Constitution Daily

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Tony Horwitz: John Brown's Constitution

November 2, 2011 by Tony Horwitz


Editor's Note: Tony Horwitz discussed his new book Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War in a program at the National Constitution Center on November 3, 2011. To hear the podcast, click on the player below.


John Brown was a man of many parts—shepherd, tanner, land speculator, wool merchant, and radical abolitionist who sparked the Civil War with his 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry. Less known is his role as a re-drafter of the U.S. Constitution.

Painting by John Steuart Curry (via Utopies, Wikimedia Commons)

Brown had grandiose ambitions. By seizing the U.S. Armory at Harpers Ferry, he hoped to free and arm slaves and found a new government in the mountains of Virginia. A year before the raid, he outlined this revolutionary state in an extraordinary document. Though modeled on the Constitution, with a preamble and forty-eight articles ordered by Roman numerals, the language was much more John Brown than James Madison.

“Whereas, Slavery, throughout its entire existence in the United States, is none other than a most barbarous, unprovoked, and unjustifiable War of one portion of its citizens upon another portion,” the preamble began, “WE, CITIZENS OF THE UNITED STATES, AND THE OPPRESSED PEOPLE…ORDAIN AND ESTABLISH FOR OURSELVES, THE FOLLOWING PROVISIONAL CONSTITUTION AND ORDINANCES, THE BETTER TO PROTECT OUR PERSONS, PROPERTY, LIVES, AND LIBERTIES; AND TO GOVERN OUR ACTIONS.”

Like the existing government, Brown’s had three branches. But the role of its weak president and Congress was mainly to advise a separate “Commander-in-Chief,” who could tap the treasury for money and valuables “captured by honorable warfare.” Brown, a staunch Calvinist, also included an article forbidding “Profane swearing, filthy conversation, indecent behavior” or “unlawful intercourse of the sexes.”

Brown had grandiose ambitions. He hoped to free and arm slaves and found a new government in the mountains of Virginia.

Nor was he content to simply re-draft the Constitution. Brown convened his own Constitutional Convention—not in Philadelphia but in the Canadian town of Chatham, a terminus of the Underground Railroad. Over two days in May, 1858, thirty-five blacks, many of them fugitives from slavery, met at a schoolhouse and church to debate, ratify, and sign Brown’s constitution. The delegates also made nominations to fill the executive and legislative branches—including a black man as president (he and another nominee declined, and the post remained vacant). Brown, unsurprisingly, was “elected by acclamation” as commander-in-chief.

The next year, Brown carried the provisional constitution with him into battle at Harpers Ferry, where he was wounded and captured. At his nearby mountain hideout, Virginians also discovered thousands of copies of the constitution, “done up in small bundles, apparently for convenient distribution.” At Brown’s trial, prosecutors used the constitution as evidence of treason, since it showed that he sought to usurp the existing state and create a new government. Court testimony about the constitution, and the fact that a black man had been named to the provisional House of Representatives, was met with howls of derision.

Scholars have generally been unkind to Brown’s constitution as well, calling it a “piece of insanity” and illustrative of its author’s derangement. But Brown proved to be prophetic, and not only in foreshadowing the Civil War with his gallows statement that “the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with Blood.” Six years after his hanging, the nation followed his lead in ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery. A few years later, one of the signatories to Brown’s constitution, Isaac Shadd, joined the first wave of black officeholders in the Reconstruction South, ultimately rising to the speakership of the Mississippi House of Representatives. And, 150 years after the Chatham Convention, a black man was finally elected to the presidency, filling the office left vacant in Brown’s government.

As Henry David Thoreau sagely observed of Brown in 1860, as the nation lurched towards secession and war: “They all called him crazy then; who calls him crazy now?”

Tony Horwitz is the best-selling author of Confederates in the Attic and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has worked for The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker. His most recent book is Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War (Henry Holt, 2011).

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