Abolitionist and insurrectionist. Born in Torrington, Connecticut, Brown spent his boyhood in Ohio, where he mingled from the first with dedicated opponents of slavery. While his professional life featured a series of business failures, his family responsibilities grew even as his abolitionist principles deepened.
In 1855, after assisting the escape of several slaves, Brown and his five sons moved to Kansas just after that territory had been opened for the possible expansion of slavery by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Joining the struggle there between proslavery and Free-Soil settlers, Brown appointed himself “captain” of the antislavery forces on Osawatomie Creek. (The struggle arose out of a long-standing disagreement between North and South over slavery’s expansion that had its roots in the framing of the Constitution.) When proslavery forces sacked the “free state” town of Lawrence, guerrilla warfare ensued. The success of the proslavery guerrillas inspired Brown, with four of his sons and two other accomplices, to murder five reputedly proslavery settlers who lived along Pottawottamie Creek. Justifying his action as obedience to the will of a just God, Brown soon became a hero in the eyes of northern extremists and was quick to capitalize on his growing reputation. By early 1858 he had succeeded in enlisting a small “army” of insurrectionists, including three of his sons, whose mission was to foment rebellion among the slaves.
Brown had toyed with the idea for years, but it took form after a meeting of Brown and his followers in the free black community of Chatham, Ontario, in the winter of 1858. He proposed to provoke a black insurrection through armed intervention in northern Virginia, thereby establishing a stronghold to which escapees could flee and from which further insurrection might be spawned. Meanwhile, mounting frustration over the failure to achieve peaceful emancipation made many abolitionists receptive to Brown’s violent approach. Some of them, known subsequently as the “secret six”–Franklin Sanborn, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, George Luther Stearns, Gerrit Smith, Samuel Gridley Howe, and Theodore Parker–were aware of his intentions and became his financial supporters. Others, however, contributed funds and good wishes while remaining studiously ignorant of Brown’s exact plans. Early in 1859, he rented a farm near Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), collected weapons and his “army,” and on October 16 with twenty-one followers attacked and occupied the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry. Quickly surrounded by militia commanded by Col. Robert E. Lee, Brown’s position was overrun, ten of his followers were killed, and Brown himself was wounded and captured.
News of the raid electrified the North and outraged the white South. Brown was tried and convicted of treason. He conducted his defense with extraordinary astuteness, conveying to supporters and sympathizers the appearance of a powerfully inspired and selfless religious martyr. Popular expression of support for Brown was widespread in the North (the best remembered of which is Henry David Thoreau’s “Plea for Captain John Brown”) before he was hanged on December 2, 1859. In the South, his execution did little to allay spreading fears of slave insurrection and a growing conviction that northern opponents of slavery would continue to stimulate insurrection. Many analysts then and since have concluded that Brown’s raid did much to hasten the coming of the Civil War.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.