Who was John Brown? (May 9, 1800 – December 2, 1859)


John Brown (May 9, 1800 – December 2, 1859), called Old Brown of Osawatomie American abolitionist, whose attempt to end slavery by force greatly increased tension between North and South in the period before the American Civil War.Brown was born on May 9, 1800, in Torrington, Connecticut. His family moved to Ohio when he was five years old. Early in life he acquired the hatred of slavery that marked his subsequent career, his father having been actively hostile to the institution. John Brown initiated (1834) in Pennsylvania, where he was then living, a project among sympathetic abolitionists to educate young blacks.

The next 20 years of his life were largely dedicated to this and similar abolitionist ventures, entailing many sacrifices for himself and his large family. In 1855 he followed five of his sons to Kansas Territory, then a center of struggle between the antislavery and proslavery forces. Under Brown’s leadership his sons became active participants in the fight against marauding proslavery terrorists from Missouri, whose activities led to the murder of a number of abolitionists at Lawrence, Kansas. Brown and his sons avenged this crime, on May 24, 1856, at Pottawatomie Creek by killing five proslavery adherents.

This act, as well as his success in withstanding a large party of attacking Missourians at Osawatomie in August, made him nationally famous as an irreconcilable foe of slavery. John Brown was a radical abolitionist whose efforts to gain freedom for the slaves often resulted in violence and led to a number of deaths. Many historians believe Brown’s actions helped bring on the Civil War. Aided by increased financial support from abolitionists in the northeastern states, Brown began in 1857 to formulate a plan, which he had long entertained, to free the slaves by armed force.

He secretly recruited a small band of supporters for this project, which included the establishment of a refuge for fugitive slaves in the mountains of Virginia. After several setbacks, he finally launched the venture on October 16, 1859, with a force of 18 men (including several of his sons), seizing the U.S. Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), and winning control of the town. After his initial success he made no attempt at offensive action, but instead occupied defensive positions within the arsenal. His force was surrounded by the local militia, which was reinforced on October 17 by a company of U.S. Marines under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee.

Ten of Brown’s men, including two of his sons, were killed in the ensuing battle, and he was wounded and forced to capitulate.He was arrested and charged with various crimes, including treason and murder. He distinguished himself during his trial, which took place before a Virginia court, by his eloquent defense of his efforts in behalf of the slaves. Convicted, he was hanged (December 2) at Charlestown, Virginia (now West Virginia). For many years after his death Brown was generally regarded among abolitionists as a martyr to the cause of human freedom. He became the subject of a famous song, known generally by the first line as “John Brown’s body lies a-mould’ring in the grave.”

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