150 Years After the Raid

John Brown

“I, John Brown, am now quite certain,
that the crimes of this guilty land,
will never be purged away, but with blood.”

By Dennis E. Frye

Mention the name, and your heart begins to pound.

John Brown. . . .

John Brown? Why would two common words, and a name listed thousands of times in the country’s phone books, raise your blood pressure? He’s no actor. He’s no president. Who is John Brown?

Step back 150 years. Every American knew of John Brown. From parlors to pantries. From barrooms to boardrooms. From your house to statehouse. From neighborhood hill to Capitol Hill. Everyone whispered John Brown.

Remember how you felt on Sept. 11, 2001? Pause for a moment. Your American ancestors felt similar emotions in 1859.

“Americans who read their newspapers shuddered not only with horror, but with awe,” exclaimed one editor. “A wave of panic swept across the South, and of something not unlike panic across the North.”

What, exactly, had created this terror? John Brown had launched war. A war within America. A war against America. A war pitting Americans against Americans. A war over American slavery.

Slavery was legal in the United States. The Founding Fathers had failed to abolish it in the Constitution, and Jefferson’s “all men are created equal” did not apply to the more than 4 million African-American slaves in the Southern states.

John Brown hated slavery. His emotion intensified into radical and violent abolition. Offended by the American laws that protected and perpetuated slavery, and impatient with the incessant political debate over “the peculiar institution,” Brown determined to take action. Claiming that God had chosen him to eradicate slavery from American soil, Brown launched war.

“There will be no more peace in this land until slavery is done for!” Brown angrily proclaimed.

The first target of John Brown’s war – Harpers Ferry, [West] Virginia, and its United States Armory and Arsenal.

More than 100,000 rifles and muskets were stored at Harpers Ferry, the largest arsenal in the South. Brown intended to seize weapons here, then move into the Appalachian and Blue Ridge mountains. He would arm combatants, including slaves, in his plan to secure freedom. By attacking in Virginia, the largest slave-holding state, Brown was stabbing at slavery’s heart. Brown fully expected to create psychological terror and economic panic for Southern slave owners. Nothing frightened Southerners more than the prospect of slave insurrection.

Oct. 16, 1859 – Brown attacked. He captured the unguarded and unsuspecting armory and arsenal without a shot. Fourteen hours later, he and his 18 “insurgents” were surrounded and trapped. A day and half into John Brown’s War, Robert E. Lee and United States Marines wounded and captured “Captain Brown.”

John Brown’s war was over. . . or just beginning.

Now a prisoner, and stripped of his sword, Brown found new opportunity in preaching his word. “I think . . . you are guilty of a great wrong against God and humanity,” he chastised his captors. “I pity the poor in bondage that have none to help them; that is why I am here.”

The sinner, for Southerners, was John Brown.

Brown could not be tolerated. He represented the South’s greatest enemy—abolitionists—and the South’s most horrid fear—slave rebellion. Brown was a white man. Brown invaded the South to lead black slaves. Brown was a Northerner. Brown was financed by other Northerners. John Brown was polluting poison; the “fruit of satanic doctrines.”

“All Virginia [will] stand forth as one man and say to fanaticism [that] whenever you advance a hostile foot upon our soil, we will welcome you with bloody hands and hospitable graves,’” declared an enraged James L. Kemper to the state’s General Assembly.

An emotional tornado twisted across North and South as the “Divided States of America” angrily debated John Brown and the contentious issue of slavery.

In the North, anti-slavery supporters hoisted Brown onto the stage of martyrdom. A man of God; a follower of the Bible; a friend of the poor; an enemy of the rich and powerful; a willing sacrifice. Northern intellectuals agreed that as “Christ had died to make men holy, Brown [would die] to make men free.”

In the South, the law hoisted John Brown into the noose upon the gallows. Found guilty of murder, treason, and inciting slave rebellion, Brown was hanged on Dec. 2, 1859. “So perish all such enemies of Virginia! All such enemies of the Union! All such enemies of the human race!” echoed the words of Virginia Military Institute commander J.T.L. Preston at the moment of Brown’s execution.

Yet even in death, John Brown had not died.

The passion thermometer continued its rise in the weeks and months following Brown’s execution. Northern abolitionists convinced Brown had established an irreversible course toward freedom, continued to champion Brown’s cause. William Lloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator, compared Brown’s efforts with the American Revolution and the fight for independence. “Was John Brown justified in his attempt?” Garrison asked. “Yes, if Washington was in his.”

Southerners were incensed that anyone could support John Brown. “There are thousands of white-cravatted necks in New England and the Northern states today that are as deserving of John Brown’s hempen tie” as Brown himself, railed a Savannah newspaper.

Even more foreboding were Southern cries for termination of the Union. “Have we no right that to secure our rights and protect our honor, we will dissever the ties that bind us together, even if it rushes us into a sea of blood?” proclaimed Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis. And a Richmond newspaper warned: “The Harpers Ferry invasion advanced the cause of Disunion more than any other event . . . since the formation of the Government.”

So, against this backdrop of emotional hyperbole, what do you, today, view as the legacy of John Brown? How do you respond to Brown?

Saint. . . or Madman? Murderer. . . or Liberator? Martyr. . . or Devil? Terrorist. . . or Freedom-fighter?

Regardless of your opinion, this remains certain – John Brown changed the course of America. His spark ignited the powder keg of civil war. n


Dennis Frye is the chief historian at the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and the chairman of the quad-state John Brown Raid Sesquicentennial Committee. Watch for his podcast audio tour of the 1859 Raid coming this summer on www.CivilWarTraveler.com/audio.

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