On this day (Oct. 18) in 1859, militant abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859) surrendered to a U.S. Marine detachment under the command of the future Confederate general, Col. Robert E. Lee.
The extremely religious Brown long had been obsessed with the idea of taking direct action to rid the country of what he passionately considered the abomination of black slavery. It was his abolitionist father who had taught him “from earliest childhood to oppose slavery and to fear an all-wise, just and all-powerful God.”
As a devout Calvinist, Brown believed in the doctrine of predestination. Specifically, he fervently believed that it had been divinely preordained that he should lead the crusade to liberate the slaves.
Especially after the U.S. Supreme Court had rendered its infamous March 1857 pro-southern Dred Scott decision, Brown felt the institution of slavery had become so entrenched in this “so-called Christian land” that only a violent, armed revolution could eradicate it.
The 1859 attack on Harpers Ferry was only the culmination of Brown’s lifelong antislavery crusade. Four years earlier, he and five of his sons had moved to the Kansas Territory to aid antislavery forces there engaged in the Kansas Civil War.
Disturbed over the May 1856 devastating sack of the town of Lawrence by pro-slavery armed gangs, Brown decided he had a divine mission to take vengeance. He led a night attack on the pro-slavery settlement at Pottawatomie Creek in which five pro-slavery sympathizers were murdered. By early 1859, he was back in New England rounding up financial support from abolitionists such as Theodore Parker for his planned attack at Harpers Ferry.
It was two days before his Oct. 18 surrender at Harpers Ferry that the God-fearing Brown, with an “army of liberation” (consisting of 16 whites – 5 of whom were his sons – and 5 blacks) captured the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va., and took some 60 of the town’s leading citizens hostage.
Brown and his fellow fanatics planned to foment a slave insurrection and, with the help of the many bondsmen they hoped to free, establish a slave-free state somewhere west of the Allegheny Mountains. This would be a necessary step, they believed, in completely destroying the “peculiar institution” of slavery.
For two days, Brown and his beleaguered “army” held out against the local Virginia militia. However, with the arrival of Lee’s marine detachment, Brown and his outmanned force easily were overpowered and forced to surrender. In this firefight, Brown was wounded and ten of his followers (including two of his sons) were killed.
John Brown quickly was tried by the state of Virginia for murder, slave insurrection, and treason and convicted. At his trial in Charlestown, (now Charleston, W.Va.), Brown said all the things that helped to ensure a guilty verdict.
The sanctimonious, pious speeches he gave in his own defense also ensured that he would inevitably become a martyr to the antislavery cause. He repeatedly characterized the institution of slavery as the “sum of villainies” and the “great sin against God.”
Since it was God who had chosen him to lead the crusade against slavery, he would “gladly” forfeit his life to achieve his divine destiny. Brown’s messianic temperament and his moral self-righteousness not only ensured his martyrdom, but also perhaps made inevitable the Civil War that brought about the emancipation he had long sought.
John Brown was hanged amid great fanfare on Dec. 2, 1859.
• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University and author of numerous articles and books on American political history