To understand John Brown is to understand his background. The events for which he is most known, the guerilla warfare in Kansas and the raid on the federal armory in Virginia, occurred when John Brown was in his late fifties. For most of his life, John Brown was a simple man, a farmer, a shepherd, and a trader. However, he was, first and foremost, an abolitionist. This section will demonstrate how this simple man became nation’s most important anti-slavery warrior.
Slave boy, 1855
John Brown was born into a deeply religious Calvinist Puritan family. Although his parents were fervently anti-slavery, it was his own personal experience with this institution that made him “a most determined Abolitionist.” During the War of 1812, he drove his father’s cattle to the American forces many miles away. On one trip, twelve-year-old John stayed with a man who owned a slave boy. While the man treated John nicely and praised him for being so independent, his reaction to the black boy he owned was entirely different:
The negro boy (who was fully if not more than [my] equal) was badly clothed, poorly fed; and lodged in cold weather: & beaten before [my] eyes with Iron Shovels or any other thing that came first to hand. This brought [me] to reflect on the wretched, hopeless condition, of Fatherless & Motherless slave children. 1
From a young age, the hatred of slavery was deeply rooted in his soul. The image of such injustice haunted John Brown for the rest of his life.
Although it was a crime to harbor runaway slaves, John Brown, along with many others, accepted the risk and welcomed fugitive slaves in his house. Once, a slave came knocking on the door and asked to help him to evade the pursuers. Brown took him into his cabin and made him hide in the bush after they heard the horses approaching. The alarm proved to be neighbors coming back from town. John Brown went into dark to look for the fugitive:
I found him behind a log, and I heard his heart thumping before I reached him. At that I vowed eternal enmity to slavery. 2
Despite the dangers of repercussion, John Brown became a busy stationmaster in the Ohio branch of the Underground Railroad, hiding runaway slaves in his barn and transporting them farther north towards freedom.
Runaway slave being caught
As Our Own
At 34, Brown writes a letter to his brother Frederick about two ways to help blacks, adopting a slave boy and opening up a school for blacks. This is the first written reference by Brown to any plan to help blacks:
I’ve been trying to devise some means whereby I might do something in a practical way for my poor fellow-men who are in bondage, and [my wife and my boys] have agreed to get at least one negro boy or youth, and bring him up as we do our own. I have for years been trying to devise some way to get a school a-going here for blacks. Perhaps we might in that way do more towards breaking their yoke effectually than in any other. 3
In the letter, John Brown points out that teaching blacks would effect slavery “like firing powder confined in rock” because it would shake the institution to its foundation, as evident in the example of former slave and famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
John Brown’s earliest known portrait
In 1837, for the first time, John Brown declared his hatred of slavery publicly. It happened after the murder of abolitionist editor Elijah P. Lovejoy. After being harassed for over ten years from Missouri to Illinois, Lovejoy was attacked once more by a large pro-slavery mob who threatened to destroy his printing press for the fourth time. In the ensuing gunfire, Lovejoy was killed with the shotgun. His death sent a shockwave among the abolitionists throughout the country. After a prayer meeting at the local church concluded, John Brown, who sat silently in the back, rose and lifted his right hand saying:
Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery! 4
No longer did John Brown act in secrecy. He started to think about more practical ways of helping the liberation of slaves. If the murder of Lovejoy pushed many abolitionists towards pacifism and non-resistance, Brown became more militant after that incident.
The Basis of My Plan
After ten years since the murder of Elijah P. Lovejoy, another important event happens in John Brown’s life. He finally meets the leading spokesman for blacks, abolitionist Frederick Douglass. After they have a dinner at Brown’s house, they started talking about the issue of slavery. Shortly, John Brown showed Douglass a map f the United States and pointed to the Allegheny Mountains, stretching from Pennsylvania down through Virginia:
These mountains are the basis of my plan. God [has] placed [them] here for the emancipation of the negro race. The true object to be sought is first of all to destroy the money value of slave property; and that can only be done by rendering such property insecure. 5
Frederick Douglass, 1847-52
John Brown believed that slavery could be driven out of the United States using simple economics. He planned to pick a small band of soldiers and establish a base, a colony from which he would make raids into the plantations to free slaves. John Brown passionately proclaimed that slavery was a “state of war” and that blacks have every right to “fight for their freedom,” but it didn’t convince Douglass to change his pacifist views. Although Frederick Douglass did not agree with Brown’s plan, he was impressed by the anti-slavery passion of John Brown. This meeting helped Brown define and modify the plan more thoroughly.
In 1850, United States passed notorious law, Fugitive Slave Act, which gave federal marshals the right to pursue and capture runaway slaves. In response to that law and to many people being captured, John Brown founded a militant group for blacks, the League of Gileadites, in Springfield, Massachusetts. Biblical Mount Gilead was the place were only the bravest of Israelites would gather to face the invading enemy. John Brown starts his address to the volunteers with these words:
Nothing so charmes the American people as personal bravery. [Blacks] would have ten times the number [of whites friends than] they now have were they but half as much in earnest to secure their dearest rights as they are to ape the follies and extravagances of their white neighbors, and to indulge in idle show, in ease, and in luxury. 6
John Brown speaking to the League of Gileadites
John Brown firmly believed that in order to “have self respect, or be respected,” one must fight for their freedom. He declared that the members of the group must arm themselves and study their weapons, and attack the slave-catchers as a group, and other measures to ensure that none of the blacks would be captured by the proslavery forces. Many of the advices that he gave to Gileadites, such as acting fast, quiet, and efficiently, were implemented by him in later struggle.
This speech was revolutionary and innovative. Even though many have accused John Brown of acting treasonously in Kansas and Virginia, he was always an American patriot who was deeply upset at how his country did not live up to its cherished ideals of liberty. He formed the Gileadites not as an act against the United States: he made the members pledge an allegiance to “the flag of our beloved country, always acting under it.”
Land of Canaan
The farm in North Elba, NY
John Brown always viewed his business endeavors as a way to accumulate wealth that he could use for the cause of his life, abolition of slavery. However when he failed many times in the commercial world, his attention was drawn towards the lands in North Elba, New York that the rich abolitionist Gerrit Smith was giving away to blacks so they could establish their own settlement and own property. Brown welcomed the gesture and offered to settle there to live with those “poor despised Africans” and help in the rural environment to blacks who were mostly city-dwellers.
The life in North Elba was harsh and was destined to fail, mostly due to the poor agricultural potential of the cold Northern land. However, as a community where blacks and whites were living and working side by side, it was an important and rewarding place for John Brown. It was his Canaan. He once said:
Nothing but a strong sense of duty, obligation, and propriety would keep me from laying my bones to rest there. 7
And the duty called. When the controversial Kansas–Nebraska Act was passed in 1854, many settlers from both North and South poured into Kansas Territory to determine the fate of the slavery and simply to start a new life. Among these settlers were three of John Brown’s sons. Even though they asked their father to join them, he at first backed off by saying that he was “commited to operate in another field.” Some historians think this may be the first reference to Harpers Ferry plan, however others say it is simply his commitment to black settlers in North Elba.
After consulting with his family members, abolitionist and black friends, John Brown finally decides to go to Kansas “as more likely to benefit the colored people on the whole” than staying in North Elba. This decision was fateful not only for Brown himself, but for the whole nation.
Next - Kansas
- 1 Ruchames, Louis. John Brown: the Making of a Revolutionary (New York: Grosset’s Universal Library, 1969), 46.
- 2 Villard, Oswald Garrison. John Brown 1800-1859: A Biography Fifty Years After (New York : Houghton Mifflin Company, 1910), 18.
- 3 Ruchames, Louis. John Brown: the Making of a Revolutionary (New York: Grosset’s Universal Library, 1969), 50-51.
- 4 Ruchames, Louis. John Brown: the Making of a Revolutionary (New York: Grosset’s Universal Library, 1969), 189.
- 5 Ruchames, Louis. John Brown: the Making of a Revolutionary (New York: Grosset’s Universal Library, 1969), 294.
- 6 Ruchames, Louis. John Brown: the Making of a Revolutionary (New York: Grosset’s Universal Library, 1969), 84-85.
- 7 Sanborn, Franklin Benjamin. The life and letters of John Brown: liberator of Kansas, and martyr of Virginia (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1885), 76.