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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
When his farm was sold, he seemed to snap. He refused to leave. With two sons and some old muskets, he barricaded himself in a cabin on the property. “I was makeing preparation for the commencement and vigorous prosecution of a tedious, distressing, wasteing, and long protracted war,” Brown wrote. The sheriff got up a posse and briefly put him in the Akron jail. No shots were fired, but it was an incident people would remember, years later, when the old man barricaded himself at Harpers Ferry.
Brown’s misadventures in business have drawn widely varying interpretations. His defenders say he had a large family to support; small wonder he wanted badly to make money. But others have seen his financial dreams as an obsession, a kind of fever that gave him delusions of wealth and made him act dishonestly.
Perhaps it was this long string of failures that created the revolutionary who burst upon the American scene in 1856. By that time Brown had long nurtured a vague and protean plan: He imagined a great event in which he—the small-time farmer who had failed in everything he touched—would be God’s messenger, a latter-day Moses who would lead his people from the accursed house of slavery. He had already, for years, been active in the Underground Railroad, hiding runaways and guiding them north toward Canada. In 1837 he stood up in the back of a church in Ohio and made his first public statement on human bondage, a single pungent sentence: “Here before God, in the presence of these witnesses, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery.” For years, however, this vow seemed to mean relatively little; in the early 1850s, as anger over slavery began to boil up all over the North, the frustrated and humiliated Brown was going from courtroom to courtroom embroiled in his own private miseries.
Finally it happened. The John Brown we know was born in the place called Bloody Kansas. Slavery had long been barred from the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, but in 1854 the Kansas-Nebraska Act decreed that the settlers of these territories would decide by vote whether to be free or slave. The act set up a competition between the two systems that would become indistinguishable from war.
Settlers from both sides flooded into Kansas. Five of John Brown’s sons made the long journey there from Ohio. But Brown himself did not go. He was in his mid-fifties, old by the actuarial tables of his day; he seemed broken.
Then, in March of 1855, five thousand proslavery Missourians—the hard-drinking, heavily armed “Border Ruffians”—rode into Kansas. “We came to vote, and we are going to vote or kill every God-damned abolitionist in the Territory,” their leader declared. The Ruffians seized the polling places, voted in their own legislature, and passed their own laws. Prison now awaited anyone who spoke against slavery.
At Pottawatomie, he watched as his followers split open heads and cut off arms.
In May, John Junior wrote to his father begging for his help. The free-soilers needed arms, “more than we need bread,” he said. “Now we want you to get for us these arms.” The very next day, Brown began raising money and gathering weapons and in August the old man left for Kansas, continuing to collect arms as he went.
In May 1856 a proslavery army sacked the free-soil town of Lawrence; not a single abolitionist dared fire a gun. This infuriated Brown. He called for volunteers to go on “a secret mission.” The old man, in his soiled straw hat, stuck a revolver in his belt and led a company of eight men down toward Pottawatomie Creek. Proslavery people lived in the cabins there.
Late on the night of May 23, 1856, one of the group, probably Brown, banged on the door of James Doyle’s cabin. He ordered the men of the family outside at gunpoint, and Brown’s followers set upon three Doyles with broadswords. They split open heads and cut off arms. John Brown watched his men work. When it was over, he put a single bullet into the head of James Doyle.
His party went to two more cabins, dragged out and killed two more men. At the end bodies lay in the bushes and floated in the creek; the murderers had made off with horses, saddles, and a bowie knife.
What came to be called the Pottawatomie Massacre ignited all-out war in Kansas. John Brown, the aged outsider, became an abolitionist leader. In August some 250 Border Ruffians attacked the free-soil town of Osawatomie. Brown led thirty men in defending the town. He fought hard, but Osawatomie burned to the ground.
A few days later, when Brown rode into Lawrence on a gray horse, a crowd gathered to cheer “as if the President had come to town,” one man said. The spinning of John Brown had already begun. A Scottish reporter named James Redpath had found Brown’s men in their secret campsite, and “I left this sacred spot with a far higher respect for the Great Struggle than ever I had felt before.” And what of Pottawatomie? Brown had nothing to do with it, Redpath wrote. John Brown himself even prepared an admiring account of the Battle of Osawatomie for Eastern newspapers. Less than two weeks after the fight, a drama called Ossawattomie Brown was celebrating him on Broadway.