“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.” ~ Excerpt from a handwritten note handed to a guard by John Brown, as he awaited hanging on the gallows.
The chronicles of this nation are full of heroes and anti-heroes, of men and women who were at times both bigger than life, and in some cases, received far more credit from posterity than they were due.
Yet, you would be hard-pressed to come up with a more galvenizing figure than one John Brown, whose persona and actions prior to the American Civil War helped tip the compromise balance that set neighbor against neighbor, brother against brother, North and South against the other.
Born May 9, 1800, in Torrington, Conn., John Brown was the fourth of eight children who could trace ancestry back to the 17th century English Puritans.
Before his infamous — or famous, depending on your point of view — raid on Harper’s Ferry, Va., less than two years before the outbreak of war, Brown had made a name for himself on America’s western frontier.
His fervent belief, virtually from the time he grew to manhood, was that of an American radical abolitionist, who believed the only way to overthrow America’s peculiar economic institution of slavery was through armed revolt.
At the battles of Black Jack and Osawatomie in Bleeding Kansas, as it was called pre-Civil War along the Kansas-Missouri border, Brown had prominent roles. By early 1858, he had organized a small army of insurrectionists, whose mission was to foment rebellion among slaves, in particular in the slave state of bordering Missouri.
Earlier, Brown and other free settlers had moved to Kansas, optimistic they could help bring the territory into the Union as slave-free.
So-called Border Ruffians across the state line in Missouri were just as adamant about bringing Kansas into the Union as a slave state.
During the sacking of Lawrence, Kan., in 1856, Brown seems to have hit a tipping point in his seething anger against slavery.
The caning of anti-slavery U.S. Sen. Charles Sumner on the Senate floor by pro-slavery Rep. Preston Brooks was another seminal moment for Brown.
In response to the Lawrence raid, Brown and his followers killed five settlers north of Pottawatomie Creek in east-central Kansas, one of many bloody episodes in the border war that became noted for its ferocity — a precursor to the tragic four years of war that soon was to follow.
Against that backdrop emerged John Brown, an uncompromising man who saw his duty as ending slavery by any means possible. Which leads the story to the East Coast and almost universal agreement among historians that Brown and his Harper’s Ferry raid helped push America to war.
Interestingly, Brown initially had asked famous abolitionist leaders like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass to join him in his raid on the United States arsenal there, seizing weapons for his plan to arm slaves and end the institution on these shores. They declined, thinking it would fail.
The actual raid occurred Oct. 16, 1859, lasting 36 hours yet flopping on all but one count.
Captured by men under command of a soon-to-be-famous U.S. Army colonel named Robert E. Lee, and which included another famous name from history, cavalryman J.E.B. Stuart, Brown eventually was tried in Virginia and hanged for fomenting armed insurrection.
Going to the gallows may have been as much in Brown’s plan as had been a successful insurrection, at least in my view.
John Brown seemed always to want his actions to bring about change in American economic society. Violence, to him, was nothing more than a tool in his moral war against slavery.
Executed Dec. 2, 1859, Brown thrust himself onto the American conscience as few men in history have.
In the North among abolitionists, he became a rallying cry that would end any and all future compromise over the institution of slavery.
In the South, a quite opposite reaction was felt, as Southerners looked on in horror, seeing Brown as a traitor to the nation for his rebellion, and simply a slave-stealing murderer. Intense debate followed across the country over slavery, and Brown’s bloody tactics came into question, even by presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln, who felt compelled to denounce the raid to separate himself from its violence.
As John Brown passed his note and stood silently on the gallows, awaiting his fate and entry into the fabric of American history, one of the most ardent defenders of slavery watched and witnessed from the crowd, awaiting Brown’s drop to the end of a rope.
John Wilkes Booth, soon enough, would write his own infamous passage onto a bloody national chronicle.
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking