The Greater Villains
The response of the Northern liberal press and abolitionist agitators to John Brown’s 1859 violence in Virginia helped Southerners find a more perfect union outside the old federated Union. With violent fanatics like Brown encouraged, armed and financed by irresponsible abolitionists in New England; fanatics who cared little for the paper Constitution that bound them to obedience—as it equally bound Southerners. Though it would have been blocked by Northern politicians, Virginia could have demanded that Federal courts arrest the wealthy abolitionists who financed Brown’s insurrection in their State and bring them to justice. Nonetheless, Americans in the South would no longer want be associated with deceitful people such as this in a voluntary union of States.
Bernhard Thuersam, Director
Cape Fear Historical Institute
The Greater Villains:
“On Wednesday morning, October 19, John Brown and [Aaron Dwight] Stevens were placed in a wagon and driven to the railway station under a strong guard of Marines to protect them from the possibility of a merciful lynching. But when they reached the waiting train and the shouts of “Lynch them, lynch them!” rose, the Governor was there to call back, “Oh, it would be cowardly to do so now!” The Sheriff of Jefferson County and the United States Marshal for the Western District of Virginia committed their four prisoners to the jail at Charlestown to await trial.
There was no apparent reason why the prisoners should not be brought to justice as soon as possible, for the evidence was clear, the law demanded immediate trial, and the State of Virginia recognized no advantage in submitting the case to the Federal courts. The Federal government was directly by the attack on the arsenal and indirectly by the whole nature of the conspiracy, but Virginia was insisting on a primary principle in retaining jurisdiction. In the case of John Brown himself there was little hesitation; in that of his companions more debate occurred, for the temptation was strong to embody in fact a subsidiary principle concerning the slave problem by turning Stevens over to the Federal Government for prosecution….the great advantage the Federal court possessed [was] being able to summon “the greater villains” who resided beyond the jurisdiction of the State of Virginia; and meanwhile some of these villains had made haste to reside beyond the jurisdiction of the United States.
The immediate trial and the wounds of two of the prisoners provided unexpected capital for the “liberal” newspapers in the North. At first the Republican press hurried to repudiate John Brown and all his works, for it was felt that this sort of thing might prove disastrous in the Presidential contest of the next year, but it was not long before editors and politicians alike recognized an opportunity in the situation. The Chicago Convention which nominated Abraham Lincoln in 1860 unanimously resolved that the attempt of John Brown was criminal…But in the autumn of 1859 the “liberal” press…deplored the conditions which made it [Brown’s attack] necessary; it deplored the misguided effort in a holy cause, but abhorred the barbarous conduct in Virginia in suppressing that effort. [William Lloyd] Garrison wrote in the Liberator:
“In recording the expressions of sympathy and admiration which are so widely felt for John Brown, whose doom is now swiftly approaching…that, judging him by the code of Bunker hill, we think he is deserving of high-wrought eulogy as any who ever wielded sword or battle-axe in the cause of liberty…”
(John Brown, The Making of a Martyr, Robert Penn Warren, J.S. Sanders and Company, 1929, pp. 393-395)