History: John Brown – The Abolitionist

About 160 years ago, on the 2nd December 1859, John Brown was executed after an attempt to incite a slave rebellion through violent means. In this entry, we will learn about his life and how he became what he is now known for.

John Brown around 1846


In May 1800, John Brown was born in Torrington, Connecticut. His father, Owen Brown, was a strict Calvinist* who hated slavery and believed that holding humans in bondages was a sin against God.

*Calvinism is the theology advanced by John Calvin (1509-1564) who was a protestant reformer in the 16th century. It is also used for doctrines and works derived from Calvin and his followers.

Brown’s birthplace, photographed in 1896. In 1918 it was destroyed by fire.
Image: Wikipedia

During the War of 1812, the 12-year old John Brown travelled through the Michigan wilderness to deliver a herd of cattle. He then lived with a man who owned a boy as a slave, and while he was treated well the enslaved boy was beaten before his eyes with an iron shovel. This experience haunted him forever.

War of 1812: There were two leading causes for the war between the British Empire and the US (which gained its independence in 1783); the British Order-in-Council which limited trade with Europe and impressment (forced recruitment), the practice of taking seamen from American vessels to fill out the crew of the undermanned ships of the Royal Navy.
From 1807 to 1812, the British were able to seize 400 American merchant ships and their cargoes. Since the British Navy was too strong (16 warships vs 500 ships), the United States decided to invade Canada due to the population advantage (7.7 million to 500,000).

The war ended in a draw on the battlefield, reflected by the peace treaty as well. The Treaty of Ghent was signed in modern-day Belgium on December 24, 1814 and went into effect on February 17, 1815, after both sides ratified it. All conquered territory was restored as it had existed before the war, making it a status quo ante bellum.

Note: The War of 1812 was a byproduct of the war between the British Empire and Napoleonic France (May 1804 – 11th April 1814 and 20th March 1815 – 7th July 1815) who fought over the domination of Europe as well as the wider world.

Amédée Forestier – Signing of Treaty of Ghent (1814)
Image: Wikipedia

On June 21, 1820, John Brown married Dianthe Lusk. Six years later both move to the wilderness of Pennsylvania where Brown built a tannery. In 1832, his wife died shortly after the death of her newborn.

One June 14, 1833, Brown wedded the 16-year old Mary Day. She takes care of his five children and will give birth to 13 more. His expanding family increases their economic hardships.

In January 1836, land speculation reached extreme heights. With his family he then moved to Franklin Mills, Ohio and borrowed money to buy land in the area – only later to be crushed by the economic turmoil of 1837.

Panic of 1837: The economic turmoil was the result of land speculation through easy credit, encouraged by „pet banks“ (a derogatory term used for state banks selected by the U.S. Treasure Department to receive surplus Treasury funds in 1833, see The Bank War).
Andrew Jackson (7th Presiden of the United States) attempted to correct it through his executive order Specie Circular which forced banks to accept payment for land purchase only in gold or silver. However, a lot of banks didn’t have the necessary gold and silver reserves to exchange it for the enormous amount of paper currency. As a result, banks routinely failed to implement it. It was partially responsible for the economic crisis.
On May 21, 1838, Congress repealed Specie Circular in a joint resolution.

On November 7th, 1837, Elijah Lovejoy (1802-1837), a publisher of an anti-slavery newspaper, was shot by a proslavery mob and subsequently died. During his memorial service, John Brown made a vow to end slavery.

Elijah Parish Lovejoy

On 28th September 1842, a federal court decided Brown’s bankruptcy. All but the essentials needed to live were taken from his family and him. The climax of „poor business decisions“ made by Brown.

In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed the people of the newly settled territories to decide by popular vote whether they want to tolerate slavery. It was an attempt by President Franklin Pierce (presidency: 1853-1857) and Stephen A. Douglas to end the slavery debate. At the end, it led to the opposite: the Northerners were highly upset over the Act and the Republican Party emerged as an anti-slavery party.

In June 1855, John Brown moves to his sons in Kansas.

On May 24, 1856, he directs his men in the murder of five proslavery settlers along Pottawatomie Creek. This was carried out as a revenge attack after a raid of pro-slavery men in an abolitionist town of Lawrence on May 21.

In January 1857, Franklin Sanborn introduces him to influential abolitionists in the Boston area in order to advance the antislavery fight in Kansas. Said acquaintances will later form the members of the „Secret Six„.

1. Thomas Wentworth Higginson — a minister and amateur boxer, Higginson was from one of the oldest families in New England. He had little tolerance for hesitation or weakness.
2. Gerrit Smith — a nervous, eccentric, and very wealthy man, he was already Brown’s benefactor, having given him land on which to live in the Adirondacks.
3. Reverend Theodore Parker — an eloquent and controversial Unitarian minister.
4. Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe — a highly respected pioneer of educational reforms for the blind, insane and feeble-minded.
5. George Luther Stearns — one of the chief financiers of Emigrant Aid Company, which facilitated the settlement of Kansas by anti-slavery homesteaders.
6. Franklin Sanborn — a young, idealistic Concord schoolmaster, and friend of Thoreau and Emerson

The Secret Six who supported John Brown, especially in financial aspects

In January 1858, John Brown attacked two proslavery homesteads in Missouri. He confiscated property and freed eleven of their slaves. He then travelled for 82 days and covered a thousand miles to get the slaves to Canada.

On July 3rd, 1859, he rented a a farmhouse under the name „Isaac Smith“ just a few smiles away from Harpers Ferry.

August 16, 1859: John Brown met Frederick Douglass at a rock quarry at Chambersburg. He tried to convince Douglass to join him at Harpers Ferry. Douglass refused, because he believed the raid would fail.

October 16, 1859: Brown attacked Harpers Ferry. His army of 21 men took over the federal armory, arsenal and army factory. The raid was intended to be the first phase in a plan to establish an independent stronghold of free slaves. John Brown was captured during the raid.

1862 photograph of the Harpers Ferry arsenal; the „engine house“, later called „John Brown’s Fort, is on the left.
Image: Wikipedia

November 2, 1859, the Virginia Jury finds him guilty of murder, treason and inciting a slave insurrection. The trial lasted one week and 45-minutes of deliberation.

December 2, 1859, before his execution, John Brown handed a slip of paper to his guard that read: „I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed, it might be done.“ He then was executed by hanging.

On April 12, 1861, Confederate batteries opened fire on Fort Sumter – the first shots of the Civil War.

In 1865, after the defeat of the Confederacy, the US abolished slavery with the 13th Amendment.

The John Brown Fort nowadays

Lastly, an extract from his Provosional Constitution and Ordinances (1958):
„Slavery, throughout its entire existence in the United States, is none other than the most barbarous, unprovoked and unjustifiable war of one portion of its citizens against another portion, the only conditions of which are perpetual imprisonment and hopeless servitude, or absolute extermination, in utter disregard and violation of those eternal and self-evident truths set forth in our Declaration of Independence.“



Calvinism and John Calvin

War of 1812

Panic of 1837

Pet Banks (Definition)

Specie Circular

Elijah P. Lovejoy

Kansas-Nebraska Act

The Secret Six

Harpers Ferry and quote


Veröffentlicht von thomasbaroque

Ich schreibe über politische, wirtschaftliche und wissenschaftliche Themen. Meine eigenen politischen Ziele ebenso. / I write about politics, the economy and science (my English isn't that good, though). My own political goals and ideas as well.

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