Nonfiction > E.C. Stedman & E.M. Hutchinson, eds. > A Library of American Literature > 1835–1860
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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps.  A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes.  1891.
Vols. VI–VIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 1835–1860
 
The Death and Character of John Brown
By Franklin Benjamin Sanborn (1831–1917)
 
[Born in Hampton Falls, N. H., 1831. Died in Concord, N. H., 1917. The Life and Letters of John Brown. Edited by F. B. Sanborn. 1885.]

THE PRISON-LIFE of Brown may be inferred from his letters; but there were sayings of his, during the month between his sentence and its execution, which have been reported by those who talked with him in his fetters. To Mrs. Spring, of New York, who obtained admission to his cell November 6, he said: “I do not now reproach myself for my failure; I did what I could. I think I cannot better serve the cause I love so much than to die for it; and in my death I may do more than in my life. The sentence they have pronounced against me does not disturb me in the least; this is not the first time I have looked death in the face. I sleep as peacefully as an infant; or if I am wakeful, glorious thoughts come to me, entertaining my mind. I do not believe I shall deny my Lord and Master Jesus Christ, in this prison or on the scaffold; but I should do so if I denied my principles against slavery. I have been trained to hardships,” added Brown, “but I have one unconquerable weakness: I have always been more afraid of going into an evening party of ladies and gentlemen than of meeting a company of men with guns.” An old Pennsylvania neighbor, Mr. Lowry, was permitted to see him in prison, and asked him about his Kansas campaigns. “Time and the honest verdict of posterity,” said Brown, “will approve every act of mine to prevent slavery from being established in Kansas. I never shed the blood of a fellow-man except in self-defence or in promotion of a righteous cause.” During this conversation Governor Wise was reviewing the Virginia militia near the prison, and the drums and trumpets made a great noise. His friend said: “Does this martial music annoy you?” “Not in the least,” said Brown; “it is inspiring. Tell my friends without that I am cheerful.” A son of Governor Wise soon after accompanied a Virginia colonel to Brown’s cell, when the colonel asked him if he desired the presence of a clergyman to give him “the consolations of religion.” Brown repeated what he had said to the Methodists—that he did not recognize as Christians any slaveholders or defenders of slavery, lay or clerical; adding that he would as soon be attended to the scaffold by “blacklegs” or robbers of the worst kind as by slaveholding ministers; if he had his choice he would rather be followed to his “public murder,” as he termed his execution, by “barefooted, barelegged, ragged slave children and their old gray-headed slave mother,” than by such clergymen. “I should feel much prouder of such an escort,” he said, “and I wish I could have it.” From this saying of his, several times repeated, no doubt arose the legend, that on his way to the gallows he took up a little slave-child, kissed it, and gave it back to its mother’s arms. On the same day with this interview, Brown was again questioned concerning the Pottawatomie executions, and said, as he uniformly had done since that deed: “I did not kill any of those men, but I approved of their killing.” He expressed pleasure that his body was ordered by Governor Wise to be delivered to his wife for burial at North Elba, and requested his jailer to assist Mrs. Brown, not only in this, but in getting together the remains of his sons and the other farmers of North Elba who had been slain at Harper’s Ferry, for burial with him, expressing the wish that their bodies should be burned, and the bones and ashes conveyed to his Adirondack home. In regard to his own rescue from prison, he had previously said: “I doubt if I ought to encourage any attempt to save my life. I may be wrong, but I think that my great object will be nearer its accomplishment by my death than by my life. I must give some thought to this.” Having reflected on it, he said a few days before his death: “I am sure my sons cannot look forward to my fate without some effort to rescue me; but this only in case I am allowed to remain in prison for some time with no more than ordinary precautions against escape. No such attempt will be made in view of the large military force now upon guard.” In fact, he had intimated to his friends that he did not wish to be rescued, and it soon became evident to all, as it was directly revealed to Brown, that his death, like Samson’s, was to be his last and greatest victory.
  1
  I pass over the farewell between Brown and his wife the day before his death; it was simple and heroic, in keeping with the character of both. They supped with the jailer in his own apartment; and thus, perhaps for the first time, the condemned man was allowed to leave his cell, after sentence and before the day of execution. Upon that morning, December 2, 1859, he was led from his cell to say farewell to his companions….  2
  Meantime the soldiers of Virginia, more than two thousand in number, were mustered in the field where the gallows had been erected, with cannon and cavalry, and all the pomp of war. At eleven o’clock Brown came forth from his prison, walking firmly and cheerfully, and mounted the wagon which was to carry him to the scaffold. He sat beside his jailer, and cast his eyes over the town, the soldiery, the near fields, and the distant hills, behind which rose the mountains of the Blue Ridge. He glanced at the sun and sky, taking his leave of earth, and said to his companions: “This is a beautiful country; I have not cast my eyes over it before—that is, in this direction.” Reaching the scaffold, he ascended the steps, and was the first to stand upon it,—erect and calm, and with a smile on his face. With his pinioned hands he took off his hat, cast it on the scaffold beside him, and thanked his jailer again for his kindness, submitting quietly to be closer pinioned and to have the cap drawn over his eyes and the rope adjusted to his neck. “I can’t see, gentlemen,” said he: “you must lead me;” and he was placed on the drop of the gallows. “I am ready at any time,—do not keep me waiting,” were his last reported words. No dying speech was permitted to him, nor were the citizens allowed to approach the scaffold, which was surrounded only by militia. He desired to make no speech, but only to endure his fate with dignity and in silence. The ceremonies of his public murder were duly performed; and when his body had swung for nearly an hour on the gibbet, in sight of earth and heaven, for a witness against our nation, it was lowered to its coffin and delivered to his widow, who received and accompanied it through shuddering cities to the forest hillside where it lies buried. The most eloquent lips in America pronounced his funeral eulogy beside this grave; while in hundreds of cities and villages his death was sadly commemorated. The Civil War followed hard upon his execution; and the place of his capture and death became the frequent battle-ground of the fratricidal armies. Not until freedom was declared, and the slaves liberated as Brown had planned—by force—was victory assured to the cause of the country.  3
  I knew John Brown well. He was what all his speeches, letters, and actions avouch him—a simple, brave, heroic person, incapable of anything selfish or base. But above and beyond these personal qualities, he was what we may best term an historic character; that is, he had, like Cromwell, a certain predestined relation to the political crisis of his time, for which his character fitted him, and which, had he striven against it, he could not avoid. Like Cromwell and all the great Calvinists, he was an unquestioning believer in God’s foreordination and the divine guidance of human affairs. Of course, he could not rank with Cromwell or with many inferior men in leadership; but in this God-appointed, inflexible devotion to his object in life he was inferior to no man; and he rose in fame far above more gifted persons because of this very fixedness and simplicity of character. His renown is secure.  4
  A few words may be given to the personal traits of this hero. When I first saw him, he was in his fifty-seventh year, and, though touched with age and its infirmities, was still vigorous and active, and of an aspect which would have made him distinguished anywhere among men who know how to recognize courage and greatness of mind. At that time he was close-shaven, and no flowing beard, as in later years, softened the expression of his firm wide mouth and positive chin. That beard, long and gray, which nearly all his portraits now show, added a picturesque finish to a face that was in all its features severe and masculine, yet with a latent tenderness. His eyes were those of an eagle—piercing blue-gray in color, not very large, looking out from under brows
 Of dauntless courage and considerate pride,”
and were alternately flashing with energy or drooping and hooded like the eyes of an eagle. His hair was dark-brown, sprinkled with gray, short and bristling, and shooting back from a forehead of middle height and breadth; his nose was aquiline; his ears large; his frame angular; his voice deep and metallic; his walk positive and intrepid, though commonly slow. His manner was modest, and in a large company diffident; he was by no means fluent of speech, but his words were always to the point, and his observations original, direct, and shrewd. His mien was serious and patient rather than cheerful; it betokened the “sad, wise valor” which Herbert praises; but, though earnest and often anxious, it was never depressed. In short, he was then, to the eye of insight, what he afterward seemed to the world—a brave and resolved man, conscious of a work laid upon him, and confident that he should accomplish it. His figure was tall, slender, and commanding; his bearing military; and his garb showed a singular blending of the soldier and the deacon. He had laid aside in Chicago the torn and faded summer garments which he wore throughout his Kansas campaign, and I saw him at one of those rare periods in his life when his clothes were new. He wore a complete suit of brown broadcloth or kerseymere, cut in the fashion of a dozen years before, and giving him the air of a respectable deacon in a rural parish. But instead of a collar he had on a high stock of patent leather, such as soldiers used to wear, a gray military overcoat with a cape, and a fur cap. He was, in fact, a Puritan soldier, such as were common in Cromwell’s day, though not often seen since. Yet his heart was averse to bloodshed, gentle, tender, and devout….
  5
  It is easy now to perceive the true mission of Brown, and to measure the force of the avalanche set in motion by him. But to the vision of genius and the illuminated moral sense this was equally perceptible in 1859–60; and it was declared, in words already cited, by Emerson, Alcott, and Thoreau. No less clearly and prophetically was it declared by Victor Hugo, and by the saintly pastor of Wayland, Edmond Sears. On the day of Brown’s execution, and in the midst of the funeral services we were holding at Concord, Mr. Sears, who had made the opening prayer, wrote these lines in the Town Hall, where Brown had twice addressed the sons of those yeomen who fought at Concord Bridge:

 “Not any spot six feet by two
  Will hold a man like thee;
John Brown will tramp the shaking earth
  From Blue Ridge to the sea,
Till the strong angel comes at last
  And opes each dungeon door,
And God’s Great Charter holds and waves
  O’er all his humble poor.
  
“And then the humble poor will come
  In that far-distant day,
And from the felon’s nameless grave
  They’ll brush the leaves away;
And gray old men will point the spot
  Beneath the pine-tree shade,
As children ask with streaming eyes
  Where old John Brown is laid.”
  6
 
  Although the course of events in America did not follow the exact line anticipated by the French republican, the general result was what he had foreseen—that the achievement and death of John Brown made future compromises between slavery and freedom impossible. What he did in Kansas for a single State, he did in Virginia for the whole nation—nay, for the whole world.  7
  It has been sometimes asked in what way Brown performed this great work for the world, since he won no battle, headed no party, repealed no law, and could not even save his own life from an ignominious penalty. In this respect he resembled Socrates, whose position in the world’s history is yet fairly established; and the parallel runs even closer. When Brown’s friends urged upon him the desperate possibilities of a rescue, he gave no final answer, until at last came this reply,—that he “would not walk out of the prison if the door was left open.” He added, as a personal reason for this choice, that his relations with Captain Avis, his jailer, were such that he should hold it a breach of trust to be rescued. There is an example even higher than that of Socrates, which history will not fail to hold up,—that Person of whom his slayers said: “He saved others; himself he cannot save.”  8
  Here is touched the secret of Brown’s character,—absolute reliance on the Divine, entire disregard of the present, in view of the promised future.  9
 
 
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