John Brown- A Hero Or Villain?
What makes a hero or a villain? A hero is defined as a person noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, especially one who has risked or sacrificed his or her life.
By this definition, there existed countless heroes in America during the 1800’s with relation to slavery. There were many abolitionists, particularly from the North, that exhibited courageous attitudes. It was these heroes that taught the southerners, who believed their lives could only prevail if slavery survived and expanded westward, what they knew was morally right (3, 92). John Brown is one abolitionist who stands out amongst the rest and has been noted as one of the most important men in the process of abolishing slavery. It was Brown’s work that sparked the revolts and fighting that would occur between the North and the South after his time. Brown can be considered a hero on account of his actions in Kentucky and Virginia.
After the Turner revolt, the topic of slavery took over American politics (3,91). Congressman David Wilmot suggested that legislation prohibit slavery in new territories that were conquered from the victory in a war with Mexico (3,91). Wilmot acted in hopes of stopping slavery’s expansion westward but his movement did not pass with the Senate and was therefore disregarded (3,91). The South’s population was slowly becoming overshadowed by the North’s, leaving little room to stop anti-slavery legislation (3,91). When California was admitted as a free state in 1850, the US was left with no slave state to balance this addition and some southerners desired a separation of slave states from the union (3,92). Congressmen and senators started to fear their political opponents tremendously; tension was slowly building up (3,92). The Compromise of 1850 admitted California as a free state but also passed a law making it painless for slave-owners to recover their escaped slaves from free states (3,92). Congress then passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act which allowed inhabitants to decide whether Kansas would be a free state or a slave state (3,92). In hopes of victory, the opposing sides invaded the territory which was after nick-named “Bleeding Kansas” by the easterners (3,92). This unsettled region would be the perfect setting to launch a crusade against slavery (3, 92). This scheme was exactly what John Brown had in mind (3,92).
John Brown was born in Torrington, Connecticut in 1800 and grew up in Hudson, Ohio with a family of sixteen children (2, 1). Brown’s father was a captain in the Revolutionary War and endowed Brown a hatred for slavery (3, 93). Since he was young, Brown felt a strong importance of religion and his teachings in the Bible (3,93). He felt that the pro-slave sinners should be punished for their wrongdoings (3,93). After Brown married Dianthe Lusk and moved to North Elba, New York, he wished to assist the free blacks in getting accustomed to farming in the Adirondacks (2, 1). During the 1850’s, Brown liberated small slave groups in Missouri and saw them off to Canada (2,1). Up to this point, there was no violence or bloodshed involved in Brown’s actions (2,1). All the while he was involved in these small movements, Brown was creating a greater plan of attack(2,1).
Eager to help in the abolition movement, Brown traveled to Kansas, where five of his sons were (2,1). In May of 1856, news spread of a pro-slavery attack on the town of Lawrence, Kansas (3, 94). Before Brown could reach Lawrence with his militia group, the pro-slavery group had attacked and looted the town (3,94). As the action was dying down, Brown heard that five anti-slavery settlers had been killed in Lawrence during the attack (3,94). Believing in “an eye for an eye,” Brown and his men set out to kill five pro-slavery settlers (3,94). On their way, they heard news that pro-slavery Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina had beaten abolitionist Senator Charles Summer of Massachusetts with a cane on the Senate floor (3, 95). This news increased the abolitionists’ furies and that night they hacked James Doyle and his two sons to death (3,96). Continuing on their rage, they split Allen Wilkinson’s skull and stabbed him in the chest (3,96). Needing one more victim, Brown and his men slashed at and killed William Sherman on the banks of the Pottawatomie River (3,97). Brown’s group then washed off their bloody swords and headed home on the dead men’s horses, completely satisfied (3,97). Pro-slavery newspaperman Henry Clay Pate, in hearing about the Pottawatomie massacre, organized a gang and became determined to bring justice to John Brown (3,97). When free-staters found out about Pate’s intent, 28 men stood up in defense for Old Brown (3,97). Brown put together a mini-army and trapped Pate’s gang for several hours (3,97). The pro-slavery men eventually surrendered to Brown’s group and were later released by U.S. Army troops (3,97). Brown remained untried for the Pottawatomie massacre and left Kansas to come up with a larger-scaled assault on slavery (3,97).
Brown’s first step was to acquire sponsors for his attack. Wealthy easterners were willing to supply him with financial aid and sometimes weapons because they saw potential for Brown (3,97). He dressed the image by wearing frontier clothes, carrying a Bowie knife in his boot, and bringing his letters of recommendation from well-respected men around with him (3, 97). Nationally renowned men, such as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Salmon Chase, hosted Brown in their homes and toasted to his attempt (3, 97) . Although Brown had physical support, his monetary support provided the bare minimum for him and his men (3, 97). With his meager funds, Brown hired an English military advisor to train his supporters and bought pike heads for weapons (3, 98). When Brown returned to Kansas, he was brutally rebuffed. The anti-slavery forces had already taken charge of the region’s government and refused to fight for something they had reached via politics (3, 98). Brown’s plans were disregarded by many and feeling rejected, Brown retired to Tabor, Iowa to let his supporters in on his well thought-out plan (3, 98). “It matters little whether we begin with many or few,” Brown told his men, giving confidence to his loyal followers (2,1).
Brown planned on freeing slaves in Virginia by means of a massive raid (3, 98). Brown and his troops would then set up a fortress in the Allegheny Mountains, prepared to halt any endeavor of re-enslavement (3, 99). Brown refused to believe anyone who thought his plan was not a wise idea (3, 99). Frederick Douglass had many objections to the plan but Brown would not hear it (3, 99). He obtained six famous easterners, who came to be known as the “Secret Six, ” to fund his plot (3, 99). These men were New Englanders George L. Stearns, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Samuel Gridley Howe, Theodore Parker, Franklin B. Sanborn, and Gerrit Smith (3, 99). Sanborn was fresh out of Harvard and left his job as schoolmaster to focus on the anti-slavery movement, becoming one of Brown’s leading disciples (6, 135). Stearns was a rich Boston merchant who made infinite funds available for Brown (6, 135). Howe, recognized for his work with the blind, switched his focus from Greek independence to Negro freedom and Brown’s cause (6,135). These prosperous men, along with Brown’s other supporters, knew he meant business and dreamed of him starting a revolution. In 1858, Brown held a convention in Chatham, Canada to adopt a constitution for a black nation in the Virginia mountains (3, 99). From this mountain station, the blacks hoped to start slave revolts and plan attacks on white slave-owners (3, 99). Brown was named commander-in-chief of the army and the final preparations were taken care of (3, 99). New Englanders were certainly onto him, though. “It is bad policy to have a ranger like him (Brown) with money and arms at his disposal, and only accountable to people here,” Amos A. Lawrence, a Boston industrialist, said (6, 110).
Brown set up his troops at a farm he leased in Maryland near the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in July 1859 (2,1). His force consisted of twenty-one free blacks and extreme white abolitionists (2, 1). On October 16, Brown and his men woke early and read scripture before crossing over the Potomac River from Maryland into Virginia and advancing to the arsenal (2, 1). For strategy, Brown gave the following speech to his men.
And now, Gentlemen, let me impress this one thing upon your minds. You all know how dear life is to you and how dear your life is to your friends. And in remembering that, consider that the lives of others are as dear to them as yours are to you. Do not, therefore, take the life of anyone, if you can possibly avoid it; but if it is necessary to take life in order to save your own, then make sure work of it (2,1).
Brown’s words of advice were spoken in vain. He and his troops had to threaten the gatekeeper at a bridge and shoot the railroad depot guard to gain access to the arsenal which held vast quantities of arms and ammunition (3, 99). Brown then sent men off to capture hostages such as slave-owners and Colonel Lewis Washington (3, 99). Brown stole a sword that Frederick the Great of Prussia gave as a gift to George Washington and fastened it on to himself, showing his fearlessness (3, 100). When hostage John E. Dangerfield told Brown’s men that they talked like “crazy men,” they responded by saying, “Not so crazy as you think, as you will soon see.”(3, 100) Brown told Dangerfield that his purpose was “to free the Negroes of Virginia” and he planned on doing this by noon with fifteen hundred men (3, 100).
Once the settlers in Harpers Ferry became aware of the situation, they raided Brown and his men with a few shotguns (3,100). Maryland’s citizens came with arms and helped to push the raiders back into the arsenal (3, 100). Brown’s men were cornered in the arsenal while the community militia fired continuously (3, 100). The arsenal walls were think, though, and Brown’s men fired back with their Sharps’ rifles (3, 101). All of this delaying was supposed to buy time for the slaves to join the riot and fight for their freedom (3, 101). Brown had made a mistake, though, by not telling the Virginian slaves that October 16 was a planned uprising (3, 101). No slaves joined the riot and Brown and his men were on their own (3, 101). U.S. Marines, lead by Robert E. Lee, arrived from Washington, D.C. and delayed until morning to send Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart to coax Brown’s men to surrender (3, 101). Brown refused and the marines charged the arsenal door with a battering ram (3, 101). The door broke open and the marines filled into the arsenal, killing twelve of Brown’s men (two were his sons) (3, 102). Five local people and one marine were killed (3, 102).
Brown did not go into his battle well-prepared. He was not supplied with food and he chose to raid a town where their enemies could trap them by capturing two bridges (3, 101). Two rivers met in eastern Harpers Ferry, so the west was the only means of escape and Brown’s men did not work fast enough to flee (2, 1). Brown was also wrong in assuming that slaves would quickly revolt as a result of the least amount of encouragement (3, 101). Brown and his men stood waiting at the arsenal which left time for the news of his raid to spread around (3, 101). Brown made poor choices in preparation and during his attack on Harpers Ferry.
Brown’s attack caused many repercussions in the South. Southerners placed the blame on the North for funding and supporting Brown (6, 134). Strict curfews and increased defense measures were enforced in southern towns out of fear (6, 134). The North worried that the South would infer that Brown’s attack meant the North was turning abolitionist (6, 136). The northeastern business society tried to persuade the South that it had no association with the doings of such an “unsupported madman” (6, 136). Boston conservatives were horrified by the raid because it put a damper on their good names in politics (6, 135). Robert C. Winthrop was warned by Edward Everett that the Harpers Ferry attack would lead the way for the “final catastrophe.”(6, 136) Originally, Brown’s supporters, Howe and Stearns, both denied any knowledge of Brown’s plans and fled to Canada ( 6, 136). Sanborn, another supporter, headed to Canada also, to “try a change of air for his old complaint.”(6, 136) Smith was admitted to an insane asylum to evade arrest (3, 102).
When Brown was put on trial, both his opponents and his supporters thought he was crazy (3, 102). Some thought a plea of insanity would save him from his death and so his family presented documents claiming insanity ran in the family (3, 102). Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise was confident that Brown was an intelligent and brave man and he convicted him of murder, treason against Virginia, and conspiring to incite a slave revolt (3, 102). Wendell Phillips, William Bowditch, Thomas Wentworth, Theodore Parker, and others of Brown’s original followers stuck to their beliefs and supported Brown until his death (6, 136). Brown wrote a letter to his wife and children before his death, saying the following.
I am awaiting the hour of my public murder with great composure of mind and cheerfulness; feeling the strong assurance that in no other possible way could I be used to so much advantage to the cause of G-d and humanity…I have now no doubt but that our seeming disaster will ultimately result in the most glorious success (3, 103).
Harpers Ferry aided in dividing the North and South into opposing “teams,” which could be considered a good deed (3, 103). Henry David Thoreau said before Brown’s death, “It was Brown’s doctrine that a man has a perfect right to interfere by force with the slaveholder, in order to rescue the slave. I agree with him.” (3, 104)
Although Brown’s actions were radical, his cause was heroic. His plans to spark slave revolts in both Kansas in Virginia were not well thought-out, but his cause was passionate and justified. Brown can be looked upon as a courageous man who stood up for what he believed was right. He was a martyr until the moment he was hanged. Brown revealed all of his schemes under trial, but would convict no one else (6, 134). He was seen as silent, grim, and defiant (6, 134). He was not working to attain power or respect, but to put an end to the violation of human rights. John Brown’s actions in Kansas and Virginia render him a hero. To sum up Browns impact, Thomas Brigham Bishop once said, “John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave, his soul goes marching on.”(2, 1)