Speeches and Other Commentaries Prompted by John Brown's Actions, Prosecution, and Death

E Pluribus Unum



1770s America
(Fall 2002)


1920s America
(Fall 2001)


Teacher Resources
(In Progress)





In his raid on Harpers Ferry, John Brown succeeded in intensifying the already heated debate over slavery in the United States. Below you will find just a few of the speeches and commentaries inspired by Brown's words, actions, prosecution, and execution.


Depiction of Brown in a mural at the Arkansas State Capitol Building

Because of John Brown's determination to represent his own opinions in his own words, his lawyers were restrained in their own speeches on his behalf, saying they "could only declare their belief in the nobility of John Brown's intentions and indicate some of the atrocities which he might have, but had not committed."


If you would like to read an assessment of the lawyer's position (and how that contrasts with the lawyers who defended "unibomber" Theodore Kozynski with an insanity plea) see "Raising Holy Hell: John Brown's Lawyers," by Michael Mello. Mello is a Professor of Ethics at the Vermont Law School.

Address of John Brown to the Virginia Court, when About to Receive Sentence of Death

You can also view a text-only version at the Underground Railroad site This version is taken from Stephen Vincent Benet's Civil War work entitled "John Brown's Body.

For comments on this speech, see "A Lecture on John Brown" at the African American Odyssey Collection at the American Memory Site.

Telegram sent by the Superintendent of the Arsenal at Harpers Ferry to the Secretary of War, October 19, 1859--after Brown was captured.

Henry David Thoreau enjoyed a brief flurry of attention as a political lecturer when his Plea for Captain John Brown delivered in Concord attracted attention in other towns. You can find read about the events surrounding these addresses at the Walden Organizations commentaries on Thoreau's lecturing activities. Specifically, see:

"The Character and Actions of Capt. John Brown," delivered in the First Parish Meetinghouse on October 30, 1859.

Thoreau's lecture in Boston on November 1, 1859

Thoreau's address in Worcester, Massachusetts on November 3, 1859

Also worthy of note is Thoreau's commentary on "The Maryrdom of John Brown," delivered in Concord on Friday, December 2, 1859



William Lloyd Garrison gave an address on the death of John Brown. He argued that the North should secede from the South, exhorting his listeners: "God forbid that we should any longer continue the accomplices of thieves and robbers, of men-stealers and women-whippers!"

John Brown had invited Frederick Douglass to take part in the raid on Harpers Ferry. Despite the fact that Douglass had declined, he was nevertheless pursued by federal marshalls after the event. Douglass delivered an address on John Brown at the fourteenth anniversary of Storer college, Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, May 30, 1881. (See a commentary on this speech at the Frederick Douglass at Harpers Ferry page posted by the National Parks Service.)

Some Written Commentaries:

Ralph Waldo Emerson's Recollections of Seventy Years includes a chapter on the "Aftermath of the John Brown Foray."

"Commentary by a Radical Abolitionist," by F. B. Sanborn, published in the Century Magazine 26, (July, 1883): 411-415

Remiscences of Frank Benjamin Sanborn regarding Brown recorded in The Significance of Being Frank, by Thom Foran Clark

“In Readiness to do Every Duty Assigned": The Frederick Milita and John Brown's Raid on Harper's Ferry, October 17-18, 1859


For Additional Information:

John Brown and the Valley of the Shadow ; includes articles on John Brown published in the Valley Spirit of Chambersburg, PA.

The Kennedy Farmhouse: Abolitionist John Brown's Staging Area for Raid on Harpers Ferry

John Brown and Harpers Ferry at the National Archives and Records Administration

John Brown's Holy War, at the American Experience Site

John Brown Historical Association of Illinois (includes page of links to other sites).

"John Brown," by Gamaliel Bradford on the Atlantic Unbound site.

John Brown on the Internet

John Brown's Picture, a daguerrotype made by an African-American artist

Concord and John Brown

Re-evaluating John Brown's Raid at Harpers Ferry By Karen Whitman, West Virginia History Volume Thirty-Four, Number One

"The Martyrdom of John Brown" By Charles A. Jellison, West Virginia History, Volume Eighteen, Number Four

Home Page

Introduction to
the 1850s

"Representative" 1850s
Americans and Issues

1850s American


1850s E-Text


Inquiries and