Syracuse University Magazine

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An Abolitionist's Constitution

Syracuse University Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) is home to some of the University’s most rare and valuable treasures, allowing student, faculty, and visiting researchers to examine primary source materials like abolitionist John Brown’s Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the People of the United States shown here.

Brown composed the document as he was preparing for his assault on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859. He believed that chaos would ensue as slaves fled the plantations following his attack and that he would need to have a legal instrument with him to retain some measure of control. Upon Brown’s capture, his pamphlets were seized as treasonous, and anyone possessing a copy was considered a conspirator in the plot. As a result, only a handful of copies have survived.

The 15-page pamphlet was printed by William Howard Day, a black printer whom Brown met on a journey to St. Catharines, Ontario, to meet with Harriet Tubman about strategies for guiding former slaves to safety in the North.

Brown was incorrect in his assumption that the slaves would rise up, but the Southern states did respond by seceding from the Union, and that was the true mayhem that resulted from his raid on Harpers Ferry. This artifact, which helped to ignite the Civil War, complements the SCRC’s considerable holdings related to reform movements in the Central New York region.  —William LaMoy



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At John Brown's trial, one of his lawyers suggested that Brown's Provisional Constitution was not an act of treason, but evidence of his insanity. Attorney Samuel Chilton called the document "ridiculous nonsense" and said it "could only be produced by men of unsound minds." Brown rejected that line of defense.