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Modern Voices
James Horton on Harpers Ferry
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Q: How did Southerners react to the raid on Harpers Ferry?
James Horton

A: It is a critical moment from the standpoint of the South, because the South uses the John Brown raid to make the point, slavery can never be safe. The abolitionists and their supporters will be always threatening this institution of slavery. Now, the North and those who were who were moderate on this issue said, "But these people don't represent the North," they said. "These are just crazy people who are acting on their own, and not at all representative of northern sentiment." That was a hard sell for the South. The South didn't believe it. They didn't trust the officials in the North. And increasingly, they didn't trust the officials of the federal government. I think that the John Brown raid was a critical moment which signals the inevitability of war, of hostility between these two sections over the institution of slavery.

You know, one of the things we need to understand is that this raid was widely exaggerated in many southern newspapers. There were southern newspapers that said there were hundreds of people. Some southern newspapers said six hundred, seven hundred, eight hundred people were involved in this raid. I mean, wild stories of major northern armies, you know, advancing on the South. Well, you know, if you're in some small southern town, what you know about this raid is what the newspaper tells you.

But even for those accounts that were more realistic, it gave southern slave holders pause. To what extent were they able to depend on the federal government to protect what they saw as their property rights? To what extent were they able to depend upon the federal government to prevent what they saw as an increasingly violent anti-slavery movement from actually invading the South? From the standpoint of the North, it was a signal that this issue, this controversy might very well end in violence. Black people in the North formed militias. There were black military groups that were formed in the 1850's that were readying their members for what they saw as the inevitability of violent conflict with the South over the issue of slavery.

Southern slave holders asked themselves, "To what extent can we depend on the federal government to protect our property, to keep us from being invaded by" -- what they saw as an abolitionist movement becoming more and more violent. They were ever mindful of the fact that in the early 1830's, Nat Turner, a slave from Virginia, had led a rebellion which had killed fifty-some-odd whites in that vicinity. They were convinced that the abolitionists, that fugitive slaves, that free blacks had as their ultimate goal the in the invasion of the South, to bring violence into the South.

In the 1850's, free blacks did, in fact, establish military companies in in in cities: Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York, Boston, Cincinnati. These were military companies in which black people argued that what they were doing was preparing for the inevitability of violent conflict with the South over the institution of slavery.

There were all kinds of signs that this conflict was coming, and it would not be peaceful. From the standpoint of the South, this was very frightening.

One of the things that comes across very strongly is that John Brown was a hero of monumental proportions within the black community. You know, before his raid, he had traveled around the country, trying to raise money for his raid. And he has raised lots of this money in black communities. Blacks were very supportive. Harriet Tubman thought seriously about participating in in his raid, and and it was only at the last minute when she was unable to. So that this was not a crazy man, to black people in America. This was a person with a vision of freedom, and they wanted to participate and support that vision.

From the standpoint of the South, of course, to have this white abolitionist be in a position of being able to provide arms to slaves in the area of Harpers Ferry, was tremendously frightening. I mean, they all knew that in the early thirties, Nat Turner had staged a very successful slave rebellion in which fifty-some-odd whites were killed. Can you imagine their fear of the possibility of having Nat Turner with repeating rifles, and having them supported by an armed abolitionist band? This was the the worst nightmare for some slave holders, who were really increasingly convinced that the abolitionists were going to mount an invasion of the South.
James Horton
Benjemin Banneker Professor of American Studies and History
George Washington University

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