John Brown: Defendant on the Loose

in The Trial in American Life

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print March 2007 | ISBN: 9780226243252
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226243283 | DOI:
John Brown: Defendant on the Loose

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The trial of Aaron Burr in 1807 responded to an anxiety in national formations through the mechanism of story. The high-profile trial of John Brown in 1859 drew upon another national anxiety, the paradox of slavery in a democratic republic. Brown's trial, held in the Virginia State Circuit Court of Jefferson County in Charlestown, tapped into the collective imagination in a more subtle way. Generic conventions helped to make Brown a paradoxically successful defendant in the moments of his conviction and execution. On October 16, 1859, Brown and his twenty-one followers raided the U.S. Arsenal at Harpers Ferry but were easily overwhelmed by federal troops under Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee. Had Brown been killed during his raid on Harpers Ferry, as he nearly was, he would almost certainly have been dismissed as a fool and an aberration in the midst of sectional strife. It was what happened to Brown during his trial that made him a byword in history. Brown's trial brought a suddenly unavoidable focus to the debate over slavery and abolitionism.

Keywords: John Brown; slavery; abolitionism; Virginia; conviction; Harpers Ferry; execution

Chapter.  14381 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Social and Cultural History

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