The Enigmatic John Brown–Villain or Martyr?

John Brown (1800-1859)


John Brown (1800-1859) was an American abolitionist who believed in and advocated armed insurrection as the only means to end slavery in the United States.
John Brown lived as he died; as an enigmatic character in our American history. His enigmatic personality was described as, ambiguous, equivocal, and double edged. Added to this a wicked, haughty, and obstinate temper, and you have John Brown the man. The question that begged to be answered– was he a villain, or a martyr?

John Brown 1856

The Inquiry:

Did John Brown use Christianity to politically masquerade his use of violence? In general, did Brown and the slave owners use the moral authority of the Bible to serve their agendas? More specifically, was John Brown a type of Machiavellian leader (where the ends justify the means)? Putting things into a historical context gives the story of John Brown a better understanding.

Historical Context:
John Brown’s place in history was amplified by the chaotic times in which he lived. A brief background of the times follows. The country and its people struggled with questions surrounding slavery and secession. Briefly, it was about the abolition of slavery and the right of states to use slave labor to fuel their economy. In the following paragraph, opposing perceptions of Brown described the polarizing attitudes of many Americans.
To the people living in the North or South; John Brown was known as either as a hero or a villain, as a crusader or a madman, or as a liberator or a traitor. In his own mind, he desired to be remembered as a martyr who fought against the sins of slavery.
Legally, he was remembered as a criminal of the state. He was charged with treason against the state of Virginia, where he sat in prison and waited his fate.
Furthermore, while awaiting his trial and sentencing, news of his violent raid on Harper’s Ferry and insurrection against the government had spread like wild fire across the country.

If you stare into his eyes, he appears to be smiling; but in you stare at his mouth, you see his anger. Therein lies the truth.

The Pulse of the Nation:

Clues to the country’s future Civil War were unfolding, as evidenced by colliding social and political forces. For example, the fear of future slave uprisings in the South, coupled by the religious fervor against slavery in the North had reached a fever pitched crescendo. In addition, unbridled words of protest from lawmakers created a loss in the public’s faith in government. The lost faith was due to a political impasse and no agreed upon compromise over slavery. Finally, the war of words became—words of secession!

John Brown’s Sentencing:

Consequently, it was his time to die, about 11:00 a.m. on December 2, 1859, in Charles Town, Virginia (Now West Virginia). Brown led an armed insurrection against the institution of slavery, he was captured and found guilty of treason, and was sentenced was to be hanged by the neck until death.

Harper’s Ferry, Virginia

The Flawed Plan:

He and twenty –one other men launched an attack of the Federal Arsenal at Martin’s Ferry, Virginia in hopes of triggering a violent liberation to free the slaves. He believed that slavery would only be abolished through violence, destruction, blood, crime, and sin. He had hoped that wide spread killing and violence would produce enough suffering and misery to give cause to an insurrection against slavery.
His plan failed for two reasons; first, he was unable to recruit enough slave participation for the raid, and second, his holding of the engine house was attacked and stopped by the U.S. Marines quickly and decisively.

A Revealing Letter –The Early Years:

Below is a letter of self- examination from his early years which offers some clues into his enigmatic personality and his growing self-importance.
Brown described his early years in a letter written by John Brown to Mr. Henry L. Stearns, dated 15th of July, 1857. Below are a few highlights, as he described himself in the third person:
“…quite skeptical he had always by turns felt much serious doubt as to his future well- being; & about this time became to some extent a convert to Christianity & ever after a firm believer in the divine John had been taught from earliest childhood to “fear God and keep his commandments;” & though authenticity of the Bible.”
Later in his adult life his strict following of his Christian upbringing became confused by his egotistical ways. He admitted to his egotistical defects of character as he wrote “….he came forward to manhood quite full of self-conceit; & self-confident; notwithstanding his extreme bashfulness.”
In the later years to come, he developed an unbridled sense of self-importance that played to his sense of martyrdom.
His personality was affected by his first marriage about the age of twenty. He settled down and was greatly influenced by his wife and her excellent character. He wrote,” her very consistent conduct… kind admonitions had the right effect; without arousing his haughty obstinate temper.”
With an honest desire for your best good, I subscribe myself,
Your Friend, J.Brown.


Frederick Douglass was against Brown’s plan, he refused to join in the raid.

A Life Changing Moment:

John Brown’s early life did not foretell his eventual infamous deeds or legend. His life took a turn as his wife, Dianthe Lusk, who bore him seven children died in 1832. A year later, he remarried Mary Ann Day, who gave him 13 children. His life was unstable, as he moved his family around the northeastern United States experiencing financial difficulties and working odd jobs.
Upon hearing of the murder of abolitionist, Elijah P Lovejoy, Brown dedicated his life to the destruction of slavery. He joined the Stanford Street “Free Church,” founded by Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. Brown felt that he had found a purpose for his life—the abolition and destruction of slavery. His views were supported by Douglass who believed that slaves had the right to rise up and kill their masters. He sympathized with Brown, yet he refused to join him at the raid on Harper’s Ferry. Douglass told Brown that his plan was ill-conceived and foolish.

The Path to Violence:

According to Brown’s biography, between 1849 and 1850, two events occurred which put him on the path to the insurrection and the raid at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. One was a failed attempt to compete with large wool producers that bankrupted his business and the other was the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. The law imposed penalties on those that aided runaway slaves and mandated that authorities in” free states” must return slaves who tried to escape. In response, John Brown formed a militant group dedicated to prevent slaves’ capture.

The U.S. Marines use a fire house ladder to breakdown the door and caputure John Brown.

The Last Hours of the John Brown Raid:

David H. Strother, an eyewitness in part to the raid, had his narrative printed in Harper’s Weekly on November 5, 1859, just a short time after the actual raid of October 16 of the same year. A few highlights of the raid will follow showing its destructive use of violence.
Strother wrote…during the day of the 16th, four townspeople were killed, including the mayor.

On the morning of October 18, Colonel Lee sent Lt. J. E. B. Stuart, serving as a volunteer aide-de-camp, under a white flag of truce to negotiate a surrender of John Brown and his followers. Brown refused to surrender, soon after, Lt. Greene led a detachment of Marines in an attack of the engine house, the fort of Brown. Greene found a wooden ladder, and he and about 10 Marines used it as a battering ram to force the front doors open.

The capture of John Brown and his near death experience.

Violence Comes with the Irony of Surprise:

Lieutenant, Greene later recounted the events:  Quicker than thought I brought my saber down with all my strength upon [Brown’s] head. He was moving as the blow fell, and I suppose I did not strike him where I intended, for he received a deep saber cut in the back of the neck. He fell senseless on his side, then rolled over on his back. He had in his hand a short Sharpe’s cavalry carbine. I think he had just fired as I reached Colonel Washington, for the Marine who followed me into the aperture made by the ladder received a bullet in the abdomen, from which he died in a few minutes. The shot might have been fired by someone else in the insurgent party, but I think it was from Brown. Instinctively as Brown fell I gave him a saber thrust in the left breast. The sword I carried was a light uniform weapon, and, either not having a point or striking something hard in Brown’s accouterments, did not penetrate.

The scene of John Brown having a near death experience resulting from the use of violence is truly ironic justice.

John Brown admitted his guilt and acquiesced to his punishment. He chastised the prosecutor for his support of slavery.

The Trial:

As a result of being captured, Brown was taken to the court house in nearby Charles Town for trial. He was found guilty of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia and was hanged on December 2. His execution was witnessed by the actor, John Wilkes Booth, who would later assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.

“How do you justify your acts?” demanded Virginia senator James Mason.
“ I think, my friend, you are guilty of a great wrong against God and humanity, replied Brown… and it would be perfectly right for anyone to interfere with you so far as to free those who willfully and wickedly you hold in bondage.” Beyond his self -importance, Brown had little insight into the effect his actions had on his family.

Brown’s Family Suffered Greatly:

Brown lacked the wisdom to understand the pain and suffering that came to his family. Brown’s execution threw his large family into turmoil. He left behind a total of eight children, four by his widow Mary Ann Day Brown and four by his first wife, Dianthe Lusk.
The honor and glory that members of the family saw in their father’s work did not fill the aching void that was left in their hearts after losing their loves ones to death.
Consequentially, the collateral damage to the Brown family was unimaginable, due to of the loss of family. Of his three sons who participated in the Harper’s Ferry attack, Watson was mortally wounded, as was Oliver, while Owen managed to escape.
His entire family suffered from the notoriety of his conviction and execution.

Abraham Lincoln & Jefferson Davis in Agreement:

At the time, Brown’s death, it was necessary for the restoration of the rule of law because the dangers from abolitionism remained – of which had many opinions were aired. Two of the more important opinions came from future presidents.

Abraham Lincoln stated that Brown was wrong for two reasons:
One reason, was that  Brown’s method was against the law. The second reason was that the raid was useless as an attempt to get rid of a “great evil.” He called Brown a man of “great courage,” and “rare unselfishness,” but ultimately concluded that Brown was “insane.”

Jefferson Davis, a Mississippi senator, called Harper’s Ferry “a murderous raid,” and “a conspiracy against a portion of the United States, a rebellion against the constitutional government of a State.”

Lincoln and Davis were in relative agreement on the incident, excepting that Lincoln believed that the raid was an isolated incident while Davis worried that the Harper’s Ferry Raid was a sign of more slavery uprisings to come.
In the South the heightened level of fear over future slave uprisings may have rushed states to secede from the Union.

Final Thoughts:

In conclusion, the enigmatic John Brown thought that his violent means justified his moral ends. This idea appeared to have dominated his purpose, thoughts, and actions leading up to his execution. For example, he became a villain hoping to be heralded as a martyr. His misguided intentions produced ambiguous outcomes which contributed to his blurred legacy.

Most of all, John Brown’s seemingly absurd or self- contradictory behavior may give reason to compare and contrast him with today’s politicians– and their Machiavellian ideas.

It is hoped that this view of American history may serve as a way of seeing today’s political environment through the historical character of John Brown.

As our past history effects our present times, may we remember a famous quote: “There are no accidents in my philosophy. Every effect must have its cause. The past is the cause of the present, and the present will be the cause of the future. All of these links in the endless chain stretching from the finite to the infinite.”—Abraham Lincoln.

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