This piece originally appeared in the Century Magazine 26, (July, 1883): 411-415. It was preceded by and comments on Alexander R. Boteler's "Recollections of the John Brown Raid by a Virginian Who Witnessed the Fight,": 399-411.
IT is hard-nay, impossible-to carry the reader of these pages in 1883 back in memory to that period of our country's history when John Brown captured the town and arsenal at Harper's Ferry, or make real to ourselves the despotism which a few slaveholders then exercised over the rest of mankind in this country. Though a meager minority in their own South, they absolutely controlled there not only four millions of slaves, but six millions of white people, nominally free, while they directed the policy and the opinions of more than half the free people of the non-slaveholding States. They had dictated the nomination and secured the election of Buchanan as President,-the most complete servant of the slave power who ever held that office; they had not only refused to terminate the slave-trade (as by treaty we were bound to assist in doing), but they had induced the importation of a few cargoes of slaves into Carolina and Georgia; they had broken down the Missouri compromise of 1820 (imposed by themselves on the unwilling North), and had done their best to extend slavery over the new territories of the nation, and to legalize its existence in all the Free States. Through the mouth of Chief- Justice Taney, who simply uttered the decrees of the slave-holding oligarchy, they had made the Supreme Court declare that four million Americans, of African descent, had practically "no rights which a white man was bound to respect"; and they exerted themselves in every way to give due effect to that dictum. The Dred Scott decision was given by Taney in 1857, and it led at once to the execution of John Brown's long-cherished purpose of striking a blow at slavery in its own Virginian stronghold. That decision flashed into the minds of Northern men the conviction which John Quincy Adams had long before formulated and expressed-that "the preservation, propagation, and perpetuation of slavery was the vital and animating spirit of the national Government." It was this conviction that led to the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, as it had led John Brown and his small band of followers to form their conspiracy and begin their campaign in 1858-'59.
While the unpaid labor of the slaves was believed by the slave-holders to be the real source of our national prosperity, it was the merit and the fate of John Brown first to see and act upon the sad knowledge that slavery and our national existence were incompatible. Thirty years before he died for the blacks in Virginia, he chose the side of the nation against slavery; and in less than ten years after his death the whole people followed in the path he had marked out-the straight and thorny road of emancipation by force.It is in this broad way that the Harper's Ferry raid must be looked at,-not as a midnight foray of robbers and murderers. It was an act of war, and was accepted by the South as a sure omen that war was at hand. Brown told the slave-holders this in his famous conversation with Mason of Virginia and Vallandigham of Ohio. "I claim to be here," he said, "carrying out a measure I believe to be perfectly justifiable, and not to be acting the part of an incendiary or ruffian; on the contrary, I am here to aid those suffering under a great wrong. I wish to say, furthermore, that you had better-all you people of the South-prepare yourselves for a settlement of this question. It must come up for settlement sooner than you are prepared for it, and the sooner you commence that preparation the better for you. You may dispose of me very easily. I am nearly disposed of now. But this question is still to be settled; this negro question, I mean. The end of that is not yet." This was a veritable "Thus saith the Lord "-as his hearers and the whole world soon found out. But to such as then doubted the message of the prophet Brown condescended to verify his credentials in that wonderfully eloquent speech to the court that sentenced him to the gallows:
There was John Brown's authority for the capture of Harper's Ferry,-the same which Ethan Allen alleged, with less reason, a Ticonderoga, where he commanded surrender "in the name of the great Jehovah." Brown "had gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord "long before his death, and the song of the people marching to avenge that death were but the public proclamation of his commission from above. Since the details of that strange conversation with Mason of Virginia have faded from the popular memory, let me quote another passage in which Brown pursues the same line of reasoning he afterward held in court.
"SENATOR MASON: How do you justify your acts?
CAPTAIN BROWN: I think, my friend, you are guilty of a great wrong against God and humanity-- I say it without wishing to be offensive,-and it would be perfectly right for any one to interfere with you so far as to free those you willfully and wickedly hold in bondage. I do not say this insultingly.
SENATOR MASON: I understand that.
CAPTAIN BROWN: I think I did right, and that others will do right who interfere with you, at any time, and all times. I hold that the golden rule, "Do unto others as you would that others should do unto you,' applies to all who would help others to gain their liberty.
LIEUTENANT STUART: But you don't believe in the Bible?
CAPTAIN BROWN: Certainly I do. * * * I want you to understand, gentlemen, that I respect the rights of the poorest and weakest of the colored people, oppressed by the slave system, just as much as I do those of the most wealthy and powerful. That is the idea that has moved me, and that alone. We expected no reward except the satisfaction of endeavoring to do for those in distress-the greatly oppressed-as we would be done by. The cry of distress of the oppressed is my reason, and the only thing that prompted me to come here."
Brown's plan of action in Virginia was wholly his own, as he more than once declared; and it was not until he had long formed and matured it that he made it known (so far as an attack on slavery in Virginia was concerned) to the few friends who shared his confidence in that matter. I cannot say how numerous these were; but beyond his own family and the armed followers who accompanied him, I have never supposed that his Virginia plan was known to fifty persons. Even to those few it was not fully communicated, though they knew that he meant to fortify himself somewhere in the mountains of Virginia or Tennessee, and from that fastness, with his band of soldiers, sally out and liberate slaves by force. His plan to this extent was known, early in 1858, by Frederick Douglass, Gerrit Smith (at whose house and in whose presence I first heard Brown declare it), Theodore Parker, Dr. S. G. Howe, George L. Stearns, T. W. Higginson, and myself, and we all raised money to aid Brown in carrying this plan forward.
I know this, because some of the money and nearly all the correspondence relating to the contributions passed through my hands in 1858-9. I talked more than once in those years with all the persons above named, concerning Brown's Virginia plans and had letters from all except Douglass in regard to it. Brown's general purpose of attacking slavery by force, in Missouri or elsewhere, was known in 1857- 8-9 to R. W. Emerson, A. Bronson Alcott, Henry Thoreau, Wendell Phillips, Thomas Russell, John A. Andrew, and others of the anti-slavery men of Massachusetts, none of whom discountenanced it, while most of them, in my hearing, distinctly approved it, generally, however, as a last resort or a measure of retaliation for the outraves of the slave-holders and their allies. Had these gentlemen known of the Virginia plan, most of them would have strongly disapproved it as premature or impracticable. Such, also, it seemed at first, and generally afterward, to those of us who contributed money to aid Brown in it. I speak particularly of Gerrit Smith, Theodore Parker, George L. Stearns, Dr. Howe, Col. Higginson, and myself. But we all felt, as Governor Andrew afterward said, that whatever the old worthy might plan or do, "John Brown himself was right," and upon that feeling we acted, in spite of doubts and many misgivings. The end- has justified our instinctive sentiment; and it has more than justified, it has glorified Brown. I do not wonder that Virginians cannot all see this yet; but the world sees it, and Brown has become, to the world in general, one of the immortal champions of liberty- historical or mythical-among whom we reckon Leonidas, Maccabeus, Tell, Winkelried, Wallace, Hofer, and Marco Bozzaris.
I knew John Brown well. He was often a my house and at the houses of my friends and I traveled with him for days. He was what all his speeches, letters, and actions avouch him-a simple, brave, heroic person incapable of anything selfish or base. The higher elements of his character are well seen in the portrait which accompanies these pages There were darker and sterner traits which fitted him for the grim work he had to do and which are better shown in his bearded portraits, and in some which I possess, taken in the year 1857. But the face that here looks out upon us bespeaks that warm love for God's despised poor which was his deepest trait, and that noble disregard of everything but justice which distinguished his every action But above and beyond these personal qualities he was what we may best term a historic character; that is, he had, like Cromwell and Spartacus, a certain predestined relation tc the political crisis of his time, for which his character fitted him and which, had he striven against it, he could not avoid. Like Cromwell and all the great Calvinists, he was an unquestioning believer in God's fore-ordination and the divine guidance of human affairs; but he was free from the taint of guile that disfigured Cromwell's greatness. Of course, he could not rank with Cromwell or with many inferior men in leadership; but in this God-appointed, inflexible devotion to his object in life he was inferior to no man, and he rose in fame far above more gifted persons because of this very fixedness and simplicity of character. His renown is secure, and the artless (I must think prejudiced) narrative of Mr. Boteler does but increase it for those who read understandingly. As Tennyson said of the great Duke, we may say of Brown:
"Whatever record leap to light,
He never shall be shamed."
Young men never knew, perhaps, and some old men have forgotten, that we once had statesmen (so called) who loudly declared that negro slavery was the basis not only of our national greatness, but of the white man's freedom. This groveling doctrine found favor in Virginia in John Brown's time, and it was his work, as much as any man's, to overthrow it. A hundred years ago one of the greatVirginians, a statesman indeed by nature and by training, said:
This was the language of Jefferson in his "Notes on Virginia," written in 1783, and it was in the county of Jefferson that Brown made his foray in 1859. He harbored in the countv of Washington, in Maryland, for three months. He descended upon Jefferson County in Virginia at the end of that time; and when the astonished successors of Washington and Jefferson saw him first, he held in his hand Washington's sword, and was enacting Jefferson's Declaration of Independence in favor of the slaves of Colonel Washington,-that the Scriptures might be fulfilled. And they were fulfilled to the utmost in the years of war and ruin that followed.
At the critical period of that civil war when its issue was still undecided save in the councils of heaven,-at the close of the year 1862 Abraham Lincoln put forth his first edict of emancipation, and followed it up, January 1, 1863, with the final proclamation that the slaves in the rebellious States were from that day free. John Brown had been in his woodland grave among the Adirondack Mountains but little more than three years when we saw this triumph of his hopes, this crown of his toil and martyrdom. His friends gathered to celebrate so happy an event at the house of one of the most faithful and active of his supporters in the Virginia campaign, George Stearns, of Medford, in Massachusetts. It was one of the last of those meetings in which the old anti-slavery men and women came together with hearts united, and rejoiced together face to face. Garrison and Phillips were there, Emerson and Alcott (Thoreau had died eight months before), Dr. Howe and his poetic wife, Mrs. Child, Moncure Conway, Martin Conway of Kansas, and many others now dead or widely sundered. The host and his wife, Mrs. Mary Stearns, who also had been an enthusiastic friend of John Brown, could give their guests not only the graceful hospitalities of a house always open to the friends of freedom, but what was then a new sight, Brackett's marble bust of Brown, standing crowned with flowers in the wide hall. This is the only bust of Brown for which the sculptor studied the hero's own features, and it was made after a visit by Brackett to Brown in prison at Charlestown. Though not, in all respects, a portrait, it has the air of Brown, with a majesty that made Charles Sumner exclaim, when he first saw it: "This is like the Moses of Michael Angelo." And when a sibylline negress, a fugitive from Maryland, saw it in my house, she went into an ecstasy of grief and adoration, declaring that Brown was not a mere man, but the Messiah of her people.
"In a great age," says Cousin, speaking of Pascal, "everything is great." John Brown came to prominence in an age by no means grand or noble; but such was his own heroic character that he conferred importance on events in themselves trivial. His petty conflicts in Kansas and the details of his two days' campaign in Virginia will be remembered when a hundred battles of our civil war are forgotten. He was one of ten thousand, and, as Thoreau said, could not be tried by a jury of his peers, because his peers did not exist; yet so much was he in accord with what is best in the American character that he will stand in history for one type of our people, as Franklin and Lincoln do, but with a difference. He embodied the distinctive qualities of the Puritan, but with a strong tincture of the more humane sentiments of later times. No man could be more sincere in his faith toward God, more earnest in love for man; his belief in fore-ordination was absolute, his courage not less so. The emotion of fear seemed to be quite unknown to him, except in the form of diffidence,-if that were not rather a sort of pride. He was diffident of his power in speech or writing, yet who, of all his countrymen, has uttered more effective or immortal words?
Part of the service he rendered to his country was by this heroic impersonation of traits that all mankind recognize as noble. The cause of the poor slave had need of all the charm that romantic courage could give it; his defenders were treated with the contempt which attached to himself. They were looked upon with aversion by patriots; they were odious to trade, distasteful to fashion and learning, impious in the sight of the Church. At the single stroke of Brown, all this was changed; the cause that had been despised suddenly became hated, feared, and respected; and out of this new fear and hatred our national safety was born. Ten years more of disgraceful security, and the nation might have been lost; but the rash and frantic efforts of the South to defend its barbarous system brought on the revolution that has regenerated us politically. No doubt the affair at Harper's Ferry hastened our political crisis by at least ten years,-and what fatal vears they might have been but for John Brown!
One evening in January, 1860, as I sat in Emerson's study at Concord, talking of this old friend of ours, for whose widow and orphans we were then raising a fund, I spoke to Emerson about a speech of his at Salem, a few weeks earlier, in which the poet-philosopher had renewed his homage to the memorv of Brown. He went to one of the cabinets in which his manuscripts were kept, took out the half-dozen pages on which his remarks had been written down, and gave them to me for publication. I have ever since cherished the manuscript, in which, with bold strokes of his quill, Emerson had written these words at the close:
The generous, immortal traits which these words portray in Brown and bespeak in Emerson, are those which the artist has caught in the remarkable engraving of my old friend in this number of THE CENTURY.
F. B. Sanborn
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