John Brown is one of the most controversial figures in North American history. The government labeled him a terrorist, and gave him the death penalty for a string of murders carried out under his command. But for others, such as Fredrick Douglass, he was a hero.
Brown’s commitment to ending slavery was infinitely greater than the likes of Abraham Lincoln, or any other major personality of that time. Yet despite this historical fact, he is relatively unknown in public perception, and so I decided to write this article in honor of his memory.
When John Brown was just a boy, aged 12 years old, he drove a heard of cattle by himself from Ohio to Michigan. During this impressive expedition, Brown was forced to lodge in the countryside, and although he was treated well by his host, the owner of the house was actually a slave owner that ended up beating a black boy he “owned” with an iron shovel right before Brown’s eyes. This experience had a profound influence on John for obvious reasons.
As the years went by, John struggled. His wife, along with several of his children, died due to poor health. He fell into debt and had to declare bankruptcy and had a number of different run ins with the government. In short, John struggled to adapt to the system.
That same year, an abolitionist named Elijah Parish Lovejoy was gunned down for his controversial publications in the Alton Observer. Lovejoy was a staunch opponent of slavery, and despite receiving numerous death threats and having his offices attacked prior, he refused to back down and used the supreme power of journalism to challenge the ruling class’s inhumane system of racial exploitation.
This rebellious, but altruistic courage inspired Brown greatly, and a new path in his life began to emerge.
John Brown in 1859
“HERE, BEFORE GOD, IN THE PRESENCE OF THESE WITNESSES, FROM THIS TIME, I CONSECRATE MY LIFE TO THE DESTRUCTION OF SLAVERY!”
After Brown learnt of Lovejoy’s murder, he pledged in church that he would dedicate his life to ending the rapacious business of slavery. But like many other activists, both past and present, his ambitions were put on hold due to financial difficulties and obligations. During this time, he was also arrested for resisting the repossession of his home. In fact, throughout his life, John Brown had numerous troubles with “the law“.
He decided to move to Massachusetts, which was home to a growing population of anti slavery activists, from all walks of life. While he was there, Brown became deeply involved in transforming the city into a central hub for the fight against slavery, and was a key figure in the maintenance of the famous Underground Railroad — which was a secret transportation route to help free slaves.
In response to this subversive action, the government passed The Fugitive Slave Act,which allowed bounty hunters to hunt down slaves and bring them back into captivity. Consequently, John Brown formed a vigilante group called the League of Gileadites to ensure that escaped slaves would be protected against the establishment authorities. This was the beginning of Brown’s militant approach to the abolishment of slavery.
In 1855, pro-slavery forces invaded Kansas — the home of John Brown’s sons — and began violently taking over the state and imposing on the abolitionist population there. These tensions between the opposing factions came to a head when anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner was almost beaten to death — For Brown, this was the final straw.
Two days later, Brown and his men brutally murdered 5 pro-slavery forces, but they were far from done.
“I HAVE ONLY A SHORT TIME TO LIVE – ONLY ONE DEATH TO DIE, AND I WILL DIE FIGHTING FOR THIS CAUSE. THERE WILL BE NO PEACE IN THIS LAND UNTIL SLAVERY IS DONE FOR!”
In retaliation to John Brown’s actions, a mini war in Kansas erupted and one of his son’s was killed. This then was met by further retaliation from Brown, who in spite of having a much smaller force of men, managed to kill and injure an undisclosed number of pro-slavery men. Word of this battle spread throughout the United States, and Brown’s legend began to grow.
HARPER’S FERRY ATTACK
In 1859, John Brown gathered a force of 22 vigilantes (17 white men:3 of which were his sons, and 5 black men: three free blacks, one freed slave, and a fugitive slave) and attacked Harper’s Ferry, which housed a major armory. Brown’s plan was to get weapons and spread revolution, but this plan ultimately failed when U.S. Marines were sent in and put down the rebellion. Amongst the dead, were 2 of his sons.
Brown, however, refused to surrender and proclaimed that he would “prefer to die“ for his cause than give up. After a close combat encounter though, Brown was beaten unconscious and arrested and jailed. Before he was sentenced to die by hanging for his crimes in court, Brown had this to say;
“…Had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends… it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.” (Source)
“His zeal in the cause of freedom was infinitely superior to mine. Mine was as the taper light, his was as the burning sun. Mine was bounded by time. His stretched away to the silent shores of eternity. I could speak for the slave. John Brown could fight for the slave. I could live for the slave. John Brown could die for the slave.”
— Fredrick Douglass(Source)
Former slave and African American leader Fredrick Douglass, once called John Brown one of the “greatest heroes known to American fame“. He noted that John Brown was more committed to the emancipation of black slaves than anyone else he knew. Some of the most influential personalities of that era have also sung Brown’s praises, including Victor Hugo, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau, amongst others. Brown is also credited by biographer David S. Reynolds, as being the man that sparked the North American civil war. Yet, in spite of this, Brown’s name is suspiciously absent from modern public perception when compared to other prominent figures of the time, such as Abraham Lincoln, who did not have a fraction of the conviction John Brown had, yet received much more credit for the struggle against slavery.
Although my admiration for Brown should be quite easy to perceive, I do not advocate the use of violence to challenge government corruption. They have a monopoly on war, death, and destruction, and trying to impose on them in this arena today would be counter productive and stupid. John Brown lived in a very different time that we do, when government was not nearly as powerful as it is today. His struggle was largely about creating awareness, which was a radical course of action we fortunately do not have to take today. You see, John Brown did not have access to a powerful tool like the internet, which has threatened the ruling class’s power structure more than anything in known history. Ultimately, change is preceded by public awareness, and there is no tool more effective in promoting awareness about elitist corruption, and human suffering, greater than social media and the world wide web.
It should also be said that this article is not a whitewash. Innocent people were murdered during Brown’s crusade against slavery, albeit unintentionally. But an innocent life is still an innocent life, and no excuse should be made to defend such a crime. I would also like to make it clear that this is not a pro-Christian piece. Moral character precedes religion, just as immorality does too. People ultimately interpret their religion according to their own perceptions and way of thinking; Someone that values peace, will interpret their religion peacefully, and someone who comes from a radical background, will interpret their religion radically. In other words, had Brown been a Muslim, Buddhist, Atheist, or anything in between — considering the path of his life — it is almost certain the outcome would remain unchanged. This anthropological factor is something many people fail to comprehend in relation to the religious debate. This though, is a complex topic for another day.
The positive that John Brown does represent, is that there have always been people in history, who are willing to stand up for human rights without any regard for childish notions of tribalism or race. His story serves as a reminder that people were not much different to us back then; in that most of us are scared to challenge the system, including those who are the most exploited and enslaved by it, because of fear of government reprisal and public opinion — which has always been nothing more than a reflection of convoluted establishment propaganda.
John Brown struggled to adapt to the system that we plainly call society. He hated being surrounded by the inhumane institution of slavery, was constantly in debt to the authorities, had run ins with “the law,” and experienced numerous hardships in life. Finally, after decades of trying to fit into this mad society, he realized his true purpose was not to assimilate, but to find a way to change it. And although his course of action was undoubtedly extreme — and not recommended — there is a powerful lesson we can all learn from his chosen path — we are not here to conform to this backwards world, we are here to try and help create a new one; and we are not here to bow before injustice, we are here to confront it and stand against it.
YOU CAN WATCH THE PBS DOCUMENTARY ‘JOHN BROWN’S HOLY WAR’ BELOW;