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Secession Era Editorials Project

Furman University Department of History

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The Harper's Ferry Affair.

New Orleans, Louisiana, Times-Picayune [Democratic]

(25 October 1859)

The short, sharp, terrible drama, (says the Baltimore Sun of the 19th inst.,) provoked by a handful of enthusiasts, fanatics, adventurers, or by whatsoever term they may be designated, was brought suddenly to a close up on the first exhibition of military force yesterday morning. A federal retribution dealt out in the subjugation of the insurgents has left but little for the civil officers of the law to do in vindication of this grievous outrage against society. The whole affair dwindles into utter insignificance as the literal facts are brought out from the uncertainty peculiar to the first demonstration. And although so bold, sudden and formidable a course of action, naturally aroused suspicion of a wide-spread and preconcerted movement, and induced the most efficient means for its suppression, the measures adopted have almost a ludicrous disproportion to the necessity of the occasion and the result.

The whole movement -- in its origin, in its mode of demonstration, the absurd pretences developed in documents found upon the prisoners and the dead, the weakness of the parties in the attempt to carry out their apparent design, and their miserable end -- is degraded beneath sympathy, and excites nothing but contempt as a miserable caricature of insurrectionary ambition.

The Baltimore Clipper characterizes the affair as the "act of an irresponsible madman, aided by a few reckless desperadoes, who were infatuated by his strange fanaticism."

The American, of the same city, in its remarks upon this subject says: "Nothing but a wild fanaticism, amounting almost to insanity, could account for twenty men combining together in such a foolhardy enterprise."

The Exchange regards it "simply as an insane attempt" on the part of a few fanatics to run off a number of slaves. If the avowal of the ringleader is worth anything, this was his purpose.

The Patriot says: "The insane attempt at servile insurrection at Harper's Ferry has been thoroughly crushed out. Unfortunately not without the cost of life to valuable and honorable citizens, and with a mistaken mercy to some of the wretches who began the outbreak.

"It seems almost impossible to imagine what could have induced Brown to make this desperate attempt. And when we consider that the beginning was made at a point belonging to the United States, on one of the principal highways and thoroughfares, with telegraphic and railroad connections to all parts of the country, within a few hours of populous cities and the seat of Government, nothing but consummate madness could have suggested the idea."

The following paragraphs from the editorial of the Sun already quoted, commend themselves to the serious consideration of those who, at the North, sympathize with movements of this kind:

"Yet it is impossible to contemplate the inevitable fate which these deluded fanatics have brought upon themselves, without a sentiment of commiseration towards them, as the victims of that social and political error with which a large proportion of the Northern mind is indoctrinated and imbued. These poor wretches have only carried out to its practical absurdity a theory which is gradually diffusing itself, under the false pretence of a political sentiment among the people, and presumes to invite cooperation even in the Soutehrn States.

"Intelligent men, however, will learn in time that there can be no compromises with a thing, in itself, hostile to the spirit of our national compact. It may take more subtle and insidious forms than that in which the fanatics at Harper's Ferry have exhibited it, but it is the same thing, however its hideous deformity may be disguised to serve the ends of political ambition; and its fruits must be repulsive sectionalism and internecine strife. The lesson is timely; it may be profitably taken into careful consideration in view of the future pregnant with results to which we may contribute for good or for evil."

To show that, to some extent at least, the spirit rebuked in the paragraphs just quoted, exists at the North, we copy from the Philidelphia Press, of the 19th inst., a portion of some observations from the pen of a leading anti-slavery man in that city:

"You ask me what I know in regard to this outbreak at Harper's Ferry. I answer -- I know nothing; and yet I am not altogether ignorant concerning it.

"More than a year ago, when the Kansas troubles had come to an end, a gentleman -- for such he was by birth and breeding -- fresh from the scene of strife, and ready for another contest, called to see me at my office. He was now ready, if an opportunity would offer, to draw his sword in the same behalf in the mountains of Virginia, or in the swamps of South Carolina. On this that point he wanted to know my opinion, which, of course, I was prompt to give.

"Our enterprise," I said, "is a moral one. It rejects the sword. It seeks to accomplish its end by ideas. It appeals to the understanding, the heart, the conscience, the purse. Its object is, by changing public opinion, to effect a moral revolution; that to be followed by a proper political reconstruction, the same to to be accomplished by the least possible exercise of force." This, he said, was all well enough in theory, but it would not work in practice. It was too slow. In the initiatory stages of the movement it might do well enough, but the time had come when something more decisive was called for. He was not an Abolitionist in the common sense of the word, but he was a friend of freedom the world over, and was ready, at any time, to unsheathe his sword against oppression. "Did I know John Brown of Ossawattomie?" "No I did not know him , though I had often heard of him." Well, said he, I don't like him: he and I don't agree. He has treated me badly; but he is a brave man and an efficient soldier. He has come home burning under a sense of the wrongs he and his countrymen suffered in Kansas at the hands of the slaveholders, and is determined to make reprisal. He wants to organize a band to go South, establish himself in the mountains, and inaugurate a species of guerilla warfare for the liberation of slavery. Are there any among your friends that would coƶperate in such an undertaking ? To the best of my knowledge and belief there was not one. Well, he would find them somewhere; for he was bent on fighting the slaveholders with their own weapons -- the use of which they had so well taught him in the battles of Kansas.

"Such in substance, was the conversation between Captain --- and myself, of whom or from whom I have never heard since that time. But soon after this, I heard from another source that John Brown was still meditating a descent on the slaveholders, and was only waiting to find coadjutors. And about six weeks ago, a highly respectable gentleman, just returned from foreign travel, stopped in this city, and, in the course of a conversation I had with him, dropped rxpressions implying his knowledge of Brown's influences, and, what surprised me most, of his approval of them. Ascertaining my sentiments on the subject, he did not make me a confidant, and not anticipating any serious result, nor any immediate result of any kind, I made no partiular inquiries.

"This is the extent of my knowledge in regard to this startling affair. When I heard the first rumor yesterday I credited it, and believed that John Brown had a hand in it, subsequent disclosures have proved that I was right."

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