Before I start talking about John Brown – there is another place I visited that was related to the abolitionist movement and occurred before John Brown came to Kansas. It was the initial trial regarding whether Dred Scott should be free. Dred Scott was the slave of a surgeon – John Emerson – who worked for the Army. During the time that he was a slave Emerson was located in Illinois and Minnesota – both free states. In 1843 Emerson died – leaving Scott to his wife. Dred Scott had saved money to purchase his own and his wife’s freedom – however Emerson’s widow refused to allow him to purchase his freedom. So he sued. He sued based on a Missouri law which stated that if a slave had been in a free state for a period of time then he was actually free. The jury in St. Louis found in his favor in 1847. The supreme court of Missouri however decided against him. The statue below of Scott and his wife is at the old courthouse in St. Louis – just across from the arch.
He then filed a federal law suit. The case made it to the Supreme Court. The majority decided against Scott – stating that anyone with African ancestors, regardless of whether they were free or slave – were not actually citizens of the United States and therefore they did not have any rights under the constitution. As chief justice Roger Taney would state – “blacks have no rights that the white man is bound to respect.” Let that sink in for a bit. The decision reversed the Missouri Compromise. It basically put Blacks on the same level as any property. Taney was from Maryland. There is actually a monument of him about a block away from where we lived in Baltimore – in Washington Monument Square. In 2008 I went there to celebrate Obama’s victory along with hundreds of others. I thought how ironic it was that we were celebrating a biracial man’s victory beneath a statue of a man who denied the rights in America of all descendants of Africa.
The very first place I visited on my sojourn south was Osawatomie, Kansas. Don’t worry – I hadn’t heard of it either until I was researching where I should go for my trip. In 1854 the Kansas-Nebraska act was passed. It opened up the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to settlement. As a compromise between North and South it was going to be up to the settlers to decide whether the new territories and soon to be states would be slave or free. The unintended consequence was that radicals on both sides flooded Kansas. Proslavery folks came from as far away as Georgia – although much of the violence was from Missourians who wanted their border state to be slave. Many abolitionists from the Midwest and Northeast came to Kansas to attempt to make it free. As a white person, I think it’s fair for me to say that us white people have done a lot of awful stuff in this country – but I’m pretty proud of that fact that white people actually uprooted themselves and moved close to 1,000 miles in some cases in the 1850’s to fight for the rights of Black people.
So now we get to John Brown. The basic question is – was he crazy and just happened to be on the right side of history? Or was he a great man – who is misunderstood? I’ve done a lot of thinking on this. He certainly had his heart in the right place. He talked about his awakening of the evil of slavery as occurring when he was a young boy. He was friends with a black boy – who was a slave. He saw the owner of that boy beat him viciously for no real apparent reason.
On the other side was the fact that he was a complete failure in life. He never was able to be successful in business. In 1843 four of his children died from dysentery. The man has the feel of someone who was desperate to do something great because most of his life had been a failure.
In 1855 he moved to Kansas to help protect abolitionists – who he believed were not capable of protecting themselves. The sacking of Lawrence appeared to support his beliefs. Even more so was the beating of abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner by South Carolinian representative Preston Brooks. He felt as though the abolitionists needed someone who was capable of violence against the pro-slavery supporters – and he was that man.
J.L. Magee’s political cartoon about the attack on Sumner.
John Brown and his men – who included many of his sons – did perpetrate some rather questionable acts. The most questionable action was a nighttime attack against five pro-slavery men in Pottawattamie Creek – who were killed with broad swords. This attack led to a greater organization of Missouri pro-slavery men who were bent on attacking abolitionist settlers in Kansas. The focused their attacks on Brown. They were determined to capture him. On August 30, 1856 250 proslavery men from Missouri came to Osawatomie to hunt down Brown. Brown only had 31 men to defend himself. He used guerilla tactics to attempt to lure the proslavery men away from the town of Osawatomie.
John Brown and his men took up such a favorable position, that the proslavery men did not attempt to go after them. However, the proslavery men did come back and burn down the town of Osawatomie. Soon after, John Brown went back east. He was able to get funding from abolitionist for his idea of starting a slave insurrection. On October 17th, 1859 he and 18 men attempted to raid the armory of Harpers Ferry. They were defeated by men led by Robert E. Lee – eventual General of the Confederate Army. John Brown was put to death – but his insurrection terrified the South. They saw it as proof that the North would not allow slavery to stand. The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 only furthered their fear. 18 months after Harpers Ferry – the Civil War started – with the bombardment of Fort Sumter. During the war the Union soldiers favorite song to sing on the march was “John Browns Body” – which was set to the same tune as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Tomorrow a few of the Civil War sites that I visited on my trip.