- 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
That autumn, peace finally came to Kansas, but not to John Brown. For the next three years he traveled the East, occasionally returning to Kansas, beseeching abolitionists for guns and money, money and guns. His plan evolved into this: One night he and a small company of men would capture the federal armory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. The invaders would take the guns there and leave. Local slaves would rise up to join them, making an army; together they all would drive south, and the revolution would snowball through the kingdom of slavery.
On the rainy night of October 16, 1859, Brown led a determined little procession down the road to Harpers Ferry. Some twenty men were making a direct attack on the U.S. government; they would liberate four million souls from bondage. At first the raid went like clockwork. The armory was protected by just one man, and he quickly surrendered. The invaders cut telegraph lines and rounded up hostages on the street.
Then Brown’s difficulties began. A local doctor rode out screaming, “Insurrection!,” and by midmorning men in the heights behind town were taking potshots down at Brown’s followers. Meanwhile, John Brown quietly ordered breakfast from a hotel for his hostages. As Dennis Frye, the former chief historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, asks, “The question is, why didn’t John Brown attempt to leave? Why did he stay in Harpers Ferry?” Russell Banks, the author of the recent John Brown novel Cloudsplitter, has an answer: “He stayed and he stayed, and it seems to me a deliberate, resigned act of martyrdom.”
At noon a company of Virginia militia entered town, took the bridge, and closed the only true escape route. By the end of the day, John Brown’s revolution was failing. Eight invaders were dead or dying. Five others were cut off from the main group. Two had escaped across the river; two had been captured. Only five raiders were still fit to fight. Brown gathered his men in a small brick building, the enginehouse, for the long, cold night.
After Brown was sentenced, he began comparing himself to Jesus Christ. And he was not alone.
The first light of October 18 showed Brown and his tiny band an armory yard lined with U.S. Marines, under the command of Col. Robert E. Lee. A young lieutenant, J. E. B. Stuart, approached beneath a white flag and handed over a note asking the raiders to surrender. Brown refused. At that Stuart jumped aside, waved his cap, and the Marines stormed forward with a heavy ladder. The door gave way. Lt. Israel Green tried to run Brown through, but his blade struck the old man’s belt buckle; God, for the moment, had saved John Brown.
A few hours later, as he lay in a small room at the armory, bound and bleeding, Brown’s real revolution began. Gov. Henry A. Wise of Virginia arrived with a retinue of reporters. Did Brown want the reporters removed? asked Robert E. Lee. Definitely not. “Brown said he was by no means annoyed,” one reporter wrote. For the old man was now beginning a campaign that would win half of America. He told the reporters: “I wish to say...that you had better—all you people of the South—prepare yourselves for a settlement of this question....You may dispose of me very easily—I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is still to be settled—this negro question I mean; the end of that is not yet.”
His crusade for acceptance would not be easy. At first he was no hero. Leaders of the Republican party organized anti-Brown protests; “John Brown was no Republican,” Abraham Lincoln said. Even the Liberator, published by the staunch abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, called the raid “misguided, wild, and apparently insane.”
In the South the initial reaction was derision—the Richmond Dispatch called the foray “miserably weak and contemptible”—but that soon changed to fear. Stuart’s soldiers found a carpetbag crammed with letters from Brown’s supporters; a number of prominent Northerners had financed the raid. It had been a conspiracy, a wide-ranging one. But how wide?
A reign of terror began in the South. A minister who spoke out against the treatment of slaves was publicly whipped; a man who spoke sympathetically about the raid found himself thrown in jail. Four state legislatures appropriated military funds. Georgia set aside seventy-five thousand dollars; Alabama, almost three times as much.
Brown’s trial took just one week. As Virginia hurried toward a verdict, the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher preached, “Let no man pray that Brown be spared! Let Virginia make him a martyr!” John Brown read Beecher’s words in his cell. He wrote “Good” beside them.
On November 2 the jury, after deliberating for forty-five minutes, reached its verdict. Guilty. Before he was sentenced, Brown rose to address the court: “I see a book kissed here, … the Bible.... [That] teaches me to ‘remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.’ I endeavored to act up to that instruction....I believe that to have interfered…in behalf of His despised poor was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life..., 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...I say let it be done!”