Biography of John Brown

Fanatical Abolitionist Led Raid on Federal Armory at Harpers Ferry

Engraved portrait of abolitionist fanatic John Brown

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The abolitionist John Brown remains one of the most controversial figures of the 19th century. During a few years of fame before his fateful raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Americans either regarded him as a noble hero or a dangerous fanatic.

After his execution on December 2, 1859, Brown became a martyr to those opposed to enslavement. And the controversy over his actions and his fate helped stoke the tensions that pushed the United States to the brink of Civil War.

Early Life

John Brown was born on May 9, 1800, in Torrington, Connecticut. His family was descended from New England Puritans, and he had a deeply religious upbringing. John was the third of six children in the family.

When Brown was five, the family moved to Ohio. During his childhood, Brown's very religious father would exclaim that enslavement was a sin against God. When Brown visited a farm in his youth, he witnessed the beating of an enslaved person. The violent incident had a lasting effect on young Brown, and he became a fanatical opponent of enslavement.

John Brown's Anti-Enslavement Passion

Brown married at the age of 20, and he and his wife had seven children before she died in 1832. He remarried and fathered 13 more children.

Brown and his family moved to several states and he failed at every business he entered. His passion for eliminating enslavement became the focus of his life.

In 1837, Brown attended a meeting in Ohio in memory of Elijah Lovejoy, an abolitionist newspaper editor who had been killed in Illinois. At the meeting, Brown raised his hand and vowed that he would destroy enslavement.

Advocating Violence

In 1847, Brown moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, and began befriending members of a community of self-liberated formerly enslaved people. It was at Springfield that he first befriended the abolitionist writer and editor Frederick Douglass, who had escaped from enslavement in Maryland.

Brown's ideas became more radical, and he began advocating a violent overthrow of enslavement. He argued that it was so entrenched that it could only be destroyed by violent means.

Some opponents of enslavement had become frustrated with the peaceful approach of the established abolition movement, and Brown gained some followers with his fiery rhetoric.

John Brown's Role in Bleeding Kansas

In the 1850s, the territory of Kansas was rocked by violent conflicts between anti- and pro-enslavement settlers. The violence, which became known as Bleeding Kansas, was a symptom of the highly controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act.

John Brown and five of his sons moved to Kansas to support the free-soil settlers who wanted Kansas to come into the union as a free state in which enslavement would be outlawed.

In May 1856, in response to pro-enslavement ruffians attacking Lawrence, Kansas, Brown and his sons attacked and killed five pro-enslavement settlers at Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas.

Brown Desired a Rebellion

After acquiring a bloody reputation in Kansas, Brown set his sights higher. He became convinced that if he started an uprising among those enslaved by providing weapons and strategy, the revolt would spread across the entire South.

There had been uprisings before, most notably the one led by Nat Turner in Virginia in 1831. Turner's rebellion resulted in the deaths of 60 White people and the eventual execution of Turner and more than 50 Black Americans believed to have been involved.

Brown was very familiar with the history of rebellions, yet still believed he could start a guerrilla war in the South.

The Plan to Attack Harpers Ferry

Brown began to plan an attack on the federal arsenal in the small town of Harpers Ferry, Virginia (which is in present-day West Virginia). In July 1859, Brown, his sons, and other followers rented a farm across the Potomac River in Maryland. They spent the summer secretly stockpiling weapons, as they believed they could arm those held in bondage in the South, who would escape ​to join their cause.

Brown traveled to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, at one point that summer to meet with his old friend Frederick Douglass. Hearing Brown's plans, and believing them suicidal, Douglass refused to participate.

John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry

On the night of October 16, 1859, Brown and 18 of his followers drove wagons into the town of Harpers Ferry. The raiders cut telegraph wires and quickly overcame the watchman at the armory, effectively seizing the building.

A train passing through town carried the news, and by the next day forces began to arrive. Brown and his men barricaded themselves inside buildings and a siege began. The uprising of enslaved people Brown hoped to spark never happened.

A contingent of Marines under the command of Col. Robert E. Lee arrived. Most of Brown's men were soon killed, but he was taken alive on October 18 and jailed.

The Martyrdom of John Brown

Brown's trial for treason in Charlestown, Virginia, was major news in American newspapers in late 1859. He was convicted and sentenced to death.

John Brown was hanged, along with four of his men, on December 2, 1859 at Charlestown. His execution was marked by the tolling of church bells in many towns in the North.

The abolitionist cause had gained a martyr. And the execution of Brown was a step on the country's road to Civil War.

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McNamara, Robert. "Biography of John Brown." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, McNamara, Robert. (2023, April 5). Biography of John Brown. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Biography of John Brown." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).