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 …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.