Brown, John (American abolitionist)

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.
Save to active project

Brown, John (American abolitionist)

John Brown, 1800–1859, American abolitionist, b. Torrington, Conn. He spent his boyhood in Ohio. Before he became prominent in the 1850s, his life had been a succession of business failures in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York. An ardent abolitionist (he once kept a station on the Underground Railroad at Richmond, Pa.) and a believer in the equality of the races, he consecrated (1837) his life to the destruction of slavery. Brown settled (1855) with five of his sons in Kansas to help secure the territory's entry as a free state. He became "captain" of the colony on the Osawatomie River. The success of the proslavery forces in violent attacks on antislavery leaders, and particularly in their sack of Lawrence, aroused Brown, and in order "to cause a restraining fear" in 1856 he, with four of his sons, a son-in-law, and two other men, savagely murdered five proslavery men living on the banks of the Pottawatomie Creek. In this he asserted he was an instrument in the hand of God. His exploits as a leader of an antislavery band received wide publicity, especially in abolitionist journals, and as "Old Brown of Osawatomie" he became nationally known.

Late in 1857 he began to enlist men for a project that he apparently had considered for some time and that took definite form at a convention of his followers held at Chatham, Ont., the next spring. He planned to liberate the slaves through armed intervention by establishing a stronghold in the Southern mountains to which the slaves and free blacks could flee and from which further insurrections could be stirred up. Early in 1859, Brown rented a farm near Harpers Ferry, Va. (now W.Va.), and there collected his followers and a cache of arms.

On the night of Oct. 16 he, two of his sons, and 19 other followers crossed the Potomac and without much resistance captured the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, made the inhabitants prisoners, and took general possession of the town. Strangely enough, he then merely settled down, while the aroused local militia blocked his escape. That night a company of U.S. marines, commanded by Col. Robert E. Lee, arrived, and in the morning they assaulted the engine house of the armory into which Brown's force had retired. In the resulting battle, 10 of Brown's men were killed, and Brown himself was wounded. News of the raid aroused wild fears in the South and came as a great shock to the North. On Dec. 2, 1859, Brown was hanged at Charles Town. His dignified conduct and the sincerity of his calm defense during the trial won him sympathy in the North and led him to be widely regarded as a hero and a martyr. The Civil War broke out just over a year after the raid.

The standard contemporary account is contained in The Life, Trial and Execution of Captain John Brown (1859, repr. 1969). See also biographies by O. G. Villard (rev. ed. 1965), S. B. Oakes (1970), J. Abels (1971), and D. S. Reynolds (2005); A. Keller, Thunder at Harper's Ferry (1958); J. C. Malin, John Brown and the Legend of Fifty-Six (1942, repr. 1970); R. O. Boyer, The Legend of John Brown (1973); J. Stauffer, The Black Hearts of Men (2002); F. Nudelman, John Brown's Body (2004); B. McGinty, John Brown's Trial (2009); R. E. McGlone, John Brown's War against Slavery (2009); T. Horwitz, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War (2011); J. Stauffer and Z. Trodd, ed., The Tribunal: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid (2012).

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Brown, John (American abolitionist)
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?