[A daguerreotype photograph taken by the Black photographer Augustus Washington in Massachusetts during the years 1846-1847. This photograph is in the public domain. This daguerreotype was later reproduced under the title “John Brown from a daguerreotype loaned me by Annie Brown” by Levin C. Handy between 1890-1910 over 40 years after Brown’s death. The Handy photograph’s original caption reads “Regarded as the best picture by the family” – and we certainly can see why!]
Today’s post (coming just a little over a week after his 217th birthday!) is dedicated to the controversial radical, by-any-means-necessary white American abolitionist John Brown. Born in the year 1800 in Torrington, Connecticut, Brown was descended from some of the earliest English Puritan settlers, tracing his family lineage back to 17th c England. After marrying Dianthe Lusk, Brown and his family – including several children – moved to Pennsylvania. After Lusk passed away, he remarried a young woman named Mary Ann Day and moved to Ohio, where he worked as a hide tanner and sheep breeder (as he had earlier in life). In 1846, he moved yet again (after declaring bankruptcy several years earlier) – this time to Springfield, Massachusetts, which would prove a central turning point in his path towards becoming a radical and violent abolitionist.
Prior to his move to Massachusetts, when abolitionist journalist Elijah P. Lovejoy was murdered, Brown had reportedly declared that “before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery” (as quoted in War and Reconciliation: The Mid-Missouri Civil War Project); however, it would be several years before this sentiment would be put into action. This is not, though, to suggest that Brown had been pro-enslavement previous to 1837. As a devoutly religious man (Calvinist), Brown’s abolitionism was deeply intertwined with his religiosity, especially in relation to how he understood enslavement to be a sin. Nonetheless, his time spent living in Massachusetts was pivotal to his developing abolitionism as he became a parishioner at the famed Sanford Street Free Church, where he encountered Black radical abolitionists such as Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, and became involved in the Underground Railroad. It was his time spent with Douglass that led him to believe that he was “less hopeful for [enslavement’s] peaceful abolition” (as quoted in Carvalho III, 2012). In 1850, because the Fugitive Slave Act had been passed, Brown helped to found the League of Gileadites (in reference to the Biblical Mount Gilead), a militia-style group that prevented the recapture of fugitive slaves. Shortly thereafter, he left Massachusetts for North Elba, New York.
During this time, several of Brown’s adult children were living in the newly established settler territory of Kansas, from whom he learned that there were mounting fears that pro-enslavement settler forces were growing in militancy. Newly founded settler territories such as Kansas proved critical points of contention in a nation built on enslavement, but divided between states who allowed enslavement to operate within their borders (for ex. the Plantation South), and states who profited from enslavement via commerce and indirect trade but viewed themselves to be ‘outside’ of enslavement (for ex. New England). Each new settler territory therefore proved a point of contention – would enslavement be legal or not within its borders? In response to his adult children’s’ concerns regarding growing pro-enslavement militarism, Brown made his way to Kansas in 1855 in attempts to help Kansas go from a territory to a free state. The following years (particularly a set of several months) would come to be known as “Bleeding Kansas” because of the violence that ensued between abolitionists and other anti-enslavement militias, and pro-enslavement militias. During the ensuing violence, one of Brown’s sons was killed by a pro-enslavement militant; Brown and several of his adult sons later fled Kansas in order to raise money amongst abolitionists and their supporters.
John Brown is perhaps most (in)famous in American history for the final years of his life, wherein he and a dedicated few radical abolitionists (including Harriet Tubman and former enslaved Black people living in Ontario) took it upon themselves to plan and lead an insurrection against enslavement, specifically against a federal armoury, hoping that this would set off a domino of other insurrections. In July 1859, Brown began to put his plan into action at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Unfortunately, far fewer people joined him than he anticipated (under 25 altogether, all men under the age of 50 including several Black men). In September of 1859, Brown led the attack on Harpers Ferry which quickly failed, beginning with the first death of the attack accidentally being a free Black man named Hayward Shepherd on an incoming train. Several of the radical abolitionists died, including two of Brown’s sons, in the violence that followed. Brown was eventually captured, put on trial, and found guilty, sentenced to hang in December. On December 2, 1859 Brown was killed by hanging, dying (in his words) “a martyr” for abolitionism. Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry would come to be understood as one of many, many initial catalysts for the American Civil War.
Brown, as other revolutionary figures in history, is often demonized in mainstream white American histories because he resorted to fighting the inhuman violence of enslavement with his own forms of violence. Writing histories of violence can be difficult, especially when confronted with figures such as John Brown who has both been vilified and romanticized for his actions. As there is no such thing as an objective or neutral history, I have not attempted here to hide my biases and subjectivity when writing about John Brown’s commitment to the lives of enslaved Black people in the United States. For me as for many others, the intertwined horrors of enslavement, colonialism, and capitalism far outweigh the moral arguments against John Brown’s use of violence at Harpers Ferry. Brown was a contentious figure during his time – contemporary abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass disagreed with his use of violence to fight enslavement, while others viewed this as the only way out of enslavement – and he has remained a contentious figure to this day. In my view, John Brown was a radical and revolutionary man not without his idiosyncrasies and questionable actions who was willing to lay down his life in order to fight one of the founding violences (enslavement) of the United States. Although a settler and the father of settlers who participated in displacing Indigenous peoples off of their lands, John Brown understood the enmeshed violence of capitalism and enslavement. He and his abolitionist sons were willing to fight by any means necessary against the enslavement of Black people in the United States and the capitalist structures of power that rested upon their stolen labour.
For those who have not always viewed John Brown as anything other than an “unhinged” or “crazy” violent man, it is important to begin to read other accounts of his life. When we remember John Brown, we may recall the words of the late historian Howard Zinn, who wrote that although it was “Abraham Lincoln who freed the slaves, not John Brown,” Brown was “hanged, with federal complicity, for attempting to do by small-scale violence what Lincoln would do by large-scale violence several years later – end slavery.” If you are someone who has valourized Lincoln, but demonized Brown, these are important words to jump off from into asking yourself why one form of violence (large-scale war) creates an historical hero of one man, and another form of violence (small-scale rebellion) creates an historical villain in another.
With this, I leave you with the words of John Brown, specifically a dramatic reading of his last speech originally delivered on November 2, 1859 and performed here by actor Josh Brolin. I encourage all of you to go out and search for critical histories of John Brown, whether academic texts or popular ones, books or blogpost, as this short post is just one condensed sliver of the many histories of John Brown.
“Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved (for I admire the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case), 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, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.
I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted that I have done in behalf of His despised poor was not wrong but right. Now, 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 this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments I submit. So let it be done.” – John Brown, November 2, 1859.
“Biography of John Brown.” : War and Reconciliation: The Mid-Missouri Civil War Project. Accessed May 10, 2017. http://law.missouri.edu/bowman/hatts/john_brown/biography.html
“John Brown’s Last Speech.” Teaching A People’s History: Zinn Education Project. Accessed May 10, 2017. https://zinnedproject.org/materials/john-brown/
Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York: HarperCollins, 1980.