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John Brown's Picture

A long-lost daguerrotype, made by a black artist in 1847, has lately come to rest at the Smithsonian

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In 1854 the Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed the two future states to decide by popular vote whether to accept slavery. Pro-slavery "Ruffians" from Missouri poured over the border into the Kansas Territory to pack the polls. In reply, New England abolitionists began grubstaking Free-Soilers who trundled west and set up the town of Lawrence, now seat of the University of Kansas. Locals sacked it. A heavy shipment marked "Bibles" reached the Free-Soilers. It came from the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe who wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin. The beleaguered recipients, sighing at the futility of such pious gifts, pried open the crates and rejoiced at all the splendid new Sharps rifles. They dubbed the guns "Beecher's Bibles."

To "Bleeding Kansas" now came grim-faced, obsessive John Brown, following a group of his sons (he ended up fathering 20 children, 13 from his second wife). In Osawatomie, on Pottawatomie Creek, some 30 miles south of today's sprawl of Kansas City, Kansas, the old man created and captained a guerrilla band, the Liberty Guards, to revenge the sack of Lawrence. On a spring night in 1856, Brown led a raid of his own "to steal a march on the slave hounds." Storming into scattered prairie cabins, his band savagely killed five people. Abolitionists twisted this "Pottawatomie Massacre" to improve the image of their cause, but in the eyes of many Americans it branded Brown as a fanatic and even a murderer.

Daguerreotypist Augustus Washington probably never learned of Brown's massacre. Washington was the son of a former slave and an Asian mother, and when the massacre occurred, he was living in Liberia. Only in Africa, he noted, could he "find a home." But when he was 22, in 1843, Dartmouth had accepted him. To help pay expenses Washington learned daguerreotyping, doing portraits of students, faculty and townsfolk in Hanover, New Hampshire. He had to quit school before graduating, and settled in Hartford, Connecticut. There, he opened a studio in 1847. John Brown was one of his first customers.

He was renowned in Hartford as "an artist of fine taste and perception," but he constantly chafed at having to pay taxes, especially because, as a free person of color, he did not have the right to vote. In 1853, he gave up his Hartford studio and sailed for Liberia with his wife and three children.

In 1858 Brown began recruiting for a great new mission. He gathered funds from six wealthy Northeasterners — the "Secret Six" — and in the summer of '59 moved with 21 followers to a rented farm close to Harpers Ferry, Virginia. First step: seize the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, then wait for thousands of slaves to rally, arm themselves and make war upon their masters. He was now famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint). People noticed him, especially with the long beard he'd grown. Some of his advisers warned him of imminent catastrophe. Conjecture about what he was up to flew from Harpers Ferry to the halls of Congress. As a result, his last adventure — still a familiar episode in history — was long foreseen.

On the evening of October 16, 1859, Brown led his group into Harpers Ferry, seized the arsenal and Hall's Rifle Works, captured some hostages and waited for slaves to revolt. They didn't, but very quickly news of the raid spread. Outraged townsmen and militia besieged the raiders. Guns blazed and bullets whistled all night and the next day. Brown moved his people into the firehouse. Outside, the battle turned into a bloody carnival. Hooting civilians swigged from bottles as they used two dead abolitionist raiders for target practice.

On October 18, U.S. marines arrived, led by an Army colonel named Robert E. Lee. Brown versus Lee. Both rebels, one present, one future. Lee's aide, Lieut. J.E.B. "Jeb" Stuart, approached the firehouse under a white flag, for a parley. But the old man asked ridiculous terms, and Stuart signaled the marines and stepped out of the way as they crashed in.

So ended Brown's Rebellion. At his trial, Brown found at last the sounding board for his revolt against "this slave country" with its "wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments." He was hanged on December 2, a mere two months after he lit the fuse of war and, as he thought, saw it sputter out. "The crimes of this guilty land," he wrote, before mounting the scaffold, "will never be purged away but with blood." And this time history proved him right.

By Edwards Park


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