I was hoping to get to ASU to look up some additional sources on North Carolina’s reaction to John Brown’s raid. But with time constraints, and with the flu running rampant on college campuses, I’ve decided to just use the resources that I have at hand.
I will start by saying that using newspapers to gauge the public’s reaction to an event is not necessarily good history. Newspaper editors (then and now) are biased, and use their column space to present a certain view (theirs) to the public. With that warning in mind, let’s dive in.
John Brown’s raid took places on October 16-17, 1859. Word had not arrived in sufficient time to warrant a column in the October 19 issue of the Weekly Standard (Raleigh). The Raid did get coverage in the October 22 issue, the editor (W. W. Holden), devoting almost three whole columns on the front of his paper to the Raid. Holden’s personal comments seem to be these:
The Outbreak at Harper’s Ferry
The whole country has been startled by the insurrectionary movement at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, full accounts of which will be found in our paper today.
The movement was promptly suppressed by the authorities, but it will be long remembered as a [practical] illustration of abolition doctrines.
The President of the United States deserves the thanks of every true man North and South, for the energy and promptitude which he displayed on the occasion. What would have been done, if Seward had been President?
Everything else on the first page is a reprint from a newspaper in Washington, D. C., detailing the raid, and the search for fugitives.
Holden devotes most of page three (the newspaper was only four pages) to coverage of the Raid. He continues his own thoughts, praising the actions of Virginia Gov. Henry A. Wise. Holden then looks to identify the financial backers of the Raid, naming “Gerritt Smith, Joshua R. Giddings, and other prominent abolitionist.” Holden wanted the federal authorities to “take hold of these men…” He also wrote that “If about one thousand of the prominent abolitionists could be hanged by the neck until they were dead, the country would be benefitted, and all good men every where would be more assured of a continence of concord between the States.” Holden’s next paragraph is aimed at Seward and the abolition movement. “At the North this Harper’s Ferry movement” Holden writes “should produce more sound reflection on the subject of slavery than heretofore, and should dispose every just and fair-minded citizen to set his face against a party whose doctrines lead inevitably to insurrection and a dissolution of the Union.” Holden then goes on to reprint articles from Richmond and Baltimore.
In the next issue of the Weekly Standard, published on November 2, 1859, Holden once again turns his pen against Seward. On page 1, under the title of “The ‘Irrepressible Conflict’”, Holden writes that the “doctrines announced by Mr. Seward, in his Rochester speech, have displayed their first fruits in the recent outbreak at Harper’s Ferry." The editor then looks at the doctrines of the “black Republicans,” and latter takes issue with Republican journalists, saying that while they “seek to palliate the wickedness of old Brown and his confederates, by declaring that he is a madman, and that they are not responsible for his conduct…” Brown’s actions “are the legitimate fruits of their doctrines, which teach that slavery is a monstrous evil, to be ‘extirpated’ by every means under the ‘higher law’ which its enemies can command."