The life of John Brown
The life of John Brown: A Hero of Abolitionism America for many, and for others a villainy opportunist. It has been over one hundred and fifty years since John Brown (May 9, 1800 – December 2, 1859) and his army of less than 30 men attacked the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in modern day West Virginia. Since those momentous events that resulted in his execution, many have posed the question: how should they remember John Brown? Was he insane? a vigilante, a good terrorist?
Or did he influence the American Civil War, the reconstruction era, and the birth of the state of West Virginia? John Brown was a religious northerner who willingly faced death as he fought for what he though was right, while epitomizing the current situation in the country. He was also a man not afraid or easily intimidated, he believed that change was only possible through violence as he looked to kill slave masters.
Who Was John Brown
John Brown was born in 1800 in Torrington, Connecticut. When his mother died, his father raised him, through religion his parents showed him that slavery was an abomination, a grave sin. Initially he collaborated with his father until the age of 17 when he moved out to work independently. However, John Brown was met with failure. Initially he owned and worked on a farm, and even at farming he was met with failure. Afterward, he opened a tannery, and again he failed. His failures became common repeatedly.
Eventually he declared bankruptcy after failing in his business ventures. Although John Brown was unsuccessful in creating a name for himself financially, one event changed his life forever. When journalist and abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy was killed by a pro slavery mod in Alton, Illinois, John Brown was furious and swore before God that he would destroy the institution of slavery.
America before the Civil War
To understand the impact of John Brown it is necessary to examine Americas situation, and its exemplification within the state of Virginia before the Civil War. During the 19th century the American situation was starting to shift. States’ economies were thriving without the need for slaves, and agriculture. The steam engine, and the construction of tunnels, railroads, and canals throughout the north was popularizing. However, the southern United States was still predominantly conservative, and the economies solidified based on slave labor led by powerful aristocratic plantation owners. The division between the industrial modernized northern states vs the conservative plantation-based economies of the southern states, created a wedge between the eastern and the western territories of the state of Virginia. Virginia was bordered by southern and northern states.
Western and eastern Virginia, much like the north and south, were quite varied places in terms of politics, economies, resources, as well as geography. For instance, eastern Virginia flourished on plantation-based economy giving the east much political power but also a firm perspective on slavery.
The Virginian constitution, “…incorporated a property qualification for voting, allotted each county, irrespective of population, two seats in the House of Delegates, and provided an undemocratic system of county government.” Eastern Virginia was governed by conservative values prominent throughout the southern states, before the Civil War.
Whereas western Virginia was influenced by industrialization, paid labor, and ideals of northern migrants from New York and Pennsylvania. Nevertheless, political power was based in eastern Virginia by a minority of aristocrats. For instance, “Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century western discontent focused on political issues such as voting rights, representation in the General Assembly, and methods of choosing state and local officials.” Therefore, when John Brown started its raids, including in western Virginia, two perspectives developed.
Eastern Virginia was significantly alarmed by Brown’s abolitionist ideals, while western Virginia recommended caution on the issue of secession. “With the exception of the Kanawha Valley Star, almost every newspaper of present West Virginia counseled moderation.”
John Brown was the famous white abolitionist who is often recognized as the man who killed slavery and sparked the Civil War. He also led to secession and the wide divide between the north, and south, and western and eastern Virginia. He is one of the most debatable figures of American history.
He was considered as a good terrorist; one can argue that there is no such thing as a good terrorist. However, he fought what is now one of the most justifiable wars ever in history, a war against slavery and racial oppression. John Brown collected money and resources to fund his guerrilla campaign against slave masters. His supporters were later recognized as the “secrete six,” all northerners.
John Brown, a native of Connecticut, found support without difficulty from secret abolitionists in the surrounding northern states. John Brown was able to get support from Samuel Gridley Howe, Theodore Parker, Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, George Luther Stearns, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and Gerrit Smith.
Of the six prominent figures supporting Brown financially and by other means, Gerrit Smith was an influential and wealthy politician from New York, and George Luther Stearns a wealthy businessperson from the state of Massachusetts. The idea that many northerners were abolitionist or sympathetic to the idea, supported the Underground Railroad which created an escape route for slaves to Canada and free states affecting southern economies was alarming to southerners, to say the least. Therefore, John Brown may be considered a terrorist since he resorted to acts of violence to achieve his ideals. John Brown resorted to violence several times in his quest to abolish slavery.
Not only did he use it in Harper’s Ferry West Virginia, but also at Pottawatomie, in Kansas. In his campaign to keep Kansas a free-state Brown commanded, “…four of his sons and three others to a proslavery settlement at nearby Pottawatomie creek, Brown’s men dragged five settlers from their cabins and split open their heads with broadswords,” viciously killing these men as a blatant act of violence sent shockwaves across the state and the country.
However, this was the first act of violence committed by Brown and retaliatory, considering several abolitionist newspaper offices, and the hotel had been destroyed by a proslavery sheriff. With that in mind, one can argue that John Brown was a terrorist it all depends on perspective.
The acts of violence by John Brown sent shockwaves across the country. For years’ American presidents have tried to stay away from divisive situations, allowing the south to continue their slave driven economy, and the north to move forward through industrialization. For instance, “until 1850 the two great national political parties had been able to accommodate divergent sectional views, but the disintegration of the Whig party after the Compromise of 1850 left only the Democratic party with a national character”.
The political tension peaked for both the country and illustrate by state of Virginia. Headhunted in the state of Maryland, a noticeably short distance from the town of Virginia, John Brown was determined to achieve to goal. He was focused on arming as many slaves as possible to incite a massive revolt with significant consequences.
To put things in perspective, it is important to highlight that for the south, John Brown’s raids were seen as an attack on the south by the north, putting the state of Virginia at a disadvantage considering western Virginia viewed themselves mostly as northers as opposed to eastern Virginia. Although the seat of power was in eastern Virginia, western Virginia mountainous, rugged, populated by northern migrants, and not driven by plantation economy. John Brown’s attacks within Virginia proved to be genius.
Arguably, had these attacks happened on any other territories, likely the outcome could have been different. Yet, Virginia had two different ideals, politically plantation owners drove it, and but the populace mostly within the west was loyal to the Union government in the North. Which created a state of political chaos within the state, with some moving to consider secession, while the rest advocating caution, and loyalty to the Union. Thus, “…John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry became ‘wedges of separation’ between North and South.
John Brown’s legacy
John Brown’s raid on a federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, was an act of terrorism. For instance, John Brown, “… struck fear into the hearts of outraged Southerners, who had long warned that abolitionist would attempt to incite a massive slave rebellion …” He purposely crossed into the Dixie region armed and determined to free slaves and incite terror resulting in a cataclysm.
His primary goal may not have been achieved due to military inexperience on his account, yet the long-term effect of his raid on the federal armory was profound. He was willing to arm what he hoped to be a small army of slaves and abolitionists. Brown may not have been able to equip an army, but the psychological effect was much greater than 10,000 men (about the seating capacity of Cameron basketball stadium at Duke University).
For the northern states John Brown became a martyr. He became a martyr when he was sentenced to death and executed on December 2, 1859. He was hanged because of his raids, including raiding Harpers ferry, which was launched on the belief that abolition of slavery was possible. He willingly paid for his life while trying to save others.
Waldo Emerson powerfully said, “…the new saint awaiting his martyrdom, and who, if he shall suffer will make the gallows glorious like a cross.” It was not only the views and words of northerners that solidified John Brown’s label of martyr, but it is his own words and beliefs that illustrate it as well. His last address to the court epitomizes martyrdom. He stood in the courthouse in Virginia and confidently said:
“I believe that to have interfered as I have…. Now if it is considered necessary that I should give up 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 give; so, let it be done!”
Carton, Evan. Patriotic Treason. New York: Free Press, 2006.
(Earle 2008) Earle, Jonathan. John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry: A Brief History with
Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008.
Horwitz, Tony. Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2011.
“Martyr.” New Oxford English Dictionary. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University
 (Rice & Brown, 2010, p. 91)
 Ibid p. 90
 Ibid p. 91
 Ibid p. 118
 (Reynolds 2006)
 (Rice and Brown 2010, 118)
 (Boyer 1973)
 (Boyer 1973, 121)
 (Rice and Brown 2010, 111)
 Ibid P. 191
 (Rice and Brown 2010, 118)
 Ibid P. 111
 (Earle 2008, 2)
 Ibid p. 3
 (Reynolds 2006, 366)
 (Earle 2008, 30)