John Brown

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

John Brown (May 9, 1800 – December 2, 1859) was one of the most radical opponents of slavery in antebellum America. A devout Calvinist, Brown combined an exemplary life of Christian humility and charity for others with uncompromising, often ruthless acts to eliminate the stain of slavery from the nation.

He first gained national notoriety when he led a company of volunteers into Kansas to contest violent, pro-slavery activism in the territory. Brown directed the Pottawatomie massacre on the night of May 24, 1856, and later liberated 11 slaves from slaveholders in neighboring Missouri. In 1859 Brown led a raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia with the intent to arm slaves and foment a rebellion.

The raid, Brown's subsequent capture by federal forces commanded by Robert E. Lee, his trial, and his execution by hanging caused a national sensation and were cited by both Union and Confederate partisans as triggering events of the American Civil War. The song "John Brown's Body" became the battle cry for northern forces and was elevated into a spiritual anthem when adapted by Julia Ward Howell into "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

Brown survived financial hardship, betrayal, death threats, and the murder of some of his children during the course of his campaign against the enslavement of African-Americans. Despite imprisonment and the certainty of execution he spoke out unwaveringly against the horrors of slavery, with his prison correspondence widely disseminated in the North. Brown refused any attempts to be rescued by supporters, and many noted abolitionists, such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, compared his execution to the crucifixion of Jesus.

Some historians have noted that Brown's radical abolitionist agenda was ultimately embraced by Abraham Lincoln, who came to see the war in stark providential terms, issued the Emancipation Proclamation and brought liberated slaves into the Union army, and unleashed total war on the South to extirpate slavery.

In challenging the institutional injustice and oppression of his day, Brown attempted to discern and to act on God's will, and he came to the conclusion that violence was a divinely ordained course of action. Yet violence even for a noble cause remains problematic, and has been renounced by twentieth-century nonviolent reformers like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela. Inasmuch as his brave deeds inspired others to oppose slavery and moved history toward the realization of that kingdom of equality where color is no barrier to opportunity and all are regarded as children of the one God, it can be said that "his soul keeps marching on."

Early years

Brown was born in Torrington, Litchfield County, Connecticut. He was the second son of Owen Brown (1771 – 1856) and Ruth Mills (1772 – 1808) and grandson of Captain John Brown (1728 – 1776), who appears to have been the same John Brown who was a Loyalist during the American Revolution and spent time in jail with the notorious Claudius Smith (1736 – 1779), allegedly for stealing cattle that the pair used to feed to the starving British troops. Brown’s father Owen was a tanner and strict Calvinist who hated slavery and taught his trade to his son. In 1805, the family moved to Hudson, Ohio, where Owen Brown opened a tannery.

Brown said that when he was 12 years old, he got a message from God to liberate the slaves. At the age of 16, Brown left his family and moved to Plainfield, Massachusetts, where he enrolled in school. Shortly afterward, Brown transferred to an academy in Litchfield, Connecticut. He hoped to become a Congregationalist minister, but ran out of money and suffered from eye inflammations, which forced him to give up the academy and return to Ohio. Back in Hudson, Brown worked briefly at his father's tannery before opening a successful tannery of his own outside town with his adopted brother.

Middle years

On June 21, 1820, Brown married Dianthe Lusk. Their first child, John Jr., was born 13 months later. In 1825, Brown and his family moved to New Richmond, Pennsylvania, where he purchased 200 acres (800,000 m²) of land. He cleared an eighth of it, built a cabin, a barn, and a tannery. Within a year, the tannery employed 15 men. Brown also made money raising cattle and surveying. He also helped to establish a post office and a school.

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

In 1836, Brown moved his family to Franklin Mills in Ohio (now part of Kent, Ohio). There he borrowed money to buy land in the area. He suffered great financial losses in the economic panic of 1837 and was even jailed on one occasion. Brown attempted everything to get out of debt, including tanning, cattle trading, horse breeding, and sheep tending. A federal court declared him bankrupt on September 28, 1842. In 1843, four of his children died of dysentery.

Later years

In 1844, Brown partnered with Simon Perkins of Akron, Ohio, managing the magnate's farm and flocks. In 1846, responding to the concerns of wool producers in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and western Virginia, Brown and Perkins established a wool commission operation in Springfield, Massachusetts, representing the wool growers' interests against the powerful New England wool manufacturers. Brown moved to Springfield, assuming management of the firm. His family remained in Ohio initially but eventually joined him there. Due mainly to the strategies of the manufacturers and the lack of unity among the wool growers (and only thirdly Brown's lack of business savvy), the firm was increasingly undermined. With Perkins's approval, Brown's last attempt to salvage the operation was to travel to Europe in 1849, in an attempt to build alliances with European manufacturers as an alternative market. Despite promising discussions with European agents in New York City, nothing came of Brown's efforts in England and on the continent of Europe, and the firm suffered humiliating losses in the sale of their wools. Frustrated by the realization that the European manufacturers were not determined to have American wools cheaply, as well as by the lack of solidarity and strategy among the woolgrowers themselves, Brown and Perkins closed down the firm.

Before departing for Europe, however, Brown had moved his family from Akron to North Elba, New York, and settled on lands set aside by Gerrit Smith, a wealthy abolitionist who had donated 120,000 acres (486 km²) of his property in the Adirondack Mountains to African-American families from New York State who were willing to clear and farm the land. The Browns lived in a rented farm in North Elba from 1849-1851, and then returned to Akron, Ohio, where they remained from 1851-1855. In Ohio, Brown and his wife experienced sickness; his son Frederick began to suffer bouts of illness (which may have involved both psychological and physiological difficulties); and an infant son died of whooping cough. Contrary to popular narrative, the failure of the firm of Perkins and Brown did not ruin either man, and Perkins absorbed the losses with seeming ease. In fact, Perkins strongly urged Brown to continue to manage his farm and flocks on a permanent basis, and Brown might have done so except the wealthy Perkins suffered economic hardship in matters independent of Brown, forcing him to end his farming ventures.


After a year of tenant farming in Ohio, Brown moved his family back to North Elba in June 1855, but he considered leaving his family there and following his oldest sons John Jr., Jason, Owen, and Frederick to Kansas. He consulted through correspondence with Gerrit Smith and Frederick Douglass. Brown had first met Douglass in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1848. Douglass wrote about Brown, "Though a white gentleman, he is in sympathy a black man, and as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery." At their first meeting, Brown outlined to Douglass his plan to lead a war to free slaves, including the establishment of a "Subterranean Pass Way" in the Allegheny Mountains. Douglass often referred to him as Captain Brown. Brown opted to stay in upstate New York, where he was undoubtedly contemplating the beginnings of his anti-slavery program in earnest. Meanwhile, his sons had gone to Kansas to begin a new life in farming, joining the free-state settlers in the developing territory. The Kansas-Nebraska Act provided that the people of the Kansas territory would vote on the question of slavery there. Sympathizers from both sides of the question packed the territory with settlers, but with a free-state majority, pro-slavery forces began to use unscrupulous methods, such as bribery and coercion.

Matters shifted dramatically in May 1855, when the Brown boys wrote and asked their father to send them guns to protect themselves from pro-slavery terrorism. Brown not only acquired guns, but brought them himself, along with son-in-law Henry Thompson (joined by his son Oliver), to the troubled Kansas territory, arriving there in October 1855. Brown was clearly torn between remaining with his wife and younger children in North Elba (as well as the free black colony there that he had so generously supported) and assisting his vulnerable family in Kansas. While his decision was a hardship for Mary and the children, he made arrangements for farm assistance, leaving 20-year-old son Watson behind to supervise the farm. Brown's letters suggest that Mary Brown supported her husband despite the sacrifices involved in his decision.

Brown's Christian convictions

Brown was a religious man. His several Bibles are all marked with the passages that guided his thought and actions and he saw slavery as 'a revolting evil, as sin against God and man' (DeCaro 12). When he was captured, he was asked, 'Do you consider this a religious movement?', and replied, 'I do'. Then he was asked, 'Do you consider yourself an instrument in the hands of Providence?," and he replied that he did. The questioner then asked how he justified his acts. He replied:

Upon the Golden Rule. I pity the poor in bondage that have none to help them: that is why I am here; not to gratify any personal animosity, revenge or vindictive spirit. It is my sympathy with the oppressed and the wronged that are as good as you and as precious in the sight of God (DeCaro 266).

The taking of 'direct action' in God's name against injustice and oppression surfaces in twentieth century Liberation Theology that argued in favor of God's bias towards the poor. Some Liberation theologians, who also stress that it is up to local people to study God's word for themselves and to discern God's will, argue that violence is not a 'sin if it is used for resisting oppression,' while others argue that violence only ever leads to more violence [1].

DeCaro (2002) identifies hypocrisy in how Brown’s use of violence has been condemned. Brown, a hero to Blacks, is “considered fanatical and insane largely because he presumed their humanity in a society that… categorically dehumanized them.” Furthermore, he adds, “White Americans have long glorified ‘violence’ and 'Fanaticism’ when it pertained to their nationalistic interests,” such as “the expansion of white settlers into Mexican territory and the establishment of Texas in the nineteenth century,” which was “largely premised upon the expansion of black slavery.” In contrast to Brown's efforts to free slaves “the violent efforts of pro-slavery settlers culminating in the bloody Alamo incident of 1836 is commonly perceived as heroic as noble, even though the famous white insurgents were occupying land belonging to a government and a nation that prohibited slavery.”

Brown, influenced by pre-millennialism, may have believed that by taking 'direct action' he was helping to make the world a better place and thus creating the conditions needed for Jesus' return. Pre-millennialists were involved in various reform movements, ranging from “abolition to temperance” (DeCaro 2002: 60). Brown was alarmed that people who opposed slavery seemed unprepared to act. Thus, he took what later generations would call 'direct action' in order to try to right a terrible wrong.

Actions in Kansas

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


Brown's letters show that he and the free state settlers were optimistic that their majority vote would bring Kansas into the union as a free state. But in late 1855 and early 1856 it was increasingly clear that pro-slavery forces were willing to violate the rule of law in order to force Kansas to become a slave state. Terrorism, fraud, and eventually murder became the obvious agenda of the pro-slavery terrorists, then known as "Border Ruffians." After the winter snows thawed in 1856, these terrorists began yet another campaign to seize Kansas on their own terms. Brown was particularly affected by the Sacking of Lawrence in May 1856, in which a sheriff-led posse destroyed newspaper offices, a hotel, and killed two men, and Preston Brooks's brutal caning of anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner (1811 - 1874) who later pushed for the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson [2].

The violence was accompanied by celebrations in the pro-slavery press, with writers such as B. F. Stringfellow of the Squatter Sovereign proclaiming that pro-slavery forces

…are determined to repel this Northern invasion, and make Kansas a Slave State; though our rivers should be covered with the blood of their victims, and the carcasses of the Abolitionists should be so numerous in the territory as to breed disease and sickness, we will not be deterred from our purpose (quoted. in Reynolds 2005: 162).

Brown was outraged by both the violence of pro-slavery forces and by what he saw as a weak and gutless response by the anti-slavery partisans and free state settlers, who he described as "cowards, or worse" (Reynolds 2005: 163-164).

Biographer Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. further shows that Brown's beloved father, Owen, had died on May 8, and correspondence indicates that John Brown and his family received word of his death around the same time. The emotional darkness of the hour was intensified by the real concerns that Brown had for the welfare of his sons and the free state settlers in their vicinity, especially since the Sacking of Lawrence seems to have signaled an all-out campaign by pro-slavery forces. Brown conducted surveillance on encamped "ruffians" in his vicinity and learned that his family was marked for attack, and furthermore was given reliable information as to pro-slavery neighbors who had collaborated with these forces.

While Brown has usually been portrayed as seeking to avenge Lawrence, Kansas, and Charles Sumner, and to intimidate proslavery forces by showing that free staters were capable of violent retaliation, his safety and survival were truly jeopardized. Critics have yet to properly balance the decision of the Browns (not just John Brown) to take action despite the more conservative admonitions of Brown's sons John Jr. and Jason. There was clearly a divided opinion regarding the extent to which the pro-slavery terrorists would go in assaulting free state men. Brown and his sons Oliver, Owen, Salmon, and Frederick, his son-in-law Henry Thompson, and two other free state settlers determined that danger was imminent. Brown stated that they would "fight fire with fire" and "strike terror in the hearts of the pro-slavery people." But, he also felt that something had to be done before pro-slavery forces solidified their intentions. In this decision he was clearly urged on by other free state men who chose not to join him and his killing party.

Sometime after 10 p.m. on the night of May 24, 1856, they took five pro-slavery settlers—James Doyle, William Doyle, Drury Doyle, Allen Wilkinson, and William Sherman—from their cabins on Pottawatomie Creek and hacked them to death with broadswords. In the months that followed, Brown would neither confirm nor deny his participation in the killings during the Pottawatomie Massacre, though he did approve of them. Near the end of his life, Brown acknowledged being present while the killings took place.

Brown went into hiding after the killings, and two of his sons, John Jr. and Jason, were arrested, even though neither had taken part in the attack. During their captivity, John Jr. and Jason were beaten and forced to march more than 20 miles a day while tied with ropes or chains. John Jr. suffered a mental collapse and remained psychologically scarred for the rest of his life.

Prairie City and Osawatomie

On June 2, 1856, John Brown, nine of his followers, and 20 volunteers successfully defended a free state settlement at Prairie City, Kansas against an attack by some sixty Missourians, led by Captain Henry Pate, at the Battle of Black Jack. Pate—who had participated in the Sack of Lawrence, led the company that captured John Jr. and Jason and destroyed the Brown family homestead—was taken prisoner along with 22 of his men (Reynolds 2005: 180-1, 186). Brown took Pate and his men back to his camp, gave them whatever food he could find, and signed a treaty with Pate, exchanging the freedom of the prisoners for the release of his sons. Brown released the prisoners to Colonel Edwin Sumner, but was furious to discover that the release of his sons was delayed until September.

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

A week later, Brown rode to Lawrence to meet with free state leaders and to help fortify against a feared assault by pro-slavery militias. The feared invasion 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.

Gathering forces

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

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

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

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

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

Brown and twelve of his followers, including his son Owen, traveled to Chatham-Kent, Ontario where he convened a constitutional convention on May 8, 1858. The convention was put together with the help of Dr. Martin Delany. One-third of Chatham's 6,000 residents were fugitive slaves. The convention assembled 34 blacks and 12 whites to adopt Brown's Provisional Constitution. According to Delany, during the convention, Brown illuminated his plans to make Kansas rather than Canada the end of the Underground Railroad. This would be the “Subterranean Pass Way.” He never mentioned or hinted at the idea of Harpers Ferry. But Delany's reflections are not entirely trustworthy.

By 1858, Brown was no longer looking toward Kansas and was entirely focused on Virginia. Other testimony from the Chatham meeting suggests Brown did speak of going south. Brown had used the phrase “subterranean pass way” from the late 1840s, so it is possible that Delany conflated Brown's statements over the years. Regardless, Brown was elected commander-in-chief and he named John Henrie Kagi as Secretary of War. Richard Realf was named Secretary of State. Elder Monroe, a black minister, was to act as president until another was chosen. A.M. Chapman was the acting vice president; Delany, the corresponding secretary. Either during this time or shortly after, the "Declaration of the Slave Population of the U.S.A." was written.

Although nearly all of the delegates signed the Constitution, very few delegates volunteered to join Brown's forces, although it will never be clear how many Canadian expatriates actually intended to join Brown because of a subsequent “security leak” that threw off plans for the raid, creating a hiatus in which Brown lost contact with many of the Canadian leaders. This crisis occurred when 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. Stearn and Smith were the major sources of funds, and their words carried more weight.

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

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

Raid on Harpers Ferry

John Brown in 1859

Brown arrived in Harpers Ferry on June 3, 1859. A few days later, under the name Isaac Smith, he rented a farmhouse in nearby Maryland. He awaited the arrival of his recruits. They never materialized in the numbers he expected; but his expectations have been greatly exaggerated by critics (had Brown anticipated a large number of recruits to join him, he would hardly have rented a farmhouse in which to house them). In late August, Brown met with Frederick Douglass in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where he revealed the Harpers Ferry plan. Douglass expressed severe reservations, rebuffing Brown's pleas to join the mission. We know of this meeting only from Douglass's last biography; but Douglass did not reveal that he had actually known about Brown's plans from early in 1859 and had made a number of efforts to discourage blacks from enlisting. There were clearly tensions between the two friends that were never resolved, which Douglass obviously preferred not to explain in more detail writing so many years after the fact.

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

On October 16, 1859, Brown (leaving three men behind as a rear guard) led 18 men in an attack on the armory at Harpers Ferry. He had received 200 breech loading .52 caliber Sharps carbines and pikes from northern abolitionist societies in preparation for the raid. The armory was a large complex of buildings that contained 100,000 muskets and rifles, which Brown planned to seize and use to arm local slaves. They would then head south, and a general revolution would begin.

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

In the early morning, they captured and took prisoner John Daingerfield, an armory clerk who had come into work. Daingerfield was taken to the guardhouse, presented to Brown and then imprisoned with the other hostages.

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

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

By morning (October 18) the building was surrounded by a company of United States Marine Corps under the command of Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee of the United States Army. A young Army lieutenant, J.E.B. Stuart, approached under a white flag and told the raiders that their lives would be spared if they surrendered. Brown refused and the Marines stormed the building. Stuart served as a messenger between Lee and Brown. Throughout the negotiations, Brown refused to surrender. Brown's final chance came when Stuart approached and asked "Are you ready to surrender, and trust to the mercy of the government?" Brown replied, "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. Amid the chaos, Lieutenant Green cornered Brown and gave him a thrust with his sword that was powerful enough to raise Brown completely off the ground. Brown's life was spared because Green's sword struck Brown's belt. Brown fell forward and Green struck him several times, wounding his head; Brown later noted he had a number of deep cuts, which suggests the Marine or Marines continued to assault him after he had fallen.

Altogether Brown's men killed four people, and wounded nine. Ten of Brown's men were killed (including his sons Watson and Oliver). Five of Brown's men escaped (including his son Owen), and seven were captured along with Brown.

Imprisonment and trial

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

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

On November 2, after a weeklong trial and 45 minutes of deliberation, the Charles Town, West Virginia jury found Brown guilty on all three counts. Brown was sentenced to be hanged in public on December 2. In response to the sentence, Ralph Waldo Emerson remarked that John Brown "will make the gallows glorious as the Cross." Cadets from the Virginia Military Institute under the leadership of Generals Francis H. Smith and "Stonewall" Jackson were called into service as a security detail in the event Brown's supporters attempted a rescue.

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

Death and afterwards

On the morning of December 2, Brown read his Bible and wrote a final letter to his wife, which included his will. At 11:00 A.M., Brown was escorted through a crowd of 2,000 spectators and soldiers, including John Wilkes Booth, who bought a militia uniform and stood guard for the execution. Brown was accompanied by the sheriff and his assistants, but no minister, since he had consistently rejected the ministrations of pro-slavery clergy. Since the region was in the grips of virtual hysteria, most northerners, including journalists, were run out, and it is unlikely any anti-slavery clergyman would have been safe even if one were to have sought to visit Brown.

Drawing strength from correspondence from northern clergy and his own indefatigable spirituality, he elected to receive no religious services in the jail or at the scaffold. He was hanged at 11:15 A.M. and pronounced dead at 11:50 A.M., and his body was dumped into a cheap wooden coffin with the noose still around his neck—a last gesture of Southern contempt.

Addressing the court on November 2, 1859 Brown said:

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 (cited in Nudelman 2004: 18).

Nudelman suggests that even then, Brown, who knew that his oratory could move people, was using a “sweeping rhetorical gesture” to mobilize support for his cause, that was “made meaningful by his impending death on the scaffold.” He knew that his own body, soon to be “subject to the violence of the state,” had become a “source of public meaning” (Nudelman 2004).

On the day of his death Brown wrote, "I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done."

John Brown did not intend to kill, setting out to rescue slaves not to harm their owners, although he was aware that fatalities could follow from use of violence. Reynolds (2005) concludes that the Pottawatomie affair was a 'crime', but a 'war crime' committed by a man who saw slavery in terms of racial war, a war waged by one race against another.

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

Senate investigation

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

The Senate committee heard testimony from 32 witnesses. The report, authored by Chairman James M. Mason, 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.

Aftermath of the raid

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

Southern Democrats charged that Brown's raid was an inevitable consequence of the Republican Party's political platform, which they associated with abolitionism. In light of the upcoming elections in November 1860, the Republican political and editorial response to John Brown tried to distance themselves as much as possible from Brown, condemning the raid and dismissing Brown as an insane fanatic. Much of the general public in the North, however, especially in the Transcendentalists and Abolitionist circles, viewed John Brown as a martyr who had been sacrificed for the sins of the nation.

Immediately after the raid, William Lloyd Garrison published a column in The Liberator, entitled "The Tragedy at Harper's Ferry", describing Brown's raid as “well-intended but sadly misguided” and “an enterprise so wild and futile as this.” Although Garrison and his circle opposed any use of violence on principle, he defended Brown's character from detractors in the Northern and Southern press, and argued that those who supported the principles of the American Revolution could not consistently oppose Brown's raid. Garrison reiterated the point, adding that "whenever commenced, I cannot but wish success to all slave insurrections," in a [3] speech in Boston on the day Brown was hanged.

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

After the Civil War, Frederick Douglass wrote, "Did John Brown fail? John Brown began the war that ended American slavery and made this a free Republic. His zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine. I could live for the slave, but he could die for him." After his own capture, Brown predicted:

…you had better, all you people of the South, prepare yourselves for a settlement of this question, that must come up for settlement sooner than you are prepared for it. You may dispose of me very easily, I am nearly disposed of now, but this question is still to be settled, this Negro question I mean... (qtd. in DeCaro: 266-7)

On January 1, 1863, at the estate of businessman George L. Stearns in Medford, Massachusetts, a gathering was held to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation, which President Lincoln had issued earlier that day. A marble bust of John Brown was unveiled, and Stearns himself called the gathering 'John Brown's party'. Reynolds (2005) suggests that on that day Brown's presence was felt elsewhere in America. Elsewhere, as the proclamation was read, crowds burst into a rendition "John Brown's Body," with its heady chorus about Brown "mouldering in the grave" while "his soul keeps marching on" [4].

Quotes by and concerning John Brown

“In Pennsylvania, where John Brown was sent by his father to collect cattle, he found a boy whom he liked a great deal, & looked upon as his superior. This boy was a slave; he witnessed him beaten with an iron shovel,& maltreated, he saw this boy had nothing to look forward to in life, no hope, no future, while John was made much of in the family, as a boy of 12 years he had conducted alone a drove of cattle a 100 miles.

"But the slave boy had no friend. This worked such indignation in John that he swore an oath of resistance to slavery as long as he lived. And his determination to go into Virginia & run off 500 or a 1000 slaves was not done out of spite or revenge, a plot of 2 or 20 years, oh no, but the keeping of an oath made to Heaven & Earth 47 years before. 47 years, though I incline to accept his own account of the matter at Charlestown, which makes the date a little older, when he said, 'This was all settled millions of years before the world was made.'"

Ralph Waldo Emerson

“He could not be tried by his peers, for he had none.”

—Oliver Wendell Holmes

"Be mild with the mild, shrewd with crafty, confiding to the honest, rough to the ruffian, and a thunderbolt to the liar. But in all this, never be unmindful of your own dignity."

— John Brown

“White people call John Brown a nut. Go read the history, do read what all of them say about John Brown. They're trying to make it look like he was a nut, a fanatic. They made a movie on it, I saw a movie on the screen one night. Why, I would be afraid to get near John Brown if I go by what other white folks say about him" (cited in DeCaro: 3).

Malcolm X

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Secondary sources

  • DeCaro, Louis A. Jr. "Fire from the Midst of You": A Religious Life of John Brown. NY: New York University Press, 2002 IS081471921X
  • Du Bois, W. E. B John Brown NY: Modern Library, 2001 (original 1909) ISBN 0679783539.
  • Finkelman, Paul, ed. His Soul Goes Marching On: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1995. ISBN 0813915368 (critics point to an anti-Brown slant in the essays contained in this book).
  • Goodrich, Thomas War to the Knife: Bleeding Kansas, 1854-1861. Lincoln, NE: Bison Books (University of Nebraska Press), 2004 ISBN 080327114X
  • Morrison, Michael. Slavery and the American West: The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the Coming of the Civil War. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1997 ISBN 0807847968
  • Nevins, Allan. Ordeal of the Union. 2 vols. NY: Scribner, 1947 0684104237 and ISBN ISBN 0684104245 (in depth scholarly history).
  • Nichols, Roy F. “The Kansas-Nebraska Act: A Century of Historiography.” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 43 (September 1956): 187-212. Online at JSTOR (also paper) at most academic libraries.
  • Oates, Stephen B. To Purge This Land With Blood: A Biography of John Brown. NY: Harpercollins, 1970. ISBN 0061316555
  • Oates, Stephen B. Our Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, and the Civil War Era. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Pres, 1979. ISBN 0870232614
  • Peterson, Merrill D. John Brown: The Legend Revisited Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 2004. ISBN 0813921325
  • Potter, David M. The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861. NY: Harper Perennial, 1976 ISBN 0061319295 (prize winning scholarly history).
  • Reynolds, David S. John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights. NY: Knopf, 2005. ISBN 0375411887
  • SenGupta, Gunja. “Bleeding Kansas: A Review Essay.” Kansas History 24 (Winter 2001/2002): 318-341.
  • Villard, Oswald Garrison, John Brown 1800-1859: A Biography Fifty Years After. NY: Doubleday, Doran & company, 1910
  • Nudelman, Franny. John Brown's Body: Slavery, Violence, and the Culture of War. Chapel HILL, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. ISBN 0807828831

Primary sources

Historical Fiction


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