Tag Archives: Harpers Ferry

- Mapping John Brown: How one man’s failed rebellion expanded the abolitionist cause


This photograph shows a rather more dapper John Brown than the later images and drawings, in which he appears disheveled and heavily bearded. He moved his large family ten times between 1825 and 1855, during which he was a devoted abolitionist and member of the Underground Railroad. As a failed businessman, Brown worked odd jobs while advocating for the end of slavery. Photograph of John Brown, circa 1850. Portraits Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Virginia.

In some cases, failing extravagantly can work in favor of your cause.  Go big or go home, as it were.  John Brown was an American abolitionist who supported the use of violence to end slavery.  A descendant of 17th century Puritans, Brown’s strong Calvinist beliefs would provide the moral inspiration for his battle against slavery.  As we saw on The Abolitionists on PBS last Tuesday, Brown made a pledge in 1837 that would steer his actions in the coming decades: “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!”

Unlike most white, well-educated, religiously-motivated abolitionists, Brown did not believe in solely non-violent means to end slavery.  After the Fugitive Slave Act passed in 1850, Brown founded a militant anti-slavery brigade with the Biblically-inspired name “League of Gileadites.”  Their mission was to prevent the recapture of escaped slaves by any means necessary.  Rising tensions in Kansas compelled Brown to go to the aid of the anti-slavery settlers there, including five of his adult sons.  Pro-slavery forces known as “Border Ruffians” interfered with voting, imprisoned abolitionists, harassed free settlers, and eventually seized the town of Lawrence.  On 24 May 1856, Brown led a small group of armed men against their pro-slavery neighbors at Pottawatomie Creek, killing five.  This catalyzed a civil war … read more »