Better and Worse Worsts

Sadakat Kadri

  • The Trial in American Life by Robert Ferguson
    Chicago, 400 pp, £18.50, March 2007, ISBN 978 0 226 24325 2

On 16 October 1859, a white anti-slavery agitator called John Brown led 21 followers in a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. A previous expedition against a Kansas slave-owning settlement had ended in five deaths, but Brown had far grander hopes for his new enterprise – to start an insurrection across the South. The plan was as optimistic as its execution was incompetent. His would-be guerrillas were carrying 950 sharpened pikes but no provisions, and Harpers Ferry lay in a region where whites outnumbered slaves by nearly seven to one. When Brown surrendered after 36 hours, ten of the 17 dead came from his own party – and not a single person, captive or free, had been won over to his suicidal scheme.

A capital trial ensued, and events in court changed the crime’s significance for ever. The 59-year-old Brown (not the same one whose body lay a’mouldering in the grave) dismissed attempts by his own lawyers to plead insanity – a ‘miserable artifice’ – and chose instead to welcome the ‘public murder’ that awaited him; his legal defence was neither plausible nor consistent, but it laid the ground for his martyrdom. Over six days, he delivered it from a stretcher, ostentatiously racked by pain, and inveighed against the brutality that was about to tear America apart. Brown’s words were telegraphed across the United States, and an engraving of his face – framed between his bushy hair and a bird’s nest of a beard – gazed reproachfully from newspapers throughout the north. Before the raid on Harpers Ferry, he had seemed no more than a crackpot or a zealot to the few people who knew him. But as millions of Americans learned of the man who was ready to die for the abolitionist cause, many began to wonder if he might be the prophet that he resembled.

Executions had been the primary spectacle of criminal justice in the Western world for hundreds of years, but during the quarter century before 1859 more than a dozen northern states enacted laws to conceal their hangings behind prison walls. The courtroom drama was replacing the gallows ritual in the public imagination – and the 26 sentences Brown spoke after the white jury found him guilty secured his place in national legend. Ralph Waldo Emerson later ranked his speech alongside the Gettysburg Address as one of the finest in American history. Had he battled in defence of the rich and powerful, he said, he would have been not punished but rewarded. But his struggle was for the poor, and the logic of slavery demanded that he die. It was a price he was willing to pay. ‘If it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of . . . millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel and unjust enactments, I say let it be done.’

Brown’s prosecution, ‘the first modern courtroom event’, is one of five cases that Robert Ferguson examines in The Trial in American Life. As Ferguson points out, America’s courtroom dramas have always done more than transform the reputation of the person at their centre:

They also satisfy revenge, purge communal resentments, assign limits to deviance, identify acceptable otherness, give victims a say, rationalise change, place controls on the unknown and publicise power. At still another level, they publicise the available answers to a problem and guard the status quo ante by seeking to return a community to its place before the disruption of crime.

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