John Brown led an unspectacular life until he was well into his fifties, when he began leading violent antislavery activity in the Midwest. This reached its culmination when he conspired with six northern abolitionists and attempted to lead a slave insurrection in the South by raiding the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.
Although it is unclear whether Brown believed he could actually begin an insurrection, he did succeed in pushing the issue of slavery to the boiling point. The violence at Harper’s Ferry, which caused southern fears of future conspiracies, would be one of the key events that set the Civil War in motion.
Brown was born on 9 May 1800 in Torrington, Connecticut. Five years later, the family moved to Ohio’s Western Reserve, where Brown grew up, absorbing his father’s Calvinism, strict discipline, and hatred of slavery.
Brown worked a variety of jobs in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, including tanning and sheep-farming, and during his life fathered some twenty children. He was never successful in any of his business ventures and in 1842 he declared bankruptcy. In 1848, Brown moved his family, more or less permanently, to North Elba, New York.
In 1848, for a short-lived abolitionist newspaper called The Ram’s Horn, Brown published a satirical essay, “Sambo’s Mistakes,” in which the narrator assumes the persona of a Negro who looks back on a life wasted in submissiveness to whites. Around this time, Brown’s thoughts on slavery began to turn increasingly activist and violent—unlike most abolitionists, he had never made a commitment to nonviolence.
He had met Frederick Douglass for the first time the previous year and told him of his plans to free the slaves. Though Douglass would later decline Brown’s offer to join him in raiding Harper’s Ferry (on the grounds that such a plan was “suicidal”), there is strong evidence that Brown caused Douglass to rethink his own nonviolent abolitionism.
Responding to the Fugitive Slave Act compromise of 1850, which attempted to appease slaveholders and ease North-South tensions, Brown founded the League of Gileadites in 1851, which authorized its forty-four black members to murder slavecatchers.
By the time he attended an 1855 convention of abolitionists in Syracuse, New York, Brown had become an abolitionist zealot who increasingly identified himself and his cause with those of the Old Testament warriors. Later that year, he moved to Kansas (leaving his wife and younger children in North Elba), where six of his sons and a son-in-law had taken up claims on land.
Near Pottawatomie in May 1856, in retaliation for the murder of FreeSoilers by proslavery men, Brown, with three of his sons and a few other men, abducted five proslavery settlers and murdered them, some by broadsword. Neither Brown nor the other men were ever indicted for the massacre.
“Captain Brown,” with his small company of Free-State raiders, continued participating in other militant antislavery maneuvers in the Kansas bushwhacking wars of the 1850s. In December 1858, Brown and his men, in concert with another company led by Aaron Stevens, went into Missouri, ransacked proslavery homes, and freed eleven slaves.
Earlier that year, while in Boston, Brown met secretly with six northern backers of his scheme to invade the South: Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Theodore Parker, Samuel Gridley Howe, George L. Stearns, Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, and Gerrit Smith.
The six backers diverted funds in various ways to support Brown, even though Brown did not supply them with many specific plans; other than a vague notion of attracting slaves as he moved southward from Appalachia, Brown apparently had no developed plan.
All ardent abolitionists, the Secret Six (as they came to be known) thought that even if Brown failed to incite a slave insurrection, his operations, whatever they were, would ignite the powder keg of a civil war that would lead to the end of slavery.
Renting a farm across the Potomac River from Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), in 1859, Brown planned to seize the federal arsenal there and arm the area slaves that he expected to rise up in the wake of the raid.
Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry seems to have been doomed from the start: Brown’s army—twenty-two men, including Brown, three of his sons, and five blacks—was too small to carry out an invasion of the South. He had little or no definite idea about what to do after overtaking the arsenal, nor did he let the nearby slaves know he expected them to join him after he had taken control.
The actual raid started out as well as Brown could have hoped: he and his men killed the mayor of Harper’s Ferry, took some townspeople hostage, and easily captured the lightly guarded armory complex on the evening of 16 October. But only a few slaves were rounded up by Brown’s men for the insurrection, and one of Brown’s men shot a free black railroad worker.
The next morning, locals began sniping at Brown and his men, and Maryland’s militia occupied the town. By afternoon, eight of the raiders, including two of Brown’s sons, were killed. That night, the marines, commanded by Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart, arrived, attacked with a battering ram, and captured Brown and his men.
To head off a possible lynching, the state of Virginia quickly indicted, tried, and convicted Brown of treason, murder, and fomenting insurrection. Brown rejected his counsel’s pleas of insanity and was hanged on 2 December in Charleston. Six of his raiders were hanged at later dates.
Brown had left documents in a Maryland farmhouse implicating the Secret Six. Political squabbles ensued after Brown’s execution; the proslavery Democrats (erroneously) believed that the Republicans had something to do with Brown’s raid.
By a combination of the incompetence of the Senate investigative committee and the false testimony of Howe and Stearns (the only two of the Secret Six to show up for questioning), no conspiracy was found, and no one outside of Brown and his raiders was indicted.
Though Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry was a failure in execution, it further polarized an already divided country. Brown’s raid made southerners afraid that an insurrection by “Black Republicans” was imminent. Secessionist newspapers alleged that Lincoln, if elected in 1860, would, like Brown, incite slaves to insurrection and violence. For many northerners, Brown was a martyr, a portent of a larger war to end slavery.