Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Montage of images and link description. John Brown's Holy War Imagemap: linked to kids and home
The Film and More
Imagemap(text links below) of menu items
The American Experience
The Film & More
Interview Transcripts | Primary Sources Documents | Further Reading

Paul Finkelman, historian on
the political situation in Kansas

Paul Finkelman FINKELMAN: One of Brown's sons wants to bring his prized fruit trees out to Kansas and create orchards and, again, this is symptomatic of mid-nineteenth century Americans: they're very idealistic about slavery, but they're also practical about looking for good land and to be farmers and to start life over again. Brown's life and that of his sons' is always renewal -- you move to a new place, you start again, over and over again. Brown doesn't go to Kansas because he's already started over again at North Elba. He's happy in North Elba -- this is the happiest place he's ever been, this is a place where he really belongs, in these cold, wilderness Adirondack Mountains, surrounded by blacks in a sense of racial equality. Brown is truly happy, he doesn't want to move to Kansas. Furthermore, Brown's goal is to run slaves out of the South. He keeps talking about a subterranean way to go into the South and bring slaves out. Kansas is peripheral to this. Brown doesn't go to Kansas until the violence starts, until his sons write back and say, we need help, we need guns, we are being pushed by the Border Ruffians, the Missourians who come over, usually drunk, shooting up the place, pushing the free staters. Well this, of course, makes Brown crazy. This makes him very angry, and so Brown says, yes, I'll go to Kansas; [he] gathers guns and goes to Kansas.

The great problem of Kansas is the majority of the people who live there, by the time Brown gets there, are from the North and they do not want slavery. The national government in Washington wants slavery and the national government appoints territorial governors who are trying to impose slavery on a majority that doesn't want it. The other problem is that the territorial legislature is elected by rigged elections with thousands of people coming from Missouri to vote for pro-slavery legislators who pass laws that are oppressive to free speech, freedom of expression, and really make it a crime to be opposed to slavery. So, John Brown comes to a place where, by definition, he's a criminal. He's a traitor because the laws say he cannot publicly oppose slavery. But, of course, Northerners are moving to Kansas, some simply because it's good land and it's cheap, others because they want to oppose slavery, many for both reasons.

Kansas is very violent. Kansas is the frontier and, more than that, it's made violent by the fight over slavery and the fact that thousands of Missourians who live in Missouri -- where they have farms, where they have weapons -- cross into Kansas to terrorize the free state settlers. So, wherever Brown goes he is facing the possibility that he might be attacked, that he might be killed. We remember the Pottawatomie killings where Brown is responsible for the death of five pro-slavery settlers, but before Pottawatomie, at least six free-state settlers had been gunned down by Missourians, and the law had done nothing about that. No people who shot free-settlers were ever arrested, were ever tried. So, the law is all stacked against the free-state settlers.

previous | back to Interview Transcripts | next

Program Description | Enhanced Transcript | Reference

The Film & More | Special Features | Timeline | Maps | People & Events | Teacher's Guide

©  New content 1999 PBS Online / WGBH