John Brown: A Biography

The institution of slavery will forever plague American history. The slave economy was a core feature of the growth of the financial system, culture, and politics of the country for almost two and a half centuries until it ultimately became a catalyst for civil war.

Though the institution was dismantled, it molded into something hardly less gruesome: the criminalization of black life.

Present in America’s history, too, is a rich tradition of abolitionism, resistance, and struggle continuing on to today. There are troves of literature, memoirs, and historical records that tell the story of slaves with exemplary courage. Philosophers, poets, conductors of the Underground Railroad– names we may never learn or hear of, but a legacy that is inextinguishable.

There were crucial alliances forged between those in bonds and those who lived outside of the system. Deeply distraught, John Brown was one such contender. His was a gradual evolution from a venture businessman to an abolitionist who proposed and fought directly for an immediate obliteration of American slavery.

From Brown’s point of view, gradual reform was not enough. The inhumanity of slavery necessitated an immediate overthrow.

(Note: all hitherto accounts are cited from W.E.B Du Bois’s biography on John Brown, published in 1909.)


John Brown was born May 9th, 1800 in Torrington, Connecticut to Owen and Ruth Brown. John was the fourth of eight children. Owen, a man of strong religious convictions, was noted to have had prominent influence over his son, instilling conscious respect for native peoples in particular and sowing the seeds for John’s imminent anti-slavery position. (Owen himself was an abolitionist who founded the Western Reserve Anti-Slavery Society and organized the earliest way stations of the Underground Railroad at a time when it was hardly shaped.)

As a young man, John was remarkably self-willed. He was noted to frequently wander off into the wilderness by himself, and was generally self-satisfied and seldom yearned for the companionship of others.

Much of his childhood consisted of manual labor, chores, and tending to cattle. In his spare time, he educated himself through acquaintance with the Holy Bible. Reading and rereading the text in its entirety, he committed lengthy passages to memory and studied the depths of its poetry, history, and philosophy. To the young John, the Old and New Testaments became his essence– the one divine truth.

In the midst of the War of 1812, Owen Brown became a key meat contractor, and John was tasked with delivering the supplies to clients and beneficiaries. After a tiring and arduous journey of over 100 miles, John was given refuge and bedding at a landlord’s home. There, John witnessed the savage beating of a young slave– not much older than he. John, aghast at the cruelty, reflected on the essence of what he’d seen. Was this boy not a child of God, too? How, then, could such an abhorrent display of barbarism against this boy be permissible? As DuBois writes, these questions were not only being asked by John but by a million and a half bondmen across the country.

In 1819, aged 19, John began studying under Rev. Moses Hallock in Plainfield, Massachusetts, wherein he would prepare himself for enrollment in Amherst College. John was an ardent student and scholar, but money was, of course, scarce. John eventually dropped his studies. One can’t be all that certain that it was a massive disappointment to him, though, as he may have believed that he was just following the conventional path laid before all men, their fathers, and their fathers before them: become college-educated.

Instead, John took to trades. At age 20, John became engaged to Dianthe Lusk.

Confusion, Wandering, Scraping By

The next period in John’s life is rather bizarre and puzzling. First, he took to tanning as his craft. Next, he became a land surveyor– and a remarkable one at that. Next, he became a lumber dealer; a postmaster; wool-grower; stock-raiser; shepherd; and finally, a farmer. Suffice to say, John’s tendency to wander led him, albeit gently, down a path of utter chaos.

He and his wife, over the next period of 11 years (1821 – 1832), settled in various places across the United States– Hudson, Franklin, and Richfield, Ohio; Pennsylvania; New York; Massachusetts. This lifestyle must have been equally puzzling to his newborn children: six boys and one girl, all born over these 11 years.

The children have warm recollections of their father: his eldest son and daughter remark a scene where John held his children as they sang his favorite songs. Another recollection states that, although he had the tendency to be stern and strict, he was equally tender and kind– enough to make his daughter forget that he was ever stern.

Dianthe, John’s first wife, died in childbirth. She had brought up seven children with him, but two of them died very young.

In 1833, John went on to marry Mary Ann Day, a girl of just 17– just 5 years older than his eldest daughter. She bore him 13 children, 7 of whom died very young.

In total, John had 7 sons and 4 daughters. In one recollection, the family was described as simple, hard-working, and well-disciplined.

In 1836, John moved his family from Pennsylvania to Ohio. Alongside operating a tannery in the area, John became skilled in banking and credit, eventually becoming a bank director. John had amassed substantial wealth at the time– an estimated $20,000– but lost this fortune in the Panic of 1837.

Anti-Slavery Activities

In 1846, Brown and his business partner (Simon Perkins) moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, which at the was time recognized as a hotbed for the anti-slavery cause. It was there that Brown was exposed to the lectures of Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth through his time as a parishioner at the Free Church.

In 1850, the United States Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which mandated that runaway slaves were to be hindered by legal authorities in free states and returned to their masters in the South. This prompted John to found the League of Gileadites, founded on the principles of militant slave protection and in reference to Mount Gilead of the Holy Bible. The League was tasked with assisting runaway slaves who entered Springfield, exhausting whatever violent means necessary to secure their freedom.

From 1854 to 1860, the territory of Kansas engaged in a bloody conflict between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces, an event referred to as Bleeding Kansas. Brown’s sons, now adults, resided in Kansas during this time– wherein they alerted their father that they were to be under attack from pro-slavery militants, unprepared for the siege. Brown thus journeyed out west.

Bleeding Kansas and the Events at Pottawatomie

Free-state settlers such as Brown were hopeful that Kansas could be admitted to the Union as a free state. Pro-slavery elements were resolute to prevent that. After a long winter, pro-slavery forces sought to seize the Kansas territory in full in 1856.

In a response to the sacking of Lawrence, Brown and his four sons– Frederick, Owen, Salmon, and Oliver– plus two others engaged in what history books now refer to as the Pottawatomie massacre. Brown and his allies shot and killed five pro-slavery settlers in front of their families on the night of May 24, 1856.

Over the next few years, Brown would participate in a variety of anti-slavery practices, including conferences, meetings, and even a grassroots-organized Constitutional Convention.

On December 20, 1859, Brown led and orchestrated his own raid, now known collectively as the Battle of the Spurs, in Holton, Kansas. Brown and allies were escorting 12 escaped slaves through Missouri and eventually Iowa, where they would be free– but ran into U.S. marshals and volunteers intending to claim Brown’s head for a $3,000 reward. John, as is inferred, had limitless enemies. The raid was successful, and 11 slaves were emancipated in the process. John was remarked to have “inspired fear into his enemies,” charging his force of only 21 towards a force of 45. Not a shot was fired, apparently, and their enemies panicked and retreated.

John’s trajectory continued, and he would travel to various states such as New York, Ohio, Massachusetts, and Connecticut to rally for the abolitionist cause and recruit whoever stood in solidarity. John continued to meet with famous leaders such as Harriet Tubman. Arriving in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, with aspirations for another raid, John, under the name of Isaac Smith, rented a farmhouse in which to garrison troops in nearby Maryland. Unfortunately, the numbers that Brown anticipated were not met. Nonetheless, the raid commenced.

Harpers Ferry

On October 16, 1859, Brown led 21 men (16 white and 5 black) from ages 21 to 49 in seizing the Harpers Ferry Armory. This large complex contained over 100,000 muskets and various supplies which Brown intended to distribute. Initially, there was little to no resistance– but soon, telegrams were sent out. One even reached President James Buchanan. Soon, U.S. Marines under the overall command of Colonel Robert E. Lee surrounded the fort. Overall, John’s men killed four and wounded nine– but their operation was dashed, and all were captured, killed, or escaped. Brown was captured and tried.


According to Virginia law, a month was to pass before Brown could be put to death. Brown received thousands upon thousands of letters and correspondence during this time and hastily tried to write back. Brown expressed sincere, religious convictions in his final days.

Brown’s capture and trial attracted national attention. Several of his letters were published in the press.

On December 2, 1859, John handed his jailor a note with these final words:

“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 very much bloodshed it might be done.”

A Legacy

The chord Brown struck is incalculable. His strain of abolitionist thought advanced, and in many ways transformed, a school of theory and action that exposed the sham of gradual change. Brown maintained that the vile institution of slavery could not be done away with through prolonged reform– but by direct, participatory dismantling by the people– bonded and free.

I can put it no better than W.E.B DuBois himself when he said,

“He saw, he felt in his soul the wrong and danger of that most daring and insolent system of human repression known as American slavery. … He said, in 1859, “Now is the accepted time.” Now is the day to strike for a free nation. It will cost something– even blood and suffering, but it will not cost as much as waiting.”

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