John Brown’s Trial
By Brian McGinty
(May 2010 Civil War News)
Illustrations, endnotes, index, bibliography, 384 pp., 2009, Harvard University Press, www.hup.harvard.edu, $27.95 plus shipping.
Even the most casual Civil War student knows that John Brown’s violent seizure of the arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859 and his resulting execution was a galvanizing event which contributed ultimately to war only 18 months later.
Brown’s prosecution was one of this country’s first “trials of the century,” garnering as much national interest in its time as later high-profile cases in theirs, such as that involving O.J. Simpson. Unaccountably, as historian-attorney Brian McGinty observes in a new book, not one among Brown’s many biographers has devoted more than a chapter to the trial itself.
In John Brown’s Trial McGinty tackles that assignment with the first book-length treatment and carries out his mission in fine style. After summarizing the events at the arsenal, Brown’s capture and his indictment, McGinty provides an account of the trial proceedings which is comprehensive and informative.
Consistent with the uneven mid-19th-century practice regarding the use of court reporters, none was present at the Brown trial to generate a transcript. Instead, McGinty has thoroughly mined the contemporary daily newspaper accounts to produce a highly readable, illuminating narrative.
He capably explains the complicated legal issues involved, including the unusual charge that Brown, who was not a resident of Virginia, had committed treason against that state, and the jurisdictional problem arising from the fact that by 1859 the Harpers Ferry arsenal was situated on federal, not state, land.
McGinty also details Brown’s active role in his own defense, even though by law he was barred from testifying. He analyzes Brown’s compelling statement at sentencing which turned the defense into an attack on slavery.
McGinty addresses larger matters, as well. He focuses on several controversial procedural aspects, including the Virginia court’s appointment of local defense counsel (two of whom were witnesses to some of the underlying events), its refusal to allow Brown a continuance, Brown’s debilitated physical condition as a consequence of his wounds, and the aberrant, cursory handling of Brown’s appeal by the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.
These facts grate harshly on the modern ear which is accustomed to zealous protection of an accused’s rights. McGinty analyzes the resulting fairness question competently and appropriately, with an eye to the trial’s 19th-century context.
Finally, McGinty argues that it was the trial, and not what happened at the arsenal, that made Brown a martyr and which placed his cause at center stage of the accelerating sectional dispute. This is the weakest element of the book. Obviously there would have been no trial but for Brown’s actions at Harpers Ferry and the effort of separating the two in order to prove that one was more important seems contrived.
Nor has the significance of the trial gone unnoticed. For example, David S. Reynolds in his 2005 biography John Brown has stated that Brown’s “performance at the trial … changed opinion in both sections of the country.”
And Brown’s famous blood prophecy in a note given by him to a guard on his way to the gallows has long been cited as a critical factor in his elevation to martyr status. There is little new ground staked out in McGinty’s argument. This, however, is a minor defect.
McGinty’s book ably fills a significant gap in the literature on Brown and the events at Harpers Ferry. It is an essential addition to the libraries of scholars, buffs and those interested in 19th century American justice.
Reviewer: John Foskett
John Foskett is a practicing attorney in Boston and has a life-long interest in the Civil War.