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John Brown: Martyr or Murderer

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Autor:   •  January 10, 2018  •  Research Paper  •  4,995 Words (20 Pages)  •  178 Views

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John Brown:

Martyr or Murderer

 He has been called a saint, a fanatic, and a cold-blooded murderer.  The debate over his memory, his motives, about the true nature of John Brown, continues to stir passionate debate.  It is said that he was the spark that started the Civil War.  Truly, he marked the end of compromise over the issue of slavery, and it was not long after his death that John Brown’s war became the nation’s war.

On the night of October 16, 1859, John Brown and a band of twenty one men entered Harpers Ferry, Virginia in an effort to take the federal armory and to incite a slave insurrection.  Three years earlier in the Kansas Territory, John Brown was involved in the killing of six pro-slavery men in the area of Pottawatomie where he lived.  Historians have studied the life and actions of Brown leading up to his eventual death after the raid at Harpers Ferry, some considering him a madman and murderer while others have labeled him a martyr for the cause of ending slavery.  

        Born in Torrington, Connecticut on May 9, 1800, John Brown was the third child born of Owen Brown and his wife Ruth.  The couple would eventually have six children in the household, one son having been adopted by them.  Following a religious revival in the town of Canton during his childhood, Owen Brown grew up in a home that was filled with worship and talk of salvation.  Ruth was the daughter of a minister in the Congregational Church and with Owen, they both remained devoted in their religion.  John’s parents “insisted that John and the other children learn sound religious habits, and their household was filled with prayers and Bible readings.”[1]  When John was five his family moved to northern Ohio, to a district that would become known for its antislavery views.  His father was also a man of extreme opposition to slavery, teaching John and his siblings “not to hate Negroes but to be kind to them and oppose their enslavement as a sin against God.”[2]  John Brown lost his mother when he was eight years old, and the following year his father remarried to a woman, Sally Root, who would give Owen eight more children.  

         In 1821 John Brown married Dianthe Lusk, and with her, he fathered seven children. Brown moved his family to Pennsylvania in 1825 to operate a tannery of his own.  His wife passed away in 1832 and within a year after her death, Brown wed sixteen year old Mary Anne Day.  With his second wife Mary Anne, he fathered thirteen more children.

During his lifetime, John moved his family around the country from Ohio, to Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York.  He ventured into working many different jobs including tanner, farmer, sheep farmer and wool merchant, and land speculator.  While he was not a businessman, he was never financially successful at any of his ventures.  By 1837, Brown had become a director in one of the banks of the time and, in that year bad fortune followed him again.  “Over six hundred banks failed, ten thousand employees were thrown out of work, money disappeared.”[3]  John Brown lost everything during the Panic of 1837.  Brown continued his merchant wool business over the next ten years, though he went into bankruptcy in 1842.

In 1846, John Brown, along with Simon Perkins, formed the firm of Perkins and Brown, located in Springfield, Massachusetts.  It was here in Springfield, that Brown started to read abolitionist publications like those published by William Lloyd Garrison, a prominent Boston editor who published an antislavery newspaper known as the Liberator.[4]  It was during his time in Springfield, in 1847, that Brown met Frederick Douglass and proposed a plan to arm men and place them along a path through the Allegheny Mountains where they would be able to assist and hide slaves from the South attempting to gain their freedom.  Frederick Douglass believed there may still be a chance to convert slaveholders and abolish slavery through peaceful means.  John Brown felt differently, that slaveholders would “never be induced to give up their slaves, until they felt a big stick about their heads.”[5]  Douglass believed Brown to be a man “as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery.”[6]

John Brown met with Gerrit Smith, a wealthy abolitionist in New York, in the spring of 1848 as the business of Perkins and Brown began to decline.  Gerrit Smith had set aside an area of land, totaling 120,000 acres in the Adirondack Mountains of New York for the purpose of allowing Negro families to settle there.  Brown, knowing that many of the families were finding life in this isolated area difficult, offered to establish his own home there and teach his neighbors how to clear and farm the land.  Brown moved to this black community of North Elba, New York in 1848, to a farm of 244 acres which Gerrit Smith sold to him.

        The 1850s saw several events take place that gave Brown cause to struggle with the issue of slavery and the conditions of the oppressed.  The Missouri Compromise of 1850 was legislation passed after the United States acquired territory following the Mexican-American War.  This legislation prevented the outlawing of slavery in new territories and allowed the Utah and New Mexico territories to decide by popular sovereignty, whether they would allow slavery within their borders.  As part of this legislation, the Fugitive Slave Act was also passed which called for citizens and officials to return all escaped slaves, upon their capture, to their masters.  Additional legislation passed in 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, allowed people in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery in those territories.

        In August 1855 he followed five of his sons to Kansas to help make the state a haven for anti-slavery settlers.  Proslavery forces had terrorized the region, using threats and violence to influence elections in an attempt to make Kansas a slave state.  Provided with moral and financial support from these New England abolitionists, Brown began by raiding plantations in Missouri but accomplished little.  During the year, his hostility toward slave-staters exploded after they burned and pillaged the free-state community of Lawrence.  Having organized a militia unit within his Osawatomie River colony, Brown led it on a mission of revenge.  In retaliation for the sack of Lawrence, Brown, along with his sons Owen, Frederick, Salmon, and Oliver, and three others, led the murder of five proslavery men on the banks of the Pottawatomie River by dragging the unarmed inhabitants into the night, and hacking them to death with long-edged swords.  He stated that he was an instrument in the hand of God.  John Brown’s resistance of proslavery forces in Kansas brought him national attention.  To many in the North, he became an abolitionist hero.  


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