Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

BROWN, JOHN (1800-1859)

John Brown, an abolitionist extremist, heightened sectional tensions and fomented violence before the Civil War by leading the "Pottawatomie Massacre" in Kansas in 1856 and the raid against the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859. Brown was born in West Torrington, Connecticut, on May 9, 1800, and moved with his family to Hudson, Ohio, at age five. A tanner by trade, Brown married twice and reared twenty children.

Brown inherited from his father a religious antipathy toward slavery that was reinforced by the religious ferment of the Second Great Awakening. He adopted a strict Calvinist belief in predestination, divine election, and human depravity that prompted him to consider slavery a sin, which he was chosen by God to help eradicate. During the 1830s, when abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison increasingly appealed to religious conscience, Brown developed an uncompromising hostility toward slavery and joined the radical abolitionist movement that demanded immediate emancipation. While living in Springfield, Ohio, Brown attacked slavery with heightening militancy, aiding runaway slaves, associating with the African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, writing antislavery essays, and citing the Bible in defense of violent resistance. During the 1840s he developed a reputation for proposing impractical schemes for fomenting rebellion in the South, including guerrilla warfare.

When passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 led to armed resistance in Kansas, Brown settled near Osawatomie with five of his sons and their families. He joined the Free State guerrilla movement and commanded a company of twenty men known as the Liberty Guards. Enraged by the sack of Lawrence, a Free State stronghold, Brown led a raid on May 24, 1856, against a settlement at Pottawatomie Creek, killing five southern settlers. For the next four months, a veritable civil war raged in the territory, claiming 200 lives and earning the label "Bleeding Kansas." After a proslavery counterattack against Osawatomie in August, Brown fled Kansas.

Hailed as a hero among northern abolitionists and excoriated as a lunatic among southern defenders of slavery, Brown accepted support from a group of abolitionists dubbed the "Secret Six." He spent the next three years lecturing, raising funds, aiding runaway slaves, writing, and organizing his raid against Harpers Ferry. On October 16, 1859, Brown seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry with a force of eighteen men, including five free African Americans, in hopes of igniting a widespread slave revolt. By the time federal troops recaptured the arsenal two days later, Brown's followers had killed four men and suffered ten casualties, including two of Brown's sons. Brown's impassioned self-defense as he and six followers underwent trial, conviction, and execution made him a martyr among abolitionists and a popular antislavery crusader throughout the North. His execution, on December 2, 1859, became a political issue, inflamed sectional tensions, and inspired the Civil War hymn that began with the line "John Brown's body lies a mould'ring in the grave."

Kenneth J. Winkle University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Oates, Stephen B. To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown. New York: Harper and Row, 1970.

Rawley, James A. Race and Politics: "Bleeding Kansas" and the Coming of the Civil War. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1969.

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