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John Brown, Anti-Slavery Zealot

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His zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine. I could live for the slave, but he could die for him.
- Frederick Douglass


John Brown was born in Torrington, Connecticut, USA, on 9 May, 1800, the fourth of eight children born to Owen and Ruth Brown and of 16 children fathered by Owen in the course of his three marriages. His family was religious in the extreme and considered slavery a sin. Brown's father was a man who acted on his beliefs and so was involved with the Underground Railroad, helping escaped slaves make their way north to freedom and relative safety.

The Brown family moved to Hudson, Ohio in 1805, where John spent the remainder of his childhood. Here, he came to resent the compulsory education mandated by the government, to love the Bible and to hate slavery. By many popular accounts, Brown's passionate anti-slavery views were solidified when, at the age of seven, he saw a slave child of about his age beaten very nearly to the point of death with a shovel. This event has not been documented and can be neither proved or disproved.

What can be documented are the more mundane facts that he herded cattle for the army of General William Hull during the War of 1812 and later served as foreman of his father's tannery.

The Failed Businessman

In 1820, Brown married Dianthe Lusk, with whom he had seven children. The Browns moved to Pennsylvania and opened a tannery of their own. Shortly after Dianthe's death in 1832, Brown married the then 16-year-old Mary Anne Day, with whom he had another 13 children.

Brown was not as successful at running businesses as he was at fathering children. He built and sold several tanneries, invested in land, worked as a land surveyor, tried his hand at farming, raised sheep and established a brokerage for wool-growers. During this time, he moved his family to Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York.

Not one of Brown's ventures was successful, due to a combination of his own ineptitude as a businessman and some genuine bad luck. Brown, along with thousands of others, lost everything in the financial panic of 1837 and, in 1842, had to file for bankruptcy.

His Mission Defined

It was also in 1837 that Brown's anti-slavery sentiments became the focal point of his life. On 7 November, 1837, Elijah Lovejoy, a clergyman who published an anti-slavery newspaper, was murdered by a mob in Illinois. A memorial service for Lovejoy was held in the town where Brown was living at the time: Hudson, Ohio.

From where he was sitting in the back of the church, Brown stood, raised his right hand and spoke the words that cemented his mission in life from that point forward.

'Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery.'

In 1847, the Black abolitionist leader, Frederick Douglass, met Brown in Springfield, Massachusetts. In his book Life and Times, Douglass had this to say of Brown:

He denounced slavery in look and language fierce and bitter, thought that slaveholders had forfeited their right to live, that the slaves had the right to gain their liberty in any way they could, did not believe that moral suasion would ever liberate the slave, or that political action would abolish the system.

In 1849 Brown and his family moved to a community founded in North Elba, New York, on 120,000 acres donated by the anti-slavery campaigner Gerrit Smith for the use of any black families who were willing to clear and farm the land. His intention seems to have been to lead the blacks by his example and to act as a 'kind father to them.'

Direct Action

The pro-slavery diplomats within the United States succeeded in forcing the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. The Act made it a crime to hide or in any way assist escaped slaves, even in the free states. The penalty was $1,000 (about two years' income for the typical wage-earner of that time) and up to six months in jail. The Fugitive Slave Act was part of The Compromise of 1850, a set of laws enacted not because they were necessarily deserving of enactment, but as a desperate measure to try to preserve the Union.

In reaction to this new law, Brown helped to found the League of Gileadites, which worked with the Underground Railroad to help fugitive slaves make their way to the safety of Canada. Members of this League: men, women, black, white, all pledged to arm themselves against slavery and to 'be hanged, if you must.' Brown came to consider himself to have literally been given directly by God the task of ending slavery and making slave owners pay for their sins.

Old Brown of Osawatomie

Every June, the residents of the town of Osawatomie, Kansas, hold a pageant to select a high school girl to be that year's 'John Brown Queen'. John Brown plays a central part in the town's history, although not necessarily a part that most towns would want to commemorate. He was directly responsible for the murder of five unarmed men near that town in 1856.

In 1854, the United States government dealt another blow to the anti-slavery movement, repealing a law that stated that slavery would not be allowed in new territories seeking statehood, and passing the Kansas and Nebraska Act. This new law stated that the Kansas and Nebraska territories could be admitted as either free or slave states, based on the outcome of an election to be held in each territory. This led directly to what became known as the 'Bleeding Kansas' period of that state's history.

Initially, the Southern, pro-slavery forces controlled the territory. They passed their own laws that, among other things, made the speaking or writing against slavery punishable by 'hard labour for a term not less than two years,' and ruled that only those who had publicly taken a pro-slavery stance could hold office or serve on juries.

People opposed to slavery were encouraged to settle in Kansas in response to the earlier influx of slavery supporters. The logic was that the land was free, so they could vote to make it a free state. Five of Brown's sons did so, followed shortly thereafter by Brown himself, in August of 1855. It was here that Brown first came into the national spotlight.

There were arguments, threats, and violence on both sides. A great number of pro-slavery individuals set up shop along the Missouri-Kansas border, and soon earned the title 'border ruffians'. In May 1856, one such group killed two men and burned the entire town of Lawrence, Kansas, to the ground, due to that town's anti-slavery stance.

Along with six of his followers (including four of his sons), Brown led a mission of retribution. Acting in the middle of the night under cover of darkness, the group dragged five different pro-slavery men from their homes along the nearby Pottawatomie Creek and hacked them to death, mutilating all of them and beheading at least two with swords. In one case, they set a cabin on fire to force their target out.

The events of that night became known as the Pottawatomie Massacre and brought Brown to national attention, earning him the nickname 'Old Brown of Osawatomie'. A play entitled Osawatomie Brown appeared on Broadway shortly after the massacre. There were no arrests after the massacre, just as there were no arrests after the destruction of Lawrence. The Kansas Territory was in a virtual state of civil war, with bands on both sides styling themselves as legitimate militias. Violence was the order of the day.

In addition, Charles Robinson, who had been elected governor of the Kansas Territory on 15 January, 1856, was almost as militant in the anti-slavery cause as was Brown himself, as evidenced by his written statement in February of 1858.

I never had much doubt that Capt Brown was the author of the blow at Pottawatomie, for the reason that he was the only man who comprehended the situation, and saw the absolute necessity of some such blow, and had the nerve to strike it.

The public's reaction to this adventure would seem to prove the saying that 'one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter.' Whether Brown and his companions heroically saved the lives and homes of those in the community opposed to slavery, committed cowardly murders or fell somewhere between these two extremes depended entirely on an individual's position in regards to slavery. Brown, of course, was convinced that he was doing the work of God. His own words, in a letter written shortly after the massacre, were 'We feel assured that He, who does not see as men see, will not lay the guilt of innocent blood to our charge.'

Kansas ultimately joined the Union in 1861 as a free state, after several Southern states had seceded.

Guns and Money

In January 1857, Brown began travelling the eastern United States to raise money for the continuation of his personal holy war against slavery. A clandestine group of Brown's wealthier supporters in New England, known as the Secret Six, made significant financial contributions (expressly for the purpose of enabling Brown and his followers to purchase guns and pikes) and helped with the planning of the hoped-for slave uprising.

The Secret Six were:

When they learned that news of Brown's intended raid on Harpers Ferry had been leaked to the forces working against Brown, the Secret Six suggested that he go to Kansas and make his presence known there, as a way of distancing himself from Harpers Ferry while they continued their fundraising for that raid1

In December 1858, Brown and a few of his followers crossed the Kansas border into Missouri, attacking two slave-holding homesteads and stealing (or liberating, depending on one's point of view) 11 slaves. Brown and his men personally led this group of freed slaves on an overland journey of over 1,000 miles, which ended on 12 March, 1859, when the entire group (plus the baby who had been born en route) safely boarded a ferry boat heading to Canada.

One man had been killed in the initial raid, which lead to Brown being labelled as a murderer and thief, and to President Buchanan offering a reward of $250 for his capture. Brown responded by offering $2.50 for the arrest of Buchanan.

Arrest, Trial and Execution

The raid on Harpers Ferry proved that Brown's military abilities were on a par with his abilities as a businessman. It was, by any standard, an abysmal failure for Brown and his supporters. Brown had expected a mass of slaves to seize the opportunity for freedom which he believed he was presenting and join him in a massive uprising. The assumption was that they would arm themselves with the more than 100,000 weapons stored by the United States government at the arsenal in the town. Instead, he found himself boxed in by the citizens of the town and, ultimately, arrested, tried, convicted and executed.

Legend has it that, on his way to the gallows, Brown stopped and kissed an enslaved child being held up by his or her mother. This legend started with an article in the New York Tribune on 6 December, 1859, which included that bit of 'creative reporting', which was reprinted in a number of other newspapers and in early John Brown biographies, and was reinforced by a painting by Louis Ransom, depicting this fictitious event.

The Song

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

He's gone to be a soldier in the Army of the Lord
His soul goes marching on.

We'll feed old Jeff Davis sour apples
'til he gets the diarhee

- Members of the Second Battalion of Massachusetts Infantry at Fort Warren

Anyone who has heard this famous song can recognise that it refers to the subject of this Entry. Less widely known is the fact that had the members of the Second Battalion of Massachusetts Infantry at Fort Warren not included among their members a small-framed, unimpressive appearing man of the same name, the song would never have been composed.

Like many marching songs, the words to this one were composed and revised spontaneously, based on the circumstances in which the singers found themselves. Verses have been added, dropped and altered so often that there are dozens of variations of the original song being sung today. The tune came from a camp meeting song composed by William Steffe in about 1856. Steffe's version, which included the refrain of 'Glory, Glory, Hallelujah' that was retained in 'John Brown's Body', started with the words 'Say, brothers, will you meet us on Canaan's happy shore'? That same tune was later used for 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic'.

Some Quotations By and About John Brown

I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with Blood.
- John Brown
I can trust God with both the time and the manner of my death, believing as I now do that for me at this time to seal my testimony for God and humanity with my blood will do vastly more toward advancing the cause I have earnestly endeavoured to promote than all I have done in my life before.
- John Brown
I think, my friend, you are guilty of a great wrong against God and humanity. I say it without wishing to be offensive - and it would be perfectly right for anyone to interfere with you so far as to free those you wilfully and wickedly hold in bondage. I do not say this insultingly. I think I did right and that others will do right who interfere with you at any time and all times. I hold that the golden rule, 'Do unto others as you would that others should do unto you,' applies to all who would help others to gain their liberty.
- John Brown, after his arrest, addressing United States Senator Mason, sponsor of the Fugitive Slave act
I wish I could say that Brown was the representative of the North. He was a superior man. He did not value his bodily life in comparison with ideal things. He did not recognize unjust human laws, but resisted them as he was bid. For once we are lifted out of the trivialness and dust of politics into the region of truth and manhood. No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature, knowing himself for a man, and the equal of any and all governments.
- Henry David Thoreau
Men like Brown may die, but their acts and principles will live forever. Call it fanaticism, folly, madness, wickedness, but until virtue becomes fanaticism, divine wisdom folly, obedience to God madness, and piety wickedness, John Brown, inspired with these high and holy teachings, will rise up before the world with his calm, marble features, most terrible in death and defeat, than in life and victory. It is one of those acts of madness which history cherished and poetry loves forever to adorn with her choicest wreaths of laurel.
- Lucius Bierce, uncle of author Ambrose Bierce
[The execution of John Brown will] make the gallows as glorious as the cross.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
When John Brown stretched forth his arm the sky was cleared - the armed hosts of freedom stood face to face over the chasm of a broken union, and the clash of arms was at hand.
- Frederick Douglass
1It is worth noting that, although they both made financial contributions to Brown, there is no evidence that either Thoreau or Emerson had advance knowledge of his planned assault on the government arsenal at Harpers Ferry.

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