Today, October 16, marks the 155th anniversary of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. A radical abolitionist and believer in racial justice, Brown’s plan was to take over a federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, free the slaves there, and then head for the mountains nearby. The small band of radicals hoped that the raid would kick off a massive rebellion against slave owners in the South.
Unfortunately, Brown’s group got held up in the arsenal longer than planned, and were captured. A Virginia court convicted Brown of treason, murder and inciting an insurrection. Brown was hanged on Dec. 2, 1859.
In a New York Times op-ed from 2009, author David S. Reynolds explores the bizarre morphing of John Brown’s legacy from hero to heretic.
By the time of his hanging, John Brown was so respected in the North that bells tolled in many cities and towns in his honor. Within two years, the Union troops marched southward singing, “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, but his soul keeps marching on.” Brown remained a hero to the North right up through Reconstruction.
However, he fell from grace during the long, dark period of Jim Crow. The attitude was, who cares about his progressive racial views, except a few blacks? His reputation improved a bit with the civil rights movement, but he is still widely dismissed as a deranged cultist.
That attitude about Brown persists today. In 2009, organizers of an event commemorating the raid rushed to qualify what the anniversary is all about, saying “We’re not celebrating Brown, we’re commemorating an important chapter in American history.”
It’s true that Harpers Ferry wasn’t Brown’s first brush with violence in the name of Black liberation. Two years earlier, Brown led a small group in a raid on a Missouri plantation, where one rancher was killed and 11 enslaved people freed. 16 people died in the Harpers Ferry raid, although the majority (at least 10, but possibly 12, as there are questions about whether two of them, both enslaved men, were voluntary members of the raid or if they were coerced into fighting) were part of Brown’s party.
But, as Reynolds, points out, the motives for Brown’s violence aren’t exactly obscure, and they certainly aren’t nonexistent.
Brown considered himself a soldier at war. His attacks on pro-slavery forces were part of an escalating cycle of pre-emptive and retaliatory violence that most historians now agree were in essence the first engagements of the Civil War.
Besides, none of the heroes from that period is unblemished. Lincoln was the Great Emancipator, but he shared the era’s racial prejudices, and even after the war started thought that blacks should be shipped out of the country once they were freed. Andrew Jackson was the man of his age, but in addition to being a slaveholder, he has the extra infamy of his callous treatment of Native Americans, for which some hold him guilty of genocide. John Brown comes with “buts” — but in that he has plenty of company.
John Brown was up against a system characterized by violence and dehumanization that most of us will never be able to imagine. His “allies” were busy writing letters to editors, making speeches, and running political campaigns. It was clear to him that the abolitionists were only willing to fight for freedom if it was convenient, safe, and polite, and he knew that politeness wasn’t going to get anyone anywhere.
Mainstream abolitionists were willing to wait for justice. John Brown was not. And that makes him a a goddamn American hero.
To learn more about John Brown, we highly recommend this very thorough piece from the West Virginia Division of Culture and History on the planning, execution, and aftermath of the raid on Harpers Ferry.