Our history has its share of odd characters, but surely none odder than John Brown. An Old Testament prophet somehow marooned in Nineteenth Century America, John Brown preached the wrath of God against slave holders and considered himself the bloody sword of the Almighty. It is tempting to write off John Brown as a murderous fanatic, and he was certainly that, but he was also something more.
The American political process was simply unable to resolve the question of slavery. Each year the anti-slavery and pro-slavery forces battered at each other with no head way made. Bleeding Kansas was the result of Stephen A. Douglas’ plan to simply let the people of the territory resolve the issue. Where ballots cannot, or will not, resolve a question of the first magnitude in a democracy, ultimately bullets will. A man like Brown, totally dedicated to the anti-slavery cause, was only too willing to see violence resolve an issue that the politicians would not.
Brown attacked a great evil, American slavery, but he was also a murderer, as the five pro-slavery men he had dragged from their houses at night and hacked to death at Pottawotamie in Kansas with home made swords would surely attest. His raid on Harper’s Ferry was a crack-brained expedition that had absolutely no chance of success, and yet his raid helped bring about the huge war that would ultimately end slavery.
After his mad and futile attempt to start a slave insurrection at Harper’s Ferry in 1859, Brown was tried and hung for treason against the state of Virginia. He considered his trial and treatment quite fair and thanked the Court. Brown impressed quite a few Southerners with the courage with which he met his death, including Thomas Jackson, the future Stonewall, who observed his execution.
Brown of course lit the fuse for the Civil War. He convinced many moderate Southerners that there were forces in the North all too ready to incite, in the name of abolition, a race war in the South. The guns fired at Harper’s Ferry were actually the first shots of the Civil War.
Brown, as he stepped forward to the gallows, had a paper and pen thrust into his hand by a woman. Assuming for the last time the role of a prophet, Brown wrote out, “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”
Abraham Lincoln commented on Brown at his Cooper’s Union speech on February 27, 1860 and took pains to separate the Republican Party from Brown:
You charge that we stir up insurrections among your slaves. We deny it; and what is your proof? Harper’s Ferry! John Brown!! John Brown was no Republican; and you have failed to implicate a single Republican in his Harper’s Ferry enterprise. If any member of our party is guilty in that matter, you know it or you do not know it. If you do know it, you are inexcusable for not designating the man and proving the fact. If you do not know it, you are inexcusable for asserting it, and especially for persisting in the assertion after you have tried and failed to make the proof. You need to be told that persisting in a charge which one does not know to be true, is simply malicious slander.
John Brown’s effort was peculiar. It was not a slave insurrection. It was an attempt by white men to get up a revolt among slaves, in which the slaves refused to participate. In fact, it was so absurd that the slaves, with all their ignorance, saw plainly enough it could not succeed. That affair, in its philosophy, corresponds with the many attempts, related in history, at the assassination of kings and emperors. An enthusiast broods over the oppression of a people till he fancies himself commissioned by Heaven to liberate them. He ventures the attempt, which ends in little else than his own execution.
Stephen Vincent Benet in his epic poem on the Civil War, John Brown’s Body, captures Brown well:
JOHN BROWN’S PRAYER
Omnipotent and steadfast God,
Who, in Thy mercy, hath
Upheaved in me Jehovah’s rod
And his chastising wrath,
For fifty-nine unsparing years
Thy Grace hath worked apart
To mould a man of iron tears
With a bullet for a heart.
Yet, since this body may be weak
With all it has to bear,
Once more, before Thy thunders speak,
Almighty, hear my prayer.
I saw Thee when Thou did display
The black man and his lord
To bid me free the one, and slay
The other with the sword.
I heard Thee when Thou bade me spurn
Destruction from my hand
And, though all Kansas bleed and burn,
It was at Thy command.
I hear the rolling of the wheels,
The chariots of war!
I hear the breaking of the seals
And the opening of the door!
The glorious beasts with many eyes
Exult before the Crowned.
The buried saints arise, arise
Like incense from the ground!
Before them march the martyr-kings,
In bloody sunsets drest,
_O, Kansas, bleeding Kansas,
You will not let me rest!_
_I hear your sighing corn again,
I smell your prairie-sky,
And I remember five dead men
Lord God it was a work of Thine,
And how might I refrain?
_But Kansas, bleeding Kansas,
I hear her in her pain._
_Her corn is rustling in the ground,
An arrow in my flesh.
And all night long I staunch a wound
That ever bleeds afresh._
Get up, get up, my hardy sons,
From this time forth we are
No longer men, but pikes and guns
In God’s advancing war.
And if we live, we free the slave,
And if we die, we die.
But God has digged His saints a grave
Beyond the western sky.
Oh, fairer than the bugle-call
Its walls of jasper shine!
And Joshua’s sword is on the wall
With space beside for mine.
And should the Philistine defend
His strength against our blows,
The God who doth not spare His friend,
Will not forget His foes.