Steuart Curry, The Tragic Prelude (Detail),
1937-42, Kansas State Capitol, Topeka.
1819 and 1860, the critical issue that divided the North and
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Almost every American knows at least some of the words of the
song “John Brown’s Body.”
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.
more about the
Raid on Harpers Ferry in our Online Textbook
(This link opens in a new window; close that window to return
to this page.)
raid on Harpers Ferry poses fundamental questions.
did John Brown, alone among northern abolitionists, choose violence
as the way to end slavery?
impact did he have on the coming of the Civil War?
he successful in achieving his goals, was he a failure, or was
his legacy more ambiguous?
slavery have been abolished in this country without violence?