Brown, John (1800-1859)
John Brown, an American abolitionist leader, dedicated his life to the struggle against slavery. His willingness to employ violent tactics set him apart from many of his fellow white abolitionists, as did his support for full legal and social equality of the races and his own personally egalitarian relations with blacks.
Sternly religious, Brown regarded slavery as an affront against God’s law and felt he had a divine mission to bring about its abolition. Although Brown’s Calvinist Puritanism has often been regarded as essential to his motivation, neither his followers nor his backers were predominantly Calvinist; in fact, most—including his own sons—were freethinkers of various stripes. A student of the history of guerrilla warfare and slave insurrections, Brown was convinced that concerted private action against slavery could topple the system. In 1851, he helped organize a black self-defense league to resist the Fugitive Slave Law, and he personally assisted escaping slaves in the Underground Railroad.
Brown first came to national attention through his participation in the 1855–1858 strife over slavery in “Bleeding Kansas,” where he and his followers were involved in a number of antislavery operations, including raids to free slaves (at least 11 people were liberated and smuggled into Canada), standard military battles, and, most controversially, the “Pottawatomie Massacre,” in which five proslavery (but not slaveholding) men were taken from their homes and hacked to death with broadswords on the grounds that they “had committed murder in their hearts already.” Although Brown, unlike his sons, never expressed regret for this latter targeting of noncombatants, he also never repeated it.
In 1857, Brown traveled to New England to meet with prominent abolitionists and raise money for his cause. Out of these meetings grew the “Secret Six,” a clandestine group of wealthy abolitionists who would finance Brown’s next antislavery operation—likewise in Kansas, they assumed. In the following year, radical abolitionist Lysander Spooner published a circular, A Plan for the Abolition of Slavery, proposing an alliance of blacks and antislavery whites to wage guerrilla war against slaveholders in the South. The authorship of the pamphlet was later mistakenly attributed to Brown. In fact, while agreeing with Spooner’s proposals, Brown asked Spooner to stop circulating the Plan because it might deprive his own forthcoming project of the element of surprise. In the meantime, Brown had been drafting a provisional constitution intended to govern his own military forces and the territory they should succeed in liberating. A true “social contract,” to which no adult was to be bound without his or her express consent, Brown’s constitution included suffrage for all adults regardless of race or sex.
On October 16, 1859, Brown led 18 men—13 white and five black—to Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, and seized the federal armory. His plan was to use it to arm local slaves and lead them on an insurrectionist campaign. However, Brown, evidently underestimating local resistance and overestimating the readiness of slaves and antislavery whites to flock to his banner, lingered too long and soon found his position besieged first by the local militia and then by U.S. troops under the command of Robert E. Lee. Brown was captured, and over half his force, including two sons, were killed.
Spooner attempted to organize a plot to rescue Brown by kidnapping the governor of Virginia, but the plan fell through owing to lack of funds and Brown’s own preference for martyrdom. On December 2, 1859, Brown was hanged for treason.
Brown’s raid electrified the nation, terrifying slaveholders and emboldening abolitionists. Ever since, Brown has found demonizers and beatifiers as scholars and activists continue to debate both the moral and strategic merits of Brown’s plan. Some give Brown the credit or blame for helping to trigger the Civil War, whereas others speculate that if emancipation had come through Brown-style slave insurrection rather than Union occupation, the freed blacks might have been spared a century of Jim Crow and the country as a whole spared the federal centralization consequent on Union victory.
Abels, Jules. Man on Fire: John Brown and the Cause of Liberty. New York: Macmillan, 1971.
Carton, Evan. Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America. New York: Free Press, 2006.
Oates, Stephen B. To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown. 2nd ed. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.
Renehan, Edward J., Jr. The Secret Six: The True Tale of the Men Who Conspired with John Brown. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.
Reynolds, David S. John Brown. Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights. New York: Vintage, 2005.
Sanborn, Franklin B., ed. The Life and Letters of John Brown, Liberator of Kansas, and Martyr of Virginia. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1891.
Shively, Charles. “Critical Biography of Lysander Spooner.” The Collected Works of Lysander Spooner in Six Volumes; Volume One: Deist, Postal, & Anarchist Writings. C. Shively, ed. Weston, MA: M&S Press, 1971. 15–62.
Originally published .