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International Socialist Review, Winter 1960


Arthur Jordan

John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry


Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.21 No.1, Winter 1960, pp.17-20.
Transcription: Daniel Gaido.
Mark up: Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The centennial year of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry has passed little observed and less celebrated by most Americans (or their government, which once assisted in having Brown hanged). American Negroes, whose cause Brown made his own, have good reasons to remember. One hundred years after Brown and his small band struck their resounding blow for freedom, Negro children must run the gauntlet of rocks and jeers to go to school in the South. Integration proceeds at a snail’s pace, while Southern “statesmen” vaunt their obstruction. The brutal lynchers of a Negro in Mississippi go scot-free. The chain-gang system of Florida threatens to seize a Negro from New York and return him to its purgatory. Bomb terror, cross-burning and shots from the dark are aimed at Negroes who dare to fight back.

Yet the principal organization of Negroes, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which at its founding in 1909 observed the fiftieth anniversary of John Brown’s raid, refrained from mentioning this touchy subject at its 1959 convention. It saw fit, rather, to dishonor the occasion of the centennial by suspending one of its branch presidents for declaring that Negroes, in defending their lives and homes, should meet violence with violence.

Meanwhile the antiquarians are warmed by anticipation of countless centennial celebrations and commemorations of Civil War battles and deaths – glittering pageants, void of meaning. Civil War histories, biographies, novels roll from the presses in seemingly endless stream, not the lesser share of them devoted to the “heroes” of the Confederacy. Among these there is indeed an account of Brown and Harper’s Ferry, another in a line which exonerates the institution he sought to kill, and sees in him and his supporters irresponsible fanatics. [1]

A four-day “observance” did take place in Harper’s Ferry, part of it a sham skirmish (with costumed militia moving about like toy soldiers) presumably to celebrate Stonewall Jackson’s seizure of the town in 1862. The owner of a local restaurant (for whites only) said of John Brown: “They hung him for treason in 1859 ... I don’t see why the hell we should honor him today.” [2] Why should we honor him?

On October 17, 1859 news was flashing over the telegraph wires that a force of armed insurrectionaries had seized the United States arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, and was holding the town, proclaiming universal emancipation of slaves, arming the Negroes of the district, and holding their masters as hostages. The leader was rumored to be John Brown, who some already knew as John Brown of Kansas.

The night before, the fifty-nine-year-old Brown and his men (there were twenty-one others, all young men – three of them Brown’s sons, five Negroes) had moved quietly down from a Maryland farm where they had been hiding and secured the Potomac and Shenandoah bridges into the village ... But soon Virginia militia came marching in from neighboring towns, the bridges were retaken, and Brown and his men penned up in the arsenal’s fire-engine house. By evening a company of US Marines arrived, under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee; next morning they stormed the engine house and seized Brown with his surviving men (nine had been killed, while six escaped). The captured men were all tried in Virginia’s courts for murder and treason, and then hanged. Brown himself was hanged at Charlestown on December 2, 1859 – the first American hanged for treason. [3]

The news of the raid and the ensuing trials and executions sent a shock through the consciousness of many Americans. The most prevalent, immediate reaction was that Old Brown was crazy. But many slaveholders were inclined to add: But also a dangerous criminal backed by a conspiratorial gang of equally dangerous, if more prominent and respectable, Yankees. In succeeding weeks and months numbers of supposedly “bad” Negroes were shot, while “suspicious-appearing” Northerners and even native white Southerners, were tarred, feathered, and ridden out of town in places as remote from Harper’s Ferry as Kingstree, South Carolina, and Abbeville, Mississippi.

Many Northerners were quick to offer regrets. But, as Virginia proceeded to trials and executions, an increasing number expressed sympathy for Old Brown and identity with his ends if not his methods. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that if Brown were hanged, he would make the gallows as glorious as the cross. While moderate anti-slavery politicians like Lincoln and Seward were careful to dissociate themselves from such sentiments, slaveowners were not reassured.

On the record there is little doubt about the reaction of Negroes. Frederick Douglass recalled that

“on the evening when the news came ... I was speaking to a large audience in ... South Philadelphia. The announcement came upon us with the startling force of an earthquake.”

Soon meetings were called, resolutions passed, and messages sent down to Brown’s jail cell. The colored women of Brooklyn wrote:

“We truly appreciate your most noble and humane effort, and recognize in you a Savior commissioned to redeem us, the American people, from the great National Sin of Slavery; and though you have apparently failed in the object of your desires, yet the influence that we believe it will eventually exert, will accomplish all your attentions.”

The Negroes of New Bedford, Massachusetts; resolved:

“That this meeting does fully endorse and heartily approve of the spirit manifested by Captain John Brown and his associates, but deeply regret that the plans so well laid did not succeed.”

One may assume that the news was carried by plantation grapevine into the Deep South. We know that an unusually large number of Negroes were soon to be “sold South” from Harper’s Ferry and its environs. And, in any case, Southern Negroes (then as now) usually knew what their white masters were discussing. In the fall of 1859 they were talking about Harper’s Ferry.

Nor did the event go unobserved in foreign quarters. Karl Marx wrote to Frederick Engels in January, 1860:

“In my opinion, the biggest things that are happening in the world today are on the one hand the movement of the slaves in America started by the death of John Brown, and on the other the movement of the serfs in Russia ...” [4]

The man whose death was thus noted had himself a year earlier displayed an insight into the institutional nature of slavery which, though starkly simple, was more penetrating than many others made then and since. Slavery, he had said, was simply – war.

“Slavery throughout its entire existence in the United States is none other than a most barbarous, unprovoked, and unjustifiable war of one portion of its citizens upon another portion – the only conditions of which are perpetual imprisonment and helpless servitude or absolute extermination.”

One historian has observed that “this type of reasoning is identical with that of the revolutionaries who hold that the class struggle is in reality a class war.” [5]

What manner of man came to such a view?

John Brown was born in 1800 in New Torrington, Connecticut; his ancestry traced back to the first Puritan settlers. When he was five, his father set out for northern Ohio, then a raw frontier. Brown was himself to be a chronic mover, living by turns in small Ohio towns, in Pennsylvania, in Massachusetts; and engaging in, by one estimate, some thirty business undertakings (almost invariably unsuccessful) in twenty-five years.

Yet, a purpose was emerging. When Brown moved in his forty-ninth year to a stony Adirondack farm at North Elba, New York, he was not following a will-o’-the-wisp dollar. The Abolitionist Gerrit Smith had deeded 100,000 acres of mountain lands to plant a community of free Negroes. Brown came at Smith’s behest to help assure the colony’s success. In his last decade John Brown defined the deeper lines of his existence.

In the summer of 1855 he followed his sons to the Kansas Territory, where an issue had been joined. While emigrant farmers broke the prairie sod, determined slaveowners from Missouri and the South at large sought, with the sanction of Washington, to nail down the law of slavery by “squatter sovereignty” and, where needed, by fraud and violence. On his way Brown stopped at an Abolition convention in Syracuse, NY, where he solicited funds to procure guns and ammunition “for Kansas purposes.”

Brown’s leadership role in the war for Kansas has often been disputed. It is nonetheless certain that to many thousand Abolitionists and Free Soilers across the Northern states he soon became the symbol of a violent resistance – of the will and strength to deal blow for blow, to make and keep Kansas free. But for Brown himself (as for us in retrospect) Kansas was only the opening skirmish of a larger war. Before he left the Territory the guerrilla captain led a foray into Missouri, forcibly releasing eleven slaves and escorting them to Canada. This was “carrying the war into Africa.”

In Kansas John Brown said: “It is better that a whole generation of men, women, and children should be swept away than that the crime of slavery should exist one day longer.” He left Kansas to spend the last years of life – still moving from place to place – recruiting men, raising money, perfecting plans. On Independence Day, 1859, he rented a farm on the Maryland side of the Potomac River. From there the road led straight across the bridge to Harper’s Ferry arsenal – and up to the gallows at Charlestown.

The bare recital of events is marked by his transformation in late middle age from rootless seldom-do-well to consistent revolutionist. Yet we know that startling conversions do not occur in isolation. They register the long growth of an idea which finally bursts from its chrysalis into action.

His life, even from childhood, was throughout marked by a brooding preoccupation: God’s terrible judgment on the injustices of his creatures. The brooding grew – and Brown came to know himself as the chosen instrument of judgment. This preoccupation, while such an extreme was relatively rare, was characteristic of the Calvinist sons of the Nineteenth Century.

Brown’s father had expressed his resentment of slavery as early as the Revolutionary War and came to say to an old man: “Ever since, I’ve been an Abolitionist, and I’m so near the end of life, I think I shall die an Abolitionist.” Brown himself recalled his early teens when in his father’s absence he stayed with a “master [who] made a great pet of John, brought him to table with his company and called their attention to every little smart thing he said or did ... while the Negro boy (who was fully if not more than his equal) was badly clothed, poorly fed, lodged in cold weather and beaten before his eyes with iron shovels or any other thing that came into hand.” [6] The father sheltered fugitive slaves; the son in his twenties began using his Pennsylvania house as a station on the Underground Railroad.

There is extant one document recording Brown’s early thoughts on solutions to the “slavery question” – a letter he penned to his brother in his thirty-fourth year. He wrote:

“I have been trying to devise some means whereby I might do something in a practical way for my poor fellow-men who are in bondage, and having fully consulted the feelings of my wife and my three boys, we have agreed to get at least one Negro boy or youth and bring him up as we do our own ... We think of three ways to obtain one: First, to try to get some Christian slaveholder to release one to us. Second, to get a free one if no one will let us have one that is a slave. Third, if that does not succeed, we have all agreed to submit to considerable privation in order to buy one ... I have for years been trying to devise some way to get a school a-going here for blacks ... I ... think such advantages ought to be afforded the young blacks, whether they are all to be immediately set free or not. Perhaps we might, under God, in that way do more towards breaking their yoke effectually than in any other. If the young blacks of our country could once become enlightened, it would most assuredly operate on slavery like firing powder confined in rock, and all slaveholders know it well. Witness their heaven-daring laws against teaching blacks. If once the Christians in the free States would set to work in earnest in teaching the blacks, the people of the slaveholding States would find themselves constitutionally driven to set about the work of emancipation immediately.” (The plans for a school never materialized.)

Thus far there was little to distinguish John Brown from many others – the same underlying indignation, the same groping for ingenious solutions. But even while Brown wrote his brother, William Lloyd Garrison was sounding the call for an immediate and unconditional emancipation. And Brown, the ameliorationist, eventually became Brown, the revolutionary activist.

Something must have been learned in the school of events: the anti-slavery men of the 1830’s discovered that their petitions were ignored or intercepted in the mails, their meetings dispersed, their presses destroyed; sometimes they were set upon by angry mobs, tarred and feathered, and even murdered. The systematic power of an entrenched institution whose masters were determined never to let go was thus laid bare. There followed the violent theft from Mexico of the Southwest and California, the brazen resolution to fasten slavery on the whole national domain – even where it had previously been prohibited.

John Brown drew some conclusions. In 1847 he told Frederick Douglass that slaveholders “would never be induced to give up their slaves until they felt a big stick about their ears.” The next year he wrote his first piece for a Negro newspaper. Speaking through “Sambo” (read a disillusioned “Uncle Tom”) he said:

“Another trifling error of my life ... is that I have always expected to secure the favour of the whites by tamely submitting to every species of indignity, contempt and wrong, instead of ... resisting their brutal aggressions from principle and taking my place as a man and assuming the responsibilities of a man ...; but I find that I get for all my submission about the same reward that the Southern Slaveocrats render the Doughface statesmen of the North for being bribed and browbeat, and fooled and cheated, as the Whigs and Democrats love to be, and think themselves highly honored if they may be allowed to lick up the spittle of a Southerner.”

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (part of a “great” national compromise) set Brown’s teeth. Federal marshals and their deputies were empowered to stick their noses into every Northern hamlet and drag helpless Negroes off to “hearings,” where in complete disregard of the victims’ testimony they could be shipped south to slavery on the mere written affidavit of a slavemaster.

Brown’s reply was an attempt to recruit the Negroes of Springfield, Massachusetts (where he was then living) into a United States League of Gileadites, organized on military lines to rescue fugitive slaves at gunpoint from anyone whomsoever, US marshals included. By now he was studying the history of revolutions from Spartacus to 1848, and making notes on guerrilla warfare. Slavery was war, and the answer was – war on slavery!

The development of that conception reflected the march of events. It could be added that John Brown came in time to an appreciation, if a limited one, of the powers of organization. Brown was always a lonely individual. His own family, his sons, remained ever in the core of his vision. In his forties he began to meet some of the anti-slavery as well as Negro leaders. But his first real experience with a large organized body probably did not occur until he was leaving for Kansas. As noted, he spoke before a Syracuse anti-slavery convention, after which he wrote his wife: “This convention has been one of the most interesting meetings I ever attended in my life ...” In the following years he was in constant touch with the leaders of the New England Emigrant Aid Society and the National Kansas Committee, and spoke repeatedly before anti-slavery mass meetings across the Northern states.

This is not to say that the organized anti-slavery movement was blessed with any single guiding line, or that all its formulations coincided with the direction of John Brown’s thought. Like many radical movements, before and since, it was wracked by splits and controversies: a full, ultimate program versus a limited, immediate one; moral persuasion versus political action; the pros and cons of a new, third party; passive versus violent resistance. Some of its backers were shrewd industrialists who kept lines open to the enemy’s camp. Others were bourgeois idealists – college-bred businessmen, ministers and intellectuals, of old respected American stock. The times and the nature of the opposing beast drove them to radical positions on the slavery issue, but social warfare was hardly in their scheme of things.

But John Brown was not of these. For all his early attempts at money-making, he remained a man who habitually worked with his hands: breaking soil, herding sheep, tanning hides. This may help explain the fact that, alone of the great Abolitionists, he planned to set in active motion the great mass of American Negroes, the plantation slaves. No other Abolitionist maintained such close contact with Negro leaders; Brown habitually consulted with Douglass and Loguen, McCune Smith and Henry Highland Garnet; and spent hours closeted with Harriet Tubman in discussion of the trails leading through mountain and swamp out of the plantation South. Before attempting his final stroke he called a Negro convention in Chatham, Ontario. For his plans the assent and active participation of the Negro people itself was essential.

Nevertheless, in Brown’s plans for Harper’s Ferry there was a large element of terrorism – the concept that a small determined group could, by its bold action, ignite the flames of mass movement. This is shown by the tiny band, some hardly more than boys, with which he finally struck. Brown as a terrorist is also revealed in that earlier night on the Marais de Cygnes in Kansas when he, his sons, and two others took five men (one of them a sixteen-year-old boy) from their beds and cut them down in cold blood. The deed was deliberate; the provocation obscure; and there has been much speculation as to motive. Yet one of Brown’s severest critics concluded that this was not murder but political assassination. [7] The intention was to return violence for violence and arouse free-state Kansas to action.

John Brown was a revolutionary terrorist. [8] But the adjective must be emphasized, for it is clear that at Harper’s Ferry he hoped to do more than strike fear into the slaveholders. Through the maze of his notes and correspondence one can perceive his grand design. After a company of Negroes and whites were recruited and drilled, funds obtained from a select group of wealthy sympathizers, guns and ammunition secured, the arsenal seized, the slaves of the district armed and liberated – then the insurgents would retreat into the mountains and descend the Appalachian spine, drawing up thousands of slaves, organizing the growing numbers in a chain of new bands, and finally establishing a new republic of black freemen, which would redeem the old from slavery. The conception, in its broadest outlines, is that of a revolutionary guerrilla warfare, waged then and since, and not always unsuccessfully. [9]

But Brown’s plans were flawed in preparation and execution; and if the terrorist in him lacked the patience to mold a people through the experience of years of struggle, one can only marvel at the magnitude of his task. In any case, perhaps he did anticipate the possibility of a conspicuous failure, followed by arrest and trial. This would be indicated by his advice to the “Gileadites” of 1851:

“The trial for life of one ... bold and to some extent successful man for defending his rights in good earnest would arouse more sympathy than the accumulated wrongs and sufferings of more than three millions of [a] submissive colored population.”

Neither he nor his fellow-prisoners would go on trial, but the Sovereign State of Virginia and all slavemasters. Theirs was the dilemma: either Old Brown was crazy and slaves happy (in which case why the bother?) or slavery was a terrible and shaky thing. He could put steel into Abolitionist souls, and carve an example forever into the brains of American Negroes. His purpose showed in every courtroom speech and every letter dispatched from his cell.

In his final speech to the court, he said:

“Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, ... 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. Every man in this Court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment ... 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, I did no 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 say, let it be done.”

And, as he was marched to the gallows, he handed away a Paper which contained a remarkable prophecy:

“I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land, will never be purged away, but with Blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed; it might be done.”

John Brown had pondered the history of Toussaint l’Ouverture in Haiti; and of Gabriel Presser, Denmark Vesey, and Nat Turner in the United States. If he overestimated the strength of the infant Negro organization of his day, he was only before his time. Only one volunteer came down to the Ferry from his Chatham convention. But soon others would be Union Army officers, and later yet, Congressmen in the Reconstruction.

Just over a year after they hanged Brown, the Boston Light Infantry marched through the streets – a quartet improvising to the plantation hymn, “Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us?” the words of “John Brown’s Body.” Over three hundred thousand Negro soldiers would sing it in a war (the Secretary of War admitted they were indispensable to its victorious conclusion) which was the first step toward full liberation of their people.

Fifty years after Harper’s Ferry, remembering John Brown, Dr. W.E.B. DuBois would ask:

“Have we come to see a day here in America when one citizen can deprive another of his vote at his discretion; restrict the education of his neighbors as he sees fit; with impunity load his neighbor with public insult on the king’s highway; deprive him of his property without due process of law; deny him the right of a trial by his peers or any trial whatever if he can get a large enough group of men to join him; refuse to protect the integrity of the family; finally can not only close the door of opportunity in a fully competent neighbor’s face but can actually count on the national and state governments to help and make effective this discrimination? – Such a state of affairs is dangerous. Within these barriers are men – human forces which no human hand can hold ...”

Fifty years more: the questions and the conclusion stand.

John Brown had said, pointing his long finger at Governor Wise of Virginia and Colonel Robert E. Lee:

“I wish to say, furthermore, that you had better – all you people at the South – prepare yourselves for a settlement of that question that must come up for a settlement sooner than you are prepared for it. The sooner you are prepared, the better. You may dispose of me very easily; I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is still to be settled – this Negro question, I mean – the end of that is not yet.”

But that end is surely coming. To that end, to the Negro people, to all who march with them, John Brown bequeathed a revolutionary’s legacy.

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1. Furnas, J.C., The Road to Harper’s Ferry. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1959. For an earlier unsympathetic view see the biography by the Southern poet and novelist, Robert Penn Warren (John Brown: the Making of a Martyr. New York: Payson & Clarke, (John Ltd., 1929); based in part on an earlier work by Hill P. Wilson (John Brown: Soldier of Fortune. Boston: The Cornhill Company, 1918). An essay on Harper’s Ferry by the historian, C. Vann Woodward (John Brown’s Private War, in America in Crisis, edited by Daniel Aaron. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952) is also unsympathetic in its conclusions. James C. Malin (John Brown and the Legend of Fifty-six. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1942) seeks to deflate the “Brown myth,” but contributes a mine of information on Brown in Kansas and on Brown bibliography. Oswald Garrison Villard’s John Brown (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Company, 1910) remains the standard work, though the subject is seen in the image of the author, a late nineteenth century liberal. On the fiftieth anniversary of Harper’s Ferry William E.B. DuBois paid a glowing and perceptive tribute to John Brown. (John Brown. Philadelphia: G.W. Jacobs & Company, 1909).

2. Quoted in Newsweek, Oct. 19, 1959.

3. Both Charlestown and Harper’s Ferry are now in West Virginia.

4. Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick. The Civil War in the United States, edited by Richard Enmale. New York: International Publishers, 1937, p.221.

5. Woodward, Op. Cit., p.121.

6. Malin, Op. Cit., passim.

7. ibid., pp.754-755.

8. See also the article by George Novack, John Brown, A Revolutionary Terrorist. The New International, January 1938 [The article also appeared under the title: Homage to John Brown].

9. Brown’s plans are viewed in this light by Dr. DuBois, Op. cit., pp.387-388, passim.

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