Our Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, and the Civil War Era

By Stephen B. Oates | Go to book overview

TWO
GOD'S STONE IN THE POOL OF SLAVERY

I

On a rainswept October night in 1859, grizzled old John Brown led a handful of revolutionaries —most of them young, five of them black—in a surprise attack against Harpers Ferry in northern Virginia, in what Brown envisioned as the first blow in an all-out war for slave liberation. With his twenty-one followers, he intended to incite a Southernwide slave revolt and to establish a black state in the Southern mountains. Or, failing that, he hoped to ignite a sectional holocaust between North and South in which slavery would be destroyed.

For fifty-nine-year-old John Brown, a failure in virtually everything he had ever tried, this was the supreme moment of his life, the moment he had been working for since he had committed himself to violence in the Kansas civil war of 1856. All the years of trial, of affliction and sorrow, were behind him now. He and his men were going to liberate some four million human beings from bondage, thereby removing a monstrous wrong from American society. For Brown, slavery was an egregious "sin against God," a sin that violated the commandments of an all-wise, allpowerful Providence, and that contradicted the Declaration of Independence, too, which guaranteed all men the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Yes, slavery was "foul and loathsome," Brown believed, a "rotten whore" of an institution which was not only criminally unjust to Negroes, but which offended him personally. When he was twelve years old, he had

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