THE EFFECTS OF THE HARPERS FERRY RAID ON THE NORTH AND THE SOUTH
The importance of the Harpers Ferry raid went far beyond the occurrences of October 16, 17, and 18. Wendell Phillips expressed what he felt to be the long-range affect of John Brown’s action:
He has abolished slavery in Virginia. History will date Virginia Emancipation from Harper’s Ferry. True, the slave is still there. So, when the tempest uproots a pine on your hills, it looks green for months, – a year or two. Still, it is timber, not a tree. John Brown has loosened the roots of the slave system; it only breathes, – it does not live, – hereafter.114
There was a tremendous response throughout the North to John Brown’s execution. Abolitionists, along with liberal and moderate Northerners, who didn’t like slavery anyway, were so impressed with the courage with which Brown faced his trial, and by the eloquence of his letters and interviews from jail, that they were deeply disturbed at his execution. They gathered together in cities and towns to pay tribute to the man and to condemn the South for hanging him. Church bells were tolled from New England to Kansas. Town officials in Albany, New York, fired a 100-gun salute. In Hudson and virtually all the other towns in Ohio’s Western Reserve, hundreds of people crowded into their churches for commemorative services. Banks, businesses, and public offices were closed all day in Akron. At Cleveland, 1,400 people held a memorial meeting. Public prayer meetings were held in Philadelphia, New York City, Syracuse, Rochester, Fitchburg, Plymouth, New Bedford, and Manchester. In many places blacks held their own memorial services for John Brown. In Boston, all Negro businesses were closed, three prayer meetings were held, and blacks wore black arm bands on December 2, the day Brown was hanged. New York Negroes met at the Shiloh Church for their commemoration. In Philadelphia, Negroes closed their businesses and held two public prayer meetings. Blacks in Pittsburgh and Detroit also held ceremonies, eulogizing their dead friend. Funds were sent across the country for John Brown’s family, and for the families of some of the other raiders. And finally, in the weeks that followed the execution, Northern writers, poets and intellectuals enshrined Brown in an almost endless procession of poems, songs, essays, letters, and public addresses.115
The raid, trial and execution served to awaken the conscience of much of the nation. At first, people were appalled at the lawlessness of Brown’s attempt. They saw him as a murderer and condemned him. But, throughout the trial, Brown’s firm reiteration of his purpose made an impression on the watching nation. “Wider and wider circles were beginning dimly and more clearly to recognize that his lawlessness was in obedience to the highest call of self-sacrifice for the welfare of his fellowmen. They began to ask themselves, “What is this cause that can inspire such devotion?”116 John Brown became the most powerful abolition argument yet offered. People got the sense that the issue could not be avoided much longer, and they felt forced to choose the side that felt most comfortable to their own consciences – for many that meant beside John Brown, in feeling if not in action. Brown’s supporters in Cleveland passed a resolution which precisely expressed this change in attitude:
The irrepressible conflict is upon us, and it will never end until Freedom or slavery go to the wall. In such a contest and under such dire necessity we may ‘without fear and without reproach’ let freedom stand and the Union be dissolved.117
The Harpers Ferry raid seriously affected the future direction of the abolitionist movement. Once it had been dominated by strong pacifist politics, but after October of 1859, anger and determination fused into a new position of militancy which demanded the end to slavery, by any means necessary – and violence was felt by many to be one of the necessities. Frederick Douglass wrote in the November, 1859, issue of the Liberator:
[Brown] has attacked slavery with the weapons precisely adapted to bring it to the death. Moral considerations have long since been exhausted upon Slaveholders. It is in vain to reason with them. One might as well hunt bears with ethics and political economy for weapons, as to seek to “pluck the spoiled out of the hand of the oppressor” by mere force of moral law. Slavery is a system of brute force. It shields itself behind might, rather than right. It must be met with its own weapons.118
Many abolitionist had abandoned their commitments to peaceful means, and some seemed almost to look forward to a confrontation which appeared more and more unavoidable. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in his journal on December 2, 1859: “This will be a great day in our history; the date of a new Revolution, – quite as much needed as the old one. Even now as I write, they are leading Old John Brown to execution in Virginia for attempting to rescue slaves! This is sowing the wind to reap the whirlwind, which will come soon.”119
Even Moncure Conway, an abolitionist who had left his Southern home because of his convictions, finally, after much agonizing, joined in praising Brown as a martyr, even though he realized that the South’s firm commitment to slavery could well lead to fratricidal war.120 Charles H. Langston, a black abolitionist, issued a statement denying that he had a hand in the Harpers Ferry raid. But he went on to express his solidarity with the attempt at slave liberation: “But what shall I deny? I cannot deny that I feel the very deepest sympathy with the immortal John Brown in his heroic and daring effort to free the slaves.” This sentiment, according to Benjamin Quarles, in Black Abolitionists, “mirrored the reaction of the overwhelming majority of black Americans.”121
Few abolitionists had any enthusiasm about arguing for non-resistance and moral suasion after John Brown was hanged. They seemed to agree with “Old Ossawatomie” himself, and the statement he handed to a guard on his way to the gallows: “I, John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land: will never be purged away; but with Blood. I had as I now think: vainly flattered myself that without much bloodshed; it might be done.”122
John Brown left a deep mark on the South as well as the North. The great Southern fear of a slave uprising was exacerbated by Brown’s attempt at Harpers Ferry. After the raid, Governor Henry A. Wise of Virginia received several letters and telegrams claiming that bands of men were invading the South. Suspicious people were jailed or run out of town, books critical of the South were publicly burned, and the whole region was in a state of alarm. Planters in South Carolina wrote to Wise asking to be sent samples of the pikes Brown had intended to give to slaves; they wanted desperately to know a little about this shadowy enemy.123 Another South Carolinian wanted to know what contacts Brown had in that state, for antislavery agents were suspected everywhere.124 Incendiary fires after the raid had Southerners especially worried, as they were linked with a much larger slave rebellion. One of the many telegrams Wise received during this time said: “A gentleman just from Charlestown reports that Mr. Sherley was burnt out last night, and it is reported that 100 men crossed the Shenandoah river.” The next day another telegram came: “The majority think the recent fires made by Negroes. . . .”125 The Chicago Tribune properly identified the fear that Southerners were feeling toward “foreigners” and toward their own slaves:
Belshazzar’s knees did not tremble more, when the hand of Providence wrote his doom upon the inner wall of his palace, than do these “chivalrous Virginians,” whose imagination conjure up millions of Browns and Smiths. . . .126
The Southern authorities, and especially Henry Wise and Andrew Hunter, the prosecuting state’s attorney, tried to do two contradictory things in the face of the Harpers Ferry raid. On the one hand they tried to minimize the importance of the raid, stating that no slave support was offered Brown because slaves were loyal to their masters. But, on the other hand, they were incredibly anxious to get rid of Brown because of the real threat that he posed as a rallying point for both Northern abolitionists and Southern slaves. Andrew Hunter wrote to Wise: “The judge is for observing all the judicial decencies, so am I, but at double quick time.”127 Hunter wanted the appearance of a fair trial, but he also wanted Brown hanged as soon as possible, before the old man inspired some other action against the South. Brown’s execution, on December 2, came less than seven weeks after his capture. All the raiders who were caught were eventually hanged, at a total expense of $250,000 to the State of Virginia. Between one and three thousand troops were stationed in the Harpers Ferry area for months after the raid, and militias all over the South were on alert. Wise offered a $500 reward for the four known fugitives, Tidd, Owen Brown, Barclay Coppoc, and Merriam. Clearly the raid presented a formidable threat to Virginia and to the South.128
Wise and Hunter also feared that Brown would be rescued from the Charlestown jail where he was being held. Several threats were sent to Wise promising that Brown would be released. The mayor of Detroit reported that 30 men were leaving that city on their way to rescue Brown, and from Kansas came a telegram:
“Organized parties have secretly left Kansas supposed destination Virginia. Jim Lane understood head of Movement, think they design Brown’s rescue.” Brown was held under heavy guard all during his incarceration. The day of his hanging Charlestown was filled with troops, and no strangers were allowed into the city; women and children were urged to stay at home, for fear that an attempt would be made to rescue Brown at the last moment.129
Many Southerners were already pushing for secession before October of 1859, but the raid served as an example of abuse toward the South which provided a good excuse for disunion. Although many Northerners despised abolitionism, the Southern fear of growing antislavery feeling was heightened considerably by the Harpers Ferry raid. Letters poured in to Wise, warning him of the “villany of Northern abolitionists,” and urging him to “bring them all to trial. . . .”130 Abolitionists fed this fire, also, as they claimed that “All of us at the North Sympathize with the Martyr of Harpers Ferry.”131 Francis E. Bigelow, a supporter of Brown, wrote from Worcester, Massachusetts: “If he is hung it will raise 10,000 John Browns.”132 The South feared this ever so much, but hang him they must, despite the warning from both North and South that doing so would make a martyr of the man.
Brown forced the South to retreat from any further accommodation with the North. He offered Southern secessionists an argument and a warning. The argument was used by the South to hasten secession: The raid symbolized the ruthlessness of the North, of abolitionism, in attacking the cherished institutions of the South; and to emphasize this argument, the South enlarged the significance of the raid by punishing its participants harshly and quickly. The warning raised by the Harpers Ferry raid was the danger of black insurrection, but this the South whispered fearfully to itself.
CONCLUSION: THE MEANING OF JOHN BROWN’S RAID
The raid organized by John Brown at Harpers Ferry on October 16, 1859, was a pivotal event which pushed the nation closer to civil war. There is ample proof that John Brown was not a madman, but rather a dedicated activist who had perhaps more courage, not less sanity, than other antislavery men and women of his generation. Specifically, we can conclude that: (1) Brown’s life was a progression of antislavery feeling, beginning with a mild, educational approach, but later recognizing the necessity of violence, especially after the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and the events in Kansas in which Brown participated. (2) The plan which Brown developed was well thought out, and many contemporaries, as well as historians evaluating the. raid later, were confident that it was a feasible one. The efficacy of guerrilla war has been proven, and there is considerable feeling from Redpath, Tidd, DuBois, Stavis, and others that Brown had a good chance of success, once he got out of Harpers Ferry. It is also not unreasonable that Brown hoped to save lives by his campaign. Assuming that a frontal attack on slavery had become necessary, a guerrilla war would probably have been less bloody than the extended conventional warfare that took 600,000 lives. (3) The fact that many highly respected people supported Brown also re-inforces the argument that his contemporaries saw him, not as mad, but as serious, dedicated, and capable.
Evidence leads us to believe that John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry was a reasonable, though dangerous, act which could have succeeded. As to the sanity of the initiator of the raid, we have ample testimony from his friends as to the integrity of John Brown. But, if a doubt still remains as to his worth or sanity, the words of an enemy should lay them to rest. Henry Wise had considered the charges of insanity levelled at Brown, but after the execution, the Virginia Governor gave his own opinion of the accusation:
They are themselves mistaken who take him to be a madman. He is a bundle of the best nerves I ever saw; cut and thrust and bleeding, and in bonds. He is a man of clear head, of courage, fortitude, and simple ingenuousness. He is cool, collected, and indomitable, and it is but just to him to say that he was humane to his prisoners, and he inspired me with great trust in his integrity as a man of truth.133
The controversy over Brown’s sanity and over the significance of the Harpers Ferry raid stems from a lack of understanding, shared by our own age as well as Brown’s, that a white man might voluntarily risk his life to free a bunch of miserable slaves. Two prejudices are operating in this lack of understanding. One is the prejudice that refuses to admit any legitimacy in a small group of people challenging an institution which they see as unjust. From this point of view, had Brown been a captain in the Union Army, he would have been a hero, but, without the uniform of established power, his actions against slavery could not be understood. The second prejudice is composed of racism and elitism, and insists on evaluating history and human worth from a white perspective and from the perspective of the well-to-do elements of society. Brown recognized this prejudice in his fellow man:
Had I interfered in the manner which I admit. . .in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends. . .and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.134
These words, spoken by John Brown at his arraignment, could be repeated with relevance by black and white revolutionaries today.
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