Today is the birthday (1800) of John H. Brown, well known abolitionist activist and martyr. Brown felt that violence was necessary to end slavery, given that years of speeches, sermons, petitions, and moral persuasion had failed. Although he died in the cause, he was proven correct in that it took a civil war to end slavery in the US. Brown was a deeply religious man more than anything else, believing he was raised up by God to strike the death blow to slavery. He said on many occasions: “I am an instrument of God.”
Brown first gained national attention when he led anti-slavery volunteers and his own sons during the Bleeding Kansas crisis of the late 1850s, a state-level civil war over whether Kansas would enter the Union as a slave state or a free state. He was dissatisfied with abolitionist pacifism: “These men are all talk. What we need is action—action!” On May 24th, 1856, Brown and his sons killed five supporters of slavery in the Pottawatomie massacre, a response to the sacking of Lawrence by pro-slavery forces (May 21), and possibly also to the caning of the Free Kansas supporter, Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner (May 22). Brown then commanded anti-slavery forces at the Battle of Black Jack (June 2) and the Battle of Osawatomie (August 30th , 1856).
In October 1859, Brown led a raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (today West Virginia), intending to start a slave liberation movement that would spread south through the mountainous regions of Virginia and North Carolina, and he had prepared a Provisional Constitution for the revised, slavery-free United States he hoped to bring about. He seized the armory, but seven people were killed, and ten or more were injured. Brown intended to arm slaves with weapons from the armory, but very few slaves joined his revolt. Within 36 hours, those of Brown’s men who had not fled were killed or captured by local militia and U.S. Marines, the latter led by Robert E. Lee. Brown was hastily tried for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, the murder of five men, and inciting a slave insurrection. He was found guilty of all counts and was hanged on December 2nd, 1859, the first person executed for treason in the history of the United States. Brown said repeatedly that all of his anti-slavery activities, both in Kansas and Harpers Ferry, were in accordance with the Golden Rule. He declared that the most famous sentence in the Declaration of Independence—all men are created equal—”meant the same thing.”
Historians agree that the Harpers Ferry raid and Brown’s trial (Virginia v. John Brown), both covered extensively by the national press, escalated tensions that led a year later to the South’s long-threatened secession and the United States’ Civil War. Southerners feared that others would soon follow in Brown’s footsteps, encouraging and arming slave rebellions. In the North Brown was a hero and an icon. From 1859 until Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, he was the most famous North American. Union soldiers marched to the new song “John Brown’s Body”, that portrayed him as a heroic martyr whose “truth is marching on,” which evolved into the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”. Newly-freed African-Americans walked to the same song, and they lowered their voices speaking of Brown, as if he were a saint. As Brown’s son, John Brown, Jr., told a visitor just before the raid on Harpers Ferry, “as only force and fire-arms kept slavery outta Kansas, so nothing else will overthrow it in the Southern states.” The visitor added that this was a belief that was “daily gaining adherents.” The violence Brown used makes him a controversial figure even today. He is both memorialized as a heroic martyr and visionary, compared sometimes with Moses or Christ, and vilified as a madman and a terrorist.
Brown was born and raised in Connecticut, although he spent most of his life after the age of 16 in various parts of the U.S. He was a 4th generation descendant of the Mayflower Pilgrim Peter Brown, making him a New Englander with deep roots. In the 19th century, it was common to bake a special cake on elections days, and also for soldiers in militias when they were assembling for muster. There is a famous election cake from Hartford, Connecticut in the late 19th century (see photo) whose list of ingredients and recipe looks like something out of Mrs Beeton’s Household Management – enough to feed an army. Suitably scaled down it would work for a celebratory dessert.