John Brown – “We Came to Free the Slaves”

John Brown, (May 9, 1800 – Dec. 2, 1859), was an American abolitionist who advocated the use of violence to end slavery in the United States. Brown's family opposed slavery because of their religious beliefs and he was taught that slavery was evil and sinful. As a 12-year-old boy traveling through Michigan, Brown witnessed a young enslaved boy brutally beaten with a shovel by his owner. The gruesome images of the incident haunted Brown for the rest of his life and strongly affected his abolitionism.

John Brown in a c.1847 daguerreotype taken by Black portraitist Augustus Washington

Brown's first public commitment in the abolitionist movement followed the brutal Alton, IL murder of Presbyterian minister, newspaper editor, and anti-slavery activist Elijah P. Lovejoy in 1837. Lovejoy a firm defender of the first amendment and outspoken critic of slavery was shot to death outside of his newspaper's office by an angry Pro-Slavery Mob. The mob also set fire to the office and destroyed the printing press. John Brown attended Lovejoy's memorial service and declared at the time, “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!”

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For many, it may seem odd to profile a white man during Black History Month. Black history is American history, you can't separate one from the other. John Brown proved more dedicated to ending slavery than just about any other person in history and his extreme actions ignited the Civil War. It's important to recognize his monumental sacrifice as part of Black history.

What have you done to fight the oppression, racism, injustice, or discrimination you and your family face as Black Americans? Would you lay down your life or risk the lives of your children to secure the full freedom that has been denied to Black people in this country? If you're honest with yourself, the answer most likely is no! The sad reality is that most of us wouldn't even jeopardize our jobs or livelihood fighting for freedom! 

Non-violent solutions are the best but sometimes violence is the only way.

In 1847 Frederick Douglass met Brown for the first time in Springfield, Massachusetts. Douglass stated that "though a white gentleman, [Brown] is in sympathy a black man, and as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery." It was at this meeting that Brown first outlined his plan to Douglass to lead a war to free slaves.

John Brown took part in the Underground Railroad, gave land to free African Americans and in response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, established the League of Gileadites, a group formed with the intention of protecting black citizens from slave hunters.

In the spring of 1855, John Brown driving a wagon loaded with rifles followed his five sons John, Jr., Jason, Frederick, Owen, and Salmon to the Kansas Territory. Brown became the leader of antislavery guerillas. Brown did not emerge as a national figure until 1856. Proslavery forces attacked the community of Lawrence on May 21, 1856, burning two printing offices. The night of May 24 and the morning of May 25, 1856, a band of abolitionist settlers using swords took from their residences and killed five "professional slave hunters and militant pro-slavery" settlers which came to be known nationally as the Pottawatomie massacre. In another battle that occurred on August 30, 1856, Brown’s son Frederick was killed and John Brown earned the nickname “Osawatomie Brown.” 

Before the start of the Civil War, ninety percent of the four million Black people in the United States were enslaved. Had it not been for the actions of one man, John Brown, Lincoln may not have been elected President and the Civil War may not have started and slavery may not have ended when it did. 

No white person had a deeper moral hatred of slavery than John Brown. "Talk! Talk! Talk!" he cried. "That will never free the slaves. What is needed is action — action!" John Brown's anti-slavery actions took him away from his wife and younger children, he sacrificed his life and those of his three sons Frederick, Oliver, and Watson trying to free enslaved black people.

Brown returned to the east to plan for a war in Virginia against slavery. Brown discussed his plans with Douglass and later met Harriet Tubman, whom Brown referred to as "General" out of respect for her leading so many slaves to freedom. In October 1859, Brown led a raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, intending to start a slave revolt that would spread south. He intended to arm slaves with weapons from the arsenal, but only a small number of local slaves joined his revolt.

Harpers Ferry insurrection: Interior of the engine-house. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Nov. 5, 1859.

Within 36 hours, those of Brown's men who had not fled were killed or captured by local farmers, militiamen, and US Marines, the latter led by Robert E. Lee. He was hastily tried for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, the murder of five men (including three blacks), and inciting a slave insurrection; he was found guilty on all counts and was hanged. He was the first person convicted of treason in the history of the country.

Dick Gregory explains why John Brown is the greatest American of all time

We have many great examples of black men rising up; there were many planned slave revolts the best-known ones led by Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser, and Demark Vesey. What makes John Brown a hero is the fact that he fought and died for slavery which had NOTHING to do with him. He didn't suffer from slavery but understood it was immoral to participate or just watch it prosper.

It was common to dismiss Brown as an irrational fanatic, or worse. After all, to racists, any white man who’d place himself in harm’s way by taking up arms in order to free Black slaves by definition had to be a lunatic. In the 1940 movie "Abe Lincoln in Illinois" and the pro-Southern film Santa Fe Trail, John Brown was portrayed as an insane wild-eyed madman.

Below is a segment about John Brown from the 1940 movie, "Abe Lincoln in Illinois".

Brown was thought mad because he was willing to sacrifice his life for the cause of blacks, and for this, in a culture that was simply marinated in racism, he was called mad. Harvard historian John Stauffer stated, "He stood apart from every other white in the historical record in his ability to burst free from the power of racism," … "Blacks were among his closest friends, and in some respects, he felt more comfortable around blacks than he did around whites."

John Brown's Courtroom Speech

John Brown delivered his last speech in a courtroom in Charles Town, West Virginia on November 2, 1859. The speech, given one month before his execution, defended his role in the action at Harper’s Ferry. He said:

Had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment. This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to "remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them." I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say, I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done as I have always freely admitted I have done in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!

The Last Moments of John Brown by Thomas Hovenden. Done in oil on canvas, depicts John Brown being led to his execution.

The raid on Harpers Ferry is generally thought to have done much to set the nation on a course toward civil war. Southern slaveowners, hearing initial reports that hundreds of abolitionists were involved, were relieved the effort was so small but feared other abolitionists would emulate Brown and attempt to lead slave rebellions. Therefore, the South reorganized the decrepit militia system. These militias, well-established by 1861, became a ready-made Confederate army, making the South better prepared for war.

During the Civil War, the Union hymn “John Brown’s Body” was sung by marching soldiers and paid tribute to the bold abolitionist. The song inspired the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" also known as "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory". 

After the Civil War, Frederick Douglass wrote, "His zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine—it was as the burning sun to my taper light—mine was bounded by time, his stretched away to the boundless shores of eternity. I could live for the slave, but he could die for him."