John Brown’s Body
Lincoln, a highly principled moderate on the issue of slavery, soon found himself transformed from an obscure Illinois politician to the standard bearer of his party. He challenged Douglas to a series of debates that captured the attention of the national press. Although Lincoln failed to win a seat in the Senate, he emerged as an eloquent, morally upright, yet thoroughly balanced embodiment of prevailing sentiment in the North. Radical Southerners warned that the election of any Republican, even Lincoln, would mean civil war.
While Lincoln and other politicians chose the stump and the rostrum as forums suited to decide the fate of the nation, others took more radical action. John Brown was born on May 9, 1800, in Torrington, Connecticut, but he grew to undistinguished adulthood in Ohio, drifting from job to job, always dogged by bad luck and bad business decisions. By the 1850s, however, Brown’s life began to take direction, as he became profoundly involved in the slavery question.
Brown and his five sons settled in “Bleeding Kansas,” where they became embroiled in the violence between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces for control of the territorial government. Brown assumed command of the local Free-Soil militia, and after pro-slavery forces sacked the Free-Soil town of Lawrence, Brown, four of his sons, and two other followers retaliated by hacking to death, with sabers, five unarmed settlers along the Pottawatomie River during the night of May 24, 1856.
Although he was not apprehended, Brown claimed full responsibility for the act and became increasingly obsessed with the idea of emancipating the slaves by inciting a massive slave revolt. The charismatic Brown persuaded a group of Northern abolitionists to back his scheme financially. He chose Harpers Ferry, Virginia (present-day West Virginia), as his target, planning to capture the federal small-arms arsenal there. Then Brown planned to establish a base of operations in the mountains, from which he would direct the slave rebellion as well as offer refuge to fugitives. On October 16, 1859, with 21 men, Brown seized the town and broke into the arsenal. Local militia responded, and within a day, federal troops under the command of Robert E. Lee arrived, attacked, and killed 10 of Brown’s band. The wounded Brown was taken prisoner.
Yet the battle was hardly over. Arrested and tried for treason, Brown conducted himself with impressive dignity and courage. It was, in fact, his finest hour, and he succeeded in arousing Northern sympathy, eliciting statements of support from the likes of William Lloyd Garrison and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Brown’s execution by hanging, on December 2, 1859, elevated him to the status of martyr. To many, the raid on Harpers Ferry seemed a harbinger of the great contest to come.