John Brown (1800-1859), a white American abolitionist, was hanged for treason, murder and insurrection after his failed attempt to take over the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry to gain arms for a slave uprising.
Unlike Abraham Lincoln, Brown believed all men were created equal. Unlike George Washington, he fought for the freedom of all Americans, not just for whites.
Frederick Douglass said, “I could live for the slave; John Brown could die for him.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson said after Brown was sentenced to hang that he “will make the gallows glorious like the Cross.”
John Brown came from a long line of Connecticut farmers. His grandfather fought in the American Revolution. Brown grew up in Ohio and was taught that slavery is a sin before God.
Brown had a large family – 20 children born, 12 who lived – and moved more than ten times trying to find work to support them. For a while he lived in Pennsylvania where he took part in the Underground Railroad, helping slaves to escape from the slave states of the South.
In 1849 he moved to North Elba in upstate New York, a town of escaped slaves, whom he helped to become farmers.
Bleeding Kansas: More than any other man Brown helped to make Kansas a free state. In 1856 he became famous when he and his sons took part in the fighting there against those who would turn Kansas into a slave state by force.
Brown came to see that the slaves could be freed only through violence. He studied military history, particularly guerrilla warfare and the slave uprising of Toussaint L’Ouverture. Then he set about to lead a slave uprising of his own.
His idea was to create a new state in the mountains of Virginia where black slaves could flee and defend their freedom. The more blacks who joined him, the weaker the South would become.
In those mountains was Harpers Ferry. There the government kept 100,000 guns, more than enough for an army. Brown led a band of 22 armed men, both blacks and whites, and took it – but then lost it two days later to the Marines under Robert E. Lee. Brown was badly wounded in the fighting but not killed.
Many said he was a madman, but to blacks and to millions of whites in the North he was a hero. Thoreau said he was as great as any hero of the American Revolution.
Victor Hugo warned:
Let America know and ponder on this: there is something more frightening than Cain killing Abel, and that is Washington killing Spartacus.
Brown was tried and a month later was hanged with four of his followers.
His last words:
I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.
After he was hanged church bells tolled across the North. In 16 months the civil war would start.