Secession Era Editorials Project

Furman University Department of History


Brown and the Virginians.

New York, New York, New York Tribune [Republican]

(19 November 1859)

John Brown may serve as a new illustration of the truth of Bonaparte's saying, that there is but one step from the sublime to the ridiculous. It would be difficult to find anything in itself more intrinsically absurd, in the total want of proportion between the object in view and the means brought to bear for its accomplishment, than John Brown assuming the character of Commander-in-Chief of a Provisional Government and expecting, at the head of an army of seventeen white men and three negroes, to set on foot a great social and political revolution, and, by the bold strike of seizing the arsenal at Harper's Ferry, to bring about as it were in a moment that which all the care, thought, prayers, and arguments of Christian philanthropists, the far-seeing statesmen, and the wise economists of a century had totally failed to accomplish, to wit: the abolition of Slavery. Brown, however, escapes being ridiculous by faith, fortitude, devotedness, and unshaken confidence in his cause and himself with which, wounded, a prisoner, his followers slain or captured, and himself condemned to death, he still adheres to his project as a feasible and rational no less than a philanthropic undertaking.

He may be compared to the good knight Don Quixote, who, in spite of his delusions, and the absurdity of his enterprises, always preserves our respect, and even veneration, by the display of many of the noblest qualities of human nature--qualities, which it is impossible not to admire, whatever we may think of the particular circumstances which have given occasion of their exhibition.

But ifJohn Brown has thus saved himself from being ridiculous, he is likely, we are sorry to say, to be the occasion of an abundance of ridiculous displays--and perhaps of something worse--on the part of other. He seems to have infected the good people of Virginia with a delusion as great as his own. It seems to be impossible for them to get over the terror which his bold seizure of Harper's Ferry inspired. Though of his immediate cooperators in that enterprise, most were killed, and the rest are in prison, Virginia remains strongly impressed with the idea of a grand army of Slave liberators dispersed up and down through her borders in the disguise of Yankee peddlers, while still another grand army of desperate Abolitionists is expected from the North, marching in battle array, to storm the Jail at Charlestown, to liberate Brown, and to place him at their head for the accomplishment of his original enterprise. The burning of two of three barns and as many negro huts, or other outhouses at Charlestown, has been accepted as proof positive of the approach of this liberating army, and in all has horse, foot, and artillery, from Richmond, Alexandria, and elsewhere, are rushing to Charlestown to be prepared to encounter and repel this new invasion. There they all show the same bold front with those valiant troops which Gov. Wise led in person to Charlestown on the occasion of Brown's invasion, and whom the Governor deemed it but just specially to compliment after their return for having shown no signs of fright while on their way thither, is more than we would be willing to answer for. It would not be altogether surprising if the terror which seems to pervade the public at large should visit even the ranks of the citizen soldiery. We trust, however, that no report that the invaders are at hand will drive these assembled troops home again as suddenly as they have been called together.

The present panic which prevails in Virginia calls to mind the bloody delusion with which this City of New-York was visited a hundred years and more ago, and at the bottom of which , then and now, lay the terror of negro insurrection. This city at that time contained some nine or ten thousand inhabitants, of whom twelve or fifteen hundred were negro slaves. Nine fires in rapid succession, most of which, however, were little more than the burning of chimneys, throw the city into an alarm about equal to that which seems to have been produced by the present barn-burning at Charlestown. A story was set foot that some low whites had conspired with the negroes to burn down the city. It was suggested that the Catholics, of whom there were then a few resident in the city -- objects of as such suspicion as Northern Abolitionists are now in Virginia -- had something to do with the alleged plot. Numerous arrests were made, and a series of disgraceful trials followed, which resulted in the burning at the stake of thirteen miserable convicts, the hanging of eighteen more, among whom was a schoolmaster accused of being a Catholic priest in disguise, and the expulsion from the city and province of seventy-one others.

We trust the prevailing panic in Virginia may not reach such an extremity as this, but when popular terror is once fairly excited, there is no knowing where it may stop. We trust also that in a much shorter space than a hundred years Virginia may be as safe against any panic based on the existence of Slavery as we now are in New-York.

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