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Chapter 11: the political inquisitors.

As soon as it was known that John Brown was not dead, and that three of his followers had been safely protected from the fury of the populace, four political inquisitors hastened down to see him; to extort, if possible, from the lips of the dying chief, or the fears or hopes of the younger captives, confessions that might criminally implicate the champions or friends of the Republican party. From the South came Governor Wise and Senator Mason of Virginia; from the North, a United States Marshal named Johnson, and Mr. Vallandingham, a member of Congress from Ohio.

The result of these visits was one of John Brown's greatest victories. From the three published reports of it, carefully compared and corrected, we give the conversation that ensued between the wounded insurrectionists and their cowardly political inquisitors.

Never before, in the United States, did a recorded conversation produce so sudden and universal a change of opinion. Before its publication, some, who subsequently eulogized John Brown, with fervor and surpassing [275] eloquence, as well as the great body of the press and people who knew not the man, lamented that he should have gone insane,--never doubting that he was a maniac; while, after it, from every corner of the land came words of wonder, of praise rising to worship, and of gratitude mingling with sincerest prayers for the holy old hero. Enemies and friends were equally amazed at the carriage and sayings of the wounded warrior. “During his conversation,” wrote a Southern pro-slavery reporter to a Southern pro-slavery paper, “no signs of weakness were exhibited. In the midst of enemies whose home he had invaded; wounded and a prisoner; surrounded by a small army of officials and a more desperate army of angry men; with the gallows staring him full in the face, Brown lay on the floor, and, in reply to every question gave answers that betokened the spirit that animated him. The language of Governor Wise well expresses his boldness when he said: ‘He is the gamest man I ever saw.’ I believe the worthy Executive had hardly expected to see a man so act in such a trying moment.”

“Such a word as insane,” said an eloquent speaker, unconsciously uttering the opinion of the people of the North, “is a mere trope with those who persist in using it; and I have no doubt that many of them, in silence, have already retracted their words. Read his admirable answers to Mason and others. Now they are dwarfed and defeated by the contrast! On the one side, half-brutish, half-timid questioning; on the other, Truth, clear as lightning, crashing into their obscene temples. They are made to stand as Pilate or Gesler and the Inquisition. Probably all the speeches of all the men [276] whom Massachusetts has sent to Congress for the last few years do not match, for manly directness and force, and for simple truth, the few casual remarks of John Brown on the floor of the Harper's Ferry engine house -that man whom you are about to send to the other world; though not to represent you there. He is too fair a specimen of a man to represent the like of us. Who, then, were his constituents? Read his words, understandingly, and you will find out. In his case there is no idle eloquence. Truth is the inspirer and earnestness the polisher of his sentences. He could afford the loss of his Sharpe's rifles while he retained the faculty of speech-a rifle of far straighter sight and longer range.”

It is seldom that men of views so opposite meet together, either in the events themselves, or in their subsequent views of those events, as met at Harper's Ferry, when Captain John Brown and Senator Mason -the abolitionist and the extraditionist — the slave liberator in virtue of the higher law, and the slave-holding author of the fugitive slave law — gazed at each other face to face; or when the Baltimore American and the hermit of Concord united to do honor to the venerable invader of Virginia! The reader will notice, also, how the two earnest men respected each other; how Mason, the “fanatic,” unlike his compromising compeer, was courteous to the old man, fearless and almost reverential in his questionings.

The conversation.

Senator Mason. Can you tell us, at least, who furnished money for your expedition?

Capt. Brown. I furnished most of it myself. I cannot implicate others. It is by my own folly that I have been taken. I could easily [277] have saved myself from it if I had exercised my own better judgment, rather than yielded to my feelings. I should have gone away, but I had thirty odd prisoners, whose wives and daughters were in tears for their safety, and I felt for them. Besides, I wanted to allay the fears of those who believed we came here to burn and kill. For this reason I allowed the train to pass the bridge, and gave them full liberty to pass on. I did it only to spare the feelings of those passengers and their families, and to allay the apprehension that you had got here in your vicinity a band of men who had no regard for life and property, nor any feeling of humanity.

Senator M. But you killed some people passing along the streets quietly.

Capt. B. Well, sir, if there was any thing of that kind done, it was without my knowledge. Your own citizens, who were my prisoners, will tell you that every possible means were taken to prevent it. I did not allow my men to fire, nor even to return a fire, when there was danger of killing those we regarded as innocent persons, if I could help it. They will tell you that we allowed ourselves to be fired at repeatedly, and did not return it.

A Bystander. That is not so. You killed an unarmed man at the corner of the house, over there, (at the water tank,) and another besides.

Capt. B. See here, my friend; it is useless to dispute or contradict the report of your own neighbors, who were my prisoners.

Senator M. If you would tell us who sent you here,--who provided the means,--that would be information of some value.

Capt. B. I will answer freely and faithfully about what concerns myself — I will answer any thing I can with honor, but not about others.

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

Capt. B. No man sent me here; it was my own prompting and that of my Maker, or that of the devil whichever you please to ascribe it to. I acknowledge no master in human form.

Mr. V. Did you get up the expedition yourself?

Capt. B. I did.

Mr. V. Did you get up this document called a constitution?

Capt. B. I did. They are a constitution and ordinances of my own contriving and getting up.

Mr. V. How long have you been engaged in this business?

Capt. B. From the breaking out of the difficulties in Kansas. Four of my sons had gone there to settle, and they induced me to go. I'd not go there to settle, but because of the difficulties. [278]

Senator M. How many are engaged in this movement? I ask these questions for your own safety.

Capt. B. Any questions that I can honorably answer, I will; not otherwise. So far as I am myself concerned, I have told every thing truthfully. I value my word, sir.

Senator M. What was your object in coming?

Capt. B. 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?

Capt. B. I came to Virginia with eighteen men besides myself.

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

Capt. B. Young man, I don't wish to discuss that question here. Volunteer. You could not do any thing.

Capt. B. Well, perhaps your ideas and mine, on military subjects, would differ materially.

Senator M. How do you justify your acts?

Capt. B. 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 any one to interfere with you so far as to free those you wilfully and wickedly hold in bondage. I do not say this insultingly.

Senator M. I understand that.

Capt. B. 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.

Lieutenant Stuart. But you don't believe in the Bible?

Capt. B. Certainly I do.

Mr. V. Where did your men come from? Did some of them come from Ohio?

Capt. B. Some of them.

Mr. V. From the Western Reserve, of course! None came from Southern Ohio?

Capt. B. O, yes. I believe one came from Steubenville, down not far from Wheeling.

Mr. V. Have you been in Ohio this summer?

Capt. B. Yes, sir.

Mr. V. How lately?

Capt. B. I passed through to Pittsburg on my way, in June.

Mr. V. Were you at any county or state fair there?

Capt. B. I was not there since June.

Senator M. Did you consider this a military organization in this [279] paper? (Showing a copy of John Brown's constitution and ordinance.) I have not yet read it.

Capt. B. I did in some measure. I wish you would give that paper your close attention.

Senator M. You considered yourself the commander-in-chief of this provisional military force?

Capt. B. I was chosen, agreeably to the ordinance of a certain document, commander-in-chief of that force.

Senator M. What wages did you offer? Capt. B. None. Lieut. S. “The wages of sin is death.”

Capt. B. I would not have made such a remark to you, if you had been a prisoner and wounded, in my hands.

Bystander. Did you not promise a negro in Gettysburg twenty dollars a month?

Capt. B. I did not.

Bystander. He says you did.

Mr. V. Were you ever in Dayton, Ohio?

Capt. B. Yes, I must have been.

Mr. V. This summer?

Capt. B. No; a year or two since.

Senator 1. Does this talking annoy you at all?

Capt. B. Not in the least.

Mr. V. Have you lived long in Ohio?

Capt. B. I went there in 1805. I lived in Summit County, which was then Trumbull County. My native place is York State.

Mr. V. Do you recollect a man in Ohio named Brown, a noted counterfeiter?

Capt. B. I do. I knew him from a boy. His father was Henry Brown, of Irish or Scotch descent. The family was very low.

Mr. V. Have you ever been in Portage County?

Capt. B. I was there in June last.

Mr. V. When in Cleveland, did you attend the Fugitive Slave Law Convention there?

Capt. B. No. I was there about the time of the sitting of the court to try the Oberlin rescuers. I spoke there, publicly, on that subject. I spoke on the fugitive slave law, and my own rescue. Of course, so far as I had any influence at all, I was disposed to justify the Oberlin people for rescuing the slave, because I have myself forcibly taken slaves from bondage. I was concerned in taking eleven slaves from Missouri to Canada, last winter. I think that I spoke in Cleveland before the Convention. I do not know that I had any conversation with any of the Oberlin rescuers. I was sick part of the [280] time I was in Ohio. I had the ague. I was part of the 41me in Ashtabula county.

Mr. V. Did you see any thing of Joshua R. Giddings there?

Capt. B. I did meet him.

Mr. V. Did you converse with him?

Capt. B. I did. I would not tell you, of course, any thing that would implicate Mr. Giddings; but I certainly — net with him, and had a conversation with him.

Mr. V. About that rescue case?

Capt. B. Yes, I did. I heard him express his opinion upon it very freely and frankly.

Mr. V. Justifying it?

Capt. B. Yes, sir. I do not compromise him, certainly, in saying that.

A Bystander. Did you go out to Kansas under the auspices of the Emigrant Aid Society?

Capt. B. No, sir; I went out under the auspices of John Brown, and nobody else.

Mr. V. Will you answer this? Did you talk to Giddings about your expedition here?

Capt. B. No, sir! I won't answer that, because a denial of it I would not make; and to make an affidavit of it, I should be a great dunce.

Mr. V. Have you had any correspondence with parties at the North on the subject of this movement?

Capt. B. I have had no correspondence.1 Bystander. Do you consider this a religious movement?

Capt. B. It is, in my opinion, the greatest service a man can render to his God.

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

Capt. B. I do. Bystander. Upon what principle do you justify your acts?

Capt. B. Upon the golden rule. I pity the poor in bondage that have none to help them. That is why I am here; it is not to gratify any personal animosity, or feeling of revenge, or vindictive spirit. It s 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? Capt. B. I never did. Bystander. You did in one instance, at least.

Stevens. (To the inquirer, interrupting Brown.) You are right, sir; in one case--(a groan from the wounded man)--in one case, I [281] know the negro wanted to go back.--(To Brown.) Captain, the gentleman is right.

Bystander. (To Stevens.) Where did you come from? Stevens. I lived in Ashtabula County, Ohio. Mr. B. How recently did you leave Ashtabula County?

Stevens. Some months ago. I never resided there any length of time. I have often been through there.

Mr. V. How far did you live from Jefferson?

Capt. B. (To Stevens.) Be very cautious, Stevens, about an answer to that; it might commit some friend. I would not answer it at all.

Stevens, who had been groaning considerably, as if the exertion necessary to conversation seriously affected him, seemed content to abide by the captain's advice. He turned partially over, with a groan of pain, and was silent.

Mr. V. (To Capt. Brown.) Who are your advisers in this movement?

Capt. B. I cannot answer that. I have numerous sympathizers throughout the entire North.

Mr. V. In Northern Ohio?

Capt. B. No more there than any where else-in all the Free States.

Mr. V. But are you not personally acquainted in Southern Ohio?

Capt. B. Not very much.

Mr. V. (To Stevens.) Were you at the convention last June?

Stevens. I was.

Mr. V. (To Capt. Brown.) You made a speech there?

Capt. B. I did, sir.

Bystander. Did you ever live in ~Washington city?

Capt. B. I did not. I want you to understand, gentlemen, that 1 respect the rights of the poorest and weakest of the 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 endeavoring to do for those in distress — the 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.

Bystander. Why did you do it secretly?

Capt. B. Because I thought that necessary to success, and for no other reason.

Bystander. And you think that honorable, do you? Have you read Gerrit Smith's last letter?

Capt. B. What letter do you mean?

Bystander. The New York Herald of yesterday, in speaking of this [282] affair, mentions a letter in which he says, “that it is folly to attempt to strike the shackles off the slave by the force of moral suasion or legal agitation,” and predicts that the next movement made in the direction of negro emancipation will be an insurrection in the South.

Capt. B. I have not seen a New York Herald for some days past; but I presume, from your remarks about the gist of the letter, that I should concur with it. I agree with Mr. Smith, that moral suasion is hopeless. I don't think the people of the Slave States will ever consider the subject of slavery in its true light until some other argument is resorted to than moral suasion.

Mr. T. Did you expect a general rising of the slaves in case of your success?

Capt. B. No, sir; nor did I wish it. I expected to gather strength from time to time; then I could set them free.

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

Capt. B. 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 when you suppose 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.

Mr. V. Did you not shoot a negro on the bridge, or did not some of your party?

Capt. B. I knew nothing of the shooting of the negro, (Heywood.)

Mr. V. What time did you commence your organization over in Canada?

Capt. B. It occurred about two years ago. If I remember right, it was, I think, in 1858.

Mr. V. Who was the secretary?

Capt. B. That I would not tell if I recollected; but I do not remember. I think the officers were elected in May, 1858. I may answer incorrectly, but not intentionally. My head is a little confused by wounds, and my memory of dates and such like is somewhat confused.

Dr. Biggs. Were you in the party at Dr. Kennedy's house?

Capt. B. I was the head of that party. I occupied the house to mature my plans. I would state here that I have not been in Baltimore to purchase percussion caps.

Dr. B. What was the number of men at Kennedy's? [283] Capt. B. I decline to answer that. Dr. B. Who lanced that woman's neck on the hill?

Capt. B. I did. I have sometimes practised in surgery, when I thought it a matter of humanity or of necessity — when there was no one else to do it; but I have not studied surgery.

Dr. B. (To the persons around.) It was done very well and scientifically. These men have been very clever to the neighbors, I have been told, and we had no reason to suspect them, except that we could not understand their movements. They were represented as eight or nine persons; on Friday there were thirteen.

Capt. B. There were more than thirteen. Questions were now put in by almost every one in the room.

Q. Where did you get arms to obtain possession of the armory? Capt. B. I bought them.

Q. In what state? Capt. B. That I would not state.

Q. How many guns?

Capt. B. Two hundred Sharpe's rifles, and two hundred revolvers -what is called the Massachusetts Arms Company's revolvers — a little under the navy size.

Q. Why did you not take that swivel you left in the house?

Capt. B. I had no occasion for it. It was given to me a year or two ago.

A Reporter. I do not wish to annoy you; but if you have any thing else you would like to say, I will report it.

Capt. B. I do not wish to converse any more; I have nothing to say. I will only remark to these reporting gentlemen, that I claim to be here in carrying out a measure I believe to be perfectly justifiable, and not to act the part of an incendiary or ruffian; but, on the contrary, to aid those suffering under a great wrong. I wish to say, furthermore, that you had better — all you people of the South--prepare yourselves for a settlement of this question. It must come up for settlement sooner than you are prepared for it, and the sooner you commence that preparation the better for you. 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. These wounds were inflicted upon me,--both the sabre cut on my head, and the bayonet stabs in the different parts of my body, -some minutes after I had ceased fighting, and had consented to surrender for the benefit of others, and not for my own benefit.

(Several persons vehemently denied this statement. Without noticing the interruption, the old man continued :)

I believe the Major here (pointing to Lieut. Stuart) would not have [284] been alive but for me. I might have killed him just as easy as I could kill a mosquito, when he came in ; but I supposed that he came in only to receive our surrender. There had been long and loud calls of surrender from us,--as loud as men could yell,--but in the confusion and excitement I suppose we were not heard. I do not believe the major, or any one else, wanted to butcher us after we had surrendered.

An officer present here stated that special orders had been given to the marines not to shoot any body; but when they were fired upon by Brown's men, and one of them had been killed, and another wounded, they were obliged to return the compliment.

Captain Brown insisted, with some warmth, that the marines fired first.

An Officer. Why did you not surrender before the attack?

Capt. B. I did not think it was my duty or interest to do so. We assured our prisoners that we did not wish to harm them, and that they should be set at liberty. I exercised my best judgment, not believing the people would wantonly sacrifice their own fellow-citizens. When we offered to let them go upon condition of being allowed to change our position about a quarter of a mile, the prisoners agreed by vote among themselves to pass across the bridge with us. We wanted them only as a sort of guarantee for our own safety — that we should not be fired into. We took them, in the first place, as hostages, and to keep them from doing any harm. We did kill some men when defending ourselves; but I saw no one fire except directly in self-defence. Our orders were strict not to harm any one not in arms against us.

Q. Well, Brown, suppose you had every nigger in the United States, what would you do with them?

Capt. B. (In a loud tone, and with emphasis.) Set them free, sir! Q. Your intention was to carry them off and free them? Capt. B. Not at all.

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

Capt. B. I do not think so. Bystander. I know it. I think you are fanatical.

Capt. B. And I think you are fanatical. “Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad;” and you are mad.

Q. Was your only object to free the negroes? Capt. B. Absolutely our only object.

Bystander. But you went and took Col. Washington's silver and Match.

Capt B. O, yes; we intended freely to have appropriated the property [285] of slaveholders, to carry out our object. It was for that, and only that; and with no design to enrich ourselves with any plunder whatever.

Q. Did you know Sherrod in Kansas? I understand you killed him.

Capt. B. I killed no man except in fair fight. I fought at Black Jack, and at Ossawatomie; and if I killed any body, it was at one of those places.

During this conversation, the wounded Liberators, we are told by pro-slavery writers, “lay stretched on miserable shake-downs.” John Brown's “long gray hair was matted and tangled, and his hands and clothes all smooched and smeared with blood, and begrimed with dirt — the effect of continued exposure to the smoke of powder. His manner and conversation were courteous and affable, and he appeared to make a favorable impression upon his auditory.”

Mr. Vallandingham, not ashamed of having attempted to extort political capital from the lips of a dying man-- or having inquired if he knew one Brown, a noted counterfeiter, or having striven to bring dishonor on the people of Ohio, in the eyes of the South --returned to his native state, and, unconscious of the immortality of infamy he had gained, publicly and in writing declared that “I have only to regret now that I did not pursue the matter further, asking more questions, and making them more specific.” Of the old hero he said:

It is in vain to underrate either the man or the conspiracy. Cap. John Brown is as brave and resolute a man as ever headed an insurrection, and, in a good cause, and with a sufficient force, would have been a consummate partisan commander. He has coolness, daring. persistency, the stoic faith and patience, and a firmness of will and purpose unconquerable. He is the farthest possible remove from the ordinary ruffian, fanatic, or madman. Certainly it was one of the best planned and best executed conspiracies that ever failed.

1 One report reads thus: the other omits the word “no.”

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