9. John Brown’s Holy War: Terrorist or Heroic Revolutionary?

9. John Brown’s Holy War: Terrorist or Heroic Revolutionary?


Professor David Blight:
On a morning in the second week of March,
1857, Americans grew up living–they
didn’t all quite understand it yet–but they grew up living in
the land of the Dred Scott decision.
And if you were African-American,
that really meant something. Now 1857 is,
of course, the final year of the playing out of Bleeding
Kansas and we’ll return to that in just a second. And we’re going to discuss
mostly today the story of one abolitionist;
you could say the most famous abolitionist,
certainly the most notorious American abolitionist,
John Brown. John Brown never made it easy
for people to love him. In some ways he wasn’t very
lovable, until he died on the gallows, and the gallows made
him heroic–at least to some people–and it made him all but
the devil to others. There are catalytic events in
history, that is, events around which ideas,
forces, movements, problems coalesce.
Unfortunately, they often have a lot to do
with violence, and we’ll come back to this
point at the end today. But John Brown was far,
far, far, far more important dead than he’d ever been alive. Poets, songwriters,
lyricists, biographers, those who would come to love
him, those who would come to hate
him, and those who cannot quite figure out what to do with him,
would never stop writing about him.
And we still haven’t. And we’re in the midst right
now of a John Brown biography revival.
That’s in part because next year is the 150^(th) anniversary
of the Harpers Ferry raid. Almost all major
African-American poets in the twentieth century attempted
their John Brown poem. So did Stephen Vincent
Benét in a famous and classic lyric,
epic poem called John Brown’s Body,
published in the 1920s. And embedded in that poem is
this verse where Benét, I think, captured the dilemma
of John Brown. John Brown–it’s not easy to
decide–was he a heroic revolutionary or a midnight
terrorist? This is Benét’s verse,
embedded in a 250-page epic poem.
“The law is our yardstick and it measures well,
oh well enough when there are yards to measure.
Measure a wave with it, measure fire,
cut sorrow up in inches, weigh content.
You can weigh John Brown’s body well enough, but how and in what
balance do you weigh John Brown? He had no gift for life,
no gift to bring life, but his body and a cutting
edge, and he knew how to die.” More on old John Brown coming
up. The year before John Brown’s
raid the most important, the most exhilarating,
and by far the most substantively interesting
political debates in American history would occur in Illinois,
when Abraham Lincoln runs for the U.S.
Senate against Stephen Douglas–Stephen Douglas,
the same Stephen Douglas, author of the Kansas-Nebraska
Act; parliamentarian genius of the
Compromise of 1850; the man most associated with
the Democratic Party’s theory of popular sovereignty for Kansas
and Nebraska and the whole of the West.
And this guy, Abe Lincoln,
with one term in the U.S. House of Representatives and
then a failed attempt at re-election, a guy with very
little experience when he ran for President.
In the opening of his campaign he decided to open it in the
Legislative Hall of the old State House in Illinois.
It was on the outside steps of that State House where Barack
Obama began his campaign almost exactly a year ago.
But inside, Lincoln gave his now famous House Divided speech.
Now in your reader, your Lincoln Reader,
edited by Mike Johnson, you have the House Divided
speech, but read past the first page.
Don’t just read that first lyrical, biblical paragraph,
read what Lincoln goes on the argue.
The speech is about the Dred Scott decision.
The speech is his opposition to the Dred–to the Supreme Court
case that had just been passed the year before.
The speech is his opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
His speech is a warning. It’s the warning of a moderate
Republican, but nevertheless a moderate, anti-slavery,
free soil Republican who throws down the gauntlet,
in the wake of Dred Scott. This is a sentence on the fifth
page of the House Divided Speech, page 68 in your reader
if you look it up. “We shall lie down soon,” said
Abraham Lincoln, “pleasantly dreaming that the
people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State
free, and we shall awake the next
morning to the reality instead that the Supreme Court has made
Illinois a Slave State.” Get his drift.
The Dred Scott decision, in his view,
and the view now of most in this new, extraordinary
coalition, the Republican Party,
believes the Dred Scott decision now threatens
everybody–north, south, and west–with the
presence of slavery, and slave labor,
and all that goes with it. It’s the opening of that speech
though, of course, that the world always
remembers, and we love to return to this
in our political culture, in our political history,
whenever we feel great polarization and great division.
Are we a house divided again, against ourselves? “If we could first know where
we are and whither we are tending…”–this is so
Lincoln; he kind of meanders in a bit of
a homespun way into a very serious argument–“…we
could then better judge what to do and how to do it.
We are now far into the fifth year since a policy was
initiated”–Kans as-Nebraska–“with the avowed
object and confident promise of putting an end to the slavery
agitation. Under the operation of that
policy that agitation has not only not ceased but has
constantly augmented. In my opinion it will not cease
until a crisis shall have been reached and passed.
A house divided against itself cannot stand.
I believe this government cannot endure permanently
half-slave and half-free. I do not expect the Union to be
dissolved, I do not expect the House to fall,
but I do expect it will cease to be divided.
It will become all one thing or all the other.”
Southerners never forgot that sentence.
“Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further
spread of it and place it where the public mind shall rest in
the belief that it is in a course of ultimate
extinction”–and those two words,
more than anything else Lincoln had uttered before the Civil
War, Southern Democrats would never forget–“or its advocates
will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all
the states, old as well as new,
north as well as south. Have we no tendency to the
latter condition? Let anyone who doubts carefully
contemplate that now almost complete legal combination,
piece of machinery so to speak”–and here he’s arguing
the slave-power conspiracy, without naming it–“compounded
of the Nebraska doctrine and the Dred Scott decision,
let him consider not only what work the machinery is adapted to
do and how”–the machinery–“and how well adapted.
But also let him study the history of its construction and
trace, if he can, or rather fail if he can,
to trace the evidences of design and concert of action
among its chief bosses, from the beginning.” It’s all there;
the Republican Party coalition of ideas and fears is all there.
Well, what was everybody so angry about over the Dred Scott
decision? It’s just a Supreme Court
decision. Well, I left you the other day
hanging in abeyance. Dred Scott was,
as I said, an old, old man by the time this thing
finally got before the- got on the docket in 1854,
finally was argued in late 1856 and early 1957.
And when the court brought down its decision,
literally two days, forty-eight hours after the
inauguration of James Buchanan as President in 1857,
his case was now, his name would now become
almost a household word across the country.
Now a measure of how important this case was as it was
developing largely in legal secrecy was the kind of lawyers
who argued it. Montgomery Blair and George
Ticknor Curtis for Scott. Montgomery Blair was from the
famous Blair family from Missouri, moderate anti-slavery
leaning Republicans by this point in time,
Member of Congress; George Ticknor Curtis,
a former attorney-general, a very important,
famous trial lawyer. And for the Government,
another former U.S. Attorney General,
Reverdy Johnson, and a U.S.
Senator, Henry Geyer, were the layers.
Reverdy Johnson made the startling statements in the
arguments before the Supreme Court and called for a–he made
startling statements and he called for a broader
pronouncement from the court. He urged Justice Taney,
the Chief Justice, and the court to render a big
decision here and try, once and for all,
to put this–as Lincoln called it–slavery agitation,
this whole slavery in the Western Territories problem to
rest. The Supreme Court after all is
supreme. Reverdy Johnson said–I quote
him–“This is a case that shall determine whether slavery shall
live forever.” Forever;
whether preservation of slavery was the only way to preserve the
Union. The decision came on the 6^(th)
of March 1857, and here was the decision.
Taney and the majority in the court did not have to go as far
as they did. This is now legendary and
famous, Taney developing his majority.
And it was ultimately a six to three decision.
And lest you think the Supreme Court doesn’t really matter in
our political history, please remember the Dred Scott
decision. Number one part of the–there
were three parts of the decision.
The first was jurisdiction. Did Dred Scott as a black
person have the right to sue–this is the first question
they were asked to settle–the right to sue for anything in a
Federal Court? Could a non-citizen,
because he was a Negro–which was the language used then–sue
in Federal Court? Two, did Scott’s residence on
free soil–remember his four years with Dr.
Emerson, his former owner, from 1834 to 1838,
living in Minnesota Territory–did his residence on
free soil entitle him to freedom?
Or, if a slave was taken by his owner to Free states or Free
territories, was it the law of the State the master came from
that always had jurisdiction? In other words,
was it the law of Missouri that took precedent here,
or the law of Minnesota? And the third question before
the court–they didn’t have to take this one up but they sure
did–was Congress’s right to determine slavery in the Western
Territories. The pressures on the court were
tremendous, as I said, to move for a broad decision,
to try to put this thing to rest.
Well the decision, of course, six to three.
And at that point there were five southern born justices,
five either slaveholders or former slaveholders on the
Supreme Court. The sixth judge who voted with
them was Greer of Pennsylvania, forming a majority against the
three northern born justices who voted against it.
The decision was, one, Scott had no right to sue
in a Federal Court. Two, his residence on free soil
did not give him his freedom, the law of Missouri was in
place. And third, and by far most
important, the court ruled–trying to put to rest now
nearly forty years of this problem that had been
compromised this way and compromised that way and argued
with that principle and that principle and that principle,
as we’ve seen–it ruled that Congress had no authority to
exclude slavery from any U.S. territory because it would be,
just as Southerners had been arguing now for two generations,
a violation of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution,
a person’s right to life, liberty, and property.
If someone ever wants to doubt that American history is about
its ironies, just note that language. Therefore, the Missouri
Compromise Line, that so-called sacred pledge
that had now been violated, said Northerners,
in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, had never been constitutional
to begin with; that any attempt to prevent
slavery’s expansion anywhere would be unconstitutional.
Now, Taney not only went that far, but in his opinion,
in his own written opinion, he famously went a step further
and he argued–or he said, quote, that blacks,
or negroes is the word he used, had–I’m quoting–“had for more
than a century been regarded as beings of an inferior order,
so far inferior that they had no rights, which the white man
was bound to respect.” Some of the most infamous words
ever in an American Supreme Court decision.
Now, the decision, six to three,
was issued. For this new Republican Party
coalition in the North, in some ways this was horrible
news and in some ways it was good political news,
because nothing crystallized this Republican coalition now
quite like this case. They will crystallize in
resistance to it, as I just tried to demonstrate,
from quoting from Lincoln’s famous House Divided speech.
But most importantly here, I’d argue–the hook to hang
your hat on here–is that the Dred Scott decision,
it’s not once and for all. The war is not necessarily now
inevitable. Contingencies are always there,
they’re always laying there to happen.
But what the Dred Scott decision did almost once and for
all, is that it destroyed compromise.
It destroyed almost any conception now of consensus or
compromise. Or put another way,
it ruined moderation. Moderate politicians,
former Democrats like David Wilmot from Pennsylvania,
racist to the core, but free soiler who’s joined
the Republican Party. Abraham Lincoln of Illinois,
got his own racial problems, but a much more advanced sort
of anti-slavery thinker, but still a moderate–he didn’t
like abolitionists, he’d never been a member of an
Abolitionist Society and never would be–believed there were
Constitutional restraints on what Congress could actually do
about slavery. But it will bring together now
some strange bedfellows in this Republican coalition who cannot
find anymore any middle ground with their foes.
And that’s when you see danger–you more than see
danger–in American political history.
It’s when the side that loses a debate cannot accept the result.
Now, there are many ways to try to demonstrate the importance of
that Dred Scott case as it sunk in.
Now it’s sinking in now in the summer of 1857 as a depression
hits the country. Wages in America,
North, in northern cities like New York, Boston,
Philadelphia and so on, drop forty and fifty percent in
six months. The estimate is that 100,000
workers in New York City were thrown out of work by the end of
1857; about 50,000 in Philadelphia.
The prices of wheat go plummeting, practically
overnight. The United States had one of
its first significant stock market crashes.
There’s a lot to be feared here. And on both sides of this,
North and South, they’re going to blame each
other. Southerners are going to blame
Northerners for over-speculation,
for the over-issuing of credit by banks.
And, of course, they’re right about that.
There were no controls on banks in these years.
There was no Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation;
you only got that from the New Deal in the twentieth century.
And Northerners are going to blame Southerners because of
their belief in King Cotton and this kind of dependence on a
single export. They’re going to throw blame
all over the place. If you were African-American
you now lived in the land of the Dred Scott decision,
which had said what? It said you will never be a
citizen of the United States. You have no rights which the
white man has to respect, which means the white man’s
Constitution, which means the white man’s
society. It means you live in the land
of the Dred Scott decision that said you have no future in the
United States. In the wake of the Dred Scott
case, about a month after it, Frederick Douglass gave a
speech, which was a bit uncustomary for him.
In the 1850s Frederick Douglass was learning his politics,
he was really was–he was getting his feet as a political
thinker and even as a politician.
He was trying to sidle up to this Republican Party,
even though it was kind of a half-baked loaf of bread to him;
it wasn’t real abolitionism. This case drove him further
into their laps. But he gave a speech,
largely to a black audience, in the wake of Dred Scott.
And so typical of Douglass’s brilliance as an orator,
he started to discuss how he saw fear on the horizon,
and trouble and dread on the horizon, and he said he saw what
he called “the manifold discouragements of my people
everywhere I go.” I quote him.
“They fling their broad and gloomy shadows across the
pathway of every thoughtful colored man in this country.”
And then he ended with this lament.
“I see them”–these are discouragements–“I see them
clearly and feel them sadly with an earnest, aching heart.
I have long looked for the realization of the hope of my
people, standing as it were, barefoot, and treading upon the
sharp and flinty rocks of the present and looking out upon the
boundless sea of the future. I have sought in my humble way
to penetrate the intervening mists and clouds and per chance
to see in the distance, a time at which the cruel
bondage of my people should somehow end, and the long
entombed millions rise from their foul grave of slavery and
death. But of that time I can now know
nothing, and you can know nothing, and all is uncertain at
this point. I walk by faith and not by
sight.” That’s Douglass’s beautiful and
terrible way of expressing that he’s now told,
as an African-American, you have no future in the
United States. All right, so who was John
Brown? That picture–I’m going to show
you just a couple of images here.
John Brown, of course, has been a fascination for
artists, to say the least. I don’t want to take too much
time with this. But this is a black and white
version now–I don’t know if you can see the rope up here.
This is one of the 22 panels in Jacob Lawrence’s magnificent
series on John Brown. Jacob Lawrence,
a great African-American painter.
He painted this in the 1930s. And at least 20 of the 22
images in Lawrence’s incredible series on John Brown,
you will find some image of a crucifix, of execution,
a hanging. When I was teaching at Amherst
College, I don’t know, eight or nine years ago,
we had Jacob Lawrence for an Honorary Degree,
and I got to spend like two days with him.
It was one of the greatest thrills of my life.
And the museum at Amherst managed to get the series on
John Brown, they had it in a room.
And I was asked to do a gallery talk on it.
And so I went into the room the day before I was to give this
talk, all by myself, nobody in there,
and I just communed with these terrible images.
Sometimes the images, just sort of crisscrossed
bayonets and sometimes crisscrossed rifles,
and sometimes it’s literally crosses on the wall in rooms,
and sometimes it’s this image, of Brown hanging.
And I was overwhelmed by it. And the next day I gave this
talk and I talked about these images of crucifixes.
What they hadn’t told me is that they were also inviting a
busload of Fifth Graders to come to the lecture,
and they also hadn’t told me that that morning in the New
York Times, in the headline–today this
wouldn’t even get headlines–there’d been a bus
bombing in Jerusalem and 38 people were slaughtered on a bus
by a terrorist bomb. And I was going to talk about
John Brown, whether he was a terrorist, and in walked the
Fifth Graders. Toughest–one of the toughest
audiences I ever had. How do you smooth over John
Brown and all those crucifixes with Fifth Graders on a
fieldtrip? Don’t even try is the answer.
[Laughter] Another favorite image of mine
of John Brown is David Levine’s. David Levine is the artist for
the New York Review of Books.
This actually comes from 1969. A series of books had come out
on John Brown. This is an image that kind of
fits John Brown to many people–the gun slinging,
kind of wild man. He’s got a red face,
probably, big nose, gun belt, bullets all around
him, kind of saying, “Don’t mess with me.”
But then, of course, there’s Thomas Hovenden’s
incredible painting of John Brown, which hangs in the
Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
I don’t have the full version of it.
This is the painting that depicts the scene of John Brown
leaving his jail cell in Charlestown,
Virginia, on the day of his execution, according to the
artist with the hangman’s noose already around his neck,
before he even rode to the gallows–details.
And a black woman comes up with her baby and raises her baby to
John Brown and he kisses the child.
It’s the “legend of the kiss,” as John Greenleaf Whittier put
it in a poem. It didn’t happen,
but in art anything can happen. This is the gentle savior John
Brown, this is the liberator John Brown, this is the martyr
John Brown. There are many,
many, many John Browns. And you’re going to start
hearing about and seeing a lot more of them next year. Well, John Brown was born in
Connecticut, Torrington to be exact, and just a ways up the
road. He was born in 1800.
He grew up mostly out in the Western Reserve,
as it was called, of Ohio.
He witnessed at the age of twelve the beating of a slave
boy. There were remnants of slaves
still traversing the north in the eighteen-teens.
He tried Divinity School for a little while at the age of
sixteen, but said he quit because of insufficient funds
and because all the reading caused him sore eyes.
He experienced a confession of faith in his father’s church,
a congregational, old-fashioned Calvinist
congregational church, when he was about sixteen.
He married first in 1820. His first wife would die on him.
He had no less than twenty children by two wives over some
thirty years. Nine of those children would
die in infancy. From 1820 to 1855 he engaged in
approximately twenty different business ventures of one kind
and another in six different northern states,
virtually all of which ended in failure and poverty for his
family; several of which ended in law
suits and bankruptcies and one litigation after another;
one of which led to debtor’s prison for awhile.
He and his family had lived a poverty stricken,
rolling stone existence, across the northern states.
Probably what sustained him–and we know a good deal
about this–was his religion, his faith, his theology if you
want. He was a kind of orthodox
nineteenth century Calvinist. He believed in such things as
innate depravity, providential design,
predestination, on some level,
and the total human dependence on a sovereign and arbitrary
God, and an arbitrary God that
sometimes chose certain individual human beings in
history to act for Him. He believed in an Old Testament
kind of justice, an eye for an eye and a tooth
for a tooth. He punished his children and
his employees with Mosaic vengeance.
He had a puritanical obsession with the wickedness of other
people. He could be domineering,
vane, obstinate, as one friend once put it,
impervious to a joke. Probably not a lot of fun to
just have lunch with. He gave orders,
remembered Brown’s younger brother, quote,
“like a king against whom there is no rising up.”
He was a thorough going non-conformist.
He probably never joined any formal anti-slavery
organization, although he went to lots of
their meetings. He never joined a political
party. We’re not even sure if he ever
voted. He was a practitioner of what
would become known in these years–certainly by the
1850s–of a kind of higher law doctrine about slavery,
an allegiance to God’s will and God’s law above man’s law.
To John Brown, put simply, slavery represented
an unjustifiable state of war, by one portion of the people
against another; and in a state of war you do
what’s necessary to defend yourselves.
He believed slavery was an evil so entrenched–and he was dead
serious about this–so entrenched in America that it
required revolutionary ideology and revolutionary means to
eradicate it. It had led him–as it has often
in history led most proponents of revolutionary violence–that
the means can, therefore, justify the end.
As God had willed so often in his Old Testament that the
wicked must die, so too had he willed that
slaveholders and their defenders at least deserved the same fate.
John Brown came to believe that violence in a righteous cause
was like a rite of purification. Now, what did he do?
In brief, John Brown’s interest in Kansas was intense,
after the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He was living then,
by then, in upstate New York, up near what is today Lake
Placid, in North Elba, which is indeed where he is
buried. Five of Brown’s sons went west
to Kansas, in late 1854 and early 1855.
There was an extraordinary exchange of letters between a
couple of those sons, especially Owen Brown and his
father back in New York, letters that are saying things
like, “Father, you must come out here
with us. There are slaveholders living
over on such and such creek, within two miles of us Father.
Violence is beginning to break out, Father.”
And so the father came. And John Brown developed,
in Kansas, by late 1855 and into 1856, his own little
guerilla band. They had gone to Kansas to
fight in Kansas’s Border War. Now, I mentioned the other day
that it was in the spring of 1856, Brown and his men are
traveling along a roadway and they get word of the beating of
Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate.
I think it was first told to them that Sumner was all but
dead, this, to him, great abolitionist senator.
And Brown, it appears, went into a frenzy and vowed
revenge, and a couple of days later he and four of his sons,
or three of his sons, went and did visitations at
three houses along Pottawatomie Creek in eastern Kansas,
known to be an area settled by slaveholders or pro-slavery
people, and they dragged several men from their houses,
in front of their wives, and hacked them to death–five
men to be exact–hacked them to death with these huge broad
swords, and deposited their bodies on
the front steps of their cabins. This was the Pottawatomie Creek
Massacre. It touched off even greater
violence in Bleeding Kansas, throughout that summer,
into the fall of 1856. To John Brown,
he had kind of tried to even the score because just a few–a
couple of weeks before that pro-slavery forces had sacked,
attacked and burned the anti-slavery capital of
Kansas–Lawrence, Kansas–burned a hotel and
killed six people. Brown, by killing five,
said he hadn’t quite evened it up.
He spent the summer of 1856 in hiding, into the fall.
In October 1856, he left Kansas and went back
east to launch what became the Harpers Ferry conspiracy;
and in legal terms that’s exactly what it was.
He launched a fundraising campaign to finance a new and
more daring attempt to take this war, as he put it,
into Africa; by that he meant the South.
It was his hope of attacking, ultimately, the largest federal
arsenal in the United States–which was in Harpers
Ferry, Virginia, at the confluence of
the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, just some thirty,
forty miles from Washington, DC–capture that largest
federal arsenal with its thousands of rifles and
side-arms and barrels of gun powder,
and apparently, launch a growing,
developing, slave insurrection, down through Virginia.
And it was his hope, at least, the best we can
understand, to engage in and effect a violent coup
d’état and take over the State of Virginia.
Now, to make a long and dramatic story short enough,
his fundraising campaign by 1857 fell by the way,
in part because of the Panic of 1857.
But he visited all over the North.
He visited the parlors of many famous abolitionists in New
England. He sat in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s
study. People hosted dinners for him.
He was this fascinating, romantic, somewhat bizarre old
man with hair that was whitening, and had been out
there in Kansas raising hell. They didn’t all know the
details of the Pottawatomie Creek Massacre,
and even when they began to hear them they didn’t want to
know too much. But Brown was leading a crusade
in Kansas to keep Kansas free soil.
Brown was doing in Kansas what a lot of these abolitionists
back east could not themselves do but they were glad he was
doing it; began to raise some money for
him. He came down here to
Connecticut and he ordered some 1000 spears–he called them
pikes–from a forgery, which were ultimately delivered
in boxes to a farm near Harpers Ferry, labeled famously
Beecher’s Bibles; huge, heavy boxes labeled
Bibles. And then he went back west.
He established a headquarters in Tabor, Iowa,
a town known to be settled by abolitionists from the east,
a place where he could begin to recruit men and train them.
Then in early 1858 he spent one full month living in the attic
apartment of Frederick Douglass’s home in Rochester,
New York. We have only one little letter
they exchanged during that time. It says, “John,
come down to dinner.” Thanks a lot guys.
But what we do know, that in that attic of Frederick
Douglass’s house, John Brown wrote his so-called
Provisional Constitution for the State of Virginia.
When he took over Virginia he was going to announce a new
Constitution. He, in fact,
was going to be the governor, lest you had any doubt.
And then he called a convention in May 1858, in Canada,
Chatham, Ontario, to which he invited
abolitionists now, black and white,
and it was to be a recruiting convention to recruit the men
who would become part of his abolitionist army.
Now the problem here with John Brown, for everybody who met
him–including Douglass, who may have known more about
the Harpers Ferry plans than anybody alive–the problem was
he was so secretive. He would never tell people the
details of what he was doing, who he was actually hiring.
Forty-six so-called delegates went to this Chatham Convention;
thirteen of them white, the rest of them black.
Most of the people attending it were fugitive slaves living in
Canada, who had escaped slavery in the United States,
many of whom still had family back in the South.
Here was a man, in the midst of this political
crisis going on in the country–this is in 1858
now–who is saying, “I’m going to lead you back
into the South and we’re going to get your families out.”
He lacked money. He had hired an unreliable
drillmaster, a guy named Hugh Forbes, an English soldier of
fortune who’d been off in Italy in the late-40s and early 1850s,
kind of soldiering as a soldier of fortune with Garibaldi in the
Italian Revolution, but it turns out wasn’t very
reliable. He got involved with the
so-called Secret Six, New England abolitionists–time
doesn’t really allow me to tell you everything about them but
they were Franklin Sanborn, Thomas Wentworth Higginson,
Theodore Parker, Samuel Gridley Howe,
George Luther Stearns, Gerrit Smith and others;
prominent, powerful, and in one case rich,
white, New England and Northern abolitionists who supported him. Then Brown went back out to
Kansas that winter, of ’58, and in December of ’58,
with a band of about thirteen men, he went across the Kansas
border into Missouri, dead of winter.
He attacked three farms, or I suppose you could call
them small plantations, in Missouri,
where he seized eleven slaves, killed one of the owners,
and then went back across the border into Kansas and hid out
for awhile in the dead of January 1859,
along Pottawattamie Creek. And then he engaged in an
eighty-two day wintertime trek of over 1000 miles with these
eleven freed slaves, from Kansas north into
Nebraska, then into Iowa, into Grinnell,
Iowa, by the way also settled by New England abolitionists.
In Grinnell, Iowa he was given the key to
the city by a Mayor. And in Grinnell,
where the railroad had reached as far as Grinnell,
Iowa, they put them all in a boxcar,
a special boxcar, and they rode by train,
all the way to Chicago, and then all the way to
Detroit. And on the 12th of March,
1859, there was a remarkable scene on the Detroit River as
John Brown ushered these eleven freed slaves from Missouri
across the river into Canada. But at this point there was a
twelfth. A baby had been born in the
boxcar and its mother had named him John Brown Daniels.
So, lest we think this guy was only a lunatic–this was the
real thing, he’d freed some slaves,
and he had carted them all across the northern states,
in the dead of winter, to their freedom.
To the extent he had a messianic image,
and a sense of himself as a Moses–actually,
his greatest hero was Oliver Cromwell.
If you know anything about the English Civil War and the
Puritan armies, it makes sense;
it was based on something. Now, I only have a few minutes.
The raid on Harpers Ferry would’ve actually happened a bit
earlier, it would’ve happened in the summer of 1859,
had he been able to pull everything together and get
everybody to gather. And in the end,
it is one of those sad and tragic stories that then takes
on a much, much larger meaning than anyone could’ve ever
predicted. His so-called Provisional
Army–that’s what he called it–for his Provisional
Constitution for his provisional new Virginia,
would ultimately be about twenty-two men.
He rented a farm five miles north of Harpers Ferry,
in Maryland, where they were all to gather
that summer. He wanted Frederick Douglass to
join him. He actually had met Harriet
Tubman in Canada. He tried to convince Harriet
Tubman to join him. He’d heard of her legend.
But she was a little too smart for this.
She’d done this stuff. She had more experience in
freeing slaves and getting them out than anybody,
and she apparently said, in effect–“no thanks.”
He desperately wanted Douglass to join him, and had he joined
them Douglass would’ve been dead in 1859.
But Douglass did have a final meeting with John Brown at an
old stone quarry outside of Chambersburg,
Pennsylvania, in late August of 1859.
He went down from New York with a fugitive slave Douglass had
helped to his freedom named Shields Green.
Here’s Shields–where is he–there he is.
Douglass took him along. They met at this old stone
quarry and in Douglass’s testimony they had a long
conversation. Brown tried one last time to
talk Douglass into coming with him, and Douglass,
in his recollection, famously said,
“I can’t do it. You’re going to be trapped in
a”–how does he put it–“you’re going to be surrounded in a trap
of steel. You will never get out.
But if you must go, go.” And then he said to Shields
Green, “Your call, your choice.”
Well it turns out Shields Green was a fugitive slave from
Virginia. His wife was still in Virginia.
He said–according to Douglass–“I think I’ll go with
the old man.” And Shields did,
and he’ll die at Harpers Ferry. There were five black men,
finally, who joined John Brown’s raid–Osborn Perry
Anderson, Dangerfield Newby, Shields Green,
John Copeland, Lewis Leary.
Two of them were Oberlin College graduates;
three of them were former fugitive slaves.
Dangerfield Newby had a letter in his pocket from his wife,
in Virginia, when he died at Harpers Ferry.
The plan, simply put–so far as we know–was to attack Harpers
Ferry, take the federal arsenal, and begin, if he could,
to escape into the mountains, the Blue Ridge Mountains on
either side of Harpers Ferry, to establish mountain
hideaways, to try from those hideaways to get slaves to
escape into his lines, to arm them,
and then to begin, as a guerilla warrior,
to selectively attack sites in northern Virginia,
moving on Richmond. Now, I say to the extent we
understand it, because he didn’t leave us much
to go on in terms of what his actual plan was.
What we do know is the raid only lasted forty-eight hours.
They never got out of Harpers Ferry.
He did free about a dozen slaves in the surrounding
countryside, brought them into the old Fire Engine House of the
federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry,
hid out. And the news sprung across the
country like news had never spread in the United States,
partly because John Brown’s first major strategic mistake,
or tactical mistake, was that the Manakosie Railroad
came through Harpers Ferry right as he was entering the town.
They stopped the train. The first casualty was a free
black watchman on that train who was shot by one of Brown’s men.
Then Brown, within two hours, let the train go–dumb.
The conductor of the train at the next town wired Washington
and said, “One man and 200 men are attacking Harpers Ferry.”
By the time it reached Buchanan’s desk in the White
House it was 500 men attacking Harpers Ferry.
And within twenty-four hours Buchanan ordered a contingent of
U.S. Marines under the command of
Robert E. Lee and a lieutenant named
J.E.B. Stuart to get to Harpers Ferry
as fast as possible and crush this slave insurrection,
which they did. Now, I’m going to leave you
there, in this situation. Brown was captured.
All but two or three of his men were killed or captured,
and all those captured will be hung.
One of his sons, Owen Brown, did manage to
escape. What ensued at Harpers Ferry
for 24 hours was an absolute pitched battle between the
townspeople, local militias,
and Brown’s men, and many townspeople were
killed. Owen Brown would escape and
eventually move as far, far away as he possibly could,
and live on a little desert farm up above Pasadena,
California, halfway up the San Gabriel Mountains,
most of the rest of his life, trying to escape the infamy of
his father’s legacy. Brown was captured in the
Engine House. They tried to run him through
with a sword. They beat him over the head,
they bloodied him up but, as the story goes,
he was saved by a huge brass belt buckle he had,
and they kept stabbing at him and they kept hitting the brass
belt buckle. He was captured,
put in jail in Charles Town, Virginia, just four miles up
the road. And in November 1859 he would
get the most famous, sensational trial that the
United States had ever seen. I’m going to leave you there
because it’s the John Brown hanging and execution and the
aftermath that is the most important template of that
election year of 1860 soon to come.

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