Digital History>eXplorations>John Brown: Hero or Terrorist?>The Public Response>William Lloyd Garrison

William Lloyd Garrison, Speech on John Brown, December 2, 1859

Source: The Liberator, December 16, 1859

As it respects his object at Harper's Ferry, it has been truly stated here by those who have preceded me, and by John Brown himself, whose declarations to the court have been read. The man who brands him as a traitor is a calumniator. (Applause.) The man who says that his object was to promote murder, or insurrection, or rebellion, is, in the language of the apostle, "a liar, and the truth is not in him." (Loud applause.) John Brown meant to effect, if possible, a peaceful exodus from Virginia; and had not his large humanity overpowered his judgment in regard to his prisoners, he would in all probability have succeeded, and not a drop of blood would have been shed. But it is asked, "Did he not have stored up a large supply of Sharp's rifles and spears? What did they mean?" Nothing offensive, nothing aggressive. Only this: he designed getting as many slaves as he could to join him, and then putting into their hands those instruments for self defence. But, mark you! self-defence, not in standing their ground, but on their retreat to the mountains; on their flight to Canada; not with any design or wish to shed the blood or harm the hair of a single slaveholder in the State of Virginia, if a conflict could be avoided. Remember that he had the whole town in his possession for thirty six hours; and if he had been the man so basely represented in certain quarters, he might have consummated any thing in the way of violence and blood. But, all the while, he was counselling the strictest self defence, and forbearance to the utmost, even when he had his enemies completely in his power . . . .

Was John Brown iustified in his attempt? Yes, if Washington was in his; if Warren and Hancock were in theirs. If men are justified in striking a blow for freedom, when the question is one of a three penny tax on tea, then, I say, they are a thousand times more justified, when it is to save fathers, mothers, wives and children from the slave coffle and the auction block, and to restore to them their God given rights. (Loud applause.) Was John Brown justified in interfering in behalf of the slave population of Virginia, to secure their freedom. and independence? Yes, if Lafayette was justified in interfering to help our revolutionary fathers. If Kosciusko, if Pulaski, if Steuben, If De Kalbb, if all who joined them from abroad were justified in that act, then John Brown was incomparably more so. If you believe in the right of assisting men to fight for freedom who are of your own color--(God knows nothing of color or complexion -human rights know nothing of these distinctions) -then you mustcover, not only with a mantle of charity, but with the admiration of your hearts, the effort of John Brown at Harper's Ferry. I am trying him by the American standard; and I hesitate not to say, with all deliberation, that those who are attempt to decry him are dangerous members of the community; they are those in whom the love of liberty has died out; they are the lineal descendants of the tories of the Revolution, only a great deal worse. (Applause.) If the spirit of '76 prevailed to day, as it did at that period, it would make the soil of the Commonwealth too hot to hold them. (Loud applause.) . . .

A word upon the subject of Peace. I am a non resistant -a believer in the inviolability of human life, under all circumstances; I, therefore, in the name of God, disarm John Brown, and every slave at the South. But I do not stop there; if I did, I should be a monster. I also disarm, in the name of God, every slaveholder and tyrant in the world. (Loud applause.) For wherever that principle is adopted, all fetters must instantly melt, and there can be no oppressed, and no oppressor, in the nature of things. How many agree with me in regard to the doctrine of the inviolability of human life? How many non resistants are there here to night? (A single voice -"I.") There is one! (Laughter.) Well, then, you who are otherwise are not the men to point the finger at John Brown, and cry "traitor" judging you by your own standard. (Applause.) Nevertheless, I am a non resistant and I not only desire, but have labored unremittingly to effect, the peaceful abolition of slavery, by an appeal to the reason and conscience of the slaveholder; yet, as a peace man -an "ultra" peace man- I am prepared to say, "Success to every slave insurrection at the South, and in every slave country." (Enthusiastic applause.) And I do not see how I compromise or stain my peace profession in making that declaration. Whenever there is a contest between the oppressed and the oppressor, -the weapons being equal between the parties, -God knows my heart must be with the oppressed, and always against the oppressor. Therefore, whenever commenced, I cannot but wish success to all slave insurrections. (Loud applause.) I thank God when men who believe in the right and duty of wielding carnal weapons are so far advanced that they will take those weapons out of the scale of despotism, and throw them into the scale of freedom. It is an indication of progress, and a positive moral growth; it is one way to get up to the sublime platform of non resistance; and it is God's method of dealing retribution upon the head of the tyrant. Rather than see men wear their chains in a cowardly and servile spirit, I would, as an advocate of peace, much rather see them breaking the head of the tyrant with their chains. Give me, as a non resistant, Bunker Hill, and Lexington, and Concord, rather than the cowardice and servility of a Southern slave plantation.




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