Why John Brown Matters

Why John Brown Matters

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1847 daguerrotype taken by Augustus Washington, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

There is a very special thread that runs through American history. It is the thread of people fighting for freedom and equality for everyone, regardless of race, gender, religion or sexual orientation. It started with a group of radicals in Philadelphia who inspired Tom Paine to write Common Sense in 1776. It is embodied in the lives of many individuals who we have never heard of, but who struggle daily in their communities for these ideals. Every once in a while there emerges a giant whose words and actions so inspire the people around them that they change the world. They are always controversial. They inspire great love among the oppressed and great fear and hate among the status quo. In the middle of the nineteenth century that person was John Brown.

Many people in the nineteenth century who were against slavery, also believed that the freed slaves should leave the United States for Africa or the Caribbean. Not John Brown. He believed that the Golden Rule applied to all people and that the founding document of the United States was the Declaration of Independence, which was also meant for everyone. Brown believed that slavery was such an evil that it should be ended by any means necessary. He believed that all people should be free and treated equally and with respect. Brown addressed all individuals as Mister or Miss, regardless of their race or position. He also believed that there was a point when one needed to stop talking and start taking action.

During the War of 1812, at the age of twelve, while Brown was delivering cattle to General William Hull’s army on the Detroit front, he witnessed a young slave being abused by his host. Why, he thought, am I being treated so nicely while this other young man is being mistreated? Thus began Brown’s struggle against slavery.

In 1851, Brown organized the League of Gilead in Springfield, Massachusetts, an armed group that pledged to free any person caught by slave catchers. This group was formed in response to Congress passing the Fugitive Slave Act, which gave slave owners the use of federal law enforcement powers to go into the North to seek the return of escaped slaves. However, these agents not only captured escaped slaves, but any black person who could not prove they were free.

Beyond the League of Gilead, John Brown was also active in the Underground Railroad helping escaped slaves to reach Canada. He was friends with prominent black abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman and also many notable Philadelphia Abolitionists. In the late 1850s, he took up arms to defend Kansas as a “free state” against pro-slavery forces. This action is commemorated in John Steuart Curry’s famous mural “Tragic Prelude,” which is displayed directly across from the Governor’s office in Topeka, Kansas and depicts John Brown as “The Moses of Kansas.”


“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”
– John Brown’s last letter, written the day he was hanged.
December 2, 1859


As his anti-slavery commitments continued to deepen, Brown presented his plan for a provisional constitution and guerilla war against slavery to the 1858 convention in Chatham, Canada. This convention was unlike any other: organized by a white man, attended largely by blacks, and designed to raise a black army to trigger an African American revolution that would wipe out slavery. It was here that plans for the attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry were begun.

The actual attack took place on October 16, 1859. As a result Brown was captured, tried by the State of Virginia, and hung on December 2, 1859.

Most of Brown’s white supporters ran for cover. The South, as well as pro-slavery and southern sympathizers in the North, demonized him. On December 2, 1859, Philadelphia abolitionists and the black community honored Brown by declaring “Martyr Day.” Black homes and businesses were draped in black and two vigils were held in his honor. At National Hall (12th and Market) an abolitionists’ vigil was set upon by 20,000 “good” Philadelphia citizens who supported Virginia and the South. At Shiloh Baptist Church, a vigil was led by Rev. Jeremiah Asher, a highly vocal Brown supporter. In subsequent years, the church held other events to raise ongoing funds for Brown’s family.

John Brown’s stature among whites rose when Ralph Waldo Emerson promoted him in the lecture, Courage (delivered on November 8, 1859), noting: “John Brown is that new saint, than whom none purer or more brave was ever led by love of men into conflict and death. – the new saint waiting his martyrdom, and who, if he shall suffer, will make the gallows glorious like the cross.”


“Did John Brown fail? John Brown began the war that ended American slavery and made this a free Republic. His zeal in the cause of freedom was infinitely superior to mine. Mine was as the taper light; his was as the burning sun. I could live for the slave; John Brown could die for him.”
– Frederick Douglass


John Brown’s Body

John Brown’s body lies
a-mold’ring in the grave
John Brown’s body lies
a-mold’ring in the grave
John Brown’s body lies
a-mold’ring in the grave
His soul goes marching on

Glory, Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory, Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory, Glory! Hallelujah!
His soul is marching on

He captured Harper’s Ferry
with his nineteen men so true
He frightened old Virginia
till she trembled through and through
They hung him for a traitor,
themselves the traitor crew
His soul is marching on

Glory, Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory, Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory, Glory! Hallelujah!
His soul is marching on

John Brown died that
the slave might be free,
John Brown died that
the slave might be free,
John Brown died that
the slave might be free,
But his soul is marching on!

Glory, Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory, Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory, Glory! Hallelujah!
His soul is marching on

The stars above in Heaven
are looking kindly down
The stars above in Heaven
are looking kindly down
The stars above in Heaven
are looking kindly down
On the grave of old John Brown

Glory, Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory, Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory, Glory! Hallelujah!
His soul is marching on

Written in 1861, this song originated with soldiers of the Massachusetts 12th Regiment and soon spread to become the most popular anthem of Union soldiers during the Civil War. Many versions of the song exist. The Brown tune inspired Julia Ward Howe, after she heard troops sing the song while parading near Washington, to write her lyrics for the same melody, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”


The Moonstone Arts Center, directed by Larry Robin, is responsible for coordinating this week of events and for producing this newspaper.


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1 Comment » for Why John Brown Matters
  1. Rudy says:

    Certainly John Brown would have disagreed with your use of the term “sexual orientation.” The early conception of liberty was rooted in the Bible, with the notion that Christ came to die for all sinners, black and white. This is why Brown (doctrine aside) is depicted with a rifle in one hand and a Bible in the other. Many black preachers preached from the same source of values, the Bible. Even today, many black preachers take umbrage at the notion of “sexual rights” as an adjunt to the civil rights movement. The history of this nation was not one of libertines, but Bible readers who viewed current events through that lens.

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