John Brown’s abolitionist beliefs and his raid of Harpers Ferry are a part of American history that will stay in the hearts of all, both pro and anti slavery abolitionists alike. He sparked the civil war, an event that served to shape America’s future in a major way. His fight for a course that he believed in over such a long period of time was a lesson that shaped many people and future events in America like the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. His ideologies were borrowed by civil rights leaders like Malcolm X who saw violence as one way of getting rights from people who could not bulge to peaceful means of showing discomfort with the status quo.
This research paper examines the biography of John Brown and his raid of Herpers Ferry. It gives the abolitionist ideologies that were held by Brown against the slavery that was very rampant during the mid 1800. The paper also looks at how he was captured and subsequently executed.
The impacts of his actions on the civil war of 1861 and the civil rights movement are also examined. Hypothesis has also been drawn on the possible scenario had his raid been successful.
The paper equally looks at his legacy, how it shaped humanity and the lesson America and the world learnt on the use of violence as the means to an end.
John Brown’s History and his Abolitionist idealogies
John Brown was born in Connecticut in the year 1800 and was a fourth child in the family of Owen Brown and Ruth Mills. What propelled Brown to further his fight for the abolition of slave trade was the murder of Elijah P. Lovejoy, a pro abolitionist minister and newspaper editor, by anti abolitionist militia who burned his printing press in Alton Illinois before killing him in 1837. This murder provoked Brown to publicly vow before God and witnesses that he would dedicate the rest of his life to the destruction of slavery. From then on, Brown dedicated his time and resources to this fight (Bois and John 1997).
Being a Northerner, brown like many other people and groups from that part of America, advocated for resistance to pro slavery factions from the south only that unlike the others, he demanded for violence against what was at the time referred to as Southern aggression. Most Northerners advocated for peaceful resistance against pro slavery groups but Brown saw it differently, in his own words, he said the men advocating for peaceful abolition of slavery were only talk and that there was need for “action!”
With all the pro - abolitionist drive Brown initiated, he first came to the limelight in May 1856 when he led a group of volunteers to what came to be known as the Pottawatomie Massacre where they murdered five people because of the sacking of Lawrence, an anti slavery town in Kansas, by pro slavery forces, what was later known as “Bleeding Kansas”. He spent quite some time after the Kansas incident in raising funds from wealthy abolitionists to help in putting up a camp of escapee slaves. To help achieve this goal, there was need for weapons and it is for this reason that he chose to capture weapons at Harpers Ferry (Glaser, et al 2006).
Harpers Ferry, Virginia, was selected by George Washington in 1794 to serve as a site for national armory. His choice for Harpers Ferry was motivated by the presence of rivers Potomac and Shenandoah that provided a much needed security shield to this facility. The federal government, upon identifyng this site, decided to contract John Hall in 1817 to carry out manufacturing activities of his patented rifles at Harpers Ferry. It is this arsenal that Brown sought to lay his hands on for purposes of fighting to abolish slavery (Hendrix, 2009).
These were people in America, especially from the North, who belived that the United States was a free and independent nation and saw that all men are equal, for this belief, they saw slavery as a contradiction to this American value and therefore dedicated time and resources to the fight for the emancipation of slaves. It is in this group that John Brown belonged. Within the abolitionists there were those that advocated for a peaceful means to emancipation and those who saw violence as a necessary tool to the course; Brown was the latter (Harrold 2006).
In as much as abolitionists agreed on the inhumanity in slavery, most believed in racial separation, with white people being at the top of the food chain. Some however saw black people as equals but this club of believers did not have many members. The belief in humane treatment of balck people is what helped Brown in raising finances from sympathizers. President Lincoln was a true abolitionist and this was manifested when he chose to free slaves immediately he assumed the American presidency, a major cause of the civil war.
The capture of Harpers Ferry
In the year 1859, John Brown used an alias Isaac Smith to find residence close to Harpers Ferry at a farm. While here, he organised and trained twenty-two men among them his three sons. The trainings included military maneuver and other skills needed in battle. Upon Brown’s satisfaction that his “mini army” was fit for battle, he led them into Harpers Ferry and the first act was to capture a number of guards of which they shot and killed one of them, an African American by the name Hayward Shephered. The irony is that his first victim at Harpers Ferry was one of the many people he intended to free. Upon killing this railroad baggage handler, his team went on to capture several other people that included one Lewis Washington, a relative of President George Washington (Beckman, James A, 2006).
Browns plan was to get his hands on the weapons and make an escape before any information got to Washington D.C., to achieve this he disconnected telegraph lines he however gave room for the train between Baltimore and Ohio to go through, but not after undergoing a five hour detention. This was a very smart plan because the train would reach Baltimore the next day at noon a time which will find the Brown army already gone. Things did not however go as expected and Brown and a section of his team were captured but this was after he had selected nine prisoners and matched them to a little fire engine house in the armory, a place that is to date known as John Brown's Fort. The Fort was later raided and Brown wounded in the process, a wound that he bore through his trial and subsequent execution (Everett 1993).
Reasons for the Failure of Brown to successfully capture Harpers Ferry
John Brown expected that the local slaves would rise and join his “noble” course and help in the fight for their emancipation, this did not happen. When the armory employees realised that Brown and his men had taken control of the building the following day, they quickly mobilised and closed all the posible exit routes which left his mini army cornered. The quick mobilization by the local people who started shooting to remove control of the armory from Brown did not serve to help either. Given that he took his time at the armory, the conductor managed to get to Baltimore and Pass the news to Washington in time for reinforcement.
Brown’s message of emancipation had not reached the slaves and given that these were property and not people, in the eyes of their owners and even in their own minds, they could not just turn and pick up at arms all at once. Had Brown started but passing information of freedom to the slaves he intended to free, he would have perhaps succeeded in his raid.
What if he succeeded at capturing Happers Ferry?
This hypothetical question that is subject to several outcomes but what can be agreed on by most if not all is that the American Civil War would have come early and the landscape would have been totally different. The slaves would have rebelled, picked arms and confronted the southern militia. At the time, the Confederate Army was not in place and with Brown’s financiers, the south would have seen the biggest casualties if this hypothetical early civil war was to take place. That is just one point of view to this hypotheisis, several scenario can be drawn but what remains constant is the turn in American history that Brown’s success would have brought about.
Effects of Happers Ferry raid on the American Civil War
John was found gulity and sentenced to hanging for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia by Judge Richard Parker on December 2nd 1859 in Cherles Town. Before facing the rope, he noted that the crimes he was found guilty of could not be washed away with blood and that America headed for a national civil war. At the time, people did not see any sense in his words until and many Southerners saw it as a ploy to instigate slave rebellion in the south, something that would be a danger to their lives and those of their families. The Republican Party in particular did not see how this whole incident would interfere with slavery in the south.
Several schools of thought, among them historians have a consensus that John Brown’s activities and subsequent execution played a significant role in the initiation of Civil War by raising emotions from abolitionists who were mainly from the north. Fear of slave uprising after Brown’s execution, the previous southern militia was transformed into a serious fighting force and this was the birth of the Confederate Army.
The American civil war as we know it was as a result of differences between the North and South, mainly along lines of slavery that the north did not want in their territory. Election of Abraham Lincoln, a northener who was pro abolition was a mere spark to an already divided nation in 1860. His policy for the stop of any further spread of slavery sparked the attempt by southern states like Georgia, Texas, South Carolina and Alabama to secede, something that led to the beginning of the civil war. This however was not the underlyng issue. Actions of Northerners like John Brown prior to Lincoln’s election the previous year was a clear show of divide between these two regions. It should be noted that the war started on April 12, 1861, when General Beauregard opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, the same place that John Brown had been executed two years earlier.
Looking back, Brown’s words before his execution in 1859 were a forecast that should have been taken with due seriousness, and indeed thanks to him, the Confederate Army was formed, an army that went on to register some big victories at the start of the civil war. Those who see Brown as a matyr regard him as so because he fought for an act that he truly believed was wrong and that is supported as inappropriate to this date.
John Brown’s Happers Ferry raid and the civil rights movement
Columbia University historian Eric Foner once asked, “What is one's moral obligation when faced with an unjust system?". This is the same question Brown asked himself many years ago and decided to the take the violence road to emancipating slaves in the south. He dedicated his time, resources and chidren to this course. It is this very dilema that certain members of the civil rights movement like Malcolm X found themselves in and just like Brown, his end was tragic. Brown considered slavery violence enough on the victims and could not see how peaceful means could bring an end to a violent act.
Several people disagreed at the time but the end result was a violent war sixteen moths after his execution on Charles Town which led to the end of slavery in the south. So what is one’s moral obligation under these circumstances? Several people would cite the peaceful aspect of the Civil Rights Movement Headed by Dr. King and its success as a pointer to peace against violent confrontations but that is subject to debate.
It must be noted with the necessary seriousness that were it not for Brown’s pioneer violent acts, the value of peace would not have been appreciated and the Civil Rights Movement would have perhaps been a failure. Brown set precedent of using violence to advance a course and thanks to him, America and the world at large came to take note and appreciate the need for giving dialogue and peaceful means to conflict a chance and leaving violence as the last resort. Had his words on the day of his execution been taken seriously and a peaceful agreement reached at, the Civil War would have been avoided. We owe this noble lesson to John Brown.
John Brown has left a mixed legacy with many people divided on whether he was a hero and matyr or a murderer and domestic terrorist, as it is put in today’s America. He led a group of people to “butcher” pro slavery men as it is put in certain quarters and for this he was seen as what we would today equate to Osama bin Laden and his Al qaeda crew. This is the legacy that he has left among the southerners who to this date see him as a vilain, terrorist and someone not worth honoring.
To some people, he is a true saint and matyr who waged a ‘holy war’ against an evil act, a hero in the fight for justice and humanity. That in all fairness is what John Brown is. The thought of owning a fellow human being and making him part of your property is an act that cannot be regarded as right in whichever language. John should be remembered for his sacrifices and not the six people who died during his raid. He sacrificed his time, money and children to a course, something that not many people could do. His action did change the perspective of many who were pro slavery as it communicated the deep painful feeling the slaves and their families experienced
Without doubt, America today may not want to identify herself with Brown given the acts of terrorism and in particular the Sept. 9/11 on World Trade Center in New York. His method of advancing a course he belived in is not acceptable in today’s world because then, there is no difference between him and modern day terrorists but what should not slip critics’ minds is the time in which he committed these acts. The world in 1859 is totally different from what we have today and may be, just may be; violence was the only way out at the time to deliver the oppressed from their conditions. Based on the mindset that existed then, it is possible that other interventions to deliver slaves had been tried without much success. This thought is subject to a lot of debate and so is John Brown’s legacy. The concept that all humans are equal and deserve treatment with dignity was the view that was held by Brown
Legacy aside, Brown wrote his name in the book of history not only among the American people but the entire humanity. His belief in justice, freedom and humanity led to sacrifices that were and still are way above average. Sacrificing his children to a course he held so dearly was a clear show that this man Brown could go the entire length in emancipating the oppressed slaves. His ways of advancing this course, in as much as were considered inappropriate by some Americans, were seen by him and many sympathysers as necessary.
The human race has evolved and today, race in as much as is a major issue in the society, especially the American society, has come to be appreciated in a positive way. People have worked very hard at bringing down the racial walls that have for years divided this great nation and the election of President Barrack Obama is a manifestation of this progress. If John Brown was to walk out of his grave today and find Obama in office, he would be so proud of his sacrifices and he may just choose to go back because he will surely have no business on this planet.
Violence as a means to an end is today more contoversial than it was in the Brown’s days given the level of violence witnessed from terrorists, gangs and other armed groups of the world. What must be agreed on though is that John Brown’s violence was for a course that did not only touch on a small group of aggrieved section of the total population, but the entire humanity in its every sense. The world would have been a totally different place if black people remained as slaves to this day. For that, we can justify Brown’s violent ways, even with so much controversy around the issue.
The African American community and women who are today enjoying equal rights like their traditional male white superiors owe their freedom to John Brown and his team of brave men who started the conversation on equal rights and in as much as they conversed with guns, they opened the equality debate and thanks to them, many today enjoy the fruits of racial and gender equality, something that was a far fetched dream 150 years ago with many lives lost in the quest of freedom.