Author of John Brown book speaks at courthouse

Brian McGinty says abolitionist's trial most important in history

Brian McGinty says abolitionist's trial most important in history

October 15, 2009|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

CHARLES TOWN, W.VA. -- After four years of research and writing, the author of a new book on John Brown said he reached the conclusion that the fiery abolitionist's trial was the most important in the history of the country.

Brian McGinty, lecturing Thursday night to an audience of more than 200 in the Jefferson County Courthouse, the same courthouse where Brown was tried, convicted and sentenced to hang 150 years ago this week, said the trial was the first to generate mass media attention. It was covered by newspapers "all over the country," he said.

It was also the first trial involving treason against a state -- the Commonwealth of Virginia -- and not the United States.  

And, McGinty said, it was more than a case of guilt or innocence. It divided two sections of the country -- one that thought slavery was just, necessary and needed no outside interference and one that condemned slavery as inhumane, against God's law and against a long-standing "self-evident" American tenet that "all men are created equal."


McGinty also raised the question of whether Brown's trial was fair. It only lasted four days.

Brown, suffering from serious injuries he sustained during his capture in Harpers Ferry following his aborted attempt on Oct. 16, 1859, to seize the huge federal arsenal there, had to lie on a cot in the well of the courtroom during the four days of testimony.

"He was unable to sit or stand," McGinty said.

The jury deliberated only 45 minutes before finding Brown guilty.

The trial judge set an execution date for Dec. 2, 1859.

McGinty's research delved into the 1860 census. He found that the judge, prosecutors, magistrates, defense lawyers and some jury members owned a total of 194 slaves between them.

Brown came to Harpers Ferry to free slaves. "Was the trial fair? That's not easy to answer," McGinty said.

The author also said that there is no doubt that Brown was guilty. There were many witnesses to his actions. "He was not an innocent man, but even a guilty man is entitled to a fair trial," McGinty said.

He called the trial "an extraordinary judicial event."

McGinty, a retired lawyer who lives in Arizona, has written seven books, "Lincoln and the Supreme Court," among them.

Saturday morning, he will join other authors and historians at a book signing at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, part of the park's weekend-long celebration of the sesquicentennial celebration of Brown's raid.

McGinty then leaves for Torrington, Conn., where Brown was born, to lecture before the Torrington Historical Society.

His visit Thursday was sponsored by the West Virginia Humanities Council.

It was also covered by a film crew from C-Span Book TV. 

23rd Judicial Circuit Judge David H. Sanders, in whose courtroom McGinty spoke, gave a history of the courthouse and introduced the speaker.

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