Slavery in the Nineteenth Century Questions and Answers

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Is John Brown a hero or villain? Why?

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Thanh Munoz eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In my view, Brown was a hero, despite the fact that his methods in attempting to bring an end to slavery were poorly construed and unsuccessful.

Brown intended to trigger an insurrection in order both to liberate the enslaved people and to destroy the existing government of the United States. He knew that under the conditions of the time in the 1850s, neither the individual state governments nor the federal government were going to bring about abolition through peaceful means.

In this, Brown was correct. However, the small body of men he enlisted for his operation to take over the Harper's Ferry arsenal could not possibly have held out against the authorities, and the enslaved people throughout Virginia and the other states correctly saw that a spontaneous insurrection had no chance of success and so refused to participate in it. Brown was doomed.

That said, he was a hero because of his idealism and his intent to try anything rather than to allow the status quo to continue without any resistance against it. In death, Brown became a martyr, and even many people who themselves were not especially in favor of immediate abolition began to admire Brown and to believe his cause was a just and heroic one, though his methods were impractical and wrong.

The Harper's Ferry incident actually galvanized both sides in the slavery debate and was one of the factors that brought matters to a head eventually, culminating in war a year and a half later. War was the only thing that could destroy the slavery system as it existed in the US, and this, of course, is what was accomplished finally and completely by the year 1865.

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lrwilliams eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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I am not sure you could call Brown either a hero or a villain. He was a man who did some things that were looked upon by some as terrorist type acts, but others looked at those same acts simply as acting against slavery.

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larrygates eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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An excellent biography of John Brown is John Brown's War against Slavery by Robert E. McClone of the University of Hawaii at Manoa. I referenced a quote from the book in my earlier post. McClone does not see Brown as fanatical at first; but travelling to Kansas to protect his sons who had relocated there. He soon became radicalized in the slavery issue, and took matters into his own hands. Even if one can argue he acted in self defense at Potawatomie Creek, his preplanned attack on a Federal Arsenal with full intention to murder those defending the Arsenal and start a race war is villainous actions per se. Brown would never have been portrayed as a hero were the slavery issue not so polarizing.

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brettd eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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I think whether or not there was functioning law in Kansas is irrelevant in Brown's case.  He went on the offensive at Potawatomie Creek.  He used a broadsword, exposed his sons to unnecessary danger and murdered five people.  Did this change slavery in any significant way?  Seriously further the abolitionist cause?  Do anything but contribute to the cycle of violence in Kansas that killed 10,000 people?  No on all counts.

I think Brown tends to be overglorified by some historians, perhaps impressed by his zeal and dedication to the cause, and one so obviously on the correct moral side of the slavery equation in that time when it was not easy to do so.

I don't know if that makes him a villain, per se.  But at the least, he was foolish and naive.  At most, he was murderous and more than a bit meshuga.

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geosc eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Some say Brown believed he was a warrior in a noble cause, but to those who believe that murder and robbery are wrong, Brown is likely no hero.

In Kansas he murdered fathers and sons. Then he drove their horses to market and sold them.

His invasion of the South with the intention of causing slave insurrection would surely, had any slaves thought fit to rally to his leadership (which none did), have caused the death of many slaves, and many non-slave-owning whites, as well as the wives and children of the slave owners whom he targeted.

His invasion of the South was not of one political government against another political government (however unjustified the wars of legally constituted political entities may sometimes be, they are legal); it was pure outlawry. He may have thought that all of his evil was justified for a good outcome, or he may have been a power-crazed sociopath. How you feel about him likely depends on whether you think the ends justify the means: does a just cause (abolition) excuse the crimes committed to achieve that cause? It's up to you to make up your own mind.

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larrygates eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Many Northern abolitionists saw John Brown as a hero even before his raid on Harper's Ferry. After he hacked several men to death in Kansas, he grew a long beard to disguise himself, but still spoke at abolitionist meetings. There is some question about his religious fanaticism; however, he considered himself to be doing God's work. After his conviction, he commented:

I think I feel as happy as Paul did when he lay in prison. He knew if they killed him, it would greatly advance the cause of Christ. ...Let them hang me. (Robert E. McClone, John Brown's War against Slavery, Cambridge University Press New York: 2009, p. 309)

He was glorified after his death by the song, "John Brown's Body," which inspired Julia Ward Howe to write "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," the melody of which is the same as that of "John Brown's Body."

Even so, Brown was first and last a vigilante. He took upon himself to do that which he thought the law would not or could not do. To those who supported his cause, this may have made him a hero. Slavery was no doubt an national obscenity, yet to glorify one who saw fit to administer his own style of "frontier justice," murder those whom he considered offenders, and foment a rebellion that would have likely ended in the deaths of many of the slaves he sought to free requires a considerable amount of hyperbole. In my humble opinion, he is more accurately described as a villain, albeit one who worked toward a noble cause.

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pohnpei397 eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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This all depends on a person's point of view.

To people who believed strongly in the abolitionist cause, John Brown might well be a hero. He was someone who did some very bad things, but he did them in service of a good cause. If you believe that the ends justify the means, then Brown was a hero.

However, it is also quite easy to see Brown as a villain. After all, this is a man who committed a massacre in Kansas in which he brutally killed a number of men in front of their wives and kids. He was also planning to cause a rebellion among slaves that would surely have killed many people who were innocent.

So it is easy to look at Brown in both ways.

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l2decaro | Student

Northern Abolitionists saw John Brown as a hero even before his raid on Harper's Ferry. After he hacked several men to death in Kansas, he grew a long beard to disguise himself, but still spoke to abolitionist meetings. There is some question about his religious fanaticism; however he considered himself as doing God's work to the cause even before his hanging. After his conviction, he commented "I think I feel as happy as Paul did when he lay in prison. He knew if they killed him, it would greatly advance the cause of Christ....Let them hang me. (Robert E. McClone, John Brown's War against Slavery, Cambridge University Press New York: 2009, p. 309) He was glorified after his death by the song, "John Brown's Body," which inspired Julia Ward Howe to write "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," the melody of which is the same as that of "John Brown's Body."

Even so, Brown was first and last a vigilante. He took upon himself to do that which he thought the law would not or could not do. To those who supported his cause, this made him a hero. However, if one is to consider him a hero, one must also consider those who murder abortion doctors and the Unabomber as heroes. Slavery was no doubt an national obscenity. Yet to glorify one who saw fit to administer his own style of "frontier justice," murder those whom he considered offenders, and foment a rebellion requires a considerable amount of hyperbole. In this writer's humble opinion, he is more nearly described as a villain, albeit for a noble cause.

 Thoughtful entry, but there is a significant flaw in your information and rationale.  First, Brown was not a vigilante because vigilantism exists when there is a system of law and order and people take the law into their own hands any way, just to satisfy their sense of justice, whether right or wrong.   In contrast, the political reality of Kansas in May 1856 was that there was no system of law functioning, the territory was overrun by terrorists from the South, and there was no protection or even appeal for protection from the law for free state people--especially flagrant pro-black settlers like the Browns.  Second, the people killed in Kansas were actually plotting to collaborate with pro-slavery "ruffians" (terrorists), to lead them to attack the Browns.  His "victims" were criminal people engaged in dirty work, and what Brown did can best be described as preemptive counter-terrorism in the absence of law. Last, Brown would not sanction the killing of abortion "doctors": I believe that although he would oppose the "Pro-choice" view, he would not take violent action until all legal means of opposing abortion were exhausted.  If you look at history, you'll see that all legal means of ending slavery were impossible and in fact the only way slavery ultimately ended was by violence.  Brown is still unfairly evaluated, while other historical figures are given far more leeway.

l2decaro | Student

This all depends on a person's point of view.

To people who believed strongly in the abolitionist cause, John Brown might well be a hero.  He was someone who did some very bad things, but he did them in what was clearly a good cause.  If you believe that the ends justify the means, then Brown was a hero.

However, it is also quite easy to see Brown as a villain.  After all, this is a man who committed a massacre in Kansas in which he brutally killed a number of men in front of their wives and kids.  He was also planning to cause a rebellion among slaves that would surely have killed many people who were innocent.

So it is easy to look at Brown in both ways.

Well, not exactly.  Perspectives and opinions are important, but they do not answer the question in historical terms.  First, Brown did not kill people "in front of their wives and kids."  That's not the case.   Second, the five men who were killed were terrorists plotting to attack the Browns and others.  Furthermore, there was no functioning law officer in Kansas territory when this happened, and the territory was overrun by pro-slavery terrorists.  So much of what is said about Brown is just based on prejudice and/or a lack of information.  Likewise, Brown was not plotting a rebellion with the deliberate intention of killing "innocent" people.  He only planned on fighting in self-defense as he led enslaved people away from bondage.  The real question is: can you make objective moral judgments on the man without taking into account the reality of slavery, its injustices, and the absolute lack of any legal means of liberating human beings?  Respectfully, this is not about "point of view," but about facts, and when all the facts are weighed, Brown must be weighed in history as a great man despite his imperfections.