When the state of Virginia hanged John Brown for treason on December 2, 1859, it created an abolitionist martyr whose praises Union troops would literally sing as they marched south to put down secessionist rebels and end slavery in the United States. On the day of his execution, however, relatively few people in the free states imagined Brown as such an inspiration. Rather than serving as a figure around whom northerners could rally, John Brown and his failed effort to spark a slave insurrection primarily provided an occasion for Americans to engage in partisan squabbles about who bore responsibility for the cultural and political climate that produced such violent extremism.
Six weeks before his death, John Brown and a small group of followers had raided a federal arsenal in the town of Harpers Ferry, Virginia, with the hope of galvanizing enslaved people throughout the South to rise up against their captivity, lay claim to their freedom, and overturn the state governments that held them in bondage. Its arguably noble ends notwithstanding, it was a poorly conceived plan and it fizzled fairly quickly. But while several townspeople, one Marine, and nearly a dozen of Brown’s men died during the raid, Brown himself survived, and he took the opportunity of his imprisonment and trial to cast himself as a religious warrior willing to die for the cause of black liberation. “If it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice,” Brown told the Virginia court before it handed down its sentence, “and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!”
For those Americans most opposed to slavery, the state-sanctioned execution of a devout Christian who sacrificed his life on behalf of the downtrodden was the very definition of religious martyrdom. Louisa May Alcott referred in her diary to Brown’s death as “the execution of Saint John the Just.” Henry David Thoreau compared Brown’s hanging to the crucifixion of Christ, William Lloyd Garrison asserted that Americans should be “reverently grateful for the privilege of living in a world rendered noble by the daring of heroes [and] the suffering of martyrs” such as Brown, and a number of ministers claimed that Brown personally had consecrated the glorious cause of abolition. People gathered at prayer meetings in several northern cities on the day that Brown died, and church bells rang out as he dangled from the gallows.
Such expressions of support for Brown received a great deal of attention, but they were the expressions of a tiny minority, as most white Americans were no more supportive of John Brown and his raid than they were of abolition. But the raid took place just over a year before the presidential election of 1860, and Democrats and Republicans alike folded what happened at Harpers Ferry into their pre-existing political narratives, with each side seeking to cast blame on the other for the sake of political advantage.
Southern Democrats had been arguing for years that abolitionists specifically and members of the Republican Party generally were radicals and zealots whose antislavery sentiments encouraged violence and endangered white southern lives. They saw John Brown’s raid, and the notable public sympathies expressed for it, as a sign that large segments of the northern populace had become so deranged that southerners had no choice but to prepare for war. Even among northern Democrats, it became practically axiomatic that the Republican Party and its leading politicians bore ultimate responsibility for John Brown. The New York Herald, for example, argued that the attack on Harpers Ferry resulted from “a vast conspiracy, aided by the funds of wealthy men, and encouraged by black republican politicians and other fanatics.” Singling out Republican leaders William Seward, Charles Sumner, Joshua Giddings, and others, the editor of the Herald concluded that “they – not the crazy fanatic John Brown – are the real culprits; and it is they, not he, who, if justice were fairly meted out, would have to grace the gallows.”
Not all Democratic editors were ready to call for the indictment and trial of Republican congressmen and senators, but almost universally they argued that John Brown put inflammatory Republican rhetoric into action. “Brown owes his infatuation on the subject of slavery,” the Boston Daily Courier claimed, “to more selfish and more wary men – to fanatics and demagogues, whose narrow-mindedness and personal ambition prompted them to teach by precept what he was ready to force by example.” In Albany, meanwhile, the editor of the Atlas and Argus considered William Seward’s famous 1858 invocation of an “irrepressible conflict” between North and South to be the ideological underpinning of John Brown’s behavior, asking whether Brown did “anything more than act out Mr. Seward’s theory, and carry his principles into practical operation.”
For their part, Republicans were on the defensive in the immediate aftermath of John Brown’s raid. They first responded to Democratic attacks in the press by brushing off Brown as a lunatic who had no affiliation with their party, insisting that they repudiated violence as an acceptable tool for ending slavery, and blasting Democrats for exploiting a tragedy for their own political gain. The New York Tribune, for example, wrote that “the attempt to connect the Republican Party with Old Brown’s mad outbreak is a necessity of the Sham Democracy. This is a keen hunt for political capital, and will ultimately recoil on the hunters.”
It only took a few weeks for Republicans to regain their political footing, however, and soon enough they were turning blame for Harpers Ferry back on the Democrats. They argued that by engineering the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, Democrats had opened the Kansas Territory to slavery. Proslavery and antislavery settlers alike, John Brown among them, had flooded into the Territory in the years that followed. In Kansas, Brown had witnessed extensive proslavery violence and the murder of one of his sons, which in turn had driven him insane and inspired him to seek revenge on the system of slavery and those who supported it. This argument was both a bit convoluted and required looking past Brown’s own involvement in the massacre of five Kansas settlers months before his son was killed, but in the Republican version of how John Brown came to Virginia, blame lay especially with Democratic Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, the author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. As the editor of the Chicago Press and Tribune put it, “let the Democracy of the North…who, under the lead of Douglas, have stopped at northing to degrade freedom and elevate Slavery, bear the burdens which their causeless criminality has imposed upon them. Republican skirts are clear.”
This dynamic, in which a violent act borne out of the nation’s political and cultural infighting itself becomes fodder for scoring political points, is by now a familiar one in American life. Such back-and-forth rarely makes for especially elevated debate, though in some measure it remains worth having because language and ideas have real consequences. Sometimes those consequences are people’s lives.