"He is of imposing appearance . . . tall, with square shoulders . . . eyes of deep gray, and couchant, as if ready to spring at the least rustling. . . ." So John Brown struck Bronson Alcott, mystical transcendentalist and father of Louisa May, author of Little Women. In his epic John Brown's Body, poet Stephen Vincent Benét was a bit cooler of eye. For him John Brown was:
A stone eroded to a cutting edge
By obstinacy, failure and cold prayers. . . .
And with a certain minor-prophet air
That fooled the world to thinking him half-great
When all he did consistently was fail.
Now, for those who want to judge for themselves, or compare the way he really looked with artist John Steuart Curry's stagy portrait, or with Raymond Massey's depiction in the 1940 film, a four-inch-high daguerreotype of him, lately acquired by the Smithsonian, is on view at the National Portrait Gallery. In the picture, John Brown stands tall, square, stony and half-great. The portrait is the earliest likeness known of America's most famous and controversial abolitionist. It was made by a talented daguerreotypist, Augustus Washington, probably in 1847 when Brown was 47 years old and working as a wool broker in Springfield, Massachusetts. Every button on his waistcoat, every stern wrinkle in his brow, even the life line on his upraised palm, is precisely shown.
The original daguerreotype only recently came to light in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where the Smithsonian snapped it up with the help of funds given by Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd G. Schermer. Mrs. Schermer's great-grandfather was with John Brown in Kansas in the 1850s.
John Brown spent his earliest years in northwestern Connecticut. When the boy was 5, his father, scrabbling for a living as a tanner, moved the family to Ohio. During the War of 1812, the elder Brown entrusted his 12-year-old son with driving cattle more than 100 miles to Detroit to sell to American troops. While on that trip he watched a black slave boy his age being beaten with an iron fire shovel; he was so shocked by the sight that he vowed to become slavery's "most determined foe."
Brown was largely self-taught, a humorless young man with a knack for judging wool by its feel. He was certain he could command top prices from the mills then sprouting in the Northeast, but his wool brokerage turned out to be just one of Brown's 15 business failures.
By the time of this portrait, America's "peculiar institution" was becoming an embarrassment to Northeastern manufacturers who dealt with disapproving Europeans. Brown's obsessive hatred of slavery intrigued many wealthy Northern abolitionists who had various ideas about how to break slavery's grip. The American Colonization Society wanted to take freed slaves, give them schooling and send them to Africa. The Underground Railroad hid runaways by day, hurrying them north by night to freedom in Canada.
Abolishing slavery by federal law was hopeless: Southerners were too strong in Congress, and until the 1850s most Northerners didn't really care. Abolitionists were regarded as crazy radicals. Frederick Douglass, former slave and eminent antislavery spokesman, wanted to convince slave owners that they must end slavery in part because it was against God's will. John Brown as well feared God but was dead sure the deity had recruited him as avenging angel to end the national evil with sword rather than persuasion.
In 1850, as part of a compromise that declared California would join the Union as a free state, Congress beefed up the old fugitive slave law; slaveholders could nab runaways anywhere in the nation and return them to their owners. In New England, Emerson, Thoreau and Wendell Phillips preached outrage and defiance in essays and oratory, Whittier in poems, and Congregational minister Theodore Parker in his pulpit. For his part, John Brown saw the fugitive slave law as a divine testing. Had not Gideon and his army suffered trials before God persuaded him to face the Midianites and "set every man's sword against his fellow"?
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.