By George Novack
John Brown was a revolutionary terrorist. There was nothing alien or exotic about him; he was a genuine growth of the American soil. The roots of his family tree on both sides reached back among the first English settlers of Connecticut. The generations of Browns were pious Protestant pioneers, tough and upstanding, and singularly consistent in their ideas, characters, and ways of life. John Brown was the third fighter for freedom of that name in his family and was himself the parent of a fourth. His grandfather died in service as a captain in the Revolutionary war. His father was an active abolitionist, a station-master and conductor on the underground railway.
Born in 1800, the pattern of John Brown’s first fifty years reproduced the life of his father. His father has married three times and had sixteen children; John Brown married twice and had twenty children, every living soul among them pledged to hate and fight black bondage. Like his father, John, too, was “very quick on the move”, shifting around ten times in the Northeastern states before his call to Kansas. He was successively—but not very successfully—a shepherd, tanner, farmer, surveyor, cattle-expert, real estate speculator, and wool-merchant. In his restlessness, his constant change of occupation and residence, John Brown was a typical middle-class American citizen of his time.
How did this ordinary farmer and business man, this pious patriarch become transformed into a border chieftain and a revolutionary terrorist? John had inherited his family’s love of liberty and his father’s abolitionism. At an early age he had sworn eternal war against slavery. His barn at Richmond, Pennsylvania, where in 1825 he set up a tannery, the first of his commercial enterprises, was a station on the underground railway. Ten years later he was discussing plans for the establishment of a Negro school.
“If once the Christians in the Free States would set to work in earnest in teaching the blacks,” he wrote his brother, “the people of the slaveholding States would find themselves constitutionally driven to set about the work of emancipation immediately.”
As the slave power tightened its grip upon the government, John Brown’s views on emancipation changed radically. “A firm believer in the divine authenticity of the Bible”, he drew his inspiration and guidance from the Old Testament rather than the New. He lost sympathy with the abolitionists of the Garrison school who advocated the Christ-like doctrine of non-resistance to force. He identified himself with the shepherd Gideon who led his band against the Midianites and slew them with his own hand.
A project for carrying the war into the enemy’s camp had long been germinating in John Brown’s mind. By establishing a stronghold in the mountains bordering Southern territory from which his men could raid the plantations, he planned to free the slaves, and run them off to Canada. On a tour to Europe in 1851 he inspected fortifications with an eye to future use; he carefully studied military tactics, especially of guerrilla warfare in mountainous territory. Notebooks on his reading are still extant.
However, his first assaults upon the slave power were to be made, not from the mountains of Maryland and West Virginia, but on the plains of Kansas. In the spring of 1855 his four eldest sons had migrated to Kansas to settle there and help win the territory for the free-soil party. In May John Brown, Jr., sent the following urgent appeal to his father:
“… while the interest of despotism has secured to its cause hundreds and thousands of the meanest and most desperate of men, armed to the teeth… thoroughly organized… under pay from Slave-holders—the friends of freedom are not one fourth of them half armed, and as to military organization among them it nowhere exists in the territory…” with the result “that the people here exhibit the most abject and cowardly spirit… We propose… that the anti-slavery portion of the inhabitants should immediately thoroughly arm, and organize themselves in military companies. In order to effect this, some persons must begin and lead in the matter. Here are 5 men of us who are not only anxious to fully prepare, but are thoroughly determined to fight. We can see no other way to meet the case. ’It is no longer a question of Negro slavery, but it is the enslavement of ourselves.’ We want you to get for us these arms. We need them more than we do bread…”
Having already resolved to join his children in Kansas, John Brown needed no second summons. In the next few months he collected considerable supplies of arms and sums of money from various sympathetic sources, including several cases of guns belonging to the state of Ohio, which were “spirited away” for his use. I n August he set out for Kansas from Chicago in a one-horse wagon loaded with guns and ammunition.
Upon arriving in Ossawatomie, John Brown became the captain of the local militia company and led it in the bloodless “Wakarusa War”. Then he plunged into the thick of the struggle for the possession of the territory that gave it the name of “Bleeding Kansas”. In retaliation for the sacking of Laurence by the Border Ruffians, Brown’s men, including four of his sons, slaughtered five pro-slavery sympathizers in a night raid near Pottawatomie Creek. Brown took full responsibility for these killings; he fought according to the scriptural injunction: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”
Reprisals on one side bred reprisals on the other. The settlement at Ossawatomie was pillaged and burned; Brown’s son, Frederick, killed; his forces beaten and scattered. Thereafter John Brown and his band were outlaws, living on the run, giving the slip to government troops, launching sudden raids upon the pro-slavery forces. John Brown became a power in Kansas. His name equaled “an army with banners” in the eyes of the militant Free-Soil colonists; the whisper of his presence sufficed to break up pro-slavery gatherings. He continued his guerrilla warfare throughout 1856 until Kansas was pacified by the Federal troops. His experiences in Kansas completed the transformation of John Brown into a revolutionist.
“John Brown is a natural production, born on the soil of Kansas, out of the germinating heats the great contest on the soil of that territory engendered,” wrote J. S. Pike, the Washington correspondent of the New York Tribune after the Harper’s Ferry raid. “Before the day of Kansas outrages and oppression no such person as Ossawatomie Brown existed. No such person could have existed. He was born of rapine and cruelty and murder… Kansas deeds, Kansas experiences, Kansas discipline created John Brown as entirely and completely as the French Revolution created Napoleon Bonaparte. He is as much the fruit of Kansas as Washington was the fruit of our own Revolution.”
Between 1856 and 1858, John Brown shuttled back and forth between Kansas and the East seeking support for the struggle against the Border Ruffians. He received supplies, arms, and moral encouragement from many noted abolitionists, such as Gerrit Smith, the New York philanthropist, and numerous members of the Massachusetts State Kansas Committee, T.W. Higginson, Theodore Parker, etc. But there was no place for John Brown in the condition of armed neutrality that reigned in Kansas after 1856.
No longer needed in Kansas, John Brown reverted to his long cherished scheme of mountain warfare. To prepare for his enterprise he called a convention of his followers and free Negroes at Chatham in Canada and outlined his plans to them. One of the members of the convention reported that, after invoking the example of Spartacus, of Toussaint L’Ouverture, and other historical heroes who had fled with their followers into the mountains and there defied and defeated the expeditions of their adversaries, Brown said that
“… upon the first intimation of a plan formed for the liberation of the slaves, they would immediately rise all over the Southern States. He supposed they would come into the mountains to join him… and that we should be able to establish ourselves in the fastnesses, and if any hostile action (as would be) were taken against us, either by the militia of the separate states or by the armies of the United States, we purposed to defeat first the militia, and next, if it was possible, the troops of the United States, and then organize the freed blacks under the provisional constitution, which would carve out for the locality of its jurisdiction all that mountainous region in which the blacks were to be established and in which they were to be taught the useful and mechanical arts, and to be instructed in all the business of life… The Negroes were to constitute the soldiers.”
The revolutionary spirit of the constitution adopted by the convention for this projected Free State can be judged from this preamble:
“Whereas, Slavery, throughout its entire existence in the United States is none other than a most barbarous, unprovoked, and unjustifiable War of one portion of its citizens upon another portion; the only conditions of which are perpetual imprisonment, and hopeless servitude or absolute extermination; in utter disregard and violation of the eternal and self-evident truths set forth in our Declaration of Independence: Therefore, we citizens of the United States, and the oppressed people, who, by a recent decision of the Supreme Court are declared to have no rights which the White Man is bound to respect; together with all other people degraded by the laws thereof, do, for the time being, ordain and establish for ourselves the following provisional Constitution and ordinances, the better to protect our persons, property, lives, and liberties; and to govern our actions.”
John Brown was elected Commander-in-Chief under this Constitution.
For all its daring, John Brown’s scheme was hopeless from every point of view and predestined to fail. Its principal flaws were pointed out beforehand by Hugh Forbes, one of his critical adherents. In the first place, “no preparatory notice having been given to the slaves… the invitation to rise might, unless they were already in a state of agitation, meet with no response or a feeble one”. Second, even if successful such a sally “would at most be a mere local explosion… and would assuredly be suppressed”. Finally, John Brown’s dream of a Northern Convention of his New England partisans which would restore tranquility and overthrow the pro-slavery administration was “a settled fallacy. Brown’s New England friends would not have the courage to show themselves so long as the issue was doubtful”. Forbes’ predictions were fulfilled to the letter.
Convinced that “God had created him to be the deliverer of slaves the same as Moses had delivered the children of Israel,” Brown overrode these objections and proceeded to mobilize his forces. Before he could put his plan into operation, however, he was compelled to return to Kansas for the last time, where, under the nom de guerre of Shubel Morgan, he led a raid upon some plantations across the Missouri border, killing a planter and setting eleven slaves at liberty. Both the Governor of Kansas and the President of the United States offered rewards for his arrest. With a price of $3,000 on his head, John Brown fled to Canada with the freedmen.
Early in the summer of 1859 a farm was rented about five miles from Harper’s Ferry. There John Brown collected his men and prepared for his coup. On the night of October 16 they descended upon Harper’s Ferry; took possession of the United States armories; imprisoned a number of the inhabitants; and persuaded a few slaves to join them. By noon militia companies arrived from nearby Charleston and blocked his only road to escape. The next night a company of United States marines commanded by Col. Robert E. Lee appeared, and, at dawn, when Brown refused to surrender, stormed the engine-house in which Brown, his surviving men, and his prisoners were barricaded. Fighting with matchless coolness and courage over the body of his dying son, he was overpowered and arrested.
Ten men had been killed or mortally wounded, among them two of Brown’s own sons, and eleven captured in the assault.
The reporter of the New York Herald describes the scene during his cross-examination:
“In the midst of enemies, whose home he had invaded; wounded, a prisoner, surrounded by a small army of officials, and a more desperate army of angry men; with the gallows staring him full in the face, he lay on the floor, and, in reply to every question, gave answers that betokened the spirit that animated him.”
John Brown steadfastly insisted that a single purpose was behind all his actions: to free the Negroes, “the greatest service a man can render to God”. A bystander interrogated:
“Do you consider yourself an instrument in the hands of Providence?”—“I do.”—“Upon what principle do you justify your acts?”—“Upon the golden rule. I pity the poor in bondage that have none to help them; that is why I am here; not to gratify my personal animosity, revenge, or vindictive spirit. It is my sympathy with the oppressed and the wronged that are as good as you and as precious in the sight of God.”
Indicted for “treason to the Commonwealth” and “conspiring with slaves to commit treason and murder”, John Brown was promptly tried by a state court and sentenced to death.
During his stay in prison John Brown rose to the most heroic heights. His dignified bearing, his kindliness won his jailers, his captors, and his judges. His letters from the prison where he awaited execution were imbued with the same resolute determination and calm, conscious acceptance of his sacrifice in the cause of freedom, as the letters of Bartholomew Vanzetti, his fellow revolutionist. To friends who contemplated his rescue, he answered: “I am worth infinitely more to die than to live.” To another he wrote:
“I do not feel conscious of guilt in taking up arms; and had it been in behalf of the rich and powerful, the intelligent, the great—as men count greatness—of those who form enactments to suit themselves and corrupt others, or some of their friends, that I interfered, suffered, sacrificed and fell, it would have been doing very well… These light afflictions which endure for a moment shall work out for me a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory… God will surely attend to his own cause in the best possible way and time, and he will not forget the work of his own hands.”
On December 2, 1859, a month after his sentence, fifteen hundred soldiers escorted John Brown to the scaffold in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains which had for so many years held out to him the promise of freedom for the slaves. With a single blow of the sheriff’s hatchet, he “hung between heaven and earth”, the first American executed for treason. The silence was shattered by the speech of the commander in charge.
“So perish all such enemies of Virginia! All such enemies of the Union. All such foes of the human race!”
“Let those… who have reproaches to heap upon the authors of the Harper’s Ferry bloody tumult and general Southern fright, go back to the true cause of it all. Let them not blame blind and inevitable instruments in the work, nor falsely malign those who are in nowise implicated, directly or indirectly; but let them patiently investigate the true source whence this demonstration arose, and then bestow their curses and anathemas accordingly. It is childish and absurd for Governor Wise to seize and sit astride the wounded panting body of Old Brown, and think he has got the villain who set this mischief on foot. By no means. The head conspirators against the peace of Virginia are ex-President Franklin Pierce and Senator Douglas. These are the parties he should apprehend, confine, and try for causing this insurrection. Next to them he should seize upon Senators Mason and Hunter of Virginia, as accessories. Let him follow up by apprehending every supporter of the Nebraska Bill, and when he shall have brought them all to condign punishment, he will have discharged his duty, but not till then…
“Old Brown is simply a spark of a great fire kindled by shortsighted mortals… There is no just responsibility resting anywhere, no just attribution of causes anywhere, for this violent attempt that does not fall directly upon the South itself. It has deliberately challenged and wantonly provoked the elements that have concentrated and exploded.”
So wrote the same journalist whose characterization of John Brown we have already quoted.
Little needs to be added to this historical judgment made in the midst of the events. The Compromisers who attempted to fasten slavery forever upon the American people against their will, and the representatives of slaveholders who prompted them were, in the last analysis, responsible for the raid upon Harper’s Ferry.
John Brown expected the shock of his assault to electrify the slaves and frighten the slaveholders into freeing their chattels. His experiment in emancipation ended in complete catastrophe. Instead of weakening slavery, his raid temporarily fortified the pro-slavery forces by consolidating their ranks, intensifying their repression, and stiffening their resistance.
John Brown was misled by the apparent effectiveness of his terrorist activities in Kansas. He did not understand that there his raids and reprisals were an integral part of the open struggle of the Free-Soil settlers against the invasion of the slaveholder’s Hessians, and were accessory and subordinate factors in deciding that protracted contest. That violence alone was impotent to determine its outcome was demonstrated by the failure of the Border Ruffians to impose slavery upon the territory.
John Brown’s attempt to impose emancipation upon the South by an exclusive reliance upon terrorist methods met with equal failure. Other ways and means were necessary to release, amplify, and control the revolutionary forces capable of overthrowing the slave power and abolishing slavery.
Yet John Brown’s raid was not wholly reactionary in its effects. His blow against slavery reverberated throughout the land and inspired those who were to follow him. The news of his bold deed rang like a fire-bell in the night, arousing the nation and setting its nerves on edge. Through John Brown the coming civil war entered into the nerves of the people many months before it was exhibited in their ideas and actions.
The South took alarm. The “acts of the assassin” confirmed their fears of slave-insurrection provoked by the Northern abolitionists and Black Republicans. Brown’s personal connections with many prominent abolitionists were undeniable, and their disclaimers of connivance and their disapprobation of his actions did not make them any less guilty in the slaveowner’s eyes, but only more cowardly, and hypocritical… The slaveholders were convinced that their enemies were now taking the offensive in a direct armed attack upon their lives, their homes, their property.
“The conviction became common in the South,” says Frederic Bancroft, the biographer of Seward, “that John Brown differed from the majority of the Northerners merely in the boldness and desperate-ness of his methods.”
The majority of official opinion in the North condemned John Brown’s “criminal enterprise” and justified his execution. Big Unionist meetings exploited the incident for the benefit of the Democratic Party. The Richmond Enquirer of October 25, 1859, noted with satisfaction that the conservative pro-slavery press of the North “evinces a determination to make the moral of the Harper’s invasion an effective weapon to rally all men not fanatics against the party whose leaders have been implicated directly with the midnight murder of Virginia citizens and the destruction of government property”. The Republican leaders, a little less directly but no less decisively, hastened to denounce the deed and throw holy water over the execution. Said Lincoln: “We cannot object to the execution,” and Seward echoed, “it was necessary and just.”
But many thousands rallied to John Brown’s side, hailing him as a martyr in the cause of emancipation. The radical abolitionists spoke up most boldly in his behalf and most correctly assayed the significance of his life and death. At John Brown’s funeral service, Wendell Phillips spoke these words:
“Marvelous old man! … He has abolished slavery in Virginia… True, the slave is still there. So, when the tempest uproots a pine on your hill, it looks green for months—a year or two. Still, it is timber, not a tree. John Brown has loosened the roots of the slave system; it only breathes—it does not live—hereafter.”
Longfellow wrote in his diary on the day of the hanging:
“This will be a great day in our history; the date of a new Revolution—quite as much needed as the old one. Even now as I write, they are leading old John Brown to execution in Virginia for attempting to rescue slaves! This is sowing the wind to reap the whirlwind, which will come soon.”
Finally, Frank P. Steams, a Boston merchant who had contributed generously to John Brown’s Kansas campaign, declared before the Senatorial Investigating Committee:
“I should have disapproved of it [the raid] if I had known of it; but I have since changed my opinion; I believe John Brown to be the representative man of the century, as Washington was of the last—the Harper’s Ferry affair, and the capacity shown by the Italians for self-government, the great events of this age. One will free Europe and the other America.”
On his way to the scaffold John Brown handed this last testament to a friend.
“I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land: will never be purged away; but with blood. I had as I now think: vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed: it might be done.”
His prophetic previsions were soon to be realized.
A year and a half after his execution, John Brown’s revolutionary spirit was resurrected in the Massachusetts volunteers, who marched through the streets of Boston, singing the battle hymn that four of them had just improvised: John Brown’s Body. Their movements were open and legal; John Brown’s actions had been hidden and treasonable. Yet the marching men proudly acknowledged their communion with him, as they left for Virginia.
There the recent defenders of the Union had become disrupters of the Union; the punishers of treason themselves traitors; the hangmen of rebels themselves in open rebellion. John Brown’s captor, Robert E. Lee, had already joined the Confederate army he was to command. Ex-Governor Wise, who had authorized Brown’s hanging, was conspiring, like him, to seize Harper’s Ferry arsenal, and, as a crowning irony, exhorted his neighbors at Richmond to emulate John Brown.
“Take a lesson from John Brown, manufacture your blades from old iron, even though it be the ties of your cart-wheels.”
Thus the opposing forces in the historical process, that John Brown called God, each in their own way, paid homage to the father of the Second American Revolution.
New International, January 1938