Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Brown, John (abolitionist)

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BROWN, John, of Osawatomie, abolitionist, b. in Torrington, Conn., 9 May, 1800; executed in Charlestown, Va., 2 Dec., 1859. His ancestor, Peter Brown, came over with the historic party in the “Mayflower” in 1620. Peter was unmarried, by trade a carpenter, and drew his house-lot in Plymouth with the rest; but he removed soon afterward, with Bradford, Standish, and Winslow, to the neighboring settlement of Duxbury. He was twice married, and died early. One of his descendants in the main line was a Captain John Brown, of the Connecticut militia, who died of disease in the revolutionary service in 1770. This revolutionary captain married Hannah Owen, of Welsh origin; and their son, Owen Brown, married Ruth Mills, who was of Dutch descent; so that John Brown of Osawatomie, their son, had a mingling of the blood of three races in his veins, resulting in a corresponding mixture of strong qualities. Owen Brown left a brief autobiography, which begins by saying: “My life has been of little worth, mostly filled up with vanity.” Then he goes on to describe, with some fulness, this career of frivolity, which will seem to most readers grave and decorous to the last degree. The most interesting entry is the following: “In 1800, May 9, [my son] John was born, one hundred years after his great-grandfather; nothing else very uncommon”; and he adds, in tranquil ignorance of the future: “We lived in peace with all mankind, so far as I know.” How far the parent would have approved the stormy career of the son is now matter of inference only; but we have it in Owen Brown's own declaration that he was one of that early school of abolitionists whom Hopkins and Edwards enlightened; and he apparently took part in the forcible rescue of some slaves claimed by a Virginia clergyman in Connecticut in 1798, soon after that state had abolished slavery. The continuous anti-slavery devotion of the whole family, for three generations, was a thing almost unexampled. Mr. Sanborn has preserved verbatim a most quaint and graphic fragment of autobiography, written by John Brown, of Osawatomie, in 1859. In this he records with the utmost frankness his boyish pursuits and transgressions; how at the age of four he stole three brass pins, and at the age of five removed with his parents to Ohio, where he grew familiar with the Indians, who were then dwelling all around them. He says of himself: “John was never quarrelsome; but was exceedingly fond of the harshest and roughest kind of plays; and could never get enough [of] them. Indeed, when for a short time he was sometimes sent to school, the opportunity it offered to wrestle and snow-ball and run and jump and knock off old seedy wool hats, offered to him almost the only compensation for the confinement and restraint of school.” In this boyish combativeness, without personal quarrelsomeness, we see the quality of the future man. He further records that in boyhood his great delight was in going on responsible expeditions, and by the age of twelve he was often sent a hundred miles into the wilderness with cattle. This adventurous spirit took no military direction; he was disgusted with what he heard of the war of 1812, and for many years used to be fined for refusing to do militia duty. He was very fond of reading, and familiar with every portion of the Bible; but he never danced, and never knew one card from another. Staying in a house where there was a slave-boy almost his own age, and seeing this boy ill-treated — even beaten, as he declares, with an iron fire-shovel — he became, in his own words, “a most determined abolitionist,” and was led “to declare, or swear, eternal war with slavery.” From the fifteenth to the twentieth years of his age he worked as a farmer and currier, chiefly for his father, and for most of the time as foreman. He then learned surveying, and followed that for a while, afterward gratifying his early love for animals by becoming a shepherd. Meanwhile he married, as he says, “a remarkably plain, but neat, industrious, and economical girl, of excellent character, earnest piety, and good practical common sense,” who had, he asserts, a most powerful and good influence over him. This was Dianthe Lusk, a widow, and they had seven children. His second wife was Mary Anne Day, by whom he had thirteen children, and who survived him twenty-five years, dying in San Francisco in 1884. She also was a woman of strong and decided character; and though among the twenty children of the two marriages eight died in early childhood, the survivors all shared the strong moral convictions of their father, and the whole family habitually lived a life of great self-denial in order that his purposes might be carried out.

The contest for Kansas in 1855-'6 between the friends of freedom and those of slavery was undoubtedly, as it has since been called, the skirmish-line of the civil war. It was there made evident — what an anti-slavery leader so conspicuous as Joshua R. Giddings had utterly refused to believe — that the matter was coming to blows. The condition of affairs was never better stated than in the Charleston “Mercury” by a young man named Warren Wilkes, who had commanded for a time a band of so-called southern “settlers” in Kansas. He wrote in the spring of 1856: “If the south secures Kansas, she will extend slavery into all territories south of the fortieth parallel of north latitude to the Rio Grande; and this, of course, will secure for her pent-up institution of slavery an ample outlet, and restore her power in congress. If the north secures Kansas, the power of the south in congress will be gradually diminished, and the slave property will become valueless. All depends upon the action of the present moment.” Here was a point on which young Wilkes on the one side, and John Brown on the other, were absolutely agreed; and each went to work in his own way to save Kansas to his side by encouraging immigration from their respective regions. We can, at this distance of time, admit that this was within the right of each; but the free-state men went almost wholly as bona-fide settlers, while numbers of those who went from Missouri, Virginia, and South Carolina viewed the enterprise simply as a military foray, without intending to remain. It was also true that the latter class, coming from communities then more lawless, went generally armed; while the free-state men went at first unarmed, afterward arming themselves reluctantly and by degrees. The condition of lawlessness that ensued was undoubtedly demoralizing to both sides; it was to a great extent a period of violence and plunder — civil war on a petty scale; but the original distinction never wholly passed away, and the ultimate character of the community was fortunately shaped and controlled by the free-state settlers. However it might be with others, for John Brown the Kansas contest was deliberately undertaken as a part of the great war against slavery. He went there with more cautious and far-reaching purposes than most others, and he carried out those purposes with the strength of a natural leader. As early as 1834, by a letter still in existence, he had communicated to his brother Frederick his purpose to make active war upon slavery, the plan being then to bring together some “first-rate abolitionist families” and undertake the education of colored youth. “If once the Christians of the free states would set to work in earnest teaching the blacks, the people of the slave-holding states would find themselves constitutionally driven to set about the work of emancipation immediately.” This letter was written when he was postmaster under President Jackson, at Randolph, Pa., and was officially franked by Brown, as was then the practice. When we consider what were Jackson's views as to anti-slavery agitation, especially through the mails, it is curious to consider what a firebrand he was harboring in one of his own post-offices. It appears from this letter and other testimony that Brown at one time solemnly called his older sons together and pledged them, kneeling in prayer, to give their lives to anti-slavery work. It must be remembered that Prudence Crandall had been arrested and sent to jail in Connecticut, only the year before, for doing, in a small way, what Brown now proposed to do systematically. For some time he held to his project in this form, removing from Pennsylvania to Ohio in 1835-'6, and from Ohio to Massachusetts in 1846, engaging in different enterprises, usually in the wool business, but always keeping the main end in view. For instance, in 1840 he visited western Virginia to survey land belonging to Oberlin college, and seems to have had some plan for colonizing colored people there. At last, in 1846, on the anniversary of West India emancipation, Gerrit Smith, a great land-owner in New York state, offered to give a hundred thousand acres of wild land in northern New York to such colored families, fugitive slaves, or others as would take them in small farms and clear them. It was a terribly hard region into which to invite those children of the south; six months of winter and no possibility of raising either wheat or Indian corn. Brown convinced himself, nevertheless, that he could be of much use to the colored settlers, and in 1848-'9 purchased a farm from Mr. Smith and removed the younger part of his family to North Elba, which was their home until his death. His wife and young children lived there in the greatest frugality, voluntarily practised by them all for the sake of helping others. He, meanwhile, often absented himself on anti-slavery enterprises, forming, for instance, at Springfield, Mass., his former home, a “League of Gileadites,” pledged to the rescue of fugitive slaves. In one of his manuscript addresses to this body he lays down the rule, “Stand by one another and by your friends while a drop of blood remains; and be hanged if you must, but tell no tales out of school.” This was nearly nine years before his own death on the scaffold.

In 1854 five of Brown's sons, then resident in Ohio, made their arrangements to remove to Kansas, regarding it as a desirable home, where they could exert an influence for freedom; but they were so little prepared for an armed struggle that they had among them only two small shot-guns and a revolver. They selected claims eight or ten miles from Osawatomie, and their father, contrary to his previous intention, joined them there in October, 1855. In March of that year the first election for a territorial constitution had taken place. Thousands of Missourians, armed with rifles, and even with cannon, had poured over the border, and, although less than a thousand legal votes were thrown in the territory, more than six thousand went through the form of voting. This state of things continued through that year and the next, and the present writer saw an election precisely similar in the town of Leavenworth, in the autumn of 1856. Hostilities were soon brought on by the murder and unlawful arrest of men known to be opposed to slavery. The Brown family were mustered in as Kansas militia by the free-state party, and turned out to defend the town of Lawrence from a Missourian invasion, which was compromised without bloodshed. A few months later Lawrence was attacked and pillaged. Other murders took place, and a so-called grand jury indicted many free-state men, including in the indictment the “Free State Hotel” in Lawrence. Two of Brown's sons were arrested by United States cavalry, which, at this time, Pierce being president, acted wholly with the pro-slavery party. John Brown, Jr., the oldest, was driven on foot at the head of a cavalry company, at a trot, for nine miles to Osawatomie, his arms being tied behind him. This state of things must be fully remembered in connection with the so-called “Pottawatomie massacre,” which furnishes, in the opinion of both friends and foes, the most questionable incident in Brown's career. This occurrence took place on 25 May, 1856, and consisted in the deliberate assassination of five representatives of the pro-slavery party at night, they being called from their beds for the purpose. It was done in avowed retribution for the assassination of five free-state men, and was intended to echo far beyond Kansas, as it did, and to announce to the slave-holding community that blood for blood would henceforth be exacted in case of any further invasion of rights. It undoubtedly had that effect, and though some even in Kansas regarded it with disapproval, it is certain that leading citizens of the territory, such as Governor Robinson, themselves justified it at the time. Robinson wrote, as late as February, 1878: “I never had much doubt that Capt. Brown was the author of the blow at Pottawatomie, for the reason that he was the only man who comprehended the situation, and saw the absolute necessity of some such blow, and had the nerve to strike it.” Brown himself said, a few years later: “I knew all good men who loved freedom, when they became better acquainted with the circumstances of the case, would approve of it.” It is, nevertheless, probable that the public mind will be permanently divided in judgment upon this act; just as there is still room, after centuries have passed, for two opinions as to the execution of Charles I. or the banishment of Roger Williams. Much, of course, turns upon the actual character of the five men put to death — men whom the student will find painted in the darkest colors in Mr. Sanborn's life of John Brown, and in much milder hues in Mr. Spring's “History of Kansas.” The successive phases of sentiment on the whole subject may be partly attributed to the fact that the more pacific Kansas leaders, such as Robinson and Pomeroy, have happened to outlive the fighting men, such as Brown, Lane, and Montgomery; so that there is a little disposition just now to underrate the services of the combatants and overrate those of the noncombatants. As a matter of fact, there was in the territory at the time no noticeable difference of opinion between those two classes; and it is quite certain that slavery would have triumphed over all legal and legislative skill had not the sword been thrown into the balance, even in a small way. The largest affairs in which Brown and his sons took part, “Black Jack” and “Osawatomie,” for instance, seem trifling amid the vast encounters of the civil war; but these petty skirmishes, nevertheless, began that great conflict.

The purpose that finally took John Brown to Virginia had doubtless been many years in his mind, dating back, indeed, to the time when he was a surveyor in the mountains of that state, in early life. Bishop Meade says, in his “Old Churches and Ministers of Virginia,” that he wrote the book in view of a range of mountains which Washington had selected as the final stronghold of his revolutionary army, should he be defeated in the contest with England; and it was these same mountains which John Brown regarded as having been designed by the Almighty, from all eternity, as a refuge for fugitive slaves. His plan for his enterprise varied greatly in successive years, and no doubt bore marks of the over-excited condition of his mind; but as he ordinarily told it to the few with whom he had consulted outside of his own band, there was nothing incoherent or impracticable about it; it was simply the establishment on slave soil of a defensible station for fugitive slaves, within the reach of the Pennsylvania border, so that bodies of slaves could hold their own for a time against a superior force, and could be transferred, if necessary, through the free states to Canada. Those who furnished him with arms and money at the north did so from personal faith in him, and from a common zeal for his objects, without asking to know details. He had stated his general plan to Douglass and others in 1847, and in 1857 had established at Tabor, in Iowa, a town peculiarly friendly to the free-state men during the Kansas troubles, a sort of school of military drill under the direction of a Scottish adventurer, Hugh Forbes, who attempted to betray him. He afterward had a similar school at Springfield, Iowa, and meanwhile negotiated with his eastern friends for funds. He had already in his hands two hundred rifles from the national Kansas committee; and although these were really the property of George L. Stearns, of Medford, Mass., representing a small part of the $10,000 which that gentleman had given to make Kansas free, yet this was enough to hamper in some degree the action of his Boston allies. Their position was also embarrassed by many curious, rambling letters from his drill-master, Forbes, written to members of congress and others, and disclosing what little he knew of the plans. This led the eastern allies to insist — quite unnecessarily, as it seemed to one or two of them — on a postponement for a year of the whole enterprise. On 8 June, 1858, Brown left Boston, with $500 in gold and with liberty to keep the Kansas rifles. Most of his friends in the eastern states knew nothing more of his movements until it was announced that he had taken possession of the U. S. arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Va. A few, however, were aware that he was about to enter on the execution of his plans somewhere, though they did not know precisely where. Late in June, 1859, Brown and several of his men appeared in the vicinity of Harper's Ferry, and soon afterward hired a small farm, which they occupied. Then his daughter Anne, a girl of fifteen, together with his daughter-in-law, wife of Oliver Brown, appeared upon the scene and kept house for them. There they lived for many weeks, unsuspected by their neighbors, and gradually receiving from Ohio their boxes of rifles and pistols, besides a thousand pikes from Connecticut. In August he was visited by Frederick Douglass, to whom he disclosed his plan of an attack on Harper's Ferry, which Douglass opposed, thinking it would not really be favorable to his ultimate object of reaching the slaves. But he persevered, and finally began his operations with twenty-two men, besides himself. Six of these were colored; and it may be added that only six of the whole party escaped alive, and only one of these is now (September, 1886) — living Owen Brown.

On Sunday evening, 16 Oct., 1859, Brown mustered eighteen of his men — the rest having been assigned to other duties — saying: “Men, get on your arms; we will proceed to the Ferry.” It was a cold, dark night, ending in rain. At half-past ten they reached the armory-gate and broke it in with a crow-bar, easily overpowering the few watchmen on duty. Before midnight the village was quietly patrolled by Brown's men, without firing a gun, and six men had been sent to bring in certain neighboring planters, with their slaves. He had taken several leading citizens prisoners, as hostages, but had allowed a railway train to go through northward, which of course carried the news. The citizens of the town gradually armed themselves, and some shots were exchanged, killing several men; and before night Brown, who might easily have escaped, was hopelessly hemmed in. Col. Robert E. Lee, afterward well known in history, arrived from Washington at evening with a company of U. S. marines, and all was practically over. Brown and his men, now reduced to six, were barricaded in a little building called the engine-house, and were shot down one by one, thousands of bullets, according to a Virginia witness, having been imbedded in the walls. Brown constantly returned the fire, refusing to surrender; but when some of his men aimed at passers-by who had taken no part in the matter, he would stop them, according to the same Virginia witness, Capt. Dangerfield, saying: “Don't shoot! that man is unarmed.” Col. Washington, another Virginia witness, has testified to the extraordinary coolness with which Brown felt the pulse of his dying son, while holding his own rifle with the other hand, and encouraging his men to be firm. All this time he was not recognized, until Lieut. J. E. B. Stuart, who had known him in Kansas, called him by his name. When he was finally captured, his two sons were dead, and he himself was supposed to be dying.

No one will ever be able exactly to understand that mood of John Brown's mind which induced him to remain in Harper's Ferry to certain death. His reason for taking possession of the town and arsenal was undoubtedly a desire to alarm the country at large, and not merely secure arms, but attract recruits to his side, after he should have withdrawn. Why did he remain? Those who escaped from the terrible disaster could not answer. Brown himself is reported as saying that it was preordained; that if he had once escaped, he knew the Virginia mountains too well to be captured; but that he for the first time lost command of himself and was punished for it. Gov. Wise, of Virginia, with several hundred men, reached Harper's Ferry by the noon train of 18 Oct., and Brown held conversations, which have been fully reported, with him and others. Gov. Wise said of him: “They are mistaken who take Brown to be a madman. He is a bundle of the best nerves I ever saw; cut and thrust and bleeding and in bonds. He is a man of clear head, of courage, fortitude, and simple ingenuousness. He is cool, collected, indomitable; and it is but just to him to say that he was humane to his prisoners, and he inspired me with great trust in his integrity as a man of truth.” This opinion, coming from the man whose immediate duty it was to see him tried and executed as a felon, may be regarded as a final and trustworthy estimate.

John Brown was tried before a Virginia court, legal counsel going to him from Massachusetts. All thought of a rescue was precluded by strong messages of prohibition sent by him. The proposal to send his wife to him, this being planned partly in the hope that she might shake his determination, was also refused, and she did not see him until after his trial. He was sentenced to death by hanging, and this sentence was executed 2 Dec., 1859. On the day of his death he handed to one of his guards a paper on which he had written this sentence: “Charlestown, Va., Dec. 2, 1859. 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.” Within eighteen months this prophecy was fulfilled, and many a northern regiment, as it marched to the seat of war, sang that which will always remain, more than any other, the war-song of the great conflict:


John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
But his soul is marching on.”

His bearing on the scaffold, under exceptionally trying circumstances, evinced wonderful fortitude. After the sheriff had told him that all was ready, and had adjusted the rope and the cap, ten or fifteen minutes passed, while the military escort formed a hollow square. During this painfully long interval, John Brown, blindfolded, stood alone erect, like a statue unsupported. An eye-witness who was very near him could not detect a tremor. A further delay occurred while the sheriff descended the steps of the scaffold, but Brown never wavered, and died apparently with muscles and nerves still subject to his iron will. His career is remarkable for its dramatic quality, for the important part he played in events preliminary to the great civil war, and for the strong and heroic traits shown in his life and death. He belonged to a class of men whose permanent fame is out of all proportion to their official importance or contemporary following; and indeed he represents a type more akin to that seen among the Scottish covenanters of two centuries ago than to anything familiar in our own days. Copeland, Green, Cook, and Coppoc, of his company, were executed by hanging two weeks later. Stephens and Hazlett were put to death in the same way 16 March, 1860. An effort for their rescue, organized in Boston, with men brought mainly from Kansas, under Capt. Montgomery as leader, proved abortive.

In regard to the bearing of John Brown's enterprise upon subsequent history, it is enough if we recall the fact that a select committee of the U. S. senate investigated the whole affair, and the majority, consisting of James M. Mason, Jefferson Davis, and Graham N. Fitch, submitted a report in which occurs the following passage: “The invasion (to call it so) by Brown and his followers at Harper's Ferry was in no sense of that character. It was simply the act of lawless ruffians, under the sanction of no public or political authority — distinguishable only from ordinary felonies by the ulterior ends in contemplation by them, and by the fact that the money to maintain the expedition, and the large armament they brought with them, had been contributed and furnished by the citizens of other states of the union, under circumstances that must continue to jeopard the safety and peace of the southern states, and against which congress has no power to legislate. If the several states, whether from motives of policy or a desire to preserve the peace of the union, if not from fraternal feeling, do not hold it incumbent on them, after the experience of the country, to guard in future by appropriate legislation against occurrences similar to the one here inquired into, the committee can find no guarantee elsewhere for the security of peace between the states of the union.” It is a sufficient commentary on the implied threat with which this report concludes, to point out that two of its three signers, within the year following, became leaders of the movement for a forcible division of the union. In view of this fact, it is impossible to doubt that the enterprise of John Brown was an important link in the chain of historical events. The life of Capt. Brown has been at least three times written — by James Redpath, by Richard D. Webb, of Dublin, and by Frank B. Sanborn. The last named is the fullest work, and has the approval of John Brown's family; it is the result of much personal research, and is, with some defects of arrangement, a mine of information in regard to one of the most remarkable men of his time.