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The Life of John Brown and His Impact on Civil Rights Movement

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John Brown was a fierce abolitionist with a fiery passion to end slavery. His beliefs ultimately led to his execution after the raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, but despite his horrific acts he was morally justified in his actions.

The first mention of John Brown comes after his butchery of five proslavery men at Pottawatomie Creek (American Pageant); some think that Brown was too extreme (Letter from John Bridgman). Both Kennedy and Bridgman view his actions as an act of terror on the proslavery population, but when the issue of slavery is further analyzed (all 300+ years of it) this “act of terror” is nothing in comparison to the brutal acts of torture committed by proslaveryites on African Americans. Thoreau shares this point of view — he believes that blacks, as well as whites, should receive the rights of the Constitution (A Plea for Captain John Brown). Of course, his argument is based on the premise that slavery is inhumane, which is correct on many aspects of slavery. Put another way, John Brown hacked to death five men that had the potential to proliferate this immoral practice.

Although John Brown was known to be one of the murderers, he was not caught until after his assault on Harper’s Ferry. After recruiting around 20 men, including both blacks and whites, Brown attacked and captured the arsenal without firing a single shot, but he and his men were soon captured after a firefight out in the streets (Africans in America). The willingness of both whites and blacks to die together for a cause indicates how morally motivated they are to end slavery. Today, people would question why some would defy political and social order for their passion for their cause, but once they learn that the cause is to end the inhumane treatment of a certain sentient being they flock to the donation booths and register/subscribe to the cause (online, of course). The same thing could be said of Brown’s actions — he sacrificed his rights under his social contract with the government in order to pierce the ignorance of proslaveryites to the horrors of slavery. Thoreau would have agreed with Brown’s defiance of the federacy, which (loosely) allowed slavery to exist and persist.

In the end, the justification of Brown’s actions boil down to two reasons — moral or legal. From a legal standpoint, Brown murdered citizens of the United States and attempted to use federal property in illegal ways, branding him as a traitor to the state. His actions do speak for themselves — he deserved to be executed, but from a moral standpoint he also deserves to be praised for his efforts to end slavery. Both the Bridgman and Kennedy sources discuss Brown’s actions and arrive at a conclusion, but neither discuss why he did them, at least not to the same extent that Thoreau and Africans in America do. In other words, Bridgman and Kennedy focus on Brown’s legal punishment whereas Thoreau and Africans in America delve into the moral ramifications of his actions — ultimately, when it comes to the humanity and morality of an action the ends are justified by the means. This can be seen today with privacy rights on the Internet — everyone deserves their privacy, but the government (more specifically, the NSA) plans to take that away by “legal” means for “legal” purposes.

Brown’s actions were terrible, but their moral significance resonates in today’s society. Some say that radicalism is the only way to change; indeed, every drop of prioritized morality adds to the abolitionist bucket of gradual changes. His actions would have added about a liter into this tank, contributing to a century’s work of fighting for civil rights.

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The Life of John Brown and His Impact on Civil Rights Movement. (2018, October 26). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 9, 2023, from
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