He has been called a saint, a fanatic, and a cold-blooded murderer. The debate over his memory, his motives, about the true nature of the man, continues to stir passionate debate. It is said that John Brown was the spark that started the Civil War. Truly, he marked the end of compromise over the issue of slavery, and it was not long after his death that John Brown’s war became the nation’s war.
John Brown was born into a deeply religious family in Torrington, Connecticut, in 1800. Led by a father who was vehemently opposed to slavery, the family moved to northern Ohio when John was five, to a district that would become known for its antislavery views.

During his first fifty years, Brown moved around the country, settling in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York, taking along his ever-growing family (he would father twenty children). Working at various times as a farmer, wool merchant, tanner, and land speculator, he was never financially successful. He was stubborn, possessed a notoriously poor sense of business, and had more than his share of bad luck. In the Panic of 1837, Brown — like thousands of others — would lose everything. In 1842, he filed for bankruptcy.

Despite his financial setbacks, Brown always found a way to support the abolitionist cause. He participated in the Underground Railroad and, in 1851, helped establish the League of Gileadites, an organization that worked to protect escaped slaves from slave catchers.

In 1847 Frederick Douglass met Brown for the first time in Springfield, Massachusetts. Of the meeting, Douglass stated that, “though a white gentleman, [Brown] is in sympathy a black man, and as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery.” It was at this meeting that Brown first outlined to Douglass his plan to lead a war to free slaves.

Brown moved to the black community of North Elba, New York, in 1849. Gerrit Smith, a wealthy abolitionist, had donated 120,000 acres of his property in the Adirondacks to black families who were willing to clear and farm the land. Brown, knowing that many of the families were finding life in this isolated area difficult, offered to establish his own home there and teach his neighbors how to farm the rocky soil.

“He is socializing and associating with Blacks in this community,” comments historian, James Horton. “This is something unheard of for a white man to be doing in the middle of the 19th century. Most abolitionists were lukewarm, at best, on the notion of racial equality. John Brown in this regard was, I think, remarkable.”

Despite his contributions to the antislavery cause, Brown did not emerge as a figure of major significance until 1855, after he followed five of his sons to the Kansas territory.

Pro slavery forces had terrorized the region, using threats and violence to influence elections in an attempt to make Kansas a slave state. (The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 dictated that the people of the territories would vote on whether to be fee or slave.) On May 24, 1856, in retribution for an attack on the free-soil town of Lawrence, Brown led a small party of men to the homes of pro slavery settlers along Pottawatomie Creek. Five men were dragged from their homes and brutally killed. (Brown would say that he approved of, but did not participate in, the killings.) Brown took to the brush, striking out against pro slavery forces whenever possible.

John Brown’s resistance of pro slavery forces in Kansas brought him national attention. To many in the North, he became an abolitionist hero. His defense of the free-soil town of Osawattomie earned him the nickname “Osawatomie Brown,” and a play by that name soon appeared on Broadway to commemorate his story.

For the next two and a half years, Brown traveled ceaselessly throughout New England beseeching abolitionists for money and guns to bring his war against slavery to the South. A clandestine group of wealthy abolitionists, known as the “Secret Six,” funded Brown, allowing him to raise a small army.

On October 16, 1859, John Brown led 21 men on a raid of the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. His plan to arm slaves with the weapons he and his men seized from the arsenal was thwarted, however, by local farmers, militiamen, and U.S. Marines led by Robert E. Lee. Within 36 hours of the attack, most of Brown’s men had been killed or captured.

Brown was taken to Charlestown, Virginia, where he was tried and convicted of treason to the state of Viriginia. Before hearing his sentence, Brown addressed the court:

… I believe to have interfered as I have done, . . . in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it be 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.

Although initially shocked by Brown’s exploits, many Northerners began to speak favorably of the militant abolitionist. “He did not recognize unjust human laws, but resisted them as he was bid….,” said Henry David Thoreau in an address to the citizens of Concord, Massachusetts. “No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature…. .”
Brown was found guilty of murder, treason, and of inciting slave insurrection. On Dec. 2, 1859, he was hanged. It was a turning point for America, for with his death all hope of a peaceful end to the slavery issue died as well.

From PBS’ The American Experience