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John Brown: America’s First Great Activist

by Jay Winik
September 18, 2018

Jay Winik is the columnist and historian in residence for frank news.

He was a revolutionary warrior named John Brown – among America’s first great activists.

Who was John Brown? With his haunting eyes, long white beard, and bony fingers, he was a lay theologian weaned on the subtleties of Jonathan Edwards. Moody and anxious, he examined slave insurrections. Old and tired, he was an abolitionist who wanted to strike a death blow into the gut of slavery. And his face flushed with anticipation like the biblical soldiers he revered, he treasured the idea of waging a war over slavery right in the center of “Babylon.” 

And to Brown, that Babylon, once on the bloodsoaked plains of the Kansas prairie, was now in northern Virginia.

Believing small groups of fighters could fend off larger forces in rough, mountainous hills, Brown audaciously plotted a raid into the Appalachian hills of Virginia, marking the beginning of the end for slavery.

In May 1958, Brown had a surreptitious meeting with a group of thirty-four Blacks in Chatham, Canada, where they schemed and conspired. By meeting’s end, they put pen to paper and adopted a “provisional constitution” for the Republic of liberated slaves, which would be established in remote timbered forests. The group, after much deliberation, unanimously acclaimed Brown as the commander-in-chief of the Army of this “new nation.” 

The idea may have been half-baked from the start, but Brown fit the bill. And it was apparent from the start that Brown was a unique figure. Where previous activist abolitionists were committed to nonviolence, Brown’s favorite New Testament passage (Hebrews 9:22) said “without shedding of blood there is no remission of sin.” Where abolitionists embraced the suffering and martyrdom of Uncle Tom, Brown’s deity was instead “the Jehovah” who angrily swallowed up pharaoh’s minions in the turbulent waters of Egypt’s Red Sea. Where moderates eschewed a revolution in favor of the soft cadences of reason, Brown insisted that all the abolitionists do is “Talk! Talk! Talk!”

As Brown noted, triumph over slaveholders – “the thieves and murderers” – could only be won by “action – ACTION!”

In 1858 Brown continued to refine his plans for the invasion of southern Appalachia. He purchased pikes for his fledgling Army and guns to arm the slaves that he expected to march with him. Then he rented a farm in Maryland across the Potomac River from Harper’s Ferry, Virginia – a place that would one day become legendary. His goal: to seize the US armory and arsenal at Harper’s Ferry and distribute its arms to his swelling army of former slaves.

He continued to plot, and in August 1859 set up a covert meeting with the great Frederick Douglass. Removed from prying eyes of the world, they met in an old rock quarry near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. He wanted to enlist Douglass, less for his rhetorical genius than to serve as a go-between with the slaves. Douglass, himself a former slave and the most eminent black in the North, had been through his own personal odyssey. Before 1850 he had been a pacifist. But then as the slave states increased in power and force, as slave blocks and slave trading became increasingly ubiquitous, an embittered Douglass changed his tune. “Slaveholders, tyrants and despots have no right to live,” Douglass bellowed. One of his favorite sayings now became, “who would be free must himself strike the blow.”

Nodding his head, Brown agreed.

Now, “Come with me, Douglass,” Brown boisterously insisted. “When I strike, the bees will begin to swarm, and I shall want you to help hive them.” But Douglass had his reservations. Certain that Brown was engaged in a doomed escapade that would “array the whole country against us,” Douglass was hesitant. He demurred.

But not before this dire warning: You “will never get out alive,” Douglass told Brown.

Brown, his activist impulses unchecked, was undeterred.

Brown wanted to proceed – despite the meager number of recruits he had. As fall rolled around, suddenly he was swept away by a desire for battle. Sitting down at an old wooden desk he wrote a “Vindication of the Invasion,” etching his place in history. In October, he finally acted; however he did so without plotting an escape route from Harper’s Ferry. In truth, after seizing the Armory buildings, he had no further plan of action, either for escape or attack.

Was he being reckless? Actually, no. This was not a mission designed to succeed, but a quest designed to fail, and to confer upon him a martyrdom far outstripping any eventual armed triumph.

On October 16, with 21 men, Brown struck. He and his men had a wagon load of guns, knives, and artillery broadsides. For two days Brown’s fighters heatedly engaged the local militia and turned Harper’s Ferry into bedlam. They quickly overwhelmed the single watchman – that was the easy part – and seized the armory. Brown then dispatched a patrol into the countryside with a message: “pass the word among the slaves; take hostages.” They did, thirty all told, including Lawrence Washington, a great grand nephew of George Washington.

Later that evening, at 1:25 AM, Brown halted the eastbound midnight train and held it hostage. For several hours, the clock ticked while Brown deliberated. Then almost inexplicably, he let the train leave – he wanted to alert the world about his crusade. Feeling almost unstoppable, Brown now warned Southerners that God had appointed him to liberate their slaves “by some violent and decisive move.”

By midmorning on October 17, the fight had been joined in full. Brown’s men were pinned down by sniper fire, even as the Maryland and Virginia militias quickly raced into the town. Brown now faced a series of fateful decisions. Should he continue fighting? Negotiate his way out? Surrender? He first sought to negotiate, raising the white flag. He was rebuffed. Now he chose to fight.

That afternoon eight of Brown’s men were already casualties, including two of his sons. It was a melee. The moans of the dying were all around them. Brown and his survivors and prisoners frantically retreated to a fire engine house, where they would now fight to the death. This time, the die was cast. During the night a company of US Marines arrived to much fanfare; it was commanded by two US cavalry officers, including Col. Robert E Lee, destined for his own immortality as general-in-chief of the Confederate forces in the Civil War, and Lieutenant J.E.B Stuart, the dashing cavalryman of Gettysburg fame. Lee’s Marines attacked first with battering rams and then with fixed bayonets; Lee, normally the most aggressive of soldiers, worried that gunfire might inadvertently kill the hostages. A desperate Brown himself was wounded—slashed by a sword. Blood soaked through his shirt and puddled on the floor. And less than 36 hours after it started, Brown and his men were prisoners. His brazen attempt to end slavery was pitifully ended.

It didn’t matter. Reminiscent of the ‘Great Fear,’ the whispers and shouts that swept through the countryside at the beginning of the French Revolution, the news of Harper’s Ferry’s quickly sent waves of shock and rage throughout the nation. In a terrifying sign of things to come, wild rumors circulated of armed abolitionists like Brown marching from the north, and of widespread “negro” uprisings joining them from the South, plunging the country into a racial bloodbath.

Brown’s activism was not for the faint of heart. He was a marked man as all across Virginia angry mobs roared for his head. To stave off his lynching, or prevent vigilantes from storming the prison where he was held, the state of Virginia reached a summary verdict. Brown was deemed guilty of “treason, murder, and fomenting insurrection.” His fate was never in doubt. He was to hang within a matter of weeks, on December 2.

Distinguished intellectuals like William Lloyd Garrison thought the raid was an act of terrorism, “misguided, wild, and apparently insane.” But Brown’s surprising poise during his trial quickly led to the idea that he was a Christlike figure with a hallowed cause. In his concluding words to the court, he exuded a repose and strength that touched even Virginia’s governor, Henry Wise.

Prior to sentencing, Brown was surprisingly alert. His poignant words ricochet through time to this day.

“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 the slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say let it be done.”

Moved by his plight, no less than Ralph Waldo Emerson prophesied that Brown, widely derided by many as a terrorist, would “make the gallows as glorious as the cross.” For his part, Theodore Parker pronounced Brown “a SAINT.”

As December 2 approached, Brown was urged by his followers to give sanction to a rescue attempt, and thereby elude the hangman’s noose. Wasn’t his duty, after all, to live? Brown refused. “I am worth inconceivably more to hang,” he whispered to his brother, “than for any other purpose." 

On a cold, wintry December day, with the famed actor and one day Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth in attendance, the rope was slipped around Brown’s neck. He looked out to the crowd assembled, a white linen bag was placed over his head, then he took a step, slipped through the trapdoor, wriggled for five minutes – as it happened, the rope was actually quite short – and his spinal column broke.

As he swung back and forth, Brown was dead; but his actions would live forever. Meanwhile, in the northern United States the church bells sang. So did the minute guns, which echoed in northern towns across the nation. Thousands took off their caps and tilted their heads in hushed acclamation for this suffering son of liberty.

“I’ve seen nothing like it,” wrote Charles Eliot Norton of Harvard, nearly moved to tears. For his part, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in his diary, “the date of the new revolution – quite as much-needed as the old one.” When the Virginians hanged Brown they were “sowing the wind to reap the whirlwind, which will come soon.” Come soon it did. Two years later, “John Brown’s body,” sung in rich and reverant tones, would become the favorite marching song of Northern troops.

And Henry David Thoreau, himself one of America’s great thinkers and activists, pronounced Brown “a crucified hero.”

Brown’s activism led to the sparks that would help ignite the Civil War, ennoble the anti-slavery impulses among abolitionists, and help pave the way for the Emancipation Proclamation promulgated by Abraham Lincoln in the 13th amendment that would free the slaves for time immemorial. An extraordinary legacy.

We remember him still. So should today’s and tomorrow’s activists.