The Vault

John Brown’s Passionate “Declaration of Liberty,’ Written on a Lengthy Scroll

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This proclamation, over 2,000 words in length, was drafted on successive sheets of paper and pasted onto a long piece of cloth, then wrapped around a wooden dowel. After John Brown’s failed raid on Harpers Ferry, investigators found the assembled scroll, along with other documents related to his crusade, at Kennedy Farm in Maryland. Brown had rented the farm to use as a home base while preparing for the action at Harpers Ferry, and wrote this proclamation there during the summer before the October 1859 raid.

The text of the proclamation, titled “A Declaration of Liberty by the Representatives of the Slave Population of the United States of America,” plays with the familiar language of the Declaration of Independence, amplifying its message to justify revolution in its name. “We hold this truth to be self-evident,” Brown writes, “That it is the highest Privilege, & Plain Duty of Man; to strive in evry reasonable way, to promote the Happiness, Mental, Moral, & Physical, elevation of his fellow Man.”

Brown included the “right” to “resist & change” the government among these “duties.” “Any Tribe, Rulers, or People, who Rob & cruelly oppress their faithful Laboring Citizens, have within themselvs the Germ, of their own certain & fearful overthrow,” he wrote.

The handwriting on the scroll belongs to Owen Brown, John’s third son, who served as his father’s secretary. Owen was an active participant in the most dramatic of his father’s skirmishes with pro-slavery settlers in Kansas, but stayed behind at Kennedy Farm when John went to Harpers Ferry along with his band of 21 men. He was one of seven Brown partisans who made a dramatic escape after the plan fell apart. Owen moved west, settled in California, and lived until 1889.  

A transcript, courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s Preserving American Freedom project, which digitized the proclamation, appears after the image. Click here to reach the document’s page in that archive.

Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Preserving American Freedom project.

Transcript (courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s Preserving American Freedom project)

[July?] 4th 1859

A Declaration of Liberty

By the Representatives of the slave Popolation of the United States of America

“When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary” for an Oppressed People to Rise, and assert their Natural Rights, as Human Beings, as Native & mutual Citizens of a free Republic, and break that odious Yoke of oppression, which is so unjustly laid upon them by their fellow Countrymen, “and to assume among the powers of Earth the same equal privileges to which the Laws of Nature, & natures God entitle them; A moderate respect for the opinions of Mankind, requires that they should declare the causes which incite them to this just & worthy action.

We hold these truths to be Self Evident; That All Men are Created Equal; That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. That among these are Life, Liberty; & the persuit of happiness. That Nature hath freely given to all Men, a full Supply of Air. Water, & Land; for their sustinance, & mutual happiness, That No Man has any right to deprive his fellow Man, of these Inherent rights, except in punishment of Crime. That to secure these rights governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That when any form of Government, becomes destructive to these ends, It is the right of the People, to alter, Amend, or Remoddel it, Laying its foundation on Such Principles, & organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect the safety, & happiness” of the Human Race, To secure equal rights, privileges, & justice to allIrrespective of Sex; or Nation; To Secure Fraternal Kindness to all Friends of Equal Moral privileges,to all who honestly abandon their Despotic oppressive rule. We hold this truth to be self evident; That it is the highest Privilege, & Plain Duty of Man; to strive in evry reasonable way, to promote the Happiness, Mental, Moral, & Physical,

elevation of his fellow Man. And that People, or Clanish Oppressors; who wickedly violate this sacred principle; oppressing th their fellow Men, Will bring upon themselvs that certain & fearful retribution, which is the Natural, and Necessary penalty of evil Doing. “Prudence, indeed will dictate, that Governments long established, should not be changed for light & transient causes; But when a long train of abuses, & usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object; evinces a design to perpetuate an absolute Despotism; and most cruel bondage; It is their Right, it is their Duty to resist & change such Government, & provide safeguards for their future Liberty” Such has been the patient sufferance of the slaves of the United States, and such is now the necessity which constrains them to brush this foul system of oppression, The history of Slavery in the Unites States, is a history of injustice & Cruelties inflicted upon the Slave in evry conceivable way, & in barbarity not surpassed by the most Savage Tribes. It is the embodiment of all that is Evil, and ruinous to a Nation; and subversive of all Good. “In proof of which; facts innumerable have been submitted to the People, and have recd the Verdict & condemnatio condemnation of a candid & Impartial World.” Our Servants; Members of Congress; & other Servants of the People, who receive exorbitant wages, from the People ask in return for; for their unjust Rule, have refused to pass Laws the mostwholsome & necessary for public good, they have refused to pass laws for the accommodation of large districts of People, unless that People, would relinquish the right of representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them, and formidable to tyrants only. Our President & other Leeches have called together Legislative, ortreasonable Bodies, at places unusual, uncomfortable, & distant from the depository of our public records; for the sole purpose of fatiguing us into compliance with their measures. They have desolved r Representative houses, for opposing with Manly firmness, their invasions on the rights of the people.

They have refused to grant Petitions presented by numerous & respectable Citizens, asking redress of grievances imposed upon us, demanding our Liberty & natural rights. With Contempt, they Spurn and our humble

petitions; and have failed to pass Laws for our relief. They have prevented in all possible ways, the administration of justice to the slave, They have made judges Taney dependent on their will alone, for the tenure of their offices, & the amount & payment of their salaries, They have erected a Multitud Multitude of new offices, & sent on swarms of Blood Suckers, & Moths, to harass the People, & eat out their substance, They have effected to render the Military, indepen independent of, & superior to the power & wishes of the People (the Civil power.) Claiming thatknowledge is power, they have, (for their own safety) kept us in total darkness, & Ignorance, inflicting base cruelties, for any attempt on our part to obtain knowledge “They have prottected base Men, Pirates (engaged in a most Inhuman traffic; The Foreign; & Domestic, Slave Trade.) by mock trials, from punishment, for unprovoked murders which they have committed upon us, & free citizens of the States. They have prevented by law, our having any Traffick or deal with our fellow Men; Regardless of our wishes, they declare themselvs invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever. They have abdicated government among us, by declaring us out of their protection, & waging a worse than most cruel war upon us continually.

“The welfare of the People; Is the first Great Law”The fact, & a full discription of the enormous Sin of Slavery, may be found in the General History of American Slavery, which is a history of repeated injuries, of base hypocracy; A cursed treasonable, Despotic usurpation; The most abominable provoking atrocities; Which are but a mockery of all that is just, or worthy of any people. Such cruelty, tyrany, & perfidy, has hardly a paral paralell, in the history of the most barbarous ages, Our Servants, or Law makers; are totally unworthy the name of Half Civilized Men. All their National acts, (which aply to Slavery,) are false, to the words spirit, & intention, of the Constitution of the United States, & the Declaration of IndependenceThey say by word & Act, That their own Children, or any faithful Citizen, may be Legally robed of evry Natural & Sacred Right, & that we, have no rights whatever. They are a Blot upon the Character, the honor, of any Nation, which Claims to have the least shadow or spark of Civilization above the lowest, most inferior Canibal Races. This is a slight thoug brief recital, of some of the enormous atrocities,

of these Idle, haughty, tyranical, Arrogant Land Monopolists; Slave holders our lords, & masters, From which, Good Lord Deliver us. These are some of the facts, which we now, (after the lapse of 83 years, since the writing & signing of that Sacred Instrument, Honored & Adored by our Fathers, which declares that it is Self Evident that all Men are Created Equal, Endowed by their Creator with certain inherent rights &c”) submit to the Decision of all candid; true Republican, Friends of Universal Freedom, & Natural Equality of Rights. All We Demand; is our Liberty, & the Natural rights & immunities of faithful Citizens of the United States. We will Obtain these rights or Die in the struggle to obtain them We make war upon oppression, we have no controversy with any Religious Sect, Our intention is not to molest any any Good Man, what ever may be his religious belief. We hold these to be self evident truths, That That any Tribe, Rulers, or People, who Rob & cruelly oppress their faithful Laboring Citizens, have within themselvs the Germ, of their own certain & fearful overthrow; It is one of Natures Immutable Laws; that “According to the measure ye mite; so shall it be Measured to you again.” Herein is the secret of security & true happiness, for Individuals, And the Only Firm Basis, upon which Governments, may be p Permanently Established; Where the Citizens, are Devoted to the greatest good of their Fellow Men, The more humble, benighted & oppressed they are, so much the more simpathy; & earnest effort for their relief, is demanded, striving earnestly to promote the safety and prosperity of their Nation; & the Human Race. It is a fixed Law of Nature, That any People, or Nation, whose [sturdy?] purpose, & Constant Practice, is in accordance with these principles; Must go forward Progressing; So long as Man Continues to Exist. For in Nature the Principle of Reciprocity is Great.“The Legitimate object of all Punishment, is to prevent Crime” When any Punishment is inflicted, more than is necessary to prevent crime, it then ceases to be a Punishment, It has then become a Barbarous Crime. A Sore Evil.“The Natural Object of all Government is to Protect the right, Defend the Inocent”. When any set of Usurpers, Tribe, or Community, fail to protect the right, but furnish protection & encouragement to the Villain, by bestowing a Bounty, or Premium, upon the vile Thief, Rober , Libertine, Pirate; & Woman killing Slave Holder; as a a reward, for their deeds of

rascality and Barbarism; And inflict grievious cruelties upon the inocent, Shooting & Butchering those most faithful, Citizens, who have Striven Manfully, for the relief of the downtroden &; oppresed of thier Country), who fought bravely in support of the Great Principles set forth in D our Declaration of Independence, from the oppressive Rule of England.) Encouraging in various ways, by bribery & fraud, the most Fiendish acts of Barbarism (like those Perpetrated within the limits of the United States, in Florida, at Blounts Fort; in Florida & inother Teritories.) under under the Jurisdiction & guidance of Slaveholding Authority, & in strict accordance with Slaveholding Rules). They have transcended their own limits, They have fairly outwitted themselvs; Their Slave Code, is a shame to any Nation, Their Laws, are no Laws; they themselvs are no more than a Band compilation of Base Piraticle Rulers. They are a curse to themselvs, a most lamentable Blot upon Society.

“In every stage of these oppressions, we have petitioned for redress, in the most humble terms, Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated I Injuryies, A Class of oppressors, whose character is thus marked by evry act which may define a Tyranical Despotism, is unfit to rule any People. Nor have we been wanting in attention, to our Oppressors; we have warned them from time to time, of attempts (made by their headlongBlindnes,) to perpetuate, extend, strengthen, & revive the die-ing eliments of this cursed Institution. We have reminded them of our unhappy condition, and of their cruelties, We have appealed to their native justice & magnanimity, to we have conjured them by the ties of our common nature, our Brotherhood, & Common Parentage, to disavow these usurpations, which have destroyed our Kindred friendship, and endangered their safety. “They have been Deaf to the voice of Justice & Consanguinity. We must therefore acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces their tyrany & unjust rule over us. Declaring that we will serve them no longer as slaves, Knowing that the Laborer is worthy of his hire.” We therefore, the Representatives of the Circumscribed Citizens of the United States, of America in General Congress Assembled, appealing to the Supreem Judge of the World, for the rectitude of our intentions, Do in the name, & by the authority

of the oppressed Citizens of the Slave States, Solemnly, publish & Declare; that the Slaves are, & of right ought to be as free & independent as the unchangeable Law of God, requires that All Men Shall be. That they are absolved from all allegiance to those Tyrants, who still persist in forcibly subjecting them to perpetual Bondage, and that all friendly connection between them & such Tyrants, is, & ought to be totally desolved , And that as free, & Independent Citizens of these States, they have a perfect right, a sufficient & just cause, to defend themselvsagainst the tyrany of their oppressors. To solicit aid from & ask the protection of all true friends of humanity & reform, of whatever Nation, & where ever found; A right to contract Allegiances, & to do all other acts & things which free independent Citizens may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration; with a firm reliance on the protiction of Divine Provience ; we mutually Pledge to each other, Our Lives, and our sacred honor. Indeed; I tremble for my Country, when I reflect; that God is Just; And that his Justice; will not sleep forever forever.” Nature is mourning for its Murdered, and Afflicted Children. Hung be the Heavins in Scarlet.

The above is the handwriting of Owen Brown the Son of John Brown