There are few more controversial figures in American history than John Brown, to some he was on the side of the angels, a spiritual man, an anti-slavery man, a hero; but to others he was a religious fanatic, a traitor, and a cold-bloodied killer. Regardless of how people felt his impact upon American history cannot be denied even if this impact was one marked by violence and soaked in human blood.
John Brown was born in Torrington, Connecticut on 9 May 1800, the fourth of eight children, but soon after his birth the family moved to the town of Hudson, Ohio.
The young John was in awe of his father who ran a flourishing tannery business and was to spend much of his life trying to emulate his success but his own many business ventures were to end in failure leaving him heavily in debt but raised a strict Calvinist (and for a time a member of the Congregationalist Church though he was to leave over some arcane theological dispute or other) such failures he saw as God’s Judgement upon him and the more he failed the more deeply religious he became.
At the age of sixteen he left home and moved to Plainfield, Massachusetts, and for the next twenty years he was to continue moving from town to town failing in business, marrying twice, and fathering twenty children.
But if his life was not working out as he may have wished it was because he had not yet found a cause.
In 1837, the vocal anti-slavery campaigner and Editor of an abolitionist newspaper, Elijah P Lovejoy was taken from his home and murdered by pro-slavery men. It was the first time that a white man had been murdered by other white men over the issue of black slavery and as far as John Brown was concerned Lovejoy was a martyr, a man who had given his life for a noble and Godly cause. At a Church meeting he vowed:
“Here, before God, and in the presence of these witnesses, I, John Brown, consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery.”
He had at last found a purpose to his life.
But John Brown was too busy trying to sort out a life that was already in turmoil to concentrate on anything other than mere survival.
In 1842, he was declared bankrupt, and the following year four of his children died of dysentery.
It was a desperate and distressing time in his life but every death endured, every tragedy encountered merely appeared to deepen his religious conviction and his belief that God had for him a special purpose.
Constantly on the move, partially as a result of trying to avoid his creditors, in 1846 he went into business as a wool commissioner with an associate Simon Perkins.
Unable to contribute much financially to the business his main input was to be his expertise, however he tended to always side with the small farmers against the larger corporations with whom he was supposed to be striking deals and this natural inclination to favour the less well off undermined his best endeavours as a commissioner.
Having managed to alienate the manufacturers he was supposed to be representing in 1849 the business went bust owing a considerable amount of money, most of the burden for which was carried by Perkins. Brown left town soon after leaving no forwarding address.
He now found himself in the town of North Elba in New York State where he struggled to make ends meet with such a large family to support, yet upon hearing the news that trouble had broken out between pro and anti-slaver’s in Kansas he decided to give up business altogether and instead devote himself to the abolitionist cause.
It had not yet been decided whether Kansas should be a Slave State or not and so in the hope of achieving a fait accompli The Free Soil Movement provided grants for abolitionist families who wished to settle in the State. In response, pro-slavery Border Ruffians mostly from the neighbouring State of Missouri determined to prevent them from doing so. A Civil War had effectively had broken out in Kansas and violence was even to reach the floor of the Senate House in Washington when Southern Senator Preston Brooks beat abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner senseless with his cane.
Brown believing that violence had to be met with violence moved to Kansas to join with the Free State settlers and though he feared for the safety of his family he was not going to be passive but take the war to the enemy. He formed what was in effect a Murder Squad whose only aim was to seek out and kill every known pro-slavery man in Kansas. Their murder, he said, would stand as an example to others.
At 10.00pm on 24 May 1856, at Pottawotamie Creek his gang took five pro-slavery men from their homes and cold bloodedly hacked them to death with axes and broadswords in front of their distraught families.
Brown was later to claim that he was not present at Potawatomie Creek and had not participated in the killings but there seems little doubt that he would have approved of and ordered them.
The violence in Kansas continued to increase as more and more pro-slavery men from Missouri invaded the State.
The abolitionist town of Lawrence was raided and pillaged, whilst Brown’s new homestead was burned to the ground and his son Frederick shot and killed. He would not be intimidated however, and vowed to fight on.
On 2 June 1856, he successfully defended the town of Palmyra against attack and on 30 August lost a battle at Osawatomie against vastly superior forces but only after inflicting heavy casualties.
The violence was escalating all the time and by September more than 3,000 Border Ruffians were active in Kansas.
Brown was willing to face them all and was preparing for a final showdown when the new Governor John W Geary managed to impose a fragile peace. The peace held, but only just.
It made no difference to Brown either way, he was by now fully committed to the struggle against slavery which he considered to be his Mission from God. If the struggle was not to take place in Kansas then he would go elsewhere.
In anti-slavery circles in the North he was already being hailed as a hero but this was never enough for Brown, he didn’t just want to oppose slavery he wanted to be the man responsible for ending it and the best way he thought of doing so was to incite slave insurrection in the South. If only he could spark an incident he was confident that the slaves would rise up and throw off their shackles for themselves.
Following the imposition of peace in “Bleeding Kansas” Brown travelled east to solicit funds for his new project and while in Washington was introduced to some of the most prominent abolitionists in the country including Frederick Douglas, William Lloyd Garrison, and writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and David Thoreau.
He was warmly received, but his plan for a slave insurrection less so.
Brown’s proposal was for a raid on the Federal Armoury at Harper’s Ferry in West Virginia, but as knowledge of his plan spread the funds dried up and many of his erstwhile supporters began to desert him. Indeed, Frederick Douglas used his influence within the black community to dissuade people from enlisting in the madcap plan.
Brown had been hoping to raise a fully-armed Brigade of 4,500 men but as it transpired he was to enlist only 21 volunteers.
Regardless, the raid would go ahead.
On 16 October 1859, Brown led his small force to the town of Harper’s Ferry where they easily seized the Armoury.
It contained the 10,000 muskets with which he intended to arm the slaves he felt sure would flock to his cause once the news of what had happened spread. Once all the slaves in Virginia had been freed he would march south at the head of his new army and liberate the rest of the Slave States.
The plan soon began to unravel however and the first man to die was a free black man, Hayward Shepherd, who worked as a baggage handler on the Baltimore to Ohio train and was shot as he tried to warn the passengers of what was happening. Hearing the commotion the local townspeople took up arms and began to surround the Armoury and it soon came under a hail of fire. Brown’s son Watson was shot whilst under a flag of truce, as was another son, Oliver.
As the young man lay dying his father berated him for not doing so like a man.
A black volunteer, Dangerfield Newby was then shot and killed, someone cutting off his ears and keeping them as a memento.
By the morning of 18 October, and with none of the expected slaves in sight Brown had been surrounded by Federal troops commanded by Colonel Robert E Lee. He dispatched Captain J.E.B Stuart to demand Brown’s surrender. When he refused Lee ordered his troops to open fire.
In the fighting that followed ten of Brown’s men were killed and five wounded. A handful managed to escape but the remainder were captured including Brown himself.
Though the attack at Harper’s Ferry had taken place on Federal property the Virginia State Governor Henry A Wise was determined that Brown and his followers be tried in the State, believing that were they tried in a Federal Court abolitionist pressure would see their acquittal.
He succeeded and the trial was set take place in Charles Town, Virginia, with Brown charged with murder, treason, and inciting slave insurrection.
John Brown’s defence was that as he had not killed anyone personally he could not be convicted of murder, as he owed no loyalty to the State of Virginia he could not be guilty of treason, and as no slaves had risen in revolt he could hardly be accused of having incited a slave insurrection.
None of these arguments of course made any difference to a verdict that had long ago been decided.
John Brown’s trial began on 27 October 1859, during which he had to attend Court lying on a cot because of the injuries he had sustained in the fighting an image that was soon to appear in newspapers and magazines the length and breadth of the country eliciting sympathy in some and scorn among others.
But the case against him could not be denied and it was not to be a long trial.
On 31 October, after just 45 minutes deliberation the Jury found him guilty on all charges and two days later he returned to Court to hear the sentence of death passed upon him.
The State of Virginia knew very well that by sentencing John Brown to death they were creating an anti-slavery martyr but he had made real the South’s greatest fear – that there were white Northern abolitionists willing to arm the slaves to murder them in their beds.
To placate the widespread anger and calm the fears that many now had, John Brown had to hang, and according to the law few could argue that it was not the right and proper verdict, and a just sentence.
But to be a martyr is more than merely dying for a cause, it is to transcend the vagaries of flawed humanity, to paint a glorious canvass, to create life from death, and to make that cause just.
John Brown, the Old Testament Prophet, understood this and in the month of life remaining to him he would write over a hundred letters to journalists and newspaper editors making his case.
In doing so he detailed his version of events, told his story, and created his own myth:
“When did a higher law, the law of God, and the cause of freedom and equality outweigh those made by man?”
He also wrote many times to his wife in which he made plain his intentions:
“I have been whipped, as the saying goes, but am sure I can recover all the lost capital occasioned by that disaster by merely hanging for a few seconds by the neck, and I feel quite determined to make the utmost possible by my defeat. I love you dear, but I can’t wait to hang.”
He was to become a cause celebre on both sides of the Atlantic but a contentious, divisive, and troubling one.
John Brown was hanged on 2 December 1859, and in the crowd to witness his final moments were two men who would go on to make their own mark on history. The noted Shakespearean actor and future assassin of Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth who had borrowed a Virginia State Militia uniform so he could attend; and the Deputy Head of the Virginia Military Institute, Thomas J ‘Stonewall’ Jackson.
Brown made no statement from the scaffold, instead he handed a note to a female black attendant. It read:
“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”
John Brown’s execution divided public opinion across America.
Did his actions hasten the Southern Slave States decision to secede from the Union? Did he make Civil War inevitable?
To a great many in the South he was the demonic representation of the newly-formed Republican Party, one of so many Black Republicans. Their aim to see Southern society subverted, their culture destroyed, and the white man made slave in his own home.
John Brown was a criminal and a murderer, plain and simple. But to others he remained a Godly martyr, free of sin.
Frederick Douglass suspected of involvement in the Insurrection and who had fled to Canada and then England following the issue of a warrant for his arrest wrote of John Brown:
“His zeal in the cause of freedom was infinitely superior to mine. Mine was as the taper light his was as the burning sun. I could live for the slave – John Brown could die for him.”
Abraham Lincoln, who just three years later as President would issue the Emancipation Proclamation, was unequivocal in his opinion of Brown:
“He was a delusional fanatic who was justly hanged.”