John Brown was an influential figure in American history in relation to issues surrounding slavery in the 19th century. For instance, he was a prominent abolitionist and fought to end slavery in the United States. As well, many consider him to be one of the most famous people from the timeframe of the American Abolitionist Movement. Finally, his famous raid on Harpers Ferry was a pivotal moment in the lead up to the events of the American Civil War.
JOHN BROWN'S EARLY LIFE
John Brown was born in Torrington, Connecticut on May 9th, 1800. However, in 1805 his family moved to Hudson, Ohio, where his father, Owen Brown, opened a tannery for tanning hides. John Brown’s mother, Ruth Mills, worked raising eight children. In fact, John Brown was the fourth of the family’s eight children. While in Hudson, Ohio, John Brown was exposed to anti-slavery views. For instance, his parents provided safety to travelers of the Underground Railroad. In general, the Underground Railroad was a system under which slaves from the Southern United States could escape into the Northern United States and Canada, and is considered to have occurred from the late 1700s until the events of the American Civil War in 1863. The Underground Railroad involved a series of routes, networks, and safe houses that escaped slaves could use as they travelled from the plantations in the south, to their freedom in the north.
As a teenager, John Brown pursued an education to become a church minister. However, he returned home soon after leaving for school, and opened his own tannery just outside of Hudson, Ohio. Just a few years later, when he was 20 years old, Brown married Dianthe Lusk. The couple and their children moved in 1825 to New Richmond, Pennsylvania. Brown purchased a large section of property on which he operated several businesses. However, the majority of his business dealings at this time failed, and he instead found his real passion when fighting against the injustices of slavery. For instance, on his property in New Richmond, Pennsylvania, Brown supposedly helped house escaped slaves while they journeyed north along the Underground Railroad. In fact, it is estimated that Brown assisted as many as 2,500 escaped slaves during the decade in which he and his family lived on the property.
In the early 1830s, Brown and his family suffered several losses. For example, two of his children and his wife died. Brown himself became quite ill and was no longer able to manage the businesses, which caused him to go into debt. After remarrying, he moved his family to Washington County in New York and later to Franklin Mills in Ohio. While in Ohio, he continued to try to run different types of businesses, but they mostly struggled and caused Brown to go further in debt. Regardless, Brown’s commitment to the anti-slavery movement began to grow at the end of the 1830s.
JOHN BROWN & THE ABOLITIONIST MOVEMENT
Today, John Brown is best known as a famous abolitionist during the timeframe of the American Abolitionist Movement. The American Abolitionist Movement is the name for the advancements made in the United States towards ending the practise of slavery. For instance, the term ‘abolition’ means to stop or end something. As such, an abolitionist is someone who was working to ban slavery. The American Abolitionist Movement is considered to have occurred from the late 1700s until 1865 when the American government abolished slavery following the end of the American Civil War.
There was quite a divide between the Northern and Southern states in relation to their views on slavery and the Abolitionist Movement in the 18th and 19th centuries. More specifically, the Northern states were the first to support the American Abolitionist Movement and by the end of the 18th century, most Northern states has some sort of anti-slavery legislation. As such, John Brown generally lived in and operated in the Northern states, where he carried out his own abolitionist activities.
The years before the outbreak of the American Civil War saw an increase in the tensions centered around the issue of slavery. For instance, on November 7th, 1837, Elijah Parish Lovejoy was murdered by a mob in Alton, Illinois. Lovejoy was an abolitionist news editor and publisher that produced abolitionist newspapers. On November 7th in 1837, his warehouse was raided by a mob that supported slavery and he was shot and killed. The murder of Lovejoy was shocking to many abolitionists at the time and inspired others to continue the fight for the American Abolitionist Movement. This included John Brown who was shocked at the murder of Lovejoy in 1837. In fact, Brown felt so moved by the message that he publicly announced his dedication to destroying the institution of slavery, and his life’s purpose from that point forward was to make that goal a reality. For instance, he famously stated: “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!”
With his different business ventures in ruins, Brown formally declared bankruptcy in 1842. The next year, four of his children passed away due to a spread of dysentery. However, he soon rebuilt his fortunes by raising sheep and producing wool. For example, he moved his family to Springfield, Massachusetts in 1846 where he developed a wool business with a business partner. His move to Springfield, Massachusetts was significant, because at the time the city was a hub of people who supported the Abolitionist Movement. In fact, Brown first met other famous abolitionists in the city, including Frederick Douglass.
Born as a slave in 1818 in Maryland, and escaping twenty years later, Douglass is one of the few people in history to know life on both sides of the coin, per say. After his escape, Douglass wrote the ‘Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave’ which was written in 1845 and gave people insight into what life as a slave was really like, opening the eyes of many to the injustice that was taking place around them. This, along with two other autobiographies written by Douglass are regarded as the best examples of slave narrative tradition in history. Because of these accomplishments, Frederick Douglass is often considered to be the single most important black American leader of the 19th century.
John Brown was first introduced to Douglass in Springfield, Massachusetts after attending speeches against slavery given by the former slave. This, along with his early life experience, inspired Brown to organize the city of Springfield into a safe haven for travellers along the Underground Railroad. However, throughout the early 1840s, Brown’s wool business in Springfield began to struggle due to the steep competition present in the city.
Another major milestone in the history of slavery in the United States was the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. In fact, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was an extension of the early Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 allowed people to receive rewards for capturing escaped slaves, especially in relation to the Underground Railroad. Furthermore, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made things even more difficult for the Underground Railroad as it gave more rights towards slave owners and allowed escaped slaves to be recaptured and returned to the slave plantations in the South. This was especially true when escaped slaves were captured in the Northern states, since each of the Fugitive Slave Acts allowed slaves to be returned to the Southern slave owners from these Northern states. As such, many of the escaped slaves preferred to flee even further north into Canada, where they could not be returned to slavery. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 angered John Brown and caused him to take action to assist escaping slaves. For instance, in 1850, Brown helped establish the League of Gileadites, which was a group devoted to help fugitive slaves reach Canada. As such, he thought that by helping the slaves reach Canada, they could avoid being returned to a life of slavery.
JOHN BROWN & 'BLEEDING KANSAS'
The Kansas-Nebraska Act was signed into law on May 30th, 1854 by President Franklin Pierce, and immediately created a crisis in the new state of Kansas. For instance, while some supported the basic principles of the act, most people at the time resented the government’s intervention on the issue of slavery. This is because the act allowed states to determine for themselves, whether slavery should be allowed. This was especially true in the Northern states, who were angered that slavery was being allowed to potentially spread. This anger eventually boiled over in the events referred to as ‘Bleeding Kansas’.
‘Bleeding Kansas’ is a term that is used to refer to the violence that erupted in the new state of Kansas after the introduction of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The violence occurred between 1854 and 1861 and set the stage for the eventually outbreak of the American Civil War. For instance, the violent clashes were between Northerners (‘Free-Staters’) who were against slavery and Southerners (‘Border Ruffians’) who were in favor of slavery. John Brown went to Kansas with his adult sons and participated in the fighting in Kansas. In fact, Brown and his sons helped carry out the Pottawatomie Massacre, which occurred from May 24th to May 25th in 1856. The massacre saw Brown and other anti-slavery supporters kill five pro-slavery settlers in Kansas. Furthermore, the men participated in other fights in which they raided towns and other pro-slavery outposts. In fact, another major incident was when Brown and his supporters defended a ‘free-state’ settlement. The fighting was brutal and led to major losses for the abolitionists that fought alongside Brown. However, John Brown’s actions in the events of ‘Bleeding Kansas’ led to him gaining recognition amongst other abolitionists. As such, this led to him becoming rather well known in the American Abolitionist Movement. He used this to gain support for further actions that he hoped to carry out against the practise of slavery.
JOHN BROWN & THE HARPERS FERRY RAID
Following the events during ‘Bleeding Kansas’, John Brown and his supporters returned to the east to gain financial support for further actions to end slavery. In fact, Brown had hoped to spark a slave revolt that would bring an end to slavery in the United States. Throughout the mid-1850s, he met with other abolitionists to plan, finance and carry out a raid, which he hoped would cause African American slaves across to the United States to revolt against their slave owners.
This ultimately resulted in Brown’s famous raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. Harpers Ferry was a small town in Virginia, which contained a United States Armory. As such, Brown had hoped to raid the armory in order to capture weapons and spark a slave revolt. Brown and a small band of supporters carried out the raid from October 16th to the 18th in 1859. The group of abolitionists marched into Harpers Ferry on October 16th and successfully seized the armory with little resistance. However, the success of the raid was not to last. For instance, Brown and his team were ultimately outnumbered and outmatched due to a lack of support from local slaves. As well, the group did not plan an effective escape route in case the mission failed, and they became trapped in a nearby firehouse. The firehouse has since been referred to as John Brown's 'Fort'. As such, when the government forces and local citizens surrounded them, Brown and the group were forced to defend themselves in a shootout. This resulted in several deaths on both sides and Brown was captured.
John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry was a failure, as it did not result in the slave revolt that he had hoped. This was due to several reasons, including the failure of his group to gain more widespread support from other abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. This is because many in the American Abolitionist Movement considered Brown’s views to be too radical, and they did not necessarily support his use of violence to end slavery. For example, Frederick Douglass supported Brown’s enthusiasm for the movement but did not openly support his actions. Furthermore, some historians have suggested that while Harriet Tubman agreed with the basic principles of Douglass’ mission, she may not have fully supported the use of violence. For instance, while she helped supply people and information to the cause, Tubman did not actually participate in the raid.
Historically, John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry is one of the most significant events in the lead up to the outbreak of the American Civil War. This is because it highlighted the divide between the Northern ‘free’ states and the Southern ‘slave’ states. For example, in the Northern states, Brown’s raid was widely seen as an act of bravery for the cause of abolitionism. Alternatively, many in the Southern states were angered by the use of violence to end slavery. This caused John Brown to become a point of disagreement between the North and the South as well as politically with the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. As such, historians generally view John Brown’s raid as an important moment in the timeframe before the American Civil War.
JOHN BROWN'S DEATH
As stated above, John Brown was captured following the events of his raid on Harpers Ferry. This resulted in his imprisonment, trial and eventual execution. In fact, his trial began in Virginia on October 27th in 1859, which was just over a week after the end of the raid. In all, he was charged with murder, conspiracy, and treason. After a trial that lasted about a week, Brown was found guilty of all three charges. As a result, he was sentenced to death by hanging, with the execution to occur a month later. Following his conviction of the three charges, John Brown expressed the following in a speech:
“Had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment. This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to 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 to act up to that instruction. I say, 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 poor, was not 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 submit; so let it be done!”
In the weeks of waiting, before his execution, Brown was held prisoner in Virginia. From his prison cell, he wrote and received letters, many of which professed his religious convictions in relation to his actions to end slavery. As well, throughout this period he gained further support across the Northern states, as many viewed him as a martyr for the American Abolitionist Movement. This means that he died for his beliefs on behalf of the cause to end slavery. Finally, Brown was executed by hanging on December 2nd, 1859. He famously wrote the following on the morning of his execution: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.” While his death was mourned in the Northern states, many in the Southern states viewed it as necessary to stop the tensions of the time. John Brown’s body was transported by train, north, to his home in North Elba, New York following the execution. His grave is still located there today and marked by his headstone. While John Brown’s death was meant to stop or slow the growing tensions and violence, it is now considered to be a major stepping-stone towards the outbreak of violence in the American Civil War.