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Did John Brown Fail?: An Address Delivered in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, on May 30, 1881



(Dover, N.H., 1881). Other texts in
Speech File, reel 14, frames 228-354, FD Papers, DLC; John Reuben Sheeler, ed., “Fred-
erick Douglass, John Brown and West Virginia," , Ser.
40, no. 6 (November, 1953).

The commencement ceremonies of Storer College on 30 May 1881 drew large
numbers of people to Harpers Ferry from surrounding counties in Maryland,
Virginia, and West Virginia to hear literary exercises and witness the gradua-
tion of thirteen seniors. After the graduation exercises, Douglass presented a
lecture on John Brown that he had written in the summer of 1873 and subse-
quently delivered many times across the nation. The Reverend Charles W.
Denison opened with a prayer and then Storer’s president, Nathan C.
Brackett, introduced Douglass. Journalists made special note of the presence
on the platform of Andrew Hunter, who had prosecuted John Brown. “Many
good natured comments of Mr. Hunter made sotto voce upon the delivery of
certain portions of Mr. Douglass’s remarks occasioned such brilliant rep-
artee,” the Washington asserted, “that the audience be-
came fairly wild with enthusiasm.” After Douglass led the audience in singing
“John Brown’s Body,” Hunter approached Douglass, extended his hand, and
said “Were Robert E. Lee present he would grasp the other." Douglass
donated the typescript of the lecture to Storer College for publication, with the
proceeds intended to assist the endowment of a John Brown professorship at
the college. In , Douglass later reminisced that he had felt some
apprehension about lecturing in vindication of Brown in that community but
learned that “the people of Harper’s Ferry have made wondrous progress in
their ideas of freedom, [sic] of thought and speech. The abolition of slavery
has not merely emancipated the Negro, but liberated the whites. It has taken
the lock from their tongues and the fetters from their press.” See Appendix A,
text 1, for precis of alternate texts. Washington , 11 June
1881; Frederick Douglass, (1893; New
York, 1941), 495-97; Frederic May Holland, , rev. ed. (1891; New York, 1969), 329, 350.

Not to fan the flame of sectional animosity now happily in the process of
rapid and I hope permanent extinction; not to revive and keep alive a sense
of shame and remorse for a great national crime, which has brought its own
punishment, in loss of treasure, tears and blood; not to recount the long list
of wrongs, inflicted on my race during more than two hundred years of


merciless bondage; nor yet to draw, from the labyrinths of far-off centuries,
incidents and achievements wherewith to rouse your passions, and enkin-
dle your enthusiasm, but to pay a just debt long due, to vindicate in some
degree a great historical character, of our own time and country, one with
whom I was myself well acquainted, and whose friendship and confidence
it was my good fortune to share, and to give you such recollections,
impressions and facts, as I can, of a grand, brave and good old man, and
especially to promote a better understanding of the raid upon Harper’s
Ferry of which he was the chief, is the object of this address.

In all the thirty years’ conflict with slavery, if we except the late
tremendous war, there is no subject which in its interest and importance
will be remembered longer, or will form a more thrilling chapter in Ameri-
can history than this strange, wild, bloody and mournful drama. The story
of it is still fresh in the minds of many who now hear me, but for the sake of
those who may have forgotten its details, and in order to have our subject in
its entire range more fully and clearly before us at the outset, I will briefly
state the facts in that extraordinary transaction.

On the night of the 16th of October, 1859, there appeared near the
confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, a party of nineteen
men—fourteen white and five colored. They were not only armed them-
selves, but had brought with them a large supply of arms for such persons
as might join them. These men invaded Harper’s Ferry, disarmed the
watchman, took possession of the arsenal, rifle-factory, armory and other
government property at that place, arrested and made prisoners nearly all
the prominent citizens of the neighborhood, collected about fifty slaves,
put bayonets into the hands of such as were able and willing to fight for
their liberty, killed three men, proclaimed general emancipation, held the
ground more than thirty hours, were subsequently overpowered and nearly
all killed, wounded or captured, by a body of United States troops, under
command of Colonel Robert E. Lee, since famous as the rebel Gen. Lee.
Three out of the nineteen invaders were captured whilst fighting, and one
of these was Captain John Brown, the man who originated, planned and
commanded the expedition. At the time of his capture Capt. Brown was
supposed to be mortally wounded, as he had several ugly gashes and
bayonet wounds on his head and body; and apprehending that he might
speedily die, or that he might be rescued by his friends, and thus the
opportunity of making him a signal example of slave-holding vengeance
would be lost, his captors hurried him to Charlestown two miles further
within the border of Virginia, placed him in prison strongly guarded by


troops, and before his wounds were healed, he was brought into court,
subjected to a nominal trial, convicted of high treason and inciting slaves to
insurrection, and was executed. His corpse was given to his woe-stricken
widow,1The daughter of a Meadville, Pennsylvania, blacksmith, Mary Anne Day Brown (1816-84) received no formal education after her family had relocated from Granville, New York, in 1826. She married John Brown at age sixteen and bore thirteen children, seven of whom died in childhood. While most of the males of the family after 1855 participated in the antislavery struggle in Kansas and later in Maryland and Virginia, she and three daughters managed the Brown farm near North Elba, New York. After John Brown's execution, she remained on that farm until 1864. Mary Brown spent her last twenty years living with several of her children in California. F[ranklin] B. Sanbom, ed., (1885; Boston, 1891), 497-99; Oswald Garrison Villard, (1910; New York, 1943), 19, 24-25; Stephen B. Oates, (New York, 1970), 26. and she, assisted by Anti-slavery friends, caused it to be borne to
North Elba, Essex County, N. Y., and there his dust now reposes, amid the
silent, solemn and snowy grandeur of the Adirondacks.2Despite efforts by the Medical College of Virginia to obtain John Brown's body for dissection and examination, Virginia governor Henry A. Wise ordered it turned over to the widow. Mary Brown received the corpse at Harpers Ferry and transported it to the family farm at North Elba, New York, for burial. Abolitionists J. Miller McKim and Wendell Phillips accompanied Mary Brown on the trip through Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, Troy, and other communities. On 8 December 1859 Brown's body was interred beside a large boulder a short distance from the farmhouse. Brown’s black and white neighbors gathered as the Reverend Joshua Young of Burlington, Vermont, offered prayers, and Phillips delivered a eulogy. Benjamin Quarles, (New York, 1974), 131-33; Oates, , 356-58; Villard, , 561-62.

Such is the story; with no lines softened or hardened to my inclining. It
certainly is not a story to please, but to pain. It is not a story to increase our
sense of social safety and security, but to fill the imagination with wild and
troubled fancies of doubt and danger. It was a sudden and startling surprise
to the people of Harper’s Ferry, and it is not easy to conceive of a situation
more abundant in all the elements of horror and consternation. They had
retired as usual to rest, with no suspicion that an enemy lurked in the
surrounding darkness. They had quietly and trustingly given themselves up
to “tired Nature’s sweet restorer, balmy sleep,”3Douglass quotes the first line from Edward Young's , 6 vols. (Edinburgh, 1774), 3: 5. and while thus all uncon-
scious of danger, they were roused from their peaceful slumbers by the
sharp crack of the invader’s rifle, and felt the keen-edged sword of war at
their throats, three of their number being already slain.4Among those killed during John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry were three residents of the community: Haywood Shepherd, a free black baggage handler; Thomas Boerley, an Irish laborer; and Fontaine Beckham, the town's mayor. In addition, George W. Turner, a prominent local farmer and slaveholder, died in the fighting. Oates, , 292, 295-96, 302; Quarles, , 93-94, 96, 102-05, 108; Villard, , 435, 440-41.


Every feeling of the human heart was naturally outraged at this occur-
rence, and hence at the moment the air was full of denunciation and
execration. So intense was this feeling, that few ventured to whisper a word
of apology. But happily reason has her voice as well as feeling, and though
slower in deciding, her judgments are broader, deeper, clearer and more
enduring. It is not easy to reconcile human feeling to the shedding of blood
for any purpose, unless indeed in the excitement which the shedding of
blood itself occasions. The knife is to feeling always an offence. Even
when in the hands of a skillful surgeon, it refuses consent to the operation
long after reason has demonstrated its necessity. It even pleads the cause of
the known murderer on the day of his execution, and calls society half
criminal when, in cold blood, it takes life as a protection of itself from
crime. Let no word be said against this holy feeling; more than to law and
government are we indebted to this tender sentiment of regard for human
life for the safety with which we walk the streets by day and sleep secure in
our beds at night. It is nature’s grand police, vigilant and faithful, sen-
tineled in the soul, guarding against violence to peace and life. But whilst
so much is freely accorded to feeling in the economy of human welfare,
something more than feeling is necessary to grapple with a fact so grim and
significant as was this raid. Viewed apart and alone, as a transaction
separate and distinct from its antecedents and bearings, it takes rank with
the most cold-blooded and atrocious wrongs ever perpetrated; but just here
is the trouble— this raid on Harper’s Ferry, no more than Sherman’s5William T. Sherman. march
to the sea can consent to be thus viewed alone.

There is, in the world’s government, a force which has in all ages been
recognized, sometimes as Nemesis,6In Greek mythology, Nemesis was the goddess who pursued and punished the proud and presumptuous mortals. Michael Avi Yonah and Israel Shatzman, (New York, 1975), 312. sometimes as the judgment of God
and sometimes as retributive justice; but under whatever name, all history
attests the wisdom and beneficence of its chastisements, and men become
reconciled to the agents through whom it operates, and have extolled them
as heroes, benefactors and demigods.

To the broad vision of a true philosophy, nothing in this world stands
alone. Everything is a necessary part of everything else. The margin of


chance is narrowed by every extension of reason and knowledge, and
nothing comes unbidden to the feast of human experience. The universe, of
which we are a part, is continually proving itself a stupendous whole, a
system of law and order, eternal and perfect. Every seed bears fruit after its
kind, and nothing is reaped which was not sowed.7Douglass loosely paraphrases Matt. 7: 17-20 and Gal. 6: 7. The distance between
seed time and harvest, in the moral world, may not be quite so well defined
or as clearly intelligible as in the physical, but there is a seed time, and
there is a harvest time, and though ages may intervene, and neither he who
ploughed nor he who sowed may reap in person, yet the harvest neverthe-
less will surely come; and as in the physical world there are century plants,
so it may be in the moral world, and their fruitage is as certain in the one as
in the other. The bloody harvest of Harper’s Ferry was ripened by the heat
and moisture of merciless bondage of more than two hundred years. That
startling cry of alarm on the banks of the Potomac was but the answering
back of the avenging angel to the midnight invasions of Christian slave-
traders on the sleeping hamlets of Africa. The history of the African slave-
trade furnishes many illustrations far more cruel and bloody.

Viewed thus broadly our subject is worthy of thoughtful and dispas-
sionate consideration. It invites the study of the poet, scholar, philosopher
and statesman. What the masters in natural science have done for man in the
physical world, the masters of social science may yet do for him in the
moral world. Science now tells us when storms are in the sky, and when
and where their violence will be most felt. Why may we not yet know with
equal certainty when storms are in the moral sky, and how to avoid their
desolating force? But I can invite you to no such profound discussions. I am
not the man, nor is this the occasion for such philosophical enquiry. Mine is
the word of grateful memory to an old friend; to tell you what I knew of
him—what I knew of his inner life—of what he did and what he attempted,
and thus if possible to make the mainspring of his actions manifest and
thereby give you a clearer view of his character and services.

It is said that next in value to the performance of great deeds ourselves,
is the capacity to appreciate such when performed by others;88. Variations of this aphorism date back at least as far as to Niccolo Machiavelli. , trans. James B. Atkinson (Indianapolis, Ind., I976), chap. 22. to more than
this I do not presume. Allow me one other personal word before I proceed.
In the minds of some of the American people I was myself credited with an
important agency in the John Brown raid. Governor Henry A. Wise was


manifestly of that opinion. He was at the pains of having Mr. Buchanan
send his Marshals to Rochester to invite me to accompany them to Vir-
ginia. Fortunately I left town several hours previous to their arrival.

What ground there was for this distinguished consideration shall duly
appear in the natural course of this lecture. I wish however to say just here
that there was no foundation whatever for the charge that I in any wise
urged or instigated John Brown to his dangerous work. I rejoice that it is my
good fortune to have seen, not only the end of slavery, but to see the day
when the whole truth can be told about this matter without prejudice to
either the living or the dead. I shall however allow myself little prominence
in these disclosures. Your interests, like mine, are in the all-commanding
figure of the story, and to him I consecrate the hour. His zeal in the cause of
my race was far greater than mine—it was as the burning sun to my taper
light—mine was bounded by time, his stretched away to the boundless
shores of eternity. I could live for the slave, but he could die for him. The
crown of martyrdom is high, far beyond the reach of ordinary mortals, and
yet happily no special greatness or superior moral excellence is necessary
to discern and in some measure appreciate a truly great soul. Cold, cal-
culating and unspiritual as most of us are, we are not wholly insensible to
real greatness; and when we are brought in contact with a man of com-
manding mold, towering high and alone above the millions, free from all
conventional fetters, true to his own moral convictions, a “law unto him-
self,”9A paraphrase of Rom. 2: 14. ready to suffer misconstruction, ignoring torture and death for what
he believes to be right, we are compelled to do him homage.

In the stately shadow, in the sublime presence of such a soul I find
myself standing to-night; and how to do it reverence, how to do it justice,
how to honor the dead with due regard to the living, has been a matter of
most anxious solicitude.

Much has been said of John Brown, much that is wise and beautiful,
but in looking over what may be called the John Brown literature, I have
been little assisted with material, and even less encouraged with any hope
of success in treating the subject. Scholarship, genius and devotion have
hastened with poetry and eloquence, story and song to this simple altar of
human virtue, and have retired dissatisfied and distressed with the thinness
and poverty of their offerings, as I shall with mine.

The difficulty in doing justice to the life and character of such a man is
not altogether due to the quality of the zeal, or of the ability brought to the


work, nor yet to any imperfections in the qualities of the man himself; the
state of the moral atmosphere about us has much to do with it. The fault is
not in our eyes, nor yet in the object if under a murky sky we fail to
discover the object. Wonderfully tenacious is the taint of a great wrong.
The evil, as well as “the good that men do, lives after them.”10Douglass adapts , act 3, sc. 2, line 83. Slavery is
indeed gone; but its long, black shadow yet falls broad and large over the
face of the whole country. It is the old truth oft repeated, and never more
fitting than now, “a prophet is without honor in his own country and among
his own people.”11A paraphrase of Matt. 13: 57. Though more than twenty years have rolled between us
and the Harper’s Ferry raid, since then the armies of the nation have
found it necessary to do on a large scale what John Brown attempted to do
on a small one, and the great captain who fought his way through slavery
has filled with honor the Presidential Chair,12Ulysses S. Grant. we yet stand too near the days
of slavery and the life and times of John Brown to see clearly the true
martyr and hero that he was and rightly to estimate the value of the man and
his works. Like the great and good of all ages— the men born in advance of
their times, the men whose bleeding footprints attest the immense cost of
reform and show us the long and dreary spaces between the luminous
points in the progress of mankind— this our noblest American hero must
wait the polishing wheels of after-coming centuries to make his glory more
manifest, and his worth more generally acknowledged. Such instances are
abundant and familiar. If we go back four and twenty centuries, to the
stately city of Athens and search among her architectural splendor and her
miracles of art for the Socrates of today, and as he stands in history, we shall
find ourselves perplexed and disappointed. ln Jerusalem Jesus himself was
only the “carpenter’s son”— a young man wonderfully destitute of worldly
prudence— a pestilent fellow, “inexcusably and perpetually interfering in
the world’s business,”— “upsetting the tables of the moneychangers”13This incident is described in Matt. 21: 12-13 and John 2: 14-16.
preaching sedition, opposing the good old religion— “making himself greater
than Abraham,”14The scribes and Pharisees in the temple of Jerusalem made this charge against Jesus in the form of a question to him. John 8: 53. and at the same time, “keeping company” with very low
people1515. Possibly a reference to the complaints of the Pharisees against Jesus' dining with publicans and sinners. Matt. 9: 9-13, Mark 2: 13-17, and Luke 5 : 27-32. but behold the change! He was a great miracle-worker in his day,


but time has worked for him a greater miracle than all his miracles, for now his
name stands for all that is desirable in government, noble in life, orderly and
beautiful in society. That which time has done for other great men of his class,
that will time certainly do for John Brown. The brightest gems shine at first
with subdued light, and the strongest characters are subject to the same limita-
tions. Under the influence of adverse education and hereditary bias, few things
are more difficult than to render impartial justice. Men hold up their hands to
Heaven and swear they will do justice, but what are oaths against prejudice
and against inclination! In the face of high-sounding professions and affirma-
tions we know well how hard it is for a Turk to do justice to a Christian, or for a
Christian to do justice to a Jew. How hard for an Englishman to do justice to an
Irishman, for an Irishman to do justice to an Englishman, harder still for an
American tainted by slavery to do justice to the Negro or the Negro’s
friends. “John Brown,” said the late Wm. H. Seward, “was justly hanged.”16New York's Republican Senator William H. Seward attempted to dissociate his political party from any responsibility for the Harpers Ferry raid by means of a Senate speech on 29 February 1860. Seward instead blamed the incident upon the passions produced by the violent feuding over the slavery issue in the Kansas Territory. He pronounced the deaths of John Brown and his followers as “pitiable, although necessary and just, because they acted under delirium, which blinded their judgments to the real nature of their criminal enterprise." , 36th Cong, 1st sess., 913.
“John Brown,” said the late John A. Andrew, “was right.”17John A. Andrew made this public declaration in a speech at Boston’s Tremont Temple on the evening of 19 November 1859. Andrew's statement was: “I pause not now to consider, because it is wholly outside the duty of this assembly tonight whether the enterprise of John Brown and his associates in Virginia was wise or foolish, right or wrong; I only know that, whether the enterprise itself was one or the other, John Brown himself is right." Henry Greenleaf Pearson, , 1861-1865, 2 vols. (Boston, 1904), 1: 99-100 It is easy to
perceive the sources of these two opposite judgments: The one was the
verdict of slaveholding and panic-stricken Virginia, the other was the
verdict of the best heart and brain of free old Massachusetts. One was
the heated judgment of the passing and passionate hour, and the other was
the calm, clear, unimpeachable judgment of the broad, limitless future.

There is, however, one aspect of the present subject quite worthy of
notice, for it makes the hero of Harper’s Ferry in some degree an exception
to the general rules to which I have just now adverted. Despite the hold
which slavery had at that time on the country, despite the popular prejudice
against the Negro, despite the shock which the first alarming occasion,
almost from the first John Brown received a large measure of sympathy and
appreciation. New England recognized in him the spirit which brought the
pilgrims to Plymouth Rock and hailed him as a martyr and saint. True he had


broken the law, true he had struck for a despised people, true he had crept
upon his foe stealthily, like a wolf upon the fold, and had dealt his blow in
the dark whilst his enemy slept but with all this and more to disturb the
moral sense, men discerned in him the greatest and best qualities known
to human nature and pronounced him “good.” Many consented to his
death and then went home and taught their children to sing his praise as
one whose “soul is marching on”18Douglass quotes the lyrics of Oliver Ditson's well-known Civil War ballad “John Brown's Body," officially entitled “Glory, Hallelujah.“ David Ewen, ed., American Popular Songsfrom the Revolutionary War to the Present (New York, 1966), 204. through the realms of endless bliss.
One element in explanation of this somewhat anomalous circumstance
will probably be found in the troubled times which immediately suc-
ceeded, for “when judgments are abroad in the world, men learn righ-

The country had before this learned the value of Brown’s heroic char-
acter. He had shown boundless courage and skill in dealing with the en-
emies of liberty in Kansas. With men so few, and means so small and odds
against him so great, no captain ever surpassed him in achievements, some
of which seem almost beyond belief. With only eight men in that bitter war,
he met, fought and captured Henry Clay Pate19Henry Clay Pate (1832-64), a deputy U.S. marshal and captain in the Missouri militia, also acted as a correspondent for the St. Louis Missouri Republican during the period of violent clashes between free state and slave state settlers in Kansas Territory. Born in Bedford County, Virginia, he studied at the University of Virginia before moving to Missouri. On receiving word of the Pottawatomie massacre, Pate led a band of Missourians into Kansas Territory to capture John Brown and his sons. Pate had successfully arrested Jason Brown and John Brown, Jr., before the senior Brown assaulted the Missourians' camp at Black Jack Creek with approximately thirty not eight followers. The discrepancy regarding numbers of participants resulted from a high rate of desertions on both sides during the course of the battle. When Pate sought a truce under a white flag, Brown forced him at gun point to surrender his party. Brown offered to exchange Pate for his imprisoned sons but U.S. cavalry troops liberated the Missourian after only a few days. In his published account of the battle, Pate accused Brown of dishonorable conduct, which the latter vehemently denied. Pate returned to Virginia in the late 1850s and subsequently served as a colonel in the Confederate army. Daniel W. Wilder, The Annals of Kansas (Topeka, Kan., 1875), 199-201; Villard, John Brown, 200-08; Oates, To Purge This Land, 143, 152-56, 159. with twenty-five well
armed and mounted men. In this memorable encounter, he selected his
ground so wisely, handled his men so skillfully and attacked the enemy so
vigorously that they could neither run nor fight and were therefore com-
pelled to surrender to a force less than one-third their own. With just thirty
men on another important occasion during the same border war, he met and


vanquished four hundred Missourians under the command of Gen. Read.20John W. Reid.
These men had come into the territory under an oath never to return to their
homes till they had stamped out the last vestige of free State spirit in
Kansas; but a brush with old Brown took this high conceit out of them, and
they were glad to get off upon any terms, without stopping to stipulate.
With less than one hundred men to defend the town of Lawrence, he
offered to lead them and give battle to fourteen hundred men on the banks
of the Waukerusia river,21Contemporaries and historians have disputed the role that John Brown played in the defense of Lawrence, Kansas, in September 1856. Over twenty-seven hundred Missourians, under the command of David R. Atchinson, John W. Reid, and John H. Stringfellow, advanced to the town of Franklin, on the Wakarusa River, a few miles east of Lawrence. Brown had been present in Lawrence to confer with Charles Robinson, the political leader of the territory's free state faction, when the alarm over the Missourians' approach was sounded. Brown's earliest biographers, James Redpath and Richard J. Hinton, state that Brown played the leading role in organizing the community's defense. Later scholars credit eyewitness reports that contend that James B. Abbott was the free state commander and that Brown's role was confined to touring the town's fortifications to advise and encourage the unsteady troops. Although skirmishing between the Missourians and the free staters occurred on 14 September, a large force of U.S. cavalry troops, accompanied by territorial govemor John W. Geary, arrived to prevent further bloodshed. Fearing arrest, Brown immediately departed Lawrence and soon left Kansas for the East. James Redpath, The Public Life of Capt. John Brown; with An Autobiography of His Childhood and Youth (Boston, 1860), 70-74; Richard J. Hinton, John Brown and His Men: With Some Account of the Roads They Traveled to Reach Harper's Ferry (1894; New York, 1968), 45-52; Wilder, Annals of Kansas, 108; Villard, , 256-60; Oates, To Purge This Land, 175-76. and was much vexed when his offer was refused
by Gen. Jim Lane22Flamboyant politician James Henry Lane (1814-66) was the son of Amos Lane, a prominent Indiana Democratic congressman and friend of Andrew Jackson. The younger Lane studied law under his father and followed him into Democratic politics. After serving as a colonel of a volunteer regiment in the Mexican War, Lane was elected lieutenant govemor of Indiana (1849-53) and then a member of the U.S. House of Representatives (1853-55). He declined to run for a second congressional term when his vote in favor of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 generated considerable discontent among his constituents and instead emigrated to Kansas Territory. After failing to create a regular Democratic party organization in Kansas, Lane took a leading role in the free state faction in territorial politics. He also became an important militia commander of the free staters and in 1856 established the “Jim Lane Trail" through Iowa to circumvent a blockade by Missourians. When Kansas was admitted to the Union in 1861, the legislature elected Lane to the U.S. Senate as a Republican. Without resigning that office, he briefly fought in Union army campaigns in the West and was among the first to recruit blacks as soldiers. Loudly condemned by most Kansas Republicans for having endorsed Andrew Johnson's veto of the Civil Rights Bill of 1866, Lane became despondent and committed suicide. John Speer, Life of Gen. James H. Lane, “The Liberator of Kansas," with Corroborative Incidents of Pioneer History, 2d ed. (Garden City. Kan, 1897); William Elsey Connelley, James Henry Lane: The “Grim Chieftain" of Kansas (Topeka. Kan., 1899); Glenn Noble, John Brown and the Jim Lane Trail (Broken Bow, Neb., 1977), 29-31, 43-50, 54-57; ACAB, 3: 606; DAB, 10: 576-78. and others to whom the defense of the town was
confided. Before leaving Kansas, he went into the border of Missouri, and
liberated a dozen slaves in a single night, and, in spite of slave laws and


marshals, he brought these people through a half dozen States, and landed
them safely in Canada.23During the evening of 20-21 December 1858, John Brown and a small band of followers raided Vernon County, Missouri, from their base in Fort Snyder, Kansas Territory. Brown's party attacked two plantations and shot one slaveholder. The raiders liberated eleven slaves including a pregnant woman who soon after gave birth. These slaves were hidden for a month near Osawatomie, Kansas, while Brown waited to see if the border area would ignite into general warfare. When many free state leaders instead condemned Brown and expressed the hope for continued peace with Missouri, the raiders and the liberated slaves left the territory for Iowa. Although President James Buchanan authorized a $250 reward for Brown, his party proceeded on through Chicago to Detroit where the slaves crossed the border into Canada. G. Murlin Welch, Border Warfare in Southeastern Kansas, 1856-1859 (Pleasanton, Kan., 1977), 191-99, 208, 219-21; Oates, To Purge This Land, 261-65. With eighteen men this man shook the whole
social fabric of Virginia. With eighteen men he overpowered a town of
nearly three thousand souls. With these eighteen men he held that large
community firmly in his grasp for thirty long hours. With these eighteen
men he rallied in a single night fifty slaves to his standard, and made
prisoners of an equal number of the slave-holding class. With these eigh-
teen men he defied the power and bravery of a dozen of the best militia
companies that Virginia could send against him. Now, when slavery
struck, as it certainly did strike, at the life of the country, it was not the fault
of John Brown that our rulers did not at first know how to deal with it. He
had already shown us the weak side of the rebellion, had shown us where to
strike and how. It was not from lack of native courage that Virginia submit-
ted for thirty long hours and at last was relieved only by Federal troops; but
because the attack was made on the side of her conscience and thus armed
her against herself. She beheld at her side the sullen brow of a black
Ireland. When John Brown proclaimed emancipation to the slaves of Mary-
land and Virginia he added to his war power the force of a moral earth-
quake. Virginia felt all her strong-ribbed mountains to shake under the
heavy tread of armed insurgents. Of his army of nineteen her conscience
made an army of nineteen hundred.

Another feature of the times, worthy of notice, was the effect of this
blow upon the country at large. At the first moment we were stunned and
bewildered. Slavery had so benumbed the moral sense of the nation, that it
never suspected the possibility of an explosion like this, and it was difficult
for Captain Brown to get himself taken for what he really was. Few could
seem to comprehend that freedom to the slaves was his only object. If you
will go back with me to that time you will find that the most curious and
contradictory versions of the affair were industriously circulated, and those
which were the least rational and true seemed to command the readiest


belief. In the view of some, it assumed tremendous proportions. To such it
was nothing less than a wide-sweeping rebellion to overthrow the existing
government, and construct another upon its ruins, with Brown for its
President and Commander-in-Chief; the proof of this was found in the old
man’s carpet-bag in the shape of a constitution for a new Republic, an
instrument which in reality had been executed to govern the conduct of his
men in the mountains.24On the morning of 8 May 1858, at a school house in Chatham, Canada West, John Brown convened a secret convention attended by a dozen of his followers and by thirty-four local blacks. The meeting framed a constitution for the revolutionary state that Brown proposed to create for liberated slaves in the Appalachian fastnesses. Article 46 of the unanimously adopted constitution denied any intention to overthrow state or federal governments or to cause the dissolution of the Union. The delegates reassembled that evening and elected Brown military commander of the provisional government. When no one would accept the office of the president, the meeting chose a committee of fifteen headed by Brown to perform the duties of that position. Redpath,John Brown, 234-36; Villard, John Brown, 331-36. Smaller and meaner natures saw in it nothing
higher than a purpose to plunder. To them John Brown and his men were a
gang of desperate robbers, who had learned by some means that [the] govern-
ment had sent a large sum of money to Harper’s Ferry to pay off the
workmen in its employ there, and they had gone thence to fill their pockets
from this money. The fact is, that outside of a few friends, scattered in
different parts of the country, and the slave-holders of Virginia, few per-
sons understood the significance of the hour. That a man might do some-
thing very audacious and desperate for money, power or fame, was to the
general apprehension quite possible; but, in face of plainly-written law, in
face of constitutional guarantees protecting each State against domestic
violence, in face of a nation of forty million of people, that nineteen men
could invade a great State to liberate a despised and hated race, was to the
average intellect and conscience, too monstrous for belief. In this respect
the vision of Virginia was clearer than that of the nation. Conscious of her
guilt and therefore full of suspicion, sleeping on pistols for pillows, startled
at every unusual sound, constantly fearing and expecting a repetition of the
Nat Turner insurrection, she at once understood the meaning, if not the
magnitude of the affair. It was this understanding which caused her to raise
the lusty and imploring cry to the Federal government for help, and it was
not till he who struck the blow had fully explained his motives and object,
that the incredulous nation in any wise comprehended the true spirit of the
raid, or of its commander. Fortunate for his memory, fortunate for the brave
men associated with him, fortunate for the truth of history, John Brown


survived the saber gashes, bayonet wounds and bullet holes, and was able,
though covered with blood, to tell his own story and make his own defense.
Had he with all his men, as might have been the case, gone down in the
shock of battle, the world would have had no true basis for its judgment,
and one of the most heroic efforts ever witnessed in behalf of liberty would
have been confounded with base and selfish purposes. When, like savages,
the Wises, the Vallandinghams,25Henry A. Wise and Clement L. Vallandigham. the Washingtons,26A great-grandnephew of the first president, Lewis William Washington (1825-71) was a planter and slaveowner in the Virginia countryside five miles from Harpers Ferry in 1859. On the same night that John Brown seized control of the arsenal, he sent a raiding party to capture Washington and other prominent local slaveholders and to recruit their male slaves into the insurrectionary army. Brown's raiders also confiscated from Lewis Washington a ceremonial sword presented to George Washington by Frederick the Great. Held hostage in the arsenal engine house, Washington was rescued unharmed by the marine contingent that finally stormed the building. Governor Henry Wise of Virginia later quoted Washington’s description of Brown as “the coolest and finest man I ever saw in defying danger and death." In the early 1860s Washington toured Europe and took no part in the Civil War. Quarles, Allies for Freedom, 94-95, 117; Villard, John Brown, 431, 453; ACAB, 6: 385. the Stuarts27James Ewell Brown Stuart (1833-64) was born in Patrick County, Virginia, to the family of a lawyer and small planter. He graduated from West Point in 1854 and served first in Texas and then in Kansas. After participating in the capture of the Harpers Ferry raiders as an aide to Colonel Robert E. Lee, Stuart was present at the interrogation of John Brown. When Brown stated that the Golden Rule “applies to all who would help others to gain their liberty," Stuart charged that Brown did not believe in the Bible. Later, when Brown was asked what wages he paid his men for their part in the raid, Stuart remarked, “the wages of sin is death." Stuart went on to rise to the rank of captain in the regular army before the Civil War. When Virginia seceded from the Union, he resigned his commission and, within a few months, received the rank of brigadier general in the Confederate service. After displaying great daring in leading twelve hundred cavalrymen in a ride around the entire Union army during the Peninsula Campaign in 1862, Stuart won promotion to major general. In command of all of the cavalry in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, Stuart held the upper hand in fighting in the East until the Battle of Yellow Tavern on 11 May 1864 where he was killed. Burke Davis, Jeb Stuart: The Last Cavalier (New York, 1957); Villard, John Brown, 458; ACAB, 5: 727; DAB, 18: 170-72. and
others stood around the fallen and bleeding hero, and sought by torturing
questions to wring from his supposed dying lips some word by which to
soil the sublime undertaking, by implicating Gerrit Smith, Joshua R. Gid-
dings, Dr. S. G. Howe,28Born into one of Boston's leading families, Samuel Gridley Howe (1801-76) graduated from Brown University in 1821 and Harvard Medical School in 1824. For the next six years Howe participated as a soldier, surgeon, and relief worker in the Greek rebellion against Turkish rule. After returning to the United States, he pioneered in the education of the blind, deaf, and insane. Howe married Julia Ward in 1843 and the two co-edited the free soil newspaper, the Boston Commonwealth, in the early 1850s. His active support for the free state movement in Kansas brought Howe into close contact with John Brown, who recruited Howe as one of the “Secret Six" who financed the raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. After that incident, Howe wrote a public letter disclaiming any advanced knowledge of Brown's plans and briefly fled to Canada, returning later to testify before the congressional panel investigating the raid. During the Civil War, he assisted the United States Sanitary Commission and, at the conflicts conclusion, he served on the Freedman's Inquiry Commission. In 1871, Howe traveled to Santo Domingo as one of the three members of the commission, which Douglass accompanied as secretary, charged to study the advisability of United States annexation of that nation. Jeffery Rossbach, Ambivalent Conspirators: John Brown, the Secret Six. and a Theory of Slave Violence (Philadelphia, 1982), 26; ACAB, 3: 283-84; NCAB, 8: 372-73; DAB, 9: 296-97. G. L. Steams,29A leading financial supporter of John Brown, George Luther Stearns (1809-67) was the son of a teacher from Medford, Massachusetts. Stearns earned progressively larger fortunes as a ship chandler, a linseed oil processor, and a lead pipe manufacturer. He joined the antislavery movement in the early 1840s as a Liberty party activist and later was an important organizer of the Massachusetts Free Soil and Republican parties. While chairman of a committee to raise funds to arm free state settlers in Kansas Territory, Stearns met John Brown and became a convert to his plan for inciting a slave insurrection. Although he fled to Canada after Harpers Ferry, Stearns soon returned to the United States and testified before congressional investigators that he had no advance knowledge of Brown's plans but now condoned the attack. During the Civil War, Massachusetts governor John A. Andrew engaged Stearns to enlist troops for the first black regiment raised in the North, the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry. Establishing recruiting offices across the North and Canada and hiring agents including Frederick Douglass, Stearns quickly enlisted enough blacks to fill two regiments for Massachusetts. Impressed by his success, the federal government commissioned Stearns a major and placed him in charge of recruiting blacks into federal army units. By January 1864, Stearns had brought substantial order to these efforts but then resigned; in part, to protest the unequal pay and treatment of black soldiers. He remained a friend of equal rights for blacks and, in the l860s, helped found such periodicals as the Nation and The Right Way to champion that cause. Frank Preston Steams, The Life and Public Services of George Luther Stearns (Philadelphia, 1907); Dudley Taylor Cornish, The Sable Arm: Negro Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865 (New York, 1956), 235-38, 242-43; Rossbach, Ambivalent Conspirators, 56-63, 83-85, 221-23, 239-40, 254-57. Edwin Morton,30Born in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Edwin Morton (1832-1900) was a college classmate of Franklin B. Sanborn at Harvard. After graduating in 1855, Morton became a tutor for the children of wealthy New York abolitionist Gerrit Smith. While visiting Smith, John Brown took Morton into his confidence regarding plans to aid southern slaves to escape. Morton helped raise money for Brown and recruited Sanborn into the conspiracy. Following Brown's capture, Morton fled to England in fear of extradition to Virginia. He later practiced law in Plymouth and Boston. After 1876, Morton resided in Switzerland for reasons of health. Edwin H. Abbot, Apocrypha Concerning the Class of 1855 of Harvard College, and Their Deeds and Misdeeds During the Fifteen Years Between July, 1865, and July, 1880 (Boston, 1880), 41; The Harvard Graduates' Magazine, 8: 610 (June 1900); Rossbach, Ambivalent Conspirators, 47, 124, 139, 241; Oates, To Purge This Land, 227, 229-30. Frank Sanborn,


and other prominent Anti-slavery men, the brave old man, not only
avowed his object to be the emancipation of the slaves, but serenely and
proudly announced himself as solely responsible for all that had happened.
Though some thought of his own life might at such a moment have seemed
natural and excusable, he showed none, and scornfully rejected the idea
that he acted as the agent or instrument of any man or set of men. He
admitted that he had friends and sympathizers, but to his own head he
invited all the bolts of slave-holding wrath and fury, and welcomed them to
do their worst. His manly courage and self-forgetful nobleness were not


lost upon the crowd about him, nor upon the country. They drew applause
from his bitterest enemies. Said Henry A. Wise, “He is the gamest man I
ever met.” “He was kind and humane to his prisoners,” said Col. Lewis
Washington.31Virginia governor Henry A. Wise, in a speech in Richmond delivered shortly after interrogating John Brown at Harpers Ferry, reported that Brown “is a bundle of the best nerves I ever saw, cut and thrust, and bleeding and in bonds. He is a man of clear head, of courage, fortitude, and simple ingenuousness. He is cool, collected, and indomitable, and it is but just to him to say, that he inspired me with great trust in his integrity, as a man of truth.“ Redpath, John Brown, 273; Barton H. Wise, The Life of Henry A. Wise of Virginia, 1806-1876 (New York, 1899), 246-47.

To the outward eye of men, John Brown was a criminal, but to their
inward eye he was a just man and true. His deeds might be disowned, but
the spirit which made those deeds possible was worthy highest honor. It has
been often asked, why did not Virginia spare the life of this man? why did
she not avail herself of this grand opportunity to add to her other glory that
of a lofty magnanimity? Had they spared the good old man’s life—had they
said to him, “You see we have you in our power, and could easily take your
life, but we have no desire to hurt you in any way; you have committed a
terrible crime against society; you have invaded us at midnight and at-
tacked a sleeping community, but we recognize you as a fanatic, and in
some sense instigated by others; and on this ground and others, we release
you. Go about your business, and tell those who sent you that we can afford
to be magnanimous to our enemies.” I say, had Virginia held some such
language as this to John Brown, she would have inflicted a heavy blow on
the whole Northern abolition movement, one which only the omnipotence
of truth and the force of truth would have overcome. l have no doubt Gov.
Wise would have done so gladly, but, alas, he was the executive of a State
which thought she could not afford such magnanimity. She had that within
her bosom which could more safely tolerate the presence of a criminal than
a saint, a highway robber than a moral hero. All her hills and valleys were
studded with material for a disastrous conflagration, and one spark of the
dauntless spirit of Brown might set the whole State in flames. A sense of
this appalling liability put an end to every noble consideration. His death
was a foregone conclusion, and his trial was simply one of form.

Honor to the brave young Col. Hoyt32George Henry Hoyt. who hastened from Mas-
sachusetts to defend his friend’s life at the peril of his own; but there would
have been no hope of success had he been allowed to plead the case. He


might have surpassed Choate or Webster33Rufus Choate and Daniel Webster. in power—a thousand physi-
cians might have sworn that Capt. Brown was insane,34At the beginning of John Brown’s trial, Lawson Botts, a Virginia lawyer appointed defense attorney, introduced the idea that the abolitionist was not criminally responsible for his action at Harpers Ferry on account of hereditary insanity. Brown immediately addressed the court and refused to permit such a legal maneuver on his behalf. George H. Hoyt of Massachusetts, who succeeded Botts as Brown's principal attorney, believed Governor Henry A. Wise of Virginia might be persuaded to commit Brown to an asylum rather than create a martyr for the antislavery movement. Hoyt traveled across Ohio after Brown's conviction to gather affidavits from nineteen of Brown's relatives and friends attesting to a history of insanity. Although Wise contemplated ordering the superintendent of the Virginia state lunatic asylum at Staunton to examine Brown's mental state, he decided not to intervene in the execution. Oates, To Purge This Land, 329-35, 410-12; Redpath, John Brown, 308-09; Villard, John Brown, 489-90, 506-10. it would have been
all to no purpose; neither eloquence nor testimony could have prevailed.
Slavery was the idol of Virginia, and pardon and life to Brown meant
condemnation and death to slavery. He had practically illustrated a truth
stranger than fiction,—a truth higher than Virginia had ever known,—a
truth more noble and beautiful than Jefferson ever wrote. He had evinced a
conception of the sacredness and value of liberty which transcended in
sublimity that of her own Patrick Henry and made even his fire-flashing
sentiment of “Liberty or Death”35Patrick Henry used this oft-misquoted phrase in a speech in the Virginia revolutionary convention on 23 March 1775. William Wirt, Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry, 7th ed. (New York, 1835), 141. seem dark and tame and selfish. Henry
loved liberty for himself, but this man loved liberty for all men, and for those
most despised and scorned, as well as for those most esteemed and hon-
ored. Just here was the true glory of John Brown’s mission. It was not for
his own freedom that he was thus ready to lay down his life, for with Paul
he could say, “I was born free.”36Reversing “born” and “free,” Douglass quotes Acts 22: 28. No chain had bound his ankle, no yoke
had galled his neck. History has no better illustration of pure, disinterested
benevolence. It was not Caucasian for Caucasian—white man for white
man; not rich man for rich man, but Caucasian for Ethiopian—white man
for black man—rich man for poor man—the man admitted and respected,
for the man despised and rejected. “I want you to understand, gentlemen,”
he said to his persecutors, “that I respect the rights of the poorest and
weakest of the colored people, oppressed by the slave system, as I do those
of the most wealthy and powerful.”37While being held prisoner in the paymaster's office of the Harpers Ferry armory after the failure of his raid. John Brown made this statement in reply to questioning by James Murray Mason, Clement L. Vallandigham, and others on 18 October 1859. Redpath, John Brown, 281. In this we have the key to the whole


life and career of the man. Than in this sentiment humanity has nothing
more touching, reason nothing more noble, imagination nothing more
sublime; and if we could reduce all the religions of the world to one essence
we could find in it nothing more divine. It is much to be regretted that some
great artist, in sympathy with the spirit of the occasion, had not been
present when these and similar words were spoken. The situation was
thrilling. An old man in the center of an excited and angry crowd, far away
from home, in an enemy’s country—with no friend near—overpowered.
defeated, wounded, bleeding—covered with reproaches—his brave com-
panions nearly all dead—his two faithful sons stark and cold by his side-
reading his death-warrant in his fast-oozing blood and increasing weakness
as in the faces of all around him—yet calm, collected, brave, with a heart
for any fate—using his supposed dying moments to explain his course and
vindicate his cause: such a subject would have been at once an inspiration
and a power for one of the grandest historical pictures ever painted.

With John Brown, as with every other man fit to die for a cause, the
hour of his physical weakness was the hour of his moral strength—the hour
of his defeat was the hour of his triumph—the moment of his capture was
the crowning victory of his life. With the Alleghany mountains for his
pulpit, the country for his church and the whole civilized world for his
audience, he was a thousand times more effective as a preacher than as a
warrior, and the consciousness of this fact was the secret of his amazing
complacency. Mighty with the sword of steel, he was mightier with the
sword of the truth, and with this sword he literally swept the horizon. He
was more than a match for all the Wises, Masons,38James Murray Mason. Vallandinghams and
Washingtons, who could rise against him. They could kill him, but they
could not answer him.

In studying the character and works of a great man, it is always desir-
able to learn in what he is distinguished from others, and what have been
the causes of this difference. Such men as he whom we are now consider-
ing, come on to the theater of life only at long intervals. It is not always
easy to explain the exact and logical causes that produce them, or the subtle
influences which sustain them, at the immense heights where we some-
times find them; but we know that the hour and the man are seldom far
apart, and that here, as elsewhere, the demand may, in some mysterious
way, regulate the supply. A great iniquity, hoary with age, proud and
defiant, tainting the whole moral atmosphere of the country, subjecting


both church and state to its control, demanded the startling shock which
John Brown seemed especially inspired to give it.

Apart from this mission there was nothing very remarkable about him.
He was a wool-dealer, and a good judge of wool, as a wool-dealer ought to
be. In all visible respects he was a man like unto other men. No outward
sign of Kansas or Harper’s Ferry was about him. As I knew him, he was an
even-tempered man, neither morose, malicious nor misanthropic, but
kind, amiable, courteous, and gentle in his intercourse with men. His
words were few, well chosen and forcible. He was a good business man,
and a good neighbor. A good friend, a good citizen, a good husband and
father: a man apparently in every way calculated to make a smooth and
pleasant path for himself through the world. He loved society, he loved
little children, he liked music, and was fond of animals. To no one was the
world more beautiful or life more sweet. How then as I have said shall we
explain his apparent indifference to life? I can find but one answer, and that
is, his intense hatred to oppression. I have talked with many men, but I
remember none, who seemed so deeply excited upon the subject of slavery
as he. He would walk the room in agitation at mention of the word. He saw
the evil through no mist or haze, but in a light of infinite brightness, which
left no line of its ten thousand horrors out of sight. Law, religion, learning,
were interposed in its behalf in vain. His law in regard to it was that which
Lord Brougham described, as “the law above all the enactments of human
codes, the same in all time, the same throughout the world—the law
unchangeable and eternal—the law written by the finger of God on the
human heart—that law by which property in man is, and ever must remain,
a wild and guilty phantasy.”39Douglass very loosely paraphrases an antislavery oration delivered on 13 July 1830 by British parliamentarian Lord Brougham. [Peter Henry Brougham], Works of Lord Brougham, 11 vols. (Edinburgh, 1872-73), 10: 198.

Against truth and right, legislative enactments were to his mind mere
cobwebs—the pompous emptiness of human pride—the pitiful out-
breathings of human nothingness. He used to say “whenever there is a right
thing to be done, there is a ‘thus saith the Lord’ that it shall be done.”

It must be admitted that Brown assumed tremendous responsibility in
making war upon the peaceful people of Harper’s Ferry, but it must be
remembered also that in his eye a slave-holding community could not be
peaceable, but was, in the nature of the case, in one incessant state of war.
To him such a community was not more sacred than a band of robbers: it


was the right of any one to assault it by day or night. He saw no hope that
slavery would ever be abolished by moral or political means: “he knew,”
he said, “the proud and hard hearts of the slave-holders, and that they never
would consent to give up their slaves, till they felt a big stick about their
heads.”40Douglass attributes the identical line to John Brown in his autobiography. Douglass, Life and Times, 305-06.

It was five years before this event at Harper’s Ferry, while the conflict
between freedom and slavery was waxing hotter and hotter with every
hour, that the blundering statesmanship of the National Government re-
pealed the Missouri compromise,41The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. and thus launched the territory of
Kansas as a prize to be battled for between the North and the South. The
remarkable part taken in this contest by Brown has been already referred
to, and it doubtless helped to prepare him for the final tragedy, and though
it did not by any means originate the plan, it confirmed him in it and
hastened its execution.

During his four years’ service in Kansas it was my good fortune to see
him often. On his trips to and from the territory he sometimes stopped
several days at my house, and at one time several weeks. It was on this last
occasion that liberty had been victorious in Kansas, and he felt that he must
hereafter devote himself to what he considered his larger work. It was the
theme of all his conversation, filling his nights with dreams and his days
with visions. An incident of his boyhood may explain, in some measure,
the intense abhorrence he felt to slavery.42John Brown described this incident from his youth in a letter to the son of his wealthy Massachusetts supporter, George L. Stearns. At age twelve Brown had taken a small herd of his family's cattle to Kentucky for sale. While staying with the family of a prosperous Kentucky farmer, he witnessed the beating of a young slave with a flat iron shovel. Brown recalled that this incident "made him a most determined Abolitionist; & led him to declare, or Swear: Eternal war with Slavery." Villard, John Brown, 1-7; Rossbach, Ambivalent Conspirators, 122-24 He had for some reason been
sent into the State of Kentucky, where he made the acquaintance of a slave
boy, about his own age, of whom he became very fond. For some petty
offense this boy was one day subjected to a brutal beating. The blows were
dealt with an iron shovel and fell fast and furiously upon his slender body.
Born in a free State and unaccustomed to such scenes of cruelty, young
Brown’s pure and sensitive soul revolted at the shocking spectacle and at
that early age he swore eternal hatred to slavery. After years never obliter-
ated the impression, and he found in this early experience an argument
against contempt for small things. It is true that the boy is the father of the


man.43Douglass slightly misquotes the seventh line of an untitled poem by William Wordsworth. E. de Selincourt, ed., The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, 5 vols. (Oxford, 1940-49), 1: 226. From the acorn comes the oak.44Versions of this proverb date back to at least the sixteenth century in British literature. Morris Palmer Tilley, ed., A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1950), 2. The impression of a horse’s foot in
the sand suggested the art of printing.45The invention of printing probably dates back to the Chinese in the 6th century A.D. Unfortunately none of them left a record of what inspired them to make that invention. Johannes Gutenburg pioneered modem printing technology in Germany in the 15th century. E. F. Carter, Dictionary of Inventions and Discoveries (1966; London, 1974), 141-42. The fall of an apple intimated the
law of gravitation.46Douglass alludes to the legend that Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) developed the theory of gravitation while watching apples fall from trees in a garden. The origin of this famous story was French philosopher Francois Marie Arouet Voltaire, who credited it to a step-niece of Newton. Dictionary of National Biography, 21 vols. (London, 1921-22), 14: 370-93. A word dropped in the woods of Vincennes, by royal
hunters, gave Europe and the world a “William the Silent,” and a thirty
years’ war.47William of Nassau (William the Silent). The beating of a Hebrew bondsman, by an Egyptian, created
a Moses,48This incident is described in Exod. 2: 11-12 and Acts 7: 24. and the infliction of a similar outrage on a helpless slave boy in
our own land may have caused, forty years afterwards, a John Brown and a
Harper’s Ferry Raid.

Most of us can remember some event or incident which has at some
time come to us, and made itself a permanent part of our lives. Such an
incident came to me in the year 1847.49The precise date of Douglass’s visit to John Brown's home in Springfield, Massachusetts, cannot be confirmed. The most complete description of the meeting is found in Douglass's Life and Times where he recollects that the evening spent with Brown occurred in 1847 at about the time of the North Star's first appearance. The first issue of the North Star was published in Rochester, New York, on 3 December 1847 and Douglass toured Massachusetts later that month. More likely, the meeting occurred after Douglass's lecture in Springfield on the evening of 1 February 1848. Soon after in the , Douglass recounted meeting Brown then and described him as “one of the most earnest and interesting men that I have met in a long time." Later North Star articles reveal that the two men probably met again in October and November 1848 when Douglass lectured three times in Springfield. NS, 17 January, 11 February, 17, 24 November, 8 December 1848; Douglass, Life and Times, 301-06; Benjamin Quarles, Frederick Douglass (Washington, D.C., 1948), 170-71. I had then the honor of spending a
day and a night under the roof of a man, whose character and conversation
made a very deep impression on my mind and heart; and as the circum-
stance does not lie entirely out of the range of our present observations, you
will pardon for a moment a seeming digression. The name of the person
alluded to had been several times mentioned to me, in a tone that made me
curious to see him and to make his acquaintance. He was a merchant, and
our first meeting was at his store—a substantial brick building, giving


evidence of a flourishing business. After a few minutes’ detention here,
long enough for me to observe the neatness and order of the place, I was
conducted by him to his residence where I was kindly received by his
family as an expected guest. I was a little disappointed at the appearance of
this man’s house, for after seeing his fine store, I was prepared to see a fine
residence; but this logic was entirely contradicted by the facts. The house
was a small, wooden one, on a back street in a neighborhood of laboring
men and mechanics, respectable enough, but not just the spot where one
would expect to find the home of a successful merchant. Plain as was the
outside, the inside was plainer. Its furniture might have pleased a Spartan.
It would take longer to tell what was not in it, than what was; no sofas, no
cushions, no curtains, no carpets, no easy rocking chairs inviting to enerva-
tion or rest or repose. My first meal passed under the misnomer of tea. It
was none of your tea and toast sort, but potatoes and cabbage, and beef
soup; such a meal as a man might relish after following the plough all day,
or after performing a forced march of a dozen miles over rough ground in
frosty weather. Innocent of paint, veneering, varnish or tablecloth, the
table announced itself unmistakably and honestly pine and of the plainest
workmanship. No hired help passed from kitchen to dining room, staring in
amazement at the colored man at the white man’s table. The mother,
daughters and sons did the serving, and did it well. I heard no apology for
doing their own work; they went through it as if used to it, untouched by
any thought of degradation or impropriety. Supper over, the boys helped to
clear the table and wash the dishes. This style of housekeeping struck me as
a little odd. I mention it because household management is worthy of
thought. A house is more than brick and mortar, wood or paint; this to me at
least was. In its plainness it was a truthful reflection of its inmates; no
disguises, no illusions, no make-believes here, but stern truth and solid
purpose breathed in all its arrangements. I was not long in company with
the master of this house before I discovered that he was indeed the master
of it, and likely to become mine too, if I staid long with him. He fulfilled
St. Paul’s idea of the head of the family—his wife believed in him, and his
children observed him with reverence.50Douglass summarizes the admonitions by St. Paul in Eph. 5 and 6. Whenever he spoke, his words
commanded earnest attention. His arguments which I ventured at some
points to oppose, seemed to convince all, his appeals touched all, and his
will impressed all. Certainly I never felt myself in the presence of a strong-
er religious influence than while in this house. “God and duty, God and


duty,” run like a thread of gold through all his utterances, and his family
supplied a ready “Amen.” In person he was lean and sinewy, of the best
New England mould, built for times of trouble, fitted to grapple with the
flintiest hardships. Clad in plain American woolen, shod in boots of cow-
hide leather, and wearing a cravat of the same substantial material, under
six feet high, less than one hundred and fifty lbs. in weight, aged about
fifty, he presented a figure straight and symmetrical as a mountain pine. His
bearing was singularly impressive. His head was not large, but compact
and high. His hair was coarse, strong, slightly gray and closely trimmed
and grew close to his forehead. His face was smoothly shaved and revealed
a strong square mouth, supported by a broad and prominent chin. His eyes
were clear and grey, and in conversation they alternated with tears and fire.
When on the street, he moved with a long springing, race-horse step,
absorbed by his own reflections, neither seeking nor shunning observation.
Such was the man whose name I heard uttered in whispers—such was the
house in which he lived—such were his family and household manage-
ment—and such was Captain John Brown.

He said to me at this meeting, that he had invited me to his house for the
especial purpose of laying before me his plan for the speedy emancipation
of my race. He seemed to apprehend opposition on my part as he opened
the subject and touched my vanity by saying, that he had observed my
course at home and abroad, and wanted my co-operation. He said he had
been for the last thirty years looking for colored men to whom he could
safely reveal his secret, and had almost despaired, at times, of finding
such, but that now he was encouraged for he saw heads rising up in all
directions,51In a North Star editorial and later in Life and Times, Douglass recorded Brown as having made practically the same statement at the time of their first meeting in Springfield, Massachusetts, on 1 February 1848. NS, 11 February 1848; Douglass, Life and Times, 303. to whom he thought he could with safety impart his plan. As
this plan then lay in his mind it was very simple, and had much to commend
it. It did not, as was supposed by many, contemplate a general rising among
the slaves, and a general slaughter of the slave masters (an insurrection he
thought would only defeat the object), but it did contemplate the creating of
an armed force which should act in the very heart of the South. He was not
averse to the shedding of blood, and thought the practice of carrying arms
would be a good one for the colored people to adopt, as it would give them
a sense of manhood. No people he said could have self-respect or be
respected who would not fight for their freedom. He called my attention to


a large map of the U. States, and pointed out to me the far-reaching
Alleghanies, stretching away from the borders of New York into the South-
ern States. “These mountains,” he said, “are the basis of my plan. God has
given the strength of these hills to freedom; they were placed here to aid the
emancipation of your race; they are full of natural forts, where one man for
defense would be equal to a hundred for attack; they are also full of good
hiding places where a large number of men could be concealed and baffle
and elude pursuit for a long time. I know these mountains well and could
take a body of men into them and keep them there in spite of all the efforts
of Virginia to dislodge me, and drive me out. I would take at first about
twenty-five picked men and begin on a small scale, supply them arms and
ammunition, post them in squads of fives on a line of twenty-five miles,
these squads to busy themselves for a time in gathering recruits from the
surrounding farms, seeking and selecting the most restless and daring.” He
saw that in this part of the work the utmost care must be used to guard
against treachery and disclosure; only the most conscientious and skillful
should be sent on this perilous duty. With care and enterprise he thought he
could soon gather a force of one hundred hardy men, men who would be
content to lead the free and adventurous life to which he proposed to train
them. When once properly drilled, and each had found the place for which
he was best suited, they would begin work in earnest; they would run off the
slaves in large numbers, retain the strong and brave ones in the mountains,
and send the weak and timid ones to the North by the underground Rail-
road; his operations would be enlarged with increasing numbers and would
not be confined to one locality. Slave-holders should in some cases be
approached at midnight and told to give up their slaves and to let them have
their best horses to ride away upon. Slavery was a state of war, he said, to
which the slaves were unwilling parties and consequently they had a right
to anything necessary to their peace and freedom. He would shed no blood
and would avoid a fight except in self-defense, when he would of course do
his best. He believed this movement would weaken slavery in two ways—
first by making slave property insecure, it would become undesirable; and
secondly it would keep the anti-slavery agitation alive and public attention
fixed upon it, and thus lead to the adoption of measures to abolish the evil
altogether. He held that there was need of something startling to prevent the
agitation of the question from dying out; that slavery had come near being
abolished in Virginia by the Nat. Turner insurrection, and he thought his
method would speedily put an end to it, both in Maryland and Virginia.
The trouble was to get the right men to start with and money enough to


equip them. He had adopted the simple and economical mode of living to
which I have referred with a view to save money for this purpose. This was
said in no boastful tone, for he felt that he had delayed already too long and
had no room to boast either his zeal or his self-denial.

From 8 o’clock in the evening till 3 in the morning, Capt. Brown and I
sat face to face, he arguing in favor of his plan, and I finding all the
objections I could against it. Now mark! this meeting of ours was full
twelve years before the strike at Harper’s Ferry. He had been watching and
waiting all that time for suitable heads to rise or “pop up” as he said among
the sable millions in whom he could confide; hence forty years had passed
between his thought and his act. Forty years, though not a long time in the
life of a nation, is a long time in the life of a man; and here forty long years,
this man was struggling with this one idea; like Moses he was forty years in
the wilderness.52God's announcement of this punishment on Moses and the Jewish people is found in Num. 14: 33. Youth, manhood, middle age had come and gone; two
marriages had been consummated, twenty children had called him father;
and through all the storms and vicissitudes of busy life, this one thought,
like the angel in the burning bush, had confronted him with its blazing
light, bidding him on to his work.53This version of the burning bush incident is from Acts 7: 30. Like Moses he had made excuses, and
as with Moses his excuses were overruled.54Possibly Exod. 3: 11. Nothing should postpone
further what was to him a divine command, the performance of which
seemed to him his only apology for existence. He often said to me, though
life was sweet to him, he would willingly lay it down for the freedom of my
people; and on one occasion he added, that he had already lived about as
long as most men, since he had slept less, and if he should now lay down
his life the loss would not be great, for in fact he knew no better use for it.
During his last visit to us in Rochester there appeared in the newspapers a
touching story connected with the horrors of the Sepoy War in British
India.55This incident occurred at the time of the British army's relief of Lucknow, India, on 16 November 1857, ending a siege by Sepoy mutineers. Reports appeared in the United States press including Frederick Douglass' Paper, not during Brown's last visit to Rochester in April 1859, but in February of the preceding year. At that earlier date Brown was in the midst of a three-week visit at the Douglass home. FDP, 12 February 1858; Douglass, Life and Times, 334. A Scotch missionary and his family were in the hands of the
enemy. and were to be massacred the next morning. During the night, when
they had given up every hope of rescue, suddenly the wife insisted that
relief would come. Placing her ear close to the ground she declared she


heard the Slogan—the Scotch war song. For long hours in the night no
member of the family could hear the advancing music but herself. “Dinna
ye hear it? Dinna ye hear it?” she would say, but they could not hear it. As
the morning slowly dawned a Scotch regiment was found encamped indeed
about them, and they were saved from the threatened slaughter. This cir-
cumstance, coming at such a time, gave Capt. Brown a new word of cheer.
He would come to the table in the morning his countenance fairly illumi-
nated, saying that he had heard the Slogan, and he would add, “Dinna ye
hear it? ye hear it?” Alas! like the Scotch missionary I was obliged
to say “No.” Two weeks prior to the meditated attack, Capt. Brown
summoned me to meet him in an old stone quarry on the Conecochequi
river, near the town of Chambersburgh, Penn. His arms and ammunition
were stored in that town and were to be moved on to Harper’s Ferry. In
company with Shields Green56Born Esau Brown (c. 1834-59), Shields Green had escaped by boat from slavery in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1856. Green stopped briefly in Rochester before crossing over to Canada where he worked for two years as a waiter and house servant. In 1858 Green returned to Rochester to conduct a clothes cleaning business and there had been introduced by Frederick Douglass to John Brown. When Brown invited Douglass to confer with him at Chambersburg, he specifically requested that Green also be present. Unlike Douglass, Green decided to join Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry. He played an active role in the fighting but was accused of cowardice by his captors for attempting to escape at the very end by pretending to be one of the captured slaves. Green was tried for murder and for fomenting slave insurrection and executed on 19 December 1859. Despite abolitionist efforts to obtain his body, students at the Winchester Medical College dissected it. Douglass, Life and Times, 350-54; Quarles, Allies for Freedom, 76-78, 85-86, 101, 105, 109-10, 137; Oates, To Purge This Land, 224, 282-83, 327-28, 338. I obeyed the summons, and prompt to the
hour we met the dear old man, with Kagi,57Son of a blacksmith in Bristolville, Ohio, John Henri Kagi (1835-59) had witnessed slavery at first hand while a school teacher in Hawkinstown, Virginia. Dismissed from that post for expressing antislavery sentiments, Kagi traveled to Nebraska in 1855 and on to Kansas in 1856 where he worked irregularly as a newspaper reporter. He joined free state military units in Kansas and fought under James Montgomery, Aaron D. Stevens, and eventually John Brown. An early convert to Brown,s plan to liberate slaves, Kagi accompanied Brown to the Chatham, Canada West, convention and was designated “Secretary of War" under the "Provisional Constitution" drawn up there. Kagi supported Brown’s decision to attack Harpers Ferry but always maintained that the raiders should then move off rapidly into the mountains. During the occupation of Harpers Ferry, Kagi unsuccessfully implored Brown to evacuate before becoming completely surrounded. Rather than surrender, he died as he was leading an isolated party of raiders in a doomed escape attempt. John W. Wayland, John Kagi and John Brown (Strasburg, Va., 1961); Oates, To Purge This Land, 220, 246, 266-68, 280, 290-96; Noble, John Brown, 60-66, 80, 93-97; Villard, John Brown, 679. his secretary, at the appointed
place. Our meeting was in some sense a council of war. We spent the
Saturday and succeeding Sunday in conference on the question, whether
the desperate step should then be taken, or the old plan as already described
should be carried out. He was for boldly striking at Harper’s Ferry at once


and running the risk of getting into the mountains afterwards. I was for
avoiding Harper’s Ferry altogether. Shields Green and Mr. Kagi remained
silent listeners throughout. It is needless to repeat here what was said, after
what has happened. Suffice it, that after all I could say, I saw that my old
friend had resolved on his own course and that it was idle to parley. I told
him finally that it was impossible for me to join him. I could see Harper’s
Ferry only as a trap of steel, and ourselves in the wrong side of it. He
regretted my decision and we parted.

Thus far, I have spoken exclusively of Capt. Brown. Let me say a word
or two of his brave and devoted men, and first of Shields Green. He was a
fugitive slave from Charleston, South Carolina, and had attested his love of
liberty by escaping from slavery and making his way through many dan-
gers to Rochester, where he had lived in my family, and where he met the
man with whom he went to the scaffold. I said to him, as I was about to
leave, “Now Shields, you have heard our discussion. If in view of it, you
do not wish to stay, you have but to say so, and you can go back with me.”
He answered, “I b’l’eve I’ll go down wid de old man;” and go with him he
did, into the fight, and to the gallows, and bore himself as grandly as any of
the number. At the moment when Capt. Brown was surrounded, and all
chance of escape was cut off, Green was in the mountains and could have
made his escape as Osborne Anderson58The only black survivor of the Harpers Ferry raid, Osborne Perry Anderson (1830-72) had been born and attended public schools at West Fallowfield, Chester County, Pennsylvania. Anderson migrated to Canada in 1850 and worked as a printer in the offices of the Provincial Freeman in Chatham. When John Brown came to that town to meet with black leaders in 1858, Anderson served as a secretary of the convention and was elected a “congressman” under the provisional constitution adopted by the gathering. Of the black participants at the Chatham meeting Anderson alone took part in the raid. During the attack, he played a prominent role in the capture of Colonel Lewis Washington and the freeing of his slaves. Isolated from the main body of raiders during the fighting at Harpers Ferry, Anderson together with Albert Hazlett escaped to Maryland via a stolen boat and then on foot to Pennsylvania. Seeking safety first in Philadelphia and then in Canada, he wrote a short book, A Voice from Harper's Ferry (Boston, 1861), describing the history of the Harpers Ferry plot. Accounts of his later activities vary, but Anderson appears to have resided in Canada in ill health until 1872 when he moved to Washington, D.C., only to die of tuberculosis shortly thereafter. Quarles, Allies for Freedom, 49-50, 86, 150-52, 171-72; Oates, To Purge This Land, 243, 246, 286, 295, 298; Villard, John Brown, 333, 419, 445-46, 685. did, but when asked to do so, he
made the same answer he did at Chambersburg, “I b’l’eve I’ll go down wid
de ole man.” When in prison at Charlestown, and he was not allowed to see
his old friend, his fidelity to him was in no wise weakened, and no com-
plaint against Brown could be extorted from him by those who talked with

If a monument should be erected to the memory of John Brown, as


there ought to be, the form and name of Shields Green should have a
conspicuous place upon it. It is a remarkable fact, that in this small com-
pany of men, but one showed any sign of weakness or regret for what he did
or attempted to do. Poor Cook59Bom in Haddam, Connecticut, John Edwin Cook (1830-59) studied for a time at Yale University and then worked as a law clerk in Brooklyn, New York. By 1855, Cook had migrated to Kansas and was among the first to enlist in Brown’s plan to raid the South. Brown sent Cook ahead to live in Harpers Ferry for more than a year prior to the raid. A genial and observant young man, Cook worked as a lock tender, married a local woman, and surreptitiously gathered information about the armory and its watch patrols. Part of the rearguard during the raid, he managed to escape as far north as Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, before being captured. While in jail, he wrote a public confession that implicated several of Brown's abolitionist supporters including Douglass whom Cook accused of failing to bring promised reinforcements for the raid. At his trial, Cook pleaded for mercy on the grounds that he had not been informed of Brown's true intentions until the time of the attack. After an unsuccessful escape attempt, he was executed on 16 December 1859. Oates, To Purge This Land, 218-19, 251-52, 275, 286, 298, 315-16, 328; Hinton, John Brown, 78-79, 110, 329, 561-64; Villard, John Brown, 307–08, 338, 344, 408, 446-47, 570-73. broke down and sought to save his life by
representing that he had been deceived, and allured by false promises. But
Stephens,60Among John Brown's followers at Harpers Ferry, Aaron Dwight Stevens (1831-60) possessed, by far, the greatest amount of military experience. Born in Lisbon, Connecticut, Stevens had joined a Massachusetts volunteer regiment at age sixteen and fought in the Mexican War. After returning to Connecticut for a few years, he enlisted in the U.S. army dragoons in 1851 and saw service on the western frontier. In 1855 military authorities imprisoned Stevens for striking an officer but he escaped and hid with the Delawares in Kansas Territory. Assuming the name “Charles Whipple," he joined the free state military forces in the territory and rose to command their Second Regiment based around Topeka. Stevens served as Brown's second-in-command during the slave raid into Missouri and was the drillmaster for the Harpers Ferry raiders. Wounded and captured during the raid, Stevens was housed in the same cell with Brown. Not tried until his health had partially recovered, he was executed on 16 March 1860. Noble, John Brown, 27, 80, 94-95: Oates, To Purge This Land, 219-20, 223, 261, 280-81, 302; Villard, John Brown, 224, 486. 679-80; Hinton, John Brown, 54, 492-99. Hazlett61Among the least well-known of John Brown's followers, Albert Hazlett (1837-60) arrived in Kansas Territory from his native Pennsylvania in the winter of 1856-57. After fighting in the free staters’ guerrilla forces under James Montgomery, Hazlett joined Brown‘s small band in December 1858 just in time to participate in the raid into Missouri to free slaves. During the attack on Harpers Ferry, Hazlett and Osborne P. Anderson had garrisoned the captured arsenal building. With Maryland and Virginia militia closing in, Hazlett and Anderson escaped unnoticed across the Potomac River in a stolen boat. Hazlett was later apprehended in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and extradicted without due process back to Virginia. Although the other raiders denied any acquaintance with him, Hazlett was tried and convicted in February 1860. Refusing to appeal for clemency, he was executed along with Aaron D. Stevens on 16 March 1860. Oates, To Purge This Land, 261 , 298, 302, 328-29; Hinton, John Brown, 158-59, 312, 383, 388, 410-11; Villard, John Brown, 414, 580, 682. and Green went to their doom like the heroes they
were, without a murmur, without a regret, believing alike in their captain
and their cause.

For the disastrous termination of this invasion, several causes have
been assigned. It has been said that Capt. Brown found it necessary to


strike before he was ready; that men had promised to join him from the
North who failed to arrive; that the cowardly negroes did not rally to his
support as he expected, but the true cause as stated by himself, contradicts
all these theories, and from his statement there is no appeal. Among the
questions put to him by Mr. Vallandingham after his capture62On the day following their capture, John Brown and Aaron D. Stevens were interrogated for three hours in the paymaster's office of the Harpers Ferry armory by a group of government officials including Congressman Clement L. Vallandigham and three Virginians: Governor Henry A. Wise, Senator James Murray Mason, and Congressman Charles J. Faulkner. Several reporters witnessed this interview and published accounts of it. DM, 2: 165-67 (November 1859); Redpath, John Brown, 274-85; Oates, To Purge This Land, 302-06. were the
following: “Did you expect a general uprising of the slaves in case of your
success?” To this he answered, “No, sir, nor did I wish it. I expected to
gather strength from time to time and then to set them free.” “Did you
expect to hold possession here until then?" Answer, “Well, probably I had
quite a different idea. I do not know as I ought to reveal my plans. I am here
wounded and a prisoner because I foolishly permitted myself to be so. You
overstate your strength when you suppose I could have been taken if I had
not allowed it. I was too tardy after commencing the open attack in delay-
ing my movements through Monday night and up to the time of the arrival
of government troops. It was all because of my desire to spare the feelings
of my prisoners and their families.”

But the question is, Did John Brown fail? He certainly did fail to get out
of Harper’s Ferry before being beaten down by United States soldiers; he
did fail to save his own life, and to lead a liberating army into the mountains
of Virginia. But he did not go to Harper’s Ferry to save his life. The true
question is, Did John Brown draw his sword against slavery and thereby
lose his life in vain? and to this I answer ten thousand times, No! No man
fails, or can fail who so grandly gives himself and all he has to a righteous
cause. No man, who in his hour of extremest need, when on his way to
meet an ignominious death, could so forget himself as to stop and kiss a
little child,63There is no verification for this incident. Troops guarded John Brown closely during the trip from the Charlestown, Virginia, jail to the gallows on the community's outskirts. Furthermore, the local militia commander, William G. Taliferro, had ordered women and children to remain indoors at the time of the execution. The apocryphal story of Brown's kissing a black baby on the jail steps apparently originated in a report by New York Tribune reporter Henry S. Olcott. Subsequently, John G. Whittier and Lydia Maria Child incorporated the incident into poems about Brown, and James Redpath treated the story as fact in his first published biography of Brown. By the time of this Douglass address, at least three artists had also made the fabled episode the subject of popular paintings. James C. Malin, “The John Brown Legend in Pictures: Kissing the Negro Baby," Kansas Historical Quarterly, 8: 339-41 (November 1939); Quarles, Allies for Freedom, 397; Villard, John Brown, 554. one of the hated race for whom he was about to die, could by


any possibility fail. Did John Brown fail? Ask Henry A. Wise in whose
house less than two years after, a school for the emancipated slaves was
taught.64Henry A. Wise owned a nine-hundred-acre estate named “Rolleston” on the east branch of the Elizabeth River in Princess Anne County, seven miles from Norfolk, Virginia. Union forces occupied the Norfolk area in spring 1862 and established a school for contraband slaves on Wise's plantation the following year. The Freedman's Bureau continued to operate that school until 1868 when Wise regained control of the Rolleston estate. Wise, Henry A. Wise, 262-63, 372-75; Quarles, Allies for Freedom, 168. Did John Brown fail? Ask James M. Mason, the author of the
inhuman fugitive slave bill, who was cooped up in Fort Warren, as a traitor
less than two years from the time that he stood over the prostrate body of
John Brown. Did John Brown fail? Ask Clement C. Vallandingham, one
other of the inquisitorial party; for he too went down in the tremendous
whirlpool created by the powerful hand of this bold invader. If John Brown
did not end the war that ended slavery, he did at least begin the war that
ended slavery. If we look over the dates, places and men, for which this
honor is claimed, we shall find that not Carolina, but Virginia—not Fort
Sumter, but Harper’s Ferry and the arsenal—not Col. Anderson,65Robert Anderson. but
John Brown, began the war that ended American slavery and made this a
free Republic. Until this blow was struck, the prospect for freedom was
dim, shadowy and uncertain. The irrepressible conflict was one of words,
votes and compromises. When John Brown stretched forth his arm the sky
was cleared. The time for compromises was gone— the armed hosts of
freedom stood face to face over the chasm of a broken Union— and the
clash of arms was at hand. The South staked all upon getting possession of
the Federal Government, and failing to do that, drew the sword of rebellion
and thus made her own, and not Brown’s, the lost cause of the century.


Douglass, Frederick, 1818-1895


May 30, 1881


Yale University Press 1992



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