Ernest Rice McKinney Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Ernest Rice McKinney

John Brown – Revolutionist

(May 1940)

From Labor Action, Vol. 4 No. 7, 27 May 1940, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

May 9th was the 140th anniversary of the birth of John Brown, “Father of the Second American Revolution.” John Brown hated slavery, and he believed that it could not be destroyed by peaceful means. He thought the North was playing around with the question and had no intention of conducting a real struggle for the liberation of the slaves. He knew that thousands of northerners were “copper-heads” (pro-slavery agitators). He had witnessed the Texas and Mexican Wars for the extension of slavery, the Missouri Compromise and the Supreme Court Dred Scott decision calling for the capture of runaway slaves and return to their legal owners. Furthermore no political party, not even the young and “radical” Republican Party, had ever put an anti-slavery plank in its platform.

Rifles, Not Bibles

Therefore it was necessary, in the opinion of John Brown, to pass over from the Bible to his Sharp’s rifle, from reliance on prayer to musket and ball.

His plans were ambitious. He made a trip to Europe in 1851 and studied fortifications and military tactics. He was especially anxious to learn how to fortify and fight in hilly and mountainous country.

In 1855 he went to Kansas in a covered wagon loaded with guns and ammunition gathered from various sources, private and governmental. Once in Kansas, Brown and his sons began active warfare against the defenders of slavery to make Kansas a free state.

After the bloody Kansas campaign, Brown organized a convention of free Negroes in Chatham, Canada, to prepare for the final blow. He conceived the. notion that when the call was sounded slaves all over the South would rise and join him. The convention adopted a militant constitution, formed a skeleton government with John Brown, Commander-in-Chief.

On the night of October 16, 1859, the Commander-in-Chief led his small forces into Harpers Ferry, Va. (now West Virginia) and captured the government armories, jailed some of the inhabitants and signed up the slaves for the “Army of Freedom.”

Of course this small band of untrained and poorly armed whites and slaves could not succeed. Brown fought to the last ditch but was finally captured. Ten were killed and eleven captured. Two of the dead were Brown’s sons. Brown was taken by a company of marines commanded by Robert E. Lee.

John Brown was tried for treason, conspiracy and murder. He was found guilty and hanged in Charlestown, December 2, 1859. At his trial. Brown said that if what he had done “had been in behalf of the rich and powerful ... it would have been doing very well.”

John Brown failed to accomplish the concrete things that he set out to do. He was an individual terrorist who thought all that was necessary to arouse the slaves to follow him and overthrow their masters was an example of devotion to a cause, purity of motive, courage and self-sacrifice. He did not understand for instance that a slave uprising and revolt, like any other revolution, would have to be prepared by propaganda, agitation and organization. There would have to be a program (freedom, equality, land) that the slaves could understand and would accept.

Furthermore John Brown did not understand the nature of the opposition of the North to the South. The Free-Soilers hated slavery not so much because they were interested in seeing the slaves freed, but for the reason that slavery was a threat to the development of northern capitalism and the expansion of northern business based on wage labor. The freeing of the slaves was a by-product of Northern victory.

Eagle of Rebellion

John Brown’s effort had very definite progressive features.

  1. He did not hesitate to go beyond the law in his struggle against slavery. He set freedom above the law; the slaves and their friends must establish their own legality. It has always been true that only those groups, classes and races have gained their freedom that dared go beyond the law and rebel against “their government”. The leaders of liberation movements have always been “traitors”.
  2. John Brown’s plan to overthrow slavery by armed violence, was the method that was later successful. It was the only method that would get results, and northern capitalism did not hesitate to resort to this method. The Union soldiers marched into the South during the Civil War, singing, “John Brown’s body lies mouldering in the grave, but his spirit marches on.”
  3. The dramatic action of John Brown at Harpers Ferry was “a shot heard ’round the world.” It was really the opening gun in the second American revolution. It was the action that really pushed the North to gird itself for battle.

Despite the failure of his personal efforts, John Brown remains one of the great liberators of the poor and the oppressed. We see him as one caught up in “the inspired frenzy of of history,” which is revolution.

John Brown remains for us an eagle in the war against tyranny, oppression and injustice.

Ernest Rice McKinney Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 22 February 2022