John Brown

John Brown books and biography


John Brown (abolitionist)


John Brown
John Brown

John Brown (May 9, 1800 – December 2, 1859) was an American abolitionist, the first white abolitionist to advocate and to practice insurrection as a means to the abolition of slavery. He has been called "the most controversial of all nineteenth-century Americans."[1] His attempt to start a liberation movement among enslaved blacks in Virginia in 1859 electrified the nation. He was tried for treason (to the state of Virginia) and hanged, but his behavior at the trial seemed heroic to millions of Americans.

Brown first gained attention when he led small band of volunteers during the Bleeding Kansas crisis. Unlike other Northerners, who advocated peaceful resistance to the pro-slavery faction, Brown demanded violent action. His belief in confrontation led him to murder five pro-slavery southerners in what became known as the Pottawatomie Massacre in May 1856. Brown's most famous deed was the 1859 raid he led on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (in modern-day West Virginia). Brown's subsequent capture by federal forces, his trial for treason to the state of Virginia, and his execution by hanging were an important part of the origins of the American Civil War, which followed sixteen months later. His role and actions prior to the Civil War, as an abolitionist, and what tactics he chose still makes him a controversial personality today. Depending on the point of view, he could be heralded as an heroic martyr or vilified as a bloodthirsty terrorist. Numerous American historians in the 20th century deprecated Brown as an insane and bloodthirsty zealot and madman. On the other hand, some scholars glorified Brown for his sincere and self-sacrificing devotion to the abolition of slavery.One recent scholar, Reynolds (2006) sees him as the inspiration for the Civil Rights Movement a century later, arguing "it is misleading to identify Brown with modern terrorists." [2]

Brown's nicknames were Osawatomie Brown, Old Man Brown, Captain Brown and Old Brown of Kansas. His aliases were "Nelson Hawkins," "Shubel Morgan," and "Isaac Smith." Later the song John Brown's Body became a Union marching song during the Civil War, evolving to The Battle Hymn of the Republic.


Early years

Brown was born May 9th, 1800, in Torrington, Connecticut. He was the second son of Owen Brown (1771–1856) and Ruth Mills (1772–1808) and grandson of Capt John Brown (1728–1776).[3] Brown himself wrote in his 1857 autobiographical letter that both his and his first wife's grandfather were soldiers in the Continental Army. This is borne out in The Humphreys Family in America (1883), which notes that abolitionist John Brown's grandfather, Capt. John Brown (b. Nov. 4, 1728) was elected Captain of the 8th Company, 18th Regiment of Milita in Connecticut Colony in the Spring of 1776. He was commissioned on May 23, 1776 by Governor Trumbull. Capt. John Brown's company marched from Connecticut, joining the Continental Army at New York, but Brown died of dysentery while in command, on September 3, 1776. (p. 302, n.). His son, Owen Brown, the father of abolitionist John Brown, was a tanner and strict Calvinist who hated slavery and taught his trade to his son. In 1805, the family moved to Hudson, Ohio, where Owen Brown opened a tannery. Brown's father became a supporter of the Oberlin Institute in its early stage, although he was ultimately critical of the school's "Perfectionist" leanings, especially renowned in the preaching and teaching of Finney and Mahan. Recent suggestions by certain writers that the Browns were heavily influenced by dissenting Presbyterians and other forms of neo-Calvinism at this period are incorrect. Both Owen and his son John remained fairly conventional, conservative evangelical Calvinists throughout their lives. While John Brown grew weary of church affiliation in his later life, every evidence suggests his personal theology remained traditionally Calvinistic.

At the age of 16, John Brown left his family and went to Plainfield, Massachusetts, where he enrolled in a preparatory program. Shortly afterward, he transferred to an academy in Litchfield, Connecticut. He hoped to become a Congregationalist minister, but money ran out and he suffered from eye inflammations, which forced him to give up the academy and return to Ohio. In Hudson, he worked briefly at his father's tannery before opening a successful tannery of his own outside of town with his adopted brother.

In 1820, Brown married Dianthe Lusk. Their first child, John Jr., was born 13 months later. In 1825, Brown and his family moved to New Richmond, Pennsylvania, where he purchased 200 acres (800,000 m²). He cleared an eighth of it, built a cabin, a barn and a tannery. Within a year the tannery employed 15 men. Brown also made money raising cattle and surveying. He helped to establish a post office and a school. During this period, Brown operated an interstate business involving cattle and leather production along with a kinsman, Seth Thompson, from eastern Ohio.

In 1831, one of his sons died. Brown fell ill, and his businesses began to suffer, which left him in terrible debt. In the summer of 1832, shortly after the death of a new born son, his wife Dianthe died. On June 14, 1833, Brown married 16-year-old Mary Ann Day (April 15, 1817—May 1, 1884), originally of Meadville, Pennsylvania. They eventually had 13 children, in addition to the seven children from his previous marriage.

In 1836, Brown moved his family to Franklin Mills in Ohio (now part of Kent). There he borrowed money to buy land in the area. He suffered great financial losses in the economic Panic of 1837 and was even jailed once when he attempted to retain ownership of a farm by occupying it against the claims of the new owner. Like other determined men of his time and background, he attempted many different business efforts in an attempt to get out of debt. Along with tanning hides and cattle trading, he also attempted horse breeding and breeding sheep, the last of which was to become a notable aspect of his pre-public vocation. Brown was declared bankrupt by a federal court on September 28, 1842. In 1843, four of his children died of dysentery.


John Brown's OathEngraving from daguerreotype by Augustus Washington, ca. 1846.
John Brown's Oath
Engraving from daguerreotype by Augustus Washington, ca. 1846.

Retaining a good name as an honest and conscientious businessman despite his failings, he began to distinguish himself in the early 1840s as an expert in sheep and fine wool. His collaboration with one prosperous Ohio farmer gave him opportunities to develop his knowledge of sheep and wool, and he began to travel throughout the region in developing the flock. His spreading reputation won the notice of Simon Perkins Jr. of Akron, a wealthy magnate who owned a sizeable flock, farm, and wool production facilities. Empowered by Perkins's approval and finance, Brown widened the scope of his study and visited sheep farms throughout the northeast, as far north as Vermont and as far south as Virginia. Knowledge of wool inevitably led to knowledge of wool production, and in 1846, responding to the concerns of wool producers in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and western Virginia, Brown and Perkins established a wool commission operation in Springfield, Massachusetts, representing the wool growers' interests against the New England wool manufacturers. Brown moved to Springfield, assuming management of the firm. His family remained in Ohio initially, but eventually joined him there.Brown's struggle with the powerful wool manufacturers is one of the yet unwritten histories, and an examination of the Perkins & Brown letter books reveal that despite Brown's lack of market mastery, his efforts were substantially frustrated by New England manufacturers, as well as the lack of organization and short-sightedness of the wool growers he represented. With Perkins's approval, Brown's last attempt to salvage the operation was to travel to Europe in 1849, in an attempt to build alliances with European manufacturers as an alternative market. Nothing came of Brown's efforts in England and on the continent of Europe, and the firm suffered heavy losses in the sale of their wools. Frustrated by the realization that the European manufacturers were not eager to have American wools cheaply, as well as by the lack of solidarity and strategy among the wool growers themselves, Brown and Perkins closed down the firm. Before departing for Europe, however, Brown had moved his family from Akron to North Elba, New York, and settled on lands set aside by Gerrit Smith, a wealthy abolitionist who had donated 120,000 acres (486 km²) of his property in the Adirondack Mountains to Black families from New York State who were willing to clear and farm the land. The Browns lived in a rented farm in North Elba in 1849-51, and then returned to Akron, Ohio, where they remained from 1851-55. In Ohio, Brown and his wife experienced sickness; his son Frederick began to suffer bouts of illness (which may have involved both psychological and physiological difficulties); and an infant son died of whooping cough. Contrary to popular narrative, the failure of the firm of Perkins and Brown did not ruin either man, and Perkins absorbed the losses with seeming ease. In fact, Perkins strongly urged Brown to continue to manage his farm and flocks on a permanent basis, and Brown might have done so except the wealthy Perkins suffered economic hardship in matters independent of Brown, forcing him to end his farming ventures. After a year of independent farming in Ohio, Brown moved his family back to North Elba in May 1855, but he considered leaving his family there and following his oldest sons John Jr., Jason, Owen, and Frederick to Kansas. Through his deliberations, he consulted through correspondence with Gerrit Smith and Frederick Douglass. Brown had first met Douglass in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1848. Douglass wrote about Brown, "Though a white gentleman, he is in sympathy a black man, and as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery." At their first meeting Brown outlined to Douglass his plan to lead a war to free slaves, including the establishment of a "Subterranean Pass Way" in the Allegheny Mountains. Douglass often referred to him as Captain Brown. Brown opted to stay in upstate New York, where he was undoubtedly contemplating the beginnings of his anti-slavery program in earnest. Meanwhile his sons had gone to Kansas to begin a new life in farming, joining the free-state settlers in the contentious, developing territory. The Kansas-Nebraska Act provided that the people of the Kansas territory would vote on the question of slavery there. Sympathizers from both sides of the question packed the territory with settlers, but with a free state majority, pro-slavery forces began to use unscrupulous methods, such as bribery and coercion. Things shifted drastically in May 1855 when the Brown boys wrote and asked their father to send them guns to protect themselves from pro-slavery terrorism. Brown not only acquired guns, but brought them himself, along with son-in-law Henry Thompson (and joined by his son Oliver), to the troubled Kansas territory, arriving there in October 1855. Brown was clearly torn between remaining with his wife and younger children in North Elba, as well as the free black colony there which he had so generously supported, and assisting his struggling and vulnerable family in Kansas. While his decision was a hardship for Mary and the children, he made arrangements for farm assistance, leaving 20-year-old son Watson behind to supervise the farm as well. Brown's letters suggest that Mary Brown supported her husband despite the sacrifices involved. In November of 1837 a proslavery mob destroyed the presses of an antislavery newspaper near St. Louis and murdered its editor, Elijah P. Lovejoy. Brown expressed outrage. At an antislavery meeting in Ohio called to protest the murder, John Brown suddenly stood up, raised his right hand, and announce, "Here before God, in the pressence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!"

Actions in Kansas

When Brown was on his way to Kansas, he stopped to participate in an anti-slavery convention that took place in June 1855 in New York State. Soliciting weapons and funds, he obtained guns, ammunition, and swords from sympathetic free-state supporters.


Main article: Pottawatomie Massacre

Brown's letters show that he and the free state settlers were optimistic that their majority vote would bring Kansas into the union as a free state. But in late 1855 and early 1856 it was increasingly clear to Brown that pro-slavery forces were willing to violate the rule of law in order to force Kansas to become a slave state. Brown believed that terrorism, fraud, and eventually murder became the obvious agenda of the pro-slavery terrorists, then known as "Border Ruffians." After the winter snows thawed in 1856, these terrorists began yet another campaign to seize Kansas on their own terms. Brown was particularly affected by the Sacking of Lawrence in May 1856, in which a sheriff-led posse destroyed newspaper offices and a hotel. Only one man was killed, and it was a Border Ruffian. Preston Brooks's brutal caning of anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner also fueled Brown's anger. The violence was accompanied by celebrations in the pro-slavery press, with writers such as B. F. Stringfellow of the Squatter Sovereign proclaiming that pro-slavery forces "are determined to repel this Northern invasion, and make Kansas a Slave State; though our rivers should be covered with the blood of their victims, and the carcasses of the Abolitionists should be so numerous in the territory as to breed disease and sickness, we will not be deterred from our purpose" (quoted in Reynolds, p. 162). Brown was outraged by both the violence of proslavery forces, and also by what he saw as a weak and cowardly response by the antislavery partisans and the Free State settlers, who he described as "cowards, or worse" (Reynolds pp. 163-164).

Biographer Louis A. DeCaro Jr. further shows that Brown's beloved father, Owen, had died on May 8th, and correspondence indicates that John Brown and his family received word of his death around the same time. The real concerns that Brown had for the welfare of his sons and the free state settlers in their vicinity, especially since the sacking of Lawrence seems to have signaled an all-out campaign by pro-slavery forces. Brown conducted surveillance on encamped "ruffians" in his vicinity and learned that his family was marked for attack, and furthermore was given reliable information as to pro-slavery neighbors who had collaborated with these forces. Note that the pro-slavery men did not actually own any slaves.

Brown has usually been portrayed as seeking to avenge Lawrence and Sumner, and to intimidate proslavery forces by showing that Free Staters were capable of violent retaliation. There was clearly a divided opinion regarding the extent to which the pro-slavery terrorists would go in assaulting free state men. John Brown and his sons Oliver, Owen, Salmon, and Frederick, his son-in-law Henry Thompson, and two other free state settlers determined that danger was imminent. Of course they went to Kansas primarily to confront that risk. Brown stated that they would "fight fire with fire" and "strike terror in the hearts of the proslavery people." But he also felt that something had to be done before pro-slavery forces solidified their intentions; in this decision he was clearly urged on by other free state men who chose not to join him and his killing party.

The murders

Sometime after ten o'clock on the night of May 24, 1856, they took five proslavery settlers -- James Doyle, William Doyle, Drury Doyle, Allen Wilkinson, and William Sherman -- from their cabins on Pottawatomie Creek and hacked them to death with broadswords. In the months that followed, Brown lied and said that he had not participated in the killings during the Pottawatomie Massacre, though he did approve of them; however near the end of his life, he acknowledged being present while the killings took place. Brown went into hiding after the killings, and two of his sons, John Jr. and Jason, were arrested, even though neither had taken part in the attack. During their captivity, John Jr. and Jason were beaten and forced to march more than twenty miles a day while tied with ropes or chains.

Palmyra and Osawatomie

On June 2, John Brown, nine of his followers, and twenty local men successfully defended a Free State settlement at Palmyra, Kansas against an attack by a force of perhaps forty Missourians, led by Captain Henry Pate, at the Battle of Black Jack. Pate, who had participated in the Sack of Lawrence, led the company that captured John Jr. and Jason, and destroyed the Brown family homestead, was taken prisoner along with twenty-two of his men (Reynolds pp. 180-181, 186). Brown took Pate and his men back to his camp, gave them whatever food he could find, and forced Pate to sign a treaty, exchanging the freedom of the prisoners for the promised release of his sons. Brown released the prisoners to Colonel Edwin Sumner, but was furious to discover that the release of his sons was delayed until September.

In August, a company of over three hundred Missouri bushwhackers under the command of Major General John W. Reid crossed into Kansas and headed towards Osawatomie, intending to destroy Free State settlements there, and then march on Topeka and Lawrence. On the morning of August 30, they shot and killed Brown's son Frederick and his neighbor David Garrison on the outskirts of Pottawatomie. Brown, realizing that he was vastly outnumbered, distributed his men carefully behind natural defenses and inflicted an unknown number of casualties on the Missourian forces before he and his men were forced to retreat in disorder across the Marais des Cygnes River. While Brown and his surviving men hid in the woods nearby, the Missourians plundered and burned Osawatomie. Brown's bravery and military shrewdness in the face of overwhelming odds brought him national attention and made him a hero to many Northern abolitionists, who gave him the nickname "Osawatomie Brown." A play titled Osawatomie Brown soon appeared on Broadway telling his story.

A week later, Brown rode to Lawrence to meet with Free State leaders and help fortify against a feared assault by proslavery militias. In August 1856, disgusted with the timidity of Northern leaders and fearing arrest for the Ossawatomie murders, Brown departed Kansas, leaving by way of Nebraska. Along the way he met with Jim Lane's 'Army of the North', which was coming to Kansas to fight pro-slavery forces. Returning to Kansas, he found the free-state men in open insurrection against the pro-slavery territorial administration. Brown's actions during this period are not documented. The feared invasion of Missourians led by David Atchison took place in September, but serious violence was averted when the new governor of Kansas, John W. Geary, ordered the warring parties to disarm and disband, and offered clemency to former fighters on both sides. Brown, realizing that he could no longer stay in Kansas safely, left to raise money from supporters in the north.

Later years

Gathering forces

John Brown in 1859
John Brown in 1859

By November 1856, Brown had returned to the East to solicit more funds. He spent the next two years travelling New England raising funds. Amos Adams Lawrence, a prominent Boston merchant, contributed a large amount of capital. Franklin Sanborn, secretary for the Massachusetts State Kansas Committee, introduced Brown to several influential abolitionists in the Boston area in January 1857. They included William Lloyd Garrison, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Theodore Parker and George Luther Stearns, and Samuel Gridley Howe. A group of six wealthy abolitionists -- Sanborn, Higginson, Parker, Stearns, Howe, and Gerrit Smith -- agreed to offer Brown financial support for his antislavery activities; they would eventually provide most of the financial backing for the raid on Harpers Ferry, and would come to be known as the Secret Six and the Committee of Six. Brown often requested help from them "no questions asked," and it remains unclear how much of Brown's scheme the Secret Six were aware of.

On January 7, 1858, the Massachusetts Committee pledged to 200 Sharps Rifles and ammunition, which was being stored at Tabor, Iowa. In March, Brown contracted Charles Blair of Collinsville, Connecticut for 1,000 pikes.

In the following months, Brown continued to raise funds, visiting Worcester, Springfield, New Haven, Syracuse and Boston. In Boston he met Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He received many pledges but little cash. In March, while in New York City, he was introduced to Hugh Forbes. Forbes, an English mercenary, who had experience as a military tactician gained while fighting with Giuseppe Garibaldi in Italy in 1848. Brown hired him to be the drillmaster for his men and to write their tactical handbook. They agreed to meet in Tabor that summer.

Using the alias Nelson Hawkins, Brown traveled through the Northeast and then went to visit his family in Hudson, Ohio. On August 7, he arrived in Tabor. Forbes arrived two days later. Over a number of weeks, the two men put together a "Well-Matured Plan" for fighting slavery in the South. The men quarreled over many of the details. In November, their troops left for Kansas. Forbes had not received his salary and was still feuding with Brown, so he returned to the East instead of venturing into Kansas. He would soon threaten to expose the plot to the government.

Because the October elections saw a free-state victory, Kansas was quiet. Brown made his men return to Iowa, where he fed them tidbits of his Virginia scheme. In January 1858, Brown left his men in Springdale, Iowa, and set off to visit Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York. There he discussed his plans with Douglass, and reconsidered Forbes' criticisms. Brown wrote a Provisional Constitution that would create a government for a new state in the region of his invasion. Brown then traveled to Peterboro, New York and Boston to discuss matters with the Secret Six. In letters to them he indicated that, along with recruits, he would go into the South equipped with weapons to do "Kansas work."

Brown and twelve of his followers, including his son Owen, traveled to Chatham, Ontario where he convened on May 8 a Constitutional Convention. The convention was put together with the help of Dr. Martin Delany. One-third of Chatham's 6,000 residents were fugitive slaves. The convention assembled 34 blacks and 12 whites to adopt Brown's Provisional Constitution. According to Delany, during the convention, Brown illuminated his plans to make Kansas rather than Canada the end of the Underground Railroad. This would be the Subterranean Pass Way. He never mentioned or hinted at the idea of Harpers Ferry. But Delany's reflections are not entirely trustworthy. By 1858, Brown was no longer looking toward Kansas and was entirely focused on Virginia. Other testimony from the Chatham meeting suggests Brown did speak of going South. Brown had long used the terminology of the Subterranean Pass Way from the late 1840s, so it is possible that Delany conflated Brown's statements over the years. Regardless, Brown was elected commander-in-chief and he named John Henrie Kagi as Secretary of War. Richard Realf was named Secretary of State. Elder Monroe, a black minister, was to act as president until another was chosen. A.M. Chapman was the acting vice president; Delany, the corresponding secretary. Either during this time or shortly after, the Declaration of the Slave Population of the U.S.A. was written.

Although nearly all of the delegates signed the Constitution, very few delegates volunteered to join Brown's forces, although it will never be clear how many Canadian expatriates actually intended to join Brown because of a subsequent "security leak" that threw off plans for the raid, creating a hiatus in which Brown lost contact with many of the Canadian leaders. This crisis occurred when High Forbes, Brown's mercenary, tried to expose the plans to Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson and others. The Secret Six feared their names would be made public. Howe and Higginson wanted no delays in Brown's progress, while Parker, Stearns, Smith and Sanborn insisted on postponement. Stearn and Smith were the major sources of funds, and their words carried more weight.

To throw Forbes off the trail and to invalidate his assertions, Brown returned to Kansas in June, and he remained in that vicinity for six months. There he joined forces with James Montgomery, who was leading raids into Missouri. On December 20, Brown led his own raid, in which he liberated eleven slaves, took captive two white men, and stole horses and wagons. On January 20, 1859, he embarked on a lengthy journey to take the eleven liberated slaves to Detroit and then on a ferry to Canada.

Over the course of the next few months he traveled again through Ohio, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts to draw up more support for the cause. On May 9, he delivered a lecture in Concord, Massachusetts. In attendance were Bronson Alcott, Rockwell Hoar, Emerson and Thoreau. Brown also reconnoitered with the Secret Six. In June he paid his last visit to his family in North Elba, before he departed for Harpers Ferry.

Raid on Harpers Ferry

Harper's Weekly Illustration of U.S. Marines attacking John Brown's
Harper's Weekly Illustration of U.S. Marines attacking John Brown's "Fort"

Brown arrived in Harpers Ferry on June 3, 1859. A few days later, under the name Isaac Smith, he rented a farmhouse in nearby Maryland. He awaited the arrival of his recruits. They never materialized in the numbers he expected. In late August he met with Douglass in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where he revealed the Harpers Ferry plan. Douglass expressed severe reservations, rebuffing Brown's pleas to join the mission. Douglass had actually known about Brown's plans from early in 1859 and had made a number of efforts to discourage blacks from enlisting.

In late September, the 950 pikes arrived from Charles Blair. Kagi's draft plan called for a brigade of 4,500 men, but Brown had only 21 men (16 white and 5 black). They ranged in age from 21 to 49. Twelve of them had been with Brown in Kansas raids.

On October 16, 1859, Brown (leaving three men behind as a rear guard) led 18 men in an attack on the armory at Harpers Ferry. He had received 200 breechloading .52 caliber Sharps carbines and pikes from northern abolitionist societies in preparation for the raid. The armory was a large complex of buildings that contained 100,000 muskets and rifles, which Brown planned to seize and use to arm local slaves. They would then head south, drawing off more and more slaves from plantations, and fighting only in self-defense. As Frederick Douglass and Brown's family testified, his strategy was essentially to deplete Virginia of its slaves, causing the institution to collapse in one county after another, until the movement spread into the South, essentially wreaking havoc on the economic viability of the pro-slavery states. Thus, while violence was essential to self-defense and advancement of the movement, Brown's hope was to limit and minimize bloodshed, not ignite a savage insurrection as many have charged. From the Southern point of view, of course, any effort to arm the enslaved was perceived as a definitive threat.

Initially, the raid went well. They met no resistance entering the town. They cut the telegraph wires and easily captured the armory, which was being defended by a single watchman. They next rounded up hostages from nearby farms, including Colonel Lewis Washington, great-grand-nephew of George Washington. They also spread the news to the local slaves that their liberation was at hand. Things started to go wrong when an eastbound Baltimore & Ohio train approached the town. The train's baggage master tried to warn the passengers. Brown's men yelled for him to halt and then opened fire. The baggage master, Hayward Shepherd, became the first casualty of John Brown's war against slavery. Ironically, Shepherd was a free black man. For some reason, after the shooting of Shepherd, Brown allowed the train to continue on its way. News of the raid reached Washington by late morning.

In the meantime, local farmers, shopkeepers, and militia pinned down the raiders in the armory by firing from the heights behind the town. Some of the local men were shot by Brown's men. At noon, a company of militia seized the bridge, blocking the only escape route. Brown then moved his prisoners and remaining raiders into the engine house, a small brick building near the armory. He had the doors and windows barred and loopholes were cut through the brick walls. The surrounding forces barraged the engine house, and the men inside fired back with occasional fury. Brown sent his son Watson and another supporter out under a white flag, but the angry crowd shot them. Intermittent shooting then broke out, and Brown's son Oliver was wounded. His son begged his father to kill him and end his suffering, but Brown said "If you must die, die like a man." A few minutes later he was dead. The exchanges lasted throughout the day.

Illustration of the interior of the Fort immediately before the door is broken down
Illustration of the interior of the Fort immediately before the door is broken down

By morning (October 18) the engine house, later known as John Brown's Fort, was surrounded by a company of U.S. Marines under the command of Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee of the United States Army. A young Army lieutenant, J.E.B. Stuart, approached under a white flag and told the raiders that their lives would be spared if they surrendered. Brown replied, "No, I prefer to die here." Stuart then gave a signal. The Marines used sledge hammers and a make-shift battering-ram to break down the engine room door. Lieutenant Green cornered Brown and struck him several times, wounding his head. In three minutes Brown and the survivors were captives. Altogether Brown's men killed four people, and wounded nine. Ten of Brown's men were killed (including his sons Watson and Oliver). Five of Brown's men escaped (including his son Owen), and seven were captured along with Brown.

Imprisonment and trial

Brown and the others captured were held in the office of the armory. On October 18, Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise, Virginia Senator James M. Mason, and Representative Clement Vallandigham of Ohio arrived in Harpers Ferry. Mason led the three-hour questioning session of Brown.

Although the attack had taken place on Federal property, Wise ordered that Brown and his men would be tried in Virginia (perhaps to avert Northern political pressure on the Federal government, or in the unlikely event of a presidential pardon). The trial began October 27, after a doctor pronounced Brown fit for trial. Brown was charged with murdering four whites and a black, with conspiring with slaves to rebel, and with treason against Virginia. A series of lawyers were assigned to Brown, including George Hoyt, but it was Hiram Griswold who concluded the defense on October 31. He argued that Brown could not be guilty of treason against a state to which he owed no loyalty, that Brown had not killed anyone himself, and that the failure of the raid indicated that Brown had not conspired with slaves. Andrew Hunter presented the closing arguments for the prosecution.

On November 2, after a week-long trial and 45 minutes of deliberation, the Charles Town jury found Brown guilty on all three counts. Brown was sentenced to be hanged in public on December 2. In response to the sentence, Ralph Waldo Emerson remarked that "[John Brown] will make the gallows glorious as the Cross." Cadets from the Virginia Military Institute under the leadership of Generals Francis H. Smith and Thomas J. Jackson (who would earn the nickname "Stonewall" fewer than two years later) were called into service as a security detail in the event Brown's supporters attempted a rescue.

John Brown (abolitionist)
Had I interceded in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved, had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, sister, wife or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been right. Every man in the court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment."'
John Brown (abolitionist)
— John Brown, in court after conviction, [1]

During his month in jail, Brown was allowed to send and receive correspondence. He refused to be rescued by Silas Soule, a friend from Kansas who had somehow infiltrated the prison. Brown said that he was ready to die as a martyr, and Silas left him to be executed. More importantly, many of Brown's letters exuded high tones of spirituality and conviction and, when picked up by the northern press, won increasing numbers of supporters in the North as they simultaneously infuriated many in the South. Brown may have been a prisoner, but he undoubtedly held the nation captive throughout the last quarter of 1859. On December 1, his wife joined him for his last meal. She was denied permission to stay for the night, prompting Brown to lose his composure for the only time through the ordeal.

See also John Brown (Trial).

Reactions in the world

Victor Hugo, from his Guernsey exile, tried to obtain grace (mercy) for John Brown: he sent an open letter that was published by the press on both sides of the Atlantic (cf. Actes et paroles). This text warned of a possible civil war:

"[...] Politically speaking, the murder of John Brown would be an uncorrectable sin. It would create in the Union a latent fissure that would in the long run dislocate it. Brown's agony might perhaps consolidate slavery in Virginia, but it would certainly shake the whole American democracy. You save your shame, but you kill your glory. Morally speaking, it seems a part of the human light would put itself out, that the very notion of justice and injustice would hide itself in darkness, on that day where one would see the assassination of Emancipation by Liberty itself. [...]

Let America know and ponder on this: there is something more frightening than Cain killing Abel, and that is Washington killing Spartacus."

Victor Hugo, Hauteville-House, December 2, 1859

(Original text, from fr:John Brown: "[...] Au point de vue politique, le meurtre de Brown serait une faute irréparable. Il ferait à l’Union une fissure latente qui finirait par la disloquer. Il serait possible que le supplice de Brown consolidât l’esclavage en Virginie, mais il est certain qu’il ébranlerait toute la démocratie américaine. Vous sauvez votre honte, mais vous tuez votre gloire. Au point de vue moral, il semble qu’une partie de la lumière humaine s’éclipserait, que la notion même du juste et de l’injuste s’obscurcirait, le jour où l’on verrait se consommer l’assassinat de la Délivrance par la Liberté. [...]

Oui, que l’Amérique le sache et y songe, il y a quelque chose de plus effrayant que Caïn tuant Abel, c’est Washington tuant Spartacus."

Victor Hugo, Hauteville-House, 2 décembre 1859)

Death and afterwards

Idealized portrait of Brown being adored by an enslaved mother and child as he walks to his execution.
Idealized portrait of Brown being adored by an enslaved mother and child as he walks to his execution.

On the morning of December 2, Brown read his Bible and wrote a final letter to his wife, which included his will. At 11:00 he was escorted through a crowd of 2,000 soldiers. Among them was John Wilkes Booth, who borrowed a militia uniform to gain admission to the execution. [4] Brown was accompanied by the sheriff and his assistants, but no minister since he had consistently rejected the ministrations of pro-slavery clergy. Since the region was in the grips of virtual hysteria, most northerners, including journalists, were run out, and it is unlikely any anti-slavery clergyman would have been safe, even if one were to have sought to visit Brown. Likely drawing strength from correspondence from northern clergy, he elected to receive no religious services in the jail or at the scaffold. He was hanged at 11:15 a.m. and pronounced dead at 11:50 a.m., and his body was dumped into a cheap wooden coffin with the noose still around his neck--a last gesture of Southern contempt.

On the day of his death he wrote "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."

In 1864, his wife Mary Ann and some of Brown's remaining children moved to Red Bluff California. At some point during their westward journey, Southern militants heard of their presence on the trail and sought to attack them, but the Browns were able to evade them.

John Brown is buried on the John Brown Farm in North Elba, New York, south of Lake Placid, near Saranac Lake.

Senate investigation

On December 14, 1859, the U.S. Senate appointed a bipartisan committee to investigate the Harpers Ferry raid and to determine whether any citizens contributed arms, ammunition or money. The Democrats attempted to implicate the Republicans in the raid; the Republicans tried to disassociate themselves from Brown and his acts.

The Senate committee heard testimony from 32 witnesses. The report, authored by chairman James M. Mason, a pro-slavery politician from Virginia, was published in June 1860. It found no direct evidence of a conspiracy, but implied that the raid was a result of Republican doctrines. The two committee Republicans published a minority report, but were apparently more concerned about denying Northern culpability than clarifying the nature of Brown's efforts. Certainly the 1860 Republican Presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, echoed his party's view when he called Brown a delusional fanatic who was justly hanged.

Aftermath of the raid

The raid on Harpers Ferry is generally thought to have done much to set the nation on a course toward civil war. Southern slaveowners, fearful that other abolitionists would emulate Brown and attempt to lead slave rebellions, began to organize militias to defend their property, both land and slaves. These militias, well-established by 1861, were in effect a ready-made Confederate army, making the South more prepared for secession than it otherwise might have been.

Yet they also put forth the propaganda that Virginia's slaves were unaffected by Brown's presence, and that the majority of "their" slaves had remained staunchly loyal or firmly indifferent to Brown's program. Once more, recent scholarship has disproven this notion and shown how conventional histories of the raid have remained one-sided in describing the outcome of Harper's Ferry according to the slave master. Documentary scholars like Jean Libby and Hannah Geffert have argued quite convincingly that local blacks were far more involved in and supportive of Brown than textbook authors have realized.

Southern Democrats charged that Brown's raid was an inevitable consequence of the Republican Party's political platform, which they associated with Abolitionism. In light of the upcoming elections in November 1860, the Republican political and editorial response to John Brown tried to distance themselves as much as possible from Brown, condemning the raid and dismissing Brown as an insane fanatic.

Much of the general public in the North, however, especially in the Transcendentalists and Abolitionist circles, viewed John Brown as a martyr who had been sacrificed for the sins of the nation. Immediately after the raid, William Lloyd Garrison published a column in The Liberator, entitled "The Tragedy at Harper's Ferry", describing Brown's raid as "well-intended but sadly misguided" and "an enterprise so wild and futile as this".

Although Garrison and his circle opposed any use of violence on principle, he defended Brown's character from detractors in the Northern and Southern press, and argued that those who supported the principles of the American Revolution could not consistently oppose Brown's raid. (Garrison reiterated the point, adding that "whenever commenced, I cannot but wish success to all slave insurrections", in a speech in Boston on the day Brown was hanged.)

After the outbreak of the American Civil War, John Brown's perceived martyrdom was assured. Union soldiers marched into battle singing John Brown's Body, and church congregations sang Julia Ward Howe's new words to the song The Battle Hymn of the Republic: "As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free".

After the Civil War, Frederick Douglass wrote, "Did John Brown fail? John Brown began the war that ended American slavery and made this a free Republic. His zeal in the cause of freedom was infinitely superior to mine. Mine was as the taper light; his was as the burning sun. I could live for the slave; John Brown could die for him."


Posthumous blackening of Brown's character

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Another history yet to be written, however, is the story of how John Brown was thereafter transmogrified into a raving, violent fanatic and brigand. Undoubtedly, as the U.S. distanced itself from the cause of the former slave and wearied of "bayonet rule" in the South, its view of Brown declined in a manner parallel with the demise of Reconstruction.

In the 1880s, Brown's detractors--some of them contemporaries now embarrassed by their fervent abolitionism--began to produce virulent exposes, particularly emphasizing the Pottawatomie killings of 1856. Other intellectuals found Brown to be a forerunner of frightening anarchists, much as contemporary scholars have frequently compared him with contemporary terrorists.

Although Oswald Garrison Villard's 1910 biography of Brown was thought to be friendly, Villard being the grandson of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, he also added fuel to the anti-Brown fire by criticizing him as a murderer. Villard himself was a pacifist and admired Brown in many respects, but his interpretation of the facts provided a paradigm for later anti-Brown writers. Along with distorted images in cinematic terms [citation needed], by the mid-20th century, most white Americans were fairly convinced that John Brown was a fanatic and killer, while most black Americans sustained a positive view of the man.

Perhaps the 21st century promises a revision of assumed thinking on John Brown. Despite the continuation of anti-Brown writing here and there, since 2002 there have been four new biographies of Brown published, in varying degrees sympathetic--reflecting that even among American scholars of European descent, traditionally anti-Brown in sentiment, there is a marked change of perspective. Nevertheless, the debate over John Brown remains vibrant, itself a tribute to his enduring presence in the collective mind of the United States.

Further reading

Secondary sources

  • DeCaro, Louis A. Jr. "Fire from the Midst of You": A Religious Life of John Brown (2002)
  • W.E.B. Du Bois John Brown (ISBN 0-679-78353-9) (1909).
  • Finkelman, Paul ed. His Soul Goes Marching On: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid (1995)
  • Goodrich, Thomas War to the Knife: Bleeding Kansas, 1854-1861 (1998).
  • Nevins, Allan. Ordeal of the Union. 2 vols. (1947), in depth scholarly history.
  • Nichols, Roy F. “The Kansas-Nebraska Act: A Century of Historiography.” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 43 (September 1956): 187-212. Online at JSTOR (also paper) at most academic libraries.
  • Oates, Stephen B. To Purge This Land With Blood: A Biography of John Brown (1970).
  • Oates, Stephen B. Our Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, and the Civil War Era (1979)
  • Peterson, Merrill D. (2002): John Brown: The Legend Revisited (ISBN 0-8139-2132-5)
  • Potter, David M. The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (1976), prize winning scholarly history.
  • Renehan, Edward J. The Secret Six: The True Tale of the Men Who Conspired with John Brown. New York: Crown Books, 1995. (Paperback Reprint, University of South Carolina Press, 1997).
  • Reynolds, David S. (2005): John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights (2005) a favorable biography; says (p. 8): "My stand on some key issues is: (a) Brown was not insane; instead, he was a deeply religious, flawed, yet ultimately noble reformer; (b) the Pottawatomie affair was indeed a crime, but it was a war crime committed against proslavery settlers by a man who saw slavery as an unprovoked war of one race against another; and (c) neither Brown's provisional constitution nor the Harpers Ferry raid were wild-eyed, erratic schemes doomed to failure; instead, they reflect Brown's overconfidence in whites' ability to rise above racism and in blacks' willingness to rise up in armed insurrection against their masters."
  • SenGupta, Gunja. “Bleeding Kansas: A Review Essay.” Kansas History 24 (Winter 2001/2002): 318-341.
  • Villard, Oswald Garrison, John Brown 1800-1859: A Biography Fifty Years After (1910).
  • Nudelman, Franny, John Brown's Body: Slavery, Violence, and the Culture of War (2004).

Primary sources

  • Franklin Sanborn (ed.) (1891): The Life and Letters of John Brown
  • DeCaro, Louis A. Jr. John Brown--The Cost of Freedom: Selections from His Life & Letters (forthcoming 2006)
  • Henry David Thoreau (1859): A Plea for Captain John Brown
  • Andrew Johnson (1859): What John Brown Did in Kansas (December 12, 1859): a speech to the United States House of Representatives, December 12 1859. Originally published in The Congressional Globe, The Official Proceedings of Congress, Published by John C. Rives, Washington, D. C. Thirty-Sixth Congress, 1st Session, New Series...No. 7, Tuesday, December 13, 1859, pages 105-106. Retrieved May 16, 2005.
  • Henry Clarke Wright. The Natick Resolution, or, Resistance to slaveholders the right and duty of southern slaves and northern freemen Published by author, Boston, 1859.
  • The Anti-Slavery History of the John Brown Year American Anti-Slavery Society, 1861.

Historical fiction

  • Olds, Bruce. Raising Holy Hell (1995).
  • Banks, Russell. Cloudsplitter (1998).
  • Ehrlich, Leonard. God's Angry Man (1932).
  • Bisson,Terry Fire on the Mountain (1988 book)
  • George Macdonald Fraser "Flashman and the Angel of the Lord"
  • Rinaldi, Ann. Mine Eyes Have Seen. (1997)

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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