Session 3 “Making Sense of John Brown’s Raid”

David Blight, David Reynolds, Manisha Sinha, Clarence Walker

It is interesting that we are commemorating the life of someone who committed treason.  Research is now being done on just how many blacks from Jefferson County were involved in one way or the other – we must move beyond the standard number of 5.  New research suggests that it might have been around 300.  John Brown’s plan was a military disaster and we must account for why blacks in the region were so suspicious of him.  According to Blight many slaves were suspicious of their would-be friends.  Brown had not really laid the groundwork for what was needed in a successful raid at H.F.  There were 16,000 slaves in the six counties around H.F.  In areas where there were large black families men were very cautious so as not to risk their families – this may explain their caution in response of Brown.  Most people, including Douglass viewed it as a “suicide mission.”  We must see the Brown raid as the culmination of agitation on the part of the black community throughout the 1850s; it was not an aberration given the number of blacks that escaped to the north.  Many blacks debated the appropriateness of the use of violence to bring about emancipation.  Brown was extremely conscious of a long history of black resistance that extended into Jamaica.  Three slave rebellions took place in Va., but they all failed.  So, what lessons did Brown gleen from these failed attempts?  In 1848 Brown paid to have two poems on black resistance published; he also reflected on the failed rebellons of Spartacus.

Unlike many abolitionists, Brown was not condescending to blacks.  He attended their churches and treated them as equals – he adhered to a God that was omnipotent, omnipresent, and morally just.  Brown viewed himself as an agent of that God – bounded by his religious sensibilities.  To grasp what he did at H.F. we must get our heads around B’s Calvinism:  innate depravity, providential signs, and predestination.  Brown did not enjoy the prosperity that many white northerners enjoyed during the Jacksonian Period.  This may have driven him further into the realm of religion and emancipation.

“Bleeding Kansas”: Only selected members of pro-slavery families at Pottawatomie Creek.  It must be seen as part of the immense violence that took place in Kansas at that time.  It was an act of war in a vigilante war.  The PM and the battles that flowed from it is where Brown’s reputation begins to grow back East.  Brown believed that slavery must be understood as a declaration of war against blacks.  Slavery was not an abstraction for Brown.  His repulsion goes back to his early life when he watched a slave being beaten with a shovel as well as his disgust over how free blacks were treated in the North.  Brown probably spent more time with blacks than with white abolitionists.

Harper’s Ferry: John Brown created a conspiracy, including the raising of money and recruits, though he was very secret about it.  Very few people were brought into Brown’s circle; most people had very little understanding of Brown’s intentions.  Brown hoped to recruit hundreds for the expedition, but ultimately only 19 joined.  It’s not clear what Brown intended to bring about.  It was not like Gabriel and Vessey in that they involved thousands, Brown’s model was Nat Turner – begin with a slave rebellion and hope that it spreads.  Why did Va permit him to make his statements and hold a trial?  Henry Wise was an admirer of Brown.  The trial reflects Virginia’s committment to the rule of law, even in these extreme circumstances.  Brown’s accounts were printed because the reporters understood implicity that most of their Southern readers would think Brown insane.  In the end, Va’s decision to hold a public trial allowed Brown to make his case and began the process of martyrdom – this is how Brown gained victory from failure.

Reaction: Initial response in both North and South was negative.  At first the transcendentalists publicized Brown’s actions, which was soon taken up by some in the abolitionist community.  Most important reaction from across the north was the religious response – it became an “American crucifixion” for many northerners.  Blacks in the North declared him to be a hero from the beginning as well as within the abolitionists.  Unionists and conservatives held meetings to try to prove to the South that they did not support him.  Republicans also tried to distance themselves from Brown.  Most northern town rang their bells to mark his hanging; they condemned the act, but used it to shine the light on slavery.  In a matter of weeks white northerners sympathized with Brown owing to the language that was marshaled to describe his actions as well as his behavior in the face of the gallows.

No surprise that white Southerners viewed him as insane who had perverted Christianity.  It was the height of un-Christian behavior.  Southerners used Brown to demonstrate what most Northerners wanted to do to them.  Brown was thinking about the timing of the raid in light of the upcoming presidential election.  According to Blight he wanted to hold it earlier.

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2 comments… add one
  • Louis A. DeCaro Jr. Jul 11, 2009 @ 8:14

    A number of points may be made regarding the following excerpt, and to make things less complicated, I will insert comments accordingly:

    “New research suggests that it might have been around 300.”

    Certainly the possibility of several hundreds of enslaved people supporting Brown is reasonable. But the reality is that we cannot know whether it was three or five hundred. Osborne Anderson, the only surviving raider to provide a history of the raid, says that “hundreds of slaves were ready, and would have joined in the work” (A Voice from Harper’s Ferry, p. 61). In my own work I have recovered the testimony of a local enslaved man named Antony Hunter, who was interviewed during the Civil War by New Englander Robert M. Copeland, at the time a Union officer. Copeland published his reminiscence of Hunter four years after the Civil War, making it clear that Brown had the positive attention and support of the enslaved community, and that his effort would have quickly snowballed into a large movement if he had not delayed in Harper’s Ferry. Hunter’s testimony aligns with Osborne’s narrative.

    The point here is not only that conventional narratives of the raid are incorrect concerning support by the enslaved, but that historians have an obligation to reevaluate how and why northern journalists and subsequent generations of white writers so easily accepted the testimony of slave holders and southerners generally, instead of accepting what Anderson wrote. Why has the slave master version of the raid become encrusted in US history texts? I think we know why, but it is something that needs to be discussed.

    Secondly, we need to appreciate the fact that whether it was three hundred or one thousand enslaved people who gathered on the “rim” of Harper’s Ferry awaiting Brown’s movement, the point is that Brown’s strategy was dynamic and fluid, and this was something that he, Anderson, and others assumed. Had Brown moved with determination and expedience, he would have had a magnetic and overwhelming impact on enslaved people throughout the region in a relatively short time, and this would probably have easily moved from state to state as Brown himself intended. I find that people who disdain the premise of Brown’s plans tend to see the enslaved community as passive, indifferent, or ignorant of information. They also assume that Brown had no advance contacts in Jefferson County, and that the enslaved community did not know him. Once more, this kind of reasoning tends to reflect the slave master paradigm of the raid.

    As to John Brown’s plan being a “military disaster,” I do not agree. What was a disaster was Brown’s leadership in the town of Harper’s Ferry. The plan itself never got off of the ground because Brown failed to expedite his movement into town, but delayed by discussions and “parleys” with his captives and by making great efforts to show them his good faith and fundamental care for their well-being. This is why the notion that Brown was a “terrorist” is so ludicrous. Which terrorist have you ever heard of who allowed his captives to go home to see their families under guard, or allowed visits by families to assuage their fears? As Osborne Anderson recognized, it was Brown’s overwhelming sympathies toward his captives that placed his own plans in jeopardy. We must also keep in mind a biographical footnote: the Browns were a ponderous breed, and they are remembered as such in history. I would like to think that were Harriet Tubman with John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, she might have put a fire under his behind and moved him. But he delayed to his own demise and he repeatedly acknowledged this in interviews and letters after his capture.

    The Civil War-era testimony of Antony Hunter also affirms that enslaved people were suspicious regarding outsiders and not ready to throw themselves into Brown’s plan once they saw him delaying in the town. Their withdrawal and subsequent movement toward flight from slavery (as Jean Libby has demonstrated) suggests they were disappointed but still determined to attain freedom. On the other hand, I do not agree that “blacks in the region were so suspicious” of Brown in particular, nor that “Brown had not really laid the groundwork for what was needed in a successful raid at H.F. ” Given Brown’s almost obsessive need to plan and prepare, and given the responses and reaction of enslaved people according to Anderson and Hunter, it appears that Brown was quite successful in laying the “groundwork.” Unlike many in his day (and now), Brown understood that enslaved people were eager to get their freedom and willing to fight, and that they were able to communicate and network in ways that slave masters did not ascertain. An estimable colleague who doubts this recently made the facetious point, “how was Brown supposed to let them know, e-mail them?” But this kind of skepticism not only overlooks that Brown understood the need to “get the word out,” but also diminishes the intelligent abilities of enslaved people to communicate and function as a community.

    It is also not the case that “most people” viewed Brown’s plan as a “suicide mission.” First of all, the point of contention in Brown’s plan was late-born–that is, the invasion of Harper’s Ferry and seizure of the armory. This was the stumbling block for Frederick Douglass and others. But Douglass and other black leaders apparently knew about Brown’s general plan for years and widely supported it. The question is whether they were correct: was Brown’s invasion of Harper’s Ferry necessarily suicidal?

    My own argument is that despite the arguments of Douglass and others at the time, Brown knew what he was doing because he had made careful study of the armory and the town. For instance, Douglass must have objected because he believed attacking a military armory would necessarily mean conflict with the army. In fact, Brown knew (he also studied the armory in Springfield, Mass., where he lived in the 1840s) that both government armories were under meager civilian operation. Brown knew that Harper’s Ferry was vulnerable and unsuspecting and that it would be easy to invade, seize, and hold the town and armory. The only issue was that it was a time-sensitive strategy. And it was in respect to the timing that Brown failed. Had he gotten out of Harper’s Ferry by 5 or 6:00 a.m., it would have been very unlikely that he could have been apprehended, and he most certainly would have gathered an eager mass of enslaved people to follow him.

    It would be a problematic revision to paint Brown at Harper’s Ferry as successful because he actually did attract the support of the enslaved community. He failed by his own admission and he stands to be criticized–by the enslaved community–for his lethal delay based upon unwise and undue attention paid to his captives. Brown stood at the door of a revolutionary change and despite his good intentions and favorable possibilities, he lingered long enough to lose the opportunity. Of course he fought in Harper’s Ferry as he would have fought in the mountains and across the southern states were he to have made quicker work of his exemplary conquest of Harper’s Ferry. He also was willing to die for the enslaved. He did not “reinvent” himself as a prisoner awaiting the gallows. His Virginia jail cell simply proved to be the public’s magnifying glass on Brown, thus allowing his generation and subsequent generations to get a clear picture of the man as he was–his faith, his convictions, and his willingness to live and die for justice.

  • Bruce Miller Apr 30, 2009 @ 15:38

    Kevin, thanks for the live-blogging of this event. I have a few comments on the material you recorded from the panel here.

    I think Brown had a pretty clear plan, and a realistic one, at that. His goal was to seize weapons in Harper’s Ferry, escape from town and go into the Appalachians in the South. There he would set up guerrilla camps and make raids to free slaves. He hoped some of the slaves would join him in the effort. His goal was to de-stabilize the slavery system.

    He was certainly aware that the slaveowners and many non-slaveowning Southern whites had a grossly exaggerated fear of “servile insurrection”, and that the kind of raids he planned would fan those fears. Which is a big part of the reason even small raids to free slaves would be destabilizing to the system.

    But Brown wasn’t trying to stir up a mass slave insurrection. He planned a long-term guerrilla campaign in the mountains, where he could apply the practical skills at “slave-stealing” and guerrilla warfare he had learned in Kansas.

    But apparently he did hope that more slaves would abandon their owners on the night of the Harper’s Ferry raid and come together with his core group. That’s probably at least one reason why he delayed so fatally in taking the captured weapons and moving South out of town into the mountains. He also made a deadly tactical error by allowing the passanger train that came into town to leave, because the train crew and passangers were then able to quickly spread the alarm.

    And while it’s true that Brown struggled in his various businesses for much of his life, he was actually fairly successful in his early years at tanning and farming. But he got land-speculation fever, borrowed too much money, and the 1837 recession was devastating for him. And he continued to struggle economically after that with less success than before.

    But he wasn’t the ne’er-do-well scoundrel that advocates of the Lost Cause view like the early Robert Penn Warren tried to make him out to be. His record in business and farming probably compares well to others of his time in similar circumstances. That he didn’t become a large plantation owner or a millionaire industrialist is scarcely the sign of moral depravity that Warren and others tried to portray.

    Brown’s egalitarian relationships with blacks – and his commitment to the equality of women – is an important part of his story. Part of the Lost Cause scam is to point to the white supremacist notions common to Northerners and to say, look, they were racists, too, so they couldn’t possibly have cared about slavery. The trick there is to project today’s standards back on the antebellum North and confuse people who might logically think that whites who opposed slavery would also have favored something like equal rights for African-Americans then. In actual fact, white supremacist attitudes actually very often went hand-in-hand with opposition to slavery, even bitter opposition, as in Hinton Helper’s case.

    John Brown, on the other hand, was one of the few whites in America who in the 1850s clearly articulated notions of racial and gender equality that 21st century Americans would find to be contemporary. This also raises a big question for me about the accusation that Brown was “crazy”. In fact, Brown had a sacrifice-oriented Calvinist religious faith that he took very seriously. And as part of that, he recognized blacks and women as equals in a way that was unusual for his time, but which we today recognize as being ahead of his time in his democratic outlook.

    So, whatever clinical mental health issues he may have had – and I’m not convinced on any of the arguments I’ve seen about that – neither his passionate desire to end slavery (which was shared by many less militant Northerners) nor his guerrilla warfare plan that he initiated at Harper’s Ferry are evidence of any such condition.

    Finally, I’m not sure that Viriginia’s trial of a wounded Brown who was still so ill he had to lie on a cot during much of it is very strong evidence of Virginia’s dedication to the rule of law in a broader sense. After all, it was a year and a half or so later that they agreed to a bloody rebellion against their own country. So I would say their devotion to the rule of law in general was less profound than their devotion to preserving the Peculiar Institution.

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