Nov. 15, 2012 by David Low
(Story contributed by Gabe Rosenberg ’16)
Harvard University professor John Stauffer ’91 is the co-editor of The Tribunal: Responses to John Brown and the Harper’s Ferry Raid (Belnap Press of Harvard University Press). Co-edited with Zoe Trodd (professor of American literature at the University of Nottingham), the book assembles a collection of responses to John Brown’s 1859 attack on a federal arsenal in Virginia.
The ill-fated raid of Brown and 21 other men–five free black and 16 white men–was intended to provoke an uprising of African Americans against the “scourge of slavery.” While three members formed a rearguard at a nearby farm in Maryland, the rest of the men seized the federal buildings of Harper’s Ferry and cut the surrounding telegraph wires, waiting to be joined by local slaves. Townspeople and U.S. Marines captured or killed most of Brown’s forces, whose reinforcements never arrived, and Brown was put on trial for murder, treason, and conspiracy to incite a slave insurrection.
In a letter written four days before his execution, Brown remarks that he leaves “it to an impartial tribunal to decide whether the world has been the worse or the better of my living and dying in it.” The Tribunal brings together John Brown’s own words with Northern, Southern, and international responses to the raid in the forms of speeches, letters, newspaper articles, journals, poems, and songs.
His actions cast him as a contentious symbol of American culture: a martyr and a madman, a freedom fighter, and a domestic terrorist. From their collected documents, Stauffer and Trodd theorize that Harper’s Ferry changed the landscape of American politics, set the course for the Civil War, and subsequently influenced emancipation on a global scale.
Stauffer is professor of English and African and African American studies at Harvard University. His recent works include best-sellers Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln and The State of Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated book, co-written with author Sally Jenkins, that tells the true story of Jones County, MS, the only Southern county to secede from the Confederacy.
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