Essay on John Brown's Last Speech

Published: 2021-07-09
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Sewanee University of the South
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Born in the year 1800 to a family that embraced extreme anti-slavery views, John Brown followed his parents footsteps and later became a radical abolitionist. He was appalled by slavery in the United States and opined that the only way to abrogate this practice was through armed insurrection. As a father to twenty children, he chose to use some of his sons in the rebellion against slavery; after failing in several business ventures and finally affirming that he was bankrupt in 1842 (Gilpin 12). His financial crisis did not deter him from fostering and supporting the abolitionist cause. He actively participated as a conductor on the Underground Railroad in addition to establishing the League of Gileadites; a team that aided runaway slaves to escape to Canada. When John Brown led his team into Harpers Ferry, this raid resulted in the death of his sons and other men. Consequently, he was tried in a court of law and convicted for murder; among other counts. He was given a chance to address the courtroom before his death, and this is an analysis of John Browns last speech.

The events of October 16, 1859, preceded the inception of John Browns final speech as delivered in a Virginia Court. Beforehand, on May 24, 1856, John Brown had guided some of his men into Pottawatomie Creek where they viciously killed five men and boys. These victims were thought to have been advocating for slavery. Fast forward to 1859, under the alias Isaac Smith, Brown became a tenant in the Kennedy Farmhouse; four miles away from the Harpers Ferry. On that fateful October 16th day, Brown, in the company of twenty-one men, invaded the Harpers Ferry with the aim of seizing the federal arsenal. According to their plan, whatever pikes and rifles gathered from the loot would be given to the slaves in that area. Resultantly, these slaves would join his army in freeing more slaves; intrinsically striking terror in the hearts of slave owners (Gilpin 32). Unfortunately, things took a different turn as the slaves in that area became uncooperative and refused to join the raid. With Robert E. Lee as their leader, the Unites States Marine together with the local militia successfully combated the attack. Two of John Browns sons died alongside other men in his party. Brown was imprisoned and tried in a Virginia Court where he was found guilty of betraying his country, murder, and inciting a slave rebellion.

On November 2, 1859, John Brown delivered his speech in a Charlestown Courtroom after the trials high points cessation. The speech was printed in the Liberator as published in December 1859; in the original language as it was spoken and there is no indicator that it may have been doctored. One realizes that John Brown intended that his words reach the public domain since it is evident that there was an audience in court as indicated in the line: every man in this court (Sterngass 48). Although the immediate audience was the people in the courtroom, Browns speech targeted both the abolitionists and slaveholders. To the abolitionists, John Brown explains to them that his intentions were well-meaning; he wanted to free slaves without any confrontation. Additionally, he furnishes this group with an excerpt from the Bible that is meant to justify his quest to liberate the slaves, that is, never to forget those that are in bondage but instead suffer with them (Sterngass 48). To the slaveholders, Browns speech condemned their oppressive actions. He stood firm in his beliefs that slavery was wrong even at a time when the hangmans noose awaited him.

The theme of commitment to ending slavery overrides Johns speech. He expresses no regrets of the intents of the raid gone sour. He doubtlessly indicates that he had a noble idea to free slaves and the war that ensued which resulted in fatalities was unintended. John believes that no man should be punished for committing to free people from slavery. He is of the opinion that a death penalty hung over his head because of his actions in behalf of His despised poor, and if circumstances were any different, then he would have been liable for a reward (Sterngass 48). According to Brown, if he had caused interference in favor of the wealthy, then his actions would have been justified in the society. John Brown validates his efforts to end slavery using the Bible. Accordingly, he states that the holy book requires him to do unto others what he would want to be done unto him. He goes further to remind the court that the same Bible within their premises teaches him to remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them and he was acting about these directives (Sterngass 48). Subsequently, it was hypocritical of the court to prosecute him for acting by Gods will; yet purport to acknowledge the authenticity of His law. It is possible that given another chance, John Brown would do that which led to his death over again since his conscience is clear. His willingness to lose his life for the sake of justice to the oppressed reveals the greatest form of courage and determination, and it is a no wonder that most northerners thought him to be a martyr to the cause of freedom.

The theme of chaos and disorder is briefly captured in Johns speech. His noble idea to free slaves without the snapping of a gun ended up creating confusion which led to the death his sons and some of his accomplices. It is evident that regardless of the path he would have chosen to liberate the slaves, it would have been impossible to avert a shambolic scenario. John Brown refers to the Missouri incident where he successfully moved slaves to Canada and selectively leaves out the fact that this liberation created anxiety and tension in the affected region. Therefore, during both times, his good intentions created chaos and disorder (Gilpin 32).

All in all, John Browns anti-slavery views rightfully earned him the abolitionist title. As indicated in his speech, he acted according to Gods word that one ought to remember those that are in bonds. There is a sharp divide between his intended audiences views concerning his actions. The abolitionists thought that he was a martyr who died in the course of redeeming them from slavery while the slaveholders regarded him as a violent man with no moral grounding accorded to his actions. The theme of commitment to ending slavery overrides Browns speech as he affirms that he would gladly lose his life for the sake of justice. Also, the subject of chaos and disorder features as Johns actions led to murder, rebellion, and insurrection.


Works Cited

Sterngass, Jon. John Brown. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2009. Print.

Gilpin, R B. John Brown Still Lives!: America's Long Reckoning with Violence, Equality, & Change. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011. Print.


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