Today we visit John Brown.
In 1830, the abolition of slavery was decidedly a fringe movement—very much like, for example, the animal rights movement of today. Abolitionists were frequently involved in communitarian social experiments, and in alternative religions or philosophies such as feminism or spiritualism. Opponents derided abolitionists as “long haired men and short haired women;” they saw abolitionists as radical cranks and a danger to property.
Twenty five years later, abolition had moved to the center of American politics, largely over the issue of western expansion. Would new states gained as white settlers moved west be slave state, or free states? The Republican Party, formed in 1854, made opposition to new slave states the center of its program.
In the 1850’s, the fight over slavery centered on the Kansas territory. New England abolitionists sent anti-slavery settlers into Kansas, hoping to establish Kansas as a free state. Pro-slavery forces sent their own settlers into Kansas, hoping to colonize the territory as a slave state. The struggle between abolition and pro-slave forces turned into a bitter and fiercely violent conflict, with open warfare and mass murder between the two sides. John Brown first became famous in Kansas
Brown was born in 1800, to an intensely religious Connecticut family. He tried many ways to earn a living in the 1830’s, including farming, tanning, and real estate speculation, but was largely unsuccessful. During this time he married, and eventually fathered twenty children, who moved with him from state to state. Raised to hate slavery, Brown became highly active in the abolitionist cause, helping slaves escape to the north and joining the political fight against the fugitive slave act. One of the very small minority of white Americans who were willing to consider African Americans as their equals, for a time Brown moved his family to a community of former slaves in upstate New York. He and his wife adopted an African American child as his own. As he lived among former slaves and heard their stories, Brown’s hatred of slavery grew increasingly bitter and militant.
In the early 1850’s Brown sent five of his sons to settle in Kansas, hoping to gain land and help the fight against slavery. In 1854 he followed them there, with a wagon load of weapons for the fight against pro-slavery forces. By this time open violence reigned in “Bleeding Kansas.” The violence spread even to the US Senate: in May of 1856, South Carolina Senator Preston Brooks used a cane to beat abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner into a coma on the Senate floor. That same month and year, a pro-slavery “posse” of 800 men attacked and pillaged the town of Lawrence, Kansas, the center of abolitionist settlement. The governor’s house was burned, and the newspaper office smashed. Brown and his sons fought against this raid, angry that abolitionists did not fight back. When he heard the news of the caning of Sumner, a witness recalled, he “became crazy.” A few days later, in retaliation, Brown and five of his sons led an attack on the pro-slavery town of Pottawattamie. They dragged five people from their beds and murdered them with swords.
Brown became a national figure, denounced in the South as what we would now call a terrorist, praised by northern abolitionists as a man of action and conviction who stood up to ruffians. He was never charged for the massacre, and in fact embarked on a speaking tour of the Northeast, attempting to raise money for the abolitionist cause.
By 1859 he became convinced that slavery could only be removed by violence. He hatched a plan to capture the U.S. government arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Harper’s Ferry was a “state of the art” facility for weapons production and research, with a very large stock of arms. Brown assumed that if he captured the arsenal, local abolitionist sympathizers and slaves would join him and a general rebellion against slavery would spread throughout Virginia. In October of 1859, he set out with a racially mixed group of twenty one men to capture the arsenal. After a prolonged siege, Brown was captured. Ten of his men were killed, including two of his sons, five escaped and were never caught. Brown was hung. He died unrepentant, arguing: “the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood,” and
“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, I did 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 say let it be done.”
Thanks for your attention.