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John Brown

During this time, the abolitionist anger of John Brown could wait no more. Brown had been the bad-boy hero of peaceful-but-well-funded abolitionists since he killed a few slavery supporters during the war for Bleeding Kansas (see "Turning Words to Bullets in Bleeding Kansas," earlier in this chapter). His purpose in going to Kansas was to help protect the free-state settlers, including some of his adult children, from violent Southern raids.

Brown had a legitimate concern for the welfare of his sons and the free-state settlers in their vicinity, especially because the sacking of the free town of Lawrence seemed to signal an all-out campaign of violence by proslavery forces. After he murdered five proslavery men, he skillfully led the free-state settlers in defending themselves. When he captured a detachment of armed slavery raiders, he treated them well and negotiated for the return of two of his own sons who were being held by the slavery forces.

Brown put together a plan to start a slave uprising by marching through Virginia, handing out guns that he would steal from the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, north of Washington, D.C. Brown and a few men took the armory but were quickly arrested after a shootout with an army detachment under the command of then Union colonel Robert E. Lee. Brown's Harpers Ferry idea could never have worked. During the Civil War, slaves didn't revolt even when the Union Army was near.

Brown was quickly tried and hanged, but his spirit electrified the antislavery North and completely angered and frightened the slaveholding South. His last words as the noose was being tied around his neck were "This is a beautiful country." His death raised a spirit in the North that helped elect antislavery Abraham Lincoln.


When a guy like Brown does something violent, labeling him crazy is natural. Maybe he was crazy, but how crazy and violent was the slave system he hated? People seem to have more tolerance for institutionalized violence than they do for attacks against violent institutions. Brown just thought somebody had to do something; he was driven to his actions by the crazy system of slavery.

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