John Brown (1800-1859), American abolitionist, leader of the famous attack upon Harper's Ferry, in 1859, was born on the 9th of May 1800, at Torrington, Connecticut. He is said to have been descended from Peter Brown, who went to America in the Mayflower, and he was the grandson of Captain John Brown, who served in the War of Independence. He was taken by his father, Owen Brown, to Hudson, Ohio, in 1805. At the age of eighteen he began to prepare himself for the Congregational ministry, but soon changed his mind and turned his attention to land surveying. He engaged successively in the tanning business, in sheep-raising, and in the wool trade, but met with little success and in 1842, at Akron, Ohio, became bankrupt. In 1849, after having lived in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, he removed to North Elba, N.Y., where he engaged in farming on part of the land which was being given in small tracts, by its owner Gerrit Smith, to negro settlers. Long before this he had conceived a strong hatred for the institution of slavery, and had determined to do what he could to bring about its destruction.
In 1854 five of his sons removed to Kansas, where the violent conflict was beginning between the "free-state" and the pro-slavery settlers, and in the following year Brown, leaving the rest of his family at North Elba, joined them, settling near Osawatomie and immediately becoming a conspicuous figure in the border warfare. His name became particularly well known in connexion with the so-called "Pottawatomie massacre," the killing in cold blood, on the 25th of May 1856, by men under his orders, of five pro-slavery settlers in retaliation for the murder a short time previously of five "free-state" settlers. He also on the 2nd of June, at the head of about thirty men, captured Captain H. C. Pate and twenty-two pro-slavery men at Black Jack, and on the 30th of August 1856, with a small body of supporters, vigorously resisted an attack of a superior pro-slavery force upon Osawatomie. Brown then visited the Eastern states for the purpose of raising money to be used in the Kansas struggle and of arousing the people against slavery.
After spending a short time in Kansas, in 1858-1859 he proceeded to carry out a long-cherished scheme for facilitating the escape of fugitive slaves by establishing in the mountains of Virginia a stronghold in which such fugitives could take refuge and defend themselves against their pursuers. At Chatham, Canada, with eleven white and thirty-five negro associates, he adopted a "Provisional Constitution and Ordinance for the People of the United States." Brown was elected commander-in-chief, and from among this group a secretary of state, a secretary of war, a secretary of the treasury, and members of Congress were chosen. Later, with only twenty-two men supplied with arms furnished by the Massachusetts-Kansas committee, and with funds contributed (in ignorance of Brown's plans) by his intimate associates, Theodore Parker, George L. Stearns, T. W. Higginson, and F. B. Sanborn, all of Boston, and Gerrit Smith, of Peterboro, New York, he removed to a farm near Harper's Ferry, the site of a Federal arsenal, which he intended to capture as a preliminary to the carrying out of the main part of his plan.
On the night of the 16th of October 1859, with only eighteen men, five of whom were negroes, he made the attack, easily capturing the arsenal and taking about sixty of the leading citizens prisoners to be used as hostages. On the following morning Brown and his followers were vigorously attacked, and on the 18th - a small force of United States marines under Colonel Robert E. Lee having arrived - were overpowered, Brown being seriously wounded after he had surrendered. Of the twenty-two men who had participated in the raid, ten were killed, seven were taken prisoners, and five escaped. On the other side five were killed and nine wounded. Brown was committed to the Charlestown, Virginia (now West Virginia), gaol on the 19th of October; on the 27th his trial began; on the 31st he was convicted of "treason, and conspiring and advising with slaves and other rebels, and murder in the first degree"; and on the 2nd of December he was hanged at Charlestown. His fellow-prisoners were likewise hanged soon afterwards. Brown was buried at North Elba, New York. The attack upon Harper's Ferry created widespread excitement, particularly in the Southern states; and among the abolitionists in the North Brown was looked upon as a martyr to their cause.
Shortly after his death a famous popular song became widely current in the North, beginning: -
John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
But his soul goes marching on.
Intensely religious in his nature, Brown possessed something of the gloomy fanaticism of his Puritan ancestors. The secret of his whole career lies in his emphatic conviction, to use the words of Wendell Phillips, that he had "letters of marque from God"; that he had a divine commission to destroy slavery by violent means. He scouted the "milk and water principles" of the milder abolitionists, advocated vigorous resistance to the slave power, and expressed his ideas by actions rather than by words. It now seems that this policy aided very little in making Kansas a free state, and that the attack on Harper's Ferry, while creating much feeling at the moment, had very little effect on the subsequent course of events. It is safe to assume that secession and civil war would have followed the election of Lincoln if there had been no such raid into Virginia.
Brown was twice married and was the father of twenty children, eight of whom died in early childhood. His sons aided him in all his undertakings, two of them being killed at Harper's Ferry; and Owen Brown, who died in 1889, was long the only survivor of the attack.
See the life (1910) by O. G. Villard, and F. B. Sanborn's Life and Letters of John Brown (Boston, 1885); R. J. Hinton's John Brown and His Men (New York, 1894); James Redpath's Public Life of Captain John Brown (Boston, 1860); Von Hoist's essay, John Brown (Boston, 1889); and J. F. Rhodes, History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 (New York, 1890-1906).