Harboring a fury that was fueled by profound religious devotion, John Brown carried his hatred of slavery into action, creating a legacy of bloodshed and violence that remains at once inspiring and appalling to this day.
Born into a deeply religious family, Brown spent much of his childhood in the anti-slavery stronghold of Ohio. Setting out in life as a businessman, he suffered repeated failures, and from 1825 to 1855 moved his large family ten times, finding work where he could. Despite his hardships he remained committed to abolition, offering his homes as waystops on the Underground Railroad.
In 1855, Brown followed five of his sons to Kansas when they appealed to him for help in fighting off the Missouri “border ruffians” who were gathering there to force slavery on the citizens of the territory. Brown arrived with a wagonload of weapons and the conviction that all free-soil Kansans stood in mortal peril. He took action on the night of May 24, 1856, leading a group that methodically killed five pro-slavery settlers living along Pottawatomie Creek, dragging the men out of their cabins and butchering them with swords.
This massacre shocked even Brown’s fellow abolitionists and led to a string of violent deaths, giving rise to the name “Bleeding Kansas.” Brown successfully fought off all attempts to apprehend him, and maintained publicly that his acts were not only justified, but directly ordered by God.
Brown soon formulated an even more militant plan: he would incite a massive slave insurrection and thereby destroy the hated institution once and for all. In early 1859, he moved to Harpers Ferry, Virginia, site of a federal arsenal with which Brown planned to arm the slaves inspired to rebellion. In October, he led twenty-one followers in a raid on Harpers Ferry and quickly occupied the federal arsenal, but was just as quickly trapped there by troops under the command of Robert E. Lee. The next morning, Lee’s forces overran Brown’s band of raiders, killing half of them, including two of Brown’s sons.
Brown’s ensuing trial for treason gave him the opportunity to condemn slavery and to defend again his actions as ordained by God. Before his hanging in December, popular support poured out from the North. The white South, however, was only more deeply convinced that remaining in the Union meant the end of slavery.