A few years ago in college, I wrote a paper about John Brown and his raid on Harper’s Ferry. I had to compare three books about his life and how he sparked the Civil War. These books were Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz, John Brown by W.E. Burghardt Du Bois and John Brown: Abolitionist by David S. Reynolds. I started off the paper by talking about his religious life. He was a Puritan and believed in a strict interpretation of the Bible. He therefore saw slavery as a great evil that needed to be abolished. He infused ideas from the Bible into his family’s lives. For example, from the Old Testament, Brown told his children that God commanded that humans should fight for justice. From the New Testament, he told his children of the importance of self sacrifice as modeled by Jesus. According to Reynolds, “this religious outlook made Brown and his children come to believe that they were chosen by God to free millions of enslaved blacks.” By the 1850s Brown began to put his ideas into action by participating in Bleeding Kansas. Brown and his sons fought in Kansas and slaughtered proslavery men with swords at Pottawattomie.
It was after Bleeding Kansas that Brown was really ready to inflict a decisive blow to the slavery institution at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Reynolds and Horwitz similarly revealed Brown’s entire plan in attacking Harpers Ferry and the South. They both revealed that Brown would attack with a small force, free the slaves in the surrounding area, attack the arsenal at Harpers Ferry in order to acquire guns for freed slaves, and then escape to the hills away from federal troops. They both revealed that Brown’s men did not fully agree with this plan especially Hugh Forbes, who was hired by Brown to train his men in guerilla tactics. Forbes stated as summarized by Reynolds, “that such a raid would elicit little response from the ignorant slaves, who were wholly unprepared for such an event” Du Bois had similar information which he presented through a letter written by Kagi, one of Brown’s men. This letter revealed more of what Brown intended, in that Brown planned to free slaves throughout the South. After Harpers Ferry, Brown hoped to use the ‘Great Black Way,’ a series of Underground Railroad routes in the mountains, to send slaves from the South up north to Canada. The account of the Harpers Ferry raid was told as a story in all three books. Reynolds used an interesting perspective, however, by pointing out ironies and coincidences of the attack. For example, the first victim was a free black porter on the train and one of the first hostages was George Washington’s grandson. The men who actually stopped the attack were General Lee and J.E.B Stuart. As displayed by Reynolds there seemed to be a bad omen at the onset of the attack and things certainly went wrong when Brown was not prepared to fight an army and citizens. Du Bois also presented a story by using letters of eyewitnesses and hostages but differed from the other books when he suggested options that Brown could have seized. Du Bois pointed out that one option could have been that Brown could have crossed over to Maryland but he would have had to abandon the main features of his plan. A second option, Brown could have escaped to Loudoun Heights but would have had to abandon his arms. Lastly, Du Bois revealed that Brown could have used hostages to force terms. Horwitz had a very detailed story that almost resembled a novel approach. One different aspect this author displayed was that Brown tried to assure hostages and citizens that his purpose was not to kill them but to only free the slaves. As revealed by Horwitz, Brown honestly did not realize that citizens would arm themselves and resist rather than give up their slaves.
John Brown and his attack on Harpers Ferry failed and he was imprisoned and tried. Brown’s only recourse was to stand behind his principles and fight for his freedom with his words. Brown knew however, that eventually, he was to be hung for his actions. Du Bois was very specific in mentioning Brown’s trial in that he included questions and answers from the case. He also included Brown’s final speech before the court in which Brown stated that his purpose was not to kill anyone but to only free the slaves and that he was divinely inspired in this endeavor. Reynolds presented his perspective by stating, “John Brown talked in court. He wrote letters from prison. Then he was hanged, an event he looked forward to. Because his eloquent talk and forceful writing were observed by the entire nation through the press, his hanging made a difference” The trial became Brown’s platform and he used it to display his anti-slavery views in order to anger the South but also to inspire the North. Reynolds also created a story of Brown’s hanging, which was very specific. He eerily mentioned that John Wilkes Booth watched the hanging in contempt of this “terrorizer” but was so inspired by Brown’s success in achieving political influence that in 1865 he becomes so unraveled that he winds up assassinating President Lincoln. Horwitz had a similar account of the trial as Reynolds in that they agree that since Brown was held for trial and not killed instantly, he was able to continue to speak and write about his issues with slavery, which in hindsight was a great advantage. Horwitz presented a twist that revealed Brown as a Christian martyr. In response to writers like Emerson, who glorified Brown’s character, Horwitz stated “now he donned the mantle of Christian martyr and inhabited the role with the steeliness he had brought to every other pursuit” Brown wanted this role of self sacrifice and as Horwitz reveals in Brown’s letter to his wife, he actually compared himself to Jesus who also died as a felon.
All these books have shown that Brown wanted to slay the evil serpent of slavery even if that meant risking his own life. Brown was preconditioned to the harshness of life by the death of his wife, children, as well as the loss of his many business pursuits. Brown lived in pain from these losses, but he had God to turn to and his good book to guide him. Throughout his life Brown used God’s words to inspire his family, his neighborhood and eventually American society. Brown saw it necessary to live under God’s word and to act against evil. Slavery was one such evil that Brown was determined to strike at its core. Brown believed that he had conceived a well thought out plan of attack but actually he became the sacrificial lamb that started the nation on a quest to end slavery. This was Brown’s plan all along because he knew that he would not escape Harpers Ferry alive. Eventually, Brown went on trial and used it as a platform to arouse the nation into action. The South was embittered by this terrorist while the North was inspired by this freedom fighter. The speeches he delivered at the trial and the papers he wrote in prison made these sections of the country realize that they could no longer cohabitate. Brown, under the guidance of God, sparked a war to expel a great evil and became successful, when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and when the Civil Rights Act was issued in the 1960’s. John Brown’s legacy will go on as the crusader who fought behind the sword of “the Lord and of Gideon” to force the great sin of slavery out of the land.