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Secession Era Editorials Project

Furman University Department of History

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Pardon for John Brown.

New Orleans, Louisiana, Times-Picayune [Democratic]

(16 November 1859)

A story of the middle ages is, somewhere, told after this fashion: In those times, when ecclesiastics were sometimes of the church militant, and did not shun their share in deeds of arms, or, at times, of rapine -- a band, assailing a fortress for the purposes of plunder, were captured, and sentenced to summary execution, as taken with the "red hand." One of them was found to be a monk, and the Superior of the district sent urgently to require that he should be given up, as a son of the church. The captor, who had hanged up his man, sent back the trooper's boots and bloody clothes in which the priest was taken, with the grim inquiry: "Be these thy son's garments?"

Some such answer will Virginia give to the clamorous outcry that comes to her from the free States for mercy to John Brown. He has been taken in the flagrant act of a great public crime, desperately but impotently aiming at the vitals of a State, with hands reeking with the blood of its citizens, and purposes that involve, as an inevitable consequence of success, the desecration of households, robbery, murder and arson, and a horrid concourse of kindred crimes. Where he lay when captured the ground was soaked with innocent blood of his wanton shedding, for purposes which Virginia pronounces to be vile and hateful, but which he still defends, with an audacity which redeems him from contempt, but which deepeds the hue of the crime.

Now from the free States comes a loud and earnest invocation to Virginia to be merciful to this man. Journals and public men, unaffectedly desirous to calm down excitement, and professing the most thorough abhorrence of Brown and his plans, and the most faithful coöperation to prevent any recurrence of the like, make a plea of policy and humanity that that sentence should not be carried into effect. They reason that he is only a fanatic, in what he fervently believed to be right, not naturally bad, but misled by evil teachings, and made desperate by private wrongs. He has the stuff of a hero, and behaves with a courage which wins admiration from his enemies. He has been foiled in his plans, is powerless for further mischief, and may be set at large as too mean an object for the vengeance of a State -- too low to be the sacrifice for an insulted community an instrument broken and cast away by the chief and yet undetected criminals.

To this appeal, when it is well meant, Virginia may answer in all courtesy, pointing to piles of pikes sharpened for the slaughter, and to the clothes dripping with the blood of her children already spilt, and ask whether these be proofs or signs of a temper or a purpose to be forgiven, without signs or penitence or recantation of error. Whether the marauder who stands up to avow and justify his deeds, with no other extenuation than that murder is only an incident of his plan, which was simply to rob and to protect robbery, is a fit subject for uncommon indulgence, on his merits as a thorough ruffian, and defying and insolent and uncompromising in his villainies.

These are not pleas likely to have weight with a Southern constituency, where these things have been done, and where the laws would be inexorably enforced against a meaner criminal convicted of offences of one-tenth of the enormity of Brown's. The atrocious wickedness of the crime comes, then, to be, from its connections with possible political combinations made a ground for special favor; and underneath the whole application, lies the naked appeal to fear. If Brown is executed, we are warned that a great sympathy will grow up in the North, that he will be made a hero and a martyr. His name will be the watchword with which to kindle a fire of indignation and hatred against the South that will utterly consume away all hope of resisting the popular triumph of Abolitionism at the polls, and the speedy supremacy of Abolitionism at the North and in the Federal Government. The blood of John Brown will be the cement of the Republican Church, and his name the inspiring call to a complete Republican victory, at every poll in the North.

Perhaps this may be true in part, although we believe it to be greatly exaggerated. It is true that the extreme anti-slavery journals and the most rabid among the lecturers, fanatics and demagogues of that faith, are beginning to prepare for such a crusade of agitation, and have begun to hold up the Ossawattamie ruffian, murderer, and robber, as worthy to be ranked with the noblest victims to freedom, and canonized as a saint and martyr.

But we are not persuaded that such demonstrations are going to carry off the whole North in a whirlwind of fury, into the ranks of political abolitionism; and if there were any such peril, we should treat it as the sign of a state of the Northern mind, on Southern subjects, so utterly perverse, as to be hopelessly incurable -- a proof that there is no longer possibility to live with them on any terms of amity, more than with John Brown himself, as a neighbor and associate. Instead of fear of rousing these Northern proclivities into hostile action, the warning is much more likely to fix a Southern State, or Southern Executive, in the determination not to yield an iota to the suggested fears of such a frantic sympathy for a convicted marauder, boastful from his guilt, not to turn a hair's breath aside from the line of duty, to propitiate such a fanatical spirit, but calmly to confront and defy it; not to be goaded into injustice or cruelty, merely to retort injustice, and give blow for threats, nor into being merciful by alarms for the exasperating effects on punishing a dangerous felon.

During the dark days of the American Revolution a British spy was round in the camp; he was arrested and condemned to be hung. The British General sent to demand this release, with the threat of a dreadful retaliation. The answer was brief:

"Your man was caught in my camp as a spy -- he has been tried as a spy -- and he will be hanged as a spy!

"P. S. He is hanged."

Like this would be the instant response from any part of the South to a demand for the release of an arrested Abolition insurrectionist, with warnings of the peril of executing the law upon him. He would be hanged for example while the messenger was waiting.

In the case of Brown, the power of pardon does not lie with Governor Wise. By the Constitution of Virginia the Executive cannot grant pardon for such offences as that for which Brown is under sentence, but can requite until the Legislature can act. We infer from the tone of the Richmond Enquirer, which usually represents the views of Governor Wise very exactly, that he has little disposition to favor the applications for any mitigation of the penalty which the law has pronounced.

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