On October 16, 1859, John Brown led 19 men in a raid on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. The objective of the raid was to seize arms and initiate a revolt against the Southern slave system. The John Brown raid failed in its immediate aims but has been described as the opening salvo in the U.S. Civil War, which culminated in the revolutionary defeat of the slave system.
John Brown and others involved in the raid were convicted on Oct. 27, 1859 and executed by the U.S. government less than two months later. Soldiers in the Union army, and especially the African-American regiments — the most determined fighters in the Civil War — often sang as they marched: “John Brown’s body lies a mould’ring in the grave/His soul’s marching on!”
Three years before the Harper’s Ferry raid, Brown led attacks against pro-slavery forces during “Bleeding Kansas,” the 1854-1858 war between pro- and anti-slavery forces in Kansas and Missouri. John Brown had come to the conclusion that slavery would not be defeated through moral persuasion. In fact, pro-slavery forces were using violence to expand the slave territory, and it was working. On the battlefield, Brown put his conviction into action.
John Brown has been both demonized and romanticized for his actions in Kansas and Harper’s Ferry. He has been cast as a madman and as a saint. Brown has also been oversimplified as a purely anti-racist, anti-slavery figure. John Brown gave his life to end what he saw as a continuous and brutal war against African Americans, a people he regarded as his sisters and brothers. While his anti-racist convictions were advanced for the time in which he lived, a thorough understanding of John Brown’s life and times reveals an even more powerful theme: revolutionary commitment.
John Brown’s opposition to racism and slavery began early in his life. Through the influence of family, religious teachings and childhood experiences with African American peers, Brown developed a sense of outrage against the brutality of the slave system.
There were certainly many other whites who developed a similar outrage against slavery. What distinguished Brown was his sense of duty to be an instrument in the struggle against slavery. As Brown’s life progressed, his proclamations of commitment to make war against slavery grew stronger. Brown understood this commitment as primary; all other aspects of his later life were understood in the context of this commitment.
John Brown carried on various business endeavors, including farming, tanning hides, cattle trading, and horse and sheep breeding—with limited success. However, by the mid-1840s Brown had gained a reputation as an expert in fine sheep and wool.
Throughout his adult life, he tirelessly endeavored to bring to his side all those with whom he came in contact. He consciously cultivated a reputation as a trusted and reliable person in the communities where he lived and worked, understanding such relations as potentially important to his future anti-slavery endeavors.
John Brown undertook his anti-slavery organizing efforts with the seriousness and commitment of a professional revolutionary. He traveled to meet with other important leaders in the abolitionist movement. He strategized and planned, seeking and gaining material and financial support, while maintaining his commitment to militancy as necessary to assure victory.
John Brown was an agrarian revolutionist who was intrigued by some of the socialist experiments of his time.
Brown’s communal sensibility was most evidenced by his participation in the Timbuctoo experiment in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. Beginning in 1846, wealthy abolitionist Gerrit Smith gave thousands of African Americans 40 acres each on a 120,000-acre expanse he donated for the purpose of promoting African American freedom and their right to vote.
Smith hoped that Timbuctoo would develop into a thriving agricultural community while providing many African Americans with the means to meet the minimum voting requirement of the time: ownership of property valued at $250. Brown contributed some provisions and lent his farming expertise to the Timbuctoo experiment, while continuing his organizing efforts aimed at a military assault against the slave system.
Further evidence of Brown’s revolutionary political understanding includes the provisional constitution he drafted in 1858, ready for enactment upon the seizure of power by anti-slavery forces. The provisional constitution included language such as “[a]ll captured or confiscated property and all property… shall be held as the property of the whole … and may be used for the common benefit. …” Brown viewed the struggle against slavery not as an exclusive struggle, but as part and parcel of a general social revolution.
John Brown committed his life to the struggle to end slavery—a struggle that constituted the revolutionary movement of his time. Brown carried out his commitment with the material available to him.
Since John Brown’s time, the working class has accumulated vast experience, especially from socialist revolutions, anti-colonial struggles and mass movements for civil rights. As we organize toward the next revolutionary victory, we can be inspired by John Brown’s commitment, realizing that each of our contributions has the potential to be more and more decisive.