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The Militant, 28 June 1948

George Lavan

Rebels in American History

John Brown

From The Militant, Vol. 12 No. 33, 16 August 1948, p. 2
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


On the morning of December 2, 1859, they led the old man out of jail. His steps were slow because his wounds had not healed completely. All around him were soldiers with fixed bayonets. On the road was a wagon with a pine coffin. The old man got up on the wagon and sat on the coffin. The procession finally reached the execution grounds. Around the Scaffold 1,500 troops were massed in a great hollow square with cannon trained on all approaches.

They put a hood over his head and led him onto the drop of the scaffold. The rope was adjusted around, his neck. Then they made him wait. They were still hoping for a display of weakness from the old fighter whom they hated and feared. Minutes passed as the troops were put through parade maneuvers. The old man with the hood over his head and the rope about his neck never flinched. Finally after 12 interminable minutes the commanding officer gave the signal and the trap was sprung. The body jerked and then hung quietly.

The colonel’s voice rang out: “So perish all such enemies of Virginia! All such enemies of the Union! All such foes of the human race!”

Singing His Name

John Brown was dead. But his indomitable spirit was to inspire the anti-slavery forces of the nation. And two years later Union troops marching to smash the slave power would be singing his name.

Brown was born in 1800 and named after his grandfather who had died in the Revolutionary War. He was brought up on the Ohio frontier, and was deeply religious.

During the War of 1812 he witnessed the horror of slavery. He was then 12 years old and was delivering cattle to the army. There he saw a boy slave, with whom he had become friends, cruelly manhandled. As he later wrote, this “made him a most determined Abolitionist, and led him to declare, or swear eternal war with slavery.”

In 1837 Elijah Lovejoy, an anti-slavery editor, was lynched by a mob at Alton, Ill. This murder convinced John Brown that the slave power could be destroyed only by force. It was in this period that he first conceived his plan of invading the South and freeing the slaves.

He kept his plan secret and went about his business as a wool merchant. On business trips east he visited leading Abolitionists and sounded them out.

Aroused The Nation

His plans were interrupted by the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act which opened the territories to slavery until the settlers should vote on the issue. The opening of hitherto free territory to slavery aroused the nation. Northern settlers went to Kansas to make it a free state while the slave owners sent hordes of hired gunmen to insure a victory for human bondage.

The planters openly campaigned to win Kansas by force. Southern Senators and military men called for the wiping out of all opposition in Kansas. General Stringfellow, addressing a band of gunmen about to leave for Kansas, stated, “I tell you to mark every scoundrel among you who is the least tainted with abolitionism and exterminate him. Neither give nor take any quarter, as the cause demands it.”

Seven of Brown’s sons went to Kansas as settlers. They wrote him of the rule of terror instituted by the slave power. Brown went out to Kansas to lead the fight. He found the leadership of the free settlers in the hands of timid compromisers. Outrage after outrage was visited on the anti-slavery settlers. Finally their main city, Lawrence, was captured and looted by the “border ruffians.” Brown saw that the only way to fight the terror of the slave-owners was with terror. He led a raid upon a slave settlement and executed five men named on his slaveowners’ list. The slavery men were quick in reprisal. They captured two of his sons who had not been in the raiding force and massacred them. They could not capture Brown’s guerrilla band, however. A genius of partisan warfare, Brown eluded pursuers and struck when he chose. He astounded Kansas by defeating and capturing a larger force than his own at Black Jack under Captain Pate.

Brown’s methods finally resolved the situation in Kansas. The free-soilers took heart and the slavery elements became cautious. Kansas’ status as a free state was assured. The foremost leader of the free-soilers later said of Brown.: “He was the only man who comprehended the situation, and saw the absolute necessity of some such blow and had the nerve to strike it.”

“Only One Death”

With victory sure in Kansas, the old fighter decided to get on with his plan for an invasion of the slave country itself. “I have only a short time to live,” he said, "‘and only one death to die, and I will die fighting for this cause. There will be no peace in this land until slavery is done for. I will, give them something else to do than to extend slavery. I will carry the war to Africa.”

He collected picked Negro and white men, who were fighters and ready to die to destroy slavery. He collected arms and ammunition. He tried to raise money from wealthy Abolitionists Then he marched his band from Iowa to the mountains of Virginia His plan was to take a town and arm the slaves with pikes using his camp in the mountains as a base.

With 21 men he started towards Harpers Ferry. By early morning the town and the heavily stocked arsenal were in his hands. To avoid harming civilians he permitted a train to pass through. The news thus spread and quickly brought federal troops and the Virginia National Guard on the double. For two days Brown and his men held out, with half of his men, including two of his sons, dead or dying. Finally the troops, led by Robert E. Lee, broke into the arsenal.

The Virginia authorities, panic-stricken by Brown’s raid abandoned all pretense of judicial calm. Brown, badly wounded in the raid, was carried to the courthouse on a stretcher and the trial began a week after his capture.

The verdict of guilty was predetermined from the beginning of the trial. But Brown’s utter fearlessness and his noble bearing in the courtroom impressed the whole nation.

Brown was the revolutionary man-of-action in the struggle against the slavocracy. He inspired a whole generation by his dauntlessness and heroism. His raid on Harper’s Ferry did not inaugurate the Negro uprising he hoped for, but it was one of the sparks that ignited the powder barrel of the slavery system and finally destroyed the slave power in four years of bitterly fought civil war.

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