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The Trial in American Life$
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Robert A. Ferguson

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9780226243252

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: March 2013

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226243283.001.0001

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John Brown: Defendant on the Loose

John Brown: Defendant on the Loose

Chapter:
(p.117) Chapter Four John Brown: Defendant on the Loose
Source:
The Trial in American Life
Publisher:
University of Chicago Press
DOI:10.7208/chicago/9780226243283.003.0004

The trial of Aaron Burr in 1807 responded to an anxiety in national formations through the mechanism of story. The high-profile trial of John Brown in 1859 drew upon another national anxiety, the paradox of slavery in a democratic republic. Brown's trial, held in the Virginia State Circuit Court of Jefferson County in Charlestown, tapped into the collective imagination in a more subtle way. Generic conventions helped to make Brown a paradoxically successful defendant in the moments of his conviction and execution. On October 16, 1859, Brown and his twenty-one followers raided the U.S. Arsenal at Harpers Ferry but were easily overwhelmed by federal troops under Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee. Had Brown been killed during his raid on Harpers Ferry, as he nearly was, he would almost certainly have been dismissed as a fool and an aberration in the midst of sectional strife. It was what happened to Brown during his trial that made him a byword in history. Brown's trial brought a suddenly unavoidable focus to the debate over slavery and abolitionism.

Keywords:   John Brown, slavery, abolitionism, Virginia, conviction, Harpers Ferry, execution

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