to THE MAKING OF A NATION – American history in VOA Special English.
of eighteen fifty-nine, a group of anti-slavery extremists attacked the town of
Harpers Ferry. Harpers Ferry was part of Virginia then; today it is located in
West Virginia. The attackers were led by John Brown. They seized a gun factory
and a federal supply center where military equipment was kept. They planned to
use the guns and equipment to organize a rebel army of slaves.
This week in
our series, Harry Monroe and Kay Gallant tell us what happened to John Brown
after he seized Harpers Ferry.
of the United States in eighteen fifty-nine was James Buchanan. When Buchanan
learned of the attack, he wanted immediate action. He sent a force of Marines
to Harpers Ferry, under the command of Army Colonel Robert E. Lee.
had attacked with about twenty men. Several, including two of his sons, had
been killed by local militia. He and his remaining men withdrew to a small
brick building. The attack had failed. Not one slave had come to Harpers Ferry
to help Brown.
whom his men had freed had refused to fight when the shooting started. Brown
could not understand the fear that kept the slaves from fighting for their
his men were trapped inside the brick building. They held a few hostages whom
they hoped to exchange for their freedom.
Lee wrote a message to John Brown demanding his surrender. He did not think
Brown would surrender peaceably. So, he planned to attack as soon as Brown rejected
the message. He felt this was the surest way to save the lives of the hostages.
expected, Brown refused to surrender. He said he and his men had the right to
go free. As soon as Brown spoke, the signal was given. The Marines attacked.
open a small hole in the door of the brick building. One by one, the Marines
moved through the hole. They fought hand-to-hand against the men inside. After
a brief fight, they won. John Brown's rebellion was crushed.
hours after Brown was captured, the Governor of Virginia and three Congressmen
arrived in Harpers Ferry. They wanted to question Brown. Brown had been wounded
in the final attack. He was weak from the loss of blood. But he welcomed the
chance to explain his actions.
first asked where Brown got the money to organize his raid. Brown said he
raised most of it himself. He refused to give the names of any of his
supporters. Then the officials asked why Brown had come to Harpers Ferry.
"We came to free the slaves," Brown said, "and only that."
continued: "I think that you are guilty of a great wrong against God and
humanity. I believe anyone would be perfectly right to interfere with you, so
far as to free those you wickedly hold in slavery. I think I did right. You had
better -- all you people of the South -- prepare yourselves for a settlement
sooner than you are prepared for it.
may get rid of me very easily. I am nearly gone now. But this question is still
to be settled -- this Negro question, I mean. That is not yet ended."
on Harpers Ferry increased the bitterness of the national dispute over slavery.
Members of the Democratic Party called the raid a plot by the Republican Party.
Republican leaders denied the charge. They said the raid was the work of one
man -- one madman -- John Brown. Still, they said, he had acted for good
reason: to end slavery in America.
newspapers condemned Brown. Some said his raid was an act of war. Some demanded
that he be executed as a thief and murderer. Many southerners said all of the
responsible for the raid. They believed all northerners wanted a slave
rebellion in the South. And it was such a rebellion that southerners feared
more than anything else.
measures were approved throughout the South to prevent this. Military law was
declared in some areas. Slave owners threatened to beat or hang any Negro who
even looked rebellious.
of a slave rebellion united the people of the South. For years, rich slave
owners had talked of taking the southern states out of the Union to save their
way of life. But those who had no slaves opposed the idea of disunion.
Brown's raid changed that. After his attack on Harpers Ferry, the south spoke
with one voice. All southerners declared that they would fight to protect their
homes from a Negro rebellion or from another attack by men like Brown. Feelings
were especially high in Virginia, the state in which the raid took place.
Virginians wanted Brown punished quickly to show what would happen to anyone
who tried to lead a Negro rebellion.
some question whether Brown should be tried in a federal court or a state
court. Brown's raid took place within the borders of a state. But the property
he seized belonged to the federal government.
Governor of Virginia decided to try Brown in a state court. He believed a
federal court trial would take too long. If Brown were not brought to trial
quickly, he said, people might attack the jail and kill him.
being held in Charles Town, a few kilometers from Harpers Ferry. The court
there named two lawyers to defend him. A doctor examined Brown. He reported
that Brown's wounds were not serious enough to prevent the trial from starting.
Brown lay in a bed in the courtroom throughout the trial.
Brown's lawyers tried to show that his family had a history of madness. They
tried to prove that Brown, too, was mad. They asked the court to declare him
innocent because of insanity. Brown protested. He said the lawyers were just
trying to save his life. He did not want such a defense. The matter of insanity
lawyers then argued that he was not guilty of the three crimes with which he
they said, he could not be guilty of treason against Virginia, because he was
not a citizen of Virginia. Second, he could not be guilty of plotting a slave
rebellion, because he had never incited slaves against their owners. And third,
he could not be guilty of murder, because he had killed only in self-defense.
lasted five days. The jury found John Brown guilty of all three charges.
asked Brown if he wanted to make a statement before being sentenced. Brown did.
He declared that he had not planned to start a slave rebellion. He said he only
wanted to free some slaves and take them to Canada.
statement was strong. But it was not true. He had, in fact, planned to organize
an army of slaves to fight for their freedom. He acted in the belief that
slaves throughout the south would rise up against their owners and join him.
words did not move the judge. He said he could find no reason to question the
jury's decision that Brown was guilty. He sentenced Brown to be hanged.
Brown's supporters attempted to find a way to free Brown from jail. Several
plans were proposed. None were tried.
himself did not want to escape. He said he could do more to destroy slavery by
hanging than by staying alive.
was executed on December second, eighteen fifty-nine. His death created a wave
of public emotion throughout the country. In the North, people mourned.
wrote: "The events of the last month or two have done more to build
northern opposition to slavery than anything which has ever happened before, than
all the anti-slavery pamphlets and books that have ever been written."
south, people cheered. But their happiness at Brown's punishment was mixed with
anger at those who honored him. As the nation prepared for a presidential
election year, the South renewed its promise to defend slavery -- or leave the
be our story next week.
Our program was written by Frank Beardsley. The narrators were Harry
Monroe and Kay Gallant. Transcripts of our programs can be found along with
MP3s, podcasts and historical images at voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again
next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION -- an American history series in VOA
This is program #91 of THE
MAKING OF A NATION