John Brown was an infamous antebellum abolitionist whose failed raid on Harpers Ferry and subsequent trial, death, and lionization by the North accelerated the coming of the Civil War in 1861.
Brown was born on May 9th, 1800 to a deeply religious family in Torrington, Connecticut, but he grew up in Ohio. He met abolitionists early on in his life. He failed at business several times, and sired over twenty children. He participated in the Underground Railroad and formed the League of Gileadites, a group that worked to help slaves avoid slave catchers.
Frederick Douglass met Brown in 1847 and commented, “though a white gentleman, [Brown] is in sympathy a black man, and as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery."
In 1855 Brown helped several slaves escape, and then moved with his five sons to Kansas. This area was experiencing tumult on account of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which opened the areas up to popular sovereignty (voters decide to allow slavery to exist in the state or not). Proslavery and Free Soil forces battled it out with guerilla warfare. Brown and his followers took this to an extreme level by murdering five proslavery supporters at Pottawatomie Creek in 1855; he claimed God had legitimated this action. He gathered around him an “army” of insurrectionists and hoped to foment rebellion amongst slaves.
The plans for Harper’s Ferry came together in 1858. Brown hoped to start an uprising by blacks in Virginia and create an area to which blacks could then flee. This more violent abolitionist idea became attractive as peaceful abolitionist efforts languished. Brown rented a farm near the Ferry and collected weapons there. On October 16th, 1859, he and his followers (five blacks and sixteen whites) attacked the arsenal at the Ferry; Colonel Robert E. Lee and local farmers and militiamen quickly subdued them. Some of Brown’s men were killed and Brown was captured. He was put on trial for his actions and was convicted of treason. In his permitted address to the court he said, “I believe to have interfered as I have done, . . . in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it be 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."
The North was galvanized by the trial, with many claiming he was a martyr. Luminaries such as Henry David Thoreau called for his release, but he was executed on December 2nd, 1859. In a note handed to his jailor he prophesized, “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.”
The South was infuriated at the North’s response to Brown’s death, and feared further slave insurrections. Brown was correct in his prophecy, for South Carolina seceded in December 1860 after the election of Abraham Lincoln, and Civil War soon followed.