Who was John Brown?

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To Southerners and moderate Northerners, he was a domestic terrorist; to abolitionists and slaves, he was a courageous liberator. To history, John Brown was the symbol of a country on the brink of fracture.

John Brown was born at Torrington, Connecticut, in 1800, the 4th child of Owen Brown and Ruth Mills. The Browns were a devoutly religious clan. As such, John and his seven siblings were raised with definite views of right and wrong. Owen Browne fervently believed slavery was a sin against man and God.

When Brown was five, his father moved the family to the northern Ohio town of Hudson, where Owen became one of the leading residents of the relatively new settlement. Owen, who struggled with a noticeable stutter, was respected for his character and earned the nickname Squire Brown. He later was appointed to Oberlin College’s Board of Trustees.

When Brown was eight years-old, Ruth died. The loss of his mother emotionally devastated the boy. Even though by all accounts his father’s new wife was a kind, caring woman, Brown never warmed to her, unwilling to accept another mother figure into his life.

When Brown was sixteen, he left home to attend school, planning to become a minister. But money problems and health issues forced him to return home. He worked at his father’s leather shop for a while then partnered with his half-brother to open their own tannery outside of Hudson.

In 1820 Brown married 19 year-old Dianthe Lusk. After their son John, Jr. was born, Brown moved his family to New Richmond, Pennsylvania. Over his adult life John worked a number of jobs – tanner, farmer, cattleman, sheep breeder, real estate speculator – but never stayed with one career and was never particularly successful.

Beginning in 1831, Brown suffered a number of emotional blows. First, one of his sons died. Brown fell ill and unable to work, got into deep debt. In 1832, his seventh child, another boy, was born, but the baby and Dianthe both died a short time later.

Browne remarried in June 1833 to 16-year-old Mary Ann Day, with whom he eventually had 13 more children.

In 1836, the Browns moved to what is now Kent, Ohio. He had to borrow money to buy land and open a tannery but lost everything during a severe economic downturn in 1839 and ultimately was forced to declare bankruptcy.

In 1849 Brown moved to North Elba, New York. The town was predominantly black, established after abolitionist Gerrit Smith donated land to black families willing to clear and farm the property. Brown settled on his own farm and helped his neighbors learn how to work the land. Despite his belief slavery was wrong, Brown had never been particularly political.

While living in North Elba, Brown’s disapproval of slavery became a cause. He eventually decided the only way to stop slavery would be to overthrow the government that allowed it. After the Fugitive Slave Law was enacted in 1850, Brown founded the United States League of Gileadites, a resistance group to combat slave-catchers, and recruited forty-four men to join.

In 1855 Brown and five of his sons moved to Kansas Territory, which had become a battleground between pro and anti slavery forces. He led an anti-slavery militia that defended Lawrence, Kansas, when it was attacked by pro-slavery groups. In 1856, Brown’s home was burned and one of his sons was killed. He retaliated by raiding a pro-slavery town, killing five settlers.

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With the support of Gerrit Smith and other noted abolitionists, Brown moved to Virginia and founded a refuge for runaway slaves and planned for his war against slavery. On October 16, 1859, he put his plan into action and with 21 other men attacked Harper’s Ferry. The attack was a failure. He was captured, convicted of treason and sentenced to death. John Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859.

Brown's civil disobedience and willingness to die for what he believed was a pursuit of justice, united anti-slavery forces as never before and helped set in motion events that would ultimately lead to the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.
 

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