Religious fanatic. Martyr. Terrorist. Just some of the epithets used to describe John Brown, a fierce white abolitionist who despised slavery with a passion that knew no bounds. Brown is one of those intriguing figures from history – what made him resort to violence? What happened in Kansas? Why did he view slavery with such hatred? His actions – and their consequences – are fascinating to read about.
I, John Brown, am now quite convinced that the crimes of this guilty land can only be washed away with blood.
Born in Connecticut in 1800, Brown was raised by a strict religious family. Over the years he tried several times to set up his own business (from farming to real estate) but his inability to sustain one profession created heavy debts. One thing that remained consistent however was his hatred of American slavery. Brown was – unusually for the time – a supporter of complete equality between white and black people, and he condemned slavery as a sin against nature.
In 1855, Brown moved to Kansas and pushed his way to the heart of the pro-slavery and antislavery struggles in the territory. Whilst the Federal Government debated whether Kansas and Nebraska would become slave states or free, Brown styled himself as “Captain” and became the leader of an antislavery faction. Claiming to have God’s support, one night at Pottawottamie Creek, Brown murdered five proslavery settlers. This was the start of Brown’s violent campaign against slavery in the South. From the late 1850s, he wanted to inspire the slaves to revolt.
In 1859, Brown planned to seize Harper’s Ferry in Virginia, steal guns from the armory and ignite an insurrection against the slaveholders. Brown discussed his plan with Frederick Douglass and asked for his help. Douglass visited Brown and attempted to dissuade him, but it was no good: Brown was a stubborn man, and he believed he was following God’s will by eradicating slavery. Passive methods were no good. Slavery corrupted society and the only way to destroy it was to violently overthrow it. In October 1859, Brown and a small band of followers captured Harper’s Ferry. The insurrection was short lived however, as a militia led by the future General Robert E. Lee arrested Brown and several of his supporters. (Ironically, the first casualty during the raid was a free African American.)
It is impossible to convey how much this event affected the South. Panic spread, leading slaveholders to pressure government officials to tighten laws not only to maintain slavery, but to punish all – white or black – who attempted to destroy the system. Brown was convicted of treason and he was hanged on December 2 1859. His last words (quoted above) were passed to the executioner. Some condemned his actions; other Northern extremists made him a martyr. Many historians credit Brown’s insurrection as a catalyst that led to the Civil War.
Victor Hugo remarked: “Let America know and ponder on this: there is something more frightening then Cain killing Abel, and that is Washington killing Spartacus.”
Frederick Douglass wrote “His zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine—it was as the burning sun to my taper light—mine was bounded by time, his stretched away to the boundless shores of eternity. I could live for the slave, but he could die for him.”