Black History Month: John Brown
American Experience John Brown’s Holy War
John Brown meets with Frederick Douglass and reveals his radical plan to raise an army, attack plantations and free the slaves. American Experience’s.
John Brown (abolitionist)
Photo by Augustus Washington, 1846-47
John Brown (May 9, 1800 – December 2, 1859) was an American abolitionist who believed in and advocated armed insurrection as the only way to overthrow the institution of slavery in the United States. Brown first gained attention when he led small groups of volunteers during the Bleeding Kansascrisis of 1856. Dissatisfied with the pacifism of the organized abolitionist movement, he said, “These men are all talk. What we need is action—action!” In May 1856, Brown and his supporters killed five supporters of slavery in the Pottawatomie massacre, which responded to the sacking of Lawrence by pro-slavery forces. Brown then commanded anti-slavery forces at the Battle of Black Jack (June 2) and the Battle of Osawatomie (August 30).
In 1859, Brown led a raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferryto start a liberation movement among the slaves there. During the raid, he seized the armory; seven people were killed, and ten or more were injured. He intended to arm slaves with weapons from the arsenal, but the attack failed. Within 36 hours, Brown’s men had fled or been killed or captured by local pro-slavery farmers, militiamen, and U.S. Marines led by Robert E. Lee. Tried for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, the murder of five men, and inciting a slave insurrection, Brown was found guilty on all counts and was hanged.
An 1851 poster warning the “colored people of Boston” about policemen acting as slave catchers
Historians agree that the Harpers Ferry raid escalated tensions that, a year later, led to the South’s secession and Civil War. Brown’s raid captured the nation’s attention, as Southerners feared it was just the first of many Northern plots to cause a slave rebellion that might endanger their lives, while Republicansdismissed the notion and claimed they would not interfere with slavery in the South. “John Brown’s Body” was a popular Union marching song during the Civil War and portrayed Brown as a martyr.
Brown’s actions as an abolitionist, and the tactics he chose, still make him a controversial figure today. He is sometimes memorialized as a heroic martyr and a visionary, and sometimes vilified as a madman and a terrorist. Historian James Loewen surveyed American History textbooks and noted that until about 1890, historians considered Brown perfectly sane, but from about 1890 until 1970, he was generally portrayed as insane. To read more go to the link below: