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John Brown was a man of strong convictions – so strong that he was willing to fight, to kill, and to die for them. These abolitionist beliefs led him from Kansas to Virginia, where he would pay the ultimate price. This lesson tells that story.

Rumors of War

In 1859, the divide between the North and the South had reached its greatest extent, and in Washington, D.

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C., politicians were as divided as the country. The Democrats who favored compromise with the pro-slavery South held fast to the ailing presidency of James Buchanan. Those Democrats seeking a way to outlaw slavery altogether moved towards Stephen Douglas.The split in the ruling party meant there was just enough space for the upstart Republican Party to field candidates to Congress as well as to the presidency and to do so with success.

The pinnacle for their new party was the election victory of 1860, which placed a little-known railroad lawyer from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln into the White House.But Lincoln’s election fanned the flames of a fire that secessionists across the South had started against the North. It was a fire that was threatening to burn down the republic and from the ash give birth to a new nation, a Confederacy of Southern states where slavery would be the law of the land. Yet even before their actions could take the country to war, others on the abolitionist side were stirring up their own rumors of war and bringing real violence and bloodshed to American soil.

The abolitionist John Brown
John Brown Picture

While it is true that the South was not lacking secessionists, it was also the case that the North was not short on abolitionists with an equal desire for conflict. Yet few were as radical or as infamous as one particular abolitionist, a man with the innocuous name of John Brown.

John Brown

John Brown was born in Connecticut in the year 1800. His father was a man of deep conviction, a man opposed to slavery, and a man who imparted his views and his passion to his young son. As a youth, John Brown was deeply religious and spent the bulk of his years traveling from state to state, talking to all who would listen about the abolition of slavery, an institution he detested more than any other.

He would never be a wealthy man and in most circles would have been considered a financial failure by any standard. He was a drifter, but a drifter with a cause, and he lived a simple life doing a number of odd jobs to support himself and his large family. During his lifetime, it is believed that John Brown fathered over 20 children. He stayed quite busy.

Brown the Abolitionist

He often supported abolitionist causes with the meager money he did earn, gave shelter to fugitive slaves and took part in the Underground Railroad. In 1851, he helped establish the League of Gileadites, an organization created to help protect runway slaves from slave catchers who were sent to bring them back to bondage in the South.His support for the abolitionist movement brought him into contact with many other anti-slavery crusaders of the time, including Frederick Douglass in 1847.

We are told that Douglass was moved by Brown’s fervent anti-slavery feeling and Brown’s proposed plan for a slave insurrection in the South. But ultimately Douglass rejected the idea as too violent. Disappointed in the lack of support, it did not sway Brown from his plans; instead he pushed forward with his own abolitionist crusade, one in which he would pay any price, including his own life.

To Kansas

To put his plan into action, he and five of his sons traveled to the Kansas territory in 1855. While there, he led a group a group of antislavery guerrilla fighters who fought against the pro-slavery groups that were responsible for numerous attacks against those wishing to outlaw slavery. Men had been beaten, tarred and feathered, and even killed in violence that rippled across Kansas.

The efforts of John Brown in Kansas were not successful in creating an uprising
John Brown Kansas

Believing violence should be met with violence, Brown led his group from town to town, and in one, he brutally attacked and killed five pro-slavery settlers. He continued the violence in other towns across Kansas.

The results were not quite what he had hoped, however, for there was no popular uprising and no slave revolt, and eventually calm returned to the territory. Seeing this, Brown and his compatriots moved to a more fertile territory, back East, back to the South.

To Virginia

He returned to the East Coast and to the state of Virginia to continue his own personal war against slavery. He hoped that through his own actions he would incite rebellion amongst the slave populations, create an army of freed slaves and topple the pro-slave institutions from within.

To do this, he needed an event that would capture the attention and the imagination of other abolitionists as well as the slaves themselves, who needed a catalyst for their revolt. He would also need to arm and equip a new army. These were tall orders, and the target had to be rich in symbolism and practical in helping achieve his ultimate goal.To that end, Brown settled on a single target, the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

His plan was to seize it, arm the slaves who would join him in his revolution and begin the war. It was a simple plan, one Brown hoped would succeed. And so, on October 6, 1859, Brown and 21 of his men, five of whom were black, attacked Harpers Ferry.The events of that evening are well-known to history. Brown and his men quickly overpowered the night watchmen, captured several hostages, and occupied the arsenal. Having achieved their first objective, they waited for word to spread and for local slaves to join them.

None came. Instead, federal troops led by Colonel Robert E. Lee were sent to the scene, forced Brown out of the arsenal and surrounded him and his men in a fire engine house where they had fled.

For two days the army laid siege to Brown’s small band of guerrilla fighters, finally storming the engine room and wounding Brown in his capture.

The attack at Harpers Ferry in 1859
Harpers Ferry Image

End of John Brown’s Crusade

Brown was quickly put on trial and found guilty of treason. He was sentenced to death. At hearing his fate, Brown was allowed to make a final statement to the court.

His speech is one of the most famous ever given by an accused in an American court of law.’..

.I believe to have interfered as I have done…in behalf of His despised poor was not wrong, but right.

Now, if it be 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 submit; so let it be done!’It would not be his last words. Just before the hangman could carry out the death sentence, Brown slipped him a small piece of paper; on it were written his last words to the nation he loved.’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.’And with that, John Brown was put to death by hanging on December 2, 1859. His last words to the country proved to be prophetic: in just two years, the United States was ripped apart by war, and the issue of slavery would be decided once and for all by the blood of hundreds of thousands.

Learning Outcome

Once you have finished this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Understand how the divide between the North and the South and election of Abraham Lincoln caused rumors of a war to stir
  • Recognize abolitionists and secessionists
  • Explain who John Brown was and how he became an abolitionist
  • Discuss John Brown’s coming to Kansas and Virginia and how he tried to fight against slavery
  • Understand the impact that his life and death had on the future of the United States

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