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John Brown: the Battle Between Martyr and Madman

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John Brown was an avid abolitionist in the 1800s, making abolishing slavery his main goal in life. Throughout John Brown’s years, it can be seen that he had always had a different viewpoint than most and his viewpoint stood until his execution. John Brown was executed because of his raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia where he, and 21 men, took over the armory and killed 5 people, keeping several others captive. This essay describes his motivation for the Raid on Harpers Ferry, including his childhood where a reader can see his sympathetic mindset, his adulthood and planning of the raid, and how he was described during the raid. In this essay, there is a different light shed on John Brown’s actions and motivations.

Childhood and Upbringing

John Brown often wrote letters to correspondents. In one letter to Harry Stearns, Brown writes about his life growing up and how it impacted him. From this source, a reader can see how John Brown’s early life led up to his abolitionist views and how his personality traits as a child lead to his actions as an adult. Brown originally lived in Connecticut, but when he was four years old, his father decided to relocate to Ohio.

When John Brown first arrived in Ohio, he was afraid of the Native Americans that lived there, but later came to befriend them. Brown was curious as a child and chose to watch the Native Americans, where he was able to acquire some of their language. His father learned deer skin dressing from the Native Americans and taught Brown the same skill. A reader can see that John Brown was not discriminatory towards people who are different. Brown embraced the differences, such as language and race, because with differences came learning for him, such as dressing the skins.

When John Brown was six years old, he went to school where he learned basic manners and discipline. Brown was not a scholar, he enjoyed being outdoors where he was free to do as he pleased. Later in life, Brown chose to read older history books and the Bible because they lacked the modern bias of the time. In John Brown’s early years, he placed high sentimental value on little things. Brown was given a marble by a Native American boy and when he lost it, he was devastated. Other periods of mourning came after his pet bobtail squirrel ran away and after his sheep had died. Brown, as a child, is observed to have high emotional attachment to objects and those strong feelings can be carried into adulthood. He is highly emotional in his actions and is not persuaded away from them easily

Brown describes himself as liking the rougher types of play and lying. These personality traits could be shown in his adulthood. Brown’s raid was an aggressive on to most, but to Brown, the massacre was necessary to end things. Although he thought the raid was necessary, Brown despised battle. John’s mother died and his father has to leave for war. It was then that Brown was able to grow as a person, he saw the effects that was had and vowed to never participate, accepting the fines for avoiding the draft instead. This is also when he became prominent in his abolitionist views.

John Brown stayed with a family that had a male slave around his age while his father was away. Brown was treated well whereas the other boy was poorly clothed, slept in poor conditions, and beaten before Brown’s eyes. “This brought John to reflect on the wretched, hopeless condition, of Fatherless and Motherless slave children: for such children have neither Fathers or Mothers to protect, & provide for them.” Brown realized at an early age that slaves, mostly child slaves, had no voice to stop the madness. They had no one to look out for them, so John wanted to take it upon himself to fight. After all, the child slaves were comparable to Brown; no father or mother for protection.

Frederick Douglass and John Brown

John Brown had many correspondents over the years to gain followers in the antislavery movement, one of those men being Frederick Douglass. Frederick Douglass was an escaped slave that played a major role in the abolitionist movement because of his life devotion to truth and justice during the slavery period. John Brown and Douglass had met in 1847, but continued correspondence until Brown was executed.

They were true friends in constant contact when they were in the same towns, and often Brown stayed with Douglass by paying a fee for living with him. They talked a lot about John Brown’s plan of action to have slaves freed to the border states. One line out of this recollection by Douglass stands out. “They were to be well armed, but were to avoid battle or violence, unless compelled by pursuit or in self-defense.” This remark is interesting because it shows that John Brown is not a man looking for violence, just justice for slaves. Many times Brown is referred to as a murderer, heartless and cruel. How could a man seen as vicious devise a plan avoiding bloodshed?

Throughout this entire selection, Frederick Douglass talks highly of Brown, never describing malicious intent. Brown goes on to tell how the plan was failing because of the lack of supplies, people, and funds. Through this, however, Brown was able to acquire men to fight on his side. At one point, Brown stayed at Douglass’ house and wrote letters to men and drafted a new constitution that he wanted his men to sign. Douglass recounts Brown devising a plan of attack on Harpers Ferry in another conversation.

Douglass thought Brown’s plan was a suicide mission, but was not able to change his mind about it. Brown wanted the battle against slavery to end at any cost, including him and his men’s lives. Douglass decided that he would not go with Brown to the raid, knowing that it would end by death in battle or execution. This was the last conversation between John Brown and Frederick Douglass.

The Raid on Harpers Ferry

The raid on Harpers Ferry occurred on October 18, 1859. Brown’s plan was to gain control over the armory that was there and later arm the slave of the town to help them take over. During the raid, John Brown had captured several men. One of those men, John E. P. Daingerfield, wrote what happened to him on the night of the raid, and wrote interesting viewpoints of John Brown during the raid.

Daingerfield started by describing how he was captured. When men with weapons approached him, he insisted that he would leave to go home, but he was inevitably taken prisoner. The prisoners were kept together in the engine room and allowed to converse with “Captain John Smith,” which is what the men referred to Brown as. John Brown and his men had captured the armory, leaving the townspeople defenseless. As the townspeople attempted to attack, Brown’s men shot back at them, but not a single prisoner was harmed. Daingerfield talked to Brown in the nighttime when the fire ceased and said, “I found him as brave as a man could be, and sensible upon all subjects except slavery.” The lack of sensibility talked about comes from Brown’s willingness to die over slavery.

Daingerfield talks about Brown telling his men not to shoot at unarmed men. Brown’s intention of the raid was not to slaughter people in the town, but gain means to fight for the abolitionist cause. Brown admitted to treason against the United States, which made some of his men retract their support. Brown, throughout all of the questioning by Daingerfield and the officers attacking him, was calm in his responses. This is what leads people to believe he was a cold-hearted murderer, but his calmness came from his will to end slavery. Brown accepted the consequences that he knew were coming, never faltering from his judgement or plan.

Later in the battle, the armory was infiltrated and Brown was struck several times by a sword. He took several blows to the head, but managed to live and be captured and taken to jail. During his trial, Daingerfield was a witness and talked about Brown’s actions during the trial. “I have never seen any man display more courage and fortitude than John Brown showed under the trying circumstances in which he was placed.” Brown did not fight back after his sons being killed, he did not harm the men of power of which he held prisoner, and he stood up for what he believed in.


John Brown was an abolitionist man who seized the Harpers Ferry armory that ended in five people’s deaths, several captives and death of his own men, and the execution of himself. Brown was a sentimental man who, after witnessing mistreatment of slaves as a young man, grew to lead a fight for the abolitionist cause. John Brown is seen in people’s eyes as an aggressive murderer with psychological issues leading to the death of innocent men. Through this essay, he is portrayed in the eyes of other people. Brown was aggressive, but aggressive in the fight for equality of people and the death of the men were only of those attacking his men. Brown did not have psychological issues, he merely believed in his own plan in a battle that was ultimately going to end in bloodshed of him and his men. John Brown was a man fighting for a cause that was not his own, but that he made his priority in life.

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