John Brown Biography
BROWN, JOHN (1800-59). An American abolitionist of the extremely radical type.He was born at Torrington, Conn., May 9, 1800, of Puritan ancestry. In his earlier years he engaged in the wool business and in a variety of other pursuits, in all of which he was uniformly unsuccessful. He was twice married, and became the father of a score of children, but he seems not to have shown either the disposition or the ability properly to maintain a family. His roaming career in Ohio, Connecticut, and New York was not such as to secure for him the standing even of an average citizen. He was, however, a man of much natural force, and upon becoming imbued with the single idea which controlled his later life he appeared as an agitator of great power, although manifesting many of the characteristics of the fanatic. His life work has given rise to a marked diversity of opinion, some considering his deeds highly reprehensible if not criminal, while others have regarded his life and death as scarcely different from those of a martyr. The latter view was early prevalent throughout the North, and was upheld by many reputable abolitionists (q.v.), by the leaders among whom Brown seems to have been encouraged and assisted from the beginning of his work in Kansas until the time of the final catastrophe in Virginia. Brown first appeared as a public character in the struggle which the free-state men were making for the control of Kansas (q.v.). He was somewhat prominent at Lawrence in the critical days of December, 1855, and soon made himself notorious by the massacre of five of his opponents at Pottawatomie on the night of May 24, 1856.
This was followed, on June 2, by his capture at Black Jack of Captain Pate. In the following August he won national renown by the heroic stand which he made at Osawatomie against an overwhelming force of invaders from Missouri. While he thus took a most vigorous share in the critical border war, he became the exponent of the bloodiest and most unscrupulous type of frontier ruffianism. After the conclusion of violence in Kansas, Brown seems to have maintained relations with his respectable and wealthy sympathizers in the Northeastern States, and by them he was encouraged and materially aided in his efforts to free the blacks. The culmination of long secret planning came in the fall of 1859, when, after having as a blind taken a farm near his objective point, he led a band of fewer than a score of followers into Harper's Ferry on the night of Oct. 16, 1859, and seized the national arsenal, thus giving what he supposed would be the signal for a general insurrection of the slaves. This audacious act, however, resulted only in calamity for the participants, and in so embittering and arousing the South as to make any peaceful arrangement of the slavery problem a still more remote probability. Troops of the regular army, under command of Robert E. Lee (q.v.), soon regained control of the arsenal and captured Brown and his followers. Brown was tried, convicted of treason, and of conspiring and advising with slaves and others to rebel, and of murder in the first degree; was sentenced to death, and was executed at Charlestown, W. Va., Dec. 2, 1859. He was buried at North Elba, N. Y. During the following years a popular song in the North had the refrain:
"John Browns body lies a-mouldering in the grave, his soul goes marching on."
The general approval of his deed in the North served only to impress upon the South the extremes to which certain Northerners might go, and the futility of hoping for any uncontested maintenance of slavery in the Union. Brown's biographer, Sanborn, has said: "Although John Brown would have justified a slave insurrection, or indeed almost any means of destroying slavery, he did not seek to incite general insurrection among the Southern slaves. The venture in which he lost his life was not an insurrection in any sense of the word, but an invasion or foray." On the other hand, a recent writer, speaking of the Harper's Ferry affair, has said that "it was crime, and nothing but crime, common crime and public crime, crime that made violent and destructive means possible and actual, and seemingly necessary for the attainment in the United States of that principle of the world's civilization which has decreed the personal freedom of all men." Of his 20 children, eight died in early childhood. The sons who grew to manhood took an active part in their father's work and obeyed him implicitly. Five of them removed to Kansas in 1854 and immediately entered with enthusiasm into the struggle with the proslavery settlers; and four of them participated in the Harper's Ferry raid, of which Owen Brown, who died in 1889, was long the only survivor. A work entitled Life and Letters of John Brown, Liberator of Kansas and Martyr of Virginia, edited by F. B. Sanborn (Boston, 1885), gives a sympathetic and exhaustive biography. For an unfavorable estimate of Brown, consult Burgess, The Civil War and the Constitution (New York, 1901). For a judicial estimate, consult Rhodes, History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850, vol. ii (New York, 1893). His most recent biographer is Villard, John Brown, 1800-1859: A Biography Fifty Years After (Boston and New York, 1910).
The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol. IV (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 37-38.