Harboring a fury that was fueled by profound religious devotion, John Brown carried his hatred of slavery into action, creating a legacy of bloodshed and violence that remains at once inspiring and appalling to this day.
Born in Torrington, Connecticut in 1800 into a deeply religious family, Brown spent much of his childhood in the anti-slavery stronghold of Ohio. Setting out in life as a businessman, he went from mild success to repeated failure, and from 1825 to 1855 moved his large family ten times, shifting his occupation from tanner to shepherd to farmer and working at whatever odd jobs he could find. Always a committed abolitionist, during these years he offered his homes as waystops on the Underground Railroad and insisted that his churches admit African-Americans as full members of their congregations.
In 1855, Brown followed five of his sons to Kansas when they appealed to him for help in fighting off the Missouri "border ruffians" who were gathering there to force slavery on the citizens of the territory. Brown arrived with a wagonload of weapons and the conviction that all free-soil Kansans stood in mortal peril. In 1856, Brown felt compelled to take action. During the night of May 24, he led a group which methodically killed five pro-slavery settlers living along Pottawotomie Creek, dragging the men out of their cabins and butchering them with swords.
This massacre shocked even Brown's fellow abolitionists and led to a string of violent deaths which gave rise to the name "Bleeding Kansas." Brown successfully fought off all attempts to apprehend him, and maintained publicly that his acts were not only justified, but directly ordered by God. Finally, in October, he left Kansas for a tour through the Northeast, where he was acclaimed for his militant opposition to slavery.
But by this time Brown had formulated an even more militant plan: he would incite a massive slave insurrection and thereby destroy the hated institution once and for all. To provide the funding for this ambitious undertaking, he turned to wealthy abolitionists who had grown frustrated by the failure of peaceful means and shared his view that it was time to wage war.
After returning to Kansas briefly in 1858, where he led a raiding party into Missouri which liberated eleven slaves, Brown moved in early 1859 to a rented farm near Harpers Ferry, Virginia, site of a federal arsenal with which Brown planned to arm the slaves he would inspire to rebellion. In October, he led twenty-one followers in a raid on Harpers Ferry and quickly occupied the federal arsenal, but was just as quickly trapped there by troops under the command of Robert E. Lee. The next morning, Lee's forces overran Brown's band of raiders, killing half of them, including two of Brown's sons.
Brown's ensuing trial for treason gave him the opportunity to vigorously condemn slavery and to again defend his actions as ordained by God. Before his hanging in December, popular support poured out from the North. The white South, however, was only more deeply convinced that remaining in the Union meant the end of slavery. Yet both sides could agree that, as he had in Kansas, John Brown had sharpened the issue dividing them into a weapon that would not be sheathed until it had drawn blood.
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