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Brown, John

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John Brown was born on May 9, 1800, in Torrington, Connecticut, and he died on the scaffold in Charlestown, Virginia, on December 2, 1859. He was the only white abolitionist who repeatedly took up arms against slavery before the Civil War. Convinced that the standard tactics of persuasion and politics had done nothing to dislodge the South’s “peculiar institution,” the deeply religious Brown became the self-appointed leader of a personal holy war against slavery. His violent forays against slavery in Kansas and later at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, helped intensify the sectional animosities that led to the Civil War.

The second son of Owen Brown (1771–1856) and Ruth Mills (1772–1808), John Brown inherited his parents’ hatred of slavery and devotion to Calvinistic Christianity, and he was taught to respect people of all races. When he was three, the family moved from Connecticut to Hudson, Ohio, where his father ran a tannery. At the age of twelve, young John witnessed a slave boy being beaten and driven outdoors to sleep in the cold. He later claimed that this cruel incident “in the end made him a most determined Abolitionist ,” leading him to swear “ Eternal war with Slavery.”

When he was sixteen, Brown briefly attended schools in New England, with the aim of training for the Congregational ministry. However, financial difficulties and eye troubles forced him to return to Ohio, where he started his own tannery. In 1820 he was married to Dianthe Lusk; the couple eventually had seven children. In 1825 he moved to New Richmond, Pennsylvania, where, for ten years, he ran a highly successful tannery with fifteen employees. His property was also a haven for fugitive slaves.

Dianthe died in 1832, and within a year Brown married Mary Ann Day, with whom he had thirteen children over the next two decades. Of his twenty children, only eight would outlive him. Among the remainder, two died shortly after being born, six were victims of childhood illnesses, one was scalded to death in a kitchen accident, and three others—Frederick, Oliver, and Watson—died while accompanying their father in his war against slavery.

In 1836 Brown moved to Kent, Ohio, where he took up real estate speculation. He was battered by the depression of 1837–1842, however. He tried to stay afloat by trading livestock and surveying, but in 1842 he declared bankruptcy. He entered into partnership with the Ohio businessman Simon Perkins in a wool distribution company based in Springfield, Massachusetts. Serving as a middleman between western wool growers and eastern manufacturers, Brown proved to be an energetic but maladroit businessman. With the business faltering, Brown tried to salvage it in 1849 by going to England to find foreign buyers for American wool. That effort failed, and his partnership with Perkins soon dissolved.

At this point, Brown had long been active in the Underground Railroad. In the late 1830s, enraged by the murder of the Illinois antislavery editor Elijah Lovejoy, he began to plot a military response to slavery. At a service in memory of Lovejoy, he rose, lifted his right hand, and said, “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!”

In early 1851 in Springfield, Brown founded a cadre of blacks, called the League of Gileadites, aimed at encouraging armed resistance to the recently passed Fugitive Slave Act. He took his family to upstate New York to live in North Elba, where a colony of blacks occupied land purchased for them by the antislavery philanthropist Gerrit Smith. Brown started a farm and tried to help his black neighbors establish an agricultural community. He worked with them, surveyed their lands, and socialized with them. North Elba was his principal base for his remaining years, and it is the place where he chose to be buried.

In 1855 Brown joined five of his sons in the Kansas Territory, the scene of a fierce struggle between proslavery and antislavery forces. Brown raised a small band and engaged in several pitched battles against proslavery militants. On May 24, 1856, in Pottawatomie, Kansas, he led a party of eight armed men on a nighttime raid, during which they hauled five proslavery settlers out of their cabins and slaughtered them with broadswords. In late December 1858, he invaded the neighboring slave state of Missouri with twenty followers. The men liberated eleven slaves and traveled with them for eighty-two days and more than 1,100 miles to Detroit, where the blacks took a ferry to Windsor, Canada.

Brown’s most influential act was his October 16, 1859, raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia. He had with him a band of twenty-one men, including five blacks and two of his sons. He intended to take over the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, forcibly liberate slaves in the region, and then escape with the freed blacks to the nearby Appalachian Mountains. He hoped to use mountain hideaways to evade capture as he moved southward, making periodic raids on plantations in order to free additional slaves who would become part of his growing army of liberation. His ultimate goal was to initiate a political process that would lead to slavery’s demise. He ignored warnings, however, by Frederick Douglass, among others, of the futility of his plans. In the end, Brown stalled too long at Harpers Ferry and, after a bloody battle, was taken captive by federal troops under Colonel Robert E. Lee. He was found guilty of murder, treason, and inciting a slave revolt. By the time of his execution on December 2, he had become a sharply divisive figure on the national scene, increasingly admired in the North and vilified in the South.

Brown has remained controversial since his death. His reputation peaked during Reconstruction, when he was honored as an antislavery martyr, but it plummeted during the period of Jim Crow, when he was widely regarded as a murderer, fanatic, and madman. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s brought increased sympathy for his racial agenda and his uncompromising stance on slavery. Having been close to blacks, including such abolitionist leaders as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, Brown has been long revered by African Americans. W. E. B. Du Bois hailed him as “the man who of all Americans has perhaps come nearest to touching the real souls of black folk.”

Brown, Lawrence [next] [back] Brown, Jim (1936–)

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