*** John Brown slavery abolition movement America United States

John Brown (United States, 1800-59)

John Brown
Figure 1.--"The Last Moments of John Brown" was painted by Thomas Hovdenden. The depiction is almost Christ-like. Of course in the South, Bron was the devil incarnate. Brown's insurrection failed miserably, but was a strong factor which set southern secession in motion. And session would ultimately, after horrific bloodshed, lead to emancipation. Put your cursor for a closer view of the children in the painting.

John Brown emerged from the guerrilla fighting in "Bleeding Kansas" as an individual willing to act and not just talk. He was determined to end slavery and was convinced that it could not be done peacefully. Brown obtained clandestine financial support from various radical anti-slavery groups. Brown after Kansas moved into the Southern Appalachians (1857). He set up a base there and recruited a small company of men. At first there activities focused on assisting runaways reach Pennsylvania and Ohio. Gradually a much more grandiose plan to launch a lave revolt. It was to be set off by seizing the Federal Arsenal at Harper's Ferry (October 1859). Brown did manage to seize Harper's Ferry, but there was no slave uprising. And soon a detachment of Marines commanded by Robert E. Lee reached Harper's Ferry. Brown and his conspirators were arrested and after a trial hanged. While Brown's rebellion failed he succeeded more than he knew. His action although quickly suppressed convinced large numbers of southerners that there was no longer any place for them in the Federal Union.


The Brown Brown traced his ancestry back to the earliest days of colonial America, the 17th-century English Puritans (17th century). His grandfather was Capt. John Brown (1728–76). His parents were Owen Brown (1771–1856) and Ruth Mills (1772–1808).


John Brown was born in Torrington, Connecticut (1800). He was the fourth of the eight children. We know next to nothing about his childhood. The family moved to Hudson, Ohio (1805). His father opened a tannery. His father was supported the Oberlin Institute, a liberal arts college which evolved into the Oberlin Institute. The Institute would be the first university level institute in America to accept African Americans and women. Charles Finney and Asa Mahan and the Institute developed a reputation for their preaching and teaching. Brown's father took in an apprentice for his tannery, Jesse R. Grant, father of Ulysses S. Grant.


Owen Brown joined the Congregational church when he moved his family to Hudson, Ohio. He eventually withdrew (1840s) and never officially joined another church. Father and son were evangelicals which at the time was focused on the pursuit of personal righteousness. John Brown's personal religion is described in the fairly well documented in the papers of Rev. Clarence Gee, a Brown family expert.


Brown left his family at the age of 16 years and went to Plainfield, Massachusetts> He enrolled in a preparatory program. Soon afterward, he transferred to the Morris Academy in Litchfield, Connecticut. He was planning to become a Congregational minister. He could not afford to continue paying school fees. He also suffered from eye inflammations. He had to drop out of the Academy and returned to his father in Ohio.


Brown married Dianthe Lusk (1820). Their first child, John Jr, was born 13 months later (1822). One of his sons died (1831). Brown fell ill. His businesses began to suffer, leaving him in terrible debt. After the death of a newborn son, his wife Dianthe died (1832) Brown married 16-year-old Mary Ann Day (1817–84), originally from Washington County, New York (1833). They would have 13 children, in addition to the seven from his previous marriage. In the midst of his financial and legal problems, four of his children died of dysentery (1843).


Brown worked briefly at his father's tannery after returning from school. He quickly opened what proved to be a successful tannery of his own outside of town with an adopted brother. Brown moved his family moved to New Richmond, Pennsylvania (1825). Here he bought 200 acres (81 hectares) of land. He cleared an eighth of it and built a cabin, a barn, and a tannery. It proved a successful business. In only a year, he was employing 15 men. Brown also earned money raising cattle and surveying. He helped to establish a local post office and a school. He was operating an interstate business involving cattle and leather production. A relative, Seth Thompson, from Ohio, joined him in the business. Brown moved his new family to Franklin Mills (now Kent) , Ohio (1836). He borrowed money to buy land. He built a tannery along the Cuyahoga River, forming a partnership with Zenas Kent. It is at this time that that the first great depression struck America--the Panic of 1837. It began as a baking crisis in the East and gradually spread west. Brown was unable o pay his debts. Businessmen like Brown trusted too heavily in credit and state bonds which proved to be worthless. Brown was arrested when he attempted to retain ownership of a farm by continuing to occupy despite the claims of the new owner. He tried different business efforts in an attempt to get out of debt. He continued tanning hides and cattle trading, he also began horse and sheep breeding. What ever his faults, the Puritan work ethic was not one of them. A Federal court declared him bankrupt (1842). Despite his financial problems, Brown was developing a solid reputation as an expert in fine sheep and wool. He struck up a partnership with Col. Simon Perkins of Akron, Ohio. Brown and his sons managed Perkins' flocks and farms. The family moved into a home across the street from the Perkins Stone Mansion on Perkins Hill. [Decaro]


The American Abolitionist Movement had its roots with the Quakers (18th century). But for many years it was a fringe movement, its advocates were considered dangerous radicals, even deranged. Only slowly did abolitionism become acceptable to mainstream America. The Brown family opposed slavery from n early point. Only an act of violence turned him into a radical. One of the country's leading abolitionists was Missouri publisher Elijah Lovejoy. Pro-slavery opponents in St. Louis, Missouri destroyed his printing press for the third time (May 1836). Missouri was a slave state. And abolitionists were not tolerated in slave states. Lovejoy departed the city and moved across the river to Alton, Illinois to continue publishing. Illinois was a free state, but there was considerable pro-slavery sentiment in southern Illinois. He founded the Alton Observer, an new abolitionist newspaper (1837). A pro-slavery mob attacked the warehouse where Lovejoy had his fourth printing press (November 7, 1837). Gunfire erupted and Lovejoy was killed. He died on the spot. He was hailed as a martyr by growing Abolitionist Movement. His brother Owen Lovejoy entered politics and became the leader of the Illinois abolitionists. Brown was horrified. He already had begun to think that the Abolitionist Movement was too timid. He publicly vowed: "Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!"

Springfield, Massachusetts (1846-50)

Brown and his sheep and wool business partner Simon Perkins moved to Springfield, Massachusetts (1846). It was a business decision. They wanted to represent the interests of the Ohio's sheep raisers and wool producers who they believed were being taken advantage of by northeastern wool growers as opposed to those of New England's textile mill manufactures. Brown and Perkins set up a wool commission operation to offer better prices to sheep farmers. Springfield was a revelation to Brown. He was used to communities where only some people shared his strong abolitionist views. Springfield was very different. Massachusetts already had a strong orientation toward Abolitionism. The whole community, including church leaders, politicians, and businessmen were strident abolitionists. One of the nation's most influential newspapers supported abolitionism. And there was a vocal African American community. The city's African-American abolitionists had founded the Sanford Street Free Church, now St. John's Congregational Church. It was becoming one of the country's most prominent platforms for abolitionist speeches. Brown joined the Church and was an active member until leaving Springfield (1850). He attended abolitionist lectures delivered by Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and many others. Souglass after speaking at the Free Church, spent a night speaking with Brown (1847). Douglass described the encounter. "From this night spent with John Brown in Springfield, Mass. 1847 while I continued to write and speak against slavery, I became all the same less hopeful for its peaceful abolition. My utterances became more and more tinged by the color of this man's strong impressions." Brown played a role in Springfield becoming perhaps the major center of Abolitionism in America. It was the safest and most significant stop on the developing Underground Railroad.

Bloody Kansas (1854-59)

John Brown played a role in the violence that swept Kansas after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act (May 30, 1854). This set in motion the tragedy that came to be called Bleeding or Bloody Kansas. Northern abolitionists and Southern slave holders vied for control of Kansas. The demarcation line established by the Missouri Compromise had successful restrained sectional rivalry for three decades. The Kansas-Nebraska Act adopted Stephen Douglas' doctrine of Popular Sovereignty. Essentially the settlers of the each territory would decide the question. The problem came when each side sought to move settlers into the Territory to gain control of territorial legislature. Northern abolitionists and Emigrant Aid Societies promoted and financed Free-Soil settlers. Slave owners mostly from neighboring Missouri moved into Kansas. Many were not settlers, but just men intent on determining Kansas' choice. They became known as Border Ruffians. As Missouri, a slave state, was the only state bordering on Kansas, the pro-slavery faction gained the upper hand. Even so, two competing territorial governments were formed. Kansas descended into violence and a small-scale civil war. There were shootings and lynchings and attacks on settlements. Federal and territorial authorities proved incapable of maintaining order. Lawrence, Kansas became a Free-Soilers stronghold. Settlers there harbored abolitionists and run-away slaves. Newspaper editors at Lawrence infuriated the pro slavery territorial government. A "posse" of about 800 Border Ruffians from Missouri attacked Lawrence (May 1856). They especially targeted the newspaper offices, but also burned the hotel and the home of the Free-Soil governor. Rabid Abolitionist John Brown retaliated 4 day later at Pottawatomie Creek. Brown and four sons dragged five pro-slavery settlers from their homes and in front of their families hacked them to death. Eventually 200 men would die in Bleeding Kansas. The number seems small in terms of the Civil War, but at the time Americans were horrified. He emerged from the guerrilla fighting in "Bleeding Kansas" as an individual willing to act and not just talk.

Maryland Camp

Brown set up a camp on a farm in Maryland across the Potomac from Harper's Ferry. Brown after Kansas moved into the Southern Appalachians (1857). He set up a base there and recruited a small company of men. At first there activities focused on assisting runaways reach Pennsylvania and Ohio. The delay weakened Brown's plans because many of the initial recruits had second thoughts.


He was determined to end slavery and was convinced, accurately as was the case, that it could not be done peacefully. Brown concluded that the only way to end slavery was through violence. Gradually a bold plan emerged to end slavery through a slave revolt. He concocted a plan to begin a guerrilla war against slavery. Brown obtained clandestine financial support from various radical anti-slavery groups. The plan which he began forming soon after the Pottawatomie Creek massacre (1856) was to establish a military stronghold in the mountains of western Virginia where there was some opposition to slavery. This would provide a haven for run-away slaves and serve as a staging area for attacks on slaveholders. A blackmailer forced Brown into hiding and delayed his attack.

Abolitionist Leaders

Brown was unable to garner support from notable abolitionists. Perhaps the most prominent abolitionist advocating insurrection was Henry Highland Garnet, but he did not believe the slaves were prepared. Brown also spoke with Frederick Douglass (August 1859). Brown explained his new plan of attacking the Federal Arsenal at Harper's Ferry to arm a slave revolt. Douglas warned him that this was a grave mistake. Instead of attacking slavery, this was an attack on the Federal Government, the only institution which could end slavery. Douglas warned Brown, "You're walking into a perfect steel-trap and you will never get out alive." Brown ignored the warning.


Brown set out for Harper's Ferry with 21 men, including 2 sons and 5 blacks (October 16). One of the blacks was Dangerfield Newby who wanted to rescue his wife from slavery. They crossed the Potomac, walked through the night under a heavy rain, they arrived in Harper's Ferry early in the morning (October 17). They cut the telegraph wires and then attacked. Surprising the small local garrison they captured both the Federal armory and arsenal. They also took Hall's Rifle Works, a private concern making weapons for the Federal Government. Brown then took 60 town residents as hostages.

Slave Response

Brown just assumed that slaves would come flooding into Harper's Ferry where he would arm them. This did not happen, largely because he had failed to set up any system to inform slaves. In addition slaves were not about to risk their lives for a venture that as Douglas foresaw had no real chance of success.


Rather the local militia soon pinned Brown's small force down. Brown sent one of his son's out under a white flag to negotiate. He was immediately shot and killed. While the telegraph lines were cut, an express train headed east to Baltimore to send sent out the alaem. President Buchanan ordered Colonel Robert E. Lee with a force of marines and soldiers to Harper's Ferry. When Lee arrived, the militia had already killed eight of Brown's men. Lee ordered the fire house where Brown and his surviving men were holding out to be stormed. Brown was badly wounded, but taken alive. Ten of his men including two sons were killed. Lee captured 7 men, but 5 escaped.


Lee transported Brown and the others captives to Charlottetown. There he was tried. The wounded Brown had to be carried into his trial. He was quickly found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. Brown's statements during the trial and letters after sentencing were widely reported in the press and distributed in the abolitionist press. Brown became a virtual saint among northern abolitionists.


John Brown's raid was of no real threat to the slave holding South. It was even put down by the Federal Government. The reaction to the raid in both the North and South did, however, have a major impact. While Brown's rebellion failed he succeeded more than he knew. The reaction in the South was especially important. His action although quickly suppressed convinced large numbers of southerners that there was no longer any place for them in the Federal Union. The raid and northern attitudes toward Brown convinced many southern slave holders that the South would have to seceded from the Union. Ironically it was secession that doomed slavery in America. The Southern states remaining in the Union could have prevented Federal action on abolition. Once outside the Union, abolition became possible.


Decaro, Louis Jr. Biographical sketch (2007).

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Created: 3:07 AM 6/6/2010
Spell checked: 5:13 AM 8/21/2023 Last updated: 5:09 PM 12/15/2018