Brown, John

views updated May 21 2018

John Brown

Born May 9, 1800

Torrington, Connecticut

Died December 2, 1859

Charlestown, Virginia

Militant abolitionist

"I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done in behalf of His despised poor slaves, I did no wrong, but right."

J ohn Brown was hanged in 1859 for his role in attacking a government arms warehouse in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now in West Virginia). The attack was designed to encourage slaves to run away from their masters and gain their freedom. To many people at the time, Brown was a terrorist, a religious fanatic who would not wait for the law to free slaves. To others, he was a hero, willing to sacrifice his life to right a terrible wrong: the enslavement of one people by another in the United States.

To himself, he was a man who took up arms in the cause of righteousness. Brown's passion in life was opposition to slavery, which was worth attacking with guns.

Religion in the wilderness

Brown was born in Torrington, Connecticut, in 1800. His father was a deeply religious man and an abolitionist (a person who wants to outlaw slavery), the social issue that would become central in Brown's life. At Brown's birth, in 1800, the United States was less than a generation old. Slavery was legal in many states, although in some states such as Pennsylvania, it had been outlawed. The great westward migration that settled states beyond the Appalachian Mountains was just beginning. Brown became part of that migration at age five, when his family moved to the frontier town of Hudson, Ohio, south of Cleveland. Life on the frontier was difficult. The truths taught in the Brown household were religion and abolition; the law took second place. As a child Brown saw runaway slaves taking shelter in his family's home. For the Brown family, heavenly laws that stated the equality of all men and women were more important than the earthly laws that allowed one human to own another.

As a young man Brown married Dianthe Lusk and started his own family. Eventually, he had twenty children by two wives. Brown tried several jobs but was never very successful at any of them. For a while, he tried earning a living tanning animal hides into leather. He tried farming. He tried dealing in cattle. In 1826 he and his family left Ohio and moved to neighboring Pennsylvania to build a tannery. In his barn he built a secret room to hide runaway slaves.

Words to Know

a person who wants to outlaw slavery.
a place where weapons are stored.
someone who is killed for a cause.
part-time soldiers who could take up arms in an emergency, somewhat like the National Guard.
having the same meaning.

In 1831 one of Brown's children died, the first in a long string of sorrows and disappointments. Brown fell ill and was unable to keep up his farm. The next year, his first wife died while giving birth. In 1833 he married again, this time to sixteen-year-old Mary Ann Day, who eventually had thirteen children, of whom just six survived to adulthood. In 1836 financial pressures forced Brown to move his family back to Ohio, where he borrowed money to start a business trading cattle and land. But economic hard times forced Brown into bankruptcy. He and his family moved repeatedly as Brown went from one job to the next. Throughout, he and his wife lost one child after another, mostly to disease but also to accidents. In 1844 Brown moved his family to Springfield, Massachusetts, where he became a partner in a wool business.


Brown had been a lifelong opponent of slavery. Now, in Massachusetts, he got to know many of the leading abolitionists of the era. Massachusetts was the center of the fight against slavery in the 1840s. William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879) had started his newspaper, The Liberator, in Boston in 1831. Sojourner Truth (c. 1797–1883), a former slave from New York and a campaigner for abolition, lived in Springfield for a time. Frederick Douglass (c. 1818–1895), another former slave and a newspaper publisher (The North Star and Frederick Douglass's Paper), became a close friend of Brown.

Abolitionism began to gain ground in the 1840s. The issue was beginning to split the United States between the pro-slavery South, where slaves were considered an economic necessity to work on cotton plantations (farms), and the North, where industrial manufacturing was beginning to drive the economy and where antislavery beliefs were growing in popularity.

But Brown was a man of action rather than of politics or speeches. He said that he took his instructions from the Bible, such as "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." He wanted to inspire a slave revolt. In his first meeting with Douglass, in 1847, Brown outlined his plans for such a war. In 1849 Brown started a farm in northern New York state near land that a wealthy abolitionist, Gerrit Smith (1797–1874), had bought to help former slaves get started in a new life. Brown's intention was to serve as "a kind of father" to the African Americans, despite his own problems as a farmer.

1850s: Prelude to the Civil War

In 1850, under pressure from southern legislators, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, designed to help slave owners fight back against abolitionists who were helping their slaves escape. The Act basically said that any escaped slave could be returned to his or her owner, even if that slave was living in a state where slavery had been outlawed. The Act was aimed straight at the activities of the Underground Railroad, a system abolitionists developed to transport and hide runaway slaves in their search for freedom. It put the federal government on the side of slave owners, who felt that escaped slaves were essentially stolen property. In response, Brown helped organize the League of Gileadites, a small group of whites and blacks who promised to take up arms, if necessary, to protect runaway slaves from being taken back South.

Brown also helped start a new political party, the Radical Abolitionists, to support the immediate, total abolition of slavery. It was an era when many different solutions to the problem of slavery were being proposed. One group wanted to send black slaves back to Africa, from where they or their ancestors were brought. Another, the Free-Soil Party, wanted to prevent slavery from being made legal in new territories in the West, but it was willing to accept the existence of slavery in Southern states. The Radical Abolitionists made little progress, and in some respects they seemed to be losing ground.

In 1854 Congress passed another law—the Kansas-Nebraska Act—to deal with the issue of whether new western states joining the Union should allow slavery. Since the Missouri Compromise of 1820, slavery had been banned north of the Mason-Dixon line, which ran along the southern border of Missouri. (As part of the compromise, Missouri was allowed to join the Union as a slave state.) The Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed people living in the territories of what were to become Kansas and Nebraska to vote on whether slavery should be legal in the new states. To abolitionists the law was a major setback; it meant slavery might extend north of the Mason-Dixon line. The act drew militant abolitionists to Kansas to affect the vote. Supporters of slavery also poured into Kansas to sway the vote on slavery.

Brown and five of his sons joined the rush to Kansas, settling in the town of Osawatomie. There, they plunged into the battle over slavery. They went into the neighboring state of Missouri and kidnapped slaves to escort them to Canada and freedom. They also fought pitched battles in Kansas with pro-slavery settlers.

Bleeding Kansas

Kansas in 1855 became the scene of running battles between pro- and antislavery forces. So-called "Border Ruffians" from the slave state of Missouri (who were also known as "Bushwhackers") crossed into Kansas and attacked communities of abolitionists. (Among the Border Ruffians were the brothers Frank [1843–1915] and Jesse James [1847–1882], who later became famous bandits.) Antislavery settlers, such as Brown and his sons, launched attacks on pro-slavery communities. Famously, Brown led a group of antislavery guerrillas who helped defend the town of Lawrence from an attack by pro-slavery fighters. On May 24, 1855, Brown's gang got revenge for another raid by attacking a pro-slavery settlement on Pottawatomie Creek. Brown's raiders pulled five settlers from their cabins and murdered them with swords. The attack caused even more killings and gave rise to the expression "Bleeding Kansas" to describe the virtual civil war in Kansas Territory. (In the end Kansas entered the Union as a free state in January 1861, just weeks before the start of the Civil War [1861–65]).

The murders of the five pro-slavery settlers led to Brown's nickname, "Old Brown of Osawatomie," a name synonymous (having the same meaning) with terrorism in the minds of southerners. Brown insisted his raids were justified as a means to end the evils of slavery and said he was following the principles of the Bible. In the East many abolitionists had become discouraged with their slow progress in trying to outlaw slavery. They believed that direct action, like Brown's, was the only way to succeed. When Brown left Kansas and returned to Massachusetts in 1856, he was hailed as a hero by many abolitionists.

But Brown was not finished. He had a plan to start a slave revolt and he began working to make it happen. He began raising money to finance the purchase of guns that he planned to distribute to slaves in the South from a base in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. He thought they would rise up against their masters and launch a revolt that would end slavery throughout the United States. By 1858 Brown thought he had raised enough money and was almost ready to put his plan into action. But then he learned that one of his followers was possibly considering betraying the plan to authorities, so he went into hiding.

John Brown's raid

The next summer, in 1859, Brown rented a farm in western Maryland near the town of Harpers Ferry, Virginia. That was the location of a United States government armory (a place where weapons are stored), from which Brown planned to seize arms and hand them out to slaves. But the delay of several months had hurt Brown's plan. Some of the men who were ready to help him the previous year had changed their minds. He tried to persuade Douglass to come along, but Douglass refused. Attacking the armory, Douglass argued, would bring the wrath of the government down on Brown and lead to certain defeat. Instead, he suggested setting up camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains and fighting a guerrilla war. But Brown was not convinced.

John Brown and Frederick Douglass

John Brown was close friends with many leaders of the antislavery movement in the 1850s. Others who did not know him personally supported his actions, both in Kansas and later in Virginia. He financed his raids in Kansas, for example, with contributions from abolitionists in the East.

Frederick Douglass was a particularly close friend. Douglass was a former slave who escaped to the North and then received an education in England. He was well spoken and published an abolitionist newspaper, The North Star, in Rochester, New York. He had supported Brown's move to Kansas to fight slavery, and before launching his attack in Harpers Ferry, Brown tried to persuade Douglass to join him. But Douglass thought the raid had no chance of success and tried to talk Brown into instead setting up a camp and encouraging blacks to run away from their masters. He failed.

In early July 1859 Brown and about twenty followers quietly moved into the area around Harpers Ferry. Brown, using the name Isaac Smith, rented a farm about 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) from the town. There, he was seen farming, but he was also inspecting the surrounding territory. He said he was looking for land to buy, and that he might start mining in the area. His actual purpose was to learn the area in preparation for his

raid. In the meantime, three other members of his group were collecting guns and ammunition in nearby Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. The weapons, originally meant for his raids in Kansas, were gradually smuggled into his camp in Maryland.

On October 16, 1859, Brown moved his guns and ammunition to a schoolhouse closer to Harpers Ferry. He included extra arms to be used by the slaves whom he believed would hear of the raid and immediately come to help. At 11 p.m. Brown set off with nineteen of his followers—fourteen whites and five blacks—and crossed the Potomac River from Maryland into Virginia. They crossed at Harpers Ferry and quickly overpowered guards at a railroad bridge owned by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. From there they moved to seize the armory and a rifle factory near the town.

The raiders put guards at the armory and factory and on street corners in Harpers Ferry. Brown took up watch inside the thick walls of the armory.

Next Brown sent six of his men to seize as hostages some of the leading citizens of Harpers Ferry, with instructions to urge black slaves to rebel and join them at the armory. The raiding party broke into the house of Colonel L. W. Washington, 5 miles away, at 1:30 a.m. on October 17, 1859, and took the colonel and four servants hostage. At 3 a.m., the raiders seized another citizen, Mr. Allstadt, and six of his servants. The raiders gave guns to the black servants and walked through the rain back to Harpers Ferry. As dawn came other citizens appeared on the street and were herded into the armory. Altogether, Brown and his men seized about sixty hostages. They then settled back to wait for slaves in the area to come join them.

Here the plan began to fall apart. The slaves, having had no previous word of the plan, did not come. News of the hostage taking spread rapidly, and citizens took up arms and rushed to Harpers Ferry. By 11 a.m. on October 17, groups of militiamen had descended on the town. (Militiamen were part-time soldiers who could take up arms in an emergency, somewhat like the National Guard.) They forced Brown's men to retreat inside the armory. From there the abolitionist raiders fired on any white men who appeared on the street. By sunset more troops had arrived, including a group of U.S. Marines commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee (1807–1870), who later became commander of the Confederate armies of the South during the Civil War. Lee waited until daylight on October 18 to attack Brown's raiders.

Soon after daylight, Lee demanded that Brown surrender. When Brown refused, Lee used a ladder as a battering ram to break down the armory's doors. Some shots were fired, but the raid was finished a few minutes later. The marines used swords (to avoid accidentally injuring the hostages), and Brown was wounded. Both of his sons who took part in the raid were killed, along with eight others. A few others escaped; the rest, including Brown, were captured. Brown was taken to Charlestown, Virginia, to stand trial.

Terrorism on trial

Brown and his fellow captives were accused of treason (acting against the government) and murder. Their trial began on October 20, 1859, and lasted a month. Brown and his colleagues were convicted of both crimes. Their appeal of the death sentence was denied, and his execution was set for December 2, 1859. Before he was sentenced, Brown was allowed to make a statement to the court. His words today, recounted in a biography of Brown by Stephen B. Oates, stand as a classic defense of the terrorist: breaking the law for a greater good:

I see a book kissed which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament, which teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do unto me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me further to remember them that are in bonds as bound with them. I endeavored [tried] to act up to that instruction. I say that I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done in behalf of His despised [hated] poor, I did no wrong, but right. Now if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit 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 say, let it be done.

Brown was executed at about noon on December 2, 1859. In the South it was widely believed justice had been done. In the northern states, however, church bells rang in mourning or protest. Church services and public meetings were held to celebrate Brown's deeds, and he came to be viewed as a martyr for abolitionism. (A martyr is someone who is killed for a cause.) Philosopher Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) praised Brown as a heroic man of action who gave life to the spirit of Christianity. In a speech defending Brown, Thoreau said:

The more conscientious preachers, the Bible men, they who talk about principle, and doing to others as you would that they should do unto you,—how could they fail to recognize him, by far the greatest preacher of them all, with the Bible in his life and in his acts, the embodiment [living example] of principle, who actually carried out the golden rule?

His name became part of a northern soldiers' marching song during the Civil War, sung to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic":

John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
But his soul goes marching on.
Glory, glory, hallelujah,
Glory, glory, hallelujah,
His soul goes marching on.

John Brown, terrorist, lit a spark of public indignation over slavery. His raid also enraged the southern, slaveholding states. The two opposite reactions heightened emotions and helped lead to the outbreak of war between the states.

John Brown's legacy

Almost 150 years after his execution Brown remains a controversial figure. On one side are those who argue that however noble his goal may have been, violence was the wrong method to use. Who was Brown to take up arms against a democratically elected government, even if that government accepted slavery?

On the other side are those who, like Thoreau, argue that Brown was one of the few who saw clearly that destroying slavery was more important than obeying an unjust law. If the law would not free the slaves peacefully—which, in the end, it would not—then violence was justified, just as Brown said from the gallows in 1859.

For More Information


Hinton, Richard J. John Brown and His Men. New York: Arno Press, 1968.

Oates, Stephen B. To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.

Quarles, Benjamin. Allies for Freedom: Blacks and John Brown. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Thoreau, Henry David. A Plea for Captain John Brown; Read to the Citizens of Concord, Massachusetts, on Sunday Evening, October Thirteenth, Eighteen Fifty-nine. Boston: D.R. Godine, 1969.


Oates, Stephen B. "God's Angry Man." American History Illustrated, January, 1986, p. 10.

Ward, Geoffrey C. "Terror, Practical or Impractical." American Heritage, September 1995, p. 14.

John Brown

views updated Jun 11 2018

John Brown

Born 1800
Torrington, Connecticut
Died December 2, 1859
Charlestown, Virginia

Radical abolitionist
Led an unsuccessful attempt to ignite
a slave uprising in the South in 1859

John Brown was a highly controversial member of the movement to abolish (put an end to) slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War. He believed that slavery was morally wrong and committed himself to doing anything in his power to destroy it. "Slavery throughout its entire existence in the United States is none other than a mad, barbarous [cruel], unprovoked, and unjustifiable war of one portion of its citizens upon another portion, in utter disregard and violation of those eternal and self-evident truths set forth in our Declaration of Independence," he stated.

As Brown grew more and more furious about slavery, he came to believe that violence was both necessary and justified in the fight to abolish it. In 1856, he participated in the cold-blooded murder of five slavery supporters in Kansas. Three years later, he led a raid on a federal armory (a storage facility for weapons and ammunition) in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Known as "John Brown's Raid," this was the first step in a plan to arm slaves and lead them in a violent uprising throughout the South. Brown's plan failed, and he was captured and executed. But his actions added to the bitter feelings between the North and the South that led to the Civil War.

Taught to hate slavery

John Brown was born in Torrington, Connecticut, in 1800. His father, Owen Brown, was a tanner (a person who turns animal hides into leather) and shoemaker. A deeply religious man, Owen Brown raised his children to live by the teachings of the Bible. He also taught them to hate slavery because he believed that it violated God's commandments.

Black people were taken from Africa and brought to North America to serve as slaves for white people beginning in the 1600s. The basic belief behind slavery was that black people were inferior to whites. Under slavery, white slave-holders treated black people as property, forced them to perform hard labor, and controlled every aspect of their lives. States in the Northern half of the United States began outlawing slavery in the late 1700s. But slavery continued to exist in the Southern half of the country. Over time, it became an essential part of the South's economy and culture.

In 1812, the Brown family moved to Ohio. Around this time, John Brown saw a Southern slaveowner whip a slave about his own age. "This brought me to reflect on the wretched [miserable or unfortunate], hopeless condition of fatherless and motherless slave children," he recalled. "I sometimes would raise the question, 'Is God their father?'"

Brown did not have much interest in school, so instead he learned his father's business as a teenager and helped raise livestock. In 1820, he married Deanntha Lusk. They had seven children together over the next fifteen years. Sadly, his wife died during the birth of the last baby. Realizing that he could not raise this large family on his own, Brown married Mary Ann Day in 1836. They added thirteen more children over the years. Brown worked at a number of different jobs to support his family, including farming, tanning, and herding sheep.

Becomes active in the abolition movement

In 1837, slavery supporters murdered the editor of an abolitionist newspaper in Illinois. This event sparked protest meetings across the North. Brown attended one of the meetings and dedicated himself to the abolition of slavery. "Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, I consecrate [declare sacred] my life to the destruction of slavery," he stated. By the mid-1840s, Brown lived in Springfield, Massachusetts, and worked in the wool business. During this time he met Frederick Douglass (1818?–1895; see entry), an escaped slave who became a well-known abolitionist speaker and writer. He also organized a group of men called the League of Gileadites to protect fugitive slaves from being returned to their masters in the South.

In 1849, Brown moved his family to North Elba, New York, to join an experimental mixed-race farming community. A wealthy abolitionist had set up the community in order to prove that blacks and whites could live together peacefully. The following year, the U.S. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act. This measure granted slaveowners sweeping new powers to capture and reclaim escaped slaves. It also required people in the North to assist the slaveowners in retrieving their property.

Many Northerners resented the Fugitive Slave Act. They were able to ignore slavery when it was confined to the South, but not when they saw black people being tracked down like animals and carried off in chains within their own cities. The Fugitive Slave Act ended up increasing the anti-slavery and anti-Southern feelings of many people in the North. Brown felt that the Fugitive Slave Act justified the use of violence in the fight against slavery. He began criticizing abolitionist groups for being too passive. He grew determined to take action.

Contributes to "Bleeding Kansas"

The 1850s were a time of great political tension in the United States. Thanks to the efforts of Brown and other abolitionists, growing numbers of Northerners believed that slavery was wrong. Some people wanted to outlaw it, while others just wanted to prevent it from spreading beyond the Southern states where it was already allowed. But many Southerners felt threatened by Northern efforts to contain slavery. They believed that each state should decide for itself whether to allow the practice. They did not want the national government to pass laws that would interfere with their traditional way of life. This dispute grew more heated as the United States expanded westward. Both sides wanted to spread their political ideas into the new territories and states.

For many years, the representatives of the Northern and Southern states in the U.S. government had reached a series of political compromises on the issue of slavery. To resolve the question of westward expansion, for example, they established a pattern of allowing one slave state and one free state to enter the Union at the same time. In this way, the number of slave and free states remained in balance. In 1854, however, the Kansas-Nebraska Act disrupted this pattern. It allowed the people living in a territory to decide whether to join the Union as a slave state or a free state. The act was named after the next two territories scheduled to enter the Union. It soon became clear that Nebraska voters would elect to enter the United States as a slave state. But the decision of Kansas voters was uncertain.

People on both sides of the slavery issue tried to affect the outcome of the vote in Kansas. Slavery supporters from neighboring Missouri came to Kansas in large numbers. These "border ruffians," as they were called, voted illegally and used violence to intimidate their opponents. In the meantime, antislavery people flocked into Kansas as well. In 1856, Brown traveled to Kansas with his family and a wagon load of weapons. They settled along Pottawatomie Creek, near the abolitionist settlement of Lawrence. Brown had chosen Kansas as the place where he would make a stand against slavery.

In May 1856, a proslavery mob attacked Lawrence. They fired artillery shells into a hotel and burned down several homes. Brown vowed to take revenge for the attack on Lawrence. On May 24, he and a small band of followers attacked several proslavery settlements along Pottawatomie Creek. They captured five men who supported slavery and brutally hacked them to death in front of their wives and children. Afterward, each side followed with more violent acts of retaliation. Over the summer of 1856, more than two hundred people died in what became known as "Bleeding Kansas." Brown became the focus of a great deal of fear and hatred among Southerners.

"John Brown's Raid"

Brown disappeared for awhile following the killings in Kansas. He grew a long, white beard in order to disguise his appearance. He quietly traveled throughout the North, raising money and collecting weapons to support a new, ambitious plan to overthrow slavery by force. Brown planned to invade the South with a band of guerilla fighters. He convinced himself that once the fighting started, slaves across the South would join the rebellion. He wanted to help the slaves gain their freedom by igniting a large-scale slave uprising. Once the slaves were free, he planned to create a revolutionary state for black Americans in the mountains of Virginia and Maryland.

As the first step in his plan, Brown chose to raid the small town of Harpers Ferry, Virginia. He planned to capture the federal armory there, take all the weapons, and supply them to the large numbers of slaves he expected to join the uprising. On October 16, 1859, Brown and twenty-one followers—including several members of his family—set out to capture the armory in Harpers Ferry.

The first part of his scheme unfolded according to plan. The radical abolitionists seized the armory and took several prominent Virginia plantation owners prisoner. But it soon became clear that Brown's plan had serious flaws. For one thing, local slaves were unsure what was happening and did not join Brown's raiders. For another thing, he had not expected any resistance from the white citizens of Harpers Ferry. But they reacted angrily and managed to surround Brown's position.

Brown and his followers remained trapped inside a nearby building the whole next day, yet they refused to surrender. On October 18, federal troops under Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee (1807–1870; see entry) arrived to resolve the situation. They captured Brown and seven of his raiders after a brief but bloody battle. The rest of Brown's gang, including two of his sons, were killed.

Executed for his crimes

Just one week later, Brown was put on trial before a Virginia court. Brown laid on a cot during the proceedings because he was too badly wounded to sit up. But he still found the strength to defend his actions. "I believe that to interfere, as I have done, in the behalf of God's despised poor is not wrong but right," he stated. "Now, if it is deemed [considered] necessary that I should mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments [laws], I say let it be done." Brown also presented his feelings about slavery and encouraged others who felt the same way to continue his mission.

The Virginia jury found Brown and his men guilty of murder, treason (betraying the country), and inciting a slave rebellion after just forty-five minutes of deliberation. The judge then sentenced Brown to death by hanging. As he sat in prison awaiting execution, Brown remained calm and never wavered in his commitment to the abolitionist cause. He died on December 2, 1859. His last words predicted that the fight over slavery would eventually result in an all-out war: "The crimes of this guilty land will never be purged [washed] away but with blood. I had, as I now think vainly, flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done."

Actions increase tension between North and South

Brown's actions at Harpers Ferry—and his death a few weeks later—had a major impact on communities all across America. In the North, reaction was mixed. Some people criticized his violent methods and agreed that he deserved to be executed. But other Northerners saw Brown as a hero who was willing to die for his beliefs. They recognized that he had used bad judgment and made some mistakes, but claimed that the reasons behind his actions were noble. This view gained support as Brown maintained his dignity and composure in the period before his death. Many prominent people praised him for his bravery and dedication to abolishing slavery. At the time of Brown's execution, church bells tolled in salute throughout the North, and many people observed a moment of silence.

In the South, on the other hand, Brown's raid created a wave of hysteria in many white communities. Even though Brown had been unable to convince any slaves to join his rebellion, the idea of a slave uprising played into the South's greatest fears. Many Southerners worried that Northern abolitionists would do anything to end slavery—even sacrifice the lives of thousands of Southern whites. The reaction to Brown's execution in some parts of the North further increased Southern anger and fear. Southerners considered Brown a murderer and were outraged that some Northerners seemed to approve of his actions.

In this way, Brown's raid increased the bitter feelings between the two sections of the country. As a result, more and more Southerners began to support the idea of seceding from (leaving) the United States. Just as Brown had predicted, the Civil War began a little more than a year after his death. "[Brown's] raid and subsequent execution did not directly cause the Civil War," according to William C. Davis, Brian C. Pohanka, and Don Troiani in Civil War Journal: The Leaders, "but his ideals and beliefs became the standard under which thousands upon thousands of men and boys marched off to do battle in their own land."

Where to Learn More

Cox, Clinton. Fiery Vision: The Life and Death of John Brown. New York: Scholastic, 1997.

Davis, William C., Brian C. Pohanka, and Don Troiani. Civil War Journal:The Leaders. Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 1997.

Dubois, W. E. B. John Brown: A Biography. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1997.

Finkelman, Paul, ed. His Soul Goes Marching On: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. [Online] (accessed on October 9, 1999).

John Brown and the Valley of the Shadow. [Online] (accessed on October 9, 1999).

John Brown Farm State Historic Site. [Online] (accessed on October 9, 1999).

John Brown Historical Association of Illinois. [Online] (accessed on October 9, 1999).

Kansas State Historical Society. Adair Cabin / John Brown Museum. [Online] (accessed on October 9, 1999).

Oates, Stephen B. To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of JohnBrown. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.

Renehan, Edward J. The Secret Six: The True Tale of the Men Who Conspired with John Brown. New York: Crown Publishers, 1995.

Stein, R. Conrad. John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry in American History. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow, 1999.

Tackach, James. The Trial of John Brown: Radical Abolitionist. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1998.

Villard, Oswald G. John Brown, 1800–1859: A Biography Fifty Years After. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1910. Reprint, Gloucester, MA: P. Smith, 1965.

Warren, Robert Penn. John Brown: The Making of a Martyr. New York: Payson & Clarke, 1929. Reprint, Nashville: J. S. Sanders and Co., 1993.

Brown, John

views updated May 14 2018

John Brown

Born: May 4, 1800
Torrington, Connecticut
Died: December 2, 1859
Charles Town, Virginia

American abolitionist

John Brown was one of the most famous abolitionists, or opponents of slavery, in history. He traveled widely to gather support and money for his cause. Many people who helped him were either unaware or did not care that he often used violence to achieve his goals. His attack on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859, freed no slaves and resulted in his own trial and death.

Declares "eternal war with slavery"

John Brown was born at Torrington, Connecticut, on May 4, 1800, to Owen Brown and Ruth Mills Brown. His father worked as a tanner, changing animal skins into leather. A religious youth, Brown studied briefly for the ministry but quit to learn the tanner's trade. He married Dianthe Lusk in 1820, and the couple had seven children before her death in 1832. In 1833 he married Mary Ann Day, with whom he had thirteen children in the next twenty-one years. Of Brown's twenty children, twelve survived.

When Brown was twelve years old, he saw an African American boy mistreated; this incident, he said, led him to declare "eternal war with slavery." He felt that slavery could be destroyed only with bloodshed, deciding in 1839 that the South should be invaded and the slaves freed at gunpoint. For the next decade, he attempted a number of business ventures, none successfully. He moved his family ten times, until settling in 1849 on a farm at North Elba, New York.

Kansas struggle

After the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the territory hung in the balance while supporters and opponents of slavery tried to gain control. According to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the people living in the territory would decide whether or not slavery would be allowed in Kansas and Nebraska. Brown traveled through the East, urging an end to slavery in Kansas and gathering money for weapons to help achieve that end. "Without the shedding of blood," he said, there could be "no remission of sin." In other words, he believed that the people who supported slavery and the slave system would not be freed from the guilt of what he saw as a sin until slavery was ended. He thought that the only way to end slavery was through fighting, even if it would result in the death of some people. In September he settled near Osawatomie, Kansas. "I am here," he said, "to promote the killing of slavery." In 1856 he led a raid on a proslavery settlement at Pottawatomie, Kansas, killing five men before escaping. This incident made him nationally known, and while some people criticized him, to others he was a hero.

Brown spent the summer of 1856 in New England collecting money for his fight against slavery. Important public figures, some unaware of the details of his activities, were impressed by his dedication and helped him gather recruits, guns, and money. In August he and his supporters fought with settlers at Osawatomie, and his son Frederick was killed. "I will die fighting for this cause," Brown wrote, "There will be no peace in this land until slavery is done for."

Brown went east in early 1857 with plans to invade the South; he gathered supporters at Tabor, Iowa, for training. He held meetings with eastern abolitionists, and in early 1858 sent his son John Jr. to survey the country around Harpers Ferry, the site of a Federal arsenal (a place where items used by the military, such as equipment and weapons are made or stored). In April he held a meeting of his men in Chatham, Ontario, Canada. He explained to them that he planned to invade the South, arm the slaves, and set up a free state under a new constitution. He returned to Kansas using a different name and led a raid into Missouri, killing one man and taking some slaves back to Canada.

Brown was now considered a criminal in the eyes of the state of Missouri and the U.S. government, and both offered rewards for his capture. However, in parts of the North he was seen as a hero, and donations poured in. In early 1859 he toured the East again to raise money, and in July he rented a farm five miles north of Harpers Ferry, where he recruited twenty-one men for final training. He intended to seize the arsenal, distribute arms to the slaves he thought would support him, and set up a free state for African Americans within the South. However, Harpers Ferry was an isolated mountain town, with few slaves nearby.

Raid on Harpers Ferry

On the night of October 16, 1859, Brown set out for Harpers Ferry with eighteen men and a wagon full of supplies, leaving three men behind to guard the farm. Brown's party slipped into town and easily captured the armory (a storage place for weapons) watchmen. For some reason, Brown allowed the midnight train to go through; the train's conductor sounded an alarm the next morning.

Shooting broke out early on October 17, 1859, between Brown's men and local residents. Soldiers soon arrived from Charles Town, West Virginia. By nightfall Brown's group was trapped in the armory's engine house; all but five were wounded. That night ninety marines arrived from Washington, D.C., to join the fight against Brown and his men. The next morning the marines stormed the engine house, slashing Brown with their swords. Of Brown's original party, ten died and seven were captured; on the other side the victims included a marine and four other men, one of them a free African American killed by mistake.

Brown was jailed at Charles Town. His trial took place a week later as he lay wounded on a stretcher. "I believe that to have interfered as I have done," he said, "in behalf of His despised poor, I did no wrong, but right. I am ready for my fate." He was convicted of treason (a crime against the government) against Virginia, conspiracy (plotting) with African Americans, and first-degree murder. The court sentenced Brown to death on November 2. He was to be executed a month later.

Beginning of a legend

News of Brown's deed shocked the nation. Many praised him, including Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882), who called him "that new saint who will make the gallows like a cross." However, many believed that his crime had been terribly evil. Seventeen of Brown's acquaintances sent letters on his behalf to Governor Wise of Virginia, but Wise ignored them.

Brown was hanged at Charles Town on December 2, 1859, with four of his men, after handing a note to his jailer on his way to the gallows: "I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land: will never be purged away; but with Blood." The note predicted what was to come in the near future. In fact, the end to slavery in the United States came with the end of the Civil War (186165). The Civil War was fought to decide whether or not slavery would be allowed in new territories and in an effort to prevent the southern states from leaving the Union and forming an independent nation. Many people throughout the North gathered to mourn Brown, and church bells tolled at the hour of his execution. He was buried in North Elba, a hero among abolitionists. By the time a song about him, set to the music of an old hymn and named "John Brown's Body," became popular in 1861, he was already a legend.

For More Information

Cox, Clinton. Fiery Vision: The Life and Death of John Brown. New York: Scholastic, 1997.

Dubois, W. E. B. John Brown: A Biography. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1997.

Oates, Stephen B. To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.

John Brown

views updated May 11 2018

John Brown

John Brown (1800-1859) has been revered for generations as a martyr to the American antislavery cause. His attack on Harpers Ferry, Va., just before the Civil War freed no slaves and resulted in his own trial and death.

John Brown was born at Torrington, Conn., on May 4, 1800, to Owen Brown, a tanner, and Ruth Mills Brown, whose family had a history of mental instability. He spent his childhood there and on the family farm at Hudson, Ohio. A devoutly religious youth, Brown studied briefly for the ministry but quit to learn the tanner's trade. He married Dianthe Lusk in 1820, who bore him 7 children (two mentally deficient) before her death in 1832; a year later he married Mary Ann Day, who bore 13 children in the next 21 years. Of Brown's 20 children, 12 survived.

He said later that he had realized the sin of slavery, "the sum of all villainies," at 12, and that seeing an African American boy mistreated had "led him to declare, or swear: eternal war with slavery." He also developed a great interest in military history, especially in the guerrilla warfare of the Napoleonic Wars and in the Haitian slave rebellion. According to family testimony, he finally concluded that slavery could be destroyed only by atonement in blood, deciding in 1839 that the South, "Africa itself," should be invaded and the slaves freed at gunpoint. If he actually made such a plan, he kept it to himself for another decade, meanwhile trying and failing at a number of business ventures, always in debt. He moved his family 10 times until in 1849 he settled on a farm at North Elba, N.Y., that was part of a project financed by philanthropist Gerrit Smith for the training of free African Americans.

Kansas Controversy

After the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 the territory hung in the balance between slave-and free-state status while pro-and antislavery settlers contested for control. Five of Brown's sons went to Kansas, joined the free-staters, and appealed to their father for help. Brown traveled through the East, speaking on the Kansas question and gathering money for arms, for "without the shedding of blood," he said, there could be "no remission of sin" in Kansas. In September he went to Kansas, settling near Osawatomie. "I am here," he said grimly, "to promote the killing of slavery." In spring of 1856 he led a retaliatory raid on a proslavery settlement at Pottawatomie, killing five men in cold blood. John Junior spent 3 months in jail as an accomplice, but Brown himself escaped. The Pottawatomie affair made him nationally known, and while some antislavery sympathizers disowned him, to others he seemed a hero.

First Raid: Osawatomie

Brown spent the summer of 1856 collecting money for Kansas in New England, where prominent public figures, some not wholly aware of the details of his Kansas activities, were impressed by his dedication to the abolitionist cause. The Massachusetts Kansas Committee, whose directors included such civic leaders as Theodore Parker, Samuel Gridley Howe, and Thomas W. Higginson, helped him to gather recruits, guns, and money. In August he led a skirmish at Osawatomie in which his son Frederick was killed. "I will die fighting for this cause," Brown wrote. "There will be no peace in this land until slavery is done for."

He went East in early 1857 with plans for a Southern invasion apparently in hand, ordered a thousand 6-foot pikes from a Connecticut firm, and in late summer gathered a band of recruits at Tabor, lowa, for training. He held frequent conferences with Eastern abolitionists and in early 1858 sent John Junior to survey the country around Harpers Ferry, Va., the site of a Federal arsenal. In April he held a curious 10-day meeting of sympathizers in Chatham, Ontario, Canada, during which he explained his plan to invade the South, arm the slaves, and set up a free state under a new constitution; the meeting adopted his plan and then voted him commander in chief. He returned to Kansas under the name of Shubel Morgan to lead a raid into Missouri, killing one man and taking some slaves back to Canada.

Brown was now considered a criminal in the eyes of Missouri and the U.S. government, and both offered rewards for his capture; still he was hailed in parts of the North as a liberator, and donations poured in. In early 1859 he again toured the East to raise money, and in July he rented a farm 5 miles north of Harpers Ferry, where he recruited 21 men (16 white and 5 black) for final training. He intended to seize the arsenal, distribute arms to the slaves he thought would rally to him, and set up a free state for african Americans within the South. Though Harpers Ferry was an isolated mountain town, with few slaves in the vicinity, the irrationality of his plan seemed to occur to no one.

Raid on Harpers Ferry

On the night of Oct. 16, 1859, Brown set out for Harpers Ferry with 18 men and a wagonload of supplies, leaving 3 men behind to guard the farm. After cutting the telegraph wires, Brown's party slipped into the town and easily captured the armory watchmen. Inexplicably, Brown allowed the midnight train to go through; the conductor telegraphed an alarm the next morning. Shooting broke out early on the 17th between Brown's men and local residents, while militia soon arrived from Charles Town. By nightfall Brown's band lay trapped in the armory enginehouse, all but 5 wounded, Brown's sons Oliver and Watson fatally. That night Col. Robert E. Lee and Lt. J. E. B. Stuart, commanding 90 marines, arrived from Washington. The next morning the marines stormed the enginehouse, bayoneting 2 men and slashing Brown severely with sabers. Of Brown's original party 10 died and 7 were captured; on the other side the toll was a marine and 4 civilians, one of them, ironically, a free African American killed by mistake.

Brown was jailed at Charles Town and tried a week later, lying wounded on a stretcher, in a fair trial which some, however, felt to be unduly hasty. He put up no defense. "I believe that to have interfered as I have done," he said, "in behalf of His despised poor, I did no wrong, but right…. I am ready for my fate." The jury indicted him on three counts—treason against Virginia, conspiracy with african Americans, and first-degree murder. The court imposed the death sentence on November 2, to be executed a month later.

Beginning of a Legend

News of Brown's deed—"so surprising, so mixed, so confounding," Bronson Alcott called it—shocked the nation. Was he martyr or murderer? Many praised him (Ralph Waldo Emerson called him "that new saint who will make the gallows like a cross"), and many condemned him. Seventeen of Brown's acquaintances sent affidavits to Governor Wise of Virginia raising, on good evidence, the issue of Brown's sanity, but Wise did not act on them. Brown was hanged at Charles Town on Dec. 2, 1859, with four of his men, after handing a prophetic note to his jailer on his way to the gallows: "I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land: will never be purged away; but with Blood." Mass meetings of mourning were held throughout the North, and church bells tolled at the hour of his execution. He was buried at North Elba, N.Y., and the cause of abolition had its martyr. When a penny ballad about him, set to the music of an old revival hymn and named "John Brown's Body," appeared on the streets of Boston in early 1861, he was already a legend.

Further Reading

The best book on Brown, well written and soundly researched, is Joseph C. Furnas, The Road to Harper's Ferry (1959). James C. Malin, John Brown and the Legend of Fifty-Six (1942), is a study of the Kansas years. David Karsner, John Brown: Terrible Saint (1934), and Oswald Garrison Villard, John Brown (1943), are good biographies. Allan Keller, Thunder at Harper's Ferry (1958), is an hour-by-hour account of the raid. One of the Massachusetts Kansas Committee leaders, Franklin B. Sanborn, published The Life and Letters of John Brown (1885; 4th ed. 1910), which is still interesting reading. □

Brown, John

views updated May 23 2018

Brown, John

The abolitionist crusader John Brown died on December 2, 1859, executed by the state of Virginia for charges relating to treason, murder, and promoting a slave insurrection. Although Brown's public execution took place before the start of the U.S. Civil War, his life and death anticipated the impending battle between the North and the South over the moral legitimacy of slavery in America, and served as a source of righteous inspiration for both sides immediately before and during the course of the war. Beyond that, Brown's death serves as a case study in the construction and power of martyrdom. Proslavery supporters reviled Brown, whose often bloody actions against the social institution fueled southern fears about northern aggression. Many supporters and fervent abolitionists, on the other hand, glorified Brown, whose sacrifice for a higher good transformed the unsuccessful businessman into a national martyr.

Born in Connecticut on May 9, 1800, Brown became involved in the abolitionist movement early in life. His father was a strict Calvinist who abhorred slavery as a particularly destructive sin against God. Brown himself witnessed the brutality of slavery when, as a twelve-year-old boy, he saw a young slave ferociously beaten with a shovel by his owner, an image that remained with Brown for the rest of his life. After the Illinois abolitionist publisher Elijah Lovejoy was murdered by a proslavery mob in 1837, Brown publicly declared his intention to find a way to end slavery in the United States.

In the midst of extreme economic hardships and failed business ventures, Brown moved with some of his sons to Kansas following the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This act, heavily supported by southern slave-holding states, allowed people in new territories to vote on the question of slavery. During the 1850s, Kansas was the scene of a number of horrific acts of violence from groups on both sides of the issue. Brown placed himself in the thick of these bloody conflicts and, with a group of other like-minded zealots, hacked five proslavery men to death with broadswords, an event that came to be known as the Pottawatomie Massacre.

In the summer of 1859, Brown led a small army of men, including his own sons, to Harper's Ferry, Virginia, with a plan to invade the South and incite a slave rebellion. The group successfully raided the armory at Harper's Ferry but, after the arrival of Colonel Robert E. Lee and his troops, Brown's plans fell apart, and his men either escaped, died, or were captured by Lee's men in the ensuing battle. Brown himself was captured and stood trial in Virginia, where his fate was determined by an unsympathetic jury.

Brown, however, did not understand his failed invasion and impending death as a defeat for the abolitionist cause. Instead, he believed these events had crucial historical and religious significance, and that rather than signaling an end would be the beginning of the eventual elimination of slavery in America. Brown greatly admired stories about the prophets in the Bible, and came to believe that God, rather than a Virginia jury, had determined his fate. Convinced that his martyrdom could have more of an impact than any of his earlier schemes, Brown faced death with calm assurance and optimism that an abolitionist victory was secured with his imminent execution.

Brown was not the only one who understood the significant political implications of his execution in religious terms. Indeed, major northern abolitionists who would not countenance Brown's violent strategies to end slavery while alive, embraced the language of martyrdom after his death on the gallows. New England cultural figures like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Lydia Maria Child, to name a few, identified Brown as the first true abolitionist martyr, serving as an iconic symbol of righteousness, redemption, and regeneration. Although others perished with him on the gallows, for many northerners John Brown was transformed into a hero who deserved to be included in the pantheon of great Americans and who died for the good of the United States.

Not everyone agreed with this assessment though. Immediately after his death, southern citizens and many in the North turned him into a demon rather than a hero, and wanted his corpse to suffer indignities reserved for the lowest criminals, including the suggestion that it be turned over to a medical school for dissection. The governor of Virginia decided to release the body of the deceased to Brown's wife, Mary, and allow it to be transported to the family farm in North Elba, New York. During the journey north, Brown's dead body aroused a great deal of interest. In Philadelphia, a large crowd of people from African-American abolitionist and proslavery communities turned out to meet the body upon its arrival in the city. The mayor, along with Mary Brown and her supporters, feared a riot might ensue, and decided to send an empty coffin to the local undertaker as a decoy so the container with Brown's body could make it to the wharf and continue its journey by boat to New York City.

Reaching its final destination, people came to see the coffin containing Brown's body, with some towns finding various ways to commemorate the martyr while the corpse passed through. On December 7, 1859, Brown's body arrived in North Elba, and was laid out in the front room of the house for visiting relatives, friends, and supporters to see before it vanished for good after the funeral the next day. After the corpse of John Brown had been placed in the ground at his home, the memory of his violent campaign to end slavery and the symbolism of his death in the state of Virginia continued to materialize in American imaginative and social landscapes. During the U.S. Civil War, for example, one of the most popular songs among Union forces urged soldiers to remember his body "a-mouldering in the grave"in time, a song that would be transformed with new lyrics by Julia Ward Howe into "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." The cultural memory of John Brown's life after the war and into the twentieth century assumed a variety of forms, including Stephen Vincent Benét's famous Pulitzer Prizewinning poem, "John Brown's Body," and the establishment of schools bearing his name.

See also: Civil War, U.S.; Lincoln in the National Memory; Martyrs


Abels, Jules. Man on Fire: John Brown and the Cause of Liberty. New York: Macmillan, 1971.

Finkelman, Paul, ed. His Soul Goes Marching On: Responses to John Brown and the Harper's Ferry Raid. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.

Laderman, Gary. The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes toward Death, 17991883. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.

Oates, Stephen B. To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown. New York: Harper and Row, 1970.


Brown, John

views updated Jun 27 2018

Brown, John 1800–1859

John Brown was born on May 9, 1800, in Torrington, Connecticut, and he died on the scaffold in Charlestown, Virginia, on December 2, 1859. He was the only white abolitionist who repeatedly took up arms against slavery before the Civil War. Convinced that the standard tactics of persuasion and politics had done nothing to dislodge the South’s “peculiar institution,” the deeply religious Brown became the self-appointed leader of a personal holy war against slavery. His violent forays against slavery in Kansas and later at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, helped intensify the sectional animosities that led to the Civil War.

The second son of Owen Brown (1771–1856) and Ruth Mills (1772–1808), John Brown inherited his parents’ hatred of slavery and devotion to Calvinistic Christianity, and he was taught to respect people of all races. When he was three, the family moved from Connecticut to Hudson, Ohio, where his father ran a tannery. At the age of twelve, young John witnessed a slave boy being beaten and driven outdoors to sleep in the cold. He later claimed that this cruel incident “in the end made him a most determined Abolitionist,” leading him to swear “Eternal war with Slavery.”

When he was sixteen, Brown briefly attended schools in New England, with the aim of training for the Congregational ministry. However, financial difficulties and eye troubles forced him to return to Ohio, where he started his own tannery. In 1820 he was married to Dianthe Lusk; the couple eventually had seven children. In 1825 he moved to New Richmond, Pennsylvania, where, for ten years, he ran a highly successful tannery with fifteen employees. His property was also a haven for fugitive slaves.

Dianthe died in 1832, and within a year Brown married Mary Ann Day, with whom he had thirteen children over the next two decades. Of his twenty children, only eight would outlive him. Among the remainder, two died shortly after being born, six were victims of childhood illnesses, one was scalded to death in a kitchen accident, and three others—Frederick, Oliver, and Watson—died while accompanying their father in his war against slavery.

In 1836 Brown moved to Kent, Ohio, where he took up real estate speculation. He was battered by the depression of 1837–1842, however. He tried to stay afloat by trading livestock and surveying, but in 1842 he declared bankruptcy. He entered into partnership with the Ohio businessman Simon Perkins in a wool distribution company based in Springfield, Massachusetts. Serving as a middleman between western wool growers and eastern manufacturers, Brown proved to be an energetic but maladroit businessman. With the business faltering, Brown tried to salvage it in 1849 by going to England to find foreign buyers for American wool. That effort failed, and his partnership with Perkins soon dissolved.

At this point, Brown had long been active in the Underground Railroad. In the late 1830s, enraged by the murder of the Illinois antislavery editor Elijah Lovejoy, he began to plot a military response to slavery. At a service in memory of Lovejoy, he rose, lifted his right hand, and said, “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!”

In early 1851 in Springfield, Brown founded a cadre of blacks, called the League of Gileadites, aimed at encouraging armed resistance to the recently passed Fugitive Slave Act. He took his family to upstate New York to live in North Elba, where a colony of blacks occupied land purchased for them by the antislavery philanthropist Gerrit Smith. Brown started a farm and tried to help his black neighbors establish an agricultural community. He worked with them, surveyed their lands, and socialized with them. North Elba was his principal base for his remaining years, and it is the place where he chose to be buried.

In 1855 Brown joined five of his sons in the Kansas Territory, the scene of a fierce struggle between proslavery and antislavery forces. Brown raised a small band and engaged in several pitched battles against proslavery militants. On May 24, 1856, in Pottawatomie, Kansas, he led a party of eight armed men on a nighttime raid, during which they hauled five proslavery settlers out of their cabins and slaughtered them with broadswords. In late December 1858, he invaded the neighboring slave state of Missouri with twenty followers. The men liberated eleven slaves and traveled with them for eighty-two days and more than 1,100 miles to Detroit, where the blacks took a ferry to Windsor, Canada.

Brown’s most influential act was his October 16, 1859, raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia. He had with him a band of twenty-one men, including five blacks and two of his sons. He intended to take over the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, forcibly liberate slaves in the region, and then escape with the freed blacks to the nearby Appalachian Mountains. He hoped to use mountain hideaways to evade capture as he moved southward, making periodic raids on plantations in order to free additional slaves who would become part of his growing army of liberation. His ultimate goal was to initiate a political process that would lead to slavery’s demise. He ignored warnings, however, by Frederick Douglass, among others, of the futility of his plans. In the end, Brown stalled too long at Harpers Ferry and, after a bloody battle, was taken captive by federal troops under Colonel Robert E. Lee. He was found guilty of murder, treason, and inciting a slave revolt. By the time of his execution on December 2, he had become a sharply divisive figure on the national scene, increasingly admired in the North and vilified in the South.

Brown has remained controversial since his death. His reputation peaked during Reconstruction, when he was honored as an antislavery martyr, but it plummeted during the period of Jim Crow, when he was widely regarded as a murderer, fanatic, and madman. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s brought increased sympathy for his racial agenda and his uncompromising stance on slavery. Having been close to blacks, including such abolitionist leaders as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, Brown has been long revered by African Americans. W. E. B. Du Bois hailed him as “the man who of all Americans has perhaps come nearest to touching the real souls of black folk.”


DeCaro, Louis A., Jr. 2002. “Fire from the Midst of You”: A Religious Life of John Brown. New York: New York University Press.

Oates, Stephen B. 1970. To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown. New York: Harper & Row.

Reynolds, David S. 2005. John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Villard, Oswald Garrison. 1910. John Brown, 1800-1859: A Biography Fifty Years After. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

David S. Reynolds

Brown, John

views updated May 17 2018


John Brown was a charismatic, stubborn abolitionist who failed at numerous business and commercial enterprises, yet succeeded in convincing men to join him in a cause for which they were willing to die. His abolitionist beliefs translated into violent actions in Kansas and Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Convicted of murder and treason for his raid on military facilities at Harpers Ferry, Brown was hanged for his crimes. Nevertheless, he galvanized the abolitionist cause, becoming a martyr in the fight against slavery.

Brown was born in Torrington, Connecticut, on May 9, 1800, to Owen and Ruth Brown. His father, a strict Calvinist, despised slavery. When Brown was five years old, the family moved to Hudson, Ohio, a locale that was steeped in anti-slavery sentiment. Brown's fervor for the anti-slavery movement never waned and grew more vehement as he got older.

In 1820, Brown married Dianthe Lusk and six years later, they moved to Pennsylvania where he started a tannery. Lusk died in 1832, leaving Brown with five children. In 1833, he married 16-year-old Mary Ann Day who bore him seven more children. Brown and his growing family moved around the country while he tried his hand at a number of occupations, including tanner, farmer, cattle broker, and wool merchant.

In 1835, Brown's attempts to support his family and to repay money he had borrowed led to a disastrous "get rich quick" scheme. He convinced family members and friends to loan him money that he used to buy property where a canal was to be built. His timing proved unfortunate. In the wake of the Panic of 1837, plans for the proposed canal were changed and the properties bought up by Brown and his associates were rendered nearly worthless. Brown made numerous other attempts to reach financial solvency, but ultimately was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1842.

Throughout his life Brown remained committed to the anti-slavery cause. Brown met the great abolitionist leader frederick douglass in 1847 and impressed Douglass with his sympathy for African Americans—both slaves and freemen. In 1849, Brown moved his family to the black community of North Elba, New York. Brown proposed to show the residents of North Elba how to farm and to act as a mentor to them.

Brown was a participant in the Underground Railroad, an informal network of exslaves and sympathetic whites that helped slaves escape their masters and travel north to freedom. In 1851, he proposed the establishment of the League of Gileadites, an organization that would be used to protect escaped slaves.

In 1854, Congress passed the kansas-nebraska act, which called for the residents of the new territories to decide the issue of slavery by popular vote. The area became known as "bloody Kansas" as competing groups fought violent skirmishes aimed at securing the territories for their side. Many pro-slavery residents of Missouri moved across the border in hopes of securing a victory at the election.

"I believe to have interfered as I have done … in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it be deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice … I submit: so let it be done"
John Brown

Five of Brown's sons had moved to Kansas and they entreated their father to join them. In 1855, Brown moved to Kansas and began to plan for the armed conflict he felt was inevitable. In 1856, in response to escalating incidents including the sacking of the anti-slavery town of Lawrence, Kansas, and the near-fatal beating of U.S. Senator charles sumner who was attacked on the Senate floor by a pro-slavery congressman, Brown led a small band of men to Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas, where they killed five pro-slavery settlers. This violent action by Brown was hailed by a number of anti-slavery groups and universally reviled by pro-slavery forces.

In December 1858, Brown and a small group of followers staged a raid on two pro-slavery homesteads in Missouri where they succeeded in confiscating property and freeing 11 slaves. Brown and his group then traveled more than a thousand miles to deliver the former slaves to a boat that would carry them to freedom in Canada.

Although many abolitionists were opposed to violence, others had begun to adopt Brown's view that armed conflict was necessary in order to achieve the abolition of slavery. Between 1857 and 1859, Brown crisscrossed New England, giving rousing speeches to anti-slavery groups and raising money for the abolitionist cause. Among those who gave money were the Secret Six, a group of wealthy benefactors from Boston who helped Brown by funding the army he sought to lead in order to further conduct his war against slavery.

On October 16, 1859, the 59-year-old Brown led his Provisional Army, consisting of five black men and 21 whites (three of them his sons) in a nighttime raid on the town of Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Brown and his men cut telephone wires, took several hostages and gained control of the federal armory and arsenal. Brown's plan was to arm slaves with weapons from the arsenal, thus enabling them to fight for their freedom. However, he and his group found themselves pinned down by a group of local citizens and nearby militia groups who killed a number of his men including two of his sons.

On the morning of October 18, a contingent of U.S. marines led by Colonel Robert E. Lee joined the battle. Brown refused a chance to surrender and 36 hours after the raid had started, Brown and his remaining companions were captured. Brown was taken to Charles Town, Virginia, (now West Virginia) to be tried. In a trial that lasted for nearly a month, Brown was charged with murder, conspiracy, and treason against the state. He was found guilty of all three charges. Before hearing his sentence, Brown gave a brief but passionate statement to the court:

… I believe to have interfered as I have done … in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it be deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life to 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 submit: so let it be done.

Brown was hanged in Charles Town on December 2, 1859. On the day of his execution, guns were fired and bells tolled in many northern cities. Brown was hailed as a martyr of the abolitionist movement, which concluded that a peaceful solution could not be found. In April 1861, Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, an action that marked the beginning of the Civil War. In 1865, Congress passed the thirteenth amendment, which abolished slavery throughout the United States.

further readings

DeVillers, David. 2000. The John Brown Slavery Revolt Trial: A Headline Court Case. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow Publishers.

"John Brown's Holy War." PBS: The American Experience. Available online at <> (accessed June 18, 2003).

Lubet, Steven. 2001. "John Brown's Trial." Alabama Law Review 52 (winter): 425–466.

Oates, Stephen B. 1984. To Purge This Land With Blood. Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press.

Peterson, Merrill D. 2002. John Brown: The Legend Revisited. Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press.



Brown, John

views updated May 23 2018

Brown, John

BROWN, JOHN. (1744–1780). Patriot leader. Massachusetts. Born 19 October 1744 in Haverhill, Massachusetts, John Brown graduated from Yale in 1771 and was admitted to the bar in Tryon County, New York, the next year. In 1773 he settled in Pittsfield and became a prominent Patriot and member of the Committee of Correspondence. In February 1775 he volunteered for a mission to Montreal on behalf of the Boston Committee of Correspondence, with the dual purpose of evaluating Canadian sentiment toward the Revolution and of setting up a network of informers. He is one of several credited with the rather obvious thought that the Patriots should seize Ticonderoga. While traveling across New Hampshire on his way to Montreal, he had been struck by the strategic importance of the place, and, probably, its defenselessness at the time. On 29 March he reported to Adams and Warren in Boston, and he participated in the capture of Ticonderoga on 10 May 1775. Ethan Allen selected Brown to take the news of the victory to Congress.

Commissioned a major in Colonel James Easton's Regiment on 6 July, he conducted a reconnaissance into Canada during the period 24 July to 10 August and reported his findings to General Philip Schuyler at Crown Point, New York. The degree to which Brown's scouting contributed to the advance of General Richard Montgomery's wing of the invasion of Canada is uncertain, but Brown figures prominently in all accounts of the operation. In September he notoriously abandoned Allen during the attack on Montreal, leading to the capture of Allen's entire force. The following month he played a significant part in the capture of Chambly, Quebec, on 19 October. Brown and Easton drove Allen McLean's Royal Highland Emigrants down the Sorel River to the St. Lawrence, and took over works that their foes had started at this strategic spot, capturing several tons of gunpowder.

During the Quebec siege, Brown's insubordination to Benedict Arnold would have resulted in his removal from the scene if General Montgomery had not intervened. Brown and Arnold clashed repeatedly over the next year, exchanging charges and calls for courts martial. Having been appointed lieutenant colonel of Colonel James Elmore's Connecticut Regiment on 1 August 1776, Brown took part in the fighting around Lake Champlain. He resigned in February 1777, citing his disagreements with Arnold as the cause. During General John Burgoyne's offensive, Brown returned to the field and took part in the Ticonderoga raid of 18 September 1777, surprising a British force and taking nearly 300 prisoners while freeing 100 Americans. After service at Bemis Heights, New York, Brown again returned to his law practice. Elected to the General Court in 1778, Brown became judge of the county court in February 1779. In the summer of 1780 he marched to the Mohawk Valley with the Massachussetts levies that were called out to oppose the Loyalist-Indian raids in the region. In an ambush near Fort Keyser on 19 October 1780, Brown and 45 of his men were killed.

SEE ALSO Fort Keyser, New York; Ticonderoga Raid.


Howe, Archibald M. Colonel John Brown of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Boston: W. B. Clarke, 1908.

                                   revised by Michael Bellesiles

Brown, John (1826-1883)

views updated Jun 08 2018

Brown, John (1826-1883)

The personal servant of Queen Victoria, (1819-1901) from December 1865 until his death. A rough-mannered Highland gillie (attendant on a Scottish chieftain), he became fascinated with the queen of England during her visits to Balmoral Castle, Scotland, and later at Osborne House, Isle of Wight. Their unusually close association gave rise to many rumors and spiteful gossip.

Brown was born at Crathie, near Balmoral, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, December 8, 1826. He first came to the notice of Queen Victoria during her visits to the Scottish Highlands, when Brown served as her outdoor personal attendant. After the death of her beloved Prince Albert, the widowed queen came to rely heavily on the companionship of Brown, after he had been summoned by her to Osborne House in 1864. He had brought the queen's favorite Highland pony "Lochnagar," and soon afterward, the kilted, red-whiskered Highlander became a privileged associate of the queen, and enjoyed powerful influence. Rumor had it that he was even her secret lover or that he took part in Spiritualist séances with her.

It was an open secret that the queen had a special interest in Spiritualism, particularly after the death of Prince Albert. She certainly held a number of séances and is said to have used the services of medium Robert James Lees.

Brown died March 27, 1883, at Windsor Castle and was buried at Crathie cemetery. He was praised by the queen in the Court Circular as her "best and truest friend," and she had a statue erected to him at Balmoral.


Underwood, Peter. Queen Victoria's Other World. London: Harrap, 1868.

Victoria, Queen. Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands. Smith, Elder, 1868.

Williams, Henry L. Life of John Brown. for 30 Years Person al Attendant of The Queen. London: E. Smith, 1883.

Brown, John

views updated May 21 2018

Brown, John

Brown, John English writer; b. Rothbury, Northumberland, Nov. 5, 1715; d. (suicide) Newcastle upon Tyne, Sept. 23, 1766. He became vicar of Great Horkesley, Essex, in 1754, and of St. Nicholas’s, Newcastle, in 1758. He is the author of Dissertation on the Rise, Union, and Power, the Progressions, Separations and Corruptions of Poetry and Music, to which is prefixed The Cureof Saul, A Sacred Ode (London, 1763). A revised ed. was publ. in 1764 as The History of the Rise and Progress of Poetry, through Its Several Species (Fr. tr., Paris, 1768; Ger. tr., Leipzig, 1769; It. tr., 1772).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire

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