Skip to main content

(Originally posted at The Arcana Wiki)

He's been called both a martyr and a madman, a freedom fighter and a fanatic. More than any single person, he can be said to have set the United States irrecoverably on the path to Civil War. His name was John Brown.

He was born on May 9, 1800 in the town of Torrington, Connecticut; the son of a tanner. A few years later, his family moved to Ohio, settling in the town of Hudson. Brown's family was very religious and instilled strong evangelical values in him, as well as a respect for the Native Americans of the region and a firm belief in Abolitionism.

As a young man, he hoped to become a Congregationalist minister, but a lack of funds and a serious eye inflammation forced him to leave school. He tried his hand at several other professions, including farmer, tanner, surveyor, and wool merchant; but the economic upheavals of the 1830s and 40s put him seriously into debt. He had a zeal for sticking up for the underdog which led him to try to organize other sheep farmers and to settle his family among a black community. He and his father had been "conductors" on the Underground Railroad in his youth and he had spoken out against racism and segregation in his own church. His friend, the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass once described him as a man who "though a white gentleman, 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."

In the late 1840s, Brown conceived a plan to build a chain of forts in the Allegheny and Appalachian mountains that would serve not only as a super version of the Underground Railroad, but as a base for raids on plantations for the purpose of freeing slaves and conducting them to Canada. His goal was not to personally rescue every slave in the south, but to cause enough economic disruption that the slave economy would collapse.

About this time, the Kansas Territory was being settled, and some of his adult sons were among the settlers. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 had ruled that the settlers of the territories would be the ones to decide whether slavery would be permitted. Brown's sons wrote home to tell their father how pro-slavery forces from Missouri and other slave states were sending thugs and ruffians into Kansas to attack anti-slavery settlers and make sure their side won the slavery issue. Brown was one of many who answered the abolitionist's call for help by traveling personally to Kansas with a wagon-load of "Beecher's Bibles" — breech-loading .52 caliber Sharps rifles, nicknamed after the abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher.

During the next few years the violence escalated and the territory became known as "Bleeding Kansas". In 1856 the anti-slave town of Lawrence, Kansas was raided by pro-slavery border ruffians. On the night of May 24. a group of abolitionists seized five pro-slavery settlers from their homes on Pottawatomie Creek and hacked them to death with broadswords. Brown claimed he was not involved with the atrocity, but that he approved of it. Brown's apologists say that he had legitimate reason to believe his family was in danger from the pro-slavery faction; his family homestead was burned to the ground and two of his sons were taken prisoner.

Open war raged across the territory all through the summer of 1856, until in September, the new governor John W. Geary ordered both sides to disband and offered clemency to those who disarmed. Brown returned to the North with three of his sons to raise money to continue the fight.

Brown spent the next few years meeting with eastern abolitionists. He met with Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson as well as former slave and prominent abolitionist Frederick Douglass. He formed a small circle of wealthy backers, dubbed the "Secret Six", to fund his operations, although it is unclear how much the Six new about his plans. Brown organized a convention to draft a provisional constitution for a new free state he hoped to carve out of the heart of the South.

His plan was to conduct a raid on the United States Armory and Arsenal located in Harpers Ferry, a small town in present-day West Virginia. He intended to seize the 100,000 muskets and rifles in the arsenal and use them to arm a slave uprising. "When I strike," Brown predicted, "my bees will swarm." He tried to recruit Frederick Douglass for the attack, but Douglass had serious doubts about the plan's success and declined.

The attack took place on October 16, 1859. Brown had 950 pikes and 200 rifles. His plan originally called for an army of 4,500 men; he had to make do with 21. They easily took posession of the armory, which was guarded only by a single watchman, and took hostages from the town. Brown hoped that once word spread, slaves would flock to join his crusade.

Brown's hoped-for army never materialized. Instead, he found himself besieged by local militias. His men halted and fired upon a train entering the town, killing a black baggage master. By the morning of October 18, a company of U.S. Marines under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee had arrived. They stormed the armory and took Brown and his surviving followers prisoner.

Although Brown's raid had taken place on Federal property, the Governor of Virginia ordered that he be tried in a Virginia court. He was charged with murdering four whites and a black, with conspiring with slaves to rebel, and with treason against the state of Virginia. On November 2, after a week-long trial, Brown was found guilty of all charges and sentenced to hang.

A friend named Silas Soule manage to sneak into the prison where Brown was being held and attempted to help him escape; but Brown refused to go along with the plan. He said he was ready to be a martyr, and his eloquent letters from prison stirred the abolitionist movement far more than he could have had he fled and gone into hiding.

But the abolitionists weren't the only people he stirred. Southerners became even more convinced that any day another army of abolitionists might swoop down across the Ohio River to take away their Way of Life. They formed and drilled more local militias, preparing against the day of a dreaded slave insurrection. When the American Civil War began in earnest, they were ready.

Not all abolitionists were that happy with Brown either. The newly-formed anti-slavery Republican Party tried to distance itself from the radical excesses of Brown and his followers and chose a more moderate abolitionist named Abraham Lincoln to be their standard-bearer in the 1860 election. It didn't help.

Brown went to the gallows on December 2. On the morning of his death he 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."

EMAIL TO A FRIEND X
Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags

?

More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (10+ / 0-)

    "All the World's a Stage and Everyone's a Critic." -- Mervyn Alquist

    by quarkstomper on Tue Jun 28, 2011 at 10:42:46 AM PDT

  •  how do we differentiate Brown from (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    gravlax, quarkstomper, Valatius

    Quantrill for example or maybe Moseby?  He makes a saint with very particular clay feet and perhaps illustrates how best to not bring about social change.  

    •  Bleeding Kansas (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      KenBee, entlord

      It's hard to justify Brown's actions in Kansas without getting into the quagmire of "Who Started the Killings?"   For me at least, the Kansas massacre was the Moral Event Horizon where he went from Freedom Fighter to Terrorist.

      Of course, the situation in Kansas wasn't exactly the same as a present-day Domestic Terrorist walking into a peaceful church and blowing people away.  Kansas was a war zone.  And perhaps Brown was truthful in his claim he did not participate in the massacre.  But he did condone it.

      His plan to carve out a free state in the middle of the Ohio Valley by inciting slaves to revolt gets full marks for audacity, but one has to wonder what Brown was smoking to think it would actually work.  I don't blame Frederick Douglass one bit for backing away from the plan.

      "All the World's a Stage and Everyone's a Critic." -- Mervyn Alquist

      by quarkstomper on Tue Jun 28, 2011 at 12:30:49 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  'Moral Event Horizon' (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        entlord, quarkstomper, figbash

        hadn't heard of it before, I bet there are plenty of people, some here who can see it from their house.

        There but for fortune go you and I.

        Only lyrics for the old time fiddle tune that I've ever heard:

        John Brown's Dream:

        'John brown dreamed
        3x
        the devil was dead

        Come on Lula
        3x
        Yer hoggin the bed.'

          So since that tune comes from the civil war era and probably from abolitionist areas of WVA, I can't quite tell if it's mocking him, or praising.

        Not serious lyrics, it's a fiddle tune 'with added vocals.'

        A favorite tho..

        "Responsible people leave neither loaded guns nor paranoid, eliminationist ideologies laying around for the mentally ill to play with".....Driftglass

        by KenBee on Tue Jun 28, 2011 at 01:04:46 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  TV Tropes Will Ruin Your Life (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          KenBee, Stude Dude

          I lifted the phrase "Moral Event Horizon" from TV Tropes:

          Named for the boundary around a black hole from which there is no escape once crossed, this trope uses the black hole as a metaphor for evil; the Moral Event Horizon refers to the first evil deed to prove a particular character to be irredeemably evil.

          "All the World's a Stage and Everyone's a Critic." -- Mervyn Alquist

          by quarkstomper on Tue Jun 28, 2011 at 05:55:57 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  Interesting, thank you (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    quarkstomper, KenBee, figbash

    Like many, I'm ambivalent about Brown's methods.  But he's still a fascinating historical figure.

    I drive through Osawatomie, KS when I go to Kansas City and I've often wanted to stop and see the John Brown museum there.  One day I'll schedule a little extra time on the trip to do so.  I may pass up on the "John Brown Jamboree" they hold there every summer, though.  Little too weird.

    you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows

    by Dem Beans on Tue Jun 28, 2011 at 11:24:11 AM PDT

  •  And ever since, My Little Hometown (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    BarackStarObama, quarkstomper, KenBee

    has been in a friendly pissing match with the people of Harper's Ferry over some war booty from that site.

    Company I was assigned the task of removing from the arsenal anything of salvage value.  Several men who had been members of the “Torrent” Fire /engine Company in Marlborough (the “Torrent” being a hand-tub) decided that the bell still hanging in the belfry atop the engine house at Harper’s Ferry was just what their engine house in Marlborough needed.  On September 26, 1862, Lt. David Brown led the men of the company in the removal of the bell.  Ordered to rejoin the 13th Regiment at Williamsport Lock in Maryland, they took the bell with them on a canal boat.  The War Department gave them permission to keep the bell, but they found, to their disappointment, that their lack of funds and restrictions on railroad transportation would prevent its shipment to Marlborough at that time.

    In the spring of 1862 the regiment was sent into battle and the Marlborough men left the bell in the care of a Mrs. Snyder who had baked bread for them during the winter.  Finally after many engagements and casualties, their three year term of enlistment was over, and Company I returned home.  The old bell was forgotten.  And then in 1892, A G.A.R. National Encampment was held at Washington, DC and some of the surviving members of Company I, including some of those, who had taken down the bell, decided to go to Williamsport Lock and look up old friends there.  Having been refused rooms at the local hotel run by an unreconstructed rebel, they went and found the Mrs. Snyder who had cooked for them thirty years before.  She took them in for the night and they found that she had kept their bell for them, part of the time buried in her garden for security.

    •  Interesting (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      KenBee, 1918

      Back in the 1970s, my home town of Sheboygan became engaged in a minor conflict with the State over possession of a replica of the Liberty Bell in the city's possession.  The mayor wanted to make it the centerpiece for the rennovations the City was making to a downtown park in honor of the Bicentennial.  But the replica actually belonged to the State Historical Society, and had been intended to be a travelling exhibit going from town to town every couple years.  Now the State wanted it back for its own Bicentennial festivities.

      In the end, the State won, and the Mayor of Sheboygan had to relinquish the bell.

      But somehow in the dispute, the bell's clapper mysteriously disappeared.  To this day, no one knows where it is.

      "All the World's a Stage and Everyone's a Critic." -- Mervyn Alquist

      by quarkstomper on Tue Jun 28, 2011 at 12:35:25 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I bet lots of people know (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        quarkstomper

        and that they have a good laugh about it whenever it comes up in private.

        More laughs, I like this part about the J.B. Bell ...

        Gary Brown, Marlborough's city's veterans' agent and a member of the Marlborough Historical Society, has a definite opinion. "The young men from Marlborough saved it from obliteration, so tough noogies," said Gary Brown, chairman of the city's Historical Commission. "Had they not taken the bell, it wouldn't exist. Virtually every bell in the South was melted down for munitions."
  •  Enjoyed your diary quarkstomper... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    quarkstomper

    Harriet Tubman was a big supporter of Brown, at least at first.

    "The United States will not be able to dictate the pace and scope of this change. Only the people of the region can do that. But we can make a difference." 3/28/11

    by BarackStarObama on Tue Jun 28, 2011 at 11:46:04 AM PDT

  •  I don't know (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    quarkstomper

    John Brown was fighting on the right side, but he always came across to me as something of a terrorist. By chance, I actually visited his grave a few years ago. I was in the area and we stopped for lunch nearby.

  •  Have you read Cloudsplitter (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    quarkstomper, figbash

    Russell Banks’ novel on John Brown?  Banks uses one of Brown’s sons as the fictional narrator which allows him to speculate on the man’s personality and motivations. Brown was evidently a rather domineering patriarch of his clan and built up a small following which certainly had some of the characteristics of a cult.

    If my soldiers were to begin to think, not one would remain in the ranks. -Frederick the Great

    by Valatius on Tue Jun 28, 2011 at 03:01:30 PM PDT

    •  Haven't Read That One (0+ / 0-)

      ...But from what I have read about John Brown, seeing him as a cult leader of sorts seems quite plausible.

      "All the World's a Stage and Everyone's a Critic." -- Mervyn Alquist

      by quarkstomper on Tue Jun 28, 2011 at 03:12:24 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Cloudsplitter is Russell Banks at his best. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      quarkstomper

      His fictionalized history of the Brown clan is told in the voice of one of John's sons, Owen, who is pictured (a picture of the real Owen) on the cover here

      Also while rummaging around for some links I found this onWikipedia

      Martin Scorsese is at present producing a film of Cloudsplitter. Russell Banks is to provide a screenplay and Raoul Peck is directing, for the film production company HBO.
       That should be one to watch out for.

      If you read Cloudsplitter you won't regret it.  It is really a fantastic book.  I visited Harpers Ferry not long after I first read it and found my hackles rising as it seemed I could hear the clop of the hooves of the military's horses, the battering down of the engine house door, and the screams and cries all around.  The little cemetery there is really something, too.

      Oh sure. Whenever I face a budget crisis the first thing I do is ask my employer to cut my salary.

      by figbash on Tue Jun 28, 2011 at 04:09:04 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site