“Perhaps you will remember John Brown…Since Harpers Ferry Is alive with ghosts today, Immortal raiders Come again to town,” wrote Langston Hughes, one of America’s most beloved poets, in 1931. Seventy-two years earlier, Hughes’ grandfather, Lewis Sheridan Leary, was part of a multiracial group led by abolitionist John Brown which aimed to start a massive slave revolt by seizing weapons from a federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry and redistributing them to enslaved people across the South. There are certain facts about this infamous event on which everyone can agree on: the raiders were stopped by the U.S. Marines (led by Robert E. Lee), the raid convinced Southerners that the Republican Party was headed by Black abolitionists, Brown was hanged for treason in December of 1859, and his prophetic statement at the noose “that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with Blood” transformed him into a martyr for the Union cause.
But the way John Brown has been remembered has diverged widely across race, class, politics, and historical moment. Examining how vital information about Brown has been twisted or omitted in response to oppressed peoples’ response to him may help us to more truthfully “remember John Brown” and connect him with other “immortal raiders” and activists who have fought white supremacy. And while it may be easy to assume that historians, artists, and everyday people have grown more sympathetic toward John Brown over time, the contested memory of Brown challenges the myth that Americans have become more progressive on racial politics and education.
You will remember
Who took his gun,
Took twenty-one companions,
White and black,
Went to shoot your way to freedom
Where two rivers meet
And the hills of the
And the hills of the
Look slow at one another —
For your sake.
Now that you are
Many years free,
And the echo of the Civil War
Has passed away,
And Brown himself
Has long been tried at law,
Hanged by the neck,
And buried in the ground –
Since Harpers Ferry
Is alive with ghosts today,
Come again to town –
You will recall
He “will make the gallows holy like the cross”
Sociologist James W. Loewen, after surveying eighteen textbooks, determined that “From 1890 to about 1970, John Brown was insane. Before 1890 he was perfectly sane, and after 1970 he has slowly been regaining his sanity.” Though 1970 marks somewhat of a shift in portrayals of Brown by predominately white historians, Black people in the United States, as well as some white abolitionists and labor organizers, recognized the heroism of John Brown long before the Civil Rights era.
In the aftermath of Brown’s dramatic execution, many Northern whites (especially abolitionists) considered John Brown to be a Christ-like figure. Ralph Waldo Emerson famously declared in a speech that Brown would “make the gallows holy like the cross.” Henry David Thoreau, in “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” lambasted Christians who condemned Brown as hypocritical and rebuffed pacifists who believed that slavery could be abolished “by the President, or by some political party.” Across the North, newspapers decrying Brown’s violent tactics were at the same time in awe of his willingness to stoically sacrifice himself for abolitionism. At the height of the Civil War, “John Brown’s Body” became one of the most popular anthems among Union soldiers, who joyously sang about how Brown’s “soul goes marching on,” glorifying and immortalizing him for years to come. Yet just as many of these singing soldiers were not necessarily dedicated to the cause of anti-slavery, let alone to racial justice, neither were many others who hummed the song or found inspiration in John Brown. Two years after Brown’s execution, writer, suffragist, and free soiler Julia Ward Howe wrote new lyrics to “John Brown’s Body” that preserved the biblical imagery of the original song while also eliminating every mention of Brown and abolitionism. Her sanitized version became a more general, recognizable patriotic anthem blasted and belted at sports games, parades, and inaugurations: “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Activist, actor, and singer Paul Robeson’s rendition of “John Brown’s Body.”
Brown’s ubiquity didn’t mean that white Northerners all agreed on his actions. Thousands of white Northerners gathered to hear anti-Brown speeches after his death. Even abolitionist, staunch pacifist, and founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, William Lloyd Garrison, called Brown’s raid of Harper’s Ferry “misguided, wild, and apparently insane.” While Garrison and Brown both rejected the notion that slavery could be voted out through political processes, Garrison believed in the power of “moral suasion” – that is, using appeals to the morality of slavery sympathizers – to end slavery, whereas Brown had long been an advocate of using direct, often violent, action to drive fear into the hearts of pro-slavery forces. Perhaps most revealingly, ex-Whig senator Edward Everett told a crowd in Boston that John Brown wanted to make the United States into a miniature Haiti, replicating the “midnight burnings, wholesale massacres, and the merciless tortures” which supposedly defined the Haitian Revolution.
Howe, Garrison, and Everett’s beliefs reflected widely-held white fears of a Black armed insurrection rendered Brown an illogical traitor to white Northerners of many political persuasions, but to African Americans, his focus on immediate liberation was welcome and even necessary. Though Frederick Douglass famously refused to join Brown’s rebellion, he profusely praised Brown and gave a lengthy speech about him at a new college for freedmen erected at Harper’s Ferry, and Harriet Tubman attempted to recruit Black Canadians to participate in Brown’s raid.
African Americans played an integral role in all of John Brown’s ventures to end slavery and, after his death, in keeping his memory alive. During what historian David Blight believes was one of the first Memorial Day celebrations in 1865, a procession of 3,000 Black children held roses and sang “John Brown’s Body” (as would later become a tradition on Juneteenth) as they marched to a cemetery for Union prisoners shortly after the war’s end. Garrison’s The Liberator reported that after Brown was hanged, many Black citizens of New Bedford, Massachusetts gathered together, pledged to annually celebrate the raid of Harper’s Ferry, and passed a resolution vowing that Brown’s memory would be “indelibly written upon the tablets of our hearts, and when tyrants cease to oppress the enslaved, we will teach our children to revere his name…as being the greatest man in the 19th century.” Soon after he was buried in the remote North Elba, New York, African Americans, in particular, began making annual pilgrimages to his grave.
As for the raid itself, although many scholars emphasize that Brown’s raid was a “failure” because enslaved people on surrounding plantations did not join him, Osborne Perry Anderson, the only surviving African American member of Brown’s raid, wrote an entire account of the raid which details how in the days leading up to the attack on the arsenal, he and other members of Brown’s party visited plantations and met many enslaved men and women who were eager to join the raid. Anderson claims that both free and enslaved “colored people, as a body, were well represented” in the raid, guarding prisoners, acting as messengers, and delivering supplies.
However, by the beginning of the twentieth century, with Jim Crow entrenched and Lost Cause historical revisionism reigning supreme, Anderson and other first-hand accounts of John Brown’s raid were overshadowed. With the Civil War firmly in the past, white northerners like William Lloyd Garrison’s son, Oswald Garrison Villard, perpetuated the myth that Brown was well-intentioned but clinically insane, even while maintaining some marginal sympathy for him. Regardless, Black celebrations of Brown’s actions and memory remained a constant. In 1909, historian, sociologist, and founder of the NAACP, W.E.B. Dubois wrote an extensive, well-researched, and approving biography of John Brown, applauding Brown for his realization that “the cost of liberty was less than the price of repression.” Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Dubois and the NAACP constantly defended Brown’s legacy, especially against efforts to denounce the raid by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, though his scholarship was dismissed by white academics until the Civil Rights era.
“Be willing to do what he did;” John Brown, Civil Rights, and Black Power
In the 1960s and 1970s, both Black and white activists began to celebrate John Brown as a true revolutionary. Among Black Power groups advocating for self-determination, a rejection of Eurocentrism, and an immediate end to police brutality, imperialism, and other forms of racialized oppression, Brown came to represent a rare yet important and admirable white revolutionary in a sea of moderate white liberals. Eldridge Cleaver, Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party, professed in his book Souls on Ice that “with such exceptions as John Brown, there was no reason for Black people to trust whites throughout history.” In 1965, Malcolm X put it even more bluntly: “I don’t go for any non-violent white liberals. If you are for…us, our people, then you have to be willing to do as old John Brown did.” Both Malcolm X and the Black Panthers believed in the political leverage, power, and dignity that arming oneself brought, much to the fear, admonishment, and reprisal of many white citizens and the federal government. John Brown’s status as a race traitor ready to use violence in the struggle for Black liberation fit well within their visions.
Cleaver and X’s approval of Brown also helps us to debunk easy stereotypes about Black Power activists and other working-class activists at the time. The Black Panthers were not, as the U.S. government once claimed, extreme segregationists and separatists who refused to cooperate with whites and who couldn’t understand American history or culture. In fact, the Black Panthers’ partnered with the Young Patriots, a group of white, leftist, working-class activists who sought to alleviate the poverty and discrimination faced by migrants from Appalachia, some of whom also respected and honored John Brown.” The John Brown Gun Club, an anti-fascist organization that aims to follow the working-class radical tradition of the Young Patriots, claims John Brown as one of their key influences. Eugene V. Debs, leader of the Pullman Strike and one of the founders of the radical Industrial Workers of the World union, may have been one of the lone white voices in 1909 to call John Brown “the bravest and most self-sacrificing soul in American history,” after which he asked, “Who shall be the John Brown of Wage-Slavery?” However, his sentiments certainly weren’t fringe among activists during the Civil Rights era.
Enduring Misconceptions about Brown and the Myth of Pro-Brown Consensus
Today, while many sympathetic academic studies of John Brown exist, Loewen’s observation that “after 1970 [Brown] has slowly been regaining his sanity” is not always borne out in modern textbooks. Many textbook writers and academics still focus disproportionately on dramatizing John Brown’s character, relying on outdated or false source material.
The newest edition of one of the most popular and widely-used high school history textbooks across the nation, American Pageant, describes “gaunt, grim” Brown killing pro-slavery activists in Bleeding Kansas as “fiendish butchery, clearly the product of a deranged mind,” and later criticizes his “crackbrained scheme” to arm slaves. Indeed, contemporaries of Brown often commented on his single-mindedness and his sternness, yet those close to him did not describe him as unfriendly or unapproachable. Frederick Douglass said Brown was a “pure and sensitive soul,” Brown’s daughter recalled him holding his children and singing to them, and Brown’s granddaughter was in awe of her grandfather’s tenderness, remarking that he “would invariably walk up hill rather than burden his horse, loved his family devotedly, and when sickness occurred, always installed himself as nurse,” even when the sick child was not his own. Though he was a disciplinarian, Brown urged his wife to reason kindly with their children when they made a mistake and hoped to be more affectionate than he typically was. In this way, Brown was a man of his time, caught in between the masculinity he grew up with which relied on domination and seriousness, and new, antebellum-era ideals of masculinity emphasizing self-control, reason, and gentleness.
Bloody battles between free-soilers and pro-slavery forces in Kansas in the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska act caused Brown’s sons, settlers in Kansas, to seek his help in the 1850s. But the American Pageant’s claim that Brown committed unusually “fiendish butchery” during his time in Kansas, a common point which is often accompanied by the idea that he “hacked to death” five pro-slavery settlers and mutilated their bodies, is not based in reality. Debates about the morality of such an act aside, an account from one of Brown’s guides (who disapproved of his activities) indicates that Brown shot one pro-slavery partisan and helped to drag his body, but that even his sons, who brandished swords on the other victims of what is now known as the “Pottawatomie Massacre,” slew their victims, and did not cut their bodies into pieces. Readers of the textbook could easily be led to think that Brown was murdering people unprovoked, since the textbook, along with other popular textbooks, does not mention the various brutal murders of free-soilers and abolitionists by pro-slavery factions that took place shortly before the Pottawatomie incident.
None of the most popular high school-level U.S. History textbooks mentions that Brown was not only a life-long abolitionist but also one of the few white Americans during his time who routinely befriended and defended indigenous peoples from white aggression. One story tells of white settlers approaching Brown at his Ohio home and asking him to help them drive out indigenous people in the area. Brown refused, threatening, “I would sooner take my gun and help drive you out of the country.” Mass-produced textbooks may be an easy culprit, but even some of the nation’s most prominent historians still twist Brown’s legacy, maintaining that his raid was a “wretched fiasco” or that it was truly Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, not Brown or his brand of “destructive idealism,” that dealt the hardest blow to slavery. Such claims ignore the fact that Brown meticulously planned his raid, even drafting a provisional constitution for a free state with egalitarian ideals, met with several abolitionists, and studied the tactics of Nat Turner. One pro-slavery critic who interrogated Brown after he was captured even admitted that Brown’s raid was “one of the best planned and best-executed conspiracies that ever failed.”
These omissions about Brown’s life are not just glaring but telling. After all, what is there to gain by repeating old tropes of Brown as a reckless, insane, fanatical, and arrogant Scrooge who was only suddenly overcome with the desire to abolish slavery? By pretending that resistance against injustice that is not peaceful, respectable, or lawful has done nothing but cause division and delusion in the past, modern Americans who have a stake in maintaining systems of injustice can apply the same logic to activists and freedom fighters they disapprove of today. In truth, characterizing Brown’s idealism about the abolition of slavery and white supremacy as destructive ignores the astonishing extent and everlasting potential of that idealism. Such interpretations about John Brown are less a reflection of the man himself and more of a reflection of how inconceivable it was that someone so dedicated to swift and complete justice could ever be in his or her right mind, in 1859 or 2021.
But in dispelling myths about how historical memories of John Brown have been constructed, the goal is not garnering sympathy for Brown; sympathy is possible even while maintaining falsehoods, exaggerations, and omissions about Brown’s life. Behind the theatrical portrait imposed on Brown, there is a mesmerizing window into 19th century America and a sense of hope and resolve that has the power to inspire people today to do more in the fight for racial justice than hold an anti-racism workshop, share an Instagram post, or passively examine one’s privilege. As his letters reveal, even in the darkest times of Brown’s own life, after four of his young children died, Brown sought affirmation and commitment to life, to energy, a greater cause: “while we are tossing up and down…let our motto still be action, action.”
- Read John Brown’s provisional Constitution for a free state: https://www.famous-trials.com/johnbrown/614-browconstitution
- John Brown Family Letters: Kansas is a collection of letters written by Brown and his family members which offer a glimpse into life in Bleeding Kansas. The letters are digitally available to the public via the Beinecke Library: https://collections.library.yale.edu/catalog/17256906
- For more on the federal government’s response to Brown’s raid, read the U.S. Senate’s report in its aftermath:
- To read John Brown’s final speech visit https://www.gilderlehrman.org/sites/default/files/inline-pdfs/t-05508-051.pdf
- View pictures of Brown’s family farm in northern New York: https://parks.ny.gov/historic-sites/johnbrownfarm/amenities.aspx
- Read a first-hand account of Brown’s raid from Osborne Perry Anderson, the only African American to survive the raid: https://www.google.com/books/edition/A_Voice_from_Harper_s_Ferry/sUxp11UMkBMC?hl=en&gbpv=0
- For a thorough and detailed modern biography of Brown: Reynolds, David. John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights (New York: Vintage Books, 2005)
- Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt. John Brown. (United States: G. W. Jacobs, 1909)
- on Brown’s religiosity: DeCaro, Louis A.. “Fire From the Midst of You”: A Religious Life of John Brown. (United Kingdom: NYU Press, 2005) – on Brown’s religiosity
- Blight, David. ” The Election of 1860 and the Secession Crisis” Presentation at Yale College, New Haven. http://openmedia.yale.edu/projects/iphone/departments/hist/hist119/transcript10.html – also see Lecture #9 on John Brown
- For more on the controversy between the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the NAACP over the UDC’s monument at Harper’s Ferry, visit:
- For one of the most recent studies of Brown (together with Abraham Lincoln) see Brands, H. W. The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American Freedom. ( United States: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2020).
- For more on the five black accomplices in Brown’s raid: https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/10/13/five-black-men-raided-harpers-ferry-with-john-brown-theyve-been-forgotten/