Digital History>eXplorations>John Brown: Hero or Terrorist?>The Public Response>Henry Ward Beecher

Henry Ward Beecher, “The Nation’s Duty to Slavery,” October 30, 1859

Source: Henry Ward Beecher, Patriotic Addresses (New York: Fords. Howard, & Hulbert, 1887), pp. 206 207.

An old man, kind at heart, industrious, peaceful, went forth, with a large family of children, to seek a new home in Kansas. That infant colony held thousands of souls as noble as liberty ever inspired or religion enriched. A great scowling Slave State, its nearest neighbor, sought to tread down this liberty loving colony, and to dragoon slavery into it by force of arms. The armed citizens of a hostile State crossed the State lines, destroyed the freedom of the ballot box, prevented a fair expression of public sentiment, corruptly usurped law making power, and ordained by fraud laws as infamous as the sun ever saw; assaulted its infant settlements with armed hordes, ravaged the fields, destroyed harvests and herds, and carried death to a multitude of cabins. The United States government had no marines for this occasion! No Federal troops posted in the cars by night and day for the poor, the weak, the grossly wronged men of Kansas. There was an army there that unfurled the banner of the Union, but it was on the side of the wrong doers, not on the side of the injured.

It was in this field that Brown received his impulse. A tender father, whose life was in his son's life, he saw his first born seized like a felon, chained, driven across the country, crazed by suffering and heat, beaten like a dog by the officer in charge, and long lying at death's doorl Another noble boy, without warning, without offense, unarmed, in open day, in the midst of the city, was shot deadl No justice sought out the murderers; no United States attorney was dispatched in hot haste; no marines or soldiers aided the wronged and weak!

The shot that struck the child's heart crazed the father's brain. Revolving his wrongs, and nursing his hatred of that deadly system that breeds such contempt of justice and humanity, at length his phantoms assume a slender reality, and organize such an enterprise as one might expect from a man whom grief had bereft of good judgment. He goes to the heart of a Slave State. One man; and with sixteen followers! he seizes two thousand brave Virginians, and holds them in duress!

When a great State attacked a handful of weak colonists the government and nation were torpid, but when seventeen men attacked a sovereign State, then Maryland arms, and Virginia arms, and the United States government arms, and they three rush against seventeen men.

Travelers tell us that the Geysers of Iceland those singular boiling springs of the North may be transported with fury by plucking up a handful of grass or turf and throwing it into the springs. The hot springs of Virginia are of the same kind! A handful of men was
thrown into them, and what a boiling there has been!

But, meanwhile, no one can fail . to see that this poor, childbereft old man is the manliest of them all. Bold, unflinching, honest, without deceit or evasion, refusing to take technical advantages of any sort, but openly avowing his principles and motives, glorying in them in danger and death, as much as when in security, that wounded old father is the most remarkable figure in this whole drama. The Governor, the officers of the State, and all the attorneys are pygmies compared with him.

I deplore his misfortunes. I sympathize with his sorrows. I mourn the hiding or obscuration of his reason. I disapprove of his mad and feeble schemes. I_shrink from the folly of the bloody foray, and I shrink likewise from_all the anticipations of that judicial bloodshed, which doubtless ere long will follow,- for when was cowardice ever magnanimous? If they kill the man, it will not be so much for treason as for the disclosure of their cowardice!

Let no man pray that Brown be spared. Let Virginia make him a martyr. Now, he has only blundered. His soul was noble; his work miserable. But a cord and a gibbet would redeem all that, and round up Brown's failure with a heroic success.


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