John Brown

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).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

John Brown: Selected full-text books and articles

FREE! The Public Life of Capt. John Brown By James Redpath Thayer and Eldridge, 1860
FREE! Recollections of Seventy Years By F. B. Sanborn R. G. Badger, vol.1, 1909
Librarian’s tip: Chap. IX "Aftermath of the John Brown Foray"
No Compromise! The Story of the Fanatics Who Paved the Way to the Civil War By Arnold Whitridge Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1960
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "The Abolitionists"
Birth of John Brown By Cavendish, Richard History Today, Vol. 50, No. 5, May 2000
American Mobbing, 1828-1861: Toward Civil War By David Grimsted Oxford University Press, 1998
Librarian’s tip: "Epilogue: Vintage Violence" begins on p. 266
Frederick Douglass By Benjamin Quarles Associated Publishers, 1948
Librarian’s tip: Chap. X "Douglass and John Brown"
Our Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, and the Civil War Era By Stephen B. Oates University of Massachusetts Press, 1979
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Three "John Brown and His Judges"
FREE! Causes of the Civil War, 1859-1861 By French Ensor Chadwick Harper & Brothers, 1906
Librarian’s tip: Chap. V "The John Brown Raid (1858-1859)"
Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: His Early Life as a Slave, His Escape from Bondage, and His Complete History By Frederick Douglass Collier Books, 1962 (Revised edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 8 "John Brown and Mrs. Stowe"
The Bold Brahmins: New England's War against Slavery, 1831-1863 By Lawrence Lader E. P. Dutton, 1961
Librarian’s tip: Chap. XVII "John Brown and the Boston Plotters: 1857-1859"
Walden and Other Writings By Henry David Thoreau; Brooks Atkinson Modern Library, 1950
Librarian’s tip: "A Plea for Captain John Brown" begins on p. 863
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