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Social Issues
The Story Of John Brown, The Radical Abolitionist, Who Died 154 Years Ago Today
December 2, 2013
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(Photo: AP Photo)

"Now, if it be deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children, and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit: so let it be done."

Those strong words belonged to John Brown, one of the most radical and militant abolitionists in U.S. history. One-hundred-and-fifty-four years ago today, he was hanged following a raid he'd led on a federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, part of a war he was planning to wage against the institution of slavery itself. Here's a look back at his radical views and tactics, and how he ended up tried and convicted of treason.

Brown was born in 1800 to a deeply religious Connecticut family led by a father who was strongly opposed to slavery. Throughout his adult life, he worked variously as a farmer, a tanner, a land speculator and a wool merchant, never with much financial success. (He was more successful as a father; he had 20 children, seven with his first wife Dianthe Lusk and 13 with his second, Mary Ann Day). 

He supported abolitionist causes throughout his life, participating in the Underground Railroad in 1851 and helping to establish the League of Gileadites, which helped protect escaped slaves from slave catchers. But Brown didn't come to national prominence as an abolitionist until the 1850s. The cause? "Bleeding Kansas."

In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act opened up the two territories for settlement, and allowed the white male citizens in each state to determine whether to permit slavery. The next year, Brown followed three of his sons there to fight for the anti-slavery side. The fight was a bloody one. A posse of 800 men attacked Lawrence, Kansas, a centre of the abolitionist movement, and Brown led a guerrilla antislavery force to beat them back. The next year, he led a retaliatory raid to the pro-slavery town of Pottawatomie, leading five men from their homes and killing them with broadswords. 

By 1859, Brown had decided that the only way to end slavery would be by force — by equipping an army of abolitionists, the Provisional Army of the United States, to rally to his cause. And so on October 16, 1859, he led 21 men — 16 white and five black — on a raid of the large, state-of-the-art federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. He succeeded in taking possession of the fort, but soon enough, militias and federal troops from the surrounding areas stormed the arsenal, killing many of his men and taking Brown captive.

Brown was quickly tried and convicted of treason, and executed on December 2, 1859. Before he was hanged, he issued this warning about the future of the country:

I wish to say, furthermore, that you had better — all you people at the South — prepare yourselves for a settlement of that question that must come up for settlement sooner than you are prepared for it. The sooner you are prepared the better. You may dispose of me very easily. I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is still to be settled.

History proved Brown right. Less than two years after his failed uprising, the American Civil War broke out — and many historians have argued that Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry helped stoke the tensions between the northern and southern states, inspiring both abolitionists and slave owners to dig in their heels. Just over two years after Brown's death, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which proclaimed freedom for slaves in the 10 states that were still in rebellion.

Because of his violent tactics, Brown remains a controversial figure to this day, with some, like historian James Gilbert labelling him a terrorist and others, like Stephen B. Oates calling him "one of the most perceptive human beings of his generation."


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