We may not see the slaves go free,
Neither did Moses reach the promised land.
Still none could be more blessed than we,
Who are an instrument in God's hand. - Peggy Eyres, "Mary Brown, Abolitionist"
John Brown famously played the role of martyr well between his capture at Harpers Ferry and his execution by hanging. Whether that was virtuous or sinister was judged differently by the opponents of slavery and its friends.
But he certainly framed his own story by his many statements and letters while on trial and in jail. For instance:
I have numerous sympathizers throughout the entire North. ... I want you to understand that I respect the rights of the poorest and the weakest of colored people, oppressed by the slave system, just as much as I do those of the most wealthy and powerful. That is the idea that has moved me, and that alone. We expected no reward except satisfaction of endeavoring to do for those in distress and greatly oppressed as we would be done by. The cry of distress of the oppressed is my reason, and the only thing that prompted me to come here.
The Concord Transcendalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were extremely important in presenting a positive and sympathetic image of Brown in the North. Both enjoyed enormous prestige and were well known. Merrill Peterson describes Thoreau's position defending Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry:
Thoreau, the New England Transcendentalist, had been transfixed by Captain Brown when he earlier heard him speak in Concord. On October 30, [1859,]while Brown was still on trial, Thoreau lectured on him as if he were already a sainted martyr. He described him as a rough-hewn Yankee who went to school in the West and "a transcendentalist above all, a man of ideas and principles." To those who say he threw his life away, Thoreau asked "which way they threw their lives, pray?" No American had ever stood more heroically for the idea upon which the country was founded. "It was his peculiar doctrine that a man has a perfect right to interfere by force with the slaveholder, in order to rescue the slave. I agree with him." This sentiment, coming from a man who some years before wrote a celebrated essay advocating passive resistance, surprised many people. But Thoreau's defense of John Brown's force was only the other face of the doctrine that proclaimed, basically, the superiority of conscience over the state and its laws. By teaching Americans how to live, the hero of Harpers Ferry might finally teach them how to die. That was his best legacy. "Perhaps he saw it himself. I almost fear," said Thoreau, "that I may yet hear of his deliverance, doubting if a prolonged life, if any life, can do as much good as his death."
Such words and feelings helped to change the mind of the North about John Brown. Lunatic! Fanatic! Incompetent! Traitor! The language of disparagement and dishonor that had rained upon Brown immediately after the ill-starred invasion gave way to a chorus of respect, admiration, and praise. (Peterson; 16-17; my emphasis)
David Reynolds emphasizes that this outspoken opposition to slavery was a vital social side of Transcendentalism that is often de-emphasized in accounts of that movement.
But not all Northerners were sympathetic to Brown, of course. As mentioned in an earlier post, the Republicans who shared much of his attitude against slavery were going out of their way to dissociate themselves from Brown's violent militance.
So did the "Doughfaces", the Democrats in the North who were either pro-slavery or indifferent to it. Reynolds describes a series of "Union" meetings the Doughfaces held on the occasion of Brown's execution. One of them was at the Academy of Music in New York, with six thousand people inside and 15,000 out in the streets:
The crowd that day heard that slavery was good and John Brown was evil. One speaker said, "I insist that negro slavery is not unjust. (Cries of 'Bravo!') It is not only not unjust, but it is just, wise, and beneficent. ... I hold that the negro is decreed by nature to a state of pupilage under the dominion of the wiser white man in every clime where God and nature meant that the negro should live at all." Another pointed out that, actually, few Northeners completely supported Brown. "That there should be any," he said, "is a disgrace to a Christian age and country. But while those who approve the act are only a handful, revilers of all human laws and blasphemers against God, there are those—too many who, while they condemned the act, sympathize in some degree with the man," despite his "cold-blooded atrocity."
After the speakers, letters were read from notables who could not attend the meeting but supported its aim. Among those who had written were Franklin Pierce, Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore, and Winfield Scott. A typical letter stated that Brown's "pathway can be traced by bloody footprints along his whole career, from theft to murder," starting in Kansas, where "his course was marked by every species of wrong and violence," and culminating at Harpers Ferry, the scene of "stealth, fraud, robbery, murder, treason, and attempted insurrection." Even worse, this criminal "has been canonized by the blasphemous orgies of those who demand an anti-slavery Bible and an anti-slavery God," including one [Emerson] who declared "that the gallows would henceforward be more glorious than the cross and crucifixion." (Reynolds; 414)
The kind of racism reflected in some of the speakers' words was a fact of life in the North. Pro-Confederate writers often point to this as proving some kind of hypocrisy, or lack of sincerity, or something else unworthy on the part of the Yankees. But in the end, the brutal Peculiar Institution of slavery would drive many of those Doughfaces to despise it, and in the end to reject it altogether.
Southern reaction to Brown's raid was to intensify the suppression of anything that seemed to threaten even any open discussion of their sacred institution of slavery, which was last seriously debated in the early 1830s in the states of the future Confederacy. In practice, white Southerners were not free to openly oppose slavery, or even to read what Northern critics of slavery themselvevs were saying about it. Reynolds writes:
The Atlanta Confederacy explained, "We regard every man in our midst an enemy to the institutions of the South, who does not boldly declare that he believes African slavery to be a social, moral, and political blessing" - if not, he "should be requested to leave the country." A Virginia postmaster announced unapologetically: "We are in the midst of a Reign of Terror here. ... All men of Northern birth now here are under surveillance by the so-called Vigilance Committee; and any one suspected of thinking slavery is less than divine is placed under care."
Northern newspapers even mildly sympathetic to Brown were widely banned in the South. Many Southern post offices refused to distribute the New-York Tribune, the Springfield Republican, the Albany Evening Journal, the New York Independent, and other papers deemed subversive. Even some conservative periodicals, like Harper's Weekly and Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, were banned. The Springfield Republican lamented that "nearly all northern papers are now excluded from the South, except the New-York Herald and the New-York Observer, the one the organ of Pro-slavery diabolism and the other of Pro-Slavery piety."
"Black lists" of "Abolition houses," or businesses run by antislavery people, were circulated so that their products could be boycotted. These businesses were said to be "steeped and saturated in Sewardism, Brownism, Greeleyism, Helperism, and incendiarism." Westmoreland County, Virginia, passed a resolution to "adopt a strict non-intercourse in trade and commerce with the citizens and merchants of all the non-slaveholding States," and to "arrest and send out of the State ... all itinerant venders of northern books, newspapers, periodicals, or any other articles of northern growth or manufacture." A main impetus behind the anti-John Brown Union meetings in the North was economic. Failure to sign up for such a meeting was "regarded as conclusive proof of infidelity to southern interests, while signing it was to be a way to southern favor." (Reynolds; 417-418)
Such was the civilizing effect of slavery on the South, where the Peculiar Institution was claimed to be the foundation of white civilization and freedom for whites.
The political effect of Brown's failed Harpers Ferry raid is a complicated matter to gauge. But the image of John Brown was clearly a highly polarizing one.
(See Sources on John Brown for references.)
An Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month 2006 postings is available.