If you ask nearly anyone in America about John Brown (these 160 years after his death) , they will usually answer that he was an abolitionist and/or a terrorist. Many people know he led an attack on the Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, and some know he also lead his followers to massacre slavers in Kansas. But few folks know much beyond these several basic facts. There are few who know much about his daily struggles to free those in bondage. Few people know much about the times that shaped him as a man and leader. They know little about the times in which he lived. Most people do not know that in the 58 years of his life that the United States more than doubled in size. That the U.S. population increased six times over. That America fought (and won) four international wars. Few know that great national movements, to free those held in captivity and to grant equal rights to women, rose to national prominence. Few folks these days realize that the tensions within the new American Republic grew so great that the Republic nearly ended just two years after John Brown's death. And few know just how great an influence John Brown had on many of these events and on many of the key leaders of American life.
During the short 58 years of John Brown's life of 1801 to 1859, Thomas Jefferson was elected President. The territories of the U.S. were greatly expanded by the Louisiana Purchase from France and by the acquisition of the S.W. lands from Mexico. Land was purchased from Spain in southern Florida and land disputes with Britain along the Canadian border were settled and the young America acquired control of the Oregon Territories. 17 States, stretching from Ohio to California, were admitted to the Union. America fought the War of 1812 against Britain, Black Hawk's War against several Native American tribes, the Mexican-American War, and two Barbary Wars against four African states (which did much to open safe shipping in the Mediterranean). The Mormons reached the Great Salt Lake and the Gold Rush began. The Supreme Court (in what is often called the Court's worst ever) decision of Dred Scott vs Sandford was reached. Farming was revolutionized by the invention of the McCormack Reaper. The US population grew from 5 million to over 31 million. Abraham Lincoln was nominated for President.
The first half of the 18th century was a time of great philosophical, social, moral, economic and governmental ferment and change. Henry David Thoreau was at Walden Pond, writing of the virtues of "simple living", disobedience to an unjust state, abolitionism, and "when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have". Charles Darwin published his Origin of the Species, which was to forever change the relationship of science, religion and government. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin, that for the first time effected all peoples thinking on slavery and the nature of equality. Ralph Waldo Emerson would give over 1500 public lectures on the infinitude of the private man. The great novelist, Louisa May Alcott, would serve as a station master on the Underground Railroad. William Lloyd Garrison, prominent American abolitionist, journalist, suffragist, and social reformer would write: "Enslave the liberty of but one human being and the liberties of the world are put in peril.".
Manifest Destiny was on everyone's mind as the young American Republic expanded it's western boundaries. But, as states sought admission to the Union there was always the first question of "Slave or Free". The Southern States wanted an even balance of free and slave states so that they would not be overwhelmed by a possibly hostile majority in Congress. The Missouri Compromise of 1840 established that slavery would not be allowed north of the 36th parallel of the Louisiana Purchase, but that slavery could exist south of that line. The Compromise of 1850 admitted California as a free state. And in 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act opened new territories to slavery. Along with these agreements and compromises, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 would permit slave owners to travel anywhere within the United States and use any means necessary to reclaim their "property" and that all escaped slaves, upon capture, would be returned to their masters and that citizens and officials of free states had to cooperate. The Whig Party would form and elect two Presidents. They would advocate "..protections for minority interests against majority tyranny.", thus seeming to both protect the southern slave states and guarantee freedom to negroes in the north. But by 1850 these contradictions became too much. And the Whig Party split into the southern pro-slavery American Party (which shortly became the Democrat Party) and northern abolitionist Republicans. The former Whigs would soon elect a Republican President, Abraham Lincoln.
During these short 58 years of John Brown's life, great social movements would arise:
~~There were many of the opinion that the only “true” woman was a pious, submissive wife and mother concerned exclusively with home and family. While others believed passionately in women's right to vote. In 1848, delegates to the Seneca Falls Convention agreed that: "American women were autonomous individuals who deserved their own political identities".
~~In many churches abolition of slavery became a much talked about topic. The Congregational Church of Richfield, Ohio (The third church established in the new territories of what was then called the Western Reserve of Connecticut) declared that: "-This church believes slavery as it exists in the United States is a sin of the blackest dye: abominable in the sight of God, cruel and oppressive in the extreme to the enslaved and a blusting and mildew upon every branch of the church of Christ with which it is directly or indirectly connected. -That this church believes that if slavery is sinful then the slaveholders are sinners and ought to be treated as any other class of habitual sinners. -That this church can hold no fellowship with slaveholders or slave holding churches, or such ministers, or members, that are advocates of this wicked system.". Many churches throughout the northern states adopted quite similar stances.
~~Alcohol began to be labeled an evil, and evangelical reformers and many among particularly the middle classes joined the Temperance Union, which became a national force starting in the 1820's.
~~And most importantly, the voices of former slaves began to be heard. While many Southerners and some Darwin evolutionists declared negroes to be less than human, Marcus Garvey wrote that: "Every man has a right to his own opinion. Every race has a right to its own action: therefore let no man persuade you against your will, let no other race influence against your own. Harriet Tubman recounted in public speeches: "I looked at my hands, to see if I was the same person now that I was free. There was such a glory over everything: the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields and I felt like I was in heaven." Frederick Douglas wrote that: "The white man's happiness cannot be purchased by the black man's misery." He declared, "[Y]our national greatness, -swelling vanity; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgiving, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety and hypocrisy --a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages." Frederick Douglas wrote, in words as eloquent as any man, of any race, of any culture, of any time or place, that, "No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.".
HOW DID ALL THIS NATIONAL FERMENT & CHANGE PERSONALLY EFFECT JOHN BROWN?
While we can not know of a certainly how they affected him, we can make a probable good guess. When you ask nearly anyone about John Brown, those that know anything at all about him, nearly always fall back to some variation of "Wasn't he that guy that tried to free the slaves, but turned into a terrorist?" They sometimes cite what happened at Osawatomie, Kansas as an example of his aggressions, while having no understanding of what actually happened there. ~~It's a long and somewhat complicated story, not really given to easy interpretation, but at that time in American history the South insisted that for every Free State that entered the Union, a Slave State must also be admitted. Kansas was in dispute, so before the vote of the people of Kansas to self-determine how they would seek Statehood (as Free or Slave), the Southern States sent in "temporary residents" who were mostly ruffians and often criminals and the North sent farmers and folks who wanted to be permanent settlers. Among those free state'rs and farmers were several members of John Brown's family. When they and their fellow townsfolk were attacked by gangs of slave state advocates, John Brown went to Kansas to help protect his sons from attack. In the context of the times, self-defense was perfectly reasonable. If a person wants to grow corn and somebody else tries to intimidate or kill them, and where you live is not yet organized to protect you from such aggression, then you must see to your family's own defense. This they did. They reacted to aggression, the burning of their farms, and often murder, -by defending themselves. That is not "terrorism", that's just common sense and what families have always done for each other. It was a lesson John Brown would carry the rest of his life.
And then there is Harper's Ferry. "Another" supposed example of Brown's terrorist activities. With great outrage, they say that "John Brown killed two innocent men" during the raid. But, again, folks in our modern times have almost no awareness of life before the Civil War, and how those events caused certain individuals to react in certain ways. The death of any individual is always tragic, especially when innocent. But Brown and the men with him had no intention of killing the blameless. They only intended to help stop the daily torture and death of the thousands and even millions.
When John Brown lived in Richfield, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was largely being ignored. That Act allowed slave owners to forcibly retake their property. But fortunately, most northern states intentionally neglected to enforce that Act. Several even passed laws that gave the escaped the right to a jury trial and also tried to protect free negroes who were being abducted by bounty hunters and then sold into slavery.
So the Abolitionists and John Brown and others that believed in freedom for all were able to, without too much personal consequence or threat, somewhat peacefully help any who escaped bondage and sought liberty. There are some folks these days say that such actions were a wonderful nonviolent creative solution that should have continued till the "problem" of slavery was solved. But even though the "creative solution" of the Underground Railroad to relieve such a horrible stain was somewhat effective, the daily fact of so much suffering by so many people was terribly wearing on the advocates of freedom. Every day they welcomed, and concealed, escaped slaves into their homes. And everyday they witnessed the horrors that slavery inflicted. They listened to stories of family's divided, overwhelming fear of recapture, broken bodies, abject poverty of people on the run for their lives, stories of beatings and rape and death, the plain evidence of torture and worse, and the soul searing cry's of "Let us free!" It had to have been most awful to witness. But still, freedom loving people were able to help those most in need of help without need of resorting to violence. They organized into "creative solutions" to horror. But it enacted a terrible price on all those who witnessed such brutality. It wore them down, year by year, decade by decade. Everyday it seemingly never to end.
Particularly it wore on John Brown. He traveled much more than the usual American. He spent time with many of the escaped and with many of their great orators and leaders in all parts of the country. He was friends with most of the great intellectuals of the day, including Thoreau and Frederick Douglas and Emerson and Harriet Tubman, and others. Those personal experiences and conversations naturally heightened his awareness, and outrage, of what was happening in much of the United States. He was a deeply Christian man who was affected by the Second Great Awakening, that did so much to create and promote a vivid Christian experience, Abolitionism, Women's Rights and common sense moral reasoning. He attended so many more churches and listened to so many more sermons than the average believer. It wasn't just his home church minister who advocated for freedom. It was from ministers across the country that he heard such words. He read far more of the many newspapers and magazines of his day in the many cities he visited, than most other less traveled citizens. The words and photos of slavery's inhumanity, depicted in several of this website's other sections, so affected him. All of this combined to increase his utter hatred of evil. But still, he continued advocating for a peaceful solution.
Then things changed. Those "creative solutions" became much more consequential to follow. The United States Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. After all the years of organizing and lecturing and writing and working for the freedom for all by so many Americans, the government in Washington went even further to protect evil. That Act allowed slave owners, or their hired thugs, to travel anywhere in any part of the U.S. to take back their property by any means. And if you stood in their way, you could be beat down, even killed, and it was legal. Slavery was no longer just a State Right, that other States could ignore. Slavery had become a Federally protected institution. The Underground Railroad that had helped so many to freedom, became a very dangerous "solution" to follow. At best, if you gave even a drink of water to a person running for their life, you could go to Federal prison. At worst, you too could die.
The hope for the gradual freeing of the slaves seemed to end. There was no lessening of slavery. It was not an institution that would hopefully gradually fade away. It was just getting worse. Even beyond just the politics of the day conditions grew more desperate. In the late 1850's Charles Darwin published his Origin of the Species. And slave holders used it to claim that the African negroes weren't even human. They were only fit for use, little different than an ox or other beast of burden. Their very humanity was erased with a simple word.
Then the Supreme Court issued the Dred Scott decision. It said that Scott (or any other person of African ancestry) was not allowed to claim citizenship in the United States. They had no Rights. That decision was shorty followed by another in 1859, with the Court upholding the hated Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. That Court decision reaffirmed that any person of any part African ancestry could be taken as a slave. It did not matter whether they were free or escaped. These all combined to a constant erosion of freedom, or even the possibility of freedom, for any negro in the United States. There was no 20/20 vision we have from the future that if they had just waited things would have surely gotten better. Some people now say John Brown's "violence" was never needed. Had folks just waited a bit longer, "Things would have simply improved. They should have given it time. Tractors and cotton gins would be invented and soon the slaves wouldn't be needed anymore. Be nice, just wait, we didn't need violence to solve that problem." But at that time, no one knew that might happen. They just knew that at that moment in America, there was just the constant suffering and inhumanity of day after day of man's brutality to man. Constantly growing as more were enslaved (the slave population in the U.S. grew from 1 1/2 million in 1840 to 4 million by 1860) and more suffering and dying occurred as the decades and centuries passed.
Thankfully some, like John Brown, were decent enough, and God Fearing enough, and Constitutional Rights believing enough, that they said they must do more than just let the suffering and death go on. Theirs were not acts of terrorism. What those men did were acts of great rationality to conditions of complete irrationality. When a government enacts repression in ever increasing ways, when monsters perform their increasing brutality on human beings, when it appears to be hopeless that some sanity will somehow come into the world, then sometimes it is entirely rational and proper to say "No More!". When everyday more and more suffer under chains and whips, there must be more done to stop it.
This is what John Brown did. He could no longer ask the enslaved to wait, while the free of America just talked and wrung their hands. He and the men with him went to the Federal Arsenal to take weapons to give to enslaved men, women and children, so they could free themselves. John Brown and his men sought to put an end to centuries of horror. He followed better than anyone, even the Supreme Court, the words of the United States Constitution that said "All Men Are Created Equal". After a lifetime of following "creative peaceful solutions", he tried a more direct approach. A solution that shortly led to a war that finally caused the United States to finally live up to its great promise.
The publication of this story has been most interesting. I had read of how beginning in 1890 (and continuing to the present) certain people's had labored so hard to besmirch the character of an American Hero. I had read there were many, particularly in the South, who hated the idea that John Brown should be declared a hero for his work to free the slaves. But I had not witnessed it myself. Now with the publication of this website, I have begun to hear from a few people who think the actions of John Brown were reprehensible. I actually never expected it. I thought after all this time, and all the supposed enlightenment of our modern times, such thinking would be long gone. I was wrong to think such. Now I will more personally be able to talk of just what some folks will say and do to defame a man who sought freedom for all, while they themselves say little or nothing about the horrible institution that John Brown worked so hard, and gave so much, to end. Perhaps if all our ancestors had worked as hard at freeing their fellow man from bondage, as some of their descendants have worked to criticize a single man, none of us would have had to resort to the harder measures taken by John Brown.
What I have so unexpectedly heard has caused me to dig ever deeper into the times John Brown lived. It has helped me to better understand just what it was that motived such a good man and father and husband and Patriot, to finally take the actions he took to light the spark of Freedom across America. At least for me hearing of the outrage of a few folks about the actions John Brown took has maybe brought just a little more clarity to one of the greatest questions this nation, or any nation, will ever have to face. ~~What is the nature of Freedom, who deserves it, and what will you do to ensure it for all peoples?
For me, it is Freedom by peace if you can, by any other means if you must. For as Harriet Tubman said: "..there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other." This is what John Brown did. It is what he believed. It is for that for which a Hero should be remembered.
John Brown, the descendant of 17th Cent. Puritans, declared with every fiber of his being that every man and every woman, was his equal, in his eyes and in the sight of God. John Brown was among the first of the Abolitionists to proclaim: "What we need is action. Action!" In the years before one of the most important events in American history, the attack on Harpers Ferry, he had grown tired of the long debates of political parties, polite societies and of the writers of novels. He could no longer abide the terrible crimes and suffering of his fellow man under the yoke of slavery. It was time to end its evil stain. It was time for the first battle of the coming American War Between the States.
Copyright © Jim Fry 2018