Slavery in the Nineteenth Century

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What is the significance of John Brown in American History?

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John Brown's actions, first in the conflict known as "Bleeding Kansas" and later his failed attempt at leading a slave uprising in Virginia, brought him national notoriety and increased tensions between the North and South before the 1860 election. 

Brown had been an active and committed abolitionist for much of his life before he moved to Kansas in 1855. Kansas, having just been organized under the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, was in the midst of what amounted to a civil war as pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers fought to determine whether or not the institution would be allowed there. In retribution for the destruction of the anti-slavery town of Lawrence, Brown and his sons hacked five pro-slavery men to death at Pottawattomie Creek. This action made him infamous in the South, but earned him the admiration of some abolitionists, incensed over the turn events had taken in Kansas. Brown was able to parlay this fame into funding and support for a scheme to launch a slave uprising in the South.

In October of 1859, Brown led a force of twenty-six men, including three of his sons and several free blacks, in an attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. He hoped to capture the arsenal and use the weapons there to arm slaves he thought would rise up when they heard the news of his raid. The arsenal, however, was quickly surrounded by townspeople and soon after federal forces, and Brown was arrested. He was hanged just over a month later. Brown's death made him a martyr for some in the North, and this reaction, coupled with the fact that some prominent abolitionists had funded the venture shocked and horrified the South. 

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thedemon | Student

Before John Brown attempt at taking Harper's Ferry, Virginia, the focus of abolitionists had been on debating and trying to change the laws to abolish slavery. After Harper's Ferry, many abolitionists changed their tactics to direct confrontation and physical violence of those who supported slavery. This crucial change made violence against the practice of slavery acceptable.

At Harper's Ferry, Brown took over a town with a force of 14 whites and 5 blacks. "Shots were fired and lives taken". Brown, himself was wounded. Ironically, union forces under the control of Robert E. Lee, eventually retook the town and captured Brown. Then the union forces investigated the farm Brown had used as his headquarters and found documents which linked him to several prominent men. These documents proved that Brown had been part of a conspiracy and he was scheduled to be hanged in Charleston. The day of the hanging martial law had to be declared in Charleston and 1500 soldiers, including a group of cadets from the Virginia Military Institute under the command of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, had to guard the gallows. Brown was hanged, but became a martyr to the abolitionist cause and his tactics suddenly seemed morally correct. Brown had made violent physical confrontation over slavery acceptable, something the soldiers fighting in the civil war would experience many, many times.

demon300 | Student

John Brown was an ardent abolitionist who felt that it was his sacred duty to end slavery.


John Brown was perhaps the most important individual that contributed to the onset of the American Civil War. He both alarmed and radicalized the South as a result of his failed raid on Harper’s Ferry. John Brown was essentially “the straw that broke the camel’s back”.

The country was essentially polarized over the issue of slavery, and particularly from the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 to the Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858 and onward, there was an increasing interest and division of opinion both North and South over slavery, as well as the rights of the states to determine the future of the institution in new territories and states.

John Brown’s actions in “Bleeding Kansas” are a case in point. He, along with his sons, used machetes and broad swords to murder pro-slavery men to death at Pottowattami Creek. John Brown had a more ambitious plan to seize the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, and incite the slaves themselves to revolt and bring about the abolition of slavery by force. His plan failed, he was captured and hanged.

John Brown’s words speak in support of the above conclusion:

At a church service in Hudson, Ohio John Brown said: “Here, before God, I, John Brown in the presence of these witnesses I consecrate myself to the destruction of slavery”.

Before his execution, he prophesied: “ I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with Blood.”

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