Court in 1859

Address of John Brown to the Virginia Court, when about to receive the sentence of death,

for his heroic attempt at Harper's Ferry...

Boston, Massachusetts, circa December, 1859.

Broadside, 1 page.


To the Virginia Court, when about to receive the


For his heroic attempt at Harper's Ferry, to

Give deliverance to the captives, and to let the oppressed go free.

MR. BROWN, upon inquiry whether he had anything to say why sentences should not be pronounced upon him, in a clear, distinct voice, replied:

I have, may it please the Court, a few words to say.

In the first place, I deny every thing but what I have already admitted, of a design on my

part to free Slaves. I intended, certainly, to have made a clean thing of that matter, as I did last

winter, when I went into Missouri, and there took Slaves, without the snapping of a gun on either

side, moving them through the country, and finally leaving them in Canada. I desired to have

done the same thing again, on a much larger scale. That was all I intended. I never did intend

murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite Slaves to rebellion, or to

make insurrection.

I have another objection, and that is, that it is unjust that I should suffer such a penalty.

Had I interfered in the manner, and which I admit has been fairly proved, - for I admire the

truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case, -

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 a reward, rather than a


This Court acknowledges too, as I suppose, the validity of the LAW OF GOD. I saw a

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