John Brown and the Grapes of Wrath

I love John Brown. I have for a long, long time. Indeed, one of the best books I have read in the past decade is about the abolitionist. Russell Banks’s fictional biography, Cloudsplitter, is what fire would be like if it could be compressed into two dimensions. My mind burned as I read that book.

Brian McGinty’s recent book, John Brown’s Trial, gave me another reason to love the man. It is a reconstruction of Brown’s trial for the raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859. (Note to the trivia collectors out there: The correct contemporary spelling of the town is the plural, not possessive, of Harper.)

This is the man who together with a band of some 20 ragtag followers seized a federal armory. There was bloodshed and death. Brown had hoped his act of daring would spark rebellion among slaves. He came to Virginia armed with pikes; he took weapons. He made his stand, and was quickly subdued by federal authorities. None other than Robert E. Lee led the federal charge, accompanied by J.E.B. Stuart. When he was executed for his crime, Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was in the audience. God walked the Earth, trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath were stored.

After Brown had been convicted and before he was sentenced to inevitable death, he stood in the well of courtroom, looked Judge Richard Parker in the eye, and said, among other things: "This Court acknowledges, too, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed, which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament, which teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do me I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to remember them that are in bonds as bound with them. I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done, in behalf of His despised poor, is no wrong, but right. 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 my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country, ... I say let it be done."

John Brown died, his neck snapped by a Southern noose after swinging from a rope for some 40 minutes, with a clear conscience. I wonder how many of us can say as much when we come to the end of our ropes.

The dust jacket on McGlinty’s book reflects that he is a lawyer. I have searched for some evidence of what sort of law practice he maintains online and have found nothing. He is the author of some seven books, however. I’ll be reading his book on Abraham Lincoln and the courts next.

Whether he practices as a lawyer is beside the point. McGlinty brings a lawyer’s education to the rendering of this account of Brown’s trial. His discussion of jurisdictional issues raised by the trial – were the defendants properly tried in a Virginia court despite the fact their offenses took place in a federal enclave? – is nuanced and satisfactory from a practitioner’s view point. From time to time, however, he resorts to anachronisms that don’t suit a discussion of an era long-since passed. I am not sure what purpose is served by referring a reader to the current Federal Rules of Evidence when the term hearsay first rears its head. And McGinty’s discussion of a jury’s power, extant in Virginia at the time of trial, to decide both questions of fact and law is uneven. If jurors could decide fact and law, as McGinty writes, then why wonder aloud, as he does, whether Brown’s jury really felt it had the power to override an opinion of the attorney general of the United States?

On balance, however, this is a fantastic book. McGinty is a lawyer with an historian’s eye for idiosyncratic detail. His account of the trial raises troubling questions about fairness. By contemporary standards, there is no question that Brown was denied a fair trial. His counsel’s request for time to prepare was denied. When counsel quit mid-trial, new lawyers appeared, who did not even have a transcript of what had transpired before they arrived to guide them in closing arguments. Brown was compelled to stand trial while recovering from bayonet wounds he sustained when subdued: a cot was set up for him in the courtroom so that he could recline when too weary, or in too much pain, to sit. None of this would stand today.

Yet, Brown did not complain about the fairness of his trial. He welcomed martyrdom, recognizing his death would do more to galvanize abolitionists than his failed raid on Harpers Ferry had done. But I suspect he died wondering why the insurrection he had hoped to inspire never took place. It is a question reading this book had me pondering when I recalled the riots in Detroit in 1967. A nation divided against itself cannot stand, Lincoln warned the nation; yet long after abolition there are still serious divisions along racial and class lines in this country. And we are still standing, and still wondering, as we did at the time of John Brown, whether this angry prophet was just a touch, or perhaps more, insane.

I love John Brown, even as I scour the headlines looking for another Jeremiah or Isaiah to rain heaven’s scorn down upon us. He died a prophet’s death.

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