Who was John Brown?

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Digital History ID 4469
Who was John Brown?

A fanatic, some say. A homicidal madman. A terrorist. A traitor.

A hero, say others. A martyr, a color-blind egalitarian, a model of courage and self-sacrifice, a singular example of sanity in a nation awash with racism.

Was he the very model of a committed activist for social justice, or was he the forebear of Timothy McVeigh and the militant anti-abortionists?

What do we know about John Brown?

He worshipped an angry, vengeful God. The biblical passage that best summed up his religious ideas is "…without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin" (Hebrews 9:22).

He was among the least racist of abolitionists. He helped abolitionist Gerritt Smith establish a community for African Americans in the Adirondack Mountains. And yet, he was also "self-appointed savior" (in David Potter's sardonic phrase), who took virtually no advice from African Americans and named no blacks to serve as lieutenants when he launched his raid on Harper's Ferry.

In business, he suffered repeated failures. He experienced many of the vicissitudes of America's emerging market economy, working as a surveyor, tanner, farmer, shepherd, cattle merchant, horse trader, land speculator, and wool broker. He experienced at least fifteen business failures, and was the target of at least twenty-one lawsuits – losing ten – and in at least one instance, he misappropriated funds.

As a father, he kept a ledger of the punishments he inflicted on his children:

John. Jr.
For disobeying mother 8 lashes
For unfaithfulness at work 3 lashes
For telling a lie 8 lashes

When and why did John Brown turn his wrath against slavery?

About a decade before his raid on Harpers Ferry, when he was in his late 40s, he began to consider leading an insurrection against slavery.

What were the factors that transformed Brown, already in his fifties, into an uncompromising agitator for slavery's abolition?

The answer lies in a combination of personal and political factors.

A series of personal misfortunes, frustrations, and tragedies culminated in the early 1850s. In the early 1840s, Brown was declared bankrupt, evicted from his farm, and lost four children to dysentery in a single month. Later in the '40s and the early '50s, his troubles continued. Brown was separated from his family for prolonged periods of time, he lost another child (the result of scalding), several sons abandoned their religious faith, and bitter litigation swirled around his business ventures.

Meanwhile, political events produced a mounting sense of frustration. The annexation of Texas, the Mexican war, and enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law convinced Brown and many other abolitionists that a vicious Slave Power had seized control of the federal government. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was the last straw.

What happened in Kansas?

Brown joined six of his sons in Osawatomie, a small settlement in eastern Kansas near Pottawatomie Creek, in the summer of 1855. He was named captain of the Pottawatomie Rifles company of the free-stater Liberty Guards. In May 1856, he and his men rushed to the pro-free-state capital in Lawrence to help fend off an attack by pro-slavery men, only to find the town in ruins. A day later, Brown received word that a pro-slavery South Carolina congressman had beaten Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts unconscious in retaliation against a speech that had insulted his uncle.

"Something must be done," Brown announced, "to show these barbarians that we, too, have rights." He and four of his sons, and three other men, 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.

As a result, a war of revenge swept across Kansas territory. Dozen died in the guerrilla warfare.

The Road to Harpers Ferry

The Kansas Nebraska Act transformed the political landscape. The Whig party collapsed. Anti-slavery Democrats and Whigs formed anti-Nebraska parties. In 1856, the new Republican party ran John C. Fremont for the presidency on a platform that denounced slavery as a relic of barbarism. Fremont carried eleven of the sixteen free states.

But Brown regarded politics as nothing more than “talk—talk—talk.” The Dred Scott decision increased the feeling of desperation among radical abolitionists.

The Raid

Brown’s raiding party consisted of twenty-one soldiers, only five of whom were black. Brown tried to recruit Frederick Douglass, who called the plan suicidal. Harpers Ferry was “a perfect steel-trap.”

The raid itself was a fiasco. Brown sent no warnings to the slaves. He had no escape route out of Harpers Ferry. Ten members of Brown’s party died in the raid (including two of Brown's sons), four townsmen (including the black baggage-handler at the railroad station, mistaken for a watchman), and one marine. Seven of Brown's men escaped, but two were later captured. One of the slaves that John Brown’s men brought to Harpers Ferry was killed when Marines took the firehouse where Brown’s men were gathered.

The Aftermath

In his closing speech before being sentenced to hang, Brown eloquently appealed to the laws of God, and expressed contentment that, in a just cause, he would "mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country." On the morning of his execution, December 2, he wrote out with a steady hand his final prophecy, 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."

The Public Reaction

At first, Brown was widely denounced in the North as a murderer, criminal, and madman, leading conservative unionists to feel confident that his actions would unite the nation against extremists, South and North. Even William Lloyd Garrison initially called Brown “misguided, wild, and apparently insane.”

But during the forty-five days between his capture and execution, he was transformed, in the eyes of thousands of Northerners, from a brutal terrorist into a prophet and avenging angel. The deification of Brown as a heroic martyr outraged many white Southerners, who felt that Brown expressed the North's secret will: to foment race war in the South.

Brown himself played a crucial role in reshaping his public image. His calm demeanor and fierce commitment to the antislavery cause persuaded many that he was a Christ-like martyr, not a murderer or traitor.

He was helped by abolitionists (who believed that his execution would do more for the antislavery cause than his acquittal or rescue), editorialists, eulogists, and speechmakers, as well as members of the clergy like the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, and poets and writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Even Abraham Lincoln, who condemned Brown for committing "violence, bloodshed, and treason," also applauded the old man's motives and lauded his "great courage" and "rare unselfishness."

Meanwhile, Southern fire-eaters insisted that Brown's raid was rooted in the Republican Party's rhetoric about a "higher law" and an "irrepressible conflict." This argument was so successful that the Republican Party wrote off the South during the 1860 election. There were seven reported lynching in the South.

For fear of alienating moderate voters, the Republican party decided, in the wake of the raid, to nominate Abraham Lincoln rather than William Seward, who was perceived as more radical.

Was Brown mentally ill?

In a bid to spare their client from the gallows, Brown's attorneys gathered nineteen affidavits testifying to insanity in Brown's immediate family. Certainly not, says Reynolds. In fact, the real-life Brown was considered enigmatic by many who knew him personally. He could be stubborn, selfish, cold, arbitrary, intolerant, and vindictive. Yet he could also be loving, compassionate, and tender-hearted. There is also no doubt that he exhibited certain signs of mental abnormality, including sudden mood swings, an inflated notion of his military skills, and, above all, an obsessive fury over the institution of slavery. Of course, at a time when many Americans accepted slavery as an inevitable part of the social order, a degree of mental abnormality may have been necessary to recognize slavery's evil.

Did John Brown spark the Civil War?

It was Lincoln’s election, not Brown’s raid, that triggered secession.

Still, it was John Brown's prophetic truth was that slavery could not be purged from America except with blood. In a 1949 essay, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. rejected the notion that Civil War was a "repressible conflict" caused by fanatics and blundering politicians. Writing in the wake of World War II, he argued that there are times when a society works itself "into a logjam; and that logjam must be burst by violence."

By the mid-1850s, it was apparent that moral suasion and political institutions had failed to place slavery on the road to extinction. The nation had reached an increasingly violent impasse. Antislavery crowds sought to prevent slave catchers from transporting fugitives back to the South. "Bleeding Kansas" had revealed that popular sovereignty offered an illusory solution to the problem of slavery in the Western territories. The Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision eliminated possible compromise solutions to the westward expansion of slavery. Ultimately, slavery could only be ended by force of arms.


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