Minority Report of Senate Committee Investigating the Attack at Harper's Ferry

June 15, 1860

Mr. DOOLITTLE, in the absence of Mr. COLLAMER, submitted the following



[Prepared by Mr. COLLAMER]


 The treasonable conspiracy of John Brown and his associates, and its fatal development at Harper's Ferry, in Virginia, in October last, has become matter of history, and all its details are too well known to require recapitulation.

While the excitement, alarm, and suspicion were rife in the public mind, the Senate adopted the resolutions raising the committee of inquiry in relation thereto. Their only legitimate purpose was to inquire whether anything had transpired which required further legislation by Congress for future security. Though drawn in very general and undefined terms, in some part almost implying the exercise of judicial inquisition, yet from an unwillingness to incur the imputation of embarrassing full investigation, no one objected to their adoption. In the exercise of the same feeling we have made no objection to the great latitude of inquiry taken by the committee. We, however, distinctly understand that if the resolutions and their peculiar phraseology were drawn or are used for any other purpose than that of furnishing to the Senate information for its own legislative action, it is a perversion and departure from the only justifiable purpose of their adoption.

The objects of inquiry, as stated in the resolutions, are the following, which are stated, not in the order of the resolutions, but in the order of their consecutive relation) for the purpose of their more orderly answer, to wit:

     First: The facts in relation to the invasion and seizure of the armory and arsenal at Harper's Ferry.

     Second: Whether it was in pursuance of an organization, and the nature and purpose thereof.

     Third: The arms and munitions there possessed by the insurgents, and where and how obtained.

     Fourth: Were any citizens, not present, implicated in, or accessory thereto, by contributions of arms, money, ammunition, or otherwise.

In relation to the first inquiry, the testimonies taken before the committee discloses no material facts but such as appeared on the trial of the conspirators, and have been long since published and are fully known. They are briefly as follows:

On the night of the 16th day of October, 1859, John Brown, together with sixteen white men and five negroes as conspirators, took armed possession of the United States armory at Harper's Ferry, in Virginia, killed four of the inhabitants, and were dislodged by armed force, which they resisted, and in the action seven of the white conspirators were killed, and three of the negroes. John Brown was wounded and taken prisoner, and he, together with four others of the white conspirators, and two of the Negroes, were tried, convicted, and executed, and five escaped.


2d. This took place in pursuance of a conspiracy commenced in Kansas by John Brown and most of these conspirators, in the last part of 185'7 or beginning of 1858. They were young men and entirely under the influence of Brown, and had been, as well as Brown, deeply engaged in the conflicts in Kansas in 1855, 1856, and 1857. From Kansas they passed into Iowa, and from thence they were led by Brown to Chatham, in Canada west. There they, together with a number of Negroes, formed a secret organization, with written articles of association, drawn up by Brown, having for its object the raising of' slave insurrection in the slaveholding States and subverting the government thereof.


3d. They had two hundred Sharp's carbines and two hundred revolver pistols and about one thousand pikes, together with a quantity of clothing and ammunition. The carbines and revolvers had been procured by contributions in Massachusetts, in 1856, and forwarded to Iowa to be sent into Kansas for the aid and in the defense of the Free State people in the struggle, then existing there, and they had been entrusted to John Brown for that purpose, together with the ammunition. The clothing, which had been contributed for the suffering people of Kansas, had been entrusted to him there for that purpose. In 185'7 these troubles in Kansas in a great degree subsided. The associations and committees, who had made contributions, ceased operations, and these arms and munitions, in the hands of Brown, came to be almost overlooked and disregarded, until the summer of 1858, when a suggestion came to the persons having control of them, at Boston, that John Brown was about to make some improper use of them, and thereupon he was particularly charged to make no use of them but in Kansas, and for the defense of the free-State people there, the purpose for which they had been furnished. It seems that this, together with being unable to procure money, and an apprehension of being exposed, prevented him from executing the purpose of his conspiracy for that year.

In 1859, he procured to be completed in Connecticut one thousand pikes, for which he had contracted and partly paid in 1856 or 185'7, for like service in Kansas, and then in 1859, he procured those pikes, and also those carbines and revolvers, and the ammunition and clothing, to be privately conveyed and secreted at or near Harper's Ferry, without the knowledge or consent of those who had contributed them for use in Kansas, and contrary to the order so given him by those in control.

     4th. There is no evidence that any other citizens than those there with Brown were accessory to this outbreak or invasion, by contributions thereto or otherwise, nor any proof that any others had any knowledge of the conspiracy or its purposes in the year 1859, though Realf, Forbes, and some very few may have understood it in 1858, when it failed of execution.

Although some of the testimony tends to show that some abolition­ists have at times contributed money to what is occasionally called practical abolitionism-that is, in aiding the escape of slaves-and may have placed too implicit confidence in John Brown, yet there is no evidence to show, or cause to believe, they had any complicity with this conspiracy, or any suspicion of its existence 01' design, before its .explosion.

There was no evidence tending to show that there ever was any conspiracy or design, by anyone, to rescue John Brown or his associates from prison in Virginia.

The place and the boldness of this outbreak, the purpose it enter­tained, the deaths it involved, and the amount of arms and munitions with which it was supplied, combined to produce not only great alarm, but also a strong suspicion of extensive complicity. Time and inves­tigation has happily dissipated much of such alarm and suspicion, and ,shown that this was but an offshoot from the extensive outrages and lawlessness in Kansas, commenced aad continued there, by armed invasions of that Territory to control its own people, the elections, and 'the government, for the introduction and perpetuity of slavery in that Territory, on the one hand, and resistance or defense on the other. This invited there many men of desperation, and others became so by the irritations and excitements of those collisions. When com­parative peace was restored there many, trained by such a school, were ready for new fields of lawless enterprise. It was from such elements that John Brown concocted his conspiracy, consisting of young men and boys, over whom he had entire control, many of them foreigners, and none of substance or position in the country.

By perverting the arms, ammunition, and clothing with which he had been entrusted, from the purpose for which he had received them, 'he secured his supplies.

It is almost astonishing that in a country like ours, laden with the rich experience of the blessings of security under the protection of law, there should still be found large bodies of men laboring under the infatuation that any good object can be affected by lawlessness and violence. It is the prostration of law) which is the only bond of security. It can, in its nature, beget nothing but resistance, retaliation, insecurity, and disaster. And yet, with all our intelligence and .experience, we have most unfortunate and deplorable manifestations of such infatuations. They are dangerous in direct proportion to the extent of public countenance they receive. No object, however desirable, can justify them or prevent their disastrous example and consequences. The unpunished lawless invasions of our weak neighboring nations; the flagrant and merciless breaches of our laws against the 4fncan slave trade, "unwhipt of justice;" the lawless armed invasions of our own people in our own weak Territory of Kansas, not ,only unpunished, but justified, sustained, and even rewarded, all, it IS believed, to extend and sustain slavery, tended strongly to suggest acts of law less violence to destroy it, especially in those who had wit­nessed and suffered by these collisions. They are, however, all without excuse, and they but add to the experience that no public peace or private security can be found but where every disregard of law meets with the most prompt public rebuke and effective punishment or correction.

While this act of violence and treason, and the alarm, suspicion, suffering, and death it involved are so deplorable, we cannot but see that the lessons which it teaches furnish many considerations of secur­ity against its repetition. Ages might not produce another John Brown, or so fortuitously supply him with such materials. The fatal termination of the enterprise in the death and execution of so large a part of the number engaged; the dispersion of the small remainder as fugitives in the land; the entire disinclination of the slaves to insur­rection, or to receive aid for that purpose, which was there exhibited; the very limited number and peculiar character of the conspirators, all combine to furnish assurance against the most distant probability of its repetition.

The extent and freedom with which this investigation has been conducted has resulted in showing that the people of the Free States have had no complicity with this atrocity; and, if viewed with candor, the evidence will remove the suspicion of extensive complicity which the possession of such a quantity of arms, unexplained, was likely to create, it now fully appearing they were never furnished for such a purpose. This investigation has its value, if -its record be examined and treated with candor, as it fully shows that there is no such ground of suspicion and distrust as has been indulged amongst our people, and that lawless violence as to slavery, by efforts from beyond its border, has culminated in this disastrous and abortive experiment.

We have very succinctly stated the origin, agents, instruments, purposes, and result of this deplorable outrage, and briefly stated the reflections, we think, it suggests. The facts disclosed, viewed in the light in which they appear to us, and in which we have presented them, however much calling for reprobation and regret, may be, and we think should be, used and improved to allay excitement, quiet suspicion, and restore tranquility.

The committee having come to the conclusion that no such facts have been disclosed as call for any congressional legislation, we should regard this as the termination of its duty; but, by its majority, the committee seems to have entertained a different view of the object of the resolutions and purpose of the inquiry. They give, as we suppose, a different construction from our understanding of those words of the resolutions which direct an inquiry" whether any citizens of the United States not present were implicated therein, or accessory thereto, by contributions of money, arms, munitions, or otherwise." We consider that no man can be properly said to be "implicated" in any transaction, or accessory thereto, who had no knowledge of its pur­pose, character, or existence; and the whole committee consider that there is no evidence that any citizen, not present, had any such knowledge of this. Yet the committee, by its majority, seem to re­gard it as their duty to inquire whether there are any citizens who, though not" implicated" in this affair, yet hold such opinions and pursue such courses on the subject of slavery as are dangerous to the
national tranquility, even although Congress has no power to take any action in relation thereto. This we regard as a departure from the duty and proper power of the committee. Upon this view of the committee, by its majority, great latitude and range of inquiry has been taken in the examination, and equal latitude of remark indulged in the report. Witnesses, and especially those known or suspected of ultra abolition sentiments, have been freely examined as to their personal sentiments, theories, purposes, conduct, charities, contributions, lectures, and speeches on the subject of slavery. They have even called a witness to prove that he and others had conspired to be guilty of the charity of providing for a poor, wounded prisoner, in a land of strangers, the necessary counsel able to secure him a fair trial, as if that was evidence of their complicity with his guilt. We feel bound to protest against all the conclusions which the same spirit of suspicion which could call such testimony will seek to deduce from it.

So long as Congress, in the exercise of its power over the Territories, is invoked to exert it to extend, perpetuate, or protect the institution of slavery therein; so long as the policy of the government is sought to be so shaped as to aid to extend its existence or enlarge its power, in any way, beyond its present limits, so long must its moral, political, and social character and effects be unavoidably involved in congressional discussion. Hence, it is equally unavoidable that the people in all parts of the Union will discuss this subject, as they are to select those who are to represent them and their sentiments in congressional action. So long as slavery is claimed before the world as a highly benignant, elevating, and humanizing institution, and as having Divine approbation, it will receive at the hands of the moralist, civilian, and theologian the most free and unflinching discussion; nor should its vindicators wince in the combat which their claims invite. In this discussion, it is true, as in other topics of exciting debate, wide latitude and license are, at times, indulged, but it seldom or never exceeds in severity the terms of reprehension on this subject which were long since indulged by Washington) Madison, Jefferson, Mason, and, in later times, by McDowell, Faulkner, and their worthy compeers, all of Virginia, whose information and opinions, on this as well as other subjects, the people of the free States have not yet learned to disrespect. We insist, however, that there is no such matter presented in the testimony or existing in fact, as is more than intimated in the report, that even the abolitionists in the free States take courses Intended, covertly, to produce forcible violations of the laws and peace of the slaveholding States, much less that any such course is countenanced by the body of the people in the free States. We cannot join In any report tending to promulgate such a view, as we regard it unfounded in fact and ill calculated to promote peace, confidence, or tranquility, and a departure from the legitimate purpose for which the committee was appointed.

Trial of John Brown