John Brown (Abolitionist)

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John Torrington Brown

Also Known As: "Abolitionist"
Birthplace: Torrington, Litchfield County, Connecticut, United States
Death: December 02, 1859 (59)
Charlestown, Jefferson, Virginia, Now West Virginia (Hanged for abolitionist raid at Harpers Ferry)
Place of Burial: North Elba, Essex, New York, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Owen Brown and Ruth Brown
Husband of Dianthe Brown and Mary Ann Brown
Father of John Brown, Jr.; Ruth Thompson; Frederick Brown; Jason Brown; Owen Brown and 15 others
Brother of Salmon Brown; Austin Brown; Levi (Blakeslee) Brown; Frederick Brown; Oliver Brown and 6 others
Half brother of Sally Marian Hand; Florella Adair; Martha Brown; Jeremiah Brown and Lucian Brown

Occupation: the abolitionist
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About John Brown (Abolitionist)

John Brown (May 9, 1800 – December 2, 1859) was an American abolitionist who advocated and practiced armed insurrection as a means to end all slavery. He led the Pottawatomie Massacre in 1856 in Bleeding Kansas and made his name in the unsuccessful raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859.

President Abraham Lincoln said he was a "misguided fanatic" and Brown has been called "the most controversial of all 19th-century Americans." His attempt in 1859 to start a liberation movement among enslaved African Americans in Harpers Ferry, Virginia electrified the nation. He was tried for treason against the state of Virginia, the murder of five proslavery Southerners, and inciting a slave insurrection and was subsequently hanged. Southerners alleged that his rebellion was the tip of the abolitionist iceberg and represented the wishes of the Republican Party. Historians agree that the Harpers Ferry raid in 1859 escalated tensions that a year later led to secession and the American Civil War.

Brown first gained attention when he led small groups of volunteers during the Bleeding Kansas crisis. Unlike most other Northerners, who still advocated peaceful resistance to the pro-slavery faction, Brown demanded violent action in response to Southern aggression. Dissatisfied with the pacifism encouraged by the organized abolitionist movement, he reportedly said "These men are all talk. What we need is action - action!" During the Kansas campaign he and his supporters killed five pro-slavery southerners in what became known as the Pottawatomie Massacre in May 1856, in response to the raid of the "free soil" city of Lawrence. In 1859 he led a raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (in modern-day West Virginia). During the raid, he seized the armory; seven people (including a free black) were killed, and ten or more were injured. He intended to arm slaves with weapons from the arsenal, but the attack failed. Within 36 hours, Brown's men had fled or been killed or captured by local farmers, militiamen, and U.S. Marines led by Robert E. Lee. Brown's subsequent capture by federal forces, his trial for treason to the state of Virginia, and his execution by hanging in Charles Town, Virginia were an important part of the origins of the American Civil War, which followed sixteen months later.

When Brown was hanged after his attempt to start a slave rebellion in 1859, church bells rang, minute guns were fired, large memorial meetings took place throughout the North, and famous writers such as Emerson and Thoreau joined many Northerners in praising Brown.

Historians agree John Brown played a major role in starting the Civil War. His role and actions prior to the Civil War, as an abolitionist, and the tactics he chose still make him a controversial figure today. He is sometimes memorialized as a heroic martyr and a visionary and sometimes vilified as a madman and a terrorist. While some writers, such as Bruce Olds, describe him as a monomaniacal zealot, others, such as Stephen B. Oates, regard him as "one of the most perceptive human beings of his generation." David S. Reynolds hails the man who "killed slavery, sparked the civil war, and seeded civil rights" and Richard Owen Boyer emphasizes that Brown was "an American who gave his life that millions of other Americans might be free." For Ken Chowder he is "at certain times, a great man", but also "the father of American terrorism."

On November 2, after a week-long trial and 45 minutes of deliberation, the Charles Town jury found Brown guilty on all three counts. Brown was sentenced to be hanged in public on December 2. In response to the sentence, Ralph Waldo Emerson remarked that "[John Brown] will make the gallows glorious like the Cross." Cadets from the Virginia Military Institute under the leadership of General Francis H. Smith and Major Thomas J. Jackson (who would earn the nickname "Stonewall" less than two years later) were called into service as a security detail in the event Brown's supporters attempted a rescue. Lysander Spooner conspired with John Brown to promote a servile insurrection in the South", and participated in an aborted plot to free Brown after his capture following the failed raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia.

Lysander Spooner

Brown's nicknames were Osawatomie Brown, Old Man Brown, Captain Brown and Old Brown of Kansas. His aliases were Nelson Hawkins, Shubel Morgan, and Isaac Smith. Later the song "John Brown's Body" (the original title of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic") became a Union marching song during the Civil War.

This is the John Brown of Harper's Ferry fame. Sometimes called "Potowatami" Brown during his raids into Kansas preceding the event at Harpers Ferry.

Hanged in Charles Town, West Virginia for his "crimes" at Harper's Ferry.

The Harper's Ferry event is often thought of as the start of the civil war.


Atlanta University Center, Robert W. Woodruff Library, Archives and Special Collections Address: 111 James P. Brawley Dr. SW, Atlanta, GA 30314 Phone: (404) 522-8980 fax: (404) 577-5158 Online catalog at: Collection includes: Brown, John, 1800-1859. John Brown collection, 1814-1859. 87 items. The collection consists of papers relating to John Brown from 1814 to 1859. Over half of the correspondence (1826-1849) consists of Brown's letters from various places in Pennsylvania and Ohio to kinsman and business associate Seth Thompson. The letters reflect his perpetual financial difficulties as well as his frequent change of occupation. A scattering of letters (1814-1840) written from various places in Ohio by his father Owen Brown, his uncle Abiel Brown, and his brother Oliver O. Brown concern family and business matters with only occasional references to politics. A second group of letters (1857-1858) from fellow abolitionist, Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, discuss the Free-Soil contest in Kansas, the National Kansas Committee, the various state committees, and the collection of arms to be turned over to Brown for his operations in Kansas. Correspondence relating to Brown's Harper's Ferry Raid includes two letters (October 19 and 22, 1859) from D.E. Henderson, a resident of that locality, describing the foray; a military order (October 19), signed by Robert E. Lee, detailing a guard to escort Brown and his fellow prisoners to the Charlestown jail, and a letter written by John Brown, Jr. (1879) to C.W. Tayleure, a pro-slavery journalist, expressing gratitude for the assistance Tayleure gave to Watson Brown, mortally wounded in the raid. The collection also includes two diaries and some personal correspondence of Judge Richard Parker, Brown's trial judge; the materials, however, are not related to the Brown trial.

Abolitionist, Folk Figure. He led a controversial raid on Harpers Ferry, (West) Virginia in October 1859 with the purpose of freeing enslaved African-Americans and starting a servile insurrection in the South. When the raid failed, he was captured, tried, convicted, and executed. His raid and execution became a turning point in United States history, and remains controversial to the present day.

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John Brown (Abolitionist)'s Timeline

May 9, 1800
Torrington, Litchfield County, Connecticut, United States
July 25, 1821
Hudson, Ohio
January 19, 1823
Hudson, Ohio
November 4, 1824
Hudson, Ohio
January 9, 1827
Richmond, Pennsylvania
February 18, 1829
Richmond, Pennsylvania, United States
December 31, 1830
Richmond, Pennsylvania
August 7, 1832
Richmond, Pennsylvania