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HIST 119: The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877
- John Brown's Holy War: Terrorist or Heroic Revolutionary?
Professor Blight narrates the momentous events of 1857, 1858, and 1859. The lecture opens with an analysis of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. Next, Blight analyzes the Dred Scott decision and discusses what it meant for northerners–particularly African Americans–to live in “the land of the Dred Scott decision.” The lecture then shifts to John Brown. Professor Blight begins by discussing the way that John Brown has been remembered in art and literature, and then offers a summary of Brown’s life, closing with his raid on Harpers Ferry in October of 1859.
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The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877
HIST 119 - Lecture 9 - John Brown's Holy War: Terrorist or Heroic Revolutionary?
Chapter 1. Introduction [00:00:00]
Professor David Blight: On a morning in the second week of March, 1857, Americans grew up living — they didn’t all quite understand it yet — but they grew up living in the land of the Dred Scott decision. And if you were African-American, that really meant something. Now 1857 is, of course, the final year of the playing out of Bleeding Kansas and we’ll return to that in just a second. And we’re going to discuss mostly today the story of one abolitionist; you could say the most famous abolitionist, certainly the most notorious American abolitionist, John Brown. John Brown never made it easy for people to love him. In some ways he wasn’t very lovable, until he died on the gallows, and the gallows made him heroic — at least to some people — and it made him all but the devil to others. There are catalytic events in history, that is, events around which ideas, forces, movements, problems coalesce. Unfortunately, they often have a lot to do with violence, and we’ll come back to this point at the end today.
But John Brown was far, far, far, far more important dead than he’d ever been alive. Poets, songwriters, lyricists, biographers, those who would come to love him, those who would come to hate him, and those who cannot quite figure out what to do with him, would never stop writing about him. And we still haven’t. And we’re in the midst right now of a John Brown biography revival. That’s in part because next year is the 150th anniversary of the Harpers Ferry raid. Almost all major African-American poets in the twentieth century attempted their John Brown poem. So did Stephen Vincent Benét in a famous and classic lyric, epic poem called John Brown’s Body, published in the 1920s. And embedded in that poem is this verse where Benét, I think, captured the dilemma of John Brown. John Brown — it’s not easy to decide — was he a heroic revolutionary or a midnight terrorist? This is Benét’s verse, embedded in a 250-page epic poem. “The law is our yardstick and it measures well, oh well enough when there are yards to measure. Measure a wave with it, measure fire, cut sorrow up in inches, weigh content. You can weigh John Brown’s body well enough, but how and in what balance do you weigh John Brown? He had no gift for life, no gift to bring life, but his body and a cutting edge, and he knew how to die.” More on old John Brown coming up.
Chapter 2. “A House Divided”: The Lincoln-Douglas Debates [00:04:03]
The year before John Brown’s raid the most important, the most exhilarating, and by far the most substantively interesting political debates in American history would occur in Illinois, when Abraham Lincoln runs for the U.S. Senate against Stephen Douglas — Stephen Douglas, the same Stephen Douglas, author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act; parliamentarian genius of the Compromise of 1850; the man most associated with the Democratic Party’s theory of popular sovereignty for Kansas and Nebraska and the whole of the West. And this guy, Abe Lincoln, with one term in the U.S. House of Representatives and then a failed attempt at re-election, a guy with very little experience when he ran for President. In the opening of his campaign he decided to open it in the Legislative Hall of the old State House in Illinois. It was on the outside steps of that State House where Barack Obama began his campaign almost exactly a year ago. But inside, Lincoln gave his now famous House Divided speech. Now in your reader, your Lincoln Reader, edited by Mike Johnson, you have the House Divided speech, but read past the first page. Don’t just read that first lyrical, biblical paragraph, read what Lincoln goes on the argue. The speech is about the Dred Scott decision. The speech is his opposition to the Dred — to the Supreme Court case that had just been passed the year before. The speech is his opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. His speech is a warning. It’s the warning of a moderate Republican, but nevertheless a moderate, anti-slavery, free soil Republican who throws down the gauntlet, in the wake of Dred Scott. This is a sentence on the fifth page of the House Divided Speech, page 68 in your reader if you look it up. “We shall lie down soon,” said Abraham Lincoln, “pleasantly dreaming that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State free, and we shall awake the next morning to the reality instead that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a Slave State.” Get his drift. The Dred Scott decision, in his view, and the view now of most in this new, extraordinary coalition, the Republican Party, believes the Dred Scott decision now threatens everybody — north, south, and west — with the presence of slavery, and slave labor, and all that goes with it.
It’s the opening of that speech though, of course, that the world always remembers, and we love to return to this in our political culture, in our political history, whenever we feel great polarization and great division. Are we a house divided again, against ourselves? “If we could first know where we are and whither we are tending…” — this is so Lincoln; he kind of meanders in a bit of a homespun way into a very serious argument — “…we could then better judge what to do and how to do it. We are now far into the fifth year since a policy was initiated” — Kansas-Nebraska — “with the avowed object and confident promise of putting an end to the slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy that agitation has not only not ceased but has constantly augmented. In my opinion it will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached and passed. A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half-slave and half-free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved, I do not expect the House to fall, but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.” Southerners never forgot that sentence. “Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in a course of ultimate extinction” — and those two words, more than anything else Lincoln had uttered before the Civil War, Southern Democrats would never forget — “or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the states, old as well as new, north as well as south. Have we no tendency to the latter condition? Let anyone who doubts carefully contemplate that now almost complete legal combination, piece of machinery so to speak” — and here he’s arguing the slave-power conspiracy, without naming it — “compounded of the Nebraska doctrine and the Dred Scott decision, let him consider not only what work the machinery is adapted to do and how” — the machinery — “and how well adapted. But also let him study the history of its construction and trace, if he can, or rather fail if he can, to trace the evidences of design and concert of action among its chief bosses, from the beginning.” It’s all there; the Republican Party coalition of ideas and fears is all there.
Chapter 3. Implications of the Dred Scott Decision and the Panic of 1857 [00:10:12]
Well, what was everybody so angry about over the Dred Scott decision? It’s just a Supreme Court decision. Well, I left you the other day hanging in abeyance. Dred Scott was, as I said, an old, old man by the time this thing finally got before the- got on the docket in 1854, finally was argued in late 1856 and early 1957. And when the court brought down its decision, literally two days, forty-eight hours after the inauguration of James Buchanan as President in 1857, his case was now, his name would now become almost a household word across the country. Now a measure of how important this case was as it was developing largely in legal secrecy was the kind of lawyers who argued it. Montgomery Blair and George Ticknor Curtis for Scott. Montgomery Blair was from the famous Blair family from Missouri, moderate anti-slavery leaning Republicans by this point in time, Member of Congress; George Ticknor Curtis, a former attorney-general, a very important, famous trial lawyer. And for the Government, another former U.S. Attorney General, Reverdy Johnson, and a U.S. Senator, Henry Geyer, were the layers. Reverdy Johnson made the startling statements in the arguments before the Supreme Court and called for a — he made startling statements and he called for a broader pronouncement from the court. He urged Justice Taney, the Chief Justice, and the court to render a big decision here and try, once and for all, to put this — as Lincoln called it — slavery agitation, this whole slavery in the Western Territories problem to rest. The Supreme Court after all is supreme. Reverdy Johnson said — I quote him — “This is a case that shall determine whether slavery shall live forever.” Forever; whether preservation of slavery was the only way to preserve the Union.
The decision came on the 6th of March 1857, and here was the decision. Taney and the majority in the court did not have to go as far as they did. This is now legendary and famous, Taney developing his majority. And it was ultimately a six to three decision. And lest you think the Supreme Court doesn’t really matter in our political history, please remember the Dred Scott decision. Number one part of the — there were three parts of the decision. The first was jurisdiction. Did Dred Scott as a black person have the right to sue — this is the first question they were asked to settle — the right to sue for anything in a Federal Court? Could a non-citizen, because he was a Negro — which was the language used then — sue in Federal Court? Two, did Scott’s residence on free soil — remember his four years with Dr. Emerson, his former owner, from 1834 to 1838, living in Minnesota Territory — did his residence on free soil entitle him to freedom? Or, if a slave was taken by his owner to Free states or Free territories, was it the law of the State the master came from that always had jurisdiction? In other words, was it the law of Missouri that took precedent here, or the law of Minnesota? And the third question before the court — they didn’t have to take this one up but they sure did — was Congress’s right to determine slavery in the Western Territories.
The pressures on the court were tremendous, as I said, to move for a broad decision, to try to put this thing to rest. Well the decision, of course, six to three. And at that point there were five southern born justices, five either slaveholders or former slaveholders on the Supreme Court. The sixth judge who voted with them was Greer of Pennsylvania, forming a majority against the three northern born justices who voted against it. The decision was, one, Scott had no right to sue in a Federal Court. Two, his residence on free soil did not give him his freedom, the law of Missouri was in place. And third, and by far most important, the court ruled — trying to put to rest now nearly forty years of this problem that had been compromised this way and compromised that way and argued with that principle and that principle and that principle, as we’ve seen — it ruled that Congress had no authority to exclude slavery from any U.S. territory because it would be, just as Southerners had been arguing now for two generations, a violation of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, a person’s right to life, liberty, and property. If someone ever wants to doubt that American history is about its ironies, just note that language. Therefore, the Missouri Compromise Line, that so-called sacred pledge that had now been violated, said Northerners, in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, had never been constitutional to begin with; that any attempt to prevent slavery’s expansion anywhere would be unconstitutional. Now, Taney not only went that far, but in his opinion, in his own written opinion, he famously went a step further and he argued — or he said, quote, that blacks, or negroes is the word he used, had — I’m quoting — “had for more than a century been regarded as beings of an inferior order, so far inferior that they had no rights, which the white man was bound to respect.” Some of the most infamous words ever in an American Supreme Court decision.
Now, the decision, six to three, was issued. For this new Republican Party coalition in the North, in some ways this was horrible news and in some ways it was good political news, because nothing crystallized this Republican coalition now quite like this case. They will crystallize in resistance to it, as I just tried to demonstrate, from quoting from Lincoln’s famous House Divided speech. But most importantly here, I’d argue — the hook to hang your hat on here — is that the Dred Scott decision, it’s not once and for all. The war is not necessarily now inevitable. Contingencies are always there, they’re always laying there to happen. But what the Dred Scott decision did almost once and for all, is that it destroyed compromise. It destroyed almost any conception now of consensus or compromise. Or put another way, it ruined moderation. Moderate politicians, former Democrats like David Wilmot from Pennsylvania, racist to the core, but free soiler who’s joined the Republican Party. Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, got his own racial problems, but a much more advanced sort of anti-slavery thinker, but still a moderate — he didn’t like abolitionists, he’d never been a member of an Abolitionist Society and never would be — believed there were Constitutional restraints on what Congress could actually do about slavery. But it will bring together now some strange bedfellows in this Republican coalition who cannot find anymore any middle ground with their foes. And that’s when you see danger — you more than see danger — in American political history. It’s when the side that loses a debate cannot accept the result.
Now, there are many ways to try to demonstrate the importance of that Dred Scott case as it sunk in. Now it’s sinking in now in the summer of 1857 as a depression hits the country. Wages in America, North, in northern cities like New York, Boston, Philadelphia and so on, drop forty and fifty percent in six months. The estimate is that 100,000 workers in New York City were thrown out of work by the end of 1857; about 50,000 in Philadelphia. The prices of wheat go plummeting, practically overnight. The United States had one of its first significant stock market crashes. There’s a lot to be feared here. And on both sides of this, North and South, they’re going to blame each other. Southerners are going to blame Northerners for over-speculation, for the over-issuing of credit by banks. And, of course, they’re right about that. There were no controls on banks in these years. There was no Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation; you only got that from the New Deal in the twentieth century. And Northerners are going to blame Southerners because of their belief in King Cotton and this kind of dependence on a single export. They’re going to throw blame all over the place.
If you were African-American you now lived in the land of the Dred Scott decision, which had said what? It said you will never be a citizen of the United States. You have no rights which the white man has to respect, which means the white man’s Constitution, which means the white man’s society. It means you live in the land of the Dred Scott decision that said you have no future in the United States. In the wake of the Dred Scott case, about a month after it, Frederick Douglass gave a speech, which was a bit uncustomary for him. In the 1850s Frederick Douglass was learning his politics, he was really was — he was getting his feet as a political thinker and even as a politician. He was trying to sidle up to this Republican Party, even though it was kind of a half-baked loaf of bread to him; it wasn’t real abolitionism. This case drove him further into their laps.
But he gave a speech, largely to a black audience, in the wake of Dred Scott. And so typical of Douglass’s brilliance as an orator, he started to discuss how he saw fear on the horizon, and trouble and dread on the horizon, and he said he saw what he called “the manifold discouragements of my people everywhere I go.” I quote him. “They fling their broad and gloomy shadows across the pathway of every thoughtful colored man in this country.” And then he ended with this lament. “I see them” — these are discouragements — “I see them clearly and feel them sadly with an earnest, aching heart. I have long looked for the realization of the hope of my people, standing as it were, barefoot, and treading upon the sharp and flinty rocks of the present and looking out upon the boundless sea of the future. I have sought in my humble way to penetrate the intervening mists and clouds and per chance to see in the distance, a time at which the cruel bondage of my people should somehow end, and the long entombed millions rise from their foul grave of slavery and death. But of that time I can now know nothing, and you can know nothing, and all is uncertain at this point. I walk by faith and not by sight.” That’s Douglass’s beautiful and terrible way of expressing that he’s now told, as an African-American, you have no future in the United States.
Chapter 4. John Brown: His Early Life and Beliefs [00:23:48]
All right, so who was John Brown? That picture — I’m going to show you just a couple of images here. John Brown, of course, has been a fascination for artists, to say the least. I don’t want to take too much time with this. But this is a black and white version now — I don’t know if you can see the rope up here. This is one of the 22 panels in Jacob Lawrence’s magnificent series on John Brown. Jacob Lawrence, a great African-American painter. He painted this in the 1930s. And at least 20 of the 22 images in Lawrence’s incredible series on John Brown, you will find some image of a crucifix, of execution, a hanging. When I was teaching at Amherst College, I don’t know, eight or nine years ago, we had Jacob Lawrence for an Honorary Degree, and I got to spend like two days with him. It was one of the greatest thrills of my life. And the museum at Amherst managed to get the series on John Brown, they had it in a room. And I was asked to do a gallery talk on it. And so I went into the room the day before I was to give this talk, all by myself, nobody in there, and I just communed with these terrible images. Sometimes the images, just sort of crisscrossed bayonets and sometimes crisscrossed rifles, and sometimes it’s literally crosses on the wall in rooms, and sometimes it’s this image, of Brown hanging. And I was overwhelmed by it. And the next day I gave this talk and I talked about these images of crucifixes. What they hadn’t told me is that they were also inviting a busload of Fifth Graders to come to the lecture, and they also hadn’t told me that that morning in the New York Times, in the headline — today this wouldn’t even get headlines — there’d been a bus bombing in Jerusalem and 38 people were slaughtered on a bus by a terrorist bomb. And I was going to talk about John Brown, whether he was a terrorist, and in walked the Fifth Graders. Toughest — one of the toughest audiences I ever had. How do you smooth over John Brown and all those crucifixes with Fifth Graders on a fieldtrip? Don’t even try is the answer. [Laughter]
Another favorite image of mine of John Brown is David Levine’s. David Levine is the artist for the New York Review of Books. This actually comes from 1969. A series of books had come out on John Brown. This is an image that kind of fits John Brown to many people — the gun slinging, kind of wild man. He’s got a red face, probably, big nose, gun belt, bullets all around him, kind of saying, “Don’t mess with me.” But then, of course, there’s Thomas Hovenden’s incredible painting of John Brown, which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I don’t have the full version of it. This is the painting that depicts the scene of John Brown leaving his jail cell in Charlestown, Virginia, on the day of his execution, according to the artist with the hangman’s noose already around his neck, before he even rode to the gallows — details. And a black woman comes up with her baby and raises her baby to John Brown and he kisses the child. It’s the “legend of the kiss,” as John Greenleaf Whittier put it in a poem. It didn’t happen, but in art anything can happen. This is the gentle savior John Brown, this is the liberator John Brown, this is the martyr John Brown. There are many, many, many John Browns. And you’re going to start hearing about and seeing a lot more of them next year. [Technical adjustments]
Well, John Brown was born in Connecticut, Torrington to be exact, and just a ways up the road. He was born in 1800. He grew up mostly out in the Western Reserve, as it was called, of Ohio. He witnessed at the age of twelve the beating of a slave boy. There were remnants of slaves still traversing the north in the eighteen-teens. He tried Divinity School for a little while at the age of sixteen, but said he quit because of insufficient funds and because all the reading caused him sore eyes. He experienced a confession of faith in his father’s church, a congregational, old-fashioned Calvinist congregational church, when he was about sixteen. He married first in 1820. His first wife would die on him. He had no less than twenty children by two wives over some thirty years. Nine of those children would die in infancy. From 1820 to 1855 he engaged in approximately twenty different business ventures of one kind and another in six different northern states, virtually all of which ended in failure and poverty for his family; several of which ended in law suits and bankruptcies and one litigation after another; one of which led to debtor’s prison for awhile. He and his family had lived a poverty stricken, rolling stone existence, across the northern states.
Probably what sustained him — and we know a good deal about this — was his religion, his faith, his theology if you want. He was a kind of orthodox nineteenth century Calvinist. He believed in such things as innate depravity, providential design, predestination, on some level, and the total human dependence on a sovereign and arbitrary God, and an arbitrary God that sometimes chose certain individual human beings in history to act for Him. He believed in an Old Testament kind of justice, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. He punished his children and his employees with Mosaic vengeance. He had a puritanical obsession with the wickedness of other people. He could be domineering, vane, obstinate, as one friend once put it, impervious to a joke. Probably not a lot of fun to just have lunch with. He gave orders, remembered Brown’s younger brother, quote, “like a king against whom there is no rising up.” He was a thorough going non-conformist. He probably never joined any formal anti-slavery organization, although he went to lots of their meetings. He never joined a political party. We’re not even sure if he ever voted.
He was a practitioner of what would become known in these years — certainly by the 1850s — of a kind of higher law doctrine about slavery, an allegiance to God’s will and God’s law above man’s law. To John Brown, put simply, slavery represented an unjustifiable state of war, by one portion of the people against another; and in a state of war you do what’s necessary to defend yourselves. He believed slavery was an evil so entrenched — and he was dead serious about this — so entrenched in America that it required revolutionary ideology and revolutionary means to eradicate it. It had led him — as it has often in history led most proponents of revolutionary violence — that the means can, therefore, justify the end. As God had willed so often in his Old Testament that the wicked must die, so too had he willed that slaveholders and their defenders at least deserved the same fate. John Brown came to believe that violence in a righteous cause was like a rite of purification.
Now, what did he do? In brief, John Brown’s interest in Kansas was intense, after the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He was living then, by then, in upstate New York, up near what is today Lake Placid, in North Elba, which is indeed where he is buried. Five of Brown’s sons went west to Kansas, in late 1854 and early 1855. There was an extraordinary exchange of letters between a couple of those sons, especially Owen Brown and his father back in New York, letters that are saying things like, “Father, you must come out here with us. There are slaveholders living over on such and such creek, within two miles of us Father. Violence is beginning to break out, Father.” And so the father came. And John Brown developed, in Kansas, by late 1855 and into 1856, his own little guerilla band. They had gone to Kansas to fight in Kansas’s Border War.
Now, I mentioned the other day that it was in the spring of 1856, Brown and his men are traveling along a roadway and they get word of the beating of Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate. I think it was first told to them that Sumner was all but dead, this, to him, great abolitionist senator. And Brown, it appears, went into a frenzy and vowed revenge, and a couple of days later he and four of his sons, or three of his sons, went and did visitations at three houses along Pottawatomie Creek in eastern Kansas, known to be an area settled by slaveholders or pro-slavery people, and they dragged several men from their houses, in front of their wives, and hacked them to death — five men to be exact — hacked them to death with these huge broad swords, and deposited their bodies on the front steps of their cabins. This was the Pottawatomie Creek Massacre. It touched off even greater violence in Bleeding Kansas, throughout that summer, into the fall of 1856. To John Brown, he had kind of tried to even the score because just a few — a couple of weeks before that pro-slavery forces had sacked, attacked and burned the anti-slavery capital of Kansas — Lawrence, Kansas — burned a hotel and killed six people. Brown, by killing five, said he hadn’t quite evened it up.
He spent the summer of 1856 in hiding, into the fall. In October 1856, he left Kansas and went back east to launch what became the Harpers Ferry conspiracy; and in legal terms that’s exactly what it was. He launched a fundraising campaign to finance a new and more daring attempt to take this war, as he put it, into Africa; by that he meant the South. It was his hope of attacking, ultimately, the largest federal arsenal in the United States — which was in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, just some thirty, forty miles from Washington, DC — capture that largest federal arsenal with its thousands of rifles and side-arms and barrels of gun powder, and apparently, launch a growing, developing, slave insurrection, down through Virginia. And it was his hope, at least, the best we can understand, to engage in and effect a violent coup d’état and take over the State of Virginia.
Now, to make a long and dramatic story short enough, his fundraising campaign by 1857 fell by the way, in part because of the Panic of 1857. But he visited all over the North. He visited the parlors of many famous abolitionists in New England. He sat in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s study. People hosted dinners for him. He was this fascinating, romantic, somewhat bizarre old man with hair that was whitening, and had been out there in Kansas raising hell. They didn’t all know the details of the Pottawatomie Creek Massacre, and even when they began to hear them they didn’t want to know too much. But Brown was leading a crusade in Kansas to keep Kansas free soil. Brown was doing in Kansas what a lot of these abolitionists back east could not themselves do but they were glad he was doing it; began to raise some money for him. He came down here to Connecticut and he ordered some 1000 spears — he called them pikes — from a forgery, which were ultimately delivered in boxes to a farm near Harpers Ferry, labeled famously Beecher’s Bibles; huge, heavy boxes labeled Bibles. And then he went back west. He established a headquarters in Tabor, Iowa, a town known to be settled by abolitionists from the east, a place where he could begin to recruit men and train them.
Then in early 1858 he spent one full month living in the attic apartment of Frederick Douglass’s home in Rochester, New York. We have only one little letter they exchanged during that time. It says, “John, come down to dinner.” Thanks a lot guys. But what we do know, that in that attic of Frederick Douglass’s house, John Brown wrote his so-called Provisional Constitution for the State of Virginia. When he took over Virginia he was going to announce a new Constitution. He, in fact, was going to be the governor, lest you had any doubt. And then he called a convention in May 1858, in Canada, Chatham, Ontario, to which he invited abolitionists now, black and white, and it was to be a recruiting convention to recruit the men who would become part of his abolitionist army. Now the problem here with John Brown, for everybody who met him — including Douglass, who may have known more about the Harpers Ferry plans than anybody alive — the problem was he was so secretive. He would never tell people the details of what he was doing, who he was actually hiring. Forty-six so-called delegates went to this Chatham Convention; thirteen of them white, the rest of them black. Most of the people attending it were fugitive slaves living in Canada, who had escaped slavery in the United States, many of whom still had family back in the South. Here was a man, in the midst of this political crisis going on in the country — this is in 1858 now — who is saying, “I’m going to lead you back into the South and we’re going to get your families out.”
He lacked money. He had hired an unreliable drillmaster, a guy named Hugh Forbes, an English soldier of fortune who’d been off in Italy in the late-40s and early 1850s, kind of soldiering as a soldier of fortune with Garibaldi in the Italian Revolution, but it turns out wasn’t very reliable. He [Brown] got involved with the so-called Secret Six, New England abolitionists — time doesn’t really allow me to tell you everything about them but they were Franklin Sanborn, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Theodore Parker, Samuel Gridley Howe, George Luther Stearns, Gerrit Smith and others; prominent, powerful, and in one case rich, white, New England and Northern abolitionists who supported him.
Then Brown went back out to Kansas that winter, of ‘58, and in December of ‘58, with a band of about thirteen men, he went across the Kansas border into Missouri, dead of winter. He attacked three farms, or I suppose you could call them small plantations, in Missouri, where he seized eleven slaves, killed one of the owners, and then went back across the border into Kansas and hid out for awhile in the dead of January 1859, along Pottawattamie Creek. And then he engaged in an eighty-two day wintertime trek of over 1000 miles with these eleven freed slaves, from Kansas north into Nebraska, then into Iowa, into Grinnell, Iowa, by the way also settled by New England abolitionists. In Grinnell, Iowa he was given the key to the city by a Mayor. And in Grinnell, where the railroad had reached as far as Grinnell, Iowa, they put them all in a boxcar, a special boxcar, and they rode by train, all the way to Chicago, and then all the way to Detroit. And on the 12th of March, 1859, there was a remarkable scene on the Detroit River as John Brown ushered these eleven freed slaves from Missouri across the river into Canada. But at this point there was a twelfth. A baby had been born in the boxcar and its mother had named him John Brown Daniels. So, lest we think this guy was only a lunatic — this was the real thing, he’d freed some slaves, and he had carted them all across the northern states, in the dead of winter, to their freedom. To the extent he had a messianic image, and a sense of himself as a Moses — actually, his greatest hero was Oliver Cromwell. If you know anything about the English Civil War and the Puritan armies, it makes sense; it was based on something.
Chapter 5. Planning the Raid on Harpers Ferry [00:45:13]
Now, I only have a few minutes. The raid on Harpers Ferry would’ve actually happened a bit earlier, it would’ve happened in the summer of 1859, had he been able to pull everything together and get everybody to gather. And in the end, it is one of those sad and tragic stories that then takes on a much, much larger meaning than anyone could’ve ever predicted. His so-called Provisional Army — that’s what he called it — for his Provisional Constitution for his provisional new Virginia, would ultimately be about twenty-two men. He rented a farm five miles north of Harpers Ferry, in Maryland, where they were all to gather that summer. He wanted Frederick Douglass to join him. He actually had met Harriet Tubman in Canada. He tried to convince Harriet Tubman to join him. He’d heard of her legend. But she was a little too smart for this. She’d done this stuff. She had more experience in freeing slaves and getting them out than anybody, and she apparently said, in effect — “no thanks.” He desperately wanted Douglass to join him, and had he joined them Douglass would’ve been dead in 1859. But Douglass did have a final meeting with John Brown at an old stone quarry outside of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in late August of 1859. He went down from New York with a fugitive slave Douglass had helped to his freedom named Shields Green. Here’s Shields — where is he — there he is. Douglass took him along. They met at this old stone quarry and in Douglass’s testimony they had a long conversation. Brown tried one last time to talk Douglass into coming with him, and Douglass, in his recollection, famously said, “I can’t do it. You’re going to be trapped in a” — how does he put it — “you’re going to be surrounded in a trap of steel. You will never get out. But if you must go, go.” And then he said to Shields Green, “Your call, your choice.” Well it turns out Shields Green was a fugitive slave from Virginia. His wife was still in Virginia. He said — according to Douglass — “I think I’ll go with the old man.” And Shields did, and he’ll die at Harpers Ferry.
There were five black men, finally, who joined John Brown’s raid — Osborn Perry Anderson, Dangerfield Newby, Shields Green, John Copeland, Lewis Leary. Two of them were Oberlin College graduates; three of them were former fugitive slaves. Dangerfield Newby had a letter in his pocket from his wife, in Virginia, when he died at Harpers Ferry. The plan, simply put — so far as we know — was to attack Harpers Ferry, take the federal arsenal, and begin, if he could, to escape into the mountains, the Blue Ridge Mountains on either side of Harpers Ferry, to establish mountain hideaways, to try from those hideaways to get slaves to escape into his lines, to arm them, and then to begin, as a guerilla warrior, to selectively attack sites in northern Virginia, moving on Richmond.
Now, I say to the extent we understand it, because he didn’t leave us much to go on in terms of what his actual plan was. What we do know is the raid only lasted forty-eight hours. They never got out of Harpers Ferry. He did free about a dozen slaves in the surrounding countryside, brought them into the old Fire Engine House of the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, hid out. And the news sprung across the country like news had never spread in the United States, partly because John Brown’s first major strategic mistake, or tactical mistake, was that the Manakosie Railroad came through Harpers Ferry right as he was entering the town. They stopped the train. The first casualty was a free black watchman on that train who was shot by one of Brown’s men. Then Brown, within two hours, let the train go — dumb. The conductor of the train at the next town wired Washington and said, “One man and 200 men are attacking Harpers Ferry.” By the time it reached Buchanan’s desk in the White House it was 500 men attacking Harpers Ferry. And within twenty-four hours Buchanan ordered a contingent of U.S. Marines under the command of Robert E. Lee and a lieutenant named J.E.B. Stuart to get to Harpers Ferry as fast as possible and crush this slave insurrection, which they did.
Chapter 6. Brown’s Capture and Conclusion [00:50:34]
Now, I’m going to leave you there, in this situation. Brown was captured. All but two or three of his men were killed or captured, and all those captured will be hung. One of his sons, Owen Brown, did manage to escape. What ensued at Harpers Ferry for 24 hours was an absolute pitched battle between the townspeople, local militias, and Brown’s men, and many townspeople were killed. Owen Brown would escape and eventually move as far, far away as he possibly could, and live on a little desert farm up above Pasadena, California, halfway up the San Gabriel Mountains, most of the rest of his life, trying to escape the infamy of his father’s legacy. Brown was captured in the Engine House. They tried to run him through with a sword. They beat him over the head, they bloodied him up but, as the story goes, he was saved by a huge brass belt buckle he had, and they kept stabbing at him and they kept hitting the brass belt buckle. He was captured, put in jail in Charles Town, Virginia, just four miles up the road. And in November 1859 he would get the most famous, sensational trial that the United States had ever seen. I’m going to leave you there because it’s the John Brown hanging and execution and the aftermath that is the most important template of that election year of 1860 soon to come.
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