“The Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the people of the United States”
Constitution and Ordinances for the people of the United States,” in that it is
even mentioned in historical texts, is dismissed as a document made up on the
spot by John Brown’s lawyer Samuel Chilton when he defended Brown during the
trial for insurrection for Brown’s actions at Harper’s Ferry in 1858.
But the more one thinks about John Brown’s actions, the clearer it becomes that this document was at the core of Brown’s actions, and the actions of his supporters, and that they saw their efforts, including the provisional constitution, as being entirely legal and entirely moral in nature.
From Brown’s perspective,
he did not engage in insurrection at all, but rather the entire government of
the South, and to a large extent, that of the entire United States was so corrupt
and so far from the word and the spirit of its own constitution that it lacked any
legitimacy. He presented a blue print for the rule by law and his actions were
entirely legal and just from that point of view. “The Provisional Constitution”
states that everyone, native, African American, immigrant, or otherwise is a
citizen of the nation. It is radical statement only in comparison with accepted
thinking of elites at the time. The provisional constitution represents a most
obvious conclusion coming from the careful reading of the Declaration of
Independence and the Constitution.
I am astonished at
the degree to which his narrative has been distorted and ignored so as to make
it almost impossible to see him as anything but a radical. In fact, it was
Robert E Lee who attacked John Brown for standing up for the spirit of the constitution.
Lee, not Brown, was the radical, the extremist.
As we wrestle with
the complete decay of the rule of law today, it is critical that we read again what
John Brown wrote back then. It is also critical that we understand that the
tradition of constitutional law that we see in the United States Constitution
of 1787 did not grow merely out of enlightenment thinking and the Magna Carta,
but that it also has deep roots in the “Great Law of Peace” of the Iroquois
Confederacy and other native constitutions. Written down in 1722, the “Great
Law of Peace” dated back hundreds, if not thousands, of years and offered a
powerful alternative to the exploitative tradition of the English colonies.
Constitution was an attempt to fully embody the words of the constitution and
perhaps its origins in the “Great Law of Peace” and as such was perhaps not
anywhere as radical as its critics later claimed.
Here is the full text of the “Provisional Constitution”
Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the people of the United
Whereas slavery, throughout its entire existence in the United
States, is none other than a most barbarous, unprovoked, and unjustifiable war
of one portion of its citizens upon another portion-the only conditions ‘of
which are perpetual imprisonment and hopeless servitude or absolute
extermination-in utter disregard and violation of those eternal and
self-evident truths set forth in our Declaration of Independence:
Therefore, we, citizens of the United States, and the oppressed
people who, by a recent decision of the Supreme’ Court, are declared to have no
rights which the white man is bound to respect, together with all other people
degraded by the laws thereof, do, for the time being, ordain and establish for
ourselves the following Provisional Constitution and Ordinances, the better to
protect our persons, property, lives, and liberties, and to govern our actions
All persons of mature age, whether proscribed, oppressed, and
enslaved citizens, or of the proscribed and oppressed races of the United
States, who shall agree to sustain and enforce the Provisional Constitution and
Ordinances of this organization, together with all minor children of such
persons, shall be held to be fully entitled to protection under the same.
The provisional government of this organization shall consist of
three branches, viz: legislative, executive, and judicial.
The legislative branch shall be a Congress or House of
Representative, composed of not less than five nor more than ten members, who
shall be elected by all citizens of mature age and of sound mind connected
with this organization, and who shall remain in office for three years, unless
sooner removed for misconduct, inability, or by death. A majority of such
members shall constitute a quorum.
The executive branch of this organization shall consist of a
President and Vice-President, who shall be chosen by the citizens or members of
this organization, and each of whom shall hold his office for three years”
unless sooner removed by death or for inability or misconduct.
The judicial branch of this organization shall consist of one
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and of four associate judges of said court,
each constituting a circuit court. They shall each be chosen in the same manner
as the President, and shall continue in office until their places have been
filled in the same manner by election of the citizens. Said court shall have
jurisdiction in all civil or criminal causes arising under this constitution,
except breaches of the rules of war.
All enactments of the legislative branch shall, to become valid
during the first three years, have the approbation of the President and of the
Commander-in-chief of the army.
A Commander-in-chief of the army shall be chosen by the President,
Vice-President, a majority of the Provisional Congress, and of the Supreme
Court, and he shall receive his commission from the President, signed by the
Vice-President, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and the Secretary of
War, and he shall hold his office for three years, unless removed by death or
on proof of incapacity or misbehavior. He shall, unless under arrest, (and
until his place is actually filled as provided for by this constitution,)
direct all movements of the army and advise with any allies. He shall, however,
be tried, removed, or punished, on complaint of the President, by at least
three general officers, or a majority of the House of Representatives, or of
the Supreme Court; which House of Representatives, (the President presiding,)
the Vice-President, and the members of the Supreme Court, shall constitute a
court-martial for his trial; with power to remove or punish, as the case may
require, and to fill his place, as above provided.
A Treasurer, Secretary of State, Secretary of War, and Secretary
of the Treasury, shall each be chosen, for the first three years, in the same
way and manner as the Commander-in-chief, subject to trial or removal on
complaint of the President, Vice-President, or Commander in-chief, to the Chief
Justice of the Supreme Court, or on complaint of the majority of the members of
said court or the Provisional Congress. The Supreme Court shall have power to
try or punish either of those officers, and their places shall be filled as
The Secretary of War shall be under the immediate direction of
the Commander-in-chief, who may temporarily fill his place in case of arrest or
of any inability to serve.
or House of Representatives.
The House of Representatives shall make ordinances providing for
the appointment (by the President or otherwise) of all civil officers,
excepting those already named; and shall have power to. make all laws and
ordinances for the general good, not inconsistent with this Constitution and
The Provisional Congress shall have power to appropriate money
or other property actually in the hands of the treasurer, to any object
calculated to promote the general good, so far as may be consistent with the
provisions of this constitution; and may, in certain cases, appropriate for a
moderate compensation of agents, or persons not members of this organization,
for any important service they are known to have rendered.
It shall be the duty of Congress to provide for the instant
removal of any civil officer or policeman, who becomes habitually intoxicated,
or who is addicted to other immoral conduct, or to any neglect or unfaithfulness
in the discharge of his official duties. Congress shall also be a Standing
Committee of Safety, for the purpose of obtaining important information; and
shall be in constant communication with the Commander-in-chief; the members of
which shall each, as also the President, Vice-President, members of the Supreme
Court, and Secretary of State, have full power to issue warrants, returnable as
Congress shall ordain (naming witnesses, &c.,) upon their own information,
without the formality of a complaint. Complaint shall be immediately made after
arrest, and before trial; the party arrested to be served with a copy at once.
of President and other Officers
The President and Vice-President may either of them be tried,
removed, or punished, on complaint made to the Chief Justice of the Supreme
Court, by a majority of the House of Representatives; which house together with
the Associate Judges of the Supreme Court, the whole to be presided over by the
Chief Justice in case of the trial of the Vice-President, shall have full power
to try such officers, to remove or punish as the case may require, and to fill
any vacancy so occurring, the same as in the case of the Commander-in-chief.
of members of Congress.
The members of the House of Representatives may, any and all of
them, be tried, and, on conviction, removed or punished, on complaint before
the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, made by any number of the members of
said house exceeding one-third; which house, with the Vice-President and
Associate Judges of the Supreme Court, shall constitute the proper tribunal
with power to fill such vacancies.
Any member of the Supreme Court may also be impeached, tried,
convicted, or punished by removal or otherwise, Oil complaint to the President,
who shall in such case, preside; the Vice-President, House of Representatives,
and other members of the Supreme Court, constituting the proper tribunal,
(with power to fill vacancies,) on complaint of a majority of said House of
Representatives, or of the Supreme Court; a majority of the whole having power
of President and Secretary of State.
The President, with the Secretary of State; shall, immediately
upon entering on the duties of their office, give special attention to secure
from amongst their own people, men of integrity, intelligence, and good
business habits and capacity, and, above an, of first-rate moral and religious
character and influence, to act as civil officers of every description and
grade, as well as teachers, chaplains, physicians, surgeons, mechanics, agents
of every description, clerks, and messengers. They shall make special efforts
to induce, at the earliest possible period, persons and families of that
description to locate themselves within the limits secured by this
organization; and shall, moreover, from time to time, supply the names and
residence of such persons to the Congress, for their special notice and
information, as among the most important of their duties; and the President is
herebyauth9rized and empowered to afford special aid to such individuals, from
such moderate appropriations as the Congress shall be able and may deem
advisable to make for that object. The President and Secretary of State, and in
all cases of disagreement the Vice-President, shall appoint all civil officers,
but shall not have power to remove any officer. All removals shall be the
result of a fair trial, whether civil or military.
It shall be the duty of the President and Secretary of State to
find out (as soon as possible) the real friends as well as enemies of this
organization in every part of the country; to secure among them innkeepers,
private postmasters, private mail contractors, messengers, and agents, through
whom may be obtained correct and regular information constantly; recruits for
the service, places of deposit and sale, together with all needed supplies; and
it shall be matter of special regard to secure such facilities through the
of the President.
It shall be the duty of the President, as well as the House of
Representatives, at all times, to inform the Commander-in-chief of any matter
that may require his attention, or that may affect the public safety.
of President, continued.
It shall be the duty of the President to see that the
provisional ordinances of this organization, and those made by the Congress,
are promptly and faithfully executed; and he may, in cases of great urgency,
call on the Commander-in-chief of the army or other officers for aid; it being,
however, intended that a sufficient civil police shall always be in readiness
to secure implicit obedience to law.
The Vice-President shall be the presiding officer of the
Provisional Congress, and in cases of tie shall give the casting vote.
In case of the death, removal, or inability of the President,
the Vice President, and, next to him, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
shall be the President during the remainder of the term; and the place of the
Chief Justice, thus made vacant, shall be filled by Congress from’ some of the
members of said court; and the places of the Vice-President and Associate
Justice, thus made vacant, filled by an election by the united action of the
Provisional Congress and members of the Supreme Court. All other vacancies, not
heretofore specially provided for, shall, during the first three years, be
filled by the united action of the President, Vice-President, Supreme Court,
and Commander-in-chief of the army.
The punishment of crimes not capital, except in case of
insubordinate convicts or other prisoners, shall be (so far as may be) by hard
labor on the public works, roads, &c.
It shall be the duty of all commissioned officers of the army to
name candidates of merit, for office or elevation, to the Commander-in-chief,
who, with the Secretary of War, and, in. cases of disagreement, the President,
shall be the appointing power of the army; and all commissions of military
officers shall bear the signatures of the Commander in-chief and the Secretary
of War. And it shall be the special duty of the Secretary of War to keep for
constant reference of the Commander-in-chief a full list of names of persons
nominated for office or elevation by the officers of the army, with the name
and rank of the officer nominating, stating distinctly, but briefly, the grounds
for such notice or nomination. The Commander-in-chief shall not have power to
remove or punish any officer or soldier, but he may order their arrest and
trial at any time by court-martial.
Courts-martial for companies, regiments, brigades, &c.,
shall be called by the chief officer of each command, on complaint to him by
any officer, or any five privates in such command, and shall consist of not
less than five nor more than nine officers, non-commissioned officers and
privates, one half of whom shall not be lower in rank than the person on trial,
to be chosen by the three highest officers in the command, which officers shall
not be a part of such court. The chief officer of any command shall, of course,
be tried by a court-martial of the command above his own. All decisions
affecting the lives of persons, or office of persons holding commission, must,
before taking full effect, have the signature of the Commander-in-chief, who
may also, on the recommendation of at least one third of the members of the
court-martial finding any sentence, grant a reprieve or commutation of the
No person connected with this organization shall be entitled to
any salary, pay, or emolument, other than a competent support of himself and
family, unless it be from an equal dividend made of public property, on the
establishment of peace, or of special provision by treaty; which provision
shall be made for all persons who may have been in any active civil or military
service at any time previous to any hostile action for liberty and equality.
Before any treaty of peace shall take full effect it shall be
signed by the President and Vice-President, the Commander-in-chief, a majority
of the House of Representatives, a majority of the Supreme Court, and a
majority of all the general officers of the army.
of the military.
It shall be the duty of the Commander-in-chief and all officers
and soldiers of the army to afford special protection, when needed, to Congress
or any member thereof, to the Supreme Court or any member thereof, to the
President, Vice-President, Treasurer, Secretary of State, Secretary of the
Treasury, and Secretary of War; and to afford general protection to all civil
officers or other persons having right to the same.
All captured or confiscated property and all property the
product of the labor of those belonging to this organization and of their families,
shall. be held as the property of the whole, equally, without distinction, and
may be used for the common benefit, or disposed of for the same object; and any
person, officer, or otherwise, who shall improperly retain, secrete, use, or
needlessly destroy such property, or property found, captured, or confiscated,
belonging to the enemy, or shall willfully neglect to render a full and fair
statement of such property by him so taken or held, shall be deemed guilty of a
misdemeanor, and, on conviction, shall be punished accordingly.
or intelligence fund.
All money, plate, watches, or jewelry captured by honorable warfare,
found, taken, or confiscated, belonging to the enemy, shall be held sacred to
constitute a liberal safety or intelligence fund; and any person who shall
improperly retain, dispose of, hide, use, or destroy such money or other
article above named, contrary to the provisions and spirit of this article,
shall be deemed guilty of theft, and, on conviction thereof, shall be punished
accordingly. The treasurer shall furnish the Commander-in-chief at all times
with a full statement of the condition of such fund, and its nature.
Commander-in-chief and the treasury.
The Commander-in-chief shall have power to draw from the
treasury the money and other property of the fund provided for in article
twenty-ninth; but his orders shall be signed also by the Secretary of War, who
shall keep strict account of the same subject to examination by any member of
Congress or general officer.
of the safety or intelligence fund.
It shall be the duty of the Commander-in-chief to advice the
President of any surplus of the safety and intelligence fund, who shall have
power to draw such surplus (his order being also signed by the Secretary of
State) to enable him to carry out the provisions of article seventeenth.
No person, after having surrendered himself or herself a
prisoner, and who shall properly demean himself or herself as such, to any
officer or private connected with this organization, shall afterward be put to
death, or be subject to any corporeal punishment, without first having had the
benefit of a fair and impartial trial; nor shall any prisoner be treated with
any kind of cruelty, disrespect, insult, or needless severity; but it shall be
the duty of all persons, male and female, connected herewith, at all times and
under all circumstances, to treat all such prisoners with every degree of
respect and kindness that the nature of the circumstances will admit of, and to
insist on a like course of conduct from all others, as in the fear of Almighty
God, to whose care and keeping we commit our cause.
All persons who may come forward, and shall voluntarily deliver
up their slaves, and have their names registered on the books of the
organization, shall, so long as they continue at peace, be entitled to the
fullest protection of person and property, though not connected with this
organization, and shall be treated as friends and not merely as persons
The persons and property of all non-slaveholders, who shall
remain absolutely neutral, shall be respected so far as the circumstances can
allow of it, but they shall not be entitled to any active protection.
The needless waste or destruction of any useful property or
article by fire, throwing open of fences, fields, buildings, or needless
killing of animals, or injury of either, shall not be tolerated at any time or
place, but shall be promptly and properly punished.
The entire personal and real property of all persons known to be
acting either directly or indirectly with or for the enemy, or Found in arms
with them, or found willfully holding slaves, shall be confiscated and taken
whenever and wherever it may be found in either free or slave States.
Persons convicted on impartial trial of desertion to the enemy,
after becoming members, acting as spies, or of treacherous surrender of
property, ammunition, provisions, or supplies of any kind, roads, bridges,
persons, or fortifications shall be put to death, and their entire property
of parole of honor.
Persons proven to be guilty of taking up arms after having been
set at liberty on parole of honor, or, after the same, to have taken any active
part with or for the enemy, direct or indirect, shall be put to death, and
their entire property confiscated.
All persons connected in any way with this organization, and who
may be entitled to full protection under it, shall be held as under obligation
to labor in some way for the general good; and persons refusing or neglecting
so to do, shall, on conviction, receive a suitable and appropriate punishment.
Profane swearing, filthy conversation, indecent behavior, or
indecent exposure of the person, or intoxication or quarreling, shall not be
allowed or tolerated, neither unlawful intercourse of the sexes.
Persons convicted of the forcible violation of any female
prisoner shall be put to death.
marriage relation, schools, the Sabbath.
The marriage relation shall be at all times respected, and
families kept together, as far as possible; and broken families encouraged to
reunite, and intelligence offices established for that purpose. Schools and
churches established, as soon as may be, for the purpose of religious and
other instructions; for the first day of the week, regarded as a day of rest,
and appropriated to moral and religious instruction and improvement, relief of
the suffering, instruction of the young and ignorant, and the encouragement of
personal cleanliness; nor shall any persons be required on that day to perform
ordinary manual labor, unless in extremely urgent cases.
All persons known to be of good character and of sound mind and
suitable age, who are connected with this organization, whether male or female,
shall be encouraged to carry arms openly.
person to carry concealed weapons.
No person within the limits of the conquered territory, except
regularly appointed policemen, express officers of the army, mail carriers, or
other fully accredited messengers of the Congress, President, Vice President,
members of the Supreme Court, or commissioned officers of the army-and those
only under peculiar circumstances-shall be allowed at any time to carry
concealed weapons; and any person not specially authorized so to do, who shall
be found so doing, shall be deemed a suspicious person, and may at once be
arrested by any officer, soldier, or citizen, without the formality of a
complaint or warrant, and may at once be subjected to thorough search, and
shall have his or her case thoroughly investigated, and be dealt with as
circumstances on proof shall require.
to be seized.
Persons within the limits of the territory holden by this
organization, not connected with this organization, having arms at all,
concealed or otherwise, shall be seized at once, or, be taken in charge of some
vigilant officer, and their case thoroughly investigated; and it shall be the
duty of all citizens and soldiers, as well as officers, to arrest such parties
as are named in this and the preceding section or article, without the
formality of complaint or warrant; and they shall be placed in charge of some
proper officer for examination or for safekeeping.
articles not for the overthrow of government.
The foregoing articles shall not be construed so as in any way
to encourage the overthrow of any State government, or of the general
government of the United States, and look to no dissolution of the Union, but
simply to amendment and repeal. And our flag shall be the same that our fathers
fought under in the Revolution.
plurality of offices.
No two of the offices specially provided for by this instrument
shall be filled by the same person at the same time.
Every officer, civil or military, connected with this
organization shall, before entering upon the duties of his office, make solemn
oath or affirmation to abide by and support this provisional constitution and
these ordinances; also every citizen and soldier, before being fully recognized
as such, shall do the same.
The president of this convention shall convene, immediately on
the adoption of this instrument, a convention of all such persons as shall have
given their adherence by signature to the constitution, who shall proceed to
fill, by election, all offices specially named in said constitution, the
president of this convention presiding, and issuing commissions to such
officers elect; all such officers being thereafter elected in the manner
provided in the body of this instrument.
Source: Provisional Constitution