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Edward Renehan, historian, on

Ed Renehan

RENEHAN: The Spring of 1856 is a highly frustrating time for Brown. The free soil movement in Kansas is not having a good time of it. The free soil capital of Lawrence, Kansas, has just been sacked by slavery mobs. In Washington, Charles Sumner has been brutally attacked on the floor of the Senate by Preston Brooks of South Carolina. Charles Sumner is senator from Massachusetts, a strong abolitionist. These two things -- the sacking of Lawrence, Kansas, and the beating of Sumner on the floor of the Senate -- seem to have set Brown off, really lit his fuse. Upon hearing about these two events, Brown goes off into the woods and communes with his god. He comes back a few hours later, back to Brown's station, and tell his sons and his son-in-law, Will Thompson, to grab their broadswords that he brought with him when he came West and come with him -- they have a mission. God has prescribed something for them to do; God has sent them a message. They go down to the Pottawatomie Creek, which is not far from Brown's station, and there is a cluster of homes there, settlers' homes. They go to the home of a settler by the name of William Doyle who is a Roman Catholic who came west from Tennessee, I believe, to get away from slavery as an institution. But, Brown dislikes Doyle both because of his Catholic faith, which Brown finds abhorrent, and because of his suspicious southern accent. Brown assumes Doyle is pro-slavery. Brown knocks on the door of the Doyle home. When the door is answered, Brown takes Doyle and his two eldest sons prisoner and marches them away from the house toward the Pottawatomie Creek. On the banks of the creek, Brown has them kneel down, the man and the two sons. Their heads are struck open with the broadswords and one of the sons has both his arms cut off. They go to two more houses on the banks of the creek and repeat this performance twice with the heads of each household. Five men died that night, with their families looking on. This crime outraged the Kansas countryside. It didn't just outrage the pro-slavery forces, it outraged the free soil leaders in Lawrence, who were horrified that this act had been perpetrated in the name of the free soil movement. They were just outraged; and both sides of the war in Kansas put a bounty on Brown's head, both sides wanted him brought in, both sides wanted Brown's operation shut down.

I get the sense with John Brown, starting in Kansas and starting with Pottawatomie Creek, that he's always trying to take things to the brink, not just in his own daily fight against slavery, but he's trying to bring the country to the brink, to the precipice from which there is no turning back. He's trying to get the country to that point where the final battle in which slavery or no slavery will be decided. He wants to get to that point where that battle will be fought.

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