“The Last Moments of John Brown”


Primary Source – John Brown’s Execution (Unsympathetic Northern View):


“To-day Virginia, in the exercise of her Sovereign power, will ‘vindicate the majesty of her offended laws,’ after a fashion equally strange and sad. For it is strange and sad, assuredly, that in one State of the American Union, it should be found necessary to surround with a guard of five thousand soldiers, the scaffold of a condemned man, in honor of whom, in other States of the same Union, the bells of churches will be tolling, and the voices of Christian congregations lifted in prayer, at the same hour of his death. All that we, in common with the most conservative voices of the whole country, have urged in vain upon the authorities of Virginia, in deprecation of the event which is to mark this day forever in our history, must recur to every thoughtful man, to-day, with ten-fold force. It is idle to blink the fact that John Brown, who dies to-day as a criminal in Virginia, will be honored and lamented to-day as a martyr by thousands of men and women in the Northern States… All that is left to be done in the matter now by Northern men who love their country and would see the rights of all its sections justly maintained, is to protest against the extravagant and inflammatory use which fanatical and reckless men at the North will now be swift to make of this decision and this deed in Virginia. By every sound principle of public law the life which Virginia will this day take was forfeit to the State. Whatever we may think of the wisdom and the policy of the consummation to which Virginia has ripened John Brown’s enthusiastic dream of duty, we cannot doubt, and we must not silently suffer others to deny, that our sister Commonwealth has been in her Right from the first; and that, if we mean this Union to endure as a great national system, founded upon the equality and fraternity of the States, we must earnestly repudiate and to the best of our abilities repress the sympathy which thousands of easy enthusiasts will now be hastening to offer to the memory of a man in whom Virginia can only see the invader of her established order, and the implacable enemy of the social institutions by which she will chooses to abide.”

Article published in New York Times, December 2, 1859


Primary Source – John Brown’s Execution (Sympathetic Northern View):

(Untitled Editorial)

“The immolation of John Brown was, in short, in accordance with the philosophy of slavery—a necessity. He had dared to act on the conviction of his life, and these settled principles of his life were the only ones which such a man could entertain. He was too brave to have thought differently from what he did, and the same noble impulses which inculcated a love of Freedom and Right, impelled him constantly and irresistibly to the practical development of his theory. He has failed, according to the popular mode of calculating failure and success; but that his life and tragic death must of necessity constitute a failure, is a point too broad and high to be disposed of in this summary manner. We cannot but disapprove his mad and folly-stricken act, but the unselfishness of the deed; his moderation, when victorious, over the town which he captured; his spartan courage in defending himself and his fellows, and his sublime contempt of death while overborne and made the manacled tenant of a prison; his stern integrity in scorning the technicalities of the law, and his manliness in all things, will not be quickly forgotten; but rather a contemplation of this heroic old man’s character will irresistibly compel thinking men to ask themselves whether it is John Brown, of Ossawatomie, or the system of slavery which has failed in this conflict.

The execution of the old man at Charlestown yesterday, was a plain admission on the part of Slavery that they dare not spare a brave man’s life, and that magnanimity is impossible to a system based on wrong and upheld by violence. History will do justice to the institution of Slavery and its uncompromising foe alike, when both are gone; and, in the meantime, the comparison which this affair provokes between the two, which none can clearly foresee, but enough of which is now plainly visible to change the popular judgement. Slavery in all the plentitude of its triumph and power is a failure; and old John Brown of Ossawatomie has succeeded—Sampson-like—in dragging down the pillars of Slavery in his fall, and his victory is complete! While millions of prayers went up for the old martyr yesterday, so millions of curses were uttered against the hellish system which so mercilessly and ferociously cried out for his blood. Every heart in which a free spirit throbbed gave utterance to its pent-up agony in contemplating the enormities of this bloody institution—this sum of all villainies—in the dispensations of its power and the exactions of its bloody code.”

Editorial published in Pittsburgh’s Gazette, December 3, 1859
(Reproduced in The Antebellum Era: Primary Documents on Events from 1820-1860 by David Copeland)


Primary Source – John Brown’s Execution (Northern Paper Sympathetic to South):


“Elsewhere we publish a letter and dispatch from our special reporter at Harper’s Ferry and Charlestown. They disclose a great state of excitement in Virginia… But what a great wrong has been inflicted on Virginia by her brethren of the North, that compels her to resort to such extreme measures for her safety. She has done nothing to merit such treatment.

She is now as she was in the days of the Revolution, at the adoption of the Constitution, and has done nothing since to demand worse treatment from the people of the free States that she merited at these period from those with whom she was laboring for the liberties of the people and the establishment of a National Government. She was slave then; she is no more so now. And the people of the free States have entered into a compact with her not to interfere in her internal domestic affairs, and if any of her slave property escapes, to interpose no obstacle to its return. Why, then, should her peace be threatened, the lives and property of her citizens jeopardized by citizens of the free States?

We rejoice that old BROWN has been hung. He was not only a murderer of innocent persons, but he attempted one of the greatest crimes against society—the stirring up of a servile and civil war. He has paid the penalty for his crimes, and we hope his fate may be a warning to all who might have felt inclined to imitate his aggressive conduct.”

Editorial published in Cincinnati’s Enquirer, December 3, 1859
(Reproduced in The Antebellum Era: Primary Documents on Events from 1820-1860 by David Copeland


Primary Source – NH Democratic Paper’s Response to Dred Scott:


“We give in this paper an abstract of the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case, in which it is solemnly adjudged and decided, by the highest judicial tribunal of the Union, that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional, and that Congress has no constitutional power of authority to legislate upon the subject of slavery in the Territories. It will be seen that other incidental questions were decided in this case, but this is the one of the most political importance, and interest. It utterly demolishes the whole black republican platform and stamps it as directly antagonistical to the constitution. This is the end of the matter, so far as argument and voting and legislation are concerned. The constitution is the supreme law; the Supreme Court is the authorized interpreter of the constitution; the construction which that tribunal puts upon that instrument is, for all practical purposes, the constitution itself, and therefore their decision must be fully and freely acquiesced in by all good citizens… Resistance to that decision is, therefore, resistance to the constitution—to the government—to the Union itself. It cannot be made legally, rightfully, peacefully, or with the least chance or hope of success. That decision must be carried into effect—that interpretation must be acquiesced in and acted upon, or else it must be resisted by force. There is no other alternative…

But what is the course and talk of the black republican organs upon this subject? Why, one would suppose, from their talk, that the decision of the highest judicial tribunal of the Union is of no binding force! The N.Y. Tribune even declares that their decision in this case is entitled to ‘no more weight than would be the judgment of a majority in a Washington barroom,’ and other black papers declare the judges to be ‘scoundrels,’ and Benedict Arnolds, and the black press and pulpit unite in reviling the court and denouncing their decision!

Now this only goes to prove, what we have heretofore alleged, that the black republican creed and purposes are at war with the constitution, are treasonable, and contemplate the overthrow of the Union. It only goes to show that their leaders stand precisely upon Garrison’s platform, and that the road to the attainment of their objects lies over the ruins of the constitution and the Union. There is no escape from this; they preach resistance to the law, to the supreme law—resistance to what is authoritatively adjudged to be the constitution. Such resistance, if carried into practical effect, would be treason; and all who preach it, preach treason, and all who seek to make a practical thing of it, seek to overthrow the constitution….

Whoever now seeks to revive sectionalism, arrays himself against the constitution, and consequently, against the Union. Of course, it is to be expected that fanaticism ceases to be a formidable enemy when it seeks to measure strength with the Union-loving spirit of the people, sustained and confirmed by the great arbiter of constitutional questions. Fanaticism becomes powerless against such a combination, and hence we may smile at the madness with which the organs of black republicanism assail the late decision of the Supreme Court. It is the last dying fit of fanatical sectionalism. It will have the effect of fixing public attention upon the reckless wickedness which has heretofore impelled the sectional agitators to force the republic to the very verge of disruption.

We feel, therefore, that the danger is for the present over; that sectionalism is virtually dead—that it has been crushed out by the popular verdict in the presidential election; and that the decision of the Supreme Court had left nothing vital in republicanism, and has placed the Democratic party beyond and above all competition as the constitutional, national, Union party of the country. Mr. Buchanan takes the helm under these auspicious circumstances, and his acts thus far give token of a successful and prosperous administration.”

Article published in the New Hampshire Patriot, March 18, 1857
(Reproduced in The Antebellum Era: Primary Documents on Events from 1820-1860 by David Copeland


Secondary Source – The Effects of Dred Scott & John Brown on the Baltimore Press:

“One finds in Baltimore newspapers relatively little comment on slavery in the 1840s and early 1850s. However, attention escalated sharply with the Dred Scott decision of 1857 and again after John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry.” (p. 498)

“…Baltimore newspapers’ attitude toward slavery was at once idiosyncratic and ambivalent. On one hand, Baltimore newspapers daily ran advertisements for the purchase and sale of slaves… On the other hand, either reflecting their support for congressional legislation in 1808 and 1820 that prohibited trafficking in human beings off the coast of the United States, or indicative of a change in the public pulse, Baltimore’s dailies took an increasingly dim view of the slave trade in the 1850s.” (p. 499-500)

“However they felt about discussing, or not, the peculiar institution in their midst, Baltimore newspapers’ lack of coverage of the national debate over slavery is difficult to fathom… They did so despite the evidence that Marylanders were clearly troubled by the institution of slavery as seen in the high rate of manumissions in the state.” (p. 500)

“Despite tenacious apathy toward the most contentious issue of the day, events of the late 1850s finally forced the Baltimore daily press to confront the national debate. In 1857 the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, written by Maryland native and Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, offered Baltimore’s dailies, in so far as they discussed slavery at all, broad affirmation for their support of states rights. The papers lost no time in expressing their satisfaction.” (p. 500)

“By 1858 coverage and comment on the subject of racial issues had wanted in the Baltimore papers… Any sense of complacency the press might have felt soon vanished. John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry brought the issue of slavery to a sudden boil in the Baltimore press. Baltimore’s daily newspapers covered the story in remarkable depth and breadth.” (p. 503-504)

“Neither the Sun nor the Exchange made an attempt to sort out fact from rumor, thereby attesting to the confusion that reigned during the first hours. Yet in the five days following the raid, the newspapers did begin to sort fact from rumor. The Sun devoted an unprecedented twenty-six columns and one reporter to the story, and continued to post daily updates until Brown’s execution on December 2, 1859. The American was equally expansive in its coverage. Both papers showcased the latest in communications technology, including telegraphic dispatches from their own reporters. Local correspondents’ daily filings and freelance columns were carried by rail from Harpers Ferry to Baltimore. The Sun and American gave exceptional attention to the John Brown story, including analysis from foreign sources.” (p. 504-505)

“The Sun and the American clearly established themselves as Baltimore’s eminent dailies with their coverage of the John Brown story. In a noticeable departure from past practice, they eschewed news summaries in favor of complete daily reports of the events at Harpers Ferry, including John Brown’s trial and execution. The political press was concerned more with the implications of the event and its aftermath. Their editorials concentrated on the emerging Republican Party and its platform. Editorially, all of Baltimore’s newspapers were becoming increasingly concerned by the strains pulling at the fabric of the Union.” (p. 505)

From “Baltimore’s Daily Press and Slavery, 1857-1860” by Nicholas Penniman IV