The Abolitionists: John Brown

John Brown

(1800 – 1859)

John Brown was an abolitionist who took a different approach to advancing the antislavery cause. Unlike abolitionists who used more peaceful means, Brown believed that armed rebellion was the only way to end slavery in the United States.

Born in Torrington, Connecticut on May 9, 1800, Brown moved with his family to Ohio at a young age. Brown had planned to become a Congregational minister, but the family’s money ran out and he was forced to leave his preparatory program and return to Ohio. He worked briefly at his father’s tannery before beginning one of his own with his adopted brother. Over the next many years, Brown would fall into debt, moving his large family often.

While living in Springfield, Massachusetts, Brown became deeply involved in his church where he attended lectures delivered by Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. Brown was instrumental in establishing Springfield as a major center for abolitionism, and it became one of the most significant stops on the Underground Railroad.

In 1850, the United States passed the Fugitive Slave Act, a law which ordered authorities in free states to aid in the return of escaped slaves. John Brown founded a militant group in Springfield to prevent the capture of slaves there. Brown left Springfield in 1850 and headed to Kansas where he became involved in the controversy over whether Kansas would enter the Union as a free or slave state. Violence broke out on both sides. When the governor of Kansas ordered the battling parties to disarm and disband in 1856, Brown returned to the East where he spent the next couple of years raising funds to continue his antislavery activities.

On October 16, 1859, Brown led a group of twenty-one men on an unsuccessful raid on the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Three of the men were free African Americans, one a freed slave and one a fugitive slave. Brown was tried for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, murder and for inciting a slave rebellion. He was found guilty on all counts and executed on December 2, 1859.