John Brown

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OHS AL00524.jpg
Photographic reproduction of a portrait of abolitionist John Brown who lead a raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia and intended to start a slave revolt, ca. 1855-1859.

John Brown was born on May 9, 1800, in Torrington, Connecticut. He spent most of his youth in Ohio. He herded cattle during the War of 1812 for General William Hull, and upon the war's conclusion, he assisted his father in a tannery. In 1816, he moved to Massachusetts, seeking to become a minister. Brown married in 1820, and in 1825, he moved his family to Pennsylvania, where he opened his own tannery.

As a child, Brown's father instilled a deep hatred of slavery in his son. He encouraged his son to view the Bible as the truth and argued that God opposed slavery. As an adult, after proving to be an unsuccessful businessman, Brown decided to dedicate his life to destroying the institution of slavery. Brown served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. He also helped organize a self-defense organization for African Americans in the North. Many African Americans in the North lived in fear that slave owners would come to the North and claim them as runaway property. Brown hoped that a self-defense league would provide African Americans with protection against these claims. The organization could also protect African Americans from attacks by people seeking to drive them from their homes.

By 1850, Brown became convinced that God had selected him to lead enslaved African Americans to freedom. He believed that God condoned the use of violence to end slavery. Following the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, Brown moved to Kansas with five of his sons. They intended to help make Kansas a free state. On May 23, 1856, Brown, four of his sons, and two additional men rode into Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas, a village of several slave owning families. Brown and his followers killed five men in front of their wives and children. This brutal act was one of many that caused the territory to be called "Bleeding Kansas." Brown immediately became known for his violent opposition to slavery, and many people both feared and despised him.

Brown gained national attention in 1859. On October 16, Brown led a group of twenty-one men on a raid of Harper's Ferry, Virginia (modern-day West Virginia). A federal arsenal was in the town, and Brown hoped to capture the buildings and the weapons stored inside of them. He then intended to distribute the guns and ammunition to slaves in the region. He hoped to create an army of African Americans that would march through the South and force slave-owners to release their slaves. Brown and his men succeeded in capturing the arsenal, but local residents surrounded the buildings, trapping the abolitionists inside. A detachment of United States Marines arrived and stormed the arsenal on October 18, capturing seven men, including Brown.

The state of Virginia charged Brown with treason. During this time, slave states commonly accused people who encouraged or led slave rebellions of treason against the state. The court found Brown guilty and sentenced him to death. On December 2, 1859, Brown was hanged. He became a martyr for many Northerners. Some Northerners feared that the United States had become a government dominated by Southern slave owners. Many Southerners became convinced that all abolitionists shared Brown's views and his willingness to utilize violence. John Brown's Harper's Ferry raid raised issues for the presidential election of 1860. It also was one of the events that led to the eventual dissolution of the United States and the civil war that followed.

Brown's actions also created numerous problems for Ohioans. By the mid-1850s, the Republican Party had formed in Ohio, and its candidates campaigned on a platform of limiting slavery. Many non-Republicans believed that Republicans sought the complete overthrow of slavery. Ohio Democrats used Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry to label the Republicans as extremists.

See Also


  1. DeCaro, Louis A., Jr. Fire from the Midst of You: A Religious Life of John Brown. New York: New York University Press, 2002.
  2. Dee, Christine, ed. Ohio's War: The Civil War in Documents. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2007.  
  3. Finkelman, Paul, ed. His Soul Goes Marching On: Responses to John Brown and the Harper's Ferry Raid. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.
  4. Oates, Stephen B. To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1970.
  5. Peterson, Merrill D. John Brown: The Legend Revisited. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2002.
  6. Quarles, Benjamin. Allies for Freedom: Blacks and John Brown. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1974.
  7. Roseboom, Eugene H. The Civil War Era: 1850-1873. Columbus: Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1944.  
  8. Scott, Otto J. The Secret Six: John Brown and the Abolitionist Movement. New York, NY: Times Books, 1979.
  9. Villard, Oswald Garrison. John Brown, 1800-1859: A Biography Fifty Years After. New York, NY: A.A. Knopf, 1943.