The man tried to spark a huge slave insurrection in the slave states of the US in the year 1859.
Together with a small band of comrades he tried to seize an armory in the town of Harpers Ferry in the state of Virginia. He wanted to encourage slaves to join him, arm them and free other slaves. There were four million of them at the time. If he could have rallied them behind him, he could certainly have been bigger than Spartacus.
The plan was very risky and had very low chances of success.
Brown completely bungled his raid. Ironically the first one to get killed by his little army was a free black man… Word of the raid got out fast. The band was quickly trapped and he and his comrades were soon overpowered by armed men led by Robert E. Lee and Jeb Stuart, two future Confederate generals.
Brown was captured, he was wounded, but alive. He was put on trial, on a cot, as he was too injured to stand, and he was condemned to hang. He died in December of 1859. About a year later, in late December 1860 the slave-holding state of South-Carolina would be the first state to attempt to secede from the US. As it was too small to be a nation and too big to be an insane asylum it would quickly try to convince other slave-states to also secede.
John Brown’s acts certainly deepened the tensions between North and Sluth that were already reaching their boiling point. He was praised by many in the North and despised in the South. The solemn way in which he accepted his death sentence quickly turned him into a martyr in the eyes of abolitionists. Apparently he even impressed his jailer, who took a liking to him.
If you check American high school textbooks to see what they have to say about the man, most paint him as a religious fanatic, a madman, a murderer. None of the 18 textbooks that sociologist James Loewen checked are sympathetic to the man.
Interesting to note is that contemporaries of John Brown did not think he was a lunatic.
Even Governor Wise of Virginia went to see him in person and called him ‘of clear head’. He also said Brown showed ‘quick and clear perception’ and ‘composure and self-possession.’ (See the book ‘Lies my teacher told me’, by James Loewen, page 176).
Only decades after his death would textbooks start portraying him as a madman. In the nadir of race relations – starting some time around 1890- in the US nobody could imagine that a white man would try to help black people, unless he was a stark raving madman.
Was he just a vicious murderer? A man who saw himself as a Messiah who in megalomaniac fashion thought he could free all the slaves?
The historical record points out that he did not see himself as a great savior. He tried to convince icons like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman to join the raid, as he thought people would more eagerly follow them than himself. He was also well aware that the plan had a high probability of failing, but he thought it would have a huge impact even if it failed. Not really the reasoning of a megalomaniac or a delusional madman.
Apparently he was inspired by an experience in his youth, when he befriended a black boy and discovered that the boy was just like him, a human being.
He was strong believer in the Golden Rule, which said: ‘whatsoever I would do that men should do to me, I should do even so to them’
What that meant to him was that if he saw someone enslaved he had to attempt to free that person.
The most radical – and hard to stomach – aspect of this belief was that he was willing to murder others.
Often overlooked is that he wasn’t the first to commit acts of violence or murder in the debate over slavery.
Even top politicians used violence. In 1856 a pro-slavery senator from South-Carolina, Preston Brooks, nearly beat an abolitionist senator, Charles Sumner, to death with a walking cane. People from all over the south sent Brooks walking canes to congratulate him. Sumner would never fully recover from the beating he took.
In the territory out west, the future state of Kansas, pro-slavery border ruffians from Missouri spread violence in order to try and make Kansas a slave state, even though the state quickly became populated with white farmers, free-soilers, who had no taste for slavery.
Many people know that Brown and some of his sons hacked five pro-slavery men to death with sabres.
Less well-known is how many people were murdered by pro-slavery thugs before and after Brown’s killings in Kansas. He also managed to lead a small band of escaped slaves into Canada. He was a failed businessman, but he did free a number of slaves.
Is it ok to kill people to try and free slaves? Brown was convinced that only violence could absolish slavery, as white owners would cling to their human property no matter what. The sins of the country had to be washed away in blood.
There were certainly more peaceful ways to free slaves. He could have formed some organisation to collect money and buy some slaves their freedom. But would that have posed any serious threat to slavery? Historians now agree that slavery in 1860 America was so profitable that it’s highly unlikely the ‘peculiar institution’ was on a course towards a ‘natural death’. (See James McPherson’s classic Battle Cry of Freedom for example).
What’s disturbing, especially to the modern reader, is that yes, perhaps, Brown had to commit murders in an attempt to free the slaves to spark the ultimate debate, one fought with rifles and artillery.
Brown or no Brown it seems clear that North and South would sooner or later have come to grips anyway over the future of slavery. The South seceded to protect slavery. If you read books such as the excellent Apostles of Disunion by Charles Dew, it becomes abundantly clear they seceded to be able to expand slavery into the territories and because the North wasn’t enforcing the fugitive slave law vigorously enough. The North would not have touched slavery where it existed and even wanted to make slavery- where it existed – permanent, via an amendment to the constitution, but that wasn’t enough for the deep South (the seven states that seceded before the firing on Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for volunteers to suppress the rebellion).
Northerners drew inspiration from Brown’s willingness to die, as we can see in the song John Brown’s body. He took a step that few of us would be willing to even consider in defence of any moral conviction.
I personally think he was wrong to commit murders, but when I think too long about the horrors of slavery some doubt does creep up again.
Also worth noting: most people are more shocked by Brown’s killings to free slaves than by the massacres the US army organizes to drive away Native Americans to steal their land…
On the day Ho Chi Minh died, the Vietnamese leader who liberated his people from the French and set the stage to also kick out the Americans, had a copy of a biography of John Brown on his desk.