An Abolitionist View of John Brown’s Raid
The nation’s newspapers closely followed John Brown’s October 1859 raid on the United States Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, (West) Virginia—a failed attempt to lead an armed rebellion to free the South’s slaves. Most accounts roundly condemned Brown and his 21 followers, but a few abolitionist newspapers tried to place his raid in the larger context of the struggle against slavery and the history of violence in “Bleeding Kansas.” Brown had been directly involved in the violence in Kansas; on the night of May 24, 1856, he and a small band of followers committed the Pottawatomie Massacre, killing five pro-slavery men and mutilating the bodies.
The New York Herald was one of Brown’s critics, saying he and his followers “committed dreadful havoc and onslaughts, all against the peace and sovereignty of the people of the United States.” However, the Herald was balanced enough in its reporting to include excerpts from some of what it called the “Black Republican Organs”—abolitionist newspapers, including the New York Evening Post article reprinted below. This excerpt was published by the New York Herald (New York, New York) on October 19, 1859:
Opinions of the Black Republican Organs
(From the New York Evening Post, Oct. 18.)
The stories connecting the name of “Old Brown of Ossawattomie,” as he is called, with the leadership of this fanatical enterprise, are, we are induced to think, well founded; and in that event the whole affair may be regarded as a late fruit of the violence which the slaveholders introduced into Kansas. Brown was one of the early settlers in that new Territory; he was a conspicuous object of persecution all through the troubles; his property was destroyed; he and his family were cruelly treated on several occasions; three or four of his sons were killed by Southern desperadoes; and these many exasperations drove him to madness. He has not been regarded since, we are told, as a perfectly sane man. He has been known to vow vengeance against the whole class of slaveholders for the outrages perpetrated by their representatives in Kansas, and this insurrection, if he is at the head of it, is the manner in which he gluts his resentments. Frenzied by the remembrance of his wrongs, his whole nature turned into gall by the bitter hatreds stirred up in Kansas, and reckless of consequences, he has plunged into the work of blood.
Passion does not reason; but if Brown reasoned and desired to give a public motive to his personal rancors, he probably said to himself that “the slave drivers had tried to put down freedom in Kansas by force of arms, and he would try to put down slavery in Virginia by the same means.” Thus the bloody instructions which they taught return to plague the inventors. They gave, for the first time in the history of the United States, an example of the resort to arms to carry out political schemes, and, dreadful as the retaliation is which Brown has initiated, must take their share of the responsibility. They must remember that they accustomed men, in their Kansas forays, to the idea of using arms against political opponents, that by their crimes and outrages they drove hundreds to madness, and that the feelings of bitterness and revenge thus generated have since rankled in the heart. Brown has made himself an organ of these in a fearfully significant way.
No one can think of the possible results of an outbreak of this kind, should it become general, without shuddering, without calling up to his imagination the most terrible scenes of incendiarism, carnage and rape. In nearly all the Southern States the negroes greatly preponderate in number, many of them, it is true, are too ignorant and stupid to take any effective part in an insurrection; others, too, are profoundly attached to their masters or their families; but these excepted, there are yet thousands able and willing to strike for their emancipation. It has been impossible to keep them in entire ignorance of the blessings of freedom, and of the possibility of attaining it by force of arms; the fugitive slaves of the North have found means of communicating with their old comrades; the abolitionists have spoken to them by pictures, if not by language; democratic orators have told them falsely that the entire North was engaged in a crusade against the South for the sake of the slaves; and as servants in the cities they have heard the talk of the parlor and the barrooms, and in innumerable other ways have been made to think and to desire. When the hour comes, therefore, they will not be found either so incapable or so docile as the slaveholders seem to suppose.
But what a condition of society is that in which one half the population constantly menaces the other half with civil war and murder—in which the leading classes go to sleep every night, carelessly, it may be, over the crater of a volcano, and in which the dangers do not lessen, as in other societies, with time, but grow with its growth, until an explosion becomes as inevitable as the eruptions of Etna or Vesuvius! What a condition of society, to be extended over the virgin territories of the West—the seat of our future empire—and for which politicians should clamor and sear their conscience and desperadoes should fight!
How insane the policy which would recruit and extend this form of social existence, even while it is becoming unmanageable as it is. Open the gates to the slave trade, cry the Southerners, who are as great fanatics as Brown; tap the copious resources of Africa, let new millions of blacks be added to the enormous number that now cultivate our fields, let the alarming disproportion between them and the whites be increased; it is a blessed institution; and we cannot have too much of it! But while they speak the tocsin sounds, the blacks are in arms, their houses are in flames, their wives and children driven into exile or killed, and a furious servile war stretches its horrors over years. That is the blessed institution you ask us to foster, and spread, and worship, and for the sake of which you even spout your impotent threats against the grand edifice of the Union.
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