Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
Letters Written from Jail in the Week before his Execution
By John Brown (18001859)
[From Sanborns Life and Letters of John Brown. 1885.]
TO HIS KINSMAN, THE REV. HEMAN HUMPHREY, SOMETIME PRESIDENT OF AMHERST COLLEGE.
I DISCOVER that you labor under a mistaken impression as to pome important facts, which my peculiar circumstances will in all probability prevent the possibility of my removing, and I do not propose to take up any argument to prove that any motion or act of my life is right. But I will here state, that I know it to be wholly my own fault as a leader, that caused our disaster. Of this you have no proper means of judging, not being on the ground, or a practical soldier. I will only add, that it was in yielding to my feelings of humanity (if I ever exercise such a feeling), in leaving my proper place, and mingling with my prisoners to quiet their fears, that occasioned our being caught. I firmly believe that God reigns, and that He overrules all things in the best possible manner, and in that view of the subject I try to be in some degree reconciled to my own weaknesses and follies even. If you were here on the spot and could be with me, by day and by night, and know the facts and how my time is spent here, I think you would find much to reconcile your own mind to the ignominious death I am about to suffer, and to mitigate your sorrow. I am to say the least quite cheerful. He shall begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines. This was said of a poor erring servant many years ago, and for many years I have felt a strong impression that God had given me powers and faculties, unworthy as I was, that He intended to use for a similar purpose. This most unmerited honor He has seen fit to bestow, and whether like the same poor frail man to whom I allude my death may not be of vastly more value than my life is, I think, quite beyond all human foresight. I really have strong hopes that notwithstanding all my many sins I, too, may yet die in faith. If you do not believe I had a murderous intention (while I know I had not) why grieve so terribly on my account? The scaffold has but few terrors for me. God has often covered my head in the day of battle, and granted me many times deliverances, that were almost so miraculous, that I can scarce realize their truth, and now when it seems quite certain that He intends to use me in a different way, shall I not most cheerfully go? I may be deceived, but I humbly trust that He will not forsake me till I have showed His favor to this generation and His strength to every one that is to come. Your letter is most faithfully and kindly written, and I mean to profit by it. I am certainly quite grateful for it. I feel that a great responsibility rests upon me, as regards the lives of those who have fallen, and may yet fall. I must in that view cast myself on the care of Him, whose mercy endureth forever. If the cause in which I engaged, in any possible degree approximated to be infinitely better than the one in which Saul of Tarsus undertook, I have no reason to be ashamed of it, and indeed I cannot now, after more than a month for reflection, find in my heart (before God in whose presence I expect to stand within another week) any cause for shame.
CHARLESTOWN, JEFFERSON CO., VA., 25 November, 1859.
THE GREAT bulk of mankind estimate each others actions and motives by the measure of success or otherwise that attends them through life. By that rule, I have been one of the worst and one of the best of men. I do not claim to have been one of the latter, and I leave it to an impartial tribunal to decide whether the world has been the worse or the better for my living or dying in it. My present great anxiety is to get as near in readiness for a different field of action as I well can, since being in a good measure relieved from the fear that my poor broken-hearted wife and children would come to immediate want. May God reward a thousandfold all the kind efforts made in their behalf! I have enjoyed remarkable cheerfulness and composure of mind ever since my confinement; and it is a great comfort to feel assured that I am permitted to die for a cause,not merely to pay the debt of nature, as all must I feel myself to be most unworthy of so great distinction. The particular manner of dying assigned to me gives me but very little uneasiness. I wish I had the time and the ability to give you, my dear friend, some little idea of what is daily, and I might almost say hourly, passing within my prison walls; and could my friends but witness only a few of these scenes, just as they occur, I think they would feel very well reconciled to my being here, just what I am, and just as I am. My whole life before had not afforded me one half the opportunity to plead for the right. In this, also, I find much to reconcile me to both my present condition and my immediate prospect. I may be very insane; and I am so, if insane at all. But if that be so, insanity is like a very pleasant dream to me. I am not in the least degree conscious of my ravings, of my fears, or of any terrible visions whatever; but fancy myself entirely composed, and that my sleep, in particular, is as sweet as that of a healthy, joyous little infant. I pray God that He will grant me a continuance of the same calm but delightful dream, until I come to know of those realities which eyes have not seen and which ears have not heard. I have scarce realized that I am in prison or in irons at all. I certainly think I was never more cheerful in my life.