John Brown

Learning Objectives

  • Describe John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry and its aftermath
A photograph of John Brown is shown.

Figure 1. John Brown, shown here in a photograph from 1859, was a radical abolitionist who advocated the violent overthrow of slavery.

Events in the late 1850s did nothing to quell the country’s sectional unrest, and compromise on the issue of slavery appeared impossible. Lincoln’s 1858 speeches during his debates with Douglas made the Republican Party’s position well known; Republicans opposed the extension of slavery and believed a Slave Power conspiracy sought to nationalize the institution. They quickly gained political momentum and took control of the House of Representatives in 1858. Southern leaders were divided on how to respond to Republican success. Southern extremists, known as “Fire-Eaters,” openly called for secession. Others, like Mississippi senator Jefferson Davis, put forward a more moderate approach by demanding constitutional protection of slavery.

John Brown

In October 1859, the abolitionist John Brown (the same guerilla fighter from the Bleeding Kansas situation), decided that more radical, violent approaches were best appropriate for ending slavery. He and eighteen armed men, both Blacks and Whites, attacked the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, in what is now the state of West Virginia. They hoped to capture the weapons there and distribute them among enslaved persons to begin a massive uprising that would bring an end to slavery. Brown had already demonstrated during the 1856 Pottawatomie attack in Kansas that he had no patience for the nonviolent approach preached by pacifist abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison. Born in Connecticut in 1800, Brown spent much of his life in the North, moving from Ohio to Pennsylvania and then upstate New York as his various business ventures failed. To him, slavery appeared an unacceptable evil that must be purged from the land, and like his Puritan forebears, he believed in using the sword to defeat the ungodly.

Brown had gone to Kansas in the 1850s in an effort to stop slavery, and there, he had perpetrated the killings at Pottawatomie. He told other abolitionists of his plan to take Harpers Ferry Armory and initiate a massive slave uprising. Some abolitionists provided financial support, while others, including Frederick Douglass, found the plot suicidal and refused to participate.

Harpers Ferry

On the night of October 16, Brown and his small band moved out in the dark to begin the war. Three men were assigned to hide a cache of weapons at a schoolhouse as a staging point for the slave rebellion. The rest marched on Harpers Ferry and easily took prisoner a night watchman and an arsenal guard when they broke into the armory. Brown dispatched a handful of men in a wagon loaded with weapons to break into nearby homes, liberate the enslaved people, and take hostages. The rebels wounded a watchman and accidentally shot and killed a free Black railroad worker. As the town’s population was roused, church bells warning of a slave insurrection pealed throughout the countryside and telegraph messages spread word of the raid across the nation. Brown’s men had taken prisoner some 40 townspeople who had been going to work and taken cover in a firehouse.

Daylight brought nothing but disaster for the ill-conceived raid. Brown’s rebels engaged in a shootout with the townspeople and lost one of the band to a sniper. Armed militia arrived and cut off any escape. When Brown sent three emissaries to negotiate a cease-fire, they were gunned down. When five of his men tried to retreat to the Shenandoah River, two were shot and killed, one drowned, and two (one free Black and one enslaved man) were captured and nearly hanged. The raiders shot and killed the mayor of the town, only fueling the anger of the citizens of Harpers Ferry. In the chaos, some 30 of Brown’s prisoners had escaped, and by nightfall he only had four or five healthy men left. One of his sons died of his wounds and another barely clung to life, but Brown resolved to fight to the end to achieve his goal of liberating the enslaved people.

Image of soldiers holding guns in front of a large building. Some men are shown holding a large ladder with which to approach the building.

Figure 2. In this depiction, published in Harpers Weekly in November 1859, U.S. Marines are shown attacking John Brown’s improvised fortifications at Harpers Ferry.

The following day, Colonel Robert E. Lee arrived with Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart and 90 Marines. Stuart tried to negotiate a surrender, but Brown refused. The Marines battered down the heavy door and stormed into the building where Brown and his men were amid gunfire and thrusting swords and bayonets. After his other men had all gone down in the mêlée, Brown was slashed by a saber before being knocked unconscious.

A few days later, Brown was tried for murder, inciting slave insurrection, and treason against the state of Virginia and was convicted on all charges. Predictably, many antislavery activists praised his actions, while southern defenders of slavery were horrified. Transcendentalist author Henry David Thoreau delivered an oration praising Brown for breaking an unjust law. “Are laws to be enforced simply because they are made?” Thoreau asked.

Poster stating “Treason! All true Christians who believe in ‘Immortality through Jesus Christ alone,’ are requested to pray for Capt. John Brown, who now is under sentence of death, and is to be hung next month for righteousness sake, and doing justly with his fellow man, his country and his God. By request of one who loves the truth, and feels for the man that is to die a martyr to it.”

Figure 3. This broadside was published in November 1859, after John Brown was convicted of murder and treason. Brown’s deeds at Harpers Ferry horrified some, but others supported his extreme actions.

During his sentencing, Brown was allowed to make a statement, which he concluded by saying, “If it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, 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 by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit. So let it be done!”

On December 2, a wagon brought him to a gallows on a cornfield surrounded by 1,500 militiamen to guard against any rescue attempt. There Brown was bound, hanged, and placed in a coffin. That morning, he had handed one of the guards a scrap of paper with a prophetic warning: “I, John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with Blood.” Brown’s raid helped fuel the sectionalism that led to the bloody Civil War between North and South and claimed the lives of more than 600,000 Americans.

An illustration shows John Brown and others with rifles and pikes, holding a small group of men hostage inside the engine house of Harpers Ferry Armory. Several other men lie injured on the ground. The caption reads “Harper’s Ferry insurrection—Interior of the Engine-House, just before the gate is broken down by the storming party—Col. Washington and his associates as captives, held by Brown as hostages.”

Figure 4. John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry represented the radical abolitionist’s attempt to start a revolt that would ultimately end slavery. This 1859 illustration, captioned “Harper’s Ferry insurrection—Interior of the Engine-House, just before the gate is broken down by the storming party—Col. Washington and his associates as captives, held by Brown as hostages,” is from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Magazine. Do you think this image represents a southern or northern version of the raid? How are the characters in the scene depicted?

Link to Learning

Read John Brown’s own words in a letter to his family penned on October 31, 1859 following his arrest. Then visit the Avalon Project on Yale Law School’s website to read the impassioned speech that Henry David Thoreau delivered on October 30, 1859, arguing against the execution of John Brown. How does Thoreau characterize Brown? What does he ask of his fellow citizens?

Reactions to the Raid

John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry generated intense reactions in both the South and the North. Several Southern newspapers sensationalized the raid, making it seem like hundreds of armed Northerners had descended on Harper’s Ferry, making the planter class especially apprehensive of the possibility of other violent plots. They viewed Brown as a terrorist bent on destroying their civilization, and support for secession grew. Their anxiety led several southern states to pass laws designed to prevent slave rebellions, such as mustering local militias. It seemed that the worst fears of the South had come true: A hostile majority would stop at nothing to destroy slavery. Was it possible, one resident of Maryland asked, to “live under a government, a majority of whose subjects or citizens regard John Brown as a martyr and Christian hero?” Many antislavery northerners did in fact consider Brown a martyr to the cause, and those who viewed slavery as a sin saw easy comparisons between him and Jesus Christ. The New England poet Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke for many of his neighbors when he spoke of Brown as “the saint…whose martyrdom, if it should be perfected, will make the gallows as glorious as the Cross.”

Watch It

This video explains how John Brown’s raid had an important impact in leading toward a violent end to slavery.

You can view the transcript for “John Brown’s Bloody End to Slavery” here (opens in new window).

Try It

Image of a man meeting a female slave holding a child. A flag behind him reads, “Sig Semper Tyrannis.” Other men surround the scene.

Figure 5. This image from 1863 depicts John Brown meeting an enslaved woman on the steps of the Charlestown courthouse. He is on his way to execution after being convicted of treason. The drawing was originally captioned: “Regarding with a look of compassion a Slave-mother and Child who obstructed the passage on his way to the Scaffold. –Capt. Brown stooped and kissed the Child–then met his fate.”

Review Question

What were southerners’ and northerners’ views of John Brown?


Harpers Ferry: the site of a federal arsenal in Virginia, where radical abolitionist John Brown staged an ill-fated effort to end slavery by instigating a mass uprising among slaves

Fire-Eaters: radical southern secessionists