John Brown, "Father of the Second American Revolution" hated slavery,
and he believed that it could not be destroyed by peaceful means. He
thought the North was playing around with the question and had
no intention of conducting a real struggle for the liberation of the
slaves. He knew that thousands of northerners were "copper - heads"
(pro-slavery agitators). He had withnessed the Texas and Mexican Wars
for the extension of slavery, the Missouri Compromise and the Supreme
Court Dred Scott decision calling for the capture of runaway slaves and
return "to their legal owners. Furthermore no political party, not even
the young and "radical" Republican party, had ever put an anti-slavery
plank in its platform.
RIFLES, NOT BIBLES
Therefore it was necessary, in the opinion of John Brown, to pass over
from the Bible to his Sharp's rifle, from reliance on prayer to musket
His plans were ambitious. He made a trip to Europe in 1851 and studied
fortifications and military tactics. He was especially anxious to learn how
to fortify and fight in hilly and mountainous country.
In 1855 he went to Kansas in a covered wagon loaded with guns
and ammunition gathered from various sources, private and govern-
mental. Once in Kansas, Brown and his sons began active warfare
against the defenders of slavery to make Kansas a free state.
After the bloody Kansas campaign, Brown organized a convention of
free Negroes in Chatham, Canada, to prepare for the final blow. He
conceived the notion that when the call was sounded slaves all over the
South would rise and join him. The convention adopted a militant
constitution, formed a skeleton government with John Brown, Command-
On the night of October 16, 1859 the Commander-in-Chief led his
small forces into Harpers Ferry, Va (now West Virginia) and captured
the government armories, jailed some of the inhabitants and signed
up the slaves for the "Army of Freedom."
Of course this small band of untrained and poorly armed whites
and slaves could not succeed. Brown fought to the last ditch but
was finally captured. Ten were killed and eleven captured. Two of
he dead were Brown's sons. Brown was taken by a company of marines
commanded by Robert E. Lee.
Jonn Brown was tried for treason,conspiracy and murder. He was
found guilty and hanged in Charlestown. December 2, 1859. At his trial.
Brown said that if what he had done "had been in behalf of the rich
and powerful ... it would have been doing very well."
John Brown failed to accomplish the concrete things that he set out.
to do. He was an individual terrorist who thought all that was necessary
to arouse the slaves to follow him and overthrow their masters, was an
example of devotion to a cause, purity of motive, courage and self-
sacrifice. He did not understand for instance that a slave uprising and
revolt, like any other revolution,
would have to be prepared by propaganda, agitation and organization.
There would have to be a program (freedom, equality, land) that the
slaves could understand and would accept.
Furthermore John Brown did not understand the nature of the
opposition of the North to the South. The Free-Soilers hated
slavery not so much because they were interestedin seeing
the slaves freed, but for the reason that slavery was a threat
to the development of northern capitalism and the expansion of northern
business based on wage labor. The freeing of the slaves was a by-
product of Northern victory.
EAGLE OF REBELLION
John Brown's effort had very definite progressive features.
1. He did not hesitate to go beyond the law in his struggle against
slavery. He set freedom above the law; the slaves and their friends must
establish their own legality. It has always been true that only those
groups, classes and races have gained their freedom that dared go
beyond the law and rebel against "their government." The leaders of
liberation movements have always been "traitors".
2. John Brown's plan to overthrow slavery by armed violence,
was the method that was later successful. It was the only method
that would get results, and northern capitalism did not hesitate to
resort to this method. The Union soldiers marched into the South
during the Civil War, singing, "John Brown's body lies mouldering in
the grave, but his spirit marches on."
3. The dramatic action of John Brown at Harpers Ferry was "a
shot heard 'round the world." It was really the opening gun in the
second American revolution. It was the action that really pushed the
North to gird itself for battle. Despite the failure of his personal
efforts, John Brown remains one of the great liberators of the poor and
the oppressed. We see him as one caught up in "the inspired frenzy of
history," which is revolution.
John Brown remains for us an eagle in the war against tyranny,
oppression, and injustice.
Labor Action, 27 May, 1940