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John Brown’s rebellion heralded the death of slavery

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This week marks the 150th anniversary of a rebellion that helped end slavery in the United States. Michael Bradley looks back at a raid that many said was doomed to failure, and at John Brown, the man who led it.
Issue 2173
John Brown

John Brown

On 16 October 1859 John Brown, a white opponent of slavery, led a force of 19 men to seize the armoury at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

His forces were pitiful, his aims enormous. He hoped to spark a revolt that would free four million black people from slavery.

On the face of it the raid itself was a complete failure. Ten of Brown’s men were killed and seven were captured. The army of slaves that he hoped to attract failed to flock to his banner.

But the raid was to have an enormous impact, and helped push the country towards civil war. The shots fired at Harpers Ferry were some of the first of a conflict that raged across the US from 1861 until 1865.

As US territory expanded, the question of which economic system would dominate divided the country. Would it be the slave labour that powered the South or the free labour that drove the North?

A series of political compromises between North and South that aimed to limit slavery’s spread could not deal with the fundamentals of the conflict.

While abolitionists ran “underground rail roads” to help slaves escape, Southern dominated governments enacted “fugitive slave” laws that allowed slave owners to hunt for their “property” in northern anti-slavery states.

On 24 May 1856 Brown is said to have led an attack on pro slavery settlers at Pottawatomie Creek in Kansas – although he denied this.

Five settlers were dragged from their homes and executed with a broad sword.


Brown was made even more famous by leading the armed defence of anti-slavery settlers in the state.

He travelled east where he met with abolitionists, including black leader Frederick Douglass. He also travelled to Chatham, Ontario where a large community of fugitive slaves had made their home.

Here a convention met – made up of 34 blacks and 12 whites – and adopted a Provisional Constitution for a new free territory for slaves.

In July 1859 Brown moved down to Harpers Ferry, Virginia, where he waited for his men to join him.

He visited Douglass again and revealed plans to seize the armoury as the precursor to a march of liberation through the South.

Douglass opposed the raid, seeing it as a trap from which Brown and his supporters would never escape. Brown had access to a huge cache of arms but entered into the attack with just 21 men – 16 whites and five blacks.

After taking control of Harpers Ferry Brown’s men were soon surrounded. But the seizure of the armoury sent shock waves across the country.

In the South the horror of a possible slave uprising caused terror among the planter class.

Brown’s raid was ruthlessly crushed by a force led by Robert E Lee, the future head of the southern armies. Brown and several of his men were captured.

Southern politicians openly associated the raid with the policies of the new “black” Republican Party and its anti-slavery ideas.

In the North most politicians moved to distance themselves from Brown’s actions.

Abraham Lincoln, who as president few years later would arm thousands of black soldiers, argued that Brown was a “misguided fanatic”.

But Brown and his followers’ behaviour at their trial changed the perceptions of many, turning Brown from a “terrorist” into a martyr.

Frederick Douglass later said of Brown, “Did John Brown fail? John Brown began the war that ended American slavery. I could live for the slave; John Brown could die for him”.


At his trial, Brown famously argued: “Had I interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the so-called great or any of that class, every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward”.

On 2 December 1859, Brown and other survivors of the raid – black and white – were hanged in public. Church bells across the North tolled in mourning.

Within a year of Brown’s execution civil war shook the US, as 11 states broke away from the union to form the Confederacy.

While for many in the North this was a war to re-establish the union, for the South the aim was to hold onto the institution of slavery, the driving force behind the wealth of Southern planters and “King Cotton”.

But as the war progressed the slaves took their fate in their own hands. They began to escape the plantations into union lines where they became “contraband of war”.

Increasingly Northern military and political leaders could see that the war would never be won without hitting at the vitals of the rebellion and its driving force – slavery.

Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation, where he announced the abolition of slavery and the arming of black soldiers, caused a huge crisis in Northern opinion.

But the experience of war and the heroism of black soldiers, mostly former slaves, was, for a period, able to revolutionise Northern society.

It was to take a full-scale counter-revolution in the South to drive back the economic and political gains made by black people in the period following victory in the civil war.

John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry may have been doomed to failure, but as the song that took his name onto every battlefield of the civil war proclaimed, “his soul goes marching on”.

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