Forgot your password?

Abolitionist John Brown

By Edited Apr 8, 2016 1 6

Part 1 of 2

Extremists, regardless of the honorable intentions behind their actions, are never in the right. 

Abolitionist John Brown with the most honorable of motives – to free the United States of its horrible cancer of slavery – resorted to what is nothing more than domestic terrorism to meet that goal. 

He failed; for his troubles he was executed in 1859.

Basic Terror
Terrorism is not a new phenomenon, nor is it solely the purview of foreigners. 

Domestic terrorism in the United States foments from racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacy groups.  More disturbing than these obvious hate groups, because it operates under the fraudulent guise of patriotism, is the newer so-called militia/“patriot” movement in the United States.  The sole focus here is not patriotic at all, but racist – keeping Mexican immigrants out of the country, preserving “white” rights to the US power structure, etc..  

Tragic Prelude (interpretative mural of John Brown)

Similarly, those zealots who bomb health-care facilities that provide abortion services, or who murder doctors and health-care workers they perceive as “abortionists”, are also nothing more than domestic terrorists.  Roe vs. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court case that granted a woman a conditional right to an abortion on demand, is the law of the land.  Any violent actions flying in the face of it are illegal as they violate the spirit and intent of that law.  Whether or not one believes abortion is “right” or “wrong” is irrelevant; it is the law, and the proper place to fight it, if one is so inclined, is in the voting booth, not by murdering doctors or by bombing clinics. That’s what terrorists do.

The goal of the anti-abortion lobby is purely a moral one, and it is insidious only because, like the “patriot” movement or the Ku Klux Klan, it uses terror and violence to promote its own agenda, which is a “moral” agenda and not a legal one.  For example, there was a time when people believed it was “immoral” for a white woman to engage sexually with a black man.  There are probably ignorant people who still believe that.  It is irrelevant.  All such prohibitive, miscegenation laws have been struck down long ago, and sexual congress between races is not illegal.

The “Patriots”
Sometimes, though, terrorists do not have a firm agenda, just some nebulous “anti-government” sentiments that because of their inability to think for themselves they absorb from others, co-opt, and subvert into a “cause”.  People like Timothy McVeigh (the Oklahoma City Bomber) fit this category, that of a weak-minded, brainless follower.  He had no agenda of his own; he just absorbed what others told him.  He was neither noble nor a martyr to any cause; he could be neither as he had no true calling.

Libertarians create animus against the government also, as do “Constitutionalists”.  The Constitutionalists are the more laughable, though, because their rhetoric is more tied to moralizing (based on WASPish notions of morality).  This group of “patriots” holds forth that there needs to be a return to the US Constitution’s support of “family values” as relevant to society. 

In the first place, no one person knows what absolute “family values” are.  It is almost certain the Osmond Family and the Manson Family lived by different “family values”.  More importantly, however, is the simple inescapable fact that “family values” are not, nor ever have been, enshrined in the US Constitution – that phrase exists nowhere in the document.  The Constitutionalist agenda is based on a total lie.

However, the US Constitution did uphold a “family value” of sorts.  It allowed the ownership of one human being by another, in what it termed “that peculiar institution” (the Founders could not even bring themselves to call it by its rightful name).  This “institution” is the black eye on the face of American history, slavery.

Birth of a Terrorist
The first African slaves were brought to the New World in the 1560s by the Spanish (although they were the first to abolish it in their North American holdings in 1769).  Attempts to enslave the Native Americans proved disastrous.  Diseases and self-will killed many Indians, and their familiarity with their own country facilitated easy escapes. 

Africans filled a labor niche because they were “off-balance”: uprooted from their homes, transported across an ocean many of them had never seen, and deposited in a land whose climate was uncomfortable, and whose languages and customs they did not understand.  A level of dependence can be created in such a dislocated person, and his or her will, in tandem with physical punishment and deprivation, can be bent easily.

The institution of slavery spread.  Although the Northern states of the Union also held slaves at one time with the advent of industrialization the need for them vanished.  The South, however, remained agrarian with huge tracts of arable plantation lands needing tending.  Thus, slavery became more deeply rooted – the South’s economic survival depended upon slavery for its labor.  No plantation would be profitable without it.

The most militant abolitionist who ever lived was John Brown, an uncommon man with a very common name.  He was born in the last year of the 18th century on May 1, 1800, into the Puritanically puckered New England world of Torrington, Connecticut. 

In 1805 his father, Owen Brown, uprooted the large clan (there were eight children; John was fourth in birth order) and moved to Hudson, Ohio.  Owen Brown opened a tannery, and was actively involved with Oberlin College (now the Oberlin Institute).  His mother died, insane, when he was eight years old.

When he was sixteen, Brown left Ohio and enrolled in a prep school in Plainfield, Massachusetts.  He then transferred to another institution in his home state of Connecticut, the Morris Academy in Litchfield.  He intended to follow the vocation of Congregationalist minister.  This dream was brought to an abrupt end when he ran out of money for school and developed a severe eye inflammation problem.  Dejected, he went back to Hudson, Ohio, where he worked for his father in the family tannery.  He then took the initiative of opening his own tannery on the outskirts of town, taking on an adoptive brother as a partner.

John Brown got married in 1820, and a little over a year later the couple’s first child was born, a son named John, Jr.  He moved his family to New Richmond, Pennsylvania, in 1825, where he bought a couple hundred acres of farm and pastureland.  He cleared about 25 acres, and on that parcel built a cabin, barn, and a tannery.  Brown was very successful in his tanning work; within the year of establishing the business he employed fifteen workers.  He was able to export some of his tanned goods westward.  He also raised cattle and did land surveying for money.  He helped the community set up its first post office and school.  Brown’s success seemed assured.

Disaster struck for the Brown family in 1831 when one of Brown’s sons died.  Brown himself fell terribly ill, and his inattention to business matters led to his businesses’ failure and his growing deeply in debt.  To make matters worse, in 1832 right after the death of a newborn son, Brown’s wife also died. 

The 33-year-old Brown, with a household and seven motherless children to tend, hastily married a Meadville, Pennsylvania, teenager (16-year-old Mary Ann Day).  Mary Ann gave birth to thirteen more of Brown’s children over the course of their marriage.  Brown’s many offspring (not all of whom survived childhood) resulted in his having a small army at his beck and call, an army upon which he would rely in the years ahead.

Brown headed West in 1836, and settled in Franklin Mills, Ohio (Kent, Ohio, today).  Having run himself into bankruptcy he had no ready cash to set himself up in business, so he borrowed to buy land.  As he did in Pennsylvania, he built a tannery.  However, the Panic of 1837 (a financial crisis that ruined many) also took its toll on humble John Brown of Ohio.  Brown was heavily mortgaged and leveraged on his business venture and could not pay his notes.  He was jailed once when he tried to keep a farm that was absorbed for relief of his debts.  Brown simply refused to vacate the property even though it had been sold and the new owners tried to take possession. 

In desperation Brown did anything to earn a dollar.  He continued to tan hides, traded cattle, and he also undertook horse and sheep breeding (the latter was to become a notable aspect of his pre-public vocation).

He found his raison d’être in 1837. 

A Presbyterian minister, Elijah Parish Lovejoy, was also an early abolitionist.  He owned a newspaper to which he contributed many anti-slavery editorials and criticisms of the institution.  People against his stance had destroyed his printing press three times by 1836.  He had been living in St.Louis; after this third press was demolished he moved to Alton, Illinois (a slave-free state).  He started another anti-slavery paper.

The pro-slavery people would not rest, however.  On November 7, 1837, Lovejoy’s warehouse, where his press and other printing equipment was kept, was raided by a pro-slavery mob.  The intent was to demolish his printing operation once again; this time, Lovejoy and a group of supporters took a stand.  In a gun battle, the minister was shot and died instantly.  He was held up as a martyr to the abolitionist cause in the wake of his death.

As a response to this high-profile murder, Brown swore he would spend his life and resources dedicated solely to destroying slavery.  Although this was a lofty goal, Brown was a pragmatic man: starting an insurrection took money.  He would have to bide his time and scrape together the funds to finance his coup.  He did, however, take the step of enforcing his views on his family – in 1839 he made them all take an oath to help abolish slavery. 

He was declared bankrupt in Federal court in 1842.  Misfortune seemed to plague the Brown family.  In 1843 four of his children died of dysentery.  His father, Owen Brown, became disenchanted with Oberlin College’s more liberal leanings, and he withdrew his support of it.  Both he and his son John found fault with the Congregational Church, and they withdrew their memberships from it in the 1840s.  The adult John Brown would never be an “official” member of any organized religion for the rest of his life.

Beginning about the time of his severance from his church, Brown threw himself into sheep husbandry.  He soon built a reputation as an expert in fine sheep and wool.  He started a new partnership with a man from Akron, Ohio, Colonel Simon Perkins.  Perkins’ flocks and farms were managed by Brown and his remaining sons.  Brown then took up residence in a house across the street from Perkins’ mansion.  His reputation as a fair dealer blossomed, and his name was mentioned as an expert in journals for the industry. 

John Brown (2 images from 1846)

He traveled extensively as part of his sheep trading and wool speculating, and this brought him into contact with other fervent abolitionists.  Brown and Perkins set up a wool commission operation in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1846.  This was meant to represent the interests of wool growers against the extorting interests of manufacturers. 

Unfortunately, Brown originally placed his trust in the manufacturers’ cohort.  He soon found, though, that their agenda and his varied wildly.  Manufacturers, of course, wanted to support price controls.  They disdained the idea of sheep farmers having any leverage economically. 

From Brown’s perspective, once he decided to switch allegiance to the farmers, it was difficult for him.  The farmers were not organized, and they were also unmotivated to improve upon the quality and output of the wool they produced, although they wanted more money for it.  Brown tried to get more money for the farmers by traveling to England to seek a ready market there, thus bypassing the pecuniary stranglehold of New England’s manufacturers.  His gambit did not pay off – he found the same niggardly attitude in Europe, and he ended up incurring a business loss of $40,000 (right about $1 million in today’s funds).  This was a staggering sum, one which Colonel Perkins, as the money man in the partnership, had to absorb almost exclusively.

Brown and Perkins shut down their operation in 1849.  They were tied up in litigation for several years afterward.  Although Perkins lost much, he and Brown remained business partners in different ventures over the years, and Brown finally clawed his way into the black by 1854.  The two men remained friends even after their business partnership officially dissolved. 

Bleeding Kansas
Brown learned of a little community in upstate New York in the Adirondacks.  It was near the town of North Elba (near Lake Placid), and land grants were given to poor black men.  Brown learned of this opportunity, and he bought land in the area for $1 an acre.  He moved his family to the New York farm, and they lived and worked among black neighbors.  He spent about two years helping with vocational training for his neighbors and in providing basic education for them. 

In 1850 he conceived the idea of creating a slave insurrection in the South.

John Brown farm house (North Elba, NY)

Four of Brown’s grown sons had since migrated to Kansas Territory.  On the cusp of Kansas’ admittance to the Union a fierce debate raged about whether it would be admitted as a “free” state or a “slave” state. 

Both sides of the issue fought violently and sporadically, leaving Kansas with the early nickname, “Bleeding Kansas”.  In 1855, Brown received word from his sons that area families were routinely assaulted by pro-slavery forces (generally coming from nearby slave-holding Missouri).  The frontier families were mostly defenseless against the better armed guerillas

Brown, with all the anti-slavery zeal of his beliefs boiling within him, immediately set out for Kansas with a son-in-law, soliciting funds and weapons along the way.  Early in his trip west, he stopped in Albany, New York, long enough to take part in an anti-slavery convention.  The convention espoused violence as a legitimate means of ensuring a state’s entry into the Union as “free”.  Brown, already of a militant mindset, drew comfort from believing others felt as strongly about ending slavery as he did, and that the ends must certainly justify any means to stop such an abomination.  Continuing his trek, he found more militant supporters in Ohio, and he took them with him to Kansas. 

Brown spent little time peaceably lobbying for Kansas’ “free” statehood.  He noted that the area’s pro-slavery forces willingly violated any law to intimidate Kansans into accepting slavery for their territory.  Between 1855 and 1858, Brown and his followers routinely raided along the Kansas/Missouri border, ferreting out pro-slavery gangs, and dispatching them many times in simple cold-blooded and unprovoked murder.  He believed that a campaign of terrorism, fraud, and brutal and deadly ambushes were the agenda of the “Border Ruffians” (pro-slavery supporters). 

Brown adopted a similar program of terror.  His cause was just – his methods were not.

In May 1856, the town of Lawrence, Kansas, was sacked by pro-slavery gangs.  The insurgents were led by a sheriff and his posse.  They destroyed the newspaper offices and a hotel.  Only one person was killed, a Border Ruffian.

Brown’s outrage was barely contained.  He hated the violence of the pro-slavery forces, and he also despised what he perceived as a weak and cowardly defense by anti-slavery and Free State settlers.  He described them as “cowards, or worse”.

Owen Brown (John’s father) died on May 8, 1856.  John Brown got word of this about the same time as the Sacking of Lawrence occurred.  A combination of factors (grief, outrage, and concern for his sons’ welfare in the area) brought Brown’s rage to a boil.  

He scouted the lair of the Border Ruffians who had torched the town of Lawrence.  Through the grapevine he had learned his own family was marked for death by these pro-slavery men.  He also uncovered locals in Kansas who were secretly pro-slavery and providing material aid to the Border Ruffians.

Brown’s next moves were illegal by any measure.  Recall that only a Border Ruffian had been killed in the Sacking of Lawrence.  At about 10:00 PM on May 24, 1856, Brown and some supporters spirited away five pro-slavery men.  These men (not slave owners themselves but three of whom had been slave hunters) were brutally hacked to pieces by cutlasses near a rural creek. 

Although Brown later claimed he was not an active participant in the murders, he reported he wholeheartedly approved of them.  [Brown never said he was not present for this massacre.  He most certainly was; even if he did not wield a cutlass personally he had the charisma and authority to stop what was happening.  He chose to let the murders continue.]

It is believed by some that Brown’s murderous assault on these not-so-innocent men, however, perhaps was truly borne from fear for his own family’s safety.  The widow of one of the men hacked to death even blandly stated that it was her husband’s “devilment” that had brought about his murder.

A group of Missourians had already burned the Brown family homestead and had kidnapped John Brown , Jr., and Brown’s other son, Jason, before participating in the Sacking of Lawrence.  This group returned to harass the town of Palmyra, Kansas.  Brown, with nine followers and twenty other supporters, engaged them in battle in that town.  The leader of the raid and twenty-two of his men were taken prisoner by Brown.  Brown took them to his own camp and fed them.  He then made the Missourians’ leader sign a treaty, ensuring the freedom of his two sons in exchange for all the Missourians’ safe return.  Brown released the leader and another senior man; as security he kept the rest until his sons were safely produced.  He was livid when he learned they would not be released until September. 

Meanwhile, in August 1856, three hundred Missourians crossed into Kansas, intent on destroying Free State settlements in the town of Osawatomie, Kansas.  Afterward, they planned the same for Topeka and Lawrence.  Members of this group shot and killed Brown’s son Frederick and one of Brown’s neighbors on the morning of August 30, 1856.  Brown, meeting fire with fire but hopelessly outnumbered seven to one, set up a defense position along a road leading from town.  His group, firing from the little cover they had, managed to kill at least twenty of the raiders; they wounded forty more.  The Ruffians dismounted and scattered into a nearby wooded area. 

Brown’s defenders split up and forded a small river.  One of his men was killed and four more were captured by the raiders.  Brown and the surviving defenders hid out in the woods as the Border Ruffians plundered and burned Osawatomie.  This was the first real defeat for Brown and his men.  However, the moral victory made itself known nationally when his bravery and exploits g

John Brown (1856)
arnered national press.  He became a hero to many Northern abolitionists.  He was nicknamed by them “Osawatomie Brown”, and this event spawned a dramatic play, Osawatomie Brown.

Brown took a more pro-active stance when he marched to Lawrence, Kansas, on September 7, 1856, and met with Free State leaders to fortify the town against assault.  It was learned at least 2,700 pro-slavery Missourians had crossed into Kansas and were rampaging.  The two groups clashed near Lawrence on September 14.  The situation escalated until the Kansas Territorial Governor ordered both groups to disarm and disband.  He also offered clemency to former fighters on both sides of the skirmishing.  Brown, perhaps in a wise and clear-headed decision, took advantage of the temporary truce and left Kansas with three of his sons. 

From there he began a fund-raising campaign in the North for a big plan of action, something no one would ever have anticipated.

[end of part 1]

Part 2 of 2: Terrorist John Brown



American Experience: John Brown's Holy War
Amazon Price: $24.98 $13.04 Buy Now
(price as of Sep 2, 2014)
Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War
Amazon Price: $18.00 $8.54 Buy Now
(price as of Sep 2, 2014)
Trucker Man
Amazon Price: Buy Now
(price as of Sep 2, 2014)


Oct 25, 2011 9:04pm
You're right about modern-day terrorists who can't 'live and let live' but push their own agendas down everyone else's throats. Great article.
Oct 25, 2011 10:48pm
Sad but true. I at least respected John Brown simply because he had a legitimate agenda -- not the best way to do things, of course. Unlike the McVeighs of this world, he was willing to sacrifice and even die for his convictions. Find me a white supremacist, neo-Nazi, or clinic bomber who will say the same. Thanks for checking it out.
Oct 25, 2011 10:49pm
I've never known much about John Brown, except for a brief mention in history class. Thanks for this well-written and researched article.
Oct 25, 2011 10:58pm
This is one of America's truly great men despite his criminality. He was willing to use militant force to affect positive change for all, not just to suit his own personal needs or wants. I think history has begun to revisit and vindicate him since his armory raid and murderous Kansas activities. He was still a domestic terrorist, though -- I call 'em the way I see 'em. Thanks for reading.
Oct 26, 2011 3:13am
A very interesting article Vic, thanks for sharing this. These are aspects of John Brown's I wasn't fully aware of. Can't agree with his methods, but we also need to look at the context of the conditions prevailing during his time.
Mar 21, 2012 3:41pm
Thanks for reading - -sorry it took me so long to respond.
Add a new comment - No HTML
You must be logged in and verified to post a comment. Please log in or sign up to comment.


  1. "John Brown." American Peoples Encyclopedia. 1963.
  2. "John Brown." Britannica Ready Reference 2003. 2002.
  3. "John Brown (abolitionist)." en.wikipedia.org. 22/10/2011 <Web >
  4. "Elijah Parish Lovejoy." en.wikipedia.org. 2/09/2014 <Web >

Explore InfoBarrel

Auto Business & Money Entertainment Environment Health History Home & Garden InfoBarrel University Lifestyle Sports Technology Travel & Places
© Copyright 2008 - 2016 by Hinzie Media Inc. Terms of Service Privacy Policy XML Sitemap

Follow IB History