Who Authorized Military Force At Harpers Ferry?

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    I am interested in primary sources relating to the military response to John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry.

    I recently read an argument that Article IV Section 8 (Clause 15) of the U.S. Constitution gave the Federal Government power to make war against the Southern states when they seceded from the Union. The author cites John Brown’s raid as an example of the Federal Government using the power to suppress insurrections, suggesting the Southern states should have known what they had coming if they seceded.

    Regarding the Harpers Ferry Raid, all the commentary I have found mention President James Buchanan ordering a unit of U.S. Marines to Harpers Ferry to capture the raiders.

    Some questions I am trying to answer about this event are:

    – Did the Virginia legislature or governor request help from the federal government?

    – Did the President request Congressional approval before sending troops?

    – Since Harpers Ferry Arsenal was federal property, could the President act without Congress?

    Thanks for your help.



    Buchanan acted by calling in federal troops but I believe the VA militia participated as well.

    As for the Article IV Section 8 argument, the Southern States were out of the Union and therefore the Constitution was no longer valid law. They understood that war could be a possibility but hoped it would not happen.


    For anyone interested in this topic:

    I found an account of the raid at Harpers Ferry in Robert W. Coakley’s book “The Role of Federal Forces in Domestic Disorders, 1789-1878”.

    According to this account, the proclamation by the President, which was required by Section 3 of the Militia Act of 1795 before military force could be initiated, was hastily written and never delivered to the “insurgents”.

    “[John Brown’s Raid] … like Turner’s Rebellion and most of the other riots of the antebellum period, it was the militia acting under state and local control that brought the raiders to bay, even though in this case it did require a well-disciplined federal force to finish them off.”

    You can find the book here (see the section titled “The Sequel – John Brown’s Raid” in Chapter 9 (pp. 188-193).

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