John Brown’s Day of Reckoning

The abolitionist’s bloody raid on a federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry 150 years ago set the stage for the Civil War

John Brown and many of his followers holed up in the fire engine house awaiting reinforcements by a swarm of "bees"—slaves from the surrounding area. But only a handful showed up. (Library of Congress)
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Harpers Ferry, Virginia, lay sleeping on the night of October 16, 1859, as 19 heavily armed men stole down mist-shrouded bluffs along the Potomac River where it joins the Shenandoah. Their leader was a rail-thin 59-year-old man with a shock of graying hair and penetrating steel-gray eyes. His name was John Brown. Some of those who strode across a covered railway bridge from Maryland into Virginia were callow farm boys; others were seasoned veterans of the guerrilla war in disputed Kansas. Among them were Brown's youngest sons, Watson and Oliver; a fugitive slave from Charleston, South Carolina; an African-American student at Oberlin College; a pair of Quaker brothers from Iowa who had abandoned their pacifist beliefs to follow Brown; a former slave from Virginia; and men from Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania and Indiana. They had come to Harpers Ferry to make war on slavery.

The raid that Sunday night would be the most daring instance on record of white men entering a Southern state to incite a slave rebellion. In military terms, it was barely a skirmish, but the incident electrified the nation. It also created, in John Brown, a figure who after a century and a half remains one of the most emotive touchstones of our racial history, lionized by some Americans and loathed by others: few are indifferent. Brown's mantle has been claimed by figures as diverse as Malcolm X, Timothy McVeigh, Socialist leader Eugene Debs and abortion protesters espousing violence. "Americans do not deliberate about John Brown—they feel him," says Dennis Frye, the National Park Service's chief historian at Harpers Ferry. "He is still alive today in the American soul. He represents something for each of us, but none of us is in agreement about what he means."

"The impact of Harpers Ferry quite literally transformed the nation," says Harvard historian John Stauffer, author of The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race. The tide of anger that flowed from Harpers Ferry traumatized Americans of all persuasions, terrorizing Southerners with the fear of massive slave rebellions, and radicalizing countless Northerners, who had hoped that violent confrontation over slavery could be indefinitely postponed. Before Harpers Ferry, leading politicians believed that the widening division between North and South would eventually yield to compromise. After it, the chasm appeared unbridgeable. Harpers Ferry splintered the Democratic Party, scrambled the leadership of the Republicans and produced the conditions that enabled Republican Abraham Lincoln to defeat two Democrats and a third-party candidate in the presidential election of 1860.

"Had John Brown's raid not occurred, it is very possible that the 1860 election would have been a regular two-party contest between antislavery Republicans and pro-slavery Democrats," says City University of New York historian David Reynolds, author of John Brown: Abolitionist. "The Democrats would probably have won, since Lincoln received just 40 percent of the popular vote, around one million votes less than his three opponents." While the Democrats split over slavery, Republican candidates such as William Seward were tarnished by their association with abolitionists; Lincoln, at the time, was regarded as one of his party's more conservative options. "John Brown was, in effect, a hammer that shattered Lincoln's opponents into fragments," says Reynolds. "Because Brown helped to disrupt the party system, Lincoln was carried to victory, which in turn led 11 states to secede from the Union. This in turn led to the Civil War."

Well into the 20th century, it was common to dismiss Brown as an irrational fanatic, or worse. In the rousing pro-Southern 1940 classic film Santa Fe Trail, actor Raymond Massey portrayed him as a wild-eyed madman. But the civil rights movement and a more thoughtful acknowledgment of the nation's racial problems have occasioned a more nuanced view. "Brown was thought mad because he crossed the line of permissible dissent," Stauffer says. "He was willing to sacrifice his life for the cause of blacks, and for this, in a culture that was simply marinated in racism, he was called mad."

Brown was a hard man, to be sure, "built for times of trouble and fitted to grapple with the flintiest hardships," in the words of his close friend, the African-American orator Frederick Douglass. Brown felt a profound and lifelong empathy with the plight of slaves. "He stood apart from every other white in the historical record in his ability to burst free from the power of racism," says Stauffer. "Blacks were among his closest friends, and in some respects he felt more comfortable around blacks than he did around whites."

Brown was born with the century, in 1800, in Connecticut, and raised by loving if strict parents who believed (as did many, if not most, in that era) that righteous punishment was an instrument of the divine. When he was a small boy, the Browns moved west in an ox-drawn wagon to the raw wilderness of frontier Ohio, settling in the town of Hudson, where they became known as friends to the rapidly diminishing population of Native Americans, and as abolitionists who were always ready to help fugitive slaves. Like many restless 19th-century Americans, Brown tried many professions, failing at some and succeeding modestly at others: farmer, tanner, surveyor, wool merchant. He married twice—his first wife died from illness—and, in all, fathered 20 children, almost half of whom died in infancy; 3 more would die in the war against slavery. Brown, whose beliefs were rooted in strict Calvinism, was convinced that he had been predestined to bring an end to slavery, which he believed with burning certitude was a sin against God. In his youth, both he and his father, Owen Brown, had served as "conductors" on the Underground Railroad. He had denounced racism within his own church, where African-Americans were required to sit in the back, and shocked neighbors by dining with blacks and addressing them as "Mr." and "Mrs." Douglass once described Brown as a man who "though a white gentleman, 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 1848, the wealthy abolitionist Gerrit Smith encouraged Brown and his family to live on land Smith had bestowed on black settlers in northern New York. Tucked away in the Adirondack Mountains, Brown concocted a plan to liberate slaves in numbers never before attempted: A "Subterranean Pass-Way"—the Underground Railroad writ large—would stretch south through the Allegheny and Appalachian mountains, linked by a chain of forts manned by armed abolitionists and free blacks. "These warriors would raid plantations and run fugitives north to Canada," says Stauffer. "The goal was to destroy the value of slave property." This scheme would form the template for the Harpers Ferry raid and, says Frye, under different circumstances "could have succeeded. [Brown] knew that he couldn't free four million people. But he understood economics and how much money was invested in slaves. There would be a panic—property values would dive. The slave economy would collapse."

Political events of the 1850s turned Brown from a fierce, if essentially garden-variety, abolitionist into a man willing to take up arms, even die, for his cause. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which imposed draconian penalties on anyone caught helping a runaway and required all citizens to cooperate in the capture of fugitive slaves, enraged Brown and other abolitionists. In 1854, another act of Congress pushed still more Northerners beyond their limits of tolerance. Under pressure from the South and its Democratic allies in the North, Congress opened the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to slavery under a concept called "popular sovereignty." The more northerly Nebraska was in little danger of becoming a slave state. Kansas, however, was up for grabs. Pro-slavery advocates—"the meanest and most desperate of men, armed to the teeth with Revolvers, Bowie Knives, Rifles & Cannon, while they are not only thoroughly organized, but under pay from Slaveholders," John Brown Jr. wrote to his father—poured into Kansas from Missouri. Antislavery settlers begged for guns and reinforcements. Among the thousands of abolitionists who left their farms, workshops or schools to respond to the call were John Brown and five of his sons. Brown himself arrived in Kansas in October 1855, driving a wagon loaded with rifles he had picked up in Ohio and Illinois, determined, he said, "to help defeat Satan and his legions."

In May 1856, pro-slavery raiders sacked Lawrence, Kansas, in an orgy of burning and looting. Almost simultaneously, Brown learned that Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, the most outspoken abolitionist in the U.S. Senate, had been beaten senseless on the floor of the chamber by a cane-wielding congressman from South Carolina. Brown raged at the North's apparent helplessness. Advised to act with restraint, he retorted, "Caution, caution, sir. I am eternally tired of hearing the word caution. It is nothing but the word of cowardice." A party of Free-Staters led by Brown dragged five pro-slavery men out of their isolated cabins on eastern Kansas' Pottawatomie Creek and hacked them to death with cutlasses. The horrific nature of the murders disturbed even abolitionists. Brown was unrepentant. "God is my judge," he laconically replied when asked to account for his actions. Though he was a wanted man who hid out for a time, Brown eluded capture in the anarchic conditions that pervaded Kansas. Indeed, almost no one—pro-slavery or antislavery—was ever arraigned in a court for killings that took place during the guerrilla war there.


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