Get up, get up, my hardy sons,
From this time forth we are
No longer men, but pikes and guns
In God's advancing war.
And if we live, we free the slave,
And if we die, we die.
But God has digged His saints a grave
Beyond the western sky.
- from "John Brown's Prayer" in John Brown's Body (1928) by Stephen Vincent Benét
John Brown's raid on the federal armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, in 1859 was a startling event for the whole country. The Slave Power recoiled in horror, their endless terror of "servile insurrection" having been thrown into convulsive spasms. The public in the free states wound up viewing Brown as a martyr to the antislavery cause, not least because of the dubious trial in Virginia which rushed him to the gallows.
He has been called a saint, a fanatic, and a cold-blooded murderer. The debate over his memory, his motives, about the true nature of the man, continues to stir passionate debate. It is said that John Brown was the spark that started the Civil War. Truly, he marked the end of compromise over the issue of slavery, and it was not long after his death that John Brown's war became the nation's war.
John Brown was born into a deeply religious family in Torrington, Connecticut, in 1800. Led by a father who was vehemently opposed to slavery, the family moved to northern Ohio when John was five, to a district that would become known for its antislavery views. ...
Brown was found guilty of murder, treason, and of inciting slave insurrection. On Dec. 2, 1859, he was hanged. It was a turning point for America, for with his death all hope of a peaceful end to the slavery issue died as well.
Brown was not unusual among abolitionists in being religious. The movement had avery strong Protestant religious orientation. I say Protestant religious orientation, because the Catholic Church of that time, which was becoming more important before the Civil War because of massive Irish immigration, was supportive of slavery. Pope Pius IX had been terrified by the European democratic revolutions of 1848 and emphasized social and political conservatism thereafter. Catholic leaders in America supported him in this stance and viewed abolitionism as something liked the feared "Red Republicanism" of Europe.
But Brown was unusual in that his religion took an austere and militant form, and gave him an intense conviction that he was called upon to fight for the destruction of slavery, an institution that he understood to be a vicious wrong against humanity and therefore a particularly sinful affront to God. Brown - and his father before him - was a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad helping slaves flee their masters. This kind of action fit well with his religious outlook. As the writer Russell Banks put it, "This is action, this is a means by which he can do the Lord's work in a hands-on, active, meaningful way. It's not just simply standing around and stamping your feet in rage; he puts his rage to work."
It was in 1837, after the notorious murder of abolitionist clergyman Elijah Lovejoy in Illinois, that Brown declared in a church memorial service for the slain activist, "Here before God, in the presence of these witnesses, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery."
And he did. In 1855, he arrived in Kansas and began his first violent action in opposition to slavery, fighting as one of the free-state men in the guerrilla war that took place between pro- and antislavery forces in that territory. He was good at it. And his fighting there earned him high regard among the abolitionists.
Frederick Douglass was personally acquainted with John Brown. In his autobiography, he described the man he called "Captain John Brown, whose name has now passed into history, as that of one of the most marked characters and greatest heroes known to American fame," from their first encounter as follows. From the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1892 edition), Ch. 8, Douglass describes the plan Brown conceived, a later form of which he was putting into effect in 1859 when he made the Harper's Ferry raid.
About the time I began my enterprise in Rochester I chanced to spend a night and a day under the roof of a man whose character and conversation, and whose objects and aims in life, made a very deep impression upon my mind and heart. His name had been mentioned to me by several prominent colored men, among whom were the Rev. Henry Highland Garnet and J. W. Loguen. In speaking of him their voices would drop to a whisper, and what they said of him made me very eager to see and to know him. Fortunately, I was invited to see him in his own house. At the time to which I now refer this man was a respectable merchant in a populous and thriving city, and our first place of meeting was at his store. This was a substantial brick building on a prominent, busy street. A glance at the interior, as well as at the massive walls without, gave me the impression that the owner must be a man of considerable wealth. My welcome was all that I could have asked. Every member of the family, young and old, seemed glad to see me, and I was made much at home in a very little while. I was, however, a little disappointed with the appearance of the house and its location. After seeing the fine store I was prepared to see a fine residence in an eligible locality, but this conclusion was completely dispelled by actual observation. In fact, the house was neither commodious nor elegant, nor its situation desirable. It was a small wooden building on a back street, in a neighborhood chiefly occupied by laboring men and mechanics; respectable enough, to be sure, but not quite the place, I thought, where one would look for the residence of a flourishing and successful merchant. Plain as was the outside of this man's house, the inside was plainer. Its furniture would have satisfied a Spartan. It would take longer to tell what was not in this house than what was in it. There was an air of plainness about it which almost suggested destitution. My first meal passed under the misnomer of tea, though there was nothing about it resembling the usual significance of that term. It consisted of beef-soup, cabbage, and potatoes--a meal such as a man might relish after following theplow all day or performing a forced march of a dozen miles over a rough road in frosty weather. Innocent of paint, veneering, varnish, or table-cloth, the table announced itself unmistakably of pine and of the plainest workmanship. There was no hired help visible. The mother, daughters, and sons did the serving, and did it well. They were evidently used to it, and had no thought of any impropriety or degradation in being their own servants. It is said that a house in some measure reflects the character of its occupants; this one certainly did. In it there were no disguises, no illusions, no make-believes. Everything implied stern truth, solid purpose, and rigid economy. I was not long in company with the master of this house before I discovered that he was indeed the master of it, and was likely to become mine too if I stayed long enough with him. He fulfilled St. Paul's idea of the head of the family. His wife believed in him, and his children observed him with reverence. Whenever he spoke his words commanded earnest attention. His arguments, which I ventured at some points to oppose, seemed to convince all; his appeals touched all, and his will impressed all. Certainly I never felt myself in the presence of a stronger religious influence than while in this man's house. (my emphasis)
However, we might judge his actions based upon it, there seems to be little doubt that Brown's religious convictions and motivations were sincere, and that he indeed saw his mission primarily in religious terms. As Brown described to Douglass his plan to create an armed resistance force on slave territory, Douglass again took note of the seriousness of his religious outlook:
When I suggested that we might convert the slaveholders, he became much excited, and said that could never be, "he knew their proud hearts and that they would never be induced to give up their slaves, until they felt a big stick about their heads." He observed that I might have noticed the simple manner in which he lived, adding that he had adopted this method in order to save money to carry out his purposes. This was said in no boastful tone, for he felt that he had delayed already too long, and had no room to boast either his zeal or his self-denial. Had some men made such display of rigid virtue, I should have rejected it, as affected, false,and hypocritical, but inJohn Brown, I felt it to be real as iron or granite.
Douglass was an escaped slave. He had been very active in the abolition movement, both in the US and in England. But this first meeting with John Brown affected his perspective in a basic way:
From this night spent with John Brown in Springfield, Mass., 1847, while I continued to write and speak against slavery, I became all the same less hopeful of its peaceful abolition. My utterances became more and more tinged by the color of this man's strong impressions. Speaking at an anti-slavery convention in Salem, Ohio, I expressed this apprehension that slavery could only be destroyed by blood-shed, when I was suddenly and sharply interrupted by my good old friend Sojourner Truth with the question, "Frederick, is God dead?" "No," I answered, "and because God is not dead slavery can only end in blood." My quaint old sister was of the Garrison school of non-resistants, and was shocked at my sanguinary doctrine, but she too became an advocate of the sword, when the war for the maintenance of the Union was declared.
Douglass' description of Brown's concept is important:
His plan as it then lay in his mind had much to commend it. It did not, as some suppose, contemplate a general rising among the slaves, and a general slaughter of the slave-masters. An insurrection, he thought, would only defeat the object; but his plan did contemplate the creating of an armed force which should act in the very heart of the South. He was not averse to the sheddingof blood, and thought the practice of carrying arms would be a good one for the colored people to adopt, as it would give them a sense of their manhood. No people, he said, could have self-respect, or he respected, who would not fight for their freedom.
Frederick Douglass gave a summary description of Brown's famous raid (Ch. 9):
When the explosive force of this controversy had already weakened the bolts of the American Union; when the agitation of the public mind was at its topmost height; when the two sections were at their extreme points of difference; when, comprehending the perilous situation, such statesmen of the North as William H. Seward sought to allay the rising storm by soft, persuasive speech, and when all hope of compromise had nearly vanished, as if to banisheven the last glimmer of hope for peace between the sections, John Brown came upon the scene. On the night of the 16th of October, 1859, there appeared near the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers a party of nineteen men--fourteen white and five colored. They were not only armed themselves, but they brought with them a large supply of arms for such persons as might join them. These men invaded the town of Harper's Ferry, disarmed the watchman, took possession of the arsenal, rifle factory, armory, and other government property at that place, arrested and made prisoners of nearly all the prominent citizens in the neighborhood, collected about fifty slaves, put bayonets into the hands of such as were able and willing to fight for their liberty, killed three men, proclaimed general emancipation, held the ground more than thirty hours, and were subsequently overpowered and nearly all killed, wounded, or captured by a body of United States troops under command of Col. Robert E. Lee, since famous as the rebel General Lee. Three out of the nineteen invaders were captured while fighting, and one of them was Capt. John Brown, the man who originated, planned, and commanded the expedition. At the time of his capture Capt. Brown was supposed to be mortally wounded, as he had several ugly gashes and bayonet wounds on his head and body, and, apprehending that he might speedily die, or that he might be rescued by his friends, and thus the opportunity to make him a signal example of slaveholding vengeance would be lost, his captors hurried him to Charlestown, 10 miles further within the border of Virginia, placed him in prison strongly guarded by troops, and, before his wounds were healed, he was brought into court, subjected to a nominal trial, convicted of high treason and inciting slaves to insurrection, and was executed. (my emphasis)
An actor named John Wilkes Booth managed to sneak in to watch the military execution. He recalled, "I looked at the traitor with unlimited, undeniable contempt."
Douglass himself was forced to flee New York to refuge in England. Although he had not been directly involved in the Harper's Ferry raid, Virginia's governor attempted to have him extradicted,trying to use theraid as an excuse to put Douglass out of action, as well. Thegovernor may have been guessing, but he wasn't entirely wrong in his suspicions. Brown had consulted extensively with Douglass on his plan.
Douglass described Brown's thwarted plan as a "desperate but sublimely disinterested effort to emancipate the slaves of Maryland and Virginia from their cruel task-masters." He had reservations about the practicality of Brown's plan. But on the justice and morality of it, Douglass had a clear position:
Men who live by robbing their fellow-men of their labor and liberty have forfeited their right to know anything of the thoughts, feelings, or purposes of those whom they rob and plunder. They have by the single act of slaveholding voluntarily placed themselves beyond the laws of justice and honor, and have become only fitted for companionship with thieves and pirates--the common enemies of God and of all mankind. While it shall be considered right to protect one's self against thieves, burglars, robbers, and assassins, and to slay a wild beast in the act of devouring his human prey, it can never be wrong for the imbruted and whip-scarred slaves, or their friends, to hunt, harass, and even strike down the traffickers in human flesh. If anybody is disposed to think less of me on account of this sentiment, or because I may have had a knowledge of what was about to occur [in the Harper's Ferry raid], and did not assume the base and detestable character of an informer, he is a man whose good or bad opinion of me may be equally repugnant and despicable.
In Chapter 10 of his book, Douglass gave a more complete description of his relations to John Brown. And he gives a good description of what Brown intended to do. His plan (in its final version) wasto seize weapons at Harper's Ferry and proceed into the mountains, where he would establish a series of hideouts. From there, he and his men would help slaves escape from their masters, using force when necessary. As Douglass described it, "They were to be well armed, but were to avoid battle or violence, unless compelled by pursuit or in self-defence. In that case, they were to make it as costly as possible to the assailing party, whether that party should be soldiers or citizens," i.e., the white vigilante slave-patrols. He would then get the slaves into the Underground Railroad to spirit them to freedom in Canada. Those who wished to remain and were able to help, he would retain to help in his project.
Douglass also believed the plan to be basically feasible. He also explained the purpose of Brown's plan, which not to provoke slave insurrections, which the slaveowners with their exaggerated fears and their bad consciences always feared:
Hating slavery as I did, and making its abolition the object of my life, I was ready to welcome any new mode of attack upon the slave system which gave any promise of success. I readily saw that this plan could be made very effective in rendering slave property in Maryland and Virginia valueless by rendering it insecure. Men do not like to buy runaway horses, or to invest their money in a species of property likely to take legs and walk off with itself. In the worse case, too, if the plan should fail, and John Brown should be driven from the mountains, a new fact would be developed by which the nation would be kept awake to the existence of slavery. Hence, I assented to this, John Brown's scheme or plan for running off slaves. (my emphasis)
Douglass explains his own entirely pragmatic concerns about the final plan that Brown put into motion. Douglass thought the raid on Harper's Ferry was a dangerous misjudgment:
To me such a measure would be fatal to running off slaves (as was the original plan), and fatal to all engaged in doing so. It would be an attack upon the federal government, and would array the whole country against us. Captain Brown did most of the talking on the other side of the question. He did not at all object to rousing the nation; it seemed to him that something startling was just what the nation needed. He hadcompletely renounced his old plan [i.e., the old plan did not include the Harper's Ferry raid], and thought that the capture of Harper's Ferry would serve as notice to the slaves that their friends had come, and as a trumpet to rally them to his standard. He described the place as to its means of defense, and how impossible it would be to dislodge him if once in possession. Of course I was no match for him in such matters, but I told him, and these were my words, that all his arguments, and all his descriptions of the place, convinced me that he was going into aperfect steel-trap, and that once in he would never get out alive; that he would be surrounded at once and escape would be impossible. (my emphasis)
Douglass also gives a good brief description of the general atmosphere in which Brown's doomed raid took place:
Slavery seemed to be at the very top of its power; the national government, with all its powers and appliances, was in its hands, and it bade fair to wield them for many years to come. Nobody could then see that in the short space of four years this power would be broken and the slave system destroyed.
Returning to the United States after six months in England and Scotland, Douglass described how the Northern public now viewed John Brown:
Great changes had now taken place in the public mind touching the John Brown raid. Virginia had satisfied her thirst for blood. She had executed all the raiders who had fallen into her hands. She had not given Captain Brown the benefit of a reasonable doubt, but hurried him to the scaffold in panic-stricken haste. She had made herself ridiculous by her fright and despicable by her fury. Emerson's prediction that Brown's gallows would become like the cross was already being fulfilled. The old hero, in the trial hour, had behaved so grandly that men regarded him not as a murderer but as a martyr. All over the North men were singing the John Brown song. His body was in the dust, but his soul was marching on. His defeat was already assuming the form and pressure of victory, and his death was giving new life and power to the principles of justice and liberty. He had spoken great words in the face of death and the champions of slavery. He had quailed before neither. What he had lost by the sword he had more than gained by the truth. Had he wavered, had he retreated or apologized, the case had been different. He did not even ask that the cup of death might pass from him. To his own soul he was right, and neither "principalities nor powers, life nor death, things present nor things to come," could shake his dauntless spirit or move him from his ground. He may not have stooped on his way to the gallows to kiss a little colored child, as it is reported he did, but the act would have been in keeping with the tender heart, as well as with the heroic spirit of the man. Those who looked for confession heard only the voice of rebuke and warning. (my emphasis)
It noteworthy that Brown's religious disposition, and his ability to express his convictions interms that would resonate with American Protestants, was an important part of his influence, in life and in death.
Douglass observed that the Congressional investigation of the Harper's Ferry raid that had been demanded by Southern members of Congress was cut short:
I have never been able to account satisfactorily for the sudden abandonment of this investigation on any other ground than that the men engaged in it expected soon to be in rebellion themselves, and that, not a rebellion for liberty, like that of John Brown, but a rebellion for slavery, and that they saw that by using their senatorial power in search of rebels they might be whetting a knife for their own throats. (my emphasis)
In his final address to the court that condemned him to death, Brown said;
The court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the LAW OF GOD. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the BIBLE, or at least the NEW TESTAMENT. That teaches me that, "All things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them." It teaches me further to "remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them." I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say I am too young to understand that GOD is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done, in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but RIGHT.
Now if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and MINGLE MY BLOOD FURTHER WITH THE BLOOD OF MY CHILDREN, and with the blood of millions in this Slave country, whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments. - I say, LET IT BE DONE.