John Brown, an American abolitionist, born in Torrington, Conn., May 9, 1800, hanged at Charlestown, Va., Dec. 2, 1859. He was fifth in descent from Peter Brown, who landed at Plymouth, Mass., from the Mayflower in 1620. At the age of five years he emigrated with his father to Hudson, Ohio, where his youth and early manhood were passed. When a boy he was often sent distances of 100 miles or more in charge of droves of cattle, and visiting several encampments of American troops during the war of 1812, he acquired so great a disgust for military life that he invariably refused to perform military duty, choosing rather to be fined than to serve as a soldier even in time of peace. He then resolved never to take part in any war which was not one for liberty. About this time, as appears from a fragment of an autobiography left by him, he conceived that detestation of slavery which became the master passion of his life. He received a strict religious education, and at 16 years of age was a communicant of the Congregational church and a diligent reader of the Bible. In 1819 he went to Plainfield, Mass., with a view of entering the orthodox Calvinistic ministry; but a chronic inflammation of the eyes compelled him to abandon his studies and return to Ohio, where he resumed the tanner's trade, which he had previously practised in his father's service.
For the next 20 years he carried on this business partly in Ohio and partly in Crawford county, Penn.; but having lost the greater part of his property by unfortunate speculations in land, he returned to Ohio, and in 1840 embarked in the wool trade. In 1846 he removed with his family to Springfield, Mass., where he opened a wool warehouse. Many wool-growers of northern Ohio consigned their stock to him to be sold at discretion; but having attempted to establish a system of grading wools, he brought himself into collision with the manufacturers of New England, who combined to purchase wool directly from the producers. Brown thereupon took a large quantity of wool to Europe, which was sold in London at half its value, and he returned to America a ruined man. In 1849 he removed his family to North Elba, Essex county, N. Y., and began to reclaim a tract of wild land given to him by Gerrit Smith. For ten years previous to this time he had harbored the thought of becoming the liberator of the southern slaves; and as the region in which he settled was partially occupied by negro colonists, whom Mr. Smith's liberality had planted there on free homesteads, he undertook to counsel and instruct them, hoping thereby to further indirectly the scheme which lay nearest to his heart.
But the negroes, unaccustomed to the rigors of a northern climate, and disheartened by the toils and hardships involved in clearing their mountain farms, soon relinquished them. Brown and his family, which now included a number of grown-up sons and daughters, persevered, and ultimately established comfortable homes for themselves. In 1851 he returned to Ohio and again engaged in the wool business. In 1854 his four eldest sons, residing in Ohio, migrated to Kansas. They went unarmed, and settled in Lykins county, about 8 m. distant from the village of Ossawattomie, and near the Missouri border. Partaking strongly in the anti-slavery opinions of their father, they were harassed, plundered, and threatened by marauding bands of pro-slavery men from Missouri; and they finally wrote to their father to bring them a supply of arms and ammunition. To this summons he lent a ready ear. Having brooded for fifteen years over schemes for arresting and overthrowing the slave power, he conceived that the moment had now arrived when he ought to take the field actively in that behalf.
Trained by a life of toil to endure hardships, tough and sinewy of body, strictly temperate in his habits, and a brave, resolute, and God-fearing man of the type of his Puritan ancestor, he was singularly fitted to become a leader in the rough encounters which marked the border warfare of Kansas in 1854-'6. Moving his family back to the farm in North Elba, he departed in 1855 for Kansas, with no intention of settling there, but prepared to lay down his life if necessary in the anti-slavery cause. In November of this year the people of Lawrence, the headquarters of the free-state men, armed themselves to repel an attack from a large body of Missourians, who, organized as Kansas militia, had laid siege to the town. While the hostile forces were watching each other, John Brown, accompanied by his four sons, all armed to the teeth, appeared among the besieged. He received a command and counselled an immediate movement upon the enemy; but the leaders of the free-state men, unwilling to bring on a collision, were endeavoring to adjust the difficulty by negotiation.
This disgusted Brown, who, in reply to an invitation from Gen. J. H. Lane to attend a council of war, said: " Tell the general when he wants me to fight to say so; but that is the only order I will ever obey." Thenceforth his operations were of an irregular character and conducted exclusively by himself. In May, 1856, at the head of a small body of determined men, he went into camp on the Pottawattamie, near the residence of his sons. A few days later he was engaged in the combat of Black Jack, which resulted in the capture of a superior force of Missourians, with a considerable amount of plundered goods. Other affairs of the kind occurring during the summer enhanced his reputation as a partisan leader and hard fighter, and he was both hated and feared by the pro-slavery marauders. In the latter part of August a fresh invasion of Missourians poured into the territory, numbering nearly 2,000 men. A part of this force was driven back by Gen. Lane, while another body of 500 marched upon the town of Ossawattomie, near which Brown was encamped with about 30 men.
Owing to the rapid advance of the assailants, a part of his band was cut off and one of his sons killed; but with the remainder, about 15 men, he took post in the woods adjoining the town, where for nearly an hour he offered an obstinate and successful resistance. When by various casualties his little force had become diminished one half, he effected a retreat in safety, having inflicted a severe loss in killed and wounded on the enemy. This encounter gave Brown a sort of national reputation, and the sobriquet of " Ossawattomie Brown " clung to him until his death. Six weeks later he was again in Lawrence, on his way home from Topeka, when the announcement was made that an overpowering force of Missourians was approaching to attack the town, which at the moment contained fewer than 200 able-bodied men. Brown was unanimously chosen leader, and having made a characteristic speech to his men, whom he urged to fire deliberately and aim at the enemy's legs, he posted his force in and around the town. The enemy approached within half a mile, but hesitated to make an attack, and both parties lay on their arms during the night. When the sun rose the Missourians had decamped.
Soon afterward Brown, accompanied by his three sons, left for the east to obtain arms and supplies for the free-state emigrants in Kansas. He remained away a year. In February, 1857, he addressed a committee of the Massachusetts legislature, appointed to consider petitions in favor of a state appropriation to protect the rights of Massachusetts citizens in Kansas; and in Boston and other cities he had frequent interviews with anti-slavery sympathizers. The mission proved an unsuccessful one so far as substantial aid was concerned. His proposition to drill and equip a body of men for service in Kansas savored too much of aggressive warfare to meet the views of most of those to whom he addressed himself. None could doubt his honesty and devotion to the anti-slavery cause, but few were willing to trust a man whose enthusiasm for freedom evidently bordered on fanaticism. Many persons believed him to be insane on the subject. In November, 1857, he returned to Kansas and began to put into practical operation a project in furtherance of the anti-slavery cause far in advance of any views previously made public by him.
This was nothing less than to attack the institution of slavery in one of its oldest seats, and by the aid of liberated slaves to overthrow it throughout the Union. This project, conceived many years previous, was matured partly during the border warfare in Kansas and partly while on his visit to the eastern states; but he unfolded it very cautiously, and would probably have hesitated to carry it out so soon had not his zeal been inflamed by the exciting scenes through which he had recently passed. He revealed it to few if any of those from whom he solicited aid in behalf of the free-state cause. With a small number of resolute men, carefully selected, he soon after repaired to Iowa, where they passed the winter of 1857-8 in practising military exercises. He now informed his followers that they were to serve in Virginia instead of Kansas, as they had supposed, and that Harper's Ferry would be the scene of his first operations against the slaveholders. For the furtherance of his plans Brown relied very considerably upon the assistance of fugitive slaves who had escaped from the United States into Canada; and for the purpose of informing these people of his intentions and of inducing them to cooperate with him, he called a secret convention of the "friends of freedom" at Chatham, Canada West, in May, 1858. The result of its deliberations was the adoption of a " Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the People of the United States," drafted by Brown, and which was essentially an embodiment of his political opinions.
The preamble declared that the instrument was framed mainly in the interests of the slaves and other people "degraded by the laws of the United States," and many of the articles provided for the maintenance of order among insurgent slaves and for other contingencies which seemed likely to arise. One of them disclaimed any intention to overthrow the government of the United States or dissolve the Union, and limited the action of the framers to "amendment and repeal." Under this constitution Brown was chosen commander-in-chief; J. H. Kagi, secretary of war; Owen Brown, son of John Brown, treasurer; and Richard Realf, secretary of state, the three last named being members of Brown's party from Iowa. No person being permitted to hold more than one office at a time, the presidency was temporarily conferred upon Elder Monroe, a colored clergyman. Brown had hoped to proceed at once to Harper's Ferry, but several circumstances combined to prevent the immediate execution of his plan, the chief obstacle being the want of money. He therefore returned in June, 1858, with a portion of his party, to Kansas, and settled temporarily in the southern part of the territory, which was then the theatre of border warfare, as northern Kansas had been a year or two previous.
On Dec. 19, while the excitement was at its height, a slave named .Jim secretly crossed the border to Brown's cabin and announced that he and his family had been sold, and would be sent to Texas the next day. Brown, with 20 men divided into two parties, immediately crossed over into Missouri and liberated the slaves, whom, with 6 other negroes, making 11 in all, they conveyed into Kansas. In this enterprise one of the owners of the slaves was killed. An unprecedented excitement followed. Not only was a large reward offered for Brown's arrest, but the more moderate free-state men hastened to disavow any sympathy with his daring act. The territory became too hot for him, and he started early in January, 1859, for the north, •accompanied by four white companions and the liberated negroes. Pursued by a party of 30 men, subsequently increased to 42, he made a stand in a deserted log cabin, whence, having provided for the safety of the women and children under his charge, he issued forth with seven male companions to do battle with the enemy. The latter precipitately fled, with the exception of four men, who were at once made prisoners.
Brown subsequently took the slaves into Iowa, whence in the middle of March he conveyed them safely to Canada. He now began in earnest his preparations for the invasion of Virginia. In the latter part of June he appeared in Hagerstown, Md., where he represented himself to be a farmer named Smith from western New York, in search of a cheap farm adapted to wool-growing. He finally hired for a few months an unoccupied farm in Virginia, about six miles from Harper's Ferry, which he occupied with several of his party early in July. Others joined him from time to time, including three of his sons, until the force numbered 22 persons, of whom 17 were white men and the remainder negroes. Boxes of arms, ammunition, and other supplies which had been shipped to Ohambersburg, Md., the previous year, were gradually removed to the farm in Virginia, without exciting the suspicions of the neighbors. In selecting this place for the first attack Brown had for his immediate object the capture of the United States arsenal at Harper's Ferry, where were usually stored from 100,000 to 200,000 stand of arms.
This building with its contents once in his possession, he expected to rally to his support the slave population of the neighborhood, and, when his force was sufficiently recruited and equipped, to convey them into the free states, or, if that should prove impossible, to retire to the mountains and inaugurate a general servile war. The night of Oct. 24 was originally fixed for the attack upon the arsenal, but at a council called by Brown on Sunday, the 16th, it was determined to begin operations that very evening. The presence of so large a party of men in the neighborhood with no ostensible object had begun to arouse the suspicion of the Virginians, and further delay was considered dangerous. About 10 o'clock on Sunday night Brown and his men entered the village of Harper's Ferry, and, having extinguished the lights on the streets, took possession of the arsenal, overpowering and making prisoners the three watchmen who formed the sole guard of the building. The watchman at the bridge across the Potomac was next captured, and the railroad train from the west, which arrived there shortly after 1 A. M. on the 17th, was stopped.
During the night the houses of Ool. Washington and other citizens in the ' neighborhood were visited and stripped of whatever arms they contained, the owners were imprisoned in the arsenal, and their slaves were freed. At daylight on the 17th the train was allowed to proceed toward Baltimore, Brown freely informing every one who questioned him that his object in seizing the arsenal was to free the slaves, and that he acted " by the authority of God Almighty." As the morning advanced he gathered in prisoners, principally from among the male citizens who appeared upon the streets and the workmen who approached the arsenal to resume their daily avocations. By 8 o'clock the number exceeded 60. Heywood, a negro porter at the railroad depot, was ordered by Brown's followers to join them. He refused, and attempting to escape was shot dead. The citizens had by this time begun to recover from the stupor into which the audacity of Brown's attack had plunged them. A desultory firing was opened upon the arsenal, and several persons were killed and wounded upon either side, including the mayor and two other prominent citizens, and one of Brown's sons. But until noon Brown virtually held possession of the town.
Up to that time his force had been increased only by the. accession of six or eight negroes, who were compelled by threats to join him. As the day advanced, opposing forces gathered around him. Militia from the neighborhood marched into the town, and the captors of the arsenal soon found themselves closely besieged in the building. Of the two insurgents guarding the bridge, one was killed and one captured. Five men who occupied the rifle works were driven out, and all were either killed or captured. The arsenal was now commanded on all sides by the armed Virginians, who poured ceaseless volleys upon it, which were returned by the garrison. So greatly were the attacking forces incensed by the shooting of the mayor and other popular citizens that when Aaron D. Stevens, one of Brown's most trusted followers, was sent out with a flag of truce, he was instantly shot down, receiving six balls in his body; and Thompson, the prisoner captured at the bridge, was put to death. By nightfall of the 17th the arsenal was completely invested by the militia, and Brown retired, with such of his prisoners as had not escaped, to the engine house, an attack upon which he repulsed with a loss of two killed and six wounded to the assailants. Soon after this the firing ceased for the day.
The situation was then desperate for Brown. His force had dwindled to three uninjured white men besides himself, and a few negroes from the neighborhood. The remainder were killed or mortally wounded, with the exception of half a dozen who had been sent out in the morning to liberate slaves and could not rejoin their chief. The latter nevertheless displayed during the night a coolness and self-control which extorted the admiration of his prisoners. "With one son dead by his side," says Col. Washington, " and another shot through, he felt the pulse of his dying son with one hand, held his rifle in the other, and commanded his men with the utmost composure, encouraging them to be firm and to sell their lives as dearly as possible." An offer to release his prisoners provided his men were permitted to cross the bridge in safety having been rejected, the last avenue of escape was closed to him. During the night Col. Robert E. Lee, with a body of United States 'marines and two pieces of artillery, arrived and took post near the engine house. At 7 o'clock on the morning of the 18th these troops battered in the door of the building, and in an instant overpowered the small garrison.
Brown, fighting desperately to the last, was struck down by a sabre stroke, and while prostrate on the ground was twice bayoneted. Although grievously wounded, he preserved his undaunted bearing. When questioned as to his, object in seizing the arsenal and imprisoning citizens, he answered with perfect frankness, but refused to compromise persons still at liberty. Gov. Wise and Senator Mason of Virginia, and Mr. C. L. Val-landigham, a member of congress from Ohio, cross-examined him closely, but failed to elicit any other than a simple statement of his motives and personal acts. He declined to answer no reasonable' question, asserting that he had only done his duty in attempting to liberate the slaves of Virginia, and that he had nothing to regret save the failure of the enterprise. He however expressed great solicitude for his son Watson, who was captured in a dying condition, and who died on Wednesday, the 19th. On the same day Brown and his three surviving comrades were conveyed to the jail in Charlestown, Va. They were indicted a few days later for conspiring with negroes to produce insurrection, for treason against the commonwealth of Virginia, and for murder.
On Oct. 27 Brown was brought to trial, his request for a brief delay on the ground that he was mentally and physically unable to proceed with his trial, and that he wished to confer with counsel of his own choice instead of those assigned to him by the court, having been denied. He was laid upon a cot within the bar, being too feeble to stand or even to sit, and, in the presence of a court and jury violently prejudiced against him, conducted himself with singular calmness. He repelled with indignation the plea of insanity attempted to be urged in his behalf, and even offered, in order to save time and trouble, to identify papers in his own handwriting which afforded strong evidence against him. Counsel meanwhile arrived from the north to defend him, and the trial went on. On the 31st he was found guilty on all the counts in the indict-.ment, and on the succeeding day he was sentenced to be hanged on Dec. 2. In the speech which he addressed to the court on this occasion he disavowed any intention of committing murder or treason or the wilful destruction of property. His prime object, he said, was to liberate the slaves, not to -excite them to insurrection, and he therefore felt no consciousness of guilt.
He laid considerable stress on his kind treatment of his prisoners in the arsenal, and also expressed himself satisfied with the treatment he had himself received on the trial. During his imprisonment he received visits from his wife and a number of northern friends, and held arguments on the slavery question with southern clergymen who attempted to offer him the consolations of religion. On the day appointed for his execution he left the jail, an eye-witness said, " with a radiant countenance and the step of a conqueror," pausing for a moment by the door to kiss a negro child held up to him by its mother. On the scaffold he was calm, gentle, and resigned, and warmly thanked all who had been kind to him during his imprisonment. Noticing that none but troops were present at the place of execution, he remarked that citizens should not have been denied the privilege of coming to see him die. He met his death with perfect composure, and was apparently the least concerned of all present over the tragic event of the day. His body was delivered to his widow at Harper's Ferry, by whom it was conveyed to the farm in North Elba to be interred. John Brown died as he had lived, a resolute, unyielding zealot. His piety was as sincere as it was severe.
On one occasion in Kansas he compelled a party of profane Missourians captured by him to kneel and pray under penalty of being shot; and during the few weeks preceding the capture of the arsenal at Harper's Ferry he caused his followers to engage daily in prayer and the reading of the Scriptures. On every subject but slavery he was shrewd and eminently practical. As an exponent of the austere virtues of the men who founded the New England colonies, he seemed an offshoot from an earlier age; and it would be difficult to find his counterpart in that regard among men prominent in American history during the past half century.