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Emanuel Garrett

Men and Women of Labor

Out of the Past

John Brown
(May 9, 1800–Hanged, Dec. 2, 1859)

(9 May 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 31, 9 May 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

“But when the scaffold bore its fruit, and the dead hero’s heart was cold, the pulse of humanity once more began to beat; the timid, the coward, the time-server, the helpless and the weak looked on the brave cold clay, and from a million throats a cry for vengeance was lifted to the stars. Men cried from the hustings to wake a sleeping world.” – (Clarence Darrow)

It all depends on your point of view. If you’re smug, conservative, satisfied with things as they are, John Brown was a bloodstained madman, if human liberty means more to you than anything else, if oppression and slavery make you want to go out and do something about it, then John Brown was a glorious figure who did the right thing in .the wrong way, but who nevertheless did do something!

“Old Brown of Osawatomie” was, it is true, possessed by a single idea. But that idea was: ownership of man by man is intolerable.

Born in Connecticut of a poor, farmer family which was ardently abolitionist, Brown lived under straightened circumstances all his life. Without formal schooling, he got a fairish education by reading. Never a success, he shifted from business to business. Several times he set up tanneries and sold them either at a profit or a loss. For a time he speculated in land. Such money as he made he used almost wholly for his cause! Never at any time did he have enough money for the proper care of his large family.

Striking Out for Emancipation

The conflagration of the Civil War was in the making. Two rival systems of economy – plantation or industrial – were staging the preliminary contests of a battle for power. Out in Kansas the pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces were disputing the issue of entering into the Union as a Slave or Free State, disputing by means of guerrilla warfare. Brown followed his sons out to Kansas where he led a group of free-staters organized by his sons in Osawatomie.

“Border Ruffians” from the neighboring state of Missouri periodically invaded Kansas and attacked Free State advocates. These “Border Ruffians” sacked the city of Lawrence. Brown avenged Lawrence by massacring a family of five slave-staters. In retaliation Osawatomie was set on fire.

Brown’s great plan was meanwhile maturing in his mind. Financial backing he secured from various individuals in the east, finally, in preparation for the decisive deed he called a convention of his men in Chatham, Canada. He explained his scheme to them: a base was to be established in the mountains of Virginia and Maryland to which slaves could flee. Others, white and Negro, would join the community to create a Free State under the Constitution. The exact details of achieving this end he did not work but until later.

As “Shubel Morgan” he returned to Kansas. Branded an outlaw, a reward was placed on his Head by the President of the United States. To escape being caught, Brown fled with his sons to Canada. In 1859 he returned to the States, and rented a farm five miles from Harpers Ferry to which his band of men came.

On October 16, he gave the order to proceed with the attack on Harpers Ferry which was to serve as a signal for Negro revolt. The immediate objective was the arsenal.

News of his attack spread like wild-fire. The local militia was quickly roused, and blocked his retreat into the mountains while Brown made a stand with his band and some prisoners in an engine house. By dawn the next day, Colonel Robert E. Lee arrived with his marines and attacked the engine house. Brown’s two sons were shot down at his side. Brown’s forces held out as long as they could.

When the marines succeeded in breaking through Brown’s fire, they pounced on him viciously. He who had spared his prisoners, perhaps even contributed to his defeat by his humaneness, was beaten into a bloody ball. Brown and those of his comrades who had neither been killed nor escaped were arrested. Scarcely pausing for breath the government rushed him to trial.

Immortalized on the Gallows

Throughout the trial, Brown lying in a cot maintained his dignity and defiance. He knew the sentence that was to be passed on him and he was ready: “I am worth more to die than to live.” Virginia’s Governor Wise commented: “He is a bundle of the best nerves I ever saw cut and thrust and bleeding and in bonds.”

Sentence was passed on November 2.

“Now if it is deemed necessary,” he told the court, “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 say, let it be done.”

Brown was led to the scaffold. As he approached he slipped his last written words into the hands of a guard:

“I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land: will never be purged away; but with Blood. I have as I now think: vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”

Two years later very much more blood was indeed shed. For four years armies battled to decide questions of power, and in that conflict it was decided in law that chattel slavery was doomed.

Brown had found few friends for his exploits. Even those who stood against chattel slavery were horrified by his deeds – their spirit was alien to an understanding of a man completely possessed by a desire for freedom. A few, like the poet Emerson, did see his worth – saw in him a rare, “a pure idealist of artless goodness” such as history produces every so often to impel the movement of great events.

Brown went down to defeat – yes, that is true, but only in a limited sense. We would have chosen other means, organized differently, appealed less to God. But no thrust at freedom is wasted. John Brown may be “mouldrin’ in his grave” but his spirit goes marching on.

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Last updated: 17 January 2016