Fanatical Idealists: John Brown

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Another section from my Civil War and Gettysburg text while I am away. This one on John Brown, a man who was incredibly idealistic in his desire to free the slaves and frustrated by the lack of political progress in doing so. Brown was also a fanatic, willing to take lives, even innocent ones to make his point and fulfill his destiny. That is the problem with idealism when it becomes frustrated. Frustrated idealists often turn to violence to get their point across, which in turn makes even good causes suspect. Brown is no different than other religious ideologues and not just Christian ones. Religious idealists who become fanatics based on their belief in their cause and their destiny to fulfill it as agents of the almighty tend to be some of the most violent and ruthless of all. Brown provides us a little bit of an insight into the hearts of people who are willing to kill and to die for their religious, social and ideological beliefs. Interestingly enough it was none other than Edmund Ruffin, a slave owner and rabid supporter of the expansion of slavery and secession who seemed to understand Brown the best.


Padre Steve+


John Brown

In the North there too existed an element of religious fanaticism. While “the restraining hand of churches, political parties and familial concerns bounded other antislavery warriors,” [1] and while most abolitionists tried to remain in the mainstream and work through legislation and moral persuasion to halt the expansion of slavery with the ultimate goal of emancipation; there were fanatical abolitionists that were willing to attempt to ignite the spark which would cause the powder keg of raw hatred and emotion to explode.

Most prominent among these men was John Brown. Brown was a “Connecticut-born abolitionist…a man with the selfless benevolence of the evangelicals wrought into a fiery determination to crush slavery.” [2] His father was an early abolitionist who helped later found Oberlin College. In his early years Brown “formulated a certitude about divine intervention against sinners, starring himself as God’s warrior against slaveholders.” [3] As early as 1834 Brown was “an ardent sympathizer the Negroes,” desiring to raise a black child in his own home and to “offering guidance to a colony of Negroes on the farm of the wealthy abolitionist Gerrit Smith at North Elba New York.” [4] Brown regarded moderate free Staters with disdain and though he was a fanatical Christian he never joined any church, and “obeyed only his conception of God’s unbounded command.” [5]

Brown “ridiculed Republican’s mainstream tactics. He disparaged even Yankee extremists for deploying too non-violent a strategy.” [6] After a series of failed business ventures the militant Brown went to Kansas and set about to change the equation through the use of terror. After the sack of Lawrence, Brown and a company of his marauders set upon and slaughtered the family of a pro-slavery settler at Pottawatomie Creek. [7] Brown and his son’s entered the house of one family, “dragged three men outside, shot the father through the head, and hacked and mutilated his two sons with broadswords.” [8] Two years later Brown went to Missouri where he “murdered a slaveholder, seized eleven slaves, and led the new freedmen 1100 miles to Canadian sanctuary.” [9]

The example of John Brown provides us with a good example to understand religious extremism, especially when it becomes violent. The counterinsurgency field manual notes in words that are certainly as applicable to Brown as they are to current religiously motivated terrorists, that “Religious extremist insurgents….frequently hold an all-encompassing worldview; they are ideologically rigid and uncompromising…. believing themselves to be ideologically pure, violent religious extremists brand those they consider insufficiently orthodox as enemies.”[10]

Brown was certainly “a religious zealot…but was nevertheless every much the product of his time and place….” [11] Brown was a veteran of the violent battles in Kansas where he had earned the reputation as “the apostle of the sword of Gideon” as he and his men battled pro-slavery settlers. Brown was possessed by a zealous belief that God had appointed him as God’s warrior against slaveholders. He despised the peaceful abolitionists and demanded action. “Brave, unshaken by doubt, willing to shed blood unflinchingly and to die for his cause if necessary, Brown was the perfect man to light the tinder of civil war in America, which was what he intended to do.” [12]

Brown attempted to gain financing from wealthy abolitionists for a new expedition to seize the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry Virginia, and most would have nothing to do with his scheme. When they “touted their pacific antislavery societies, Brown responded that “your methods are perfectly futile; you would not release five slaves in a century; peaceful emancipation is impossible.” [13] After hearing William Lloyd Garrison and other abolitionist leaders after pleas for peaceful abolition he remarked: “We’ve reached a point,” I said, “where nothing but war can get rid of slavery in this guilty nation. It’s better that a whole generation of men, women, and children should pass away by a violent death than that slavery should continue to exist.” I meant that literally, every word of it.” [14]

Following that meeting, as well as a meeting with Frederick Douglass who rejected Brown’s planned violent action, Brown went about collecting recruits for his cause and set out to seize 10,000 muskets at the Federal armory in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in order to ignite a slave revolt. Brown and twenty-one followers, sixteen whites and five blacks moved on the arsenal. As they went, Brown:

“believed that we would probably fail at the Ferry, would probably die. But I believed that all we had to do was make the attempt, and Jehovah would do the rest: the Heavens would turn black, the thunder would rend the sky, and a mighty storm would uproot this guilty land, washing its sins away with blood. With God’s help, I, John Brown, would effect a mighty conquest even though it was like the last victory of Samson.” [15]

After initial success in capturing the armory, Brown’s plan was frustrated and Brown captured by a force of U.S. Marines, led by Colonel Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart. Brown was tried and hanged, but his raid “effectively severed the country into two opposing parts, making it clear to moderates there who were searching for compromise, that northerner’s tolerance for slavery was wearing thin.” [16]

It now did not matter that Brown was captured, tried, convicted and executed for his raid on Harper’s Ferry. Brown to be sure was “a half-pathetic, half-mad failure, his raid a crazy, senseless exploit to which only his quiet eloquence during trial and execution lent dignity” [17] but his act was the watershed from which the two sides would not be able to recover; the population on both sides having gone too far down the road to disunion to turn back.

Brown had tremendous support among the New England elites, the “names of Howe, Parker, Emerson and Thoreau among his supporters.” [18] To abolitionists he had become a martyr “but to Frederick Douglass and the negroes of Chatham, Ontario, nearly every one of whom had learned something from personal experience on how to gain freedom, Brown was a man of words trying to be a man of deeds, and they would not follow him. They understood him, as Thoreau and Emerson and Parker never did.” [19]

But to Southerners Brown was the symbol of an existential threat to their way of life. In the North there was a nearly religious wave of sympathy for Brown, and the “spectacle of devout Yankee women actually praying for John Brown, not as a sinner but as saint, of respectable thinkers like Thoreau and Emerson and Longfellow glorifying his martyrdom in Biblical language” [20] horrified Southerners, and drove pro-Union Southern moderates into the secession camp.

The day that Brown went to his hanging he wrote his final missive. This was written once more in apocalyptic language, but also in which he portrayed himself as a Christ figure going to his cross on the behalf of a guilty people, but a people whom his blood would not atone:

“It’s now December second – the day of my hanging, the day the gallows become my cross. I’m approaching those gallows while sitting on my coffin in the bed of a military wagon. O dear God, my eyes see the glory in every step of the divine journey that brought me here, to stand on that platform, in that field, before all those soldiers of Virginia. Thank you, Father, for allowing an old man like me such might and soul satisfying rewards. I am ready to join thee now in Paradise…

They can put the halter around my neck, pull the hood over my head. Hanging me won’t save them from God’s wrath! I warned the entire country: I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood.” [21]

Brown’s composure and dignity during the trial impressed Governor Henry Wise of Virginia who signed Brown’s death warrant as well as that of fire-eater Edmund Ruffin. In his diary Ruffin “praised Brown’s “animal courage” and “complete fearlessness & insensibility to danger and death.” [22]

Brown’s death was marked with signs of mourning throughout the North, for Brown was now a martyr. Henry David Thoreau “pronounced Brown “a crucified hero,” [23] while through the North, Brown’s death was treated as a martyr’s death. Even abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison who had condemned violence in the quest of emancipation praised Brown’s actions, while throughout the North:

“Church bells tolled, black bunting was hung out, minute guns were fired, prayer meetings assembled, and memorial resolutions adopted. In the weeks following, the emotional outpouring continued: lithographs of Brown circulated in vast numbers, subscriptions were organized for the support of his family, immense memorial meetings took place in New York, Boston and Philadelphia…” [24]

But in the South there was a different understanding. Despite official denunciations of Brown by Lincoln and other Republican leaders, the message was that the North could not be trusted. Brown’s raid, and the reaction of Northerners to it “was seized upon as argument-clinching proof that the North was only awaiting its opportunity to destroy the South by force….” [25]


[1] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.207

[2] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.81

[3] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.207

[4] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.211

[5] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.207

[6] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.206

[7] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis pp.211-212

[8] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.118

[9] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.208

[10] Ibid. U.S. Army/ Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual p.27

[11] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.197

[12] Ibid. Korda, Clouds of Glory p.xviii

[13] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.208

[14] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury p.203

[15] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury p.284

[16] Ibid. Korda Clouds of Glory p.xxxix

[17] Ibid. Catton Two Roads to Sumter p.187

[18] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.381

[19] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.375

[20] Ibid. Catton Two Roads to Sumter p.187

[21] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury p.290

[22] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation p.3

[23] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.210

[24] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.378

[25] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.119


1 Comment

Filed under civil war, History, Religion

One response to “Fanatical Idealists: John Brown

  1. Thanks Steve. I had no idea about Thoreau’s support of Brown. His defense of Brown can be found here for those interested:


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