By Gary W. Gallagher, University of Virginia
John Brown, on the surface, was a failure in life. He’d tried a number of businesses, he’d gone bankrupt more than once, he’d stolen horses, he lied frequently about his activities, and he struck many mid-19th century Americans as insane. They pointed out that there was insanity in his family, and concluded that he must be insane as well. In Kansas, when the fighting broke out, John Brown was right in the midst of it.
John Brown’s Belief
Brown became one of the bloodiest of the free-state warriors in Kansas, and participated in a number of murders when he was in Kansas—the famous Pottawatomie Massacre, in which a number of proslavery people were hacked to death.
He became, as a result of these activities in Kansas, quite well known across much of the United States. He was a hero to abolitionists across the United States, black and white. He was a devil to many pro-southern whites in the South and even in the North. Brown was a believer in immediate emancipation.
In 1859, he was living near Harpers Ferry, Virginia, now West Virginia, plotting to seize the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Once he did that, he hoped that he could arm slaves.
He hoped that slaves would congregate around him, and that he could march southward through the Blue Ridge Mountains first, and then eventually even deeper into the South, with slaves running away from their masters, joining him, being armed, and in the end creating an army of liberation that through violent means would kill the institution of slavery.
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A Failed Operation
On October 16, Brown and his followers—17 white men and five black men—moved into Harpers Ferry. They exchanged some shots. One local black man was killed early on, but there wasn’t a great rallying to John Brown in October 1859, and he and his small party took refuge in a fire engine house.
Soon, the Virginia militia and some federal troops—marines under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee, who happened to be in Washington and was put in charge of this little group—moved out to Harpers Ferry.
They surrounded the structure, and a quick attack ended with the marines battering down the door of the engine house, and subduing Brown and the survivors of his little band. Ten of the raiders were dead, including two of John Brown’s sons. Four local people also lay dead, and one marine. John Brown himself was badly wounded.
Brown: A Symbol of Dignity and Glory
Brown was tried and subsequently hanged by the state of Virginia. Six of his followers were also executed. However, the raid proved electrifying as propaganda. Brown had struck a violent blow for the emancipation of slaves, and for this, northern abolitionists made him into a demigod.
His dignified conduct during his trial, and the calmness with which he met his death on the gallows made him into a symbol for many northerners as well. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Transcendentalist and abolitionist, wrote that Brown would, “make the gallows as glorious as the cross.”
On the day Brown was executed, bells tolled across much of the North.
The South’s Reaction
The South reacted in horror to John Brown’s raid, especially when it came out in the course of the trial that northern abolitionists had provided money to underwrite Brown’s effort.
Here is the worst southern slaveholders’ nightmare made real, northerners helping to arm southern slaves for a race war that would spread death and disorder across the South. On some level, slaveholders could understand why a slave might rise up to throw off bondage, but this was white northerners orchestrating it, and it proved to the South’s satisfaction that the North would do anything to interfere with the South’s social system.
There was even less tolerance after John Brown’s raid for opinions that differed from the orthodox stand of defense of slavery as a positive good. There seemed a real possibility that before long the South might be called upon, in the minds of southern slaveholders, to defend itself against its own slaves who had been armed by white northerners.
The Outcome of Brown’s Raid
John Brown’s raid brought an emotional polarization of the sections that helped set the stage for the secession crisis that was just about a year off.
In the aftermath of Harpers Ferry, a southerner named Hinton Rowan Helper published a book called The Impending Crisis of the South. Helper called on non-slaveholding southerners to repudiate slavery, because it acted as an economic break on southern development by concentrating wealth in the hands of the planter class.
This scared the planters. And when some Republican politicians endorsed Helper’s view, the idea took hold in the South that a Republican in the White House might try to encourage class warfare in the South. Such a man, thought the planters, would be intolerable.
Common Questions about John Brown
A failure in his life, he struck many Americans as insane in the mid-19th century. John Brown would later become one the most violent free-state warriors in Kansas.
His dignified act, calmness and conduct during his trial made John Brown an iconic fallen hero for many Northerners.
John Brown’s raid helped set the stage for the secession crisis about a year later.