John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights
As John Brown was led to the gallows in Charlestown, Virginia, on December 2, 1859, he handed his guard a note:
I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood. I had as I now think: vainly flattered myself that without verry much bloodshed; it might be done.
This prophecy proved to be more accurate than even Brown could have imagined. Six years later slavery was abolished and four million slaves went free—at the cost in blood of more than 620,000 soldiers who lost their lives in the American Civil War. The act for which Brown and sixteen of his followers, including two of his sons, paid with their lives—an attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia—did much to bring on that war. Was Brown a terrorist who killed innocent victims or a hero-martyr who struck a mighty blow against the accursed institution of slavery? His body has lain a-moldering in its grave for almost 150 years, yet there is today no more consensus on the answers to these questions than in 1859.
John Brown lived the first fifty-five years of his life in relative obscurity. Born in Connecticut in 1800, he grew up in the Western Reserve of northeast Ohio, a center of antislavery sentiment. His abolitionist father owned a tannery, and young John followed him into that occupation. He also emulated his father in the matter of siring children. Owen Brown had sixteen by two wives, while John Brown fathered twenty children by two wives (the first died in childbirth), of whom eleven lived to adulthood. Although initially successful as a tanner and subsequently as a wool merchant, John Brown lost heavily as a land speculator in the panic of 1837 and subsequently failed in the wool business as well.
According to family tradition, Brown pledged his life to fight African-American bondage after a proslavery mob murdered the abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy in Illinois in 1837. As early as the 1840s he began to evolve a plan to lead a raiding party into the Virginia mountains. There he would attract slaves from lowland plantations to his banner and arm them to defend the mountain passes against counterattack. With his mobile “army” of freed slaves he would move south along the Appalachians, inspiring slaves to escape until the whole accursed system of bondage collapsed.
Brown discussed this plan with Frederick Douglass and other black leaders, who admired his determination if not his sagacity. Brown was unusual for his time in his ability to rise above race prejudice and mix with blacks as equals. In 1849 he moved to a farm at North Elba near Lake Placid in the Adirondacks, where the wealthy abolitionist Gerrit Smith had donated thousands of acres to black farmers to create an exemplary interracial rural community. Brown settled part of his family there and became a sort of white patriarch of the settlement, which struggled in vain to achieve prosperity in that land of poor soil and a short growing season.
Brown himself rarely stayed home in North Elba. He spent much of his time arranging for escaped slaves to go to Canada and winding up his bankrupt wool business. In 1854 a new occupation presented itself when Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act repealing the earlier prohibition of slavery in that portion of the Louisiana Purchase north of 36˚30′. A consequence of the growing national power of proslavery Southern Democrats, this legislation set off a violent conflict between proslavery and antislavery settlers in Kansas Territory. In 1855 Brown joined six of his sons and one son-in-law who had taken up claims near Osawatomie, just fifteen miles west of the Missouri border. Brown became captain of a militia company formed to defend free-soil settlers from proslavery “border ruffians,” who regularly attacked across the line from the slave state of Missouri. In May 1856 Brown’s company was on its way to defend the free-soil community of Lawrence when they learned that the border ruffians had sacked and burned the town. Next day they also learned of the brutal caning of Massachusetts’ antislavery Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate by South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks.
For Brown these events were the last straw. He was a strict Calvinist who believed in a God of wrath and justice. In appearance and character he was an Old Testament warrior- prophet transplanted into the nineteenth century. He considered him-self God’s predestined instrument to strike a blow for freedom. “We must show by actual work,” he said, “that there are two sides to this thing and that they [proslavery forces] cannot go on with impunity.” He told his company to prepare for a “radical retaliatory measure.” When one of them advised caution, Brown exploded: “Caution, caution, sir. I am eternally tired of hearing that word caution. It is nothing but the word of cowardice.” The next night Brown led four of his sons and two other men to carry out their retaliatory measure for the earlier murders of five free-soil settlers. Brown’s party seized five men—who were proslavery activists but had not participated in the murders—from their homes along Pottawatomie Creek and split open their skulls with broadswords.
This shocking massacre went unpunished by legal process. Indeed, Brown’s connection with it was unproven until years later. But most Kansans were confident they knew who carried out the murders. Guerrilla warfare raged along the border for months, during which scores of men were killed, including one of Brown’s sons.
The Kansas wars distracted Brown from his plan to invade Virginia. But he never lost sight of this purpose. For the next three years he shuttled back and forth between Kansas, the Northeast, and settlements of former slaves in Canada to raise money and recruit volunteers. He organized a convention of blacks in Chatham, Ontario, in May 1858 to adopt a provisional constitution (written by Brown) for the African-American republic he intended to establish among the slaves he freed. During his visits to New England, Brown attended antislavery meetings but came away disgusted with what he considered empty rhetoric. “Talk! talk! talk!” he expostulated. “That will never free the slaves. What is needed is action—action.”
As the proslavery faction in the governing Democratic Party grew stronger and the Supreme Court issued the Dred Scott decision legalizing slavery in all territories, some abolitionists came over to Brown’s viewpoint. Six of them formed a cabal self-described as the “Secret Six” who raised money for Brown in New England and New York. Ostensibly intended for Kansas, these funds were used instead to buy arms and supplies for Brown’s invasion of the South and for pikes to arm the slaves he would free. Brown planned to capture the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry where he would then seize more arms and start his campaign south along the Appalachian chain.
In the summer of 1859 Brown rented a farm across the Potomac from Harpers Ferry and began to gather his seventeen white and five black recruits. He hoped for more blacks, but even Brown’s determined dedication and undoubted charisma could not persuade some potential recruits to take part in an apparently suicidal enterprise. Brown pleaded with his friend Frederick Douglass to join the raid. “I want you for a special purpose,” he told Douglass. “When I strike, the bees will begin to swarm, and I shall want you to help hive them.” Douglass refused, and tried to dissuade Brown. He knew that Harpers Ferry was a military trap. Situated at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers and surrounded by commanding heights, the town could be completely cut off by troops that controlled those heights and the two bridges. And so it proved.
Brown considered himself a skilled military leader. And some of his guerrilla activities in Kansas seemed to demonstrate that skill. But his attack on Harpers Ferry the night of October 16–17, 1859, was poorly thought out. With the advantage of surprise he managed to capture the undefended armory and arsenal. He also sent patrols to seize hostages and a few slaves. But he neglected to plan an escape route if things went wrong. He did nothing about laying in supplies or establishing a defensive line against an inevitable counterattack. The nineteen men who invaded the town carried no rations. After his initial success, Brown seemed not to know what to do next. He stopped the night train heading to Baltimore, but then inexplicably let it proceed after a few hours—to spread the alarm.
Brown continued to sit tight, apparently waiting for slaves to flock to his banner. Few did. But at daylight the local residents began shooting at the raiders, who fired back. Militia from the surrounding areas seized the bridges, cutting off any chance of escape. Several men on both sides were killed in the fighting on October 17, including two of Brown’s sons. Brown’s remaining men retreated to the strongly constructed fire engine house where they made their last stand. That night a detachment of US marines arrived from Washington, commanded by none other than army lieutenant colonel Robert E. Lee, who interrupted his leave at Arlington to accept this duty. After Brown refused a summons to surrender, the marines attacked and carried the engine house, killing two more raiders and wounding Brown. Thirty-six hours after it began, John Brown’s war to liberate the slaves was over. No slaves were freed. The whole effort seemed a miserable failure.
But this was not the end of the story. Indeed, it was but the beginning. Nothing became John Brown’s life like his leaving of it. In death he became much larger than life. As the words of the Union army’s favorite song expressed it, even though John Brown’s body lay a-moldering in the grave, his soul kept marching on—right down to our own time. The symbolism and power of John Brown’s legend and legacy are the principal themes of the large literature about him, fiction and nonfiction alike. They are also the principal themes of the books reviewed here.
Ten of Brown’s men were killed during the raid and seven were captured, including Brown. All seven were tried and convicted of murder, treason, and attempting to incite a slave insurrection. All seven would be hanged by the state of Virginia. Anticipating that Brown’s execution would make him a martyr, several Virginia officials explored the possibility of declaring him insane and putting him away in an asylum. Affidavits from Ohio where various relatives of Brown had lived for years testified that
insanity is hereditary in that family. His mother’s sister died with it, and a daughter of that sister has been two years in a Lunatic Asylum. A son and daughter of his mother’s brother have also been confined in the lunatic asylum, and another son of that brother is now insane and under close restraint.
An essay in the forthcoming anthology Terrible Swift Sword by the clinical psychologist Kenneth Carroll reviews all the evidence from Brown’s life and concludes that, in modern terminology, he probably suffered from bipolar disorder, with his behavior manifesting more of the manic than the depressive.
Whatever the validity of that judgment today, it went nowhere in 1859. When Brown’s defense counsel (assigned by the state) suggested an insanity plea, Brown indignantly rejected it as “a miserable artifice and pretext.” His calm demeanor, acceptance of responsibility for his acts, and rational—even eloquent—statements during and after his trial belied the notion of insanity. Virginia’s Governor Henry A. Wise, who grew to admire Brown’s character while despising what he stood for, pronounced Brown
remarkably sane if quick and clear perception, if assumed rational premises and consecutive reasoning from them…if memory and conception and practical common sense, and if composure and self-possession are evidence of a sound state of mind.
Brown also discouraged rumored plots by Northern abolitionists to try a forcible rescue. “I do not know that I ought to encourage any attempt to save my life,” he remarked. “I am worth inconceivably more to hang than for any other purpose.” His execution would “do vastly more toward advancing the cause I have earnestly endeavored to promote than all [I] have done in my life before.”
These statements raise an intriguing question: Did Brown deliberately court martyrdom? Was the practical failure of the Harpers Ferry raid, at some subconscious or even conscious level, intentional? How else are we to explain the otherwise inexplicable decision by Brown to remain in the trap while his adversaries gathered to spring it? In his stimulating biography of Brown, David S. Reynolds suggests that at some point during the early hours of the raid, Brown realized that it had failed. Slaves were not flocking to his banner—the bees were not swarming. “The reality of the situation had hit him,” writes Reynolds. “His long-anticipated revolution of blacks was not happening.” So he “resolved to stay in Harpers Ferry” even though his followers urged him to take to the mountains as originally planned, with or without freed slaves.
At whatever point he recognized he was “worth inconceivably more to hang than for any other purpose,” that profound truth eventually became clear. At first, however, reaction to news of the raid was mainly one of shock and dismay even in antislavery circles. Horace Greeley of the New-York Tribune declared that Brown had attacked slavery “in a manner that seems to us fatally wrong.” This “deplorable affair,” wrote Greeley, was “the work of a madman.” The foremost white abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, branded Brown’s raid “a misguided, wild, and apparently insane, though disinterested and well intended effort.” While some black leaders praised Brown as a hero willing to give his life for black freedom, their influence on white opinion was negligible.
But soon the tide began to turn. Reynolds maintains that it was the Transcendentalist writers Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson who nudged Northern opinion in a more positive direction. In public speeches they praised Brown as the embodiment of pure spiritual intuition that transcended the corrupt institutions of a society built on human bondage. Emerson caused a sensation with his pronouncement that Brown was a “new saint, than whom none purer or more brave was ever led by love of men into conflict and death,—the new saint awaiting his martyrdom, and who, if he shall suffer, will make the gallows glorious like the cross.”
Brown’s own words and demeanor during the trial, and especially between his sentencing on November 2 and his execution a month later, gave substance to Emerson’s image in the eyes of many in the North. The peroration of Brown’s impromptu speech to the court at the time of his sentencing did more than anything else to transform him from criminal madman to heroic martyr:
This Court acknowledges, too, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed, which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament, which teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to remember them that are in bonds as bound with them. I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done, in behalf of His despised poor, I did no wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say, let it be done.
Not everyone in the North shared Emerson’s sentiment that Brown’s execution would make the gallows as glorious as the cross—quite the contrary. Democrats and conservatives denounced Brown as a lunatic and murderer. They did their best to tar Republicans like Abraham Lincoln with the brush of Brown’s fanaticism. Lincoln’s rival, Stephen A. Douglas, declared that Brown’s raid was the “natural, logical, inevitable result of the doctrines and teachings of the Republican party.”1
Republicans scrambled to dissoci-ate themselves from Brown. In his famous Cooper Union speech on February 27, 1860, Lincoln exclaimed in vexation: “Harper’s Ferry! John Brown!! John Brown was no Republican, and you have failed to implicate a single Republican in his Harper’s Ferry enterprise.”2
Nevertheless, among many Republicans a sort of “praise-the-man-but-not-the-deed posture” arose. John A. Andrew, elected the following year as governor of Massachusetts, said that “whether the enterprise of John Brown and his associates in Virginia was wise or foolish, right or wrong… John Brown himself is right.” On the Sunday before Brown’s sentencing, America’s foremost clergyman, Henry Ward Beecher of Brooklyn, preached a sermon in which he said: “Let no man pray that Brown be spared. Let Virginia make him a martyr. Now he has only blundered. His soul was noble; his work miserable. But a cord and a gibbet would redeem all that, and round up Brown’s failure with a heroic success.” When Brown in his cell read these words he wrote in the margin: “good.” On the eve of Brown’s hanging, the moderate Massachusetts newspaper The Springfield Republican remarked editorially that
no event…could so deepen the moral hostility of the people of the free states to slavery as this execution. This is not because the acts of Brown are generally approved, for they are not. It is because the nature and the spirit of the man are seen to be great and noble.3
On the day Brown was hanged in Virginia, church bells tolled in many Northern towns. Guns fired salutes. Prayer meetings adopted memorial resolutions. Thousands observed a moment of silence in homage to the martyr. This outpouring of apparent Northern sympathy for Brown sent a shock wave of outrage across the white South more powerful even than the raid itself had done. The distinction between disapproval of Brown’s act and admiration for his character was lost in the South, where whites could see only that the North “has sanctioned and applauded theft, murder, treason,” in the words of De Bow’s Review, the South’s leading periodical.4 Could the slave states afford any longer “to live under a Government, the majority of whose subjects or citizens regard John Brown as a martyr and a Christian hero?” asked another newspaper editor.5
These events gave a great boost to secession sentiment in the South. “I have always been a fervid Union man,” wrote a North Carolinian in December 1859,
but I confess the endorsement of the Harpers Ferry outrage…has shaken my fidelity and…I am willing to take the chances of every possible evil that may arise from disunion, sooner than submit any longer to Northern insolence.6
During the election campaign of 1860, John Brown’s ghost stalked the South. The prospect of a Republican president spread fear that an abolition-minded North would turn loose dozens of people like John Brown upon the South. When one South Carolinian heard the news of Lincoln’s election, he remarked: “Now that the black radical Republicans have the power I suppose they will Brown us all.”7
The war that John Brown’s raid helped to provoke ultimately fulfilled his prophecy that slavery would be purged only with blood. As Merrill Peterson’s excellent study of Brown’s image makes clear, his soul marched through the slave states with Northern armies bringing the nation a new birth of freedom. The army’s favorite song turned into “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” written by Julia Ward Howe (whose husband had been one of the Secret Six) after she had heard soldiers singing “John Brown’s Body.” The last verse of “Battle Hymn” recalls Emerson’s words about Brown’s martyrdom making the gallows as glorious as the cross: “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” And a powerful passage in Lincoln’s second inaugural address evoked the stark augury of John Brown’s last words. If God wills that the Civil War continue, said Lincoln,
until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”8
During the post-Reconstruction decades of reconciliation between North and South the popular memory of John Brown as symbol of a war for freedom faded, except among African-Americans, and the white South’s image of Brown as a terrorist and murderer became more prevalent. Stephen Vincent Benet’s epic John Brown’s Body (1928) was a partial exception to this trend, but even Benet’s portrayal of Brown was ambivalent. More typical of the time was Robert Penn Warren’s biography John Brown: The Making of a Martyr (1929). A member of the Nashville “Fugitives”—the Southern writers and artists at Vanderbilt University who deplored the materialist values of “Yankee” America and looked to the Old South as their lodestar—Warren wrote that John Brown “possessed to a considerable degree that tight especial brand of New England romanticism which manifested itself in stealing Guinea niggers, making money, wrestling with conscience, hunting witches…or being an Abolitionist.” Brown’s antislavery war in Kansas, wrote Warren, was a mere “pretext for brigandage.” His celebrated speech to the court that sentenced him to death was a tissue of red-herring falsehoods: “It was all so thin that it should not have deceived a child, but it deceived a nation.”
Such attitudes prevailed in the writings of white historians until the 1960s. In the first volume of his centennial history of the Civil War, for example, Bruce Catton wrote that “John Brown was a brutal murderer if ever there was one, and yet to many thousands he had become a martyr.” But even as Catton wrote these words, historical interpretations of slavery, abolitionism, and John Brown were changing, in part because of the civil rights movement. The perspective of many white historians and novelists began to merge with that of most blacks, for whom John Brown was a white hero who not only genuinely believed in and practiced racial equality, but also gave his life for black freedom.
Both Reynolds and Peterson devote considerable attention to this aspect of Brown’s image in history and memory. One of Brown’s early biographers was the black intellectual and founder of the NAACP, W.E.B. Du Bois. On the fiftieth anniversary of Brown’s execution, Du Bois wrote: “Jesus Christ came not to bring peace but a sword. So did John Brown. Jesus Christ gave his life as a sacrifice for the lowly. So did John Brown.” In 1906 the second annual meeting of Du Bois’s Niagara Movement (forerunner of the NAACP) took place at Harpers Ferry. The delegates made a pilgrimage to “John Brown’s Fort,” the engine house where he made his last stand and which became a shrine for many African-Americans. Black artists, poets, and musicians in the twentieth century celebrated Brown’s heritage. For the militant black power movement in the 1960s, John Brown was, as one partisan said, “the only good white the country’s ever had.” Malcolm X told whites that “if you are for me—when I say me I mean us, our people—then you have to be willing to do as old John Brown did.”
Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the few black civil rights leaders who refused to pay homage to Brown, whose methods contradicted King’s commitment to nonviolence. This issue raises troubling questions. In 1859 many Northerners separated Brown’s means from his ends and disapproved one while approving the other. But in the post-9/11 world it is not so easy to separate means and ends. David Blight, a Yale historian who certainly sympathizes with those who wanted to end slavery, nevertheless asks: “Can John Brown remain an authentic American hero in an age of Timothy McVeigh, Osama Bin Laden, and the bombers of abortion clinics?” Indeed, McVeigh and anti-abortionists have invoked the example of John Brown. Paul Hill, convicted of murdering an abortion physician, declared that Brown’s “example has and continues to serve as a source of encouragement to me.” And John Burt, who bombed an abortion clinic in Florida, observed that “maybe like Harpers Ferry, where John Brown used violence to bring the evils of slavery into focus, these bombings may do the same thing on the abortion issue.”
Was John Brown a terrorist? For James N. Gilbert, an expert on criminal justice and author of an essay in Terrible Swift Sword, the answer is yes. Brown was “undoubtedly a terrorist to his core,” Gilbert writes. His actions fit a modern definition of terrorism as “the unlawful use or threat of violence against persons or property to further political or social objectives.” Another essay in this anthology, however, by the political scientist Scott John Hammond, makes the provocative suggestion that if John Brown was a terrorist, so was Robert E. Lee. “We must ask which of the two acted on higher principle,” writes Hammond, “which violated the greater law, which one carries more blood on his hands, and who between them is a more genuine American hero.”
Must we choose between John Brown and Robert E. Lee? Were both terrorists, or neither? The answer hinges on the word “unlawful” quoted in the preceding paragraph, which comes from the Vice President’s Task Force on Combating Terrorism. Both Brown and Lee saw themselves as soldiers in a just war, and therefore claimed their acts were not unlawful but justified under the laws of war. Brown claimed to act under the government of God; Lee acted under the government of the Confederate States of America. Whether both or neither were legitimate governments I leave to the reader.
The question of terrorism troubles David Reynolds, a thoughtful biographer who admires Brown. His book’s subtitle maintains that Brown struck the blow that killed slavery and, by the example and inspiration of his racial egalitarianism, seeded the modern civil rights movement. Yet Reynolds repeatedly describes Brown’s “terrorist tactics,” his “terrorist campaigns against slavery” that “would trigger the Civil War through his antislavery terrorism.” The Pottawatomie massacre in particular was “an act of terrorism.” How can Reynolds reconcile these descriptions with his obvious empathy for Brown in a world where the word “terrorist” now lurks just below “Nazi” in the lexicon of evil? To quote the aphorism that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is not enough, as Reynolds recognizes. Rather, he suggests that it is wrong to compare Brown to modern terrorists like McVeigh, bin Laden, or the suicide bombers in Israel and Iraq, whose goals are negative and destructive. Brown was a terrorist for freedom “who used violence in order to create a society devoid of slavery and racism.” Slavery was “a uniquely immoral institution…qualitatively different from all other social issues, since it deprived millions of their rights as Americans and their dignity as human beings.” This institution was so deeply rooted in American society that it required the huge violence of the Civil War to root it out.
For Reynolds, Brown’s terrorism was the requisite prelude to this necessary violence, and was further justified by his “deep wells of compassion for a race whose suffering he felt on his very nerve-endings.” Whether this is another way of saying that the end justifies the means is a question for readers to decide. Meanwhile, even though John Brown has long since “gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord,” in the words of the original John Brown song, his soul seems likely to keep marching on through eternity.
Quoted in Stephen B. Oates, To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown (Harper and Row, 1970), p. 310. ↩
The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler (Rutgers University Press, 1953–1955), Vol. 3, p. 538. ↩
Quoted in Allan Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln, Vol. II: Prologue to Civil War, 1859–1861 (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950), p. 100. ↩
Quoted in Oates, To Purge This Land with Blood, p. 323. ↩
Oswald Garrison Villard, John Brown, 1800–1859: A Biography Fifty Years After (Houghton Mifflin, 1910), p. 568. ↩
Avery O. Craven, The Growth of Southern Nationalism 1848–1861 (Louisiana State University Press, 1953), p. 311. ↩
Mary Boykin Chesnut, A Diary from Dixie, edited by Isabella D. Martin and Myrta Lockett Avary (D. Appleton and Co., 1905), p. 1. ↩
Collected Works of Lincoln, Vol. 8, p. 333. ↩