Negro and the Nation - G. S. Merriam

John Brown

About this time there was a revival of activity in the slave trade between Africa and Cuba. The American Government had always acted half-heartedly in its co-operation with the British Government for the suppression of this traffic. Now it happened that some British cruisers in the West Indies stopped and examined some vessels under the American flag, suspected of being slavers. This was resented by the American Government, which sent war ships to the scene and took the British Government to task. In Congress both parties joined in denunciation of British aggression. The right of search, exercised by England for the reclamation of her seamen from American vessels, had been one of the grounds of war in 1812. It had been left unmentioned in the treaty of peace, but England had silently relinquished the practice. Now, at the demand of the United States, she expressly relinquished the right of search in the case of supposed slave ships under the American flag, unless the result should justify the suspicion. Thus the honor of the Stars and Stripes was vindicated,—and the flag was made a great convenience to slavers. The administration, however, bestirred itself toward doing its own share in the work of sea-police, and several slave ships were captured. The crew of one of these were acquitted, by a Charleston jury, against the clearest evidence. There was some open talk in the Southern papers of legalizing the traffic. But the trade was destined to a discouraging check a year or two later, when President Lincoln signed the first death warrant of the captain of a slaver.

After the Kansas troubles had subsided, John Brown sought some way to make a direct attack on slavery. For many years he had brooded on the matter, in the light of his reading of the Old Testament, and he felt himself called to assail it as the Jewish heroes assailed the enemies of Jehovah and his people. As early as 1847 he had disclosed to Frederick Douglass, during a visit to Brown's home in Springfield, Mass., a plan for freeing the slaves. He did not contemplate a general insurrection and slaughter. But he proposed to establish a fugitive refuge in the chain of mountains stretching from the border of New York toward the Gulf. "These mountains," he said, "are the basis of my plan. God has given the strength of the hills to freedom; they were placed here for the emancipation of the negro race; they are full of natural forts, where one man for defense will be equal to one hundred for attack; they are full also of good hiding-places, where large numbers of brave men could be concealed, and baffle and elude pursuit for a long time. . . . The true object to be sought is, first of all, to destroy the money-value of slave property; and that can only be done by rendering such property insecure. My plan, then, is to take at first about twenty-five picked men, and begin on a small scale; supply them arms and ammunition, and post them in squads of five on a line of twenty-five miles. The most persuasive and judicious of them shall then go down to the fields from time to time, as opportunity offers, and induce the slaves to join them, seeking and selecting the most restless and daring."

It was substantially this plan to which Brown now returned, and he sought aid among those men at the East who had backed the Free State cause in Kansas. He was not known to them, as he has been presented to the reader, as the chief actor in the Pottawatomie massacre, but as a bold guerrilla chief, who had lost a son in the Kansas strife. Even so, he was a recognized dissenter from the peace policy which had finally won success for freedom in the Territory. But there were men in the anti-slavery ranks who were impatient of the whole policy of peace, and the impressive personality of Brown won some of these to active support of his project. Among them were Theodore Parker, Gerritt Smith, Dr. S. G. Howe, George L. Stearns, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and Franklin B. Sanborn, who formed a secret committee to forward this plan. They were not informed of its details, but knew its general scope. To a considerable number Brown was known as a hero of past fights and not averse to fresh ones. He visited Concord, where he spoke at a public meeting, and made a great impression on Emerson, Alcott, and Thoreau. Alcott made a pen-picture of him. "I think him equal to anything he dares,—the man to do the deed, if it must be done, and with the martyr's temper and purpose. Nature obviously was deeply intent in the making of him. He is of imposing appearance personally,—tall, with square shoulders and standing; eyes of deep gray, and couchant, as if ready to spring at the least rustling, dauntless yet kindly; his hair shooting backward from low down on his forehead; nose trenchant and Romanesque; set lips, his voice suppressed yet metallic, suggesting deep reserves; decided mouth; the countenance and frame charged with power throughout."

Emerson, from his own observation and from hearsay, drew his spiritual portrait: "For himself, Brown is so transparent that all men see him through. He is a man to make friends wherever on earth courage and integrity are esteemed,—the rarest of heroes, a pure idealist, with no by-ends of his own. Many of us have seen him, and everyone who has heard him speak has been impressed alike by his simple, artless goodness and his sublime courage. He joins that perfect Puritan faith which brought his ancestor to Plymouth Rock, with his grandfather's ardor in the Revolution. He believes in two articles—two instruments, shall I say?—the Golden Rule and the Declaration of Independence; and he used this expression in a conversation here concerning them: 'Better that a whole generation of men, women, and children should pass away by a violent death, than that one word of either should be violated in this country.'. . . He grew up a religious and manly person, in severe poverty; a fair specimen of the best stock of New England, having that force of thought and that sense of right which are the warp and woof of greatness. . . . Thus was formed a romantic character, absolutely without any vulgar trait; living to ideal ends, without any mixture of self-indulgence or compromise, such as lowers the value of benevolent and thoughtful men we know; abstemious, refusing luxuries, not sourly and reproachfully, but simply as unfit for his habit; quiet and gentle as a child, in the house. And as happens usually to men of romantic character, his fortunes were romantic."

But the romance in this portrait is due quite as much to the imagination of the artist as to the character of the subject. Emerson seems to have entirely overlooked in his estimate of Brown that he had no rational idea of the moral obligations of the citizen to the civil government and to the peace of society; and that his conscience in its apparent simplicity was really in dire confusion. The sentence he quotes from Brown's conversation has its practical commentary in Brown's acts. He was as ready to take the sword, to redress what he considered a breach of the Golden Rule or the Declaration of Independence, as if mankind had not for thousands of years and with infinite cost been building up institutions for the peaceful settlement of difficulties. In Kansas he saw in the political struggle simply an issue to be tried out by force between good men and bad men; and he made himself executioner of a group of men he considered bad, thereby plunging into a series of murders utterly repugnant to his natural humanity. He afterward justified the deed, without avowing his own part in it, which was not fully known till twenty years later. After Harper's Ferry, the Springfield Republican (which judged him very favorably), speaking partly from personal knowledge gained during his residence in Springfield, said: "He is so constituted that when he gets possessed of an idea he carries it out with unflinching fidelity to all its logical consequences, as they seem to him, hesitating at no absurdity and deterred by no unpleasant consequences to himself personally. He is a Presbyterian in his faith, and feels that it is for this very purpose that God has reared him up."

When a man is so possessed by the conviction that he is God's instrument as to set himself outside of ordinary human morality, he is presumably on the verge of shipwreck. The Republican, while emphasizing the popular estimate of John Brown as "a hero," coupled with this the characterization of him as "a misguided and insane man."

The project he was now pressing—the establishment of a mountain refuge for fugitive slaves, working toward the depreciation of slave property, and the ultimate extinction of the system—had a certain superficial plausibility; and it seemed to avoid the inhumanity of general insurrection. But it was at the best hardly more than a boy's romance, and at the last moment Brown abandoned it for a still more impracticable plan.

On the morning of October 17, 1859, the little town of Harper's Ferry, on the upper Potomac, awoke to the amazing discovery that in the night the buildings of the United States armory had been seized and held by a company of armed men, white and black; that they had gathered in a number of prisoners, including some prominent citizens; and that their design was to free the slaves. Brown had struck his blow. With eighteen faithful associates, including three of his sons, he had lurked near the town till all was ready; then in the night he had marched in and seized the armory, and brought in as prisoners some of the neighboring planters who were told they were held as hostages. Other citizens were captured almost without resistance in the early morning hours, till the prisoners were twice the number of their captors. But there was no rising of the negroes. Brown, after his first easy success, stayed still as if paralyzed. Either he had no further plan, or his judgment and will failed him at the crisis. His complete failure to improve his first advantage—whether the weakness lay in his plan or the execution—indicated the radical unsoundness which underlay his impressive exterior. The town rallied its forces, surrounded the armory, and a fight was kept up through the afternoon. At night Colonel Robert E. Lee with a force of troops arrived from Washington, and the next morning they easily stormed the armory, which had lost half its garrison, including two of Brown's sons, and Brown and the rest of his party were made prisoners.

The country was in a state of profound peace; Kansas had fallen out of mind; the Presidential election was a year away; and even political discussion was languid. The news of the raid came as an utter surprise. Brown was unknown to the general public, and beyond the patent fact of an attempted slave insurrection there was at first general bewilderment as to the meaning of the event. Brown's secret committee,—ignorant of his exact plan, most of them having had but little to do with him, and none of them expecting the blow when it fell,—were in no haste to enlighten the public, or acknowledge their responsibility. But Brown became his own interpreter. The ubiquitous New York Herald reporter was instantly on the ground, and never were interviews more eagerly read and more impressive in their effect than Brown's replies to his various examiners. A prisoner, wounded, in the shadow of a felon's death, the old man bore himself with perfect courage and composure. Asked on what principle he justified his acts, he replied: "Upon the Golden Rule. I pity the poor in bondage, that have none to help them; that is why I am here; not to gratify any personal animosity, revenge, or vindictive spirit. It is my sympathy with the oppressed and wronged, that are as good as you and as precious in the sight of God." The Virginians recognized his sincerity and integrity. The Governor of the State, Henry A. Wise—an extreme Southerner in his politics—visited Brown, and said publicly: "They are mistaken who take Brown 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. He is a fanatic, vain and garrulous, but firm, truthful, and intelligent."

For Brown and his associates there could be but one conclusion to the business. They were put on trial for treason and murder. They had a fair trial, and indeed the case admitted of no doubt. They were sentenced to be hanged, and the sentence was carried out, within six weeks of their act.

At the North, Brown was widely honored as a hero and a martyr. No one defended his act,—a slave insurrection, in whatever form, found no public justification. Probably a considerable majority of the community, including all the more conservative political elements, condemned the man and his deed, and perhaps justified his execution. But wherever anti-slavery feeling was strong, and with a multitude who, apart from such feeling, were sensitive to striking qualities of manhood, there was great admiration and sympathy for Brown and sorrow for his fate. John A. Andrew spoke a common feeling when he said: "Whatever may be thought of John Brown's acts, John Brown himself was right." Emerson eulogized him in daring words. If, he said, John Brown is hung, he will glorify the gallows as Jesus glorified the cross. On the day of his death the church bells were tolled in many a Northern town. Said the Springfield Republican the next morning: "There need be no tears for him. Few men die so happily, so satisfied with time, place, and circumstance, as did he. . . . A Christian man hung by Christians for acting upon his convictions of duty,—a brave man hung for a chivalrous and self-sacrificing deed of humanity,—a philanthropist hung for seeking the liberty of oppressed men. No outcry about violated law can cover up the essential enormity of a deed like this."

Never was a man dealt with more generously by posthumous fame. In the Civil War, two lines of verse, fitted to a stirring melody, became the marching song of the Union armies:

John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave

His soul is marching on!

This was the last touch of the apotheosis; John Brown became to the popular imagination the forerunner and martyr of the cause of Union and freedom.

At the North, one immediate and lasting effect of the tragedy was to intensify the conviction of the essential wrong of slavery. However mistaken was Brown's way of attack, it was felt that nothing short of an organized system of injustice and cruelty could have inspired such a man to such an attempt. The very logic of facts, which compelled Virginia in self-defense to hang him, showed the character of the institution which needed such defense. Yes, it was necessary to hang him,—but what was the system that made necessary the sacrifice of such a life?

But Andrew's words "whatever may be thought of John Brown's acts"—call for further consideration. What were his acts, and what were their consequences? A part of the answer was seen in the bodies of men of Harper's Ferry, lying in the streets, peaceful men with wives and children, slain for resisting an armed invasion of their quiet little village. The first man to fall was a negro porter of a railway train, who, failing to halt when challenged by one of Brown's sentinels, was shot. The second man killed was a citizen standing in his own doorway. The third was a graduate of West Point who, hearing of trouble, came riding into town with his gun, and was shot as he passed the armory.

Among the letters that came to Brown in prison was one from the widow of one of the Pottawatomie victims, with these words: "You can now appreciate my distress in Kansas, when you then and there entered my house at midnight and arrested my husband and two boys, and took them out in the yard, and in cold blood shot them dead in my hearing. You can't say you did it to free our slaves; we had none and never expected to own one; but it only made me a poor disconsolate widow with helpless children."

Brown's first plan, of drawing off the slaves to a mountain fortress,—peaceable only in semblance, and involving inevitable fighting,—he exchanged at last for a form of attack which was an instant challenge to battle. In a conference with Frederick Douglass, on the eve of the event, Douglass vainly urged the earlier plan, but found Brown resolved on "striking a blow which should instantly rouse the country." On the day of his death, Brown penned these sentences and handed them to one of his guards: "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." But no man so directly and deliberately aimed to settle the difficulty by bloodshed as he. It is thus that men make God responsible for what themselves are doing.

The Civil War when it came brought enough of suffering and horror. But it was mild and merciful compared to what a slave insurrection might have been. And it was essentially a slave insurrection that Brown aimed at. The great mass of the Northern people would have recoiled with abhorrence from a servile revolt. But who could wonder if the Southern people did not believe this, when they saw honors heaped on a man who died for inciting such an insurrection? How could they nicely distinguish between approval of a man's acts and praise for the man himself? If the North had one thinker who set forth its highest ideals, its noblest aims, that man was Emerson. Yet Emerson passed Brown's acts almost unblamed, and named his execution together with that on Calvary. Not all the disclaimers of politicians, the resolves of conventions, could reassure the South, after that day of mourning with which Northern towns solemnized John Brown's death. What wonder that an ardent Southerner like Toombs, speaking to his constituents a few months later, called on them to "meet the enemy at the door-sill." And what wonder that the Southern people were inclined as never before to look upon the Northern people as their foes?

The more deeply we study human life, the more do we realize that as to individual responsibility "to understand is to forgive." Half a century after the event, we may well have forgiveness—not of charity, but of justice—for John Brown, and for the Governor who signed his death-warrant; we can sympathize with those who honored and wept for him, and with those who shuddered at his deed. But, for the truth of history and for the guidance of the future, we must consider not only the intentions of men, but the intrinsic character of their deeds; not only John Brown himself, but John Brown's acts. And in that long series of deeds of violence and wrong which wrought mutual hatred and fratricidal war between the two sections of a people, that midnight attack on the peaceful Virginia village must bear its heavy condemnation. Hitherto aggression had been almost entirely from the South; this was a counter-stroke, and told with dire force against the hope of a peaceable and righteous settlement.

Probably most readers of to-day will wonder at the degree of admiration and praise which Brown received. It must be ascribed in part to some quality in his personality, which cast a kind of glamour on some of those who met him, and inspired such highly idealized portraiture as Emerson's. But there remains the extraordinary fact that men like Theodore Parker and Gerritt Smith and Dr. S. G. Howe gave countenance and aid to Brown's project. Before history's bar, their responsibility seems heavier than his; they, educated, intelligent, trained in public service; he an untaught, ill-balanced visionary, who at least staked his life on his faith. Their complicity in his plot illustrates how in some moral enthusiasts the hostility to slavery had distorted their perception of reality. Such men saw the Southern communities through the medium of a single institution, itself half-understood. They saw, so to speak, only the suffering slave and his oppressor. They failed to see or forgot the general life of household and neighborhood, with its common, kindly, human traits. They did not recognize that Harper's Ferry was made up of much the same kind of people, at bottom, as Concord. They did not realize that a slave insurrection meant a universal social conflagration. Indeed, Brown's original scheme of a general flight of slaves to a mountain stronghold had a fallacious appearance of avoiding a violent insurrection, and it was with the background of this plan that Brown, a wounded prisoner with death impending, appealed to the Northern imagination as a hero and martyr.

But this glorification of him wrought a momentous effect in the South. It is best described by those who witnessed it. John S. Wise, son of the Governor who signed Brown's death-warrant, writes in his graphic reminiscences, The End of an Era: "While these scenes were being enacted"—the trial and execution of Brown and the Northern comments—"a great change of feeling took place in Virginia toward the people of the North and toward the Union itself. Virginians began to look upon the people of the North as hating them, and willing to see them assassinated at midnight by their own slaves, led by Northern emissaries; as flinging away all pretense of regard for laws protecting the slave-owner; as demanding of them the immediate freeing of their slaves, or that they prepare against further attacks like Brown's, backed by the moral and pecuniary support of the North. During the year 1860 the Virginians began to organize and arm themselves against such emergencies."

The spirit of proscription against all anti-slavery men broke out afresh. At Berea, Kentucky, a little group of anti-slavery churches and schools had been growing for six years, championed by the stalwart Cassius M. Clay, and with the benignant and peaceful John G. Fee as their leader. A month after Brown's foray a band of armed horsemen summoned twelve of their men to leave the State. Governor Magoffin said he could not protect them, and with their families they went into exile—stout-heartedly chanting at their departure the 37th Psalm: "Fret not thyself because of evil-doers."

In the South itself there had been developing recently an antagonism to the slave power. Its strength lay not in the moral opposition to slavery, which indeed always existed, but was quiet and apparently cowed; but rather in the growing class of city residents,—merchants and professional men,—whose interests and feelings were often antagonistic to the large planters. The hostility to slavery on economic grounds, and in the white man's interest, found passionate expression in Helper's Impending Crisis, and in a milder form was spreading widely. But at the menace of invasion and servile insurrection all classes drew together. Especially the women of the South became suddenly and intensely interested in the political situation. The suggestion of personal peril appealed to them, and to the men who were their natural defenders. The situation is well described in Prof. J. W. Burgess's The Civil War and the Constitution,—a generally impartial book, written with personal appreciation of the Southern standpoint: "No man who is acquainted with the change of feeling which occurred in the South between the 16th of October, 1859, and the 16th of November of the same year can regard the Harper's Ferry villainy as anything other than one of the chiefest crimes of our history. It established and re-established the control of the great radical slaveholders over the non-slaveholders, the little slaveholders, and the more liberal of the larger slaveholders, which had already begun to be loosened. It created anew a solidarity of interest between them all, which was felt by all with an intensity which overbore every other sentiment. It gave thus to the great radical slaveholders the willing physical material for the construction of armies and navies and for the prosecution of war."