Tuesday, December 3, 2013

John Brown's Execution: Serving "the state in this her hour of trial"

On Dec. 2, 1859, John Brown was hanged to death before an impressive array of military officers, VMI cadets, and local law enforcement officials. John T. L. Preston, a founder and faculty member of VMI, attended the execution. He wrote a letter to his wife describing the event, which was later published in the newspaper. Preston recalled his impressions as the death sentence was being carried out: "the man of strong and bloody hand, of fierce passions, of iron will, of wonderful vicissitudes, the terrible partisan of Kansas, the capturer of the United States Arsenal at Harper's Ferry, the would-be Catiline of the South, the demi-god of the abolitionists, the man execrated and lauded, damned and prayed for, the man who in his motives, his means, his plans, and his successes, must ever be a wonder, a puzzle, and a mystery--John Brown--was hanging between heaven and earth." 

Preston ruminated on the political significance of Brown's ritualized killing before the assembled military officers and cadets: "But the moral of the scene was its grand point. A sovereign state had been assailed, and she had uttered but a hint, and her sons had hastened to show that they were ready to defend her. Law had been violated by actual murder and attempted treason, and that gibbet was erected by law, and to uphold law was this military force assembled." The public ritual was carefully orchestrated, with both the Governor and a general warning people to stay home and guard their property against any danger that might arise.  Only small crowds emerged, as military officials stopped a train, kept groups separated or detained, and ensured that witnesses stayed far away from the actual hanging. Eyewitness accounts by law enforcement and military officials were later presented to the press. The State of Virginia's message--that Brown's death was necessary for the restoration of the rule of law and that dangers from radical abolitionists remained--appeared to have been widely received. As Preston notes, "There is but one opinion as to the completeness of the arrangements made on the occasion, and the absolute success with which they were carried out."