Abolitionist John Brown History

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Abolitionist John Brown Biography
(May 9, 1800 – December 2, 1859)

Abolitionist John Brown
Abolitionist John Brown.jpg
National Archives Photo

Abolitionist John Brown

John Brown believed that he could free the slaves, and he selected Harpers Ferry as his starting point. Determined to seize the 100,000 weapons at the Arsenal and to use the Blue Ridge Mountains for guerrilla warfare, abolitionist Brown launched his raid on Sunday evening, October 16, 1859. His 21-man "army of liberation" seized the Armory and several other strategic points.
 
Thirty-six hours after the raid begun, with most of his men killed or wounded, Brown was captured in the Armory fire engine house (now known as "John Brown's Fort") when U.S. Marines, led by Robert E. Lee, stormed the building. Brought to trial at nearby Charles Town, Brown was found guilty of treason, of conspiring with slaves to rebel, and murder. He was hanged on December 2, 1859. John Brown's short-lived raid failed, but his trial and execution focused the nation's attention on the moral issue of slavery and propelled the nation toward civil war.

John Brown History: American Abolitionist

White Marble Statue of John Brown
Abolitionist John Brown Statue.jpg
Quindaro Townsite, Kansas

John Brown was born into a deeply religious family in Torrington, Connecticut, in 1800. Led by a father who was vehemently opposed to slavery, the family moved to northern Ohio when John was five, to a district that would become known for its antislavery views.

During his first fifty years, Brown moved about the country, settling in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York, and taking along his ever-growing family (He would father twenty children). Working at various times as a farmer, wool merchant, tanner, and land speculator, he was never financially successful -- he even filed for bankruptcy in his forties. His lack of funds, however, did not prevent him from supporting and promoting his beliefs. He helped finance the publication of David Walker's Appeal and Henry Highland's "Call to Rebellion" speech. He gave land to fugitive slaves. His family even raised a black youth as one of their own. He also participated in the Underground Railroad and, in 1851, helped establish the League of Gileadites, an organization that worked to protect escaped slaves from slave catchers.

In 1847, Frederick Douglass met Brown for the first time in Springfield, Massachusetts. Regarding the meeting, Douglass exclaimed
that "Though a white gentleman, he [Brown] 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." It was at this meeting that Brown first outlined his plan to Douglass to lead a war to free slaves.

John Brown's Tombstone
Abolitionist John Brown Tombstone..jpg
North Elba, New York.

Brown moved to the black community of North Elba, New York, in 1849. The community had been established by philanthropist Gerrit Smith, who donated tracts of at least 50 acres “to black families willing to clear and farm the land.” Brown, knowing that many of the families were finding life in this isolated area difficult, offered to establish his farm there in order to lead by example and to act as a "kind father to them."

Despite his contributions to the antislavery cause, Brown did not emerge as a figure of major significance until 1855 after he followed five of his sons to the Kansas Territory. There, he became the leader of antislavery guerrillas and fought a proslavery attack against the antislavery town of Lawrence. The following year, in retribution for another attack, Brown went to a proslavery town and brutally killed five of its settlers. Brown and his sons would continue to fight in the territory and in Missouri for the rest of the year.

Brown returned to the east and began to think more seriously about his plan for a war in Virginia against slavery. He sought money to fund an "army" that he would lead. On October 16, 1859, he initiated his plan with 21 other men -- 5 blacks and 16 whites --  and raided the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry.

Brown was wounded and quickly captured, and moved to Charlestown, Virginia, where he was tried and "convicted of treason." Before hearing his sentence, Brown was allowed make an address to the court.

". . . 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."

Although initially shocked by Brown's exploits, many Northerners began to speak favorably of the militant abolitionist. "He did not recognize unjust human laws, but resisted them as he was bid. . . .," said Henry David Thoreau in an address to the citizens of Concord, Massachusetts. "No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature. . . ."

 

John Brown, sentenced by Judge Richard Parker, was hanged on December 2, 1859. (See also: Abolitionist John Brown: Life, Trial and Execution, Kansas Civil War History, and Missouri Civil War History.)

Sources: Harper's Ferry National Historic Park; PBS Online; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; National Archives (photograph); Library of Congress (picture).

Recommended Reading: John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights. Description: An authoritative new examination of John Brown and his deep impact on American history. Continued below…

Bancroft Prize-winning cultural historian David S. Reynolds presents an informative and richly considered new exploration of the paradox of a man steeped in the Bible but more than willing to kill for his abolitionist cause. Reynolds locates Brown within the currents of nineteenth-century life and compares him to modern terrorists, civil-rights activists, and freedom fighters. Ultimately, he finds neither a wild-eyed fanatic nor a Christ-like martyr, but a passionate opponent of racism so dedicated to eradicating slavery that he realized only blood could scour it from the country he loved. By stiffening the backbone of Northerners and showing Southerners there were those who would fight for their cause, he hastened the coming of the Civil War. This is a vivid and startling story of a man and an age on the verge of calamity.

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Recommended Reading: Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America (Hardcover). Description: John Brown is a lightning rod of history. Yet he is poorly understood and most commonly described in stereotypes -- as a madman, martyr, or enigma. Not until Patriotic Treason has a biography or history brought him so fully to life, in scintillating prose and moving detail, making his life and legacy -- and the staggering sacrifices he made for his ideals-fascinatingly relevant to today's issues of social justice and to defining the line between activism and terrorism. Continued below…

Vividly re-creating the world in which Brown and his compatriots lived with a combination of scrupulous original research, new perspectives, and a sensitive historical imagination, Patriotic Treason narrates the dramatic life of the first U.S. citizen committed to absolute racial equality. Here are his friendships (Brown lived, worked, ate, and fought alongside African Americans, in defiance of the culture around him), his family (he turned his twenty children by two wives into a dedicated militia), and his ideals (inspired by the Declaration of Independence and the Golden Rule, he collaborated with black leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Martin Delany, and Harriet Tubman to overthrow slavery). Evan Carton captures the complex, tragic, and provocative story of Brown the committed abolitionist, Brown the tender yet demanding and often absent father and husband, and Brown the radical American patriot who attacked the American state in the name of American principles. Through new research into archives, attention to overlooked family letters, and reinterpretation of documents and events, Carton essentially reveals a missing link in American history. A wrenching family saga, Patriotic Treason positions John Brown at the heart of our most profound and enduring national debates. As definitions of patriotism and treason are fiercely contested, as some criticize religious extremism while others mourn religion's decline, and as race relations in America remain unresolved, John Brown's story speaks to us as never before, reminding us that one courageous individual can change the course of history.

 

Recommended Reading: Secret Six: The True Tale of the Men Who Conspired with John Brown. Description: Most Americans know that John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia -- a raid he believed would ignite a bloody slave revolution -- was one of the events that sparked the Civil War. But very few know the story of how Brown was covertly aided by a circle of prosperous and privileged Northeasterners who supplied him with money and weapons, and, before the raid, even hid him in their homes while authorities sought Brown on a murder charge. These men called themselves the Secret Six. Continued below…

The Secret Six included Thomas Wentworth Higginson, minister, author, and editor of the Atlantic Monthly; Samuel Howe, world-famous physician; Theodore Parker, the Unitarian minister whose rhetoric helped shape Lincoln's Gettysburg Address; Franklin Sanborn, an educator and close friend of Emerson and Thoreau; and the immensely wealthy Gerrit Smith and George Luther Stearns. The existence of the Six has been known to scholars, but there has never been a book devoted to them. Now, drawing on archives from Boston to Kansas, Edward J. Renehan, Jr., has created a vivid portrait of this unlikely cabal, showing how six pillars of the establishment came to believe that armed conflict was necessary in order to purge the United States of a government-sanctioned evil, slavery. The messianic zealot Brown -- also brilliantly portrayed-streaked across their path like a meteor. Renehan traces how the Six became involved with Brown, and how their lives were forever changed by the events at Harpers Ferry and the war they helped to start.
 

Recommended Reading: To Purge This Land With Blood: A Biography of John Brown. Description: In the preface of his book, Oates states that it is not his intention to determine the mental capabilities of his subject, abolitionist John Brown. But, he certainly paints a vivid picture so that the reader can determine for himself if Brown is a crazy old coot, a cold blooded murderer, a man on a mighty mission -- or a combination of all three. Continued below...

To Purge This Land with Blood is a very detailed account of Brown's life… Every character, no matter how inconsequential, is named and studied -- and the sea of names and places add depth to the biography. Many books have been written about John Brown, but this work has set the standard. Make no mistake about it, after reading this book, you will come to know John Brown.
 

Recommended Reading: John Brown (Modern Library Classics). Description: A moving cultural biography of abolitionist and martyr John Brown, by one of the most important African-American intellectuals of the twentieth century. In the history of slavery and its legacy, John Brown looms large as a hero whose deeds partly precipitated the Civil War. As Frederick Douglass wrote: "When John Brown stretched forth his arm ... the clash of arms was at hand." DuBois's biography brings Brown stirringly to life and is a neglected classic.

 

Recommended Reading: Meteor of War: The John Brown Story. Description: Few men in American history have been at once as glorified and maligned as John Brown. From his attack of the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, in October 1859, as part of a scheme to free the slaves, Brown has been called a saint and sinner, rogue and redeemer, martyr and madman. Brown rebelled against the American government, and he murdered men in Kansas in order to end the murderous institution of slavery. Continued below...

He denounced war, but made war on his government in order to end an existing war for slavery. This anthology, which presents Brown's writing and diverse responses to his life and raid, offers a lens through which to analyze these tensions and contradictions. Extensive introductions to every source offer a close reading of language and provide full historical and biographical background.

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