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Margaret Washington, historian on
John Brown's antislavery attitude

Margaret Washington WASHINGTON: Brown's attitude, his antislavery attitude, his staunch abolitionism that seemed to be something he had ever since he was able to articulate it, certainly came form what he saw, his experiences, his sense of humanity. And it also came from a very strong religious conviction. And I don't think we can overemphasize that religious conviction. It came from the way John Brown read his Bible. The way the Bible was taught to John Brown. And it came from those aspects of the Bible which John Brown emphasized, which of course he got from his father, Owen Brown. And that emphasis was an Old Testament emphasis, an emphasis on the importance of freedom, such scriptures as the scripture that "he that stealeth a man should be put to death" -- obviously the militant nationalism of the Old Testament, "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," but also the idea of enslaved people fighting their oppressor. So, John Brown was a very religious man, not a church-goer, but very religious, nevertheless.

Q: What drove Brown to his hatred?

WASHINGTON: When John Brown was about 12, and he was driving cattle to the Army during the War of 1812, he was given refuge by a man who owned a slave boy, about John Brown's age. And this experience not only brought John Brown face to face with slavery, but it brought him face to face with the enslavement of a boy who was just about his own age. And the two became friends. Brown had to witness, not only the brutal treatment of the boy, but a terrible whipping on the part of the owner. And one can imagine the effect that this would have on a 12-year-old boy, who sees someone whom he considers a friend being brutalized in this way, simply because he was owned by another man and simply because his skin was black. So this is one of the instances of the impact of slavery on a boy who already had been taught that slavery was wrong. And yet in this situation, he comes face to face with it, not only in the sense that it's wrong, but in a sense that if he internalized this situation, that black boy could've been him.

From this early experience, I think, we can get the sense that John Brown was a humanist, and his religion, as well as his social upbringing, had taught him that human beings are just that, regardless of their skin color or their station in life. And this became very important when he dealt with African Americans, not only as he was growing up, but when he became an abolitionist. And it was a kind of humanism that not all abolitionists had. As a matter of fact, most of them didn't. Even though they were staunchly antislavery, they still had reservations about black equality. And I think you can see throughout John Brown's life that he didn't have those kids of reservations. To him, African Americans were human beings who were being brutalized and whose individual liberties were being taken away from them.

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