Article abstract: Brown has come to symbolize the struggle over the abolition of slavery in the United States. He was the catalyst for change from polite debate and parliamentary maneuvering aimed at modification of the institution to physical violence and a direct onslaught on Southern territory and the supporters of slavery.
John Brown was born in a state that, like many others in New England in 1800, was agriculturally exhausted and in religious turmoil. His parents, Owen and Ruth (Mills) Brown, were affected by both problems at his birth. Economically, the Brown family was barely at the subsistence level. John’s father moved from job to job: farmer, carpenter, handyman. Though the family descended from the early Mayflower settlers, they were never able to capitalize on their ancestry. Religiously, Owen Brown was a harsh practitioner of the piety of his Puritan forebears, and he instilled in his son a lifelong fear and adoration of a militant and volatile God.
The elder Brown had been married twice and fathered sixteen children. His first wife, John’s mother, suffered from mental disease as did others in her family. According to some accounts, John did not take well to his stepmother, but there is little evidence to support this conjecture. The peripatetic life of the family was probably more disturbing to him. When John was five, his father moved to Hudson, Ohio, following the line of the moving frontier. Again, the family was without the necessary capital to take advantage of the opportunities available in the rich Ohio Valley. His father became a herdsman and then a tanner, a vocation that the son quickly mastered. His father had some plans for his son which included sending him to Plainsfield, Massachusetts, to study for the ministry. John did not stay long, however, either because of poor preparation or because of his poor eyesight.
John Brown returned to Hudson to help his father with the cattle and the tanning shop. At the age of twenty, he married Dianthe Lusk, who bore him seven children in twelve years of married life. She, like his mother, had mental problems. Dianthe Brown died in 1831, and within a year of her passing, Brown married Mary Anne Day, then sixteen, who bore him thirteen more children in twenty-one years. Brown, possessing a modicum of education in a frontier region, became a surveyor as well as a tanner like his father. Also like his father, Brown was a mover. In 1825, he moved to Pennsylvania, cleared land, and set up what was to become a successful farm and tannery. He also became a postmaster, but still he was unsatisfied. Quick fortunes were being made in land and business speculation, and Brown sold off his holdings and moved back to Ohio. There he hoped to take advantage of land speculation and canal building contracts. He lost heavily and began pyramiding debt while turning to cattle and sheep selling. His creditors moved in on him and he was compelled to declare bankruptcy.
Brown’s work in the woolen business brought him a partnership with another man, Simon Perkins, to establish a wool brokerage in Springfield, Massachusetts. Fluctuating prices and market instability, however, confounded his efforts to make a success of the business. He was also accused of “weighting” the packs of hides, which were sold by weight to English markets. The collapse of this last business venture was followed by numerous lawsuits, one involving sixty thousand dollars for breach of contract. Brown settled his affairs as best he could. He was fifty years old and virtually penniless, with a large family to support.
Even as a young man, Brown had learned from his father the biblical precept that it was sinful to earn one’s living from the sweat of others and that slavery was wrong. In Ohio both he and his father had lent their resources to aiding the underground movement of runaway slaves. John Brown’s barn at his farm in Pennsylvania was a station in that movement, and he formed a League of Gileadites among blacks in Springfield to encourage them to defend both themselves and fugitive slaves. Brown’s activity in New England brought him in touch with men whose lives would never be the same after meeting him. Gerrit Smith, a New York benefactor of abolitionism who owned much of the Adirondack Mountains, was attracted to Brown. He had given land for use by runaway slaves in a small community known as North Elba. He gave Brown a farm from which he could train and educate the former slaves. Given the severe climate, short growing season, and lack of arable land in the region, not to mention Brown’s spotty record as a farmer, problems developed. Brown himself declared that he felt “omnipotent” in his new role as guide and exemplar to the blacks in his charge.
Within two years, however, he was in Akron, Ohio. His mind was turned to developing a grand plan for an attack on slavery. As early as 1847, he had talked about gathering a band of men from the free states to make forays into slave territory to rescue blacks from bondage. He talked of setting up a mountain stronghold as a base of terrorist activity, but the ideas did not take coherent form until the Fugitive Slave Act, part of the Compromise of 1850, was passed. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, four years later, further agitated him and his sons, five of whom moved to the territory to help make Kansas a free state. In May, 1855, John Brown, Jr., wrote a mournful letter to his father explaining the conditions and imploring him to send arms to battle proslavery forces. Brown dispatched his family to North Elba again and set out for Kansas with a wagonload of guns and ammunition.
He found his sons impoverished and ill when he arrived at Osawatomie. Though he was to join the colony as a surveyor, he quickly assumed leadership of the local militia and made Free Soil a vengeance-wreaking crusade. His group fought in the ineffectual Wakarusa War and then, after the sacking of Lawrence by proslavery forces, he and his party, which included four sons and two others, ritually slaughtered five settlers at Pottawatomie. He had reached a personal turning point, viewing himself as an instrument in the hands of an angry god. His own colony was overrun and burned and one of his boys killed in retaliation. Brown now was gray in hair and features, with a bent back and glittering gray-blue eyes; he had grown a full beard that was streaked with gray, which made him appear older than his fifty-six years. His fervent attitude toward slavery fired his listeners, many of whom, such as Franklin Sanborn, Thomas W. Higginson, Theodore Parker, Gerrit Smith, G. L. Stearns, and Samuel Gridley Howe, were ripe for the leadership which Brown promised. He met with these members of the Massachusetts State Kansas Committee, and they responded with some arms and ammunition and money to take with him to Kansas again.
Kansas had no stomach for bloodshed in 1857 as it moved closer to voting the issue of free or slave, and Brown now thought of a daring plan to liberate slaves in the South itself. In the spring of 1858, he visited the colony of runaway slaves in Catham, Canada, to gain volunteers. His money gone, he turned again to Smith and the Massachusetts group. They argued for a delay, gave him some money and supplies, and Brown again headed for Kansas, this time under the name of Shubel Morgan. There he led a raid on some plantations in Missouri in which one planter was killed and some slaves liberated. Brown was now a wanted man with a bounty on his head. He headed for Canada with the slaves in tow and then proceeded east, making speeches in Cleveland and Rochester to solicit funds. Again the old group came through with thirty-eight hundred dollars, knowing full well that Brown was bent on violence.
It was Harpers Ferry that became fixed in Brown’s mind; to the...
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