John Brown was born on May 9, 1800, in Torrington, Connecticut, the son of an antislavery tanner. He grew up in Ohio and at age sixteen moved to Massachusetts. After failing to complete training for the ministry, he returned to Ohio and married in 1820. With his first wife, Dianthe Lusk, who died in 1832, and his second wife, Mary Day, Brown became the father of twenty children. He moved often, hoping to find financial success in Pennsylvania and Ohio before settling in New Elba, New York. As often as Brown tried a new business venture he failed, and he spent much of his time fighting off creditors.
Eventually, a quest for Christian moral purity came to consume Brown. As a young man in Ohio, he had an on-again, off-again relationship with various Congregational churches. From 1840 on he was unaffiliated with any church, although his views always remained rooted in the black-and-white theology of Calvinism. In Brown’s view, sin abounded and, in the spirit of the Second Great Awakening, it needed to be eliminated immediately. Convinced that slavery was the nation’s greatest sin, Brown therefore dedicated himself to abolitionism.
As the issue of slavery continued to fuel political passions across the nation in the 1850s, Brown joined five of his sons to fight in “Bleeding Kansas.” The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 established “popular sovereignty,” or the idea that the people of a United States territory had a right to vote to determine whether, as a state, they would allow slavery or not. Predictably, violence erupted as pro- and anti-slavery forces poured into the newly created territory of Kansas. In May 1856, after a series of attacks on anti-slavery settlers in Lawrence, Brown and his sons retaliated by slaughtering five local pro-slavery farmers near Pottawattomie Creek in Franklin County, Kansas (although it remains unclear whether Brown himself took part physically in the killing). “Bloody Pottawattomie,” as the incident became known, signaled a new chapter in the growing crisis over slavery; some antislavery forces were now willing to meet violence with violence.
Execution of John Brown
A detachment of cadets from the Virginia Military Institute (seen in the foreground wearing flat caps called wheel hats) stand at attention as the abolitionist John Brown awaits execution on December 2, 1859, after his unsuccessful raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). To help quell the fear of another uprising, the superintendent of VMI sent a select group of cadets to provide additional security at the hanging in Charles Town.
Thirteen members of the Richmond Greys, a volunteer militia from that city, pose for a photograph in 1859. The men in front, perhaps in celebratory mode, pour the contents of a bottle into a cup. This image is believed to have been made in Charles Town, Virginia (later West Virginia), where the Greys had been dispatched to help with security during the execution of John Brown, the abolitionist who had led an unsuccessful raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Actor and rabid anti-abolitionist John Wilkes Booth, the man who would later assassinate United States president Abraham Lincoln, left the Richmond theater where he was performing and managed to buy a uniform from the Greys and secure a spot amidst them during the hanging.
The inscription at the top of this photograph (and repeated on the verso) claims that this wooden structure was the scaffold on which John Brown was executed on December 2, 1859. Brown was convicted of the crime of treason for having led an unsuccessful raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) in October of that year. This sepia-toned photograph mounted onto a stiff card is called a cabinet card, a style of photograph that became popular in the second half of the nineteenth century.
This November 30, 1859, broadside issued by Thomas C. Green, the mayor of Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia), urges all the local citizens to remain inside their houses for three nights until after the execution of abolitionist John Brown. Brown was convicted of treason following his unsuccessful raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West West Virginia), and sentenced to be hanged in Charles Town on Friday morning, December 2, 1859. The mayor feared that "the streets may be dangerous" during that time period, as many soldiers, journalists, and out-of-towners had come to the town for Brown's execution.
Abolitionist John Brown, en route to his execution after being convicted of treason, pauses to kiss a baby in the arms of an African American woman. At left, a soldier wielding a bayoneted rifle holds back another African American onlooker. Thomas Hovenden, an Irish-born American artist, recreated this historic scene in a painting he made over twenty years after Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859.
Just two months before the raid, Brown met with the famous anti-slavery activist and former slave Frederick Douglass in an abandoned quarry near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, to discuss his plans. In the end, Douglass refused to accompany Brown into Virginia, predicting accurately that the plan would end in disaster.
News of John Brown’s raid sent white Southerners into a full-scale panic. Sensitized for decades by rumors of slave insurrections (from Gabriel to) and abolitionist conspiracies, many white Southerners now became even more convinced that a peaceful solution to the problem of slavery was impossible. Those who had already been advocating for secession seized on Brown’s raid to meld abolitionism, slave insurrection, and the Republican Party into one unified threat. The repeated assurances of Northerners like Abraham Lincoln that, while they disapproved of slavery they also condemned John Brown’s actions, fell on deaf ears among white Southerners. Meanwhile, Northern supporters of Brown, such as American essayist, poet, and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, quickly turned him into a symbol of antislavery courage and righteousness; the marching song “John Brown’s Body” would be a favorite among Union soldiers once war had begun. When Lincoln won the presidential election of 1860 and the Southern states began to secede, many writers pointed to Brown’s raid as the moment when the bonds of union began to snap.
John Brown’s Legacy
John Brown remains one of the most confounding figures in nineteenth-century American history. Did his willingness to use violence forever compromise his moral authority as an abolitionist? Was he a lawless terrorist or a champion of racial equality? What does it mean that he may have been both? For decades after the Civil War, historians settled into an interpretation of Brown as a madman whose actions a “bungling generation” of politicians (to quote the historian James Garfield Randall) could not prevent from spilling over into civil war. It was not until the turn of the nineteenth century, partly in opposition to new southern segregation laws, that a few biographies appeared defending Brown’s career as an advocate for racial equality.
John Brown became a subject of intense interest again in the 1960s when some African American historians and allied white historians championed Brown as the ultimate civil rights fighter. As the movement mourned martyrs such as Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr., Brown came to represent an earlier example of paying the ultimate price in the ongoing freedom struggle. Brown’s volatile mixture of religious conviction and violence came back into the public consciousness again at the beginning of the twenty-first century as Americans witnessed homegrown terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh, who cast himself as a modern-day John Brown.