- Historic Sites
The Father of American Terrorism
Two hundred years after his birth, Americans still revere him as a martyr and loathe him as a fanatical murderer. What was he?
February/March 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 1
On December 2, 1859, a tall old man in a black coat, black pants, black vest, and black slouch hat climbed into a wagon and sat down on a black walnut box. The pants and coat were stained with blood; the box was his coffin; the old man was going to his execution. He had just handed a last note to his jailer: “I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood. I had...vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed; it might be done.”
As he rode on his coffin, John Brown gazed out over the cornfields of Virginia. “This is a beautiful country,” he said. “I never had the pleasure of seeing it before.”
The United States in 1859 was a nation that harbored a ticking time bomb: the issue of slavery. And it was a place where an astonishing number of men were willing to die for their beliefs, certain they were following a higher law. John Brown was one of those God-fearing yet violent men. And he was already more than a man; he was a legend. In fact, there were two competing legends. To slaveholders he was utter evil—fanatic, murderer, liar, and lunatic, and horse thief to boot—while to abolitionists he had become the embodiment of all that was noble and courageous.
After a lifetime of failure John Brown had at last found a kind of success. He was now a symbol that divided the nation, and his story was no longer about one man; it was a prophecy. The United States, like John Brown, was heading toward a gallows—the gallows of war.
When his farm was sold he seemed to snap. He barricaded himself in, and the sheriff got up a posse.
A scaffold had been built in a field outside Charlestown, Virginia. There were rumors of a rescue attempt, and fifteen hundred soldiers, commanded by Col. Robert E. Lee, massed in the open field. No civilians were allowed within hearing range, but an actor from Virginia borrowed a uniform so he could watch John Brown die. “I looked at the traitor and terrorizer,” said John Wilkes Booth, “with unlimited, undeniable contempt.” Prof. Thomas Jackson, who would in three years be known as Stonewall, was also watching: “The sheriff placed the rope around [Brown’s] neck, then threw a white cap over his head....When the rope was cut by a single blow, Brown fell through....There was very little motion of his person for several moments, and soon the wind blew his lifeless body to and fro.”
A Virginia colonel named J. T. L. Preston chanted: “So perish all such enemies of Virginia! All such enemies of the Union! All such foes of the human race!”
But hanging was not the end of John Brown; it was the beginning. Northern churches’ bells tolled for him, and cannon boomed in salute. In Massachusetts, Henry David Thoreau spoke: “Some eighteen hundred years ago, Christ was crucified; This morning, perchance, Captain Brown was hung....He is not Old Brown any longer; he is an angel of light.”
John Brown’s soul was already marching on. But the flesh-and-blood John Brown—a tanner, shepherd, and farmer, a simple and innocent man who could kill in cold blood, a mixture of opposite parts who mirrored the paradoxical America of his time—this John Brown had already vanished, and he would rarely appear again. His life instead became the subject for 140 years of spin. John Brown has been used rather than considered by history; even today we are still spinning his story.
As far as history is concerned, John Brown was genuinely nobody until he was fifty-six years old—that is, until he began to kill people. Not that his life was without incident. He grew up in the wilderness of Ohio (he was born in 1800, when places like Detroit, Chicago, and Cleveland were still frontier stockades). He married at twenty, lost his wife eleven years later, soon married again, and fathered a total of twenty children. Nine of them died before they reached adulthood.
At seventeen Brown left his father’s tannery to start a competing one. “I acknowledge no master in human form,” he would say, many years later, when he was wounded and in chains at Harpers Ferry. The young man soon mastered the rural arts of farming, tanning, surveying, home building, and animal husbandry, but his most conspicuous talent seemed to be one for profuse and painful failure.
In the 1830s, with a growing network of canals making barren land worth thousands, Brown borrowed deeply to speculate in real estate—just in time for the disastrous Panic of 1837. The historian James Brewer Stewart, author of Holy Warriors, says that “Brown was a typical story of someone who invested, as thousands did, and lost thousands, as thousands did as well. Brown was swept along in a current of default and collapse.”
He tried breeding sheep, started another tannery, bought and sold cattle—each time a failure. When one venture lost money, Brown quietly appropriated funds from a partner in a new business and used it to pay the earlier loss. But in the end his farm tools, furniture, and sheep went on the auction block.