John Steuart Curry, The Tragic Prelude (Detail), 1937-42, Kansas State Capitol, Topeka. Link to eXplorations Main Menu Link to John Brown Main Menu Link to John Brown: In His Own Words Link to John Brown  in Kansas Link to John Brown  and the Secret Six Link to John Brown  and Frederick Douglass Link to Planning the Raid Link to the Raid Link to the Interrogation of John Brown Link to the Trial of John Brown Link to Was John Brown Insane? Link to the Execution Link to the Public Response Link to Teacher Resources

Background

Between 1819 and 1860, the critical issue that divided the North and South was the extension of slavery in the western territories. The Compromise of 1820 had settled this issue for nearly 30 years by drawing a dividing line across the Louisiana Purchase that prohibited slavery north of the line, but permitted slavery south of it.

The seizure of new territories from Mexico reignited the issue. The Compromise of 1850 attempted to settle the problem by admitting California as a free state but allowing slavery in the rest of the Mexican cession. Enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law as part of the Compromise exacerbated sectional tensions.

The question of slavery in the territories exploded once again when Senator Stephen A. Douglas proposed that Kansas and Nebraska territories be opened to white settlement and that the status of slavery be decided according to the principle of popular sovereignty. The Kansas-Nebraska Act convinced many Northerners that the South wanted to open all federal territories to slavery and brought into existence the Republican party, committed to excluding slavery from the territories.

Sectional conflict was intensified by the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, which declared that Congress could not exclude slavery from the western territories and by the abolitionist John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

John Brown

In 1856, three years before his celebrated raid on Harpers Ferry, John Brown, with four of his sons and three others, dragged five unarmed men and boys from their homes along Kansas's Pottawatomie Creek, and hacked and dismembered their bodies as if they were cattle being butchered in a stockyard. Two years later, Brown led a raid into Missouri, where he and his followers killed a planter and freed eleven slaves. Brown's party also absconded with wagons, mules, harnesses, and horses – a pattern of plunder that Brown followed in other forays. During his 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, seventeen people died. The first was a black railroad baggage handler; others shot and killed by Brown's men included the town's popular mayor and two townsfolk.

Nearly a century and a half after his execution, John Brown remains one of the most fiercely debated and enigmatic figures in American history. Almost every American knows at least some of the words of the song “John Brown’s Body.”

In a speech at Harpers Ferry in 1932, W.E.B. Du Bois captured for all time this unsettling meaning of Brown's legacy:

Some people have the idea that crucifixion consists in the punishment of an innocent man. The essence of crucifixion is that men are killing a criminal, that men have got to kill him ... and yet that the act of crucifying him is the salvation of the world. John Brown broke the law; he killed human beings... . Those people who defended slavery had to execute John Brown although they knew that in killing him they were committing the greater crime. It is out of that human paradox that there comes crucifixion.

Read more about the Raid on Harpers Ferry in our Online Textbook
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Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry poses fundamental questions.

  • Why did John Brown, alone among northern abolitionists, choose violence as the way to end slavery?
  • What impact did he have on the coming of the Civil War?
  • Was he successful in achieving his goals, was he a failure, or was his legacy more ambiguous?
  • Could slavery have been abolished in this country without violence?
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