John Brown

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John Brown

He has been called a saint, a fanatic, and a cold-blooded murderer. The
debate over his memory, his motives, about the true nature of John Brown,
continues to stir passionate debate. It is said that he was the spark that
started the Civil War. Truly, he marked the end of compromise over the
issue of slavery, and it was not long after his death that John Brown’s war
became the nation’s war.
Born in Torrington, Connecticut on May 9, 1800, John Brown was the
son of a man extremely opposed to slavery. When John was five his family
moved to northern Ohio, to a district that would become known for its
antislavery views. Brown spent much of his youth in Ohio, where he was
taught in local schools to resent compulsory education and by his parents
to revere the Bible and hate slavery. As a boy he herded cattle for General
William Hulls army during the war of 1812; later he served as foreman of
his familys tannery.
Brown moved around the country, settling in Ohio, Pennsylvania,
Massachusetts, and New York, taking along his ever-growing family (he
fathered twenty children). Working at various times as a farmer, wool
merchant, tanner, and land speculator, he was never financially successful.

He was stubborn, possessed a notoriously poor sense of business, and
had more than his share of bad luck.
In 1820 he married Dianthe Lusk, who bore him seven children; five
years later they moved to Pennsylvania to operate a tannery of their own.
Within a year after Dianthes death in 1831, Brown wed sixteen year old
Mary Anne Day, by whom he fathered thirteen more children.

In the Panic of 1837, Brown — like thousands of others — would lose
everything. In 1842, he filed for bankruptcy. But despite his financial
setbacks, Brown always found a way to support the abolitionist cause. He
participated in the Underground Railroad and, in 1851, helped establish the
League of Gileadites, an organization that worked to protect escaped
slaves from slave catchers.
Brown moved to the black community of North Elba, New York, in
1849. Gerrit Smith, a wealthy abolitionist, had donated 120,000 acres of
his property in the Adirondacks to black families who were willing to clear
and farm the land. Brown, knowing that many of the families were finding
life in this isolated area difficult, offered to establish his own home there
and teach his neighbors how to farm the rocky soil.

“He is socializing and associating with Blacks in this community,”
comments historian, James Horton. “This is something unheard of for a
white man to be doing in the middle of the 19th century. Most abolitionists
were lukewarm, at best, on the notion of racial equality. John Brown in this
regard was, I think, remarkable.”
During the next twenty-four years Brown built and sold several
tanneries, speculated in land sales, raised sheep, and established a
brokerage for wool growers. Every venture failed, for he was too much a
visionary, not enough a businessman. As his financial burdens multiplied,
his thinking became increasingly metaphysical and he began to brook over
the condition of the weak and oppressed. He frequently sought the
company of blacks, and in time he became a militant abolitionist, a
conductor on the Underground Railroad, and the organizer of a
self-protection league for free blacks and fugitive slaves.

By the time he was fifty, Brown was entranced by visions of slave
uprisings, during which racists paid horribly for their sins, and he came to
regard himself as commissioned by God to make that vision a reality. In
August 1885 he followed five of his sons to Kansas to help make the state
a haven for anti-slavery settlers.

Proslavery forces had terrorized the region, using threats and
violence to influence elections in an attempt to make Kansas a slave state.

(The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 dictated that the people of the
territories would vote on whether to be fee or slave.)
John Brown’s resistance of proslavery forces in Kansas brought him
national attention. To many in the North, he became an abolitionist hero.

His defense of the free-soil town of Osawattomie earned him the nickname
“Osawatomie Brown,” and a play by that name soon appeared on
Broadway to commemorate his story.

In autumn 1856, temporarily defeated but still committed to his vision
of a slave insurrection, Brown returned to Ohio. There and during two
subsequent trips to Kansas, he developed a plan to free slaves throughout
the South. For the next two and a half years, Brown traveled ceaselessly
throughout New England beseeching abolitionists for money and guns to
bring his war against slavery to the South. A clandestine group of wealthy
abolitionists, known as the “Secret Six,” funded Brown, allowing him to
raise a small army. Provided with moral and financial support from these
New England abolitionists, Brown began by raiding plantations in Missouri
but accomplished little. During the year, his hostility toward slave-staters
exploded after they burned and pillaged the free-state community of
Lawrence. Having organized a militia unit within his Osawatomie River
colony, Brown led it on a mission of revenge. In retaliation for the sack of
Lawrence, he led the murder of five proslavery men on the banks of the
Pottawatamie River by dragged the unarmed inhabitants into the night, and
hacking them to death with long-edged swords. He stated that he was an
instrument in the hand of God.
In 1859 John Brown led a party of 21 men in a successful attack on
the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry. Brown hoped that his action would
encourage slaves to join his rebellion, enabling him to form an
emancipation army. Two days later the armour was stormed by Robert E.

Lee and a company of marines. Brown and six men barricaded
themselves in an engine-house, and continued to fight until Brown was
seriously wounded and two of his sons had been killed.
John Brown was tried and convicted of insurrection, treason and
During his trial, Browns last speech attempting to justify himself
infront of the Commonwealth of Virginia in Charlestown goes as follows:
I have, may it please the court, a few words to say. In the first place,
I deny everything but what I have all along admitted – the design on my part
to free the slaves. I intended certainly to have made a clean thing of that
matter, as I did last winter when I went into Missouri and there took slaves
without the snapping of a gun on either side, moved them through the
country, and finally left them in Canada. I designed to have done the same
thing again on a larger scale. That was all I intended. I never did intend
murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite
slaves to rebellion, or to make the insurrection.

I have another objection; and that is, it is unjust that I should suffer
such a penalty. Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I
admit has been fairly proved (for I admire the truthfulness and candor of
the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case)- 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, brother,
sister, wife, or children, or any of that class- and suffered and sacrificed
what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man
in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than

This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God.

I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the
New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that
men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further,
to remember them that are in bonds, as bound within them. I endeavored
to act up to that instruction. I say I am yet too young to understand that
God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have
done- as I have always freely admitted I have done- in behalf of His
despised poor was not wrong, but right. Now, 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!
Let me say one word further.

I feel entirely satisfied with the treatment I have received on my trial.

Considering all the circumstances it has been more generous than I
expected. But I feel no consciousness of guilt. I have stated that from the
first what was my intention and what was not. I never had any design
against the life of any person, nor any disposition to commit treason, or
excite slaves to rebel, or make any general insurrection. I never
encouraged any man to do so, but always discouraged any idea of that

Let me say also a word in regard to the statements made by some of
those connected with me. I hear it has been stated by some of them that I
have induced them to join me. but the contrary is true. I do not say this to
injure them, but as regretting their weakness. There is not one of them but
joined me of his own accord, and the greater part of them at their own
expense. A number of them I never saw, and never had a word of
conversation with till the day they came to me; and that was for the
purpose I have stated.

Now I have done.

Brown was, of course, executed (along with six other men involved in
the raid) for seizing the federal arsenal at Harpers ferry in October, 1859,
for the purpose of arming slaves for an insurrection.

After the execution, Henry David Thoreau said in A Plea for Captain
John Brown, I read all the newspapers I could get within a week after this
event, and I do not remember in them a single expression of sympathy for
these men. I have since seen one noble statement, in a Boston paper, not
editorial. Some voluminous sheets decided not to print the full report of
Brown’s words to the exclusion of other matter.

But I object not so much to what they have omitted as to what they
have inserted. Even the Liberator called it “a misguided, wild, and
apparently insane-effort.” As for the herd of newspapers and magazines, I
do not chance to know an editor in the country who will deliberately print
anything which he knows will ultimately and permanently reduce the
number of his subscribers.
A man does a brave and humane deed, and at once, on all sides, we
hear people and parties declaring, “I didn’t do it, nor countenance him to do
it, in any conceivable way. It can’t be fairly inferred from my past career.” I,
for one, am not interested to hear you define your position. I don’t know
that I ever was or ever shall be. I think it is mere egotism, or impertinent at
this time. Ye needn’t take so much pains to wash your skirts of him. No
intelligent man will ever be convinced that he was any creature of yours.

He went and came, as he himself informs us, “under the auspices of John
Brown and nobody else.”
Prominent and influential editors, accustomed to deal with politicians,
men of an infinitely lower grade, say, in their ignorance, that he acted “on
the principle of revenge.” They do not know the man. They must enlarge
themselves to conceive of him. I have no doubt that the time will come
when they will begin to see him as he was. They have got to conceive of a
man of faith and of religious principle, and not a politician or an Indian; of a
man who did not wait till he was personally interfered with or thwarted in
some harmless business before he gave his life to the cause of the
I wish I could say that Brown was the representative of the North. He
was a superior man. He did not value his bodily life in comparison with
ideal things. He did not recognize unjust human laws, but resisted them as
he was bid. For once we are lifted out of the trivialness and dust of politics
into the region of truth and manhood. No man in America has ever stood
up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature, knowing
himself for a man, and the equal of any and all governments. In that sense
he was the most American of us all. He needed no babbling lawyer,
making false issues, to defend him. He was more than a match for all the
judges that American voters, or office-holders of whatever grade, can
create. He could not have been tried by a jury of his peers, because his
peers did not exist.

In his book, Life and Times, Frederick Douglass described meeting
John Brown for the first time. Brown cautiously approached the subject
which he wished to bring to my attention; for he seemed to apprehend
opposition to his views. He denounced slavery in look and language fierce
and bitter, thought that slaveholders had forfeited their right to live, that the
slaves had the right to gain their liberty in any way they could, did not
believe that moral persuasion would ever liberate the slave, or that political
action would abolish the system.
He said that he had long had a plan which could accomplish this end,
and he had invited me to his house to lay that plan before me. He said he
had been for some time looking for colored men to whom he could safely
reveal his secret, and at times he had almost despaired of finding such
men, but that now he was encouraged, for he saw heads of such rising up
in all directions. He had observed my course at home and abroad, and he
wanted my co-operation.
His plan as it then lay in his mind, had much to commend it. It did
not, as some suppose, contemplate a general rising among the slaves, and
a general slaughter of the slave masters. An insurrection he thought would
only defeat the object, but his plan did contemplate the creating of an
armed force which should act in the very heart of the south. He was not
averse to the shedding of blood, and thought the practice of carrying arms
would be a good one for the colored people to adopt, as it would give them
a sense of their manhood. No people he said could have self respect, or be
respected, who would not fight for their freedom.

On May 30, 1881, Douglass gave a speech on John Brown, in which
he said, The true question is, Did John Brown draw his sword against
slavery and thereby lose his life in vain? And to this I answer ten thousand
times, No! No man fails, or can fail, who so grandly gives himself and all he
has to a righteous cause. No man, who in his hour of extremest need,
when on his way to meet an ignominious death, could so forget himself as
to stop and kiss a little child, one of the hated race for whom he was about
to die, could by any possibility fail.
Did John Brown fail? Ask Henry A. Wise in whose house less than
two years after, a school for the emancipated slaves was taught.
Did John Brown fail? Ask James M. Mason, the author of the
inhuman fugitive slave bill, who was cooped up in Fort Warren, as a traitor
less than two years from the time that he stood over the prostrate body of
John Brown.
Did John Brown fail? Ask Clement C. Vallandingham, one other of
the inquisitorial party; for he too went down in the tremendous whirlpool
created by the powerful hand of this bold invader. If John Brown did not
end the war that ended slavery, he did at least begin the war that ended
slavery. If we look over the dates, places and men for which this honor is
claimed, we shall find that not Carolina, but Virginia, not Fort Sumter, but
Harpers Ferry, and the arsenal, not Col. Anderson, but John Brown, began
the war that ended American slavery and made this a free Republic. Until
this blow was struck, the prospect for freedom was dim, shadowy and
uncertain. The irrepressible conflict was one of words, votes and
When John Brown stretched forth his arm the sky was cleared. The
time for compromises was gone the armed hosts of freedom stood face
to face over the chasm of a broken Union and the clash of arms was at
hand. The South staked all upon getting possession of the Federal
Government, and failing to do that, drew the sword of rebellion and thus
made her own, and not Brown’s, the lost cause of the century.

Although initially shocked by Brown’s exploits, many Northerners
began to speak favorably of the militant abolitionist. “He did not recognize
unjust human laws, but resisted them as he was bid….,” said Henry David
Thoreau in an address to the citizens of Concord, Massachusetts. “No man
in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity
of human nature…. .”
Stephen Vincent Bent wrote John Browns Body, a poem of
which he framed around the life and death of John Brown. It
commemorated the Harper’s Ferry raid, and was a highly popular marching
song with Republican soldiers during the American Civil War. Here are a
few selections from the poem:
Listen now,
Listen, the bearded lips are speaking now,
There are no more guerrilla-raids to plan,
There are no more hard questions to be solved
Of right or wrong, no need to beg for peace,
Here is the peace unbegged, here is the end,
Here is the insolence of the sun cast off,
Here is the voice already fixed with night.

John Browns body lies a-moldering in the grave,
John Browns body lies a-moldering in the grave,
John Browns body lies a-moldering in the grave,
His soul goes marching on.

Glory, Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory, Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory, Glory! Hallelujah!
His soul is marching on.

He captured Harpers Ferry with his nineteen men so true,
He frightened old Virginia till she trembled through and through,
They hung him for traitor, themselves the traitor crew,
His soul is marching on.

John Brown died that the slave might be free,
John Brown died that the slave might be free,
John Brown died that the slave might be free,
But his soul is marching on!
The stars above in heaven are looking kindly down,
The stars above in heaven are looking kindly down,
The stars above in heaven are looking kindly down,
On the grave of old John Brown.