This year marks the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s October 16, 1859 anti-slavery raid, during which he led 19 men in an attack on the Harpers Ferry Armory. He was charged with murder, conspiring with slaves to rebel, and treason against Virginia (West Virginia was not yet a state) and after a week-long trial was sentenced to death in early November. Brown was hanged on December 2nd (John Wilkes Booth snuck in to watch) and his body was afterward carried to North Elba in Essex County to “moulder in his grave.”
Over the next several months I’ll be offering a series of posts on what John Brown was up to in his last days and why we should care. I’ll be tracking upcoming commemoration plans and pointing to resources to learn more about the life of, as historian David S. Reynolds put it, “the man who killed slavery, sparked the Civil War, and seeded Civil Rights.”
Although the action itself ended in failure, John Brown’s Raid turned out to be the most successful slave revolt in American history – a history filled with slave rebellions. There were more then 250 slave uprisings or attempted uprisings in North America in the 17th and 18th centuries involving ten or more slaves and although there were many others in Virgina, John Brown’s Raid was the third major revolt in that state.
An enslaved blacksmith named Gabriel (aided by two white men) led a large revolt in Richmond, Virgina in 1800. Future President and then Governor James Monroe called out the the state militia and Gabriel, along with 26 other slaves, were hanged. One of the bloodiest slave revolts in America however, also occurred in Virginia when Nat Turner led more then 50 slaves and free blacks on August 21, 1831. The group grew as Turner went from farm to farm freeing slaves (55 whites were killed in the process), but within 48 hours the upraising was suppressed. Turner was hanged, his body was flayed (his skin was cut away), he was beheaded, and then quartered. In the aftermath, some 200 blacks, many with no connection to the revolt, were beaten, tortured, and murdered by white mobs.
John Brown was a part of this struggle against slavery and it was already well-established by 1859. He fought against pro-slavery forces in Bleeding Kansas, the Kansas-Missouri border war over slavery that raged between about 1854 and 1858. Brown was part of the well-organized Abolition movement, but felt that the movement was not doing enough to free the nearly four million slaves being held in America – almost one-third of all people in the South. Brown pushed abolitionist leaders like William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips toward a more radical movement – “These men are all talk. What we need is action – action!” he is reported to have said. According to David Reynolds’ 2005 biography, John Brown: Abolitionist, Brown persuaded Wendell Phillips to accept his vision of “a unified nation based on rights for people of all ethnicities.”
Brown came to his beliefs in part from his Calvinist upbringing, but in large measure from the pro-slavery attacks such as that on Elijah P. Lovejoy. Lovejoy had been a anti-slavery journalist who had been run-out of St. Louis, Missouri in 1827 for writing against Judge Luke E. Lawless, who refused to charge members of a mob who lynched a free black man. Lovejoy moved to Alton, Illinois, and became editor of the Alton Observer. Three times his printing press was destroyed by pro-slavery mobs, and on November 7, 1837 he was killed defending his fourth. After his murder Brown publicly vowed: “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!”
So it was that he found himself in in a secluded Maryland farm house in August 1859, owned by the heirs of Dr. Booth Kennedy. Brown moved in with his two sons, Owen and Oliver, and Jeremiah Goldsmith Anderson. Anderson had been with him in the border war, when he saw a man murdered on his own doorstep by pro-slavery Missourians. The farm soon became filled with compatriots Brown had been recruiting in the years leading up to the raid. According to David Reynolds, “to help with housekeeping, Brown’s daughter Anne and [his son] Oliver’s wife, Martha, both sixteen, came from North Elba in late July. Recruits arrived over the next month and a half. Early August saw the arrival of Watson Brown and William and Dauphin Thompson. The others trickled in: Tidd, Stevens, Leeman, Hazlett, Taylor, and Barclay and Edwin Coppoc… Later on, Osborne Perry Anderson, the African American printer… came, as did three other blacks: Dangerfield Newby, Lewis Sheridan Leary, and John A. Copeland.”
The two-room farmhouse was hot and crowded. Boxes were used as seats and the men slept on the floor and ate at a makeshift dining table of rough boards. They debated religion, passed around a copy of Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason and read the news in the Baltimore Sun, which Brown subscribed to. Brown attended the local Dunker church; the Dunkers were a group of anti-slavery pacifists. Owen Brown spent much of his time befriending workers in Harpers Ferry, just five miles away, and quizzing them about local slaveholders.
Photo: John Brown in about 1856.