|Born||May 9, 1800|
Torrington, Connecticut, U.S.
|Died||December 2, 1859 (aged 59)|
|Cause of death||Execution by hanging|
|Resting place||North Elba, New York, U.S.|
|Known for||Involvement in Bleeding Kansas; Raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia.|
|Criminal charge(s)||Treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia; murder; inciting slave insurrection|
(m. 1820; died 1832)
|Children||20, including John Jr., Owen, and Watson|
|Parent||Owen Brown (father)|
John Brown (May 9, 1800 – December 2, 1859) was an American abolitionist leader. First reaching national prominence for his radical abolitionism and fighting in Bleeding Kansas, he was eventually captured and executed for a failed incitement of a slave rebellion at Harpers Ferry preceding the American Civil War.
An evangelical Christian of strong religious convictions, Brown was profoundly influenced by the Puritan faith of his upbringing. He believed that he was "an instrument of God",: 248 raised up to strike the "death blow" to American slavery, a "sacred obligation".: 189  Brown was the leading exponent of violence in the American abolitionist movement:: 426 he believed that violence was necessary to end American slavery, since decades of peaceful efforts had failed. Brown said repeatedly that in working to free the enslaved, he was following Christian ethics, including the Golden Rule, as well as the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which states that "all men are created equal".: 721  He stated repeatedly that in his view, these two principles "meant the same thing".
Brown first gained national attention when he led anti-slavery volunteers and his own sons during the Bleeding Kansas Crisis of the late 1850s, a state-level civil war over whether Kansas would enter the Union as a slave state or a free state. He was dissatisfied with abolitionist pacifism, saying of pacifists, "These men are all talk. What we need is action – action!". In May 1856, Brown and his sons killed five supporters of slavery in the Pottawatomie massacre, a response to the sacking of Lawrence by pro-slavery forces. Brown then commanded anti-slavery forces at the Battle of Black Jack and the Battle of Osawatomie.
In October 1859, Brown led a raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (today West Virginia), intending to start a slave liberation movement that would spread south; he had prepared a Provisional Constitution for the revised, slavery-free United States that he hoped to bring about. He seized the armory, but seven people were killed, and ten or more were injured. Brown intended to arm slaves with weapons from the armory, but only a few slaves joined his revolt. Those of Brown's men who had not fled were killed or captured by local militia and U.S. Marines, the latter led by Robert E. Lee. Brown was tried for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, the murder of five men, and inciting a slave insurrection. He was found guilty of all charges and was hanged on December 2, 1859, the first person executed for treason in the history of the United States.: 179
The Harpers Ferry raid and Brown's trial, both covered extensively in national newspapers, escalated tensions that led, a year later, to the South's long-threatened secession and the American Civil War. Southerners feared that others would soon follow in Brown's footsteps, encouraging and arming slave rebellions. He was a hero and icon in the North. Union soldiers marched to the new song "John Brown's Body", that portrayed him as a heroic martyr. Brown has been variously described as a heroic martyr and visionary, and as a madman and terrorist.
John Brown was born May 9, 1800, in Torrington, Connecticut. The fourth of the eight children of Owen Brown (1771–1856) and Ruth Mills (1772–1808), he described his parents as "poor but respectable".: 7 Owen Brown's father was Capt. John Brown (1728–1776), who died in the Revolutionary War in New York on September 3, 1776; John Brown moved his grandfather's tombstone to his farm in North Elba, New York. In 1857, Brown stated that he descended from Peter Browne, one of the Pilgrim Fathers, who landed from the Mayflower at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620. There are some historians that believe that his ancestor was Peter Brown, who arrived in Connecticut in 1650.
His mother, of Dutch and Welsh descent,: 5 was the daughter of Gideon Mills, also an officer in the Revolutionary Army. His older sister Anna Ruth was born in 1798, and his younger brothers Salmon and Oliver Owen were born in 1802 and 1804, respectively. Oliver Owen was also an abolitionist. Brown also had a brother named Frederick, who visited him when he was in jail, awaiting execution.
While Brown was very young, his father moved the family briefly to his hometown, West Simsbury, Connecticut. In 1805, the family moved, again, to Hudson, Ohio, in the Western Reserve, which at the time was mostly wilderness;: 5, 7 it became the most anti-slavery region of the country. The founder of Hudson, David Hudson, with whom John's father had frequent contact, was an abolitionist and an advocate of "forcible resistance by the slaves".: 17 Owen Brown became a leading and wealthy citizen of Hudson. He operated a tannery and employed Jesse Grant, father of President Ulysses S. Grant. Jesse lived with the Brown family for some years. Owen hated slavery and participated in Hudson's anti-slavery activity and debate, offering a safe house to Underground Railroad fugitives. With no school beyond the elementary level in Hudson at that time, John studied at the school of the abolitionist Elizur Wright, father of the famous Elizur Wright, in nearby Tallmadge.: 17 John's mother Ruth died in 1808. In his memoir, he wrote that he mourned her for years. While he respected his father's new wife, he never felt an emotional bond with her.: 8 : 427
In a story he told to his family, when he was 12 years old and away from home moving cattle, he worked for a man with a colored boy, who was beaten before him with an iron shovel. Brown asked him why he was treated thus, the answer was that he was a slave. According to Brown's son-in-law Henry Thompson, it was that moment when John Brown decided to dedicate his life to improving African Americans' condition.
At 16, Brown left his family for New England to acquire a liberal education and become a Gospel minister. He consulted and conferred with the Rev. Jeremiah Hallock, then clergyman at Canton, Connecticut, whose wife was a relative of Brown's, and as advised proceeded to Plainfield, Massachusetts, where, under the instruction of the late Rev. Moses Hallock, he prepared for college. He would have continued at Amherst College,: 13 : 17 but he suffered from inflammation of the eyes which ultimately became chronic, and precluded him from the possibility of the further pursuit of his studies, and he returned to Hudson.
Back in Hudson, Brown taught himself surveying from a book,: 31 [a] He worked briefly at his father's tannery before opening a successful tannery outside of town with his adopted brother Levi Blakeslee.: 17 The two kept bachelor's quarters, and Brown was a good cook.: 17 He had his bread baked by a widow, Mrs. Amos Lusk. As the tanning business had grown to include journeymen and apprentices, Brown persuaded her to take charge of his housekeeping. She and her daughter Dianthe moved into his log cabin. Brown married Dianthe in 1820.: 18 There is no known picture of her, but he described Dianthe as "a remarkably plain, but neat, industrious and economical girl, of excellent character, earnest piety, and practical common sense.": 32 Their first child, John Jr., was born 13 months later. During 12 years of married life Dianthe gave birth to seven children and died from complications of childbirth in 1832.: 18–19
Brown knew the Bible thoroughly and could catch even small errors in Bible recitation. He never used tobacco nor drank tea, coffee, or alcohol. After the Bible, his favorite books were Plutarch's Lives and he enjoyed reading about Napoleon and Cromwell.
See also: John Brown Farm, Tannery & Museum
After leaving Hudson, John Brown lived longer in Pennsylvania than he did anywhere else. According to a Pennsylvania friend who visited him in jail in Charles Town just before his execution, he mentioned that Crawford County, Pennsylvania, was important to him because two of his children and his wife were buried there.
In 1825, despite the success of the tannery and having built a substantial house the year before, Brown and his family, seeking a safer location for fugitive slaves, moved to New Richmond, Pennsylvania. There he bought 200 acres (81 hectares) of land, cleared an eighth of it, and quickly built a cabin, a two-story tannery with 18 vats, and a barn; in the latter was a secret, well-ventilated room to hide escaping slaves.: 4–5  From 1825 to 1835, the tannery was an important stop on the Underground Railroad, and during this time, Brown is estimated to have helped 2,500 enslaved people on their journey to Canada.
Brown made money surveying new roads. He was involved in erecting a school, which first met in his home, and attracting a preacher.: 23 : 52 He also helped to establish a post office, and in 1828 President John Quincy Adams named him the first postmaster of Randolph, Pennsylvania; he was reappointed by President Andrew Jackson, serving until he left Pennsylvania in 1835.: 23 : 325 He carried the mail for some years from Meadville, Pennsylvania, through Randolph to Riceville, some 20 miles (32 km). He paid a fine at Meadville for declining to serve in the militia. During this period, Brown operated an interstate cattle and leather business along with a kinsman, Seth Thompson, from eastern Ohio.: 7
In 1829, some white families asked Brown to help them drive off Native Americans who hunted annually in the area. Calling it a mean act, Brown declined.: 168–69 As a child in Hudson, John got to know local Native Americans and learned some of their language.: 7 He accompanied them on hunting excursions and invited them to eat in his home.
Brown was involved in setting up a Congregational Society in Richmond, whose first meetings were held in the tannery.: 6
In 1831, Brown's son Frederick (I) died, at the age of 4. Brown fell ill, and his businesses began to suffer, leaving him in severe debt. In the summer of 1832, shortly after the death of a newborn son, his wife Dianthe also died, either in childbirth or as an immediate consequence of it.: 35 He was left with the children John Jr., Jason, Owen, Ruth and Frederick (II). On July 14, 1833, Brown married 17-year-old Mary Ann Day (1817–1884), originally from Washington County, New York; she was the younger sister of Brown's housekeeper at the time.: 8 They would eventually have 13 children, seven of whom were sons who worked with their father in the fight to abolish slavery.
In 1836, Brown moved his family from Pennsylvania to Franklin Mills, Ohio. He borrowed heavily to buy land in the area, including property along canals being built, and constructed and operated a tannery along the Cuyahoga River in partnership with Zenas Kent. Zenas was the father of Marvin Kent; Franklin Mills now is known as Kent, Ohio, in Marvin's honor. Brown became a bank director and was estimated to be worth $20,000 (equivalent to $525,355 in 2021).: 50 Like many businessmen in Ohio, he invested too heavily in credit and state bonds and suffered great financial losses in the Panic of 1837. In one episode of property loss, Brown was jailed when he attempted to retain ownership of a farm by occupying it against the claims of the new owner.
In Franklin Mills, according to daughter Ruth Brown's husband Henry Thompson, whose brother was killed at Harpers Ferry:
[H]e and his three sons, John, Jason, and Owen, were expelled from the Congregational church at Kent, then called Franklin, Ohio, for taking a colored man into their own pew; and the deacons of the church tried to persuade him to concede his error. My wife and various members of the family afterward joined the Wesley Methodists, but John Brown never connected himself with any church again.
For three or four years he seemed to flounder hopelessly, moving from one activity to another without plan. Like other determined men of his time and background, he tried many different business efforts in an attempt to get out of debt. He bred horses briefly, but gave it up when he learned that buyers were using them as race horses. He did some surveying, farmed, and did some tanning.: 50–51 In 1837, in response to the murder of Elijah P. Lovejoy, Brown publicly vowed: "Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!" Brown declared bankruptcy in federal court on September 28, 1842. In 1843, three of his children — Charles, Peter, Austin — died of dysentery.
From the mid-1840s, Brown had built a reputation as an expert in fine sheep and wool. For about one year, he ran Captain Oviatt's farm, and he then entered into a partnership with Col. Simon Perkins of Akron, Ohio, whose flocks and farms were managed by Brown and his sons. Brown eventually moved into a home with his family across the street from the Perkins Stone Mansion on Perkins Hill.
In 1852, he received five first prizes for his sheep and cattle at the Ohio State Fair.
In 1846, Brown moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, as an agent for Ohio wool growers in their relations with New England manufacturers of woolen goods, but "also as a means of developing his scheme of emancipation". The white leadership there, including "the publisher of The Republican, one of the nation's most influential newspapers, were deeply involved and emotionally invested in the anti-slavery movement".
Two years before Brown's arrival in Springfield, in 1844, the city's African-American abolitionists had founded the Sanford Street Free Church, now known as St. John's Congregational Church, which became one of the most prominent abolitionist platforms in the United States. From 1846 until he left Springfield in 1850, Brown was a member of the Free Church, where he witnessed abolitionist lectures by the likes of Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. In 1847, after speaking at the Free Church, Douglass spent a night speaking with Brown, after which Douglass wrote, "From this night spent with John Brown in Springfield, Mass. [in] 1847, while I continued to write and speak against slavery, I became all the same less hopeful for its peaceful abolition. My utterances became more and more tinged by the color of this man's strong impressions." During Brown's time in Springfield, he became deeply involved in transforming the city into a major center of abolitionism, and one of the safest and most significant stops on the Underground Railroad. Brown contributed to the 1848 republication, by his friend Henry Highland Garnet, of David Walker's Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829).
Before Brown left Springfield in 1850, the United States passed the Fugitive Slave Act, a law mandating that authorities in free states aid in the return of escaped slaves and imposing penalties on those who aid in their escape. In response Brown founded a militant group to prevent the recapture of fugitives, the League of Gileadites. In the Bible, Mount Gilead was the place where only the bravest of Israelites gathered to face an invading enemy. Brown founded the League with the words, "Nothing so charms the American people as personal bravery. [Blacks] would have ten times the number [of white friends than] they now have were they but half as much in earnest to secure their dearest rights as they are to ape the follies and extravagances of their white neighbors, and to indulge in idle show, in ease, and in luxury." Upon leaving Springfield in 1850, he instructed the League to act "quickly, quietly, and efficiently" to protect slaves that escaped to Springfield – words that would foreshadow Brown's later actions preceding Harpers Ferry. From Brown's founding of the League of Gileadites onward, not one person was ever taken back into slavery from Springfield. Brown gave his rocking chair to the mother of his beloved black porter, Thomas Thomas, as a gesture of affection.
Brown made connections in Springfield that later yielded financial support he received from New England's great merchants, allowed him to hear and meet nationally famous abolitionists like Douglass and Sojourner Truth, and included the foundation of the League of Gileadites. During this time, Brown also helped publicize David Walker's speech Appeal. Brown's personal attitudes evolved in Springfield, as he observed the success of the city's Underground Railroad and made his first venture into militant, anti-slavery community organizing. In speeches, he pointed to the martyrs Elijah Lovejoy and Charles Turner Torrey as whites "ready to help blacks challenge slave-catchers." In Springfield, Brown found a city that shared his own anti-slavery passions, and each seemed to educate the other. Certainly, with both successes and failures, Brown's Springfield years were a transformative period of his life that catalyzed many of his later actions.
His daughter Amelia died in 1846, followed by Emma in 1849.
Main article: John Brown Farm State Historic Site
In 1848, bankrupt and having lost the family's house, Brown heard of Gerrit Smith's Adirondack land grants to poor Black men, which Brown later called Timbuctoo, and decided to move his family there to establish a farm where he could provide guidance and assistance to the Blacks who were attempting to establish farms in the area. He bought from Smith land in the town of North Elba, New York (near Lake Placid), for $1 an acre ($2/ha). It has a magnificent view and has been called "the highest arable spot of land in the State, if, indeed, soil so hard and sterile can be called arable." After living with his family about two years in a small rented house, and returning for several years to Ohio, he had the current house – now a monument preserved by New York State – built for his family, viewing it as a place of refuge for them while he was away. According to youngest son Salmon, "frugality was observed from a moral standpoint, but one and all we were a well-fed, well-clad lot.": 215
After he was executed on Friday, December 2, 1859, his widow took his body there for burial; the trip took five days, and he was buried on Thursday, December 8. Watson's body was located and buried there in 1882. In 1899 the remains of 12 of Brown's other collaborators, including his son Oliver, were located and brought to North Elba. They could not be identified well enough for separate burials, so they are buried together in a single casket donated by the town of North Elba, with a collective plaque. Since 1895, the John Brown Farm State Historic Site has been owned by New York State and it is now a National Historic Landmark.
Kansas Territory was in the midst of a state-level civil war from 1854 to 1860, referred to as the Bleeding Kansas period, between pro- and anti-slavery forces. The issue was to be decided by the voters of Kansas, but who these voters were was not clear; there was widespread voting fraud in favor of the pro-slavery forces, as a Congressional investigation confirmed.
Five of Brown's sons — John Jr., Jason, Owen, Frederick, and Salmon — moved to Kansas Territory in the spring of 1855. Brown, his son Oliver, and his son-in-law Henry Thompson followed later that year. His wagon was loaded with weapons and ammunition. Brown stayed with Florella (Brown) Adair and the Reverend Samuel Adair, his half-sister and her husband, who lived near Osawatomie. During that time, he rallied support to fight proslavery forces, and became the leader of the antislavery forces.
His wife Mary refused to relocate to Kansas.: 1188
Brown and the free-state settlers were optimistic that they could bring Kansas into the union as a slavery-free state. After the winter snows thawed in 1856, the pro-slavery activists began a campaign to seize Kansas on their own terms. Brown was particularly affected by the sacking of Lawrence, the center of anti-slavery activity in Kansas, on May 21, 1856. A sheriff-led posse from Lecompton, the center of pro-slavery activity in Kansas, destroyed two abolitionist newspapers and the Free State Hotel. Only one man, a border ruffian, was killed. Preston Brooks's May 22 caning of anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner in the United States Senate, news of which arrived by newswire (telegraph), also fueled Brown's anger. A pro-slavery writer, Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, of the Squatter Sovereign, wrote that "[pro-slavery forces] are determined to repel this Northern invasion, and make Kansas a slave state; though our rivers should be covered with the blood of their victims, and the carcasses of the abolitionists should be so numerous in the territory as to breed disease and sickness, we will not be deterred from our purpose". Brown was outraged by both the violence of the pro-slavery forces and what he saw as a weak and cowardly response by the antislavery partisans and the Free State settlers, whom he described as "cowards, or worse".
The Pottawatomie massacre occurred during the night of May 24 and the morning of May 25, 1856. Under Brown's supervision, his sons and other abolitionist settlers took from their residences and killed five "professional slave hunters and militant pro-slavery" settlers north of Pottawatomie Creek, in Franklin County, Kansas.
In the two years prior to the Pottawatomie Creek massacre, there had been eight killings in Kansas Territory attributable to slavery politics, but none in the vicinity of the massacre. There had been no prior organized action by abolitionists against pro-slavery forces. The massacre was the match in the powderkeg that precipitated the bloodiest period in "Bleeding Kansas" history, a three-month period of retaliatory raids and battles in which 29 people died.
In 1856, a force of Missourians, led by Captain Henry Clay Pate, captured John Jr. and Jason, destroyed the Brown family homestead, and later participated in the Sack of Lawrence. On June 2, in the Battle of Black Jack, John Brown, nine of his followers, and 20 local men successfully defended a Free State settlement at Palmyra, Kansas, against an attack by Pate. Pate and 22 of his men were taken prisoner.
In August, a company of over 300 Missourians under the command of General John W. Reid crossed into Kansas and headed towards Osawatomie, intending to destroy the Free State settlements there, and then march on Topeka and Lawrence.
On the morning of August 30, 1856, they shot and killed Brown's son Frederick and his neighbor David Garrison on the outskirts of Osawatomie. Brown, outnumbered more than seven to one, arranged his 38 men behind natural defenses along the road. Firing from cover, they managed to kill at least 20 of Reid's men and wounded 40 more. Reid regrouped, ordering his men to dismount and charge into the woods. Brown's small group scattered and fled across the Marais des Cygnes River. One of Brown's men was killed during the retreat and four were captured. While Brown and his surviving men hid in the woods nearby, the Missourians plundered and burned Osawatomie. Despite his defeat, Brown's bravery and military shrewdness in the face of overwhelming odds brought him national attention and made him a hero to many Northern abolitionists.
On September 7, Brown entered Lawrence to meet with Free State leaders and help fortify against a feared assault. At least 2,700 pro-slavery Missourians were once again invading Kansas. On September 14, they skirmished near Lawrence. Brown prepared for battle, but serious violence was averted when the new governor of Kansas, John W. Geary, ordered the warring parties to disarm and disband, and offered clemency to former fighters on both sides.
Main article: John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry
Brown's plans for a major attack on American slavery began long before the raid. According to his wife Mary, interviewed while her husband was awaiting his execution in Charles Town, "He had been waiting twenty years for some opportunity to free the slaves; we has all been waiting with him the proper time that he should put his resolve into action." He spent the years between 1842 and 1849 winding up his business affairs, settling his family in the Negro community at Timbuctoo, New York, and organizing in his own mind an anti-slavery raid that would strike a significant blow against the entire slave system, running slaves off Southern plantations.
As put by Frederick Douglass, "His own statement, that he had been contemplating a bold strike for the freedom of the slaves for ten years, proves that he had resolved upon his present course long before he, or his sons, ever set foot in Kansas." According to his first biographer James Redpath, "for thirty years, he secretly cherished the idea of being the leader of a servile insurrection: the American Moses, predestined by Omnipotence to lead the servile nations in our Southern States to freedom." An acauaintance said: "As Moses was raised up and chosen of God to deliver the Children of Israel out of Egyptian bondage, ...he was...fully convinced in his own mind that he was to be the instrument in the hands of God to effect the emancipation of the slaves."
Brown was careful about whom he talked to. "Captain Brown was careful to keep his plans from his men", according to Jeremiah Anderson, one of the participants in the raid.: 358 According to his son Owen, the only one who survived of Brown's three participating sons, interviewed in 1873, "John Brown's entire plan has never, I think, been published."
He did discuss his plans at length, for over a day, with Frederick Douglass, trying unsuccessfully to persuade Douglass, a Black leader, to accompany him to Harpers Ferry (which Douglass thought a suicidal mission that could not succeed).: 350–351 : 355–356
Brown thought that "A few men in the right, and knowing that they are right, can overturn a mighty king. Fifty men, twenty men, in the Alleghenies would break slavery to pieces in two years".: 426 As he put it later, after the failure of his raid, "I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed [through the revolt supposed to start with Harpers Ferry] it [ending slavery] might be done.": 398
Brown returned to the East by November 1856, and spent the next two years in New England raising funds. Initially he returned to Springfield, where he received contributions, and also a letter of recommendation from a prominent and wealthy merchant, George Walker. Walker was the brother-in-law of Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, the secretary for the Massachusetts State Kansas Committee, who introduced Brown to several influential abolitionists in the Boston area in January 1857.
Amos Adams Lawrence, a prominent Boston merchant, secretly gave Brown a large amount of cash. William Lloyd Garrison, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Theodore Parker and George Luther Stearns, and Samuel Gridley Howe also supported Brown. A group of six abolitionists – Sanborn, Higginson, Parker, Stearns, Howe, and Gerrit Smith – , two of them wealthy, agreed to offer Brown financial support for his antislavery activities; they eventually provided most of the financial backing for the raid on Harpers Ferry, and came to be known as the Secret Six or the Committee of Six. Brown often requested help from them with "no questions asked", and it remains unclear how much of Brown's scheme the Secret Six were aware.
In December 1857, an anti-slavery Mock Legislature, organized by Brown, met in Springdale, Iowa. On several of Brown's trips across Iowa he preached at Hitchcock House, an Underground Railroad stop in Lewis, Iowa.
On January 7, 1858, the Massachusetts Committee pledged to provide 200 Sharps Rifles and ammunition, which were being stored at Tabor, Iowa. In March, Brown contracted with Charles Blair, through an intermediary friend, Horatio N. Rust of Collinsville, Connecticut (1828–1906), for 1,000 pikes.
In the following months, Brown continued to raise funds, visiting Worcester, Springfield, New Haven, Syracuse, and Boston. In Boston, he met Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He received many pledges but little cash. In March, while in New York City, he was introduced to Hugh Forbes, an English mercenary, who had experience as a military tactician fighting with Giuseppe Garibaldi in Italy in 1848. Brown hired him as his men's drillmaster and to write their tactical handbook. They agreed to meet in Tabor that summer. Using the alias Nelson Hawkins, Brown traveled through the Northeast and then visited his family in Hudson, Ohio. On August 7, he arrived in Tabor. Forbes arrived two days later. Over several weeks, the two men put together a "Well-Matured Plan" for fighting slavery in the South. The men quarreled over many of the details. In November, their troops left for Kansas. Forbes had not received his salary and was still feuding with Brown, so he returned to the East instead of venturing into Kansas. He soon threatened to expose the plot to the government. This was when Brown started to wear a beard, "to change his usual appearance".
With a free-state victory in the October elections, Kansas was quiet. Brown made his men return to Iowa, where he told them tidbits of his Virginia scheme. In January 1858, Brown left his men in Springdale, Iowa, and set off to visit Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York. There he discussed his plans with Douglass, and reconsidered Forbes' criticisms. Brown wrote a Provisional Constitution that would create a government for a new state in the region of his invasion. He then traveled to Peterboro, New York, and Boston to discuss matters with the Secret Six. In letters to them, he indicated that, along with recruits, he would go into the South equipped with weapons to do "Kansas work".: 519 While in Boston making secret preparations for his operation on Harper's Ferry, he was raising money for weapons that were manufactured in Connecticut. Abolitionist Chaplain Photius Fisk gave him a sizable donation and obtained his autograph which he later gave to the Kansas Historical Society.
Brown and 12 of his followers, including his son Owen, traveled to Chatham, Ontario, where he convened on May 10 a Constitutional Convention. The convention, with several dozen delegates including his friend James Madison Bell, was put together with the help of Dr. Martin Delany. One-third of Chatham's 6,000 residents were fugitive slaves, and it was here that Brown was introduced to Harriet Tubman, who helped him recruit. The convention's 34 blacks and 12 whites adopted Brown's Provisional Constitution. Brown had long used the terminology of the Subterranean Pass Way from the late 1840s, so it is possible that Delany conflated Brown's statements over the years. Regardless, Brown was elected commander-in-chief and named John Henrie Kagi his "Secretary of War". Richard Realf was named "Secretary of State". Elder Monroe, a black minister, was to act as president until another was chosen. A. M. Chapman was the acting vice president; Delany, the corresponding secretary. In 1859, "A Declaration of Liberty by the Representatives of the Slave Population of the United States of America" was written.
Although nearly all of the delegates signed the constitution, few volunteered to join Brown's forces, although it will never be clear how many Canadian expatriates actually intended to join Brown because of a subsequent "security leak" that threw off plans for the raid, creating a hiatus in which Brown lost contact with many of the Canadian leaders. This crisis occurred when Hugh Forbes, Brown's mercenary, tried to expose the plans to Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson and others. The Secret Six feared their names would be made public. Howe and Higginson wanted no delays in Brown's progress, while Parker, Stearns, Smith and Sanborn insisted on postponement. Stearns and Smith were the major sources of funds, and their words carried more weight. To throw Forbes off the trail and invalidate his assertions, Brown returned to Kansas in June, and remained in that vicinity for six months. There he joined forces with James Montgomery, who was leading raids into Missouri.
On December 20, Brown led his own raid, in which he liberated 11 slaves, took captive two white men, and looted horses and wagons. The Governor of Missouri announced a reward of $3,000 (equivalent to $90,478 in 2021) for his capture. On January 20, 1859, he embarked on a lengthy journey to take the liberated slaves to Detroit and then on a ferry to Canada. While passing through Chicago, Brown met with abolitionists Allan Pinkerton, John Jones, and Henry O. Wagoner who arranged and raised the fare for the passage to Detroit and purchased supplies for Brown. Jones's wife and fellow abolitionist, Mary Jane Richardson Jones, provided new clothes for Brown and his men, including the garb Brown was hanged in six months later. On March 12, 1859, Brown met with Frederick Douglass and Detroit abolitionists George DeBaptiste, William Lambert, and others at William Webb's house in Detroit to discuss emancipation. DeBaptiste proposed that conspirators blow up some of the South's largest churches. The suggestion was opposed by Brown, who felt humanity precluded such unnecessary bloodshed.
Over the course of the next few months, he traveled again through Ohio, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts to drum up more support for the cause. On May 9, he delivered a lecture in Concord, Massachusetts, that Amos Bronson Alcott, Emerson, and Thoreau attended. Brown reconnoitered with the Secret Six. In June he paid his last visit to his family in North Elba before departing for Harpers Ferry. He stayed one night en route in Hagerstown, Maryland, at the Washington House, on West Washington Street. On June 30, 1859, the hotel had at least 25 guests, including I. Smith and Sons, Oliver Smith and Owen Smith, and Jeremiah Anderson, all from New York. From papers found in the Kennedy Farmhouse after the raid, it is known that Brown wrote to Kagi that he would sign into a hotel as I. Smith and Sons.
As he began recruiting supporters for an attack on slaveholders, Brown was joined by Harriet Tubman, "General Tubman," as he called her. Her knowledge of support networks and resources in the border states of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware was invaluable to Brown and his planners. Some abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, opposed his tactics, but Brown dreamed of fighting to create a new state for freed slaves and made preparations for military action. After he began the first battle, he believed, slaves would rise up and carry out a rebellion across the South.
Brown asked Tubman to gather former slaves then living in present-day southern Ontario who might be willing to join his fighting force, which she did. He arrived in Harpers Ferry on July 3, 1859. A few days later, under the name Isaac Smith, he rented a farmhouse in nearby Maryland. He awaited the arrival of his recruits. They never materialized in the numbers he expected. In late August he met with Douglass in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where he revealed the Harpers Ferry plan. Douglass expressed severe reservations, rebuffing Brown's pleas to join the mission. Douglass had known of Brown's plans since early 1859 and had made a number of efforts to discourage blacks from enlisting.
In late September, the 950 pikes arrived from Charles Blair. Kagi's draft plan called for a brigade of 4,500 men, but Brown had only 21 men (16 white and 5 black: three free blacks, one freed slave, and a fugitive slave). They ranged in age from 21 to 49. Twelve had been with Brown in Kansas raids. On October 16, 1859, Brown (leaving three men behind as a rear guard) led 18 men in an attack on the Harpers Ferry Armory. He had received 200 Beecher's Bibles – breechloading .52 (13.2 mm) caliber Sharps rifles – and pikes from northern abolitionist societies in preparation for the raid. The armory was a large complex of buildings that contained 100,000 muskets and rifles, which Brown planned to seize and use to arm local slaves. They would then head south, drawing off more and more slaves from plantations, and fighting only in self-defense. As Douglass and Brown's family testified, his strategy was essentially to deplete Virginia of its slaves, causing the institution to collapse in one county after another, until the movement spread into the South, wreaking havoc on the economic viability of the pro-slavery states.
Initially, the raid went well, and they met no resistance entering the town. John Brown's raiders cut the telegraph wires and easily captured the armory, which was being defended by a single watchman. They next rounded up hostages from nearby farms, including Colonel Lewis Washington, great-grandnephew of George Washington. They also spread the news to the local slaves that their liberation was at hand. Two of the hostages' slaves also died in the raid.
Things started to go wrong when an eastbound Baltimore & Ohio train approached the town. After holding the train, Brown inexplicably allowed it to continue on its way. At the next station where the telegraph still worked, the conductor sent a telegram to B&O headquarters in Baltimore. The railroad sent telegrams to President Buchanan and Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise.
News of the raid reached Baltimore early that morning and Washington by late morning. In the meantime, local farmers, shopkeepers, and militia pinned down the raiders in the armory by firing from the heights behind the town. Some of the local men were shot by Brown's men. At noon, a company of militia seized the bridge, blocking the only escape route. Brown then moved his prisoners and remaining raiders into the fire engine house, a small brick building at the armory's entrance. He had the doors and windows barred and loopholes cut through the brick walls. The surrounding forces barraged the engine house, and the men inside fired back with occasional fury. Brown sent his son Watson and another supporter out under a white flag, but the angry crowd shot them. Intermittent shooting then broke out, and Brown's son Oliver was wounded. His son begged his father to kill him and end his suffering, but Brown said "If you must die, die like a man." A few minutes later, Oliver was dead. The exchanges lasted throughout the day.
By the morning of October 18 the engine house, later known as John Brown's Fort, was surrounded by a company of U.S. Marines under the command of First Lieutenant Israel Greene, USMC, with Colonel Robert E. Lee of the United States Army in overall command. Army First Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart approached under a white flag and told the raiders their lives would be spared if they surrendered. Brown refused, saying, "No, I prefer to die here." Stuart then gave a signal. The Marines used sledgehammers and a makeshift battering ram to break down the engine room door. Lieutenant Israel Greene cornered Brown and struck him several times, wounding his head. In three minutes Brown and the survivors were captives.
Altogether, Brown's men killed four people and wounded nine. Ten of Brown's men were killed, including his sons Watson and Oliver. Five escaped, including his son Owen, and seven were captured along with Brown; they were quickly tried and hanged two weeks after John. Among the raiders killed were John Henry Kagi, Lewis Sheridan Leary, and Dangerfield Newby; those hanged besides Brown included John Copeland, Edwin Coppock, Aaron Stevens, and Shields Green.
Main article: Virginia v. John Brown
Brown and the others captured were held in the office of the armory. On October 18, 1859, Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise, Virginia Senator James M. Mason, and Representative Clement Vallandigham of Ohio arrived in Harpers Ferry. Mason led the three-hour questioning session of Brown.
Although the attack had taken place on federal property, Wise wanted him tried in Virginia, and President Buchanan did not object. Murder was not a federal crime, nor was inciting a slave insurrection, and federal action would bring abolitionist protests. Brown and his men were tried in Charles Town, the nearby seat of Jefferson County, just 7 miles (11 km) west of Harpers Ferry. The trial began October 27, after a doctor pronounced the still-wounded Brown fit for trial. Brown was charged with murdering four whites and a black, inciting a slave insurrection, and treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia. A series of lawyers were assigned to him, including Lawson Botts, Thomas C. Green, Samuel Chilton, a lawyer from Washington D.C., and George Hoyt, but it was Hiram Griswold, a lawyer from Cleveland, who concluded the defense on October 31. In his closing statement, Griswold argued that Brown could not be found guilty of treason against a state to which he owed no loyalty and of which he was not a resident, that Brown had not killed anyone himself, and that the raid's failure indicated that Brown had not conspired with slaves. Andrew Hunter, the leading attorney in Charles Town and Governor Wise's personal lawyer, presented the closing arguments for the prosecution.
On November 2, after a week-long trial and 45 minutes of deliberation, the Charles Town jury found Brown guilty on all three counts. He was sentenced to be hanged in public on December 2.: 340–342
The trial attracted reporters who were able to send their articles via the new telegraph. They were reprinted in numerous papers. It was the first trial in the U.S. to be nationally reported.: 291
Under Virginia law, a month had to elapse before the death sentence could be carried out. Governor Wise resisted pressures to move up the execution date because, he said, he wanted everyone to see that Brown's rights had been thoroughly respected.
Brown made it clear repeatedly in his letters and conversations that these were the happiest days of his life. He would be publicly murdered, as he put it, but he was an old man and, he said, near death anyway. Brown was politically shrewd and realized his execution would strike a massive blow against Slave Power, a greater blow than he had made so far or had prospects of making otherwise. His death now had a purpose. In the meantime, the death sentence allowed him to publicize his anti-slavery views through the reporters constantly present in Charles Town, and through his voluminous correspondence.
Before his conviction, reporters were not allowed access to Brown, as the judge and Andrew Hunter feared that his statements, if quickly published, would exacerbate tensions, especially among the enslaved. This was much to Brown's frustration, as he stated that he wanted to make a full statement of his motives and intentions through the press.: 212 Once he had been convicted, the restriction was lifted, and, glad for the publicity, he talked with reporters and anyone else who wanted to see him, except pro-slavery clergy.
Brown received more letters than he ever had in his life. He wrote replies constantly, hundreds of eloquent letters, often published in newspapers,: 43 and expressed regret that he could not answer every one of the hundreds more he received. His words exuded spirituality and conviction. Letters picked up by the Northern press won him more supporters in the North while infuriating many white people in the South.
There were well-documented and specific plans to rescue Brown, as Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise wrote to President Buchanan. Throughout the weeks Brown and six of his collaborators were in the Jefferson County Jail in Charles Town, the town was filled with various types of troops and militia, hundreds and sometimes thousands of them. Brown's trips from the jail to the courthouse and back, and especially the short trip from the jail to the gallows, were heavily guarded. Wise halted all non-military transportation on the Winchester and Potomac Railroad (from Maryland south through Harpers Ferry to Charles Town and Winchester), from the day before through the day after the execution. Jefferson County was under martial law,  and the military orders in Charles Town for the execution day had 14 points.
However, Brown said several times that he did not want to be rescued. He refused the assistance of Silas Soule, a friend from Kansas who infiltrated the Jefferson County Jail one day by getting himself arrested for drunken brawling and offered to break him out during the night and flee northward to New York State and possibly Canada. Brown told Silas that, aged 59, he was too old to live a life on the run from the federal authorities as a fugitive and wanted to accept his execution as a martyr for the abolitionist cause. As Brown wrote his wife and children from jail, he believed that his "blood will do vastly more towards advancing the cause I have earnestly endeavoured to promote, than all I have done in my life before." "I am worth inconceivably more to hang than for any other purpose."
On December 1, Brown's wife arrived by train in Charles Town, where she joined him at the county jail for his last meal. She was denied permission to stay the night, prompting Brown to lose his composure and temper for the only time during the ordeal. Brown made his will.
On the day of Brown's execution, December 2, there were large meetings in many cities in the Northeast. In many of the cases, "Negroes were the chief actors in creating excitement".
Victor Hugo, from exile on Guernsey, tried to obtain a pardon for John Brown: he sent an open letter that was published by the press on both sides of the Atlantic. This text, written at Hauteville-House on December 2, 1859, warned of a possible civil war:
Politically speaking, the murder of John Brown would be an uncorrectable sin. It would create in the Union a latent fissure that would in the long run dislocate it. Brown's agony might perhaps consolidate slavery in Virginia, but it would certainly shake the whole American democracy. You save your shame, but you kill your glory. Morally speaking, it seems a part of the human light would put itself out, that the very notion of justice and injustice would hide itself in darkness, on that day where one would see the assassination of Emancipation by Liberty itself.
The letter was initially published in the London News and was widely reprinted. After Brown's execution, Hugo wrote a number of additional letters about Brown and the abolitionist cause.: 408–10
Abolitionists in the United States saw Hugo's writings as evidence of international support for the anti-slavery cause. The most widely publicized commentary on Brown to reach America from Europe was an 1861 pamphlet, John Brown par Victor Hugo, that included a brief biography and reprinted two letters by Hugo, including that of December 9, 1859. The pamphlet's frontispiece was an engraving of a hanged man by Hugo that became widely associated with the execution.
See also: John Brown's last speech
Brown was well read and knew that the last words of prominent people are valued. On the morning of December 2, 1859, Brown wrote and gave to his jailor Avis the words he wanted to be remembered by:
I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.
He read his Bible and wrote a final letter to his wife, which included his will. At 11:00 a.m. he rode, sitting on his coffin in a furniture wagon, from the county jail through a crowd of 2,000 soldiers to a small field a few blocks away, where the gallows were. Among the soldiers in the crowd were future Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, and John Wilkes Booth (the latter borrowing a militia uniform to gain admission to the execution). The poet Walt Whitman, in Year of Meteors, described viewing the execution.
Brown was accompanied by the sheriff and his assistants, but no minister since no abolitionist minister was available. Since the region was in the grips of virtual hysteria, most Northerners, including journalists, were run out of town, and it is unlikely any anti-slavery clergyman would have been safe, even if one were to have sought to visit Brown. He elected to receive no religious services in the jail or at the scaffold. He was hanged at 11:15 a.m. and pronounced dead at 11:50 a.m.
Main article: John Brown's body
Brown's desire, as told to the jailor in Charles Town, was that his body be burned, "the ashes urned", and his dead sons disinterred and treated likewise. He wanted his epitaph to be:
- I have fought a good fight.
- I have finished my course.
- I have kept the faith. [2 Timothy 4:7]
However, according to the sheriff of Jefferson County, Virginia law did not allow the burning of bodies, and Mrs. Brown did not want it. Brown's body was placed in a wooden coffin with the noose still around his neck, and the coffin was then put on a train to take it away from Virginia to his family homestead in North Elba, New York for burial.
His body needed to be prepared for burial; this was supposed to take place in Philadelphia. There were many Southern pro-slavery medical students and faculty in Philadelphia, and as a direct result, they left the city en masse on December 21, 1859, for Southern medical schools, never to return. When Mary and her husband's body arrived on December 3, Philadelphia Mayor Alexander Henry met the train, with many policemen, and said public order could not be maintained if the casket remained in Philadelphia. In fact he "made a fake casket, covered with flowers and flags[,] which was carefully lifted from the coach"; the crowd followed the sham casket. The genuine casket was immediately sent onwards. Brown's body was washed, dressed, and placed, with difficulty, in a 5 feet 10 inches (1.78 m) walnut coffin, in New York. It was transported via Troy, New York, Rutland, Vermont, and across Lake Champlain by ferry. He was buried on December 8. Abolitionist Rev. Joshua Young gave the invocation, and McKim and Wendell Phillips spoke.
In the North, large memorial meetings took place, church bells rang, minute guns were fired, and famous writers such as Emerson and Thoreau joined many Northerners in praising Brown.
On July 4, 1860, family and admirers of Brown gathered at his farm for an informal memorial. This was the last time that the surviving members of Brown's family gathered together. The farm was sold, except for the burial plot. By 1882 John Jr., Owen, Jason, and Ruth, widow of Henry Thompson, lived in Ohio; his wife and their two unmarried daughters in California. By 1886 Owen and Jason, and Ruth were living near Pasadena, California, where they were honored in a parade.
On December 14, 1859, the U.S. Senate appointed a bipartisan committee to investigate the Harpers Ferry raid and to determine whether any citizens contributed arms, ammunition or money to John Brown's men. The Democrats attempted to implicate the Republicans in the raid; the Republicans tried to disassociate themselves from Brown and his acts.
The Senate committee heard testimony from 32 witnesses, including Liam Dodson, one of the surviving abolitionists. The report, authored by chairman James Murray Mason, a pro-slavery Democrat from Virginia, was published in June 1860. It found no direct evidence of a conspiracy, but implied that the raid was a result of Republican doctrines. The two committee Republicans published a minority report, but were apparently more concerned about denying Northern culpability than clarifying the nature of Brown's efforts. Republicans such as Abraham Lincoln rejected any connection with the raid, calling Brown "insane".
The investigation was performed in a tense environment in both houses of Congress. One senator wrote to his wife that "The members on both sides are mostly armed with deadly weapons and it is said that the friends of each are armed in the galleries." After a heated exchange of insults, a Mississippian attacked Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania with a Bowie knife in the House of Representatives. Stevens' friends prevented a fight.
The Senate committee was very cautious in its questions of two of Brown's backers, Samuel Howe and George Stearns, out of fear of stoking violence. Howe and Stearns later said that the questions were asked in a manner that permitted them to give honest answers without implicating themselves. Civil War historian James M. McPherson stated that "A historian reading their testimony, however, will be convinced that they told several falsehoods."
John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry was among the last in a series of events that led to the American Civil War. Southern slaveowners, hearing initial reports that hundreds of abolitionists were involved, were relieved the effort was so small, but feared other abolitionists would emulate Brown and attempt to lead slave rebellions.: 6 Future Confederate President Jefferson Davis feared "thousands of John Browns". Therefore, the South reorganized the decrepit militia system. These militias, well-established by 1861, became a ready-made Confederate army, making the South better prepared for war.
Southern Democrats charged that Brown's raid was an inevitable consequence of the political platform of what they invariably called "the Black Republican Party". In light of the upcoming elections in November 1860, the Republicans tried to distance themselves as much as possible from Brown, condemning the raid and dismissing its leader as an insane fanatic. As one historian explains, Brown was successful in polarizing politics: "Brown's raid succeeded brilliantly. It drove a wedge through the already tentative and fragile Opposition–Republican coalition and helped to intensify the sectional polarization that soon tore the Democratic party and the Union apart."
Many abolitionists in the North viewed Brown as a martyr, sacrificed for the sins of the nation. Immediately after the raid, William Lloyd Garrison published a column in The Liberator, judging Brown's raid "well-intended but sadly misguided" and "wild and futile". However, he defended Brown's character from detractors in the Northern and Southern press, and argued that those who supported the principles of the American Revolution could not consistently oppose Brown's raid. On the day Brown was hanged, Garrison reiterated the point in Boston: "whenever commenced, I cannot but wish success to all slave insurrections".
Frederick Douglass believed that Brown's "zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine – it was as the burning sun to my taper light – mine was bounded by time, his stretched away to the boundless shores of eternity. I could live for the slave, but he could die for him."
See also: Virginia v. John Brown § Aftermath
Between 1859 and Lincoln's assassination in 1865, Brown was the most famous American: emblem to the North, as Wendell Phillips put it, and traitor to the South. According to Frederick Douglass, "He was with the troops during that war, he was seen in every camp fire, and our boys pressed onward to victory and freedom, timing their feet to the stately stepping of Old John Brown as his soul went marching on." Douglass called him "a brave and glorious old man. ...History has no better illustration of pure, disinterested benevolence.": 254
Other Black leaders of the time—Martin Delany, Henry Highland Garnet, Harriet Tubman—also knew and respected Brown. "Tubman thought Brown was the greatest white man who ever lived," and she said later he did more for American blacks than Lincoln did.
Black businesses across the North closed on the day of his execution.: 180 Church bells tolled across the North.: 179 In response to the death sentence, Ralph Waldo Emerson remarked that "[John Brown] will make the gallows glorious like the Cross." In 1863, Julia Ward Howe wrote the popular hymn the Battle Hymn of the Republic to the tune of John Brown's body, which included a line "As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free", comparing Brown's sacrifice to that of Jesus Christ.: 179
According to W. E. B. Du Bois in his 1909 biography, "John Brown was right". Brown's raid stood as "a great white light – an unwavering, unflickering brightness, blinding by its all-seeing brilliance, making the whole world simply a light and a darkness – a right and a wrong."
According to his friend and financier, the rich abolitionist Gerrit Smith, "if I were asked to point out the man in all this world I think most truly a Christian, I would point to John Brown.": 467 
Writers continue to vigorously debate Brown's personality, sanity, motivations, morality, and relation to abolitionism. Once the Reconstruction era had ended, with the country distancing itself from the anti-slavery cause, and martial law imposed in the South, the historical view of Brown changed. Historian James Loewen surveyed American history textbooks prior to 1995 and noted that until about 1890, historians considered Brown perfectly sane, but from about 1890 until 1970, he was generally portrayed as insane.: 173–203 Although Oswald Garrison Villard's 1910 biography of Brown was thought to be friendly (Villard being the grandson of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison), he also added fuel to the anti-Brown fire by criticizing him as a muddled, pugnacious, bumbling, and homicidal madman. Villard himself was a pacifist and admired Brown in many respects, but his interpretation of the facts provided a paradigm for later anti-Brown writers. Similarly, a 1923 textbook stated, "the farther we getaway from the excitement of 1859 the more we are disposed to consider this extraordinary man the victim of mental delusions." In 1978, NYU historian Albert Fried concluded that historians who portrayed Brown as a dysfunctional figure are "really informing me of their predilections, their judgment of the historical event, their identification with the moderates and opposition to the 'extremists.'" This view of Brown has come to prevail in academic writing as well as in journalism. Biographer Louis DeCaro Jr. wrote in 2007, "there is no consensus of fairness with respect to Brown in either the academy or the media." Biographer Stephen B. Oates has described Brown as "maligned as a demented dreamer ... (but) in fact one of the most perceptive human beings of his generation".
|Presentation by Reynolds on John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights, May 12, 2005, C-SPAN|
Some writers describe Brown as a monomaniacal zealot, others as a hero. In 1931, the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans erected a counter-monument, to Heyward Shepherd, a free black man who was the first fatality of the Harpers Ferry raid, claiming without evidence that he was a "representative of Negroes of the neighborhood, who would not take part". By the mid-20th century, some scholars were fairly convinced that Brown was a fanatic and killer, while some African Americans sustained a positive view of him. According to Stephen Oates, "unlike most Americans at his time, he had no racism. He treated blacks equally. ...He was a success, a tremendous success because he was a catalyst of the Civil War. He didn't cause it but he set fire to the fuse that led to the blow up." Journalist Richard Owen Boyer considered Brown "an American who gave his life that millions of other Americans might be free", and others held similarly positive views.
Some historians, such as Paul Finkelman, compare Brown to contemporary terrorists such as Osama bin Laden and Timothy McVeigh, Finkelman calling him "simply part of a very violent world" and further stating that Brown "is a bad tactician, a bad strategist, he's a bad planner, he's not a very good general – but he's not crazy". Historian James Gilbert labels Brown a terrorist by 21st-century criteria.: 101 Gilbert writes: "Brown's deeds conform to contemporary definitions of terrorism, and his psychological predispositions are consistent with the terrorist model." In contrast, biographer David S. Reynolds gives Brown credit for starting the Civil War or "killing slavery", and cautions others against identifying Brown with terrorism. Reynolds saw Brown as inspiring the Civil Rights Movement a century later, adding "it is misleading to identify Brown with modern terrorists." Malcolm X said that white people could not join his black nationalist Organization of Afro-American Unity, but "if John Brown were still alive, we might accept him".
In his posthumous The Impending Crisis, 1848–1861 (1976), David Potter argued that the emotional effect of Brown's raid exceeded the philosophical effect of the Lincoln–Douglas debates, and reaffirmed a deep division between North and South. Biographer Louis A. DeCaro Jr., who has debunked many historical allegations about Brown's early life and public career, concludes that although he "was hardly the only abolitionist to equate slavery with sin, his struggle against slavery was far more personal and religious than it was for many abolitionists, just as his respect and affection for black people was far more personal and religious than it was for most enemies of slavery". Historian and Brown documentary scholar Louis Ruchames wrote: "Brown's action was one of great idealism and placed him in the company of the great liberators of mankind."
Several 21st-century works about Brown are notable for the absence of hostility that characterized similar works a century earlier (when Lincoln's anti-slavery views were de-emphasized).: 181–89 Journalist and documentary writer Ken Chowder considers Brown "stubborn ... egoistical, self-righteous, and sometimes deceitful; yet ... at certain times, a great man" and argues that Brown has been adopted by both the left and right, and his actions "spun" to fit the world view of the spinner at various times in American history. The shift to an appreciative perspective moves many white historians toward the view long held by black scholars such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Benjamin Quarles, and Lerone Bennett, Jr.
The connection between John Brown's life and many of the slave uprisings in the Caribbean was clear from the outset. Brown was born during the period of the Haitian Revolution, which saw Haitian slaves revolting against the French. The role the revolution played in helping to formulate Brown's abolitionist views directly is not clear; however, the revolution had an obvious effect on the general view towards slavery in the northern United States, and in the Southern states it was a warning of horror (as they viewed it) possibly to come. As W. E. B. Du Bois notes, the involvement of slaves in the American Revolutions, as well as the "upheaval in Hayti, and the new enthusiasm for human rights, led to a wave of emancipation which started in Vermont during the Revolution and swept through New England and Pennsylvania, ending finally in New York and New Jersey".: 80–81
The 1839 slave insurrection aboard the Spanish ship La Amistad, off the coast of Cuba, provides a poignant example of John Brown's support and appeal towards Caribbean slave revolts. On La Amistad, Joseph Cinqué and approximately 50 other slaves captured the ship, slated to transport them from Havana to Puerto Príncipe, Cuba, in July 1839, and attempted to return to Africa. However, through trickery, the ship ended up in the United States, where Cinque and his men stood trial. Ultimately, the courts acquitted the men because at the time the international slave trade was illegal in the United States.: 54 According to Brown's daughter, "Turner and Cinque stood first in esteem" among Brown's black heroes. Furthermore, she noted Brown's "admiration of Cinques' character and management in carrying his points with so little bloodshed!": 46 In 1850, Brown would refer affectionately to the revolt, in saying "Nothing so charms the American people as personal bravery. Witness the case of Cinques, of everlasting memory, on board the Amistad.": 54–55
The specific knowledge John Brown gained from the tactics employed in the Haitian Revolution, and other Caribbean revolts, was of paramount importance when Brown turned his sights to the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. As Brown's cohort Richard Realf explained to a committee of the 36th Congress, "he had posted himself in relation to the wars of Toussaint L'Ouverture; he had become thoroughly acquainted with the wars in Hayti and the islands round about.": 216 By studying the slave revolts of the Caribbean region, Brown learned a great deal about how to properly conduct guerilla warfare. A key element to the prolonged success of this warfare was the establishment of maroon communities, which are essentially colonies of runaway slaves. As a contemporary article notes, Brown would use these establishments to "retreat from and evade attacks he could not overcome. He would maintain and prolong a guerilla war, of which ... Haiti afforded" an example.: 106
The idea of creating maroon communities was the impetus for the creation of John Brown's "Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the People of the United States", which helped to detail how such communities would be governed. However, the idea of maroon colonies of slaves is not an idea exclusive to the Caribbean region. In fact, maroon communities riddled the southern United States between the mid-1600s and 1864, especially in the Great Dismal Swamp region of Virginia and North Carolina. Similar to the Haitian Revolution, the Seminole Wars, fought in modern-day Florida, saw the involvement of maroon communities, which although outnumbered by native allies were more effective fighters.: 106
Although the maroon colonies of North America undoubtedly had an effect on John Brown's plan, their impact paled in comparison to that of the maroon communities in places like Haiti, Jamaica, and Surinam. Accounts by Brown's friends and cohorts prove this idea. Richard Realf, a cohort of Brown in Kansas, noted that Brown not only studied the slave revolts in the Caribbean, but focused more specifically on the maroons of Jamaica and those involved in Haiti's liberation. Brown's friend Richard Hinton similarly noted that Brown knew "by heart" the occurrences in Jamaica and Haiti.: 107 Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a cohort of Brown's and a member of the Secret Six, stated that Brown's plan involved getting "together bands and families of fugitive slaves" and "establish them permanently in those [mountain] fastnesses, like the Maroons of Jamaica and Surinam".
See also: Virginia v. John Brown § Aftermath
Of the major figures associated with the American Civil War, except for Abraham Lincoln, Brown is the most studied and pondered. Kate Field raised money to give to the State of New York for what was to be, in her words, "John Brown's Grave and Farm" (now John Brown Farm State Historic Site). At the centenary of the raid in 1959, a "sanitized" play about him was produced at Harper's Ferry.: 200
In 1946, the John Brown Memorial Association held its 24th annual pilgrimage to the grave in North Elba, where there were memorial services.
At the 150th anniversary of the raid In 2009, a two-day symposium, "John Brown Comes Home", was held, on the influence of Brown's raid, using facilities in adjacent Lake Placid. Speakers included Bernadine Dohrn and a great-great-great-granddaughter of Brown.
All of the museums above except the one in Harpers Ferry are places Brown lived or stayed.
Two notable screen portrayals of Brown were given by actor Raymond Massey. The 1940 film Santa Fe Trail, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, depicted Brown completely unsympathetically as an out-and-out villainous madman; Massey plays him with a constant, wild-eyed stare. The film gave the impression that he did not oppose slavery, even to the point of having a Black "mammy" character say, after an especially fierce battle, "Mr. Brown done promised us freedom, but ... if this is freedom, I don't want no part of it". Massey portrayed Brown again in the little-known, low-budget Seven Angry Men, in which he was not only the main character, but depicted in a much more restrained, sympathetic way. Massey, along with Tyrone Power and Judith Anderson, starred in the acclaimed 1953 dramatic reading of Stephen Vincent Benét's epic Pulitzer Prize-winning poem John Brown's Body (1928).
Numerous American poets have written poems about him, including John Greenleaf Whittier, Louisa May Alcott, and Walt Whitman. The Polish poet Cyprian Kamil Norwid wrote two poems praising Brown: "John Brown" and the better known "Do obywatela Johna Brown" ("To Citizen John Brown"). Marching Song (1932) is an unpublished play about the legend of John Brown by Orson Welles.: 222–26 Russell Banks's 1998 biographical novel about Brown, Cloudsplitter, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. It is narrated by Brown's surviving son Owen. James McBride's 2013 novel The Good Lord Bird tells Brown's story through the eyes of a young slave, Henry Shackleford, who accompanies Brown to Harpers Ferry. The novel won the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction. A limited episode series based on the book was released starring Ethan Hawke as John Brown.
A well-known image of Brown in the later 19th century is a Currier and Ives print, based on a lost painting by Louis Ransom. It portrays Brown as a Christ-like figure. The "Virgin and Child" typically depicted with Christ are here a black mother and mulatto child. Legend says that Brown kissed the mythical baby but virtually all scholars agree that this did not in fact happen.: 50 Above Brown's head, like a halo, is the flag of Virginia and its motto, Sic semper tyrannis ("Thus always to tyrants"). According to Brown's supporters, the government of Virginia was tyrannical and according to fugitive slaves, it "is as well the black man's, as the white man's motto".
In 1938, Kansas painter John Steuart Curry was commissioned to prepare murals for the Kansas State Capitol in Topeka, Kansas. He chose as his subject the Kansan John Brown, seen by many as the most important man in Kansas history. In the resulting mural, Tragic Prelude, Brown holds a Bible in one hand and a "Beecher's Bible" (rifle) in the other. Behind him are Union and Confederate troops, with dead soldiers; a reference to the Bleeding Kansas period, which Brown was at the center of, and which was commonly seen to have been a dress rehearsal, a "tragic prelude", to the increasingly inevitable Civil War.
In 1941, Jacob Lawrence illustrated Brown's life in The Legend of John Brown, a series of 22 gouache paintings. By 1977, these were in such fragile condition that they could not be displayed, and the Detroit Institute of Arts had to commission Lawrence to recreate the series as silkscreen prints. The result was a limited-edition portfolio of 22 hand-screened prints, published with a poem, John Brown, by Robert Hayden, commissioned specifically for the project. Though Brown had been a popular topic for many painters, The Legend of John Brown was the first series to explore his legacy from an African-American perspective.
Paintings such as Thomas Hovenden's The Last Moments of John Brown immortalize an apocryphal story in which a Black woman offers the condemned Brown her baby to kiss on his way to the gallows. It was probably a tale invented by journalist James Redpath.
The indictments, summons, sentences, bills of exception, and similar documents for Brown and his raiders are held by the Jefferson County Circuit Clerk, and have been digitized by West Virginia Archives and History. Two separate collections of relevant letters were published. The first is the messages, mostly telegrams, sent and received by Governor Wise. The Senate of Maryland published the many internal telegrams of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.
Much material is missing. The order book, which had the minutes of John Brown's trial, was evidently possessed by Brown's judge Richard Parker in 1888. As of 2022[update], its location is unknown. Among the missing material used at his trial as evidence of sedition were bundles of printed copies of his Provisional Constitution, prepared for the "state" Brown intended to set up in the Appalachian Mountains. Even less known is Brown's "Declaration of Liberty", imitating the Declaration of Independence.: 162–163
According to Prosecutor Andrew Hunter,
John Brown had with him when captured at Harpers Ferry a carpet-bag in which were his constitution for a provisional government and other papers. He had placed it in one corner of the engine house, and there it was found when the marines charged and captured the survivors. Mr. Hunter took possession of the carpet-bag and carried it to Charlestown. He kept it and its contents. He added to the papers the letters which were forwarded to the prisoners and not delivered to them. Ordinary letters were allowed to pass to the prisoners after Mr. Hunter had examined them. But those letters which seemed to contain information bearing upon the organization in the North, Mr. Hunter confiscated and kept. He had between seventy and eighty of these letters, and he placed them in John Brown's carpet-bag. Other important documents bearing upon the secret history of the case went into the same receptacle, and much of the matter nobody but Mr. Hunter saw.
There was correspondence from Frederick Douglass and Gerrit Smith, among many others. Hugh Forbes said that the carpet-bag may have contained "an abundant supply of my correspondence". (After Brown's arrest, Smith, Douglass, and future biographer and friend Franklin Sanborn began destroying correspondence and other documents because they feared criminal charges for aiding Brown.)
The carpet-bag also contained maps of Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia that showed the locations of State arsenals with proposed routes for attacks and retreats.
Hunter personally took the carpet-bag to Richmond, because he thought it would be safer there. He was at the time a member of the Virginia State Senate. In 1865, when Lee advised that he could no longer defend Richmond, Hunter did not want the "Yankees" to find the carpet-bag. He thought that the Capitol was as safe a place as any in Richmond, and he asked Commonwealth Secretary George Wythe Munford if he could hide it in the Capitol. "Munford told me that he has taken the carpet-bag up to the cock-loft of the Capitol and had let down the bag between the wall and the plastering, and I believe those papers are there yet."
Wise sent attorney Henry Hudnall to Charles Town to put in order Hunter's documents. In a letter to Wise of November 17, he refers to "a large quantity of matter", including "nearly a half bushel of letters" just of Tidd alone.
In 1907–08 there appeared in print a varied collection of letters and other documents a Union soldier from Massachusetts took from Hunter's office in the Charles Town courthouse in 1862, when it was being used as a Union barracks.
The West Virginia Archives and History owns the largest single collection on Brown, the Boyd B. Stutler Collection. A negative microfilm of the material is held by the Ohio Historical Society.
The Hudson Library and Historical Society of Hudson, Ohio, Brown's home town, prepared annotated listings of Brown's many ancestors, siblings, and children. Since John Brown moved around a lot, had a large family, and had a lot to say, he carried on a voluminous correspondence, including letters to editors,: 167 and was repeatedly interviewed by reporters, as he made himself available. Archival material on him and his circle is therefore abundant, and widely scattered. There has never been a complete edition of his extant correspondence; the one scholarly attempt, from 1885, produced a book of 645 pages. Editor F. B. Sanborn stated that he had enough letters for another book.: vi A 2015 book was published just of the letters Brown wrote in the last month of his life, from jail. Additional letters were found and published in the 20th century. Archival material concerning John Brown's time in Crawford County, Pennsylvania, including his tannery, is held by the Pelletier Library, Allegheny College, Meadville, Pennsylvania. Clark Atlanta University holds a small collection.
Brown biographer Oswald Garrison Villard surveys the manuscript collections in his 1910 biography. The archive of Villard is in the Columbia University Library. Kansas Memory has a collection of materials regarding Brown's activities in Kansas. A project of the Kansas Historical Society, it holds the collection of Brown biographer Richard J. Hinton.
As an evangelical Christian, he not only read the Bible as God's word, he read the Bible as God's word to John Brown. He believed that the scriptures continued to speak to life situations, radiating fresh truth and directives without obscuring its original and primary meaning. For him, God was speaking afresh on the enslavement of the African, and this was the ongoing theme of his devotional life. It guided his actions, guided his values, and gave him strength. His piety was inseparable from his deeply felt call to destroy slavery.