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.