John Brown (1800-1859) has been revered for generations as a martyr to the American antislavery cause. His attack on Harpers Ferry, Va., just before the Civil War freed no slaves and resulted in his own trial and death.
John Brown was born at Torrington, Conn., on May 4, 1800, to Owen Brown, a tanner, and Ruth Mills Brown, whose family had a history of mental instability. He spent his childhood there and on the family farm at Hudson, Ohio. A devoutly religious youth, Brown studied briefly for the ministry but quit to learn the tanner's trade. He married Dianthe Lusk in 1820, who bore him 7 children (two mentally deficient) before her death in 1832; a year later he married Mary Ann Day, who bore 13 children in the next 21 years. Of Brown's 20 children, 12 survived.
He said later that he had realized the sin of slavery, "the sum of all villainies," at 12, and that seeing an African American boy mistreated had "led him to declare, or swear: eternal war with slavery." He also developed a great interest in military history, especially in the guerrilla warfare of the Napoleonic Wars and in the Haitian slave rebellion. According to family testimony, he finally concluded that slavery could be destroyed only by atonement in blood, deciding in 1839 that the South, "Africa itself," should be invaded and the slaves freed at gunpoint. If he actually made such a plan, he kept it to himself for another decade, meanwhile trying and failing at a number of business ventures, always in debt. He moved his family 10 times until in 1849 he settled on a farm at North Elba, N.Y., that was part of a project financed by philanthropist Gerrit Smith for the training of free African Americans.
After the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 the territory hung in the balance between slave-and free-state status while pro-and antislavery settlers contested for control. Five of Brown's sons went to Kansas, joined the free-staters, and appealed to their father for help. Brown traveled through the East, speaking on the Kansas question and gathering money for arms, for "without the shedding of blood," he said, there could be "no remission of sin" in Kansas. In September he went to Kansas, settling near Osawatomie. "I am here," he said grimly, "to promote the killing of slavery." In spring of 1856 he led a retaliatory raid on a proslavery settlement at Pottawatomie, killing five men in cold blood. John Junior spent 3 months in jail as an accomplice, but Brown himself escaped. The Pottawatomie affair made him nationally known, and while some antislavery sympathizers disowned him, to others he seemed a hero.
First Raid: Osawatomie
Brown spent the summer of 1856 collecting money for Kansas in New England, where prominent public figures, some not wholly aware of the details of his Kansas activities, were impressed by his dedication to the abolitionist cause. The Massachusetts Kansas Committee, whose directors included such civic leaders as Theodore Parker, Samuel Gridley Howe, and Thomas W. Higginson, helped him to gather recruits, guns, and money. In August he led a skirmish at Osawatomie in which his son Frederick was killed. "I will die fighting for this cause," Brown wrote. "There will be no peace in this land until slavery is done for."
He went East in early 1857 with plans for a Southern invasion apparently in hand, ordered a thousand 6-foot pikes from a Connecticut firm, and in late summer gathered a band of recruits at Tabor, lowa, for training. He held frequent conferences with Eastern abolitionists and in early 1858 sent John Junior to survey the country around Harpers Ferry, Va., the site of a Federal arsenal. In April he held a curious 10-day meeting of sympathizers in Chatham, Ontario, Canada, during which he explained his plan to invade the South, arm the slaves, and set up a free state under a new constitution; the meeting adopted his plan and then voted him commander in chief. He returned to Kansas under the name of Shubel Morgan to lead a raid into Missouri, killing one man and taking some slaves back to Canada.
Brown was now considered a criminal in the eyes of Missouri and the U.S. government, and both offered rewards for his capture; still he was hailed in parts of the North as a liberator, and donations poured in. In early 1859 he again toured the East to raise money, and in July he rented a farm 5 miles north of Harpers Ferry, where he recruited 21 men (16 white and 5 black) for final training. He intended to seize the arsenal, distribute arms to the slaves he thought would rally to him, and set up a free state for african Americans within the South. Though Harpers Ferry was an isolated mountain town, with few slaves in the vicinity, the irrationality of his plan seemed to occur to no one.
Raid on Harpers Ferry
On the night of Oct. 16, 1859, Brown set out for Harpers Ferry with 18 men and a wagonload of supplies, leaving 3 men behind to guard the farm. After cutting the telegraph wires, Brown's party slipped into the town and easily captured the armory watchmen. Inexplicably, Brown allowed the midnight train to go through; the conductor telegraphed an alarm the next morning. Shooting broke out early on the 17th between Brown's men and local residents, while militia soon arrived from Charles Town. By nightfall Brown's band lay trapped in the armory enginehouse, all but 5 wounded, Brown's sons Oliver and Watson fatally. That night Col. Robert E. Lee and Lt. J. E. B. Stuart, commanding 90 marines, arrived from Washington. The next morning the marines stormed the enginehouse, bayoneting 2 men and slashing Brown severely with sabers. Of Brown's original party 10 died and 7 were captured; on the other side the toll was a marine and 4 civilians, one of them, ironically, a free African American killed by mistake.
Brown was jailed at Charles Town and tried a week later, lying wounded on a stretcher, in a fair trial which some, however, felt to be unduly hasty. He put up no defense. "I believe that to have interfered as I have done," he said, "in behalf of His despised poor, I did no wrong, but right…. I am ready for my fate." The jury indicted him on three counts—treason against Virginia, conspiracy with african Americans, and first-degree murder. The court imposed the death sentence on November 2, to be executed a month later.
Beginning of a Legend
News of Brown's deed—"so surprising, so mixed, so confounding," Bronson Alcott called it—shocked the nation. Was he martyr or murderer? Many praised him (Ralph Waldo Emerson called him "that new saint who will make the gallows like a cross"), and many condemned him. Seventeen of Brown's acquaintances sent affidavits to Governor Wise of Virginia raising, on good evidence, the issue of Brown's sanity, but Wise did not act on them. Brown was hanged at Charles Town on Dec. 2, 1859, with four of his men, after handing a prophetic note to his jailer on his way to the gallows: "I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land: will never be purged away; but with Blood." Mass meetings of mourning were held throughout the North, and church bells tolled at the hour of his execution. He was buried at North Elba, N.Y., and the cause of abolition had its martyr. When a penny ballad about him, set to the music of an old revival hymn and named "John Brown's Body," appeared on the streets of Boston in early 1861, he was already a legend.
Further Reading on John Brown
The best book on Brown, well written and soundly researched, is Joseph C. Furnas, The Road to Harper's Ferry (1959). James C. Malin, John Brown and the Legend of Fifty-Six (1942), is a study of the Kansas years. David Karsner, John Brown: Terrible Saint (1934), and Oswald Garrison Villard, John Brown (1943), are good biographies. Allan Keller, Thunder at Harper's Ferry (1958), is an hour-by-hour account of the raid. One of the Massachusetts Kansas Committee leaders, Franklin B. Sanborn, published The Life and Letters of John Brown (1885; 4th ed. 1910), which is still interesting reading.