John Brown was a white man with a conscience living in 19th century America. He abhorred slavery and fought against it with blacks at his side. He would pay the ultimate price for his battles against the white establishment of the day. Some questioned his methods as he had no compunction against using extreme violence in the fight against slavery. No one, though, could question his motivation.
Brown was born on May 9, 1800, in Torrington, Connecticut, to Ruth Mills and Owen Brown. Owen, who was a Calvinist and worked as a tanner, ardently believed that slavery was wrong. As a 12-year-old boy traveling through Michigan, John would witness an enslaved African-American boy being beaten, haunting him for years to come and informing his own abolitionism.
Though the younger Brown initially studied to work in the ministry, he instead decided to take up his father’s trade. Brown wed Dianthe Lusk in 1820, and the couple had several children before her death in the early 1830s. He remarried in 1833, and he and wife Mary Ann Day would have many more children.
Brown failed at several business ventures before declaring bankruptcy in 1842. Still, he was able to support the abolitionist cause by becoming a conductor on the Underground Railroad and by establishing the League of Gileadites, an organization established to help runaway slaves escape to Canada. In 1849, Brown moved to the free black farming community of North Elba, New York.
At the age of 55, Brown moved with his sons to Kansas Territory. In response to the sacking of Lawrence, Kansas, John Brown led a small band of men to Pottawatomie Creek on May 24, 1856. The men dragged five unarmed men and boys, believed to be slavery proponents, from their homes and brutally murdered them. Afterwards, Brown raided Missouri – freeing eleven slaves and killing the slave owner.
Following the events in Kansas, Brown spent two and a half years travelling throughout New England, raising money to bring his anti-slavery war to the South. In 1859, John Brown, under the alias Isaac Smith, rented the Kennedy Farmhouse, four miles north of Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). At the farm Brown trained his 21-man army and planned their capture of the Federal Arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Part of the plan included providing slaves in the area with weapons of pikes and rifles. Brown believed that these armed slaves would then join his army and free even more slaves as they fanned southward along the Appalachian Mountains. If the plan worked it would strike terror in the hearts of slave owners.
On October 16, 1859, John Brown and his men raided the Federal Arsenal. Unfortunately for Brown, nothing went as planned. Slaves living in the area did not join the raid, local militia and the United States Marines, under Robert E. Lee, put down the raid, and most of John Brown’s men were either killed or captured, including two of his sons. Ironically, the first man killed during the raid was Hayward Shepherd, a free black man working with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.
Despite being seriously wounded, Brown was tried quickly and found guilty of murder, inciting slave insurrection, and treason against the state of Virginia.
Upon hearing his sentence, Brown said: “…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 my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments – I submit, so let it be done!”
Brown told the court that he had hoped to carry out his plans “without the snapping of a gun on either side.” But Brown’s vision of ending slavery was marred by the deaths of innocent civilians – both in Kansas and at Harpers Ferry. The nation was divided over his actions. Many abolitionists called him a hero. Slaveholders called him a base villain. People on both sides of the fence denounced Brown’s use of violence.
John Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859. Before he died, Brown issued these final, seemingly prophetic words in a note he handed to his jailer: “Charlestown, Va, December 2, 1859, 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 very much bloodshed it might be done.”
Within one year, the first Southern state would secede from the Union.
News of John Brown’s raid had sent white Southerners into a full-scale panic. Sensitized for decades by rumours of slave insurrections (from Gabriel to Nat Turner) and abolitionist conspiracies, many white Southerners now became even more convinced that a peaceful solution to the problem of slavery was impossible. Those who had already been advocating for secession seized on Brown’s raid to meld abolitionism, slave insurrection, and the Republican Party into one unified threat.
The repeated assurances of Northerners like Abraham Lincoln that, while they disapproved of slavery they also condemned John Brown’s actions, fell on deaf ears among white Southerners. Meanwhile, Northern supporters of Brown, such as American essayist, poet, and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, quickly turned him into a symbol of antislavery courage and righteousness; the marching song “John Brown’s Body” would be a favourite among Union soldiers once war had begun. When Lincoln won the presidential election of 1860 and the Southern states began to secede, many writers pointed to Brown’s raid as the moment when the bonds of the union began to snap.
Brown remains one of the most confounding figures in nineteenth-century American history. Did his willingness to use violence forever compromise his moral authority as an abolitionist? Was he a lawless terrorist or a champion of racial equality? What does it mean that he may have been both? For decades after the Civil War, historians settled into an interpretation of Brown as a madman whose actions a “bungling generation” of politicians (to quote the historian James Garfield Randall) could not prevent from spilling over into civil war.
It was not until the turn of the nineteenth century, partly in opposition to new southern segregation laws, that a few biographies appeared, defending Brown’s career as an advocate for racial equality.
John Brown became a subject of intense interest again in the 1960s when some African American historians and allied white historians championed Brown as the ultimate civil rights fighter. As the movement mourned martyrs such as Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr., Brown came to represent an earlier example of paying the ultimate price in the ongoing freedom struggle.