John Brown– A Timeline View through Philadelphia
May 9: John Brown is born in Torrington, CT. His father, Owen, is a strict Calvinist, who hates slavery and believes that holding humans in bondage is a sin against God.
A 12-year-old John Brown travels through the Michigan wilderness to deliver a herd of cattle. He lodges with a man who owns a boy slave. While Brown is treated well, the slave is beaten before his eyes with an iron shovel. This memory forever haunts John Brown.
Nov. 7: Elijah Lovejoy, publisher of an antislavery newspaper, is shot to death by a proslavery mob. During his memorial service, John Brown stands and makes a public vow to end slavery.
Frederick Douglass meets Brown for the first time in Springfield, MA. Of the meeting Douglass says, that “though a white gentleman, [Brown] is in sympathy a black man, and as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced by the iron of slavery.”
Harriet Tubman’s flight to freedom and arrival in Philadelphia.
Brown and his family settle in a black community in North Elba founded on land donated by the Anti-Slavery campaigner Gerrit Smith. While there, Brown gradually becomes convinced that the use of force will be necessary in order to overthrow the system.
The Fugitive Slave Act provides slave owners the use of federal law enforcement power to obtain the return of fugitives. The law is used to attack free black communities, as well as to seek the return of fugitives.
Brown recruits forty-four men into the U.S. League of Gileadites, an organization founded to resist slave-catchers.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 is passed, sweeping aside the Missouri Compromise that previously limited the expansion of slavery. With a nod to Southern power, the federal government places the volatile issue of slavery into the hands of those settling the new territories. By popular vote, the people are to decide whether to be “free” or “slave.”
June: John Brown follows his sons to Kansas to help anti-slavery forces to control the region and to protect black communities.
On the floor of the U.S. Senate, South Carolina Senator Preston Brooks clubs Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner senseless following Sumner’s delivery of an abolitionist speech titled, “The Crime Against Kansas.” When Brown receives word of the caning, according to his son Jason, “it seemed to be the finishing, decisive touch.” Brown tells his supporters, “I am entirely tired of hearing that word ‘caution.’ It is nothing but the word of cowardice.”
Philadelphian Robert Purvis gives an extemporaneous and fiery speech before the American Anti-Slavery Society, declaring himself a “Disunion Abolitionist” and castigating the “abject servility of the North” in refusing to stand up to the slave-owning South.”
January: Franklin Sanborn, secretary for the Massachusetts State Kansas Committee, introduces Brown to influential abolitionists in the Boston area in an effort to further the antislavery fight in Kansas.
Harriet Tubman meets with John Brown in her North Street home in St. Catharine’s (Ontario, Canada). Tubman commits herself to helping Brown and recruits former slaves to join him on his planned raid at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.
John Brown writes his utopian Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the People of the United States intended to reform the existing and flawed proslavery U.S. Constitution. Brown presents this document at an antislavery convention of African-Americans in Chatham, Ontario with the hope that it will create a better society built on the concept of racial equality.
Brown rides with twenty men into Verona County, Missouri, where they forcibly liberate twelve slaves from two farms and begin leading them on a successful 82-day, one thousand mile winter journey to freedom in Canada.
John Brown – The Martyr, Currier & Ives, (1870), lithograph, Library of Congress.
In Chambersburg, PA, Brown makes a final plea to Douglass to join the raid on Harpers Ferry. Douglass refuses, warning that the raid will fail.
Brown and his group of 19 men take over the Harpers Ferry arsenal. Following Brown’s capture, federal marshals issue a warrant for Frederick Douglass’s arrest as an accomplice. Douglass flees abroad. When he returns five months later to mourn the death of his youngest daughter, he finds that he has been exonerated.
Trial of John Brown by the State of Virginia begins.
Brown is found guilty.
Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson’s lecture, “Courage,” is delivered in the Music Hall in Boston. This celebratory speech begins to turn the tide of white northern public opinion in John Brown’s favor.
The Executive Committee of Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society calls for a meeting on the day of Brown’s execution. Similar meetings are held elsewhere as abolitionists gather together to memorialize Brown.
Wendell Phillips and George William Curtis speak in Philadelphia in a program organized by the young Isaac H. Clothier (of Strawbridge & Clothier fame). Isaac Clothier’s father, Caleb Clothier, was a member of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and co-founder of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society.
John Brown’s wife arrives in Philadelphia and stays with the Motts, as well as the Thomas Dorsey and William Still families. James Miller McKim, a Union League founding member and a person on the receiving end of “Henry Box Brown,” attends the hanging and assists Brown’s wife in bringing his body home.
John Brown’s execution is attended by some 600 people. Six other men involved in the raid are also hanged. Artist Horace Pippin’s grandmother witnesses the hangings, as does John Wilkes Booth.
Blacks in Philadelphia observe the day as “Martyr Day,” draping their homes and businesses in black and holding public prayer meetings throughout the city.
The Anti-Slavery Meeting in Philadelphia honoring Brown is held at National Hall with James & Lucretia Mott, Unitarian minister William Furness, and Robert Purvis speaking.
At Shiloh Baptist, the Rev. Jeremiah Asher gives a passionate sermon to the more than 400 John Brown supporters in attendance.
Brown’s body passes through Philadelphia. The reception committee includes Unitarian minister William Furness and a large number of black supporters, who crowd the train depot to pay their homage.
“Union Meeting” held in Philadelphia to assure Virginia and the south that Lucretia Mott and others like her do not represent the views of Pennsylvanians. The meeting (reported by one to be attended by 20,000) elects to send a large American flag to Viginia Go. Henry Wise as a show of solidarity.
In Philadelphia, some 60 black leaders and activists from a host of religions, fraternal, and cultural associations sponsor a “Complimentary Concert” with Mary L. Brown (a local classical singer) and Elizabeth Greenfield (the “Black Swan”) leading the evening’s entertainment. Money raised by the concert goes to aid John Brown’s family.
Artist David Bustill Bowser, a personal friend to John Brown, completes a portrait of him.
Frederick Douglass writes his lecture on John Brown as a tribute to “a hero and martyr to the cause of liberty.”
In celebration of Pennsylvania’s passage of the franchise for blacks, the Union League of Philadelphia presents a silk banner to Octavius V. Catto, founder of the PA State Equal Rights League. With a huge procession behind him, Catto marches through the streets of the city and out to Horticultural Hall, where tribute is paid to the “martyrs and apostles of liberty, among them John Brown and Abraham Lincoln.”
Eden Cemetery opens in Philadelphia. Burial sections are dedicated to John Brown, Harriet Tubman, and David Bustill Bowser.
Special thanks to Christopher Densmore, Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College for his assistance in creating the time line.
“Whereas, Slavery, throughout its entire existence in the United States is none other than a most barbarous, unprovoked, and unjustifiable War of one portion of its citizens upon another portion; the only conditions of which are perpetual imprisonment, and hopeless servitude or absolute extermination; in utter disregard and violation of those eternal and self-evident truths set forth in our Declaration of Independence.”