John Brown Trial (1859)

"Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say, let it be done."
--John Brown, statement at his sentencing on Nov. 2, 1859

"[John Brown is] that new saint, than whom none purer or more brave was ever led by love of men into conflict and death,--the new saint awaiting his martyrdom, and who, if he shall suffer, will make the gallows glorious like the cross."
--Ralph Waldo Emerson, from his lecture "Courage," delivered in Boston on Nov. 8, 1859

The arrest, trial, and execution of John Brown in the fall of 1859 came at a critical moment in United State history. According to historian David S. Reynolds in his recent biography, John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights (2005), Brown's actions and statements following his failed attempt to begin a slave insurrection near Harper's Ferry, Virginia so polarized northern and southern opinion on the slavery issue as to ensure Abraham Lincoln's election and cause the Civil War to occur perhaps two decades earlier than it might have otherwise. Reynolds is quick to point out that not only was Brown "right" on slavery and other racial issues of his day, but that his conduct--in causing the Civil War to begin in 1861 rather than, say, 1881--potentially saved hundreds of thousands of lives that could have been lost in a war fought in a time of much greater population and more deadly weaponry and, at the same time, might well have spared an entire generation of African-Americans the humiliating experience of human bondage....