“The Pottawatomie Rifle company will meet at the parade ground.”

John Brown

John Brown’s eldest, also John Brown, led his Pottawatomie Rifle company to Dutch Henry’s tavern on April 21, 1856. They left their rifles behind, but close enough that if something happened they could arm themselves in a hurry. John Junior went into the tavern, which caused a stir as everyone recognized him and knew him as an antislavery militant, and asked if Judge Sterling Cato’s court would enforce the laws of the United States or the laws of the bogus legislature. Cato saw that Brown and company hadn’t come in packing heat, so he told them that the laws of the territorial legislature applied.

Junior took his answer and went outside, to where most of his company waited on the news. The men can’t have taken it well. He came back inside the tavern toward the end of Cato’s proceedings and spoke up, as he recounts to the Herald of Freedom

May it please the Court, I have a question in writing to propose to the court, an answer to which, would enlighten the citizens, and no doubt would be acceptable to the Grand Jury.

 

Cato did not take the interruption well. He told Brown to wait until he was finished and ignored Brown’s note until then. Picking it up, he read

To the Court. Does this Court intend to enforce the enactments of the Territorial Legislature, so-called?

In Brown’s words, Cato

took up the paper containing the question, and after looking at it, laid it down near the clerk, in a rather contemptuous manner, without making any reply whatever. The clerk then did the same thing, and also the marshal.

Stephen Oates, citing manuscript sources I don’t have access to, expands on the contemptuousness. The judge read the paper and then threw it across the table. Brown adds that the clerk and marshal likewise read and discarded it. Cato would not have his court disturbed by theatrics, apparently.

Brown writes that he waited “awhile longer.” Maybe he thought that if he did, Cato would oblige him after all. The court had finished its work, so answering a technical question of obvious relevance wouldn’t be a great burden. Cato persisted in declining to play his part in Brown’s drama.

Junior could take the hint and had a flair for the dramatic that day which no proslavery man would get in the way of. He stepped just outside the tavern and then declared, loudly so everyone inside could hear,

The Pottawatomie Rifle company will meet at the parade ground.

 

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