[October 16, 2020] Abolitionist John Brown raided the Federal Armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) on this date, October 16, 1859. A company of U. S. Marines, led by Colonel Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart, overran Brown and his followers. Brown was convicted of treason on November 2, 1859, and hanged on December 2, 1859.
Growing up in the Deep South during the 1960s, I learned in school that the man called John Brown hated U.S. democracy and was a madman. Accused of treason, murder, and trying to start an insurrection, we were taught, he was the embodiment of someone who should have been put to death. And, so he was executed in early December. Yet, despite my education, there were important lessons I did not get and would only learn later in life.
“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood. I had as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed, it might be done.” – John Brown, abolitionist
We can learn lessons from the events leading up to and during one of the most infamous raids in U.S. history.
- The abolitionist, anti-slavery movement in the United States was powerful. John Brown happened to be the most famous because of his association with Christians, those who believed “all men are created equal,” and his high-profile use of violence.
- Brown planned to use guns from the seizure of Harpers Ferry to arm an insurrection of slaves and other abolitionists, driving slavery out of the Southern states. He increasingly saw violence as necessary to end slavery. In the use of violence, he failed dramatically.
- John Brown’s plan was also disastrous. In carrying out his plan, Brown drove a greater wedge between the free North and the pro-slavery South. Many believe his raids were one of the matchsticks that led to the U.S. Civil War.
- Brown’s actions as an abolitionist and the tactics he used to make him a controversial figure, even today. He is both memorialized as a heroic martyr and visionary, compared to Moses or Christ and yet also vilified as a madman and terrorist.
“When you study history in American schools, very rarely is the name John Brown mentioned. We know who Kanye West is or Twyla Tharp or Shania Twain.” – James McBride, black American musician
Today, they no longer teach the real history of the United States. The raid at Harper Ferry, 161 years ago, is now relegated to the dustbin of irrelevance because it doesn’t advance the cause of current political ideology.