This article's tone or style may not reflect the encyclopedic tone used on Wikipedia. (May 2021)
May 9, 1800
Torrington, Connecticut, U.S.
|Died||December 2, 1859 (aged 59)|
|Cause of death||Execution by hanging|
|Resting place||North Elba, New York, U.S.|
|Occupation||Tanner; cattle, horse, and sheep breeder and trader; farmer|
|Known for||Involvement in Bleeding Kansas; Raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia.|
(m. 1820; died 1832)
Mary Ann Day
|Children||21, including Owen, Watson, John Jr.|
|Parent(s)||Owen Brown (father) |
Ruth Mills (mother)
|Guilty of all counts|
|Criminal charge||Treason against Commonwealth of Virginia; murder; inciting slave insurrection|
|21 other participants, Secret Six|
|Date||October 16-18, 1859|
|West Virginia (since 1863)|
John Brown (May 9, 1800 - December 2, 1859) was an American abolitionist leader. First reaching national prominence for his radical abolitionism and fighting in Bleeding Kansas, he was eventually captured and executed for a failed incitement of a slave rebellion at Harpers Ferry preceding the American Civil War. A man of strong religious convictions, Brown believed he was "an instrument of God", raised up to strike the death blow to American slavery, a "sacred obligation". Brown was the leading exponent of violence in the American abolitionist movement: he believed that violence was necessary to end American slavery, since decades of peaceful efforts had failed. Brown said repeatedly that in working to free the enslaved he was following the Golden Rule, as well as the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which states that "all men are created equal".
Brown first gained national attention when he led anti-slavery volunteers and his own sons during the Bleeding Kansas crisis of the late 1850s, a state-level civil war over whether Kansas would enter the Union as a slave state or a free state. He was dissatisfied with abolitionist pacifism, saying of pacifists, "These men are all talk. What we need is action--action!". In May 1856, Brown and his sons killed five supporters of slavery in the Pottawatomie massacre, a response to the sacking of Lawrence by pro-slavery forces. Brown then commanded anti-slavery forces at the Battle of Black Jack and the Battle of Osawatomie.
In October 1859, Brown led a raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (today West Virginia), intending to start a slave liberation movement that would spread south; he had prepared a Provisional Constitution for the revised, slavery-free United States he hoped to bring about. He seized the armory, but seven people were killed, and ten or more were injured. Brown intended to arm slaves with weapons from the armory, but only a few slaves joined his revolt. Those of Brown's men who had not fled were killed or captured by local militia and U.S. Marines, the latter led by Robert E. Lee. Brown was hastily tried for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, the murder of five men, and inciting a slave insurrection. He was found guilty of all counts and was hanged on December 2, 1859, the first person executed for treason in the history of the United States.
The Harpers Ferry raid and Brown's trial, both covered extensively in national newspapers, escalated tensions that led, a year later, to the South's long-threatened secession and the American Civil War. Southerners feared that others would soon follow in Brown's footsteps, encouraging and arming slave rebellions. He was a hero and icon in the North. Union soldiers marched to the new song "John Brown's Body", that portrayed him as a heroic martyr. Newly-freed African Americans sang the same song, and they often lowered their voices when speaking of Brown, as if he were a saint. Brown has been variously described as a heroic martyr and visionary, and as a madman and terrorist.
John Brown was born May 9, 1800, in Torrington, Connecticut. The fourth of the eight children of Owen Brown (1771-1856) and Ruth Mills (1772-1808), he described his parents as "poor but respectable". Owen Brown's father was Capt. John Brown (1728-1776), who died in the Revolutionary Army, at New York, September 3, 1776. According to the inscription on his tombstone, moved by the famous John Brown to his farm in North Elba, New York, he was of the fourth generation, in regular descent, from Peter Brown, one of the Pilgrim Fathers, who landed from the Mayflower, at Plymouth, Massachusetts, December 22, 1620." Ruth Mills was the daughter of Gideon Mills, also an officer in the Revolutionary Army. She was of Dutch and Welsh descent. While Brown was very young, his father moved the family briefly to his home town, West Simsbury, Connecticut.
In 1805, the family moved, again, to Hudson, Ohio, in the Western Reserve, which at the time was mostly wilderness, which went on to become arguably the most anti-slavery region of the country. The founder of Hudson, David Hudson, with whom John's father had frequent contact, was not only an abolitionist but an advocate of "forcible resistance by the slaves". Owen Brown became a leading and wealthy citizen of Hudson. He opened a tannery. Jesse Grant, father of President Ulysses S. Grant, was his employee and lived with the family for some years. Owen hated slavery and participated in Hudson's anti-slavery activity and debate, offering a safe house to Underground Railroad fugitives. With no school beyond the elementary level in Hudson at that time, John studied at the school of the abolitionist Elizur Wright, father of the famous Elizur Wright, in nearby Tallmadge. John's mother Ruth died in 1808. In his memoir he wrote that he pined after her for years. While he respected his father's new wife, he never felt an emotional bond with her.
At 16, Brown left his family and came east with the design of acquiring a liberal education. His ambition was the Gospel ministry: "at one time [I] hoped to be a minister myself". In pursuance of this object, he consulted and conferred with the Rev. Jeremiah Hallock, then clergyman at Canton, Connecticut, whose wife was a relative of Brown's, and in accordance with advice there obtained, proceeded to Plainfield, Massachusetts, where, under the instruction of the late Rev. Moses Hallock, he prepared for college. He would have continued at Amherst College, but he suffered from inflammation of the eyes which ultimately became chronic, and precluded him from the possibility of the further pursuit of his studies, whereupon he returned to Hudson.
Back In Hudson, Brown taught himself surveying from a book, and in his will he had surveyor's implements. He worked briefly at his father's tannery before opening a successful tannery of his own outside of town with his adopted brother Levi Blakeslee. The two kept bachelor's quarters, and Brown was a good cook. However, he had been having his bread baked by a widow, Mrs. Amos Lusk, and as the tanning business had grown to include journeymen and apprentices, Brown persuaded her to take charge of his housekeeping, "mov[ing] into his log cabin" with her daughter Dianthe, whom Brown married in 1820. He described her as "a remarkably plain, but neat, industrious and economical girl, of excellent character, earnest piety, and practical common sense." She was also "as deeply religious as her husband". Their first child, John Jr., was born 13 months later. During 12 years of married life Dianthe gave birth to 7 children, but she died from complications of childbirth in 1832.
After leaving Hudson, John Brown lived longer in Pennsylvania than he did anywhere else, including North Elba. (While his family lived there for years, John Brown himself only lived six non-consecutive months in North Elba.) According to a Pennsylvania friend who visited him in jail in Charles Town just before his execution, "he alluded to Crawford [County] as being very dear to him, as its soil was hallowed as the resting place of his former wife and two beloved children".
In 1825, despite the success of the tannery and having built a substantial house the year before, Brown and his family, seeking a safer location for fugitive slaves, moved to New Richmond, Pennsylvania. There he bought 200 acres (81 hectares) of land, cleared an eighth of it, and quickly built a cabin, a two-story tannery with 18 vats, and a barn; in the latter was a secret, well-ventilated room to hide escaping slaves. From 1825 to 1835, the tannery was an important stop on the Underground Railroad, and during this time, "Brown aided in the passing [to Canada] of an estimated 2,500 slaves."
Brown made money surveying new roads, and was involved in erecting a school, which first met in his home, and attracting a preacher. He also helped to establish a post office, and in 1828 President John Quincy Adams named him the first postmaster of Randolph, Pennsylvania; he was reappointed by President Andrew Jackson, serving until he left Pennsylvania in 1835. He carried the mail for some years from Meadville, Pennsylvania, through Randolph to Riceville, some 20 miles (32 km). He paid a fine at Meadville for declining to serve in the militia. During this period, Brown operated an interstate cattle and leather business along with a kinsman, Seth Thompson, from eastern Ohio.
In 1829, some white families asked Brown to help them drive off Native Americans who hunted annually in the area. Brown replied, "I will have nothing to do with so mean an act. I would sooner take my gun and help drive you out of the country." As a child in Hudson, John not only came into contact with the local Indians, he "hung about them... & learned a trifle of their talk". Throughout his life, Brown maintained peaceful relations with Native Americans, even accompanying them on hunting excursions and inviting them to eat in his home.
In 1831 Brown's youngest son died, at the age of 4. Brown fell ill, and his businesses began to suffer, leaving him in severe debt. In the summer of 1832, shortly after the death of a newborn son, his wife Dianthe also died, either in childbirth or as an immediate consequence of it. He was left with the children John Jr., Jason, Owen, and Ruth. On July 14, 1833, Brown married 17-year-old Mary Ann Day (1817-1884), originally from Washington County, New York; she was the younger sister of Brown's housekeeper at the time. They would eventually have 13 children. "He evinced a good deal of pride in stating that he had seven sons to help him in the cause" of abolishing slavery.
In 1836, Brown moved his family from Pennsylvania to Franklin Mills, Ohio. There he borrowed heavily to buy land in the area, land along canals being built, building and operating a tannery along the Cuyahoga River in partnership with Zenas Kent. Zenas was the father of Marvin Kent; Franklin Mills now is known as Kent, Ohio, in Marvin's honor. Brown became a bank director and was estimated to be worth $20,000 (equivalent to $501,742 in 2020). Like many businessmen in Ohio, he invested too heavily in credit and state bonds and suffered great financial losses in the Panic of 1837. In one episode of property loss, Brown was jailed when he attempted to retain ownership of a farm by occupying it against the claims of the new owner.
In Franklin Mills, according to daughter Ruth Brown's husband Henry Thompson, whose brother was killed at Harpers Ferry:
[H]e and his three sons, John, Jason, and Owen, were expelled from the Congregational church at Kent, then called Franklin. Ohio, for taking a colored man into their own pew; and the deacons of the church tried to persuade him to concede his error. My wife and various members of the family afterward joined the Wesley Methodists, but John Brown never connected himself with any church again.
For three or four years he seemed to flounder hopelessly, moving from one activity to another without plan. Like other determined men of his time and background, he tried many different business efforts in an attempt to get out of debt. He bred horses briefly, but gave it up when he learned that buyers were using them as race horses. He did some surveying, farmed, and did some tanning. In 1837, in response to the murder of Elijah P. Lovejoy, Brown publicly vowed: "Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!" Brown declared bankruptcy in federal court on September 28, 1842. In 1843, four of his children died of dysentery; three were buried in a single grave.
As Louis DeCaro, Jr., shows in his biographical sketch (2007), from the mid-1840s Brown had built a reputation as an expert in fine sheep and wool. "Father ran Captain Oviatt's farm for a year or so", and he then entered into a partnership with Col. Simon Perkins of Akron, Ohio, whose flocks and farms were managed by Brown and sons. Brown eventually moved into a home with his family across the street from the Perkins Stone Mansion on Perkins Hill.
In 1852, he received five first prizes for his sheep and cattle at the Ohio State Fair.
In 1846, Brown and his business partner Simon Perkins moved to the ideologically progressive city of Springfield, Massachusetts. There Brown found a community whose white leadership--from the community's most prominent churches, to its wealthiest businessmen, to its most popular politicians, to its local jurists, and even to the publisher of one of the nation's most influential newspapers--were deeply involved and emotionally invested in the anti-slavery movement. Brown's and Perkins' intent was to represent the interests of the Ohio's wool growers as opposed to those of New England's wool manufacturers--thus Brown and Perkins set up a wool commission operation. While in Springfield, Brown lived in a house at 51 Franklin Street.
Two years before Brown's arrival in Springfield, in 1844, the city's African-American abolitionists had founded the Sanford Street Free Church--now known as St. John's Congregational Church--which went on to become one of the United States' most prominent platforms for abolitionists. From 1846 until he left Springfield in 1850, Brown was a parishioner at the Free Church, where he witnessed abolitionist lectures by the likes of Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. In 1847, after speaking at the Free Church, Douglass spent a night speaking with Brown, after which Douglass wrote, "From this night spent with John Brown in Springfield, Mass. [in] 1847[,] while I continued to write and speak against slavery, I became all the same less hopeful for its peaceful abolition. My utterances became more and more tinged by the color of this man's strong impressions." During Brown's time in Springfield, he became deeply involved in transforming the city into a major center of abolitionism, and one of the safest and most significant stops on the Underground Railroad. Brown contributed to the 1848 republication, by his friend Henry Highland Garnet, of David Walker's Appeal...to the Colored Citizens...of the United States of America, semi-forgotten as it had not been reprinted since Walker's death in 1830.
Brown also learned much about Massachusetts' mercantile elite; while he initially considered this knowledge a curse,[why?] it proved to be a boon[how?] to his later activities in Kansas and at Harpers Ferry. The business community had reacted with hesitation when Brown asked them to change their highly profitable practice of selling low-quality wool en masse at low prices. Initially, Brown naïvely trusted them, but he soon realized they were determined to maintain their control of price-setting. Also, on the outskirts of Springfield, the Connecticut River Valley's sheep farmers were largely unorganized and hesitant to change their methods of production to meet higher standards. In the Ohio Cultivator, Brown and other wool growers complained that the Connecticut River Valley's farmers' tendencies were lowering all U.S. wool prices abroad. In reaction, Brown made a last-ditch effort to overcome the wool mercantile elite by seeking an alliance with European manufacturers. Ultimately, Brown was disappointed to learn that Europe preferred to buy Western Massachusetts wools en masse at the cheap prices they had been getting. Brown then traveled to England to seek a higher price for Springfield's wool. The trip was a disaster, as the firm incurred a loss of $40,000, of which Perkins bore the brunt. With this misfortune, the Perkins and Brown wool commission operation closed in Springfield in late 1849. Subsequent lawsuits tied up the partners for several more years.
Before Brown left Springfield in 1850, the United States passed the Fugitive Slave Act, a law mandating that authorities in free states aid in the return of escaped slaves and imposing penalties on those who aid in their escape. In response Brown founded a militant group to prevent the recapture of fugitives, the League of Gileadites. In the Bible, Mount Gilead was the place where only the bravest of Israelites gathered to face an invading enemy. Brown founded the League with the words, "Nothing so charms the American people as personal bravery. [Blacks] would have ten times the number [of white friends than] they now have were they but half as much in earnest to secure their dearest rights as they are to ape the follies and extravagances of their white neighbors, and to indulge in idle show, in ease, and in luxury." Upon leaving Springfield in 1850, he instructed the League to act "quickly, quietly, and efficiently" to protect slaves that escaped to Springfield--words that would foreshadow Brown's later actions preceding Harpers Ferry. From Brown's founding of the League of Gileadites onward, not one person was ever taken back into slavery from Springfield. Brown gave his rocking chair to the mother of his beloved black porter, Thomas Thomas, as a gesture of affection.
Some popular narrators[who?] have exaggerated the impact of the demise of Brown and Perkins' wool commission in Springfield on Brown's later life choices. In actuality, Perkins absorbed much of the financial loss, and their partnership continued for several more years, with Brown nearly breaking even by 1854. Brown's time in Springfield sowed the seeds[how?] for the future financial support he received from New England's great merchants, allowed him to hear and meet nationally famous abolitionists like Douglass and Sojourner Truth, and included the foundation of the League of Gileadites. During this time, Brown also helped publicize David Walker's speech Appeal. Brown's personal attitudes evolved in Springfield, as he observed the success of the city's Underground Railroad and made his first venture into militant, anti-slavery community organizing. In speeches, he pointed to the martyrs Elijah Lovejoy and Charles Turner Torrey as whites "ready to help blacks challenge slave-catchers." In Springfield, Brown found a city that shared his own anti-slavery passions, and each seemed to educate the other. Certainly, with both successes and failures, Brown's Springfield years were a transformative period of his life that catalyzed many of his later actions.
In 1848, bankrupt and having lost the family's house, Brown heard of Gerrit Smith's Adirondack land grants to poor Black men, called Timbuctoo, and decided to move his family there to establish a farm where he could provide guidance and assistance to the Blacks who were attempting to establish farms in the area. He bought from Smith land in the town of North Elba, New York (near Lake Placid), for $1 an acre ($2/ha), and spent two years there. It has a magnificent view and has been called "the highest arable spot of land in the State, if, indeed, soil so hard and sterile can be called arable."
After he was executed on Friday, December 2, 1859, his widow took his body there for burial; the trip took five days, and he was buried on Thursday, December 8. Watson's body was located and buried there in 1882. In 1899 the remains of 12 of Brown's other collaborators, including his son Oliver, were located and brought to North Elba. They could not be identified well enough for separate burials, so they are buried together in a single casket, with a collective plaque. Since 1895, the John Brown Farm State Historic Site has been owned by New York State and it is now a National Historic Landmark.
Kansas Territory was in the midst of a state-level civil war from 1854 to 1860, referred to as the Bleeding Kansas period, between pro- and anti-slavery forces. The issue was to be decided by the voters of Kansas, but who these voters were was not clear; there was widespread voting fraud in favor of the pro-slavery forces, as a Congressional investigation confirmed.
In 1855, Brown learned from his adult sons in Kansas that their families were completely unprepared to face attack, and that pro-slavery forces there were militant. Determined to protect his family and oppose the advances of slavery supporters, Brown left for Kansas, enlisting a son-in-law and making several stops to collect funds and weapons. As reported by the New York Tribune, Brown stopped en route to participate in an anti-slavery convention that took place in June 1855 in Albany, New York. Despite the controversy that ensued on the convention floor regarding the support of violent efforts on behalf of the free state cause, several people gave Brown financial support. As he went westward, Brown found more militant support in his home state of Ohio, particularly in the strongly anti-slavery Western Reserve section, where his boyhood home of Hudson is located.
Brown and the free-state settlers were optimistic that they could bring Kansas into the union as a slavery-free state. After the winter snows thawed in 1856, the pro-slavery activists began a campaign to seize Kansas on their own terms. Brown was particularly affected by the sacking of Lawrence, the center of anti-slavery activity in Kansas, on May 21, 1856. A sheriff-led posse from Lecompton, the center of pro-slavery activity in Kansas, destroyed two abolitionist newspapers and the Free State Hotel. Only one man, a Border Ruffian, was killed. Preston Brooks's May 22 caning of anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner in the United States Senate also fueled Brown's anger. A pro-slavery writer, Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, of the Squatter Sovereign, wrote 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". Brown was outraged by both the violence of the pro-slavery forces and what he saw as a weak and cowardly response by the antislavery partisans and the Free State settlers, whom he described as "cowards, or worse".
The Pottawatomie massacre occurred during the night of May 24 and the morning of May 25, 1856. Using swords, Brown and a band of abolitionist settlers took from their residences and killed five "professional slave hunters and militant pro-slavery" settlers north of Pottawatomie Creek, in Franklin County, Kansas.
In the two years prior to the Pottawatomie Creek massacre, there had been eight killings in Kansas Territory attributable to slavery politics, but none in the vicinity of the massacre. The massacre was the match in the powderkeg that precipitated the bloodiest period in "Bleeding Kansas" history, a three-month period of retaliatory raids and battles in which 29 people died.
In 1856, a force of Missourians, led by Captain Henry Clay Pate, captured John Jr. and Jason, destroyed the Brown family homestead, and later participated in the Sack of Lawrence. On June 2, in the Battle of Black Jack, John Brown, nine of his followers, and 20 local men successfully defended a Free State settlement at Palmyra, Kansas, against an attack by Pate. Pate and 22 of his men were taken prisoner. After capture, they were taken to Brown's camp, and received all the food Brown could find. Brown forced Pate to sign a treaty, exchanging the freedom of Pate and his men for the promised release of Brown's two captured sons. Brown released Pate 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 300 Missourians under the command of General John W. Reid crossed into Kansas and headed towards Osawatomie, intending to destroy the Free State settlements there, and then march on Topeka and Lawrence.
On the morning of August 30, 1856, they shot and killed Brown's son Frederick and his neighbor David Garrison on the outskirts of Osawatomie. Brown, outnumbered more than seven to one, arranged his 38 men behind natural defenses along the road. Firing from cover, they managed to kill at least 20 of Reid's men and wounded 40 more. Reid regrouped, ordering his men to dismount and charge into the woods. Brown's small group scattered and fled across the Marais des Cygnes River. One of Brown's men was killed during the retreat and four were captured. While Brown and his surviving men hid in the woods nearby, the Missourians plundered and burned Osawatomie. Despite his defeat, 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.
On September 7, Brown entered Lawrence to meet with Free State leaders and help fortify against a feared assault. At least 2,700 pro-slavery Missourians were once again invading Kansas. On September 14, they skirmished near Lawrence. Brown prepared for battle, 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, taking advantage of the fragile peace, left Kansas with three of his sons to raise money from supporters in the North.
Brown's plans for a major attack on American slavery go back at least 20 years before the raid. He spent the years between 1842 and 1849 winding up his business affairs, settling his family in the Negro community at Timbuctoo, New York, and organizing in his own mind an anti-slavery raid that would strike a significant blow against the entire slave system, running slaves off Southern plantations.
As put by Frederick Douglass, "His own statement, that he had been contemplating a bold strike for the freedom of the slaves for ten years, proves that he had resolved upon his present course long before he, or his sons, ever set foot in Kansas." According to his first biographer James Redpath, "for thirty years, he secretly cherished the idea of being the leader of a servile insurrection: the American Moses, predestined by Omnipotence to lead the servile nations in our Southern States to freedom."
Brown was careful about whom he talked to. "Captain Brown was careful to keep his plans from his men", according to Jeremiah Anderson, one of the participants in the raid. According to his son Owen, the only one who survived of Brown's three participating sons, interviewed in 1873, "John Brown's entire plan has never, I think, been published."
He did discuss his plans at length, for over a day, with Frederick Douglass, trying unsuccessfully to persuade Douglass, a Black leader, to accompany him to Harpers Ferry (which Douglass thought a suicidal mission that could not succeed).
Brown thought that "A few men in the right, and knowing that they are right, can overturn a mighty king. Fifty men, twenty men, in the Alleghenies would break slavery to pieces in two years". As he put it later, after the failure of his raid, "I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed [through the revolt supposed to start with Harpers Ferry] it [ending slavery] might be done."
Brown returned to the East by November 1856, and spent the next two years in New England raising funds. Initially he returned to Springfield, where he received contributions, and also a letter of recommendation from a prominent and wealthy merchant, George Walker. Walker was the brother-in-law of Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, the secretary for the Massachusetts State Kansas Committee, who introduced Brown to several influential abolitionists in the Boston area in January 1857.
Amos Adams Lawrence, a prominent Boston merchant, secretly gave Brown a large amount of cash. William Lloyd Garrison, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Theodore Parker and George Luther Stearns, and Samuel Gridley Howe also supported Brown. 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 eventually provided most of the financial backing for the raid on Harpers Ferry, and came to be known as the Secret Six or the Committee of Six. Brown often requested help from them with "no questions asked", and it remains unclear how much of Brown's scheme the Secret Six were aware.
In December 1857, an anti-slavery Mock Legislature, organized by Brown, met in Springdale, Iowa. On several of Brown's trips across Iowa he preached at Hitchcock House, an Underground Railroad stop in Lewis, Iowa.
On January 7, 1858, the Massachusetts Committee pledged to provide 200 Sharps Rifles and ammunition, which were being stored at Tabor, Iowa. In March, Brown contracted with Charles Blair, through an intermediary friend, Horatio N. Rust of Collinsville, Connecticut (1828-1906), 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, an English mercenary, who had experience as a military tactician fighting with Giuseppe Garibaldi in Italy in 1848. Brown hired him as his men's drillmaster 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 visited his family in Hudson, Ohio. On August 7, he arrived in Tabor. Forbes arrived two days later. Over several 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 soon threatened to expose the plot to the government. This was when Brown started to wear a beard, "to change his usual appearance".
As the October elections saw a free-state victory, Kansas was quiet. Brown made his men return to Iowa, where he told 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. He 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". While in Boston making secret preparations for his operation on Harper's Ferry. He was raising money for weapons that were manufactured in Connecticut. Abolitionist Chaplain Photius Fisk gave him a sizable donation and obtained his autograph which he later gave to the Kansas Historical Society.
Brown and 12 of his followers, including his son Owen, traveled to Chatham, Ontario, where he convened on May 10 a Constitutional Convention. The convention, with several dozen delegates including his friend James Madison Bell, was put together with the help of Dr. Martin Delany. One-third of Chatham's 6,000 residents were fugitive slaves, and it was here that Brown was introduced to Harriet Tubman, who helped him recruit. The convention's 34 blacks and 12 whites adopted Brown's Provisional Constitution. 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 named John Henrie Kagi his "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. In 1859, "A Declaration of Liberty by the Representatives of the Slave Population of the United States of America" was written.
Although nearly all of the delegates signed the constitution, few 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 Hugh 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. Stearns and Smith were the major sources of funds, and their words carried more weight. To throw Forbes off the trail and invalidate his assertions, Brown returned to Kansas in June, and 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 11 slaves, took captive two white men, and looted horses and wagons. (See Battle of the Spurs.) The Governor of Missouri announced a reward of $3,000 (equivalent to $86,411 in 2020) for his capture. On January 20, 1859, he embarked on a lengthy journey to take the liberated slaves to Detroit and then on a ferry to Canada. While passing through Chicago, Brown met with abolitionists Allan Pinkerton, John Jones, and Henry O. Wagoner who arranged and raised the fare for the passage to Detroit and purchase clothes and supplies for Brown. Jones's wife, Mary, guessed that the supplies included the suit Brown was later hanged in. On March 12, 1859, Brown met with Frederick Douglass and Detroit abolitionists George DeBaptiste, William Lambert, and others at William Webb's house in Detroit to discuss emancipation. DeBaptiste proposed that conspirators blow up some of the South's largest churches. The suggestion was opposed by Brown, who felt humanity precluded such unnecessary bloodshed.
Over the course of the next few months, he traveled again through Ohio, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts to drum up more support for the cause. On May 9, he delivered a lecture in Concord, Massachusetts, that Amos Bronson Alcott, Emerson, and Thoreau attended. Brown reconnoitered with the Secret Six. In June he paid his last visit to his family in North Elba before departing for Harpers Ferry. He stayed one night en route in Hagerstown, Maryland, at the Washington House, on West Washington Street. On June 30, 1859, the hotel had at least 25 guests, including I. Smith and Sons, Oliver Smith and Owen Smith, and Jeremiah Anderson, all from New York. From papers found in the Kennedy Farmhouse after the raid, it is known that Brown wrote to Kagi that he would sign into a hotel as I. Smith and Sons.
As he began recruiting supporters for an attack on slaveholders, Brown was joined by Harriet Tubman, "General Tubman," as he called her. Her knowledge of support networks and resources in the border states of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware was invaluable to Brown and his planners. Some abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, opposed his tactics, but Brown dreamed of fighting to create a new state for freed slaves and made preparations for military action. After he began the first battle, he believed, slaves would rise up and carry out a rebellion across the South.
Brown asked Tubman to gather former slaves then living in present-day southern Ontario who might be willing to join his fighting force, which she did. He arrived in Harpers Ferry on July 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 known of Brown's plans since early 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: three free blacks, one freed slave, and a fugitive slave). They ranged in age from 21 to 49. Twelve 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 Harpers Ferry Armory. He had received 200 Beecher's Bibles--breechloading .52 (13.2 mm) caliber Sharps rifles--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 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, wreaking havoc on the economic viability of the pro-slavery states.
Initially, the raid went well, and 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-grandnephew of George Washington. They also spread the news to the local slaves that their liberation was at hand. Two of the hostages' slaves also died in the raid.
Things started to go wrong when an eastbound Baltimore & Ohio train approached the town. After holding the train, Brown inexplicably allowed it to continue on its way. At the next station where the telegraph still worked, the conductor sent a telegram to B&O headquarters in Baltimore. The railroad sent telegrams to President Buchanan and Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise.
News of the raid reached Baltimore early that morning and 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 fire engine house, a small brick building at the armory's entrance. He had the doors and windows barred and loopholes 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, Oliver was dead. The exchanges lasted throughout the day.
By the morning of 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 First Lieutenant Israel Greene, USMC, with Colonel Robert E. Lee of the United States Army in overall command. Army First Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart approached under a white flag and told the raiders their lives would be spared if they surrendered. Brown refused, saying, "No, I prefer to die here." Stuart then gave a signal. The Marines used sledgehammers and a makeshift battering ram to break down the engine room door. Lieutenant Israel Greene 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 escaped, including his son Owen, and seven were captured along with Brown; they were quickly tried and hanged two weeks after John. Among the raiders killed were John Henry Kagi, Lewis Sheridan Leary, and Dangerfield Newby; those hanged besides Brown included John Copeland, Edwin Coppock, Aaron Stevens, and Shields Green.
Brown and the others captured were held in the office of the armory. On October 18, 1859, 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 wanted him tried in Virginia, and President Buchanan did not object. Murder was not a federal crime, nor was inciting a slave insurrection, and federal action would bring abolitionist protests. Brown and his men were tried in Charles Town, the nearby seat of Jefferson County, just 7 miles (11 km) west of Harpers Ferry. The trial began October 27, after a doctor pronounced the still-wounded Brown fit for trial. Brown was charged with murdering four whites and a black, inciting a slave insurrection, and treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia. A series of lawyers were assigned to him, including Lawson Botts, Thomas C. Green, Samuel Chilton, a lawyer from Washington D.C., and George Hoyt, but it was Hiram Griswold, a lawyer from Cleveland, who concluded the defense on October 31. In his closing statement, Griswold argued that Brown could not be found guilty of treason against a state to which he owed no loyalty and of which he was not a resident, that Brown had not killed anyone himself, and that the raid's failure indicated that Brown had not conspired with slaves. Andrew Hunter, the leading attorney in Charles Town and Governor Wise's personal lawyer, 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. He was sentenced to be hanged in public on December 2.
Under Virginia law, a month had to elapse before the death sentence could be carried out. Governor Wise resisted pressures to move up the execution date because, he said, he wanted everyone to see that Brown's rights had been thoroughly respected.
Brown made it clear repeatedly in his letters and conversations that these were the happiest days of his life. He would be publicly murdered, as he put it, but he was an old man and, he said, near death anyway. Brown was politically shrewd and realized his execution would strike a massive blow against Slave Power, a greater blow than he had made so far or had prospects of making otherwise. His death now had a purpose. In the meantime, the death sentence allowed him to publicize his anti-slavery views through the reporters constantly present in Charles Town, and through his voluminous correspondence.
Before his conviction, reporters were not allowed access to Brown, as the judge and Andrew Hunter feared that his statements, if quickly published, would exacerbate tensions, especially among the enslaved. This was much to Brown's frustration, as he stated that he wanted to make a full statement of his motives and intentions through the press. Once he had been convicted, the restriction was lifted, and, glad for the publicity, he talked with reporters and anyone else who wanted to see him, except pro-slavery clergy.
Brown received more letters than he ever had in his life. He wrote replies constantly, hundreds of eloquent letters, often published in newspapers, and expressed regret that he could not answer every one of the hundreds more he received. His words exuded spirituality and conviction. Letters picked up by the Northern press won him more supporters in the North while infuriating many white people in the South.
There were well-documented and specific plans to rescue Brown, as Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise wrote to President Buchanan. Throughout the weeks Brown and six of his collaborators were in the Jefferson County Jail in Charles Town, the town was filled with various types of troops and militia, hundreds and sometimes thousands of them. Brown's trips from the jail to the courthouse and back, and especially the short trip from the jail to the gallows, were heavily guarded. Wise halted all non-military transportation on the Winchester and Potomac Railroad (from Maryland south through Harpers Ferry to Charles Town and Winchester), from the day before through the day after the execution. Jefferson County was under martial law,  and the military orders in Charles Town for the execution day had 14 points.
However, Brown said several times that he did not want to be rescued. He refused the assistance of Silas Soule, a friend from Kansas who somehow infiltrated the Jefferson County Jail one day and offered to break him out during the night and flee northward to New York State and possibly Canada. Brown told Silas that, aged 59, he was too old to live a life on the run from the federal authorities as a fugitive. As he wrote his wife and children from jail, he believed that his "blood will do vastly more towards advancing the cause I have earnestly endeavoured to promote, than all I have done in my life before." "I am worth inconceivably more to hang than for any other purpose."
On December 1, Brown's wife arrived by train in Charles Town, where she joined him at the county jail for his last meal. She was denied permission to stay the night, prompting Brown to lose his composure and temper for the only time during the ordeal. Brown made his will.
Victor Hugo, from exile on Guernsey, tried to obtain a pardon for John Brown: he sent an open letter that was published by the press on both sides of the Atlantic. This text, written at Hauteville-House on December 2, 1859, 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.
The letter was initially published in the London News and was widely reprinted. After Brown's execution, Hugo wrote a number of additional letters about Brown and the abolitionist cause.
Abolitionists in the United States saw Hugo's writings as evidence of international support for the anti-slavery cause. The most widely publicized commentary on Brown to reach America from Europe was an 1861 pamphlet, John Brown par Victor Hugo, that included a brief biography and reprinted two letters by Hugo, including that of December 9, 1859. The pamphlet's frontispiece was an engraving of a hanged man by Hugo that became widely associated with the execution.
Brown was well read and knew that the last words of prominent people are valued. On the morning of December 2, 1859, Brown wrote and gave to his jailor Avis the words he wanted to be remembered by:
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.
He read his Bible and wrote a final letter to his wife, which included his will. At 11:00 a.m. he rode, sitting on his coffin in a furniture wagon, from the county jail through a crowd of 2,000 soldiers to a small field a few blocks away, where the gallows were. Among the soldiers in the crowd were future Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, and John Wilkes Booth (the latter borrowing a militia uniform to gain admission to the execution). The poet Walt Whitman, in Year of Meteors, described viewing the execution.
Brown was accompanied by the sheriff and his assistants, but no minister since no abolitionist minister was available. Since the region was in the grips of virtual hysteria, most Northerners, including journalists, were run out of town, and it is unlikely any anti-slavery clergyman would have been safe, even if one were to have sought to visit Brown. 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.
However, according to the sheriff of Jefferson County, Virginia law did not allow the burning of bodies, and Mrs. Brown did not want it. Brown's body was placed in a wooden coffin with the noose still around his neck, and the coffin was then put on a train to take it away from Virginia to his family homestead in North Elba, New York for burial.
His body needed to be prepared for burial; this was supposed to take place in Philadelphia, through which the train would pass. There were many Southern pro-slavery medical students and faculty in Philadelphia, and as a direct result, they left the city en masse on December 21, 1859, for Southern medical schools, never to return. However, because of the demonstrations expected from both sides, Philadelphia Mayor Alexander Henry "made a fake casket, covered with flowers and flags[,] which was carefully lifted from the coach and the train and sped onward in its destination.... In reality the train carrying Brown's body never actually stopped in Philadelphia, and thus violence was averted by a 'sham coffin'". Brown's body was washed, dressed, and placed in a 5 feet 10 inches (1.78 m) walnut coffin, in Brooklyn, New York. His body was transported via Troy, New York, Rutland, Vermont, and across Lake Champlain by ferry. He was buried on December 8. Abolitionist Rev. Joshua Young gave the invocation, McKim and Wendell Phillips spoke
On July 4, 1860, family and admirers of Brown gathered at his farm for an informal memorial. This was the last time that the surviving members of Brown's family gathered together. The farm was sold, except for the burial plot. By 1882 John Jr., Owen, Jason, and Ruth, widow of Henry Thompson, lived in Ohio; his wife and their two unmarried daughters in California. By 1886 Owen and Jason, and Ruth were living near Pasadena, California, where they were honored in a parade.
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 to John Brown's men. 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, including Liam Dodson, one of the surviving abolitionists. The report, authored by chairman James Murray Mason, a pro-slavery Democrat 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. Republicans such as Abraham Lincoln rejected any connection with the raid, calling Brown "insane".
The investigation was performed in a tense environment in both houses of Congress. One senator wrote to his wife that "The members on both sides are mostly armed with deadly weapons and it is said that the friends of each are armed in the galleries." After a heated exchange of insults, a Mississippian attacked Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania with a Bowie knife in the House of Representatives. Stevens' friends prevented a fight.
The Senate committee was very cautious in its questions of two of Brown's backers, Samuel Howe and George Stearns, out of fear of stoking violence. Howe and Stearns later said that the questions were asked in a manner that permitted them to give honest answers without implicating themselves. Civil War historian James M. McPherson stated that "A historian reading their testimony, however, will be convinced that they told several falsehoods."
John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry was among the last in a series of events that led to the American Civil War. Southern slaveowners, hearing initial reports that hundreds of abolitionists were involved, were relieved the effort was so small, but feared other abolitionists would emulate Brown and attempt to lead slave rebellions. Future Confederate President Jefferson Davis feared "thousands of John Browns". Therefore, the South reorganized the decrepit militia system. These militias, well-established by 1861, became a ready-made Confederate army, making the South better prepared for war.
Southern Democrats charged that Brown's raid was an inevitable consequence of the political platform of what they invariably called "the Black Republican Party". In light of the upcoming elections in November 1860, the Republicans tried to distance themselves as much as possible from Brown, condemning the raid and dismissing its leader as an insane fanatic. As one historian explains, Brown was successful in polarizing politics: "Brown's raid succeeded brilliantly. It drove a wedge through the already tentative and fragile Opposition-Republican coalition and helped to intensify the sectional polarization that soon tore the Democratic party and the Union apart."
Many abolitionists in the North viewed Brown as a martyr, sacrificed for the sins of the nation. Immediately after the raid, Wm. Lloyd Garrison published a column in The Liberator, judging Brown's raid "well-intended but sadly misguided" and "wild and futile". But 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. On the day Brown was hanged, Garrison reiterated the point in Boston: "whenever commenced, I cannot but wish success to all slave insurrections".
Frederick Douglass believed that Brown's "zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine--it was as the burning sun to my taper light--mine was bounded by time, his stretched away to the boundless shores of eternity. I could live for the slave, but he could die for him."
Between 1859 and Lincoln's assassination in 1865, Brown was the most famous American, emblem to the North, as Wendell Phillips put it, and traitor to the South. According to Frederick Douglass, "He was with the troops during that war, he was seen in every camp fire, and our boys pressed onward to victory and freedom, timing their feet to the stately stepping of Old John Brown as his soul went marching on." Douglass called him "a brave and glorious old man. ...History has no better illustration of pure, disinterested benevolence."
Other Black leaders of the time--Martin Delany, Henry Highland Garnet, Harriet Tubman--also knew and respected Brown. "Tubman thought Brown was the greatest white man who ever lived," and she said later he did more for American blacks than Lincoln did.
According to W. E. B. Du Bois in his 1909 biography, "John Brown was right". Brown's raid stood as "a great white light--an unwavering, unflickering brightness, blinding by its all-seeing brilliance, making the whole world simply a light and a darkness--a right and a wrong."
In 1863 Julia Ward Howe wrote the popular hymn the Battle Hymn of the Republic to the tune of "John Brown's body", which included a line "As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free", comparing Brown's sacrifice to that of Jesus Christ.
Writers continue to vigorously debate Brown's personality, sanity, motivations, morality, and relation to abolitionism. In his posthumous The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (1976), David Potter argued that the emotional effect of Brown's raid exceeded the philosophical effect of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and reaffirmed a deep division between North and South. Malcolm X said that white people could not join his black nationalist Organization of Afro-American Unity, but "if John Brown were still alive, we might accept him".
Some writers describe Brown as a monomaniacal zealot, others as a hero. In 1931, the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans erected a counter-monument, to Heyward Shepherd, a free black man who was the first fatality of the Harpers Ferry raid, claiming without evidence that he was a "representative of Negroes of the neighborhood, who would not take part". By the mid-20th century, some scholars were fairly convinced that Brown was a fanatic and killer, while some African Americans sustained a positive view of him. According to Stephen Oates, "unlike most Americans at his time, he had no racism. He treated blacks equally. ...He was a success, a tremendous success because he was a catalyst of the Civil War. He didn't cause it but he set fire to the fuse that led to the blow up." Journalist Richard Owen Boyer considered Brown "an American who gave his life that millions of other Americans might be free", and others held similarly positive views.
Several 21st-century works about Brown are notable for the absence of hostility that characterized similar works a century earlier (when Lincoln's anti-slavery views were de-emphasized). Journalist and documentary writer Ken Chowder considers Brown "stubborn ... egoistical, self-righteous, and sometimes deceitful; yet ... at certain times, a great man" and argues that Brown has been adopted by both the left and right, and his actions "spun" to fit the world view of the spinner at various times in American history. Toledo (2002), Peterson (2002), DeCaro (2002, 2007), Reynolds (2005), and Carton (2006) are critically appreciative of Brown's history, far from the opinions of earlier writers. The shift to an appreciative perspective moves many white historians toward the view long held by black scholars such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Benjamin Quarles, and Lerone Bennett, Jr.
Once the Reconstruction era ended and the country distanced itself from the anti-slavery cause and the martial law imposed in the South, the historical view of Brown changed. In the 1880s, Brown's detractors--some of them[who?] contemporaries now[when?] embarrassed by their former fervent abolitionism--began to produce virulent exposés, emphasizing the Pottawatomie killings of 1856. Historian James Loewen surveyed American history textbooks prior to 1995 and noted that until about 1890, historians considered Brown perfectly sane, but from about 1890 until 1970, he was generally portrayed as insane. After that, new interpretations[which?] began to gain ground.
Although Oswald Garrison Villard's 1910 biography of Brown was thought to be friendly (Villard being the grandson of abolitionist Garrison), he also added fuel to the anti-Brown fire by criticizing him as a muddled, pugnacious, bumbling, and homicidal madman. 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. Similarly, a 1923 textbook stated, "the farther we getaway from the excitement of 1859 the more we are disposed to consider this extraordinary man the victim of mental delusions."
In 1978, NYU historian Albert Fried concluded that historians who portrayed Brown as a dysfunctional figure are "really informing me of their predilections, their judgment of the historical event, their identification with the moderates and opposition to the 'extremists.'" This view of Brown has come to prevail in academic writing as well as in journalism. Biographer Louis DeCaro Jr. wrote in 2007, "there is no consensus of fairness with respect to Brown in either the academy or the media." More recent portrayals of Brown as another Timothy McVeigh or Osama bin Laden may still reflect the same bias Fried discussed a generation ago.
|Presentation by Reynolds on John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights, May 12, 2005, C-SPAN|
The connection between John Brown's life and many of the slave uprisings in the Caribbean was clear from the outset. Brown was born during the period of the Haitian Revolution, which saw Haitian slaves revolting against the French. The role the revolution played in helping to formulate Brown's abolitionist views directly is not clear; however, the revolution had an obvious effect on the general view towards slavery in the northern United States, and in the Southern states it was a warning of horror (as they viewed it) possibly to come. As W. E. B. Du Bois notes, the involvement of slaves in the American Revolutions, as well as the "upheaval in Hayti, and the new enthusiasm for human rights, led to a wave of emancipation which started in Vermont during the Revolution and swept through New England and Pennsylvania, ending finally in New York and New Jersey". This changed sentiment, which occurred during the late 18th and early 19th century, had a role in creating Brown's abolitionist opinion during his upbringing.
The 1839 slave insurrection aboard the Spanish ship La Amistad, off the coast of Cuba, provides a poignant example of John Brown's support and appeal towards Caribbean slave revolts. On La Amistad, Joseph Cinqué and approximately 50 other slaves captured the ship, slated to transport them from Havana to Puerto Príncipe, Cuba, in July 1839, and attempted to return to Africa. However, through trickery, the ship ended up in the United States, where Cinque and his men stood trial. Ultimately, the courts acquitted the men because at the time the international slave trade was illegal in the United States. According to Brown's daughter, "Turner and Cinque stood first in esteem" among Brown's black heroes. Furthermore, she noted Brown's "admiration of Cinques' character and management in carrying his points with so little bloodshed!" In 1850, Brown would refer affectionately to the revolt, in saying "Nothing so charms the American people as personal bravery. Witness the case of Cinques, of everlasting memory, on board the Amistad." The slave revolts of the Caribbean had a clear and important impact on Brown's views toward slavery and his staunch support of the most severe forms of abolitionism. However, this is not the most important part of the many revolts' legacy of influencing Brown.
The specific knowledge John Brown gained from the tactics employed in the Haitian Revolution, and other Caribbean revolts, was of paramount importance when Brown turned his sights to the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. As Brown's cohort Richard Realf explained to a committee of the 36th Congress, "he had posted himself in relation to the wars of Toussaint L'Ouverture; he had become thoroughly acquainted with the wars in Hayti and the islands round about." By studying the slave revolts of the Caribbean region, Brown learned a great deal about how to properly conduct guerilla warfare. A key element to the prolonged success of this warfare was the establishment of maroon communities, which are essentially colonies of runaway slaves. As a contemporary article notes, Brown would use these establishments to "retreat from and evade attacks he could not overcome. He would maintain and prolong a guerilla war, of which ... Haiti afforded" an example.
The idea of creating maroon communities was the impetus for the creation of John Brown's "Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the People of the United States", which helped to detail how such communities would be governed. However, the idea of maroon colonies of slaves is not an idea exclusive to the Caribbean region. In fact, maroon communities riddled the southern United States between the mid-1600s and 1864, especially in the Great Dismal Swamp region of Virginia and North Carolina. Similar to the Haitian Revolution, the Seminole Wars, fought in modern-day Florida, saw the involvement of maroon communities, which although outnumbered by native allies were more effective fighters.
Although the maroon colonies of North America undoubtedly had an effect on John Brown's plan, their impact paled in comparison to that of the maroon communities in places like Haiti, Jamaica, and Surinam. Accounts by Brown's friends and cohorts prove this idea. Richard Realf, a cohort of Brown in Kansas, noted that Brown not only studied the slave revolts in the Caribbean, but focused more specifically on the maroons of Jamaica and those involved in Haiti's liberation. Brown's friend Richard Hinton similarly noted that Brown knew "by heart" the occurrences in Jamaica and Haiti. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a cohort of Brown's and a member of the Secret Six, stated that Brown's plan involved getting "together bands and families of fugitive slaves" and "establish them permanently in those [mountain] fastnesses, like the Maroons of Jamaica and Surinam". Brown had planned for the maroon colonies to endure over a prolonged period of war.
Of the major figures associated with the American Civil War, except for Abraham Lincoln, Brown is the most studied and pondered. Already in 1899 a bibliography filled 10 pages, and that without including any newspaper articles.
At the same time he is among the most studied, Brown is among the least commemorated. No state, federal, or local government in the United States honors Brown, beyond maintaining small museums, and Vermont has designated a John Brown Day. For example, there is no monument to Brown in Harpers Ferry, where his raid is not fondly remembered by inhabitants. There used to be a national monument, but it is now a historical park. There is, instead, a monument to the faithful slave that allegedly refused to join him.
In 1878, Ward Burlingame, newspaper editor and confidential secretary of several Kansas politicians, stated that in Kansas, "the memory of John Brown is cherished with peculiar veneration", and proposed that Brown should be one of Kansas's two statues in the new National Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol. Seventeen years later, the Kansas Legislature selected Brown for one of the two statues, a response to Virginia having chosen Robert E. Lee. It was never funded, no sculptor was ever chosen, and in 1914 Brown was "replaced" by a statue of Kansas Governor George Washington Glick (in 2003 replaced by Dwight David Eisenhower).
Kate Field raised money to give to the State of New York for what was to be, in her words, "John Brown's Grave and Farm". The New York State government turned it into the John Brown Farm State Historic Site.
At the centenary of the raid in 1959, the only thing celebrated in Harpers Ferry was the capture of Brown, after his raid. A "sanitized" play about him was put on. "My grandpappy was a Confederate and we're not going to talk about John Brown", said Edwin (Mac) Dale, at the time the Superintendent of the national park. He was so anti-Brown that an NPS historian came to Harpers Ferry "to help override the objections of...Dale to John Brown". This was unsuccessful. Dale refused to accept the attention the Raid would receive, and transferred to Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park.
At the 150th anniversary in 2009, a chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, calling themselves the Army of Northern Virginia held a Heyward Shepherd Day together with their annual meeting, held in John Brown's Fort.
In 1946, the John Brown Memorial Association held its 24th annual pilgrimage to the grave in North Elba, where there were memorial services.
At the 150th anniversary of the raid In 2009, a two-day symposium, "John Brown Comes Home", was held, on the influence of Brown's raid, using facilities in adjacent Lake Placid. Speakers included Bernadine Dohrn and a great-great-great-granddaughter of Brown.
All of the museums above except those in Harpers Ferry are places Brown lived or stayed.
Two notable screen portrayals of Brown were given by actor Raymond Massey. The 1940 film Santa Fe Trail, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, depicted Brown completely unsympathetically as an out-and-out villainous madman; Massey plays him with a constant, wild-eyed stare. The film gave the impression that it did not oppose slavery, even to the point of having a Black "mammy" character say, after an especially fierce battle, "Mr. Brown done promised us freedom, but ... if this is freedom, I don't want no part of it". Massey portrayed Brown again in the little-known, low-budget Seven Angry Men, in which he was not only the main character, but depicted in a much more restrained, sympathetic way. Massey, along with Tyrone Power and Judith Anderson, starred in the acclaimed 1953 dramatic reading of Stephen Vincent Benet's epic Pulitzer Prize-winning poem John Brown's Body (1928).
Numerous American poets have written poems about him, including John Greenleaf Whittier, Louisa May Alcott, and Walt Whitman. The Polish poet Cyprian Kamil Norwid wrote two poems praising Brown: "John Brown" and the better known "Do obywatela Johna Brown" ("To Citizen John Brown"). Marching Song (1932) is an unpublished play about the legend of John Brown by Orson Welles. Russell Banks's 1998 biographical novel about Brown, Cloudsplitter, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. It is narrated by Brown's surviving son Owen. James McBride's 2013 novel The Good Lord Bird tells Brown's story through the eyes of a young slave, Henry Shackleford, who accompanies Brown to Harpers Ferry. The novel won the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction. A limited episode series based on the book was released starring Ethan Hawke as John Brown.
Of the court material regarding the trial itself, only the "order book, as it is called, containing the minutes of John Brown's trial", was preserved. "All of the other documents and writs, the indictment, the charge of the Judge, and so on, are gone, nobody knows where." Brown's judge Richard Parker evidently had this order book in his hands when writing those words in 1888. In 1908 a few letters taken from the courthouse by a Massachusetts soldier were published.
Since John Brown moved around a lot, had a large family, and had a lot to say, he carried on a voluminous correspondence, including letters to editors, and was repeatedly interviewed by reporters, as he made himself available. Archival material on him and his circle is therefore abundant, and widely scattered. There has never been a complete edition of his extant correspondence; the one scholarly attempt, from 1885, produced a book of 645 pages, "but I have in my hands", wrote editor F. B. Sanborn, "letters enough to fill another book, and have been not able to use them." A 2015 book was published just of the letters Brown wrote in the last month of his life, from jail. Additional letters were found and published in the 20th century.
Two separate collections of relevant letters were published. The first is the messages, mostly telegrams, sent and received by Governor Wise. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad published its many internal telegrams.
Villard surveys the manuscript collections in his 1910 biography. The best collection of archival material related to John Brown and his raid is at the West Virginia Archives and History, which owns the largest single collection on Brown ever assembled, the Boyd B. Stutler Collection. A negative microfilm of "the bulk of it" is held by the Ohio Historical Society. The archive of Brown biographer Oswald Garrison Villard is in the Columbia University Library. For his activities in Kansas, the best source is Kansas Memory, a project of the Kansas Historical Society, which holds the collection of Brown biographer Richard J. Hinton.
After Brown's arrest, many people, such as abolitionist philanthropist Gerrit Smith, friend Frederick Douglass, and future biographer and friend Frank Sanborn began destroying correspondence and other documents because they feared criminal charges for aiding Brown. (In addition, Douglass left the country and Smith suffered a mental breakdown and was hospitalized.)
According to Prosecutor Andrew Hunter,
John Brown had with him when captured at Harpers Ferry a carpet-bag in which were his constitution for a provisional government and other papers. He had placed it in one corner of the engine house, and there it was found when the marines charged and captured the survivors. Mr. Hunter took possession of the carpet-bag and carried it to Charlestown. He kept it and its contents. He added to the papers the letters which were forwarded to the prisoners and not delivered to them. Ordinary letters were allowed to pass to the prisoners after Mr. Hunter had examined them. But those letters which seemed to contain information bearing upon the organization in the North, Mr. Hunter confiscated and kept. He had between seventy and eighty of these letters, and he placed them in John Brown's carpet-bag. Other important documents bearing upon the secret history of the case went into the same receptacle, and much of the matter nobody but Mr. Hunter saw.
There was correspondence from Frederick Douglass and Gerrit Smith, among many others. Hugh Forbes said that the carpet-bag may have contained "an abundant supply of my correspondence". The carpet-bag also contained maps. "Besides the map of Virginia, there was one of Louisiana, one of North Carolina and one of Kentucky. They located the State arsenals, indicated how attacks might be made successfully, and showed where strong natural retreats might be found."
Another item, used at his trial as evidence of sedition, were bundles of printed copies of his Provisional Constitution, prepared for the "state" Brown intended to set up in the Appalachian Mountains. Even less known is Brown's "Declaration of Liberty", imitating the Declaration of Independence.
Wise sent attorney Henry Hudnall to Charles Town to put in order Hunter's documents. In a letter to Wise of November 17, he refers to "a large quantity of matter", including "newrly a half bushel of letters" just of Tidd alone. There was a railroad map of the U.S. and Canada, letters in "phonetic cypher", and a diary in "photographic abbreviations", which Hudnall thought the work of Owen Brown. "There is, also, a long, well-written and interesting letter from John Brown Jr. to his father, describing, with much minuteness, his routes, encampments, and other incidents connected with his earlier Kansas life. This son appears to be the most intelligent and the best educated of all Brown's children, whose correspondence I have seen. While he seems to possess all of his father's acuteness, he certainly excels him in accuracy of expression. His handwriting is bold and admirable."
Hunter personally took the carpet-bag to Richmond, because he thought it would be safer there. He was at the time a member of the Virginia State Senate. In 1865, when Lee advised that he could no longer defend Richmond, Hunter did not want the "Yankees" to find the carpet-bag. He thought that the Capitol was as safe a place as any in Richmond, and he asked Commonwealth Secretary George Wythe Munford if he could hide it in the Capitol. "Munford told me that he has taken the carpet-bag up to the cock-loft of the Capitol and had let down the bag between the wall and the plastering, and I believe those papers are there yet." It has never been found.
In 1907-08 there appeared in print a varied collection of letters and other documents a Union soldier took from Hunter's office in the Charles Town courthouse in 1862, when it was being used as a Union barracks.
THAT THIS NATION MIGHT HAVE
NEW BURST OF FREEDOM
THAT SLAVERY SHOULD BE REMOVED
FOREVER FROM AMERICAN SOIL
AND HIS 21 MEN GAVE THEIR
TO COMMEMORATE THEIR
HEROISM THIS TABLET IS
PLACED ON THIS BUILDING
WHICH HAS SINCE BEEN
JOHN BROWN'S FORT
ALUMNI OF STORER COLLEGE
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