Brown, John (abolitionist)

Born: 1800-05-09 Litchfield County, Connecticut

Died: 1859-12-02 Charles Town, West Virginia

John Brown was a farmer, tanner, businessman, abolitionist, and militia leader. Also known as “Old Brown of Osawatomie,” John Brown was born in Torrington, Connecticut to Owen Brown, a tanner and farmer, and Ruth Mills Brown. Owen Brown saw the American republic as God’s instrument for the return of Jesus Christ to the earth and was convinced that slavery alone stood in the way of the fulfillment of this millennial vision. Owen Brown’s millennialism had a profound, lasting influence on his son John. In 1805, John moved with his family from Connecticut to Hudson, Ohio. John received little formal schooling, but Owen exposed him to books, particularly the Bible, and anti-slavery newspapers, which John read assiduously. Brown ventured east to attend an academy to prepare him for the ministry but did not finish the course. Returning to Hudson, he became foreman of his father’s tannery. In 1819, John married Dianthe Lusk, with whom he had seven children, five of whom reached adulthood. In 1825, Brown and his family moved to Richmond, in Crawford County, Pennsylvania, where he opened his own tannery. Brown also served as postmaster of Richmond, became a Freemason, and helped establish a Congregational church in Richmond. In 1832, Dianthe Brown died, and a year later, John married Mary Ann Day, with whom he had thirteen children, six of whom lived to reach adulthood. In 1835, Brown entered into a partnership in a tannery business in Kent, Ohio. He also purchased a 700-acre farm for development and secured a contract to build a canal from Kent to Akron, Ohio. The Panic of 1837 hit Brown hard, and in 1842, he declared bankruptcy and the court took most of his remaining possessions. In 1844, Brown entered into partnership with Simon Perkins to market wool. The partnership proved lucrative for a time, and Brown moved his family to Springfield, Massachusetts, headquarters of the firm. By 1849, Brown’s mismanagement of the business left the partnership insolvent. All the while, Brown nurtured a growing disdain for the institution of slavery. The origin of Brown’s hostility toward slavery remains disputed, but by the late 1840s, he was espousing a military abolitionism, embracing force as a means to end the peculiar institution. In response to enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, Brown recruited African Americans in Springfield into a secret society, the League of Gileadites, and encouraged members to arm themselves to forcibly prevent the arrest of fugitive slaves. After the end of his partnership with Perkins, Brown moved to a farm in North Elba, New York, but when his adult sons, who had taken up homesteads in the Kansas Territory, requested his help with weapons to protect them from “Border Ruffians,” Brown took a wagon load of rifles and swords to Kansas. Brown settled in a cabin in the town of Osawatomie. On May 21, 1856, a group of pro-slavery Border Ruffians sacked the anti-slavery stronghold of Lawrence, and Brown swore revenge. On May 24, Brown and a group of anti-slavery followers brutally murdered five pro-slavery men at Pottawatomie Creek. In August, pro-slavery forces retaliated by dispersing Brown’s force and burning part of Osawatomie. Brown continued to lead anti-slavery guerrilla bands in Kansas in 1857 and 1858. Not content to just battle slavery in the territories, Brown revived a long-dormant plan to strike at slavery in the American South. He planned an expedition into Virginia to spark a slave revolt and establish an anti-slavery government. Securing financial support from a group of reformers later dubbed the “Secret Six,” Brown equipped a small group of followers to assist in the plot. On October 16, 1859, Brown and his followers seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (later West Virginia). Brown's hope for a slave rebellion did not materialize, and U.S. Marines under Robert E. Lee soon captured Brown and what was left of his followers. Brown was charged with treason and subsequently hanged.

Robert McGlone, “Brown, John,” American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 3:690-93; David S. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist (New York: Vintage, 2005), 29, 157; Boyd B. Stutler, “Harpers Ferry Raid,” Dictionary of American History, rev. ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976), 3:256-57.