On October 16, 1859, radical Republican John Brown and a small band of followers, both white and black, launched a violent attack against the American system of slave labor at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (today West Virginia). While unsuccessful (and insane if one assumes he wanted something other than martyrdom), Brown’s raid did more than almost anything else in the 1850s to highlight the differences between northern and southern labor systems and the moral bankruptcy of the latter. Agree or disagree with his actions, he made it almost impossible for northern whites to claimed to be abolitionists to hide behind gradual programs or a vague hope for the future. For southern whites, it was a call to arms against increasingly radical anti-slavery forces in the north and the desires of slaves to escape. For African-Americans, at least the few who had the opportunity to take advantage of Brown’s actions, it was the deliverance from a hell of forced labor and degradation for which they had prayed.
I don’t want to spend a lot of time revisiting Brown’s famous raids here. Most readers here have heard of his 1859 attack and many are no doubt familiar with his 1856 murder of slaveholders in Kansas that put him on the run. Rather, I’d rather explore Brown’s positions and words about the United States’ slave labor system.
African-American women working in cotton field. Not sure of date, but typical of slave labor.
Brown had called for armed resistance to slave labor since at least 1851. Speaking to the United States League of Gileadites, a radical anti-slavery organization he founded to mobilize African-Americans, Brown talked about how to resist the Fugitive Slave Act. Brown told 44 attending free blacks that if one was arrested, “Let no able-bodied man appear on the ground unequipped, or with his weapons exposed to view; Let that be understood beforehand.” As we know from Harpers Ferry and Kansas, Brown had no problem putting this into effect. And we can certainly condemn his violence. But let’s step back and remember just how horrible slavery was. On December 20, 1858, Brown, who had briefly returned to Kansas, led a party into Missouri to free slaves. They liberated 11 slaves and killed a slaveholder. He then took them north, helping to deliver a baby from one of the ex-slaves, and got them into Canada after an 82-day trip. Were his actions justified?
This is from his letter to the New York Tribune, justifying his actions. “On Sunday, September 19, a negro man called Jim came over to Osage settlement, from Missouri, and stated that he, together with his wife, two children, and another negro man, was to be sold within a day or two, and begged for help to get away.” Brown and his friends gathered other slaves and helped them to freedom? If a slave holder was killed in such an action, is this a reasonable price? As Brown put it, “Now for a comparison. Eleven persons are forcibly restored to their natural and inalienable rights, with but one man killed, and ‘all hell is stirred from beneath.’” If one has the opportunity to free people from slavery, what is less moral? Saying no or killing a single white person in the process of saving eleven black people? For Brown, the answer was obvious.
John Brown in Kansas
When Brown launched his raid on Harpers Ferry, the South recognized it for what it was–a direct and violent attack upon their system of forced labor they had based their economy around for two hundred years. John Brown was their greatest fear and railroading him to the hangman’s rope was the obvious result (even if it also served the national political ambitions of the Virginia governor).
Frederick Douglass, who of course knew the horrors of the slave labor system first hand, lauded Brown’s ideology, if not his strategy. Douglass and Brown had known each other since 1847 and while they did not see eye to eye on many things, they were allies. While Douglass disagreed with the attack on the federal arsenal (he fully supported freeing slaves and starting a hideout in Appalachia), he was close enough to Brown that he had to flee after the raid. With an arrest warrant out for him, Douglass crossed into Canada. Douglass’ own assistant, Shields Green, joined in the raid. In fact, Douglass knew about the attack before it happened. Brown had directly recruited him, saying “I want you for a special purpose. When I strike the bees will begin to swarm, and I shall want you to help hive them.”
On the other hand, William Lloyd Garrison was outraged by the use of violence, calling it “misguided, wild, and apparently insane.” It took until the South seceded and ending slavery seemed possible before northern whites began embracing Brown as a harbinger of free labor. During the Civil War, “John Brown’s Body” became an anthem for the Union army and abolitionists who could not countenance violence in 1859 felt like they were honoring their fallen martyr by using the violent ends Brown died for to end slave labor.
For early African-American scholars of slavery like W.E.B. DuBois, Brown was nothing short of a hero for doing so much to free their people. Here is DuBois from his 1909 biography of Brown:
“Was John Brown simply an episode, or was he an eternal truth? And if a truth, how speaks that truth to-day? John Brown loved his neighbor as himself. He could not endure therefore to see his neighbor, poor, unfortunate or oppressed. This natural sympathy was strengthened by a saturation in Hebrew religion which stressed the personal responsibility of every human soul to a just God. To this religion of equality and sympathy with misfortune, was added the strong influence of the social doctrines of the French Revolution with its emphasis on freedom and power in political life. And on all this was built John Brown’s own inchoate but growing belief in a more just and a more equal distribution of property. From this he concluded, — and acted on that conclusion — that all men are created free and equal, and that the cost of liberty is less than the price of repression.”
For the words of John Brown and other primary sources on his life and attack on Harpers Ferry, see Jonathan Earle, John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry: A Brief History with Documents. Tony Horwitz, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War, is an excellent history of the events, with special attention paid to the issues I highlight here. I borrowed from both books to write this post.
This is the 79th post in this series. Other posts are archived here.