Although the basic facts about Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry and his plans are well known, it's a little surprising that one of the most controversial things about it is what Brown's goal actually was.
The main controversy seems to be over whether Brown intended to promote a general "servile insurrection" across the South. Brown himself, during his questioning immediately after his capture, in response to the question, "Did you expect a general rising of the slaves in case of your success? ", replied, "No, sir; nor did I wish it. I expected to gather them up from time to time, and set them free."
In his legendary statement to the Virginia court at his sentencing, Brown described his intentions this way:
In the first place, I deny everything but what I have all along admitted: of a design on my part to free the slaves. I intended certainly to have made a clean thing of that matter, as I did last winter, when I went into Missouri and there took slaves without the snapping of a gun on either side, moving through the country, and finally leaving them in Canada. I designed to have done the same thing on a larger scale. That was all I intended. I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection.
David Reynolds describes the state of Brown's plan "taking the war into Africa" (the South) in 1858 as he was organizing it. And this seems to be the best explanation of what his strategy was. Building on the experience of the Underground Railroad, the clandestine network that helped slaves escape to freedom and in which Brown had been personally active, Brown's idea was this:
The [Underground] railroad business "on a somewhat extended scale." The words understated dramatic differences between Brown's plot and the Underground Railroad. For decades, blacks who escaped from slavery on the Underground Railroad chose among four main routes that led north: the Atlantic coast, along sea passages and swamps that stretched from Florida to Virginia; the Appalachian Mountains, which went from the Deep South to upstate New York and northern New England; the Cumberland Mountains of Kentucky and other Southern states, leading up to Ohio and Michigan; and the Mississippi River Valley. In all cases, the goal was the North and freedom.
Brown's project was something altogether new: not a "railroad" passage to the white-dominated North but an armed invasion of the South, using the Appalachians as a shield for an ever-expanding colony of blacks. In early February he wrote his son John, asking him "to get good Maps & State statistics of the different Southern States." Found among Brown's papers in the aftermath of Harpers Ferry were slave statistics and the maps of seven Southern states, with the main slave counties marked as targets. Brown expected his revolution to spread like a wildfire from Virginia southward through Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi to Georgia and other states. Thousands of blacks would flee to him, establishing an independent mountain society that, if necessary, could last for years, like the durable maroon communities of Jamaica. (Reynolds; 249; my emphasis in bold)
This was not an outlandish scheme. Bold, highly risky, but not impractical.
The basic idea was to seize the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, take as much of the guns and ammunition as they could carry, and head off into the mountains of Virginia. There they would move down the Appalachians, freeing groups of slaves at various planatations along the way. Some they would send North to freedom by connecting them with the Underground Railroad. Those who wished to stay and fight would join the mountain guerrilla band.
This plan had been forming in Brown's mind well before the fighting in "Bleeding Kansas". But his expectations for his mountain guerrilla invasion of the slaveholding states clearly drew on his experiences in Kansas. Like his action at Pottawatomie, he hoped his mission would inspire Northern opponents of slavery to embrace the necessity of more militant action. He expected the Southerners to react with hysteria, which would then speed up the coming of what not just Brown but many less determined foes of slavery had come to believe was an inevitable violent clash between the demands of the Slave Power and the preservation of a democratic national Republic.
Brown was willing to defy the federal government in the most direct way possible at Harpers Ferry. But he was not disunionist. He wanted to preserve the Union as a republic free of slavery.
It's worth looking at how the young Robert Penn Warren portrayed Brown's plans in his 1929 pro-Confederate biography. Speaking of Brown's preparations for the raid with his followers who planned to accompany him, Warren wrote:
In discussing this adventure with his followers, John Brown seems to have kept to safe generalities. He did mention Harper's [sic] Ferry as the point where operations would probably begin, but the critical details of the affair and its eventual reach were obscure in the minds of at least some members of the company. To the doubtful Parsons, for instance, John Brown, declared that he merely intended to release some slaves with as little fighting as possible, and give them arms to defend themselves on their flight to the North Star. In other words, Parsons was being lured on into the project just as Cook had been lured to the military school - a step at a time, with pretext after pretext gradually cleared away. With exquisite tact John Brown let each man know, or surmise, just what it was best for him to know about the total adventure. The adventure was the conquest of the South.
The soldiers who were to execute the conquest were the slaves themselves. John Brown knew so little about actual conditions in the South that he believed every negro was only waiting the chance to rise and cut his master's throat. He would provide the organization to harness this energy and hate. The great need was for officers to keep this vast potential army under direction and control. The men at William Maxson's farm were the nucleus but many more were necessary, and John Brown had a scheme to get them. The operations would in the beginning be confined to a single State, so that a collision with the United States troops would be postponed until the insurrection and conquest were well under way; he was sure that the State militia would lack the decision and organization necessary to make them a major obstacle. The actual course of events proved this to be true. And John Brown had a scheme which would take care of the crisis when the General Government intervened.
... Besides gaining trained men who could drill and direct the liberated negroes, he would, bythe same blow, paralyze the United States Government, and give time for the disunion sentiment in the North to be transformed into action. The North would be convulsed with its own revolution, the central Government would be but a word, and he would have his own army behind him and a collapsing South at his feet. Colonel Forbes, with his superior education, was to put into practice the idea of seducing the private soldier of the army. The New England disunionists, who had contributed money to John Brown in the past, would concoct the Northern revolution. (Warren; 265-6; my emphasis in bold)
This is factually so tendentious that I feel embarassed even quoting it. But at least its literary quality is a distinct cut above the usual neo-Confederate propaganda. So it's worth looking at the things the pro-Confederate view emphasizes, taking this passage from Warren as an example. He stressed: Brown was devious and deceptive (he was a revolutionary, for God's sake; and we know that his security was actually dangerous lax); the conquest of the South was his goal (not true); he was depending on a massive army of rebelling slaves to be his army (also not true; he planned to use escaped slaves in a guerrilla force in the mountains); Brown didn't realize how kindly and gently the happy slaves were generally treated by their masters (if you believe that one, let me tell you about the WMDs in Iraq); he was a disunionist (not so); he intended to provoke a revolution in the North (also not so).
Now, it's not surprising that a pro-Confederate viewpoint would be critical of John Brown. Brown fully intended to help destroy the slave system. He intended to deprive Southern planters of their huge capital investment in human property. And he was willing to kill Southern white folks to do it. If you're going to defend the Confederacy, you have to trash John Brown.
Warren's description of Brown's plans makes it sound grandiose and impossible, which is consistent with his argument (assumption, more like it) that Brown was insane. By stressing that Brown intended to raise an army of slaves that would want to cut their master's throats, he pictures Brown as intending to promote wanton murder. His suggestion that Brown envisioned some sort near-termrevolution in the North adds to the image of megalomania.
But it seems that all neo-Confederate versions of history wind up singing the praises of slavery in some way or another, even as they deny the centrality of slavery to the conflict that resulted in the Civil War. While Warren wants to accuse Brown of wanting a massive slave insurrection, he also has to deny that such a thing was possible. Later on, Warren gives the following description about how differently the happy slaves saw their condition than what the fanatical Abolitionists imagined was a burning moral issue:
The slave himself was at the same time more realistic and more humane; he never bothered his kinky head about the moral issue, and for him the matter simply remained one of convenience or inconvenience. Since the system did not involve that absentee ownership, which had caused the horrors of West Indian slavery, and since immediate contact existed between master and slave, an exercise of obligation reached downward as well as upward and the negro's condition was tolerable enough. The system was subject to grave abuse, but economic considerations bolstered whatever little decency the slaveholder possessed, for the slave was very valuable property and it was only natural that the master would take care to give his property such treatment as would not jeopardize its value. There was, by consequence, no great reservoir of hate and rancor which at the least opportunity would convert every slave into a soldier; when the war came the masters marched off, leaving their families and estates in the care of those same negroes for whose liberty, presumably, the North was fighting. (Warren; 332; my emphasis)
In fairness to Robert Penn Warren, he later became quite sympathetic to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. You wouldn't guess that from his Brown biography from 1929 with things like the above description of the happy darkies. He even ventured in 1965 or so, commentin on his John Brown biography of decades earlier:
It is far from the book I would write now, for that book was shot through with Southern defensiveness, and in my ignorance the psychological picture of the hero was presented far too schematically. (Peterson; 155)
But he hadn't entirely rejected his youthful indescretions about John Brown. He still thought Brown was crazy.
I won't try to parse the ideology of all that last paragraph I quoted from his book; I've dealt with common pro-slavery in previous years' posts. But that last sentence is a sign of the sloppiness of Warren's factual presentation. While many masters did go off to fight, the Civil War was, if anything, even more of a "rich man's war, poor man's fight" than the Iraq War today. One of the most controversial Confederate laws was the one popularly known as the "20 n****r law". It allowed owners of twenty or more slaves to pay someone else to do their required military service for them.
These widely differing views I've discussed here give an idea of how heavily ideology affected even much later historical evaluations of Brown. He became a very emotional symbol for both sides of that most emotional of all political events, a civil war.
But I don't mean to imply that "one side's view is just as valid as the other". For one thing, just making up stuff about what Brown intended, and packaging it together with hokum about the happy and contented slaves, makes for pseudohistory. We can judge Brown many different ways. But one of the biggest problems with neo-Confederate accounts of the past is that they promote sloppy, emotional and highly ideological ways of looking at the factual occurrences of that period.
And not all frameworks for judgment are equivalent, either. As I've tried to illustrate in this year's "heritage" series of posts, John Brown's actions can't be honestly evaluated without taking full account of the fact that he sided with democracy and fought for freedom for the slaves; the Southern slaveowners fought to maintain their "sacred institutions of slavery and white supremacy", and it was clear to those in the free states that the Slave Power's action were a real and present threat to the survival of democracy even for white men.
So, it's hard to see how anyone taking the viewpoint of democracy and basic human rights could disagree with W.E.B. Dubois in saying, at least on the issue of slavery, "John Brown was right".
(See Sources on John Brown for references.)
An Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month 2006 postings is available