John Brown’s Birthday (May 9): Forgotten Revolutionaries

[This is a repeat of a May 9, 2010 for the birthday of John Brown–an important US revolutionary who died, with his black and white colleagues, fighting for the freedom of enslaved African Americans.]

David Reynolds, the author of an important biography of the white antislavery activist and abolitionist John Brown, did a NYT op-ed piece last year noting that this December 2009 marked the 150 anniversary of his hanging for organizing an insurrection against slavery. He gives historical background and calls for an official pardon for Brown. In October 1859,

With a small band of abolitionists, Brown had seized the federal arsenal there and freed slaves in the area. His plan was to flee with them to nearby mountains and provoke rebellions in the South. But he stalled too long in the arsenal and was captured.

Brown’s group of antislavery band of attackers included whites, including relatives and three Jewish immigrants, and a number of blacks. (Photo: Wikipedia) Radical 225px-John_brown_aboabolitionists constituted one of the first multiracial groups to struggle aggressively against systemic racism in US history.

A state court in Virginia convicted him of treason and insurrection, and the state hanged him on December 2, 1859. Reynolds argues we should revere Brown’s raid and this date as a key milestone in the history of anti-oppression movements. Brown was not the “wild and crazy” man of much historical and textbook writing:

Brown reasonably saw the Appalachians, which stretch deep into the South, as an ideal base for a guerrilla war. He had studied the Maroon rebels of the West Indies, black fugitives who had used mountain camps to battle colonial powers on their islands. His plan was to create panic by arousing fears of a slave rebellion, leading Southerners to view slavery as dangerous and impractical.

We forget today just how extensively revered John Brown was in his day:

Ralph Waldo Emerson compared him to Jesus, declaring that Brown would “make the gallows as glorious as the cross.” Henry David Thoreau placed Brown above the freedom fighters of the American Revolution. Frederick Douglass said that while he had lived for black people, John Brown had died for them. A later black reformer, W. E. B. Du Bois, called Brown the white American who had “come nearest to touching the real souls of black folk.” . . . . By the time of his hanging, John Brown was so respected in the North that bells tolled in many cities and towns in his honor.

And then there were the Union troops singing his praises for years in the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Brown’s comments to reporters at his trial and hanging suggest how sharp his antiracist commitment was. For example, Brown’s lucid comment on his sentence of death indicates his commitment to racial justice: “Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, 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!”

Reynolds notes that Brown was not a perfect hero, but one with “blotches on his record,” yet none of the heroes of this era is without major blotches. Indeed,

Lincoln was the Great Emancipator, but he shared the era’s racial prejudices, and even after the war started thought that blacks should be shipped out of the country once they were freed. Andrew Jackson was the man of his age, but in addition to being a slaveholder, he has the extra infamy of his callous treatment of Native Americans, for which some hold him guilty of genocide.

Given his brave strike against slavery, Reynolds argues, he should be officially pardoned, first of course by the current governor of Virginia (Kaine). But

A presidential pardon, however, would be more meaningful. Posthumous pardons are by definition symbolic. They’re intended to remove stigma or correct injustice. While the president cannot grant pardons for state crimes, a strong argument can be made for a symbolic exception in Brown’s case. . . . Justice would be served, belatedly, if President Obama and Governor Kaine found a way to pardon a man whose heroic effort to free four million enslaved blacks helped start the war that ended slavery.

Brown did more than lead a raid against slavery. We should remember too that in May 1858, Brown and the great black abolitionist and intellectual Martin Delaney had already gathered together a group of black and white abolitionists for a revolutionary anti-slavery meeting just outside the United States, in the safer area of Chatham, Canada. Nearly four dozen black and white Americans met and formulated a new Declaration of Independence and Constitution (the first truly freedom-oriented one in North America) to govern what they hoped would be a growing band of armed revolutionaries drawn from the enslaved population; these revolutionaries would fight aggressively as guerillas for an end to the U.S. slavery system and to create a new constitutional system where justice and freedom were truly central. (For more, see here)

Today, one needed step in the antiracist cause is for all levels of U.S. education to offer courses that discuss the brave actions of antiracist activists like John Brown and Martin Delaney, and those many other, now nameless heroes who marched with them. And how about a major monument in Washington, DC to celebrate them and all the other abolitionist heroes? We have major monuments there to slaveholders, why not to those who died in trying to overthrow slavery?


  1. Hillbilly

    I had a colleague this week put forth the notion that an alliance of different individuals and organizations across the state of Virginia and the U.S. should approach Gov. Bob McDonnell with a proposal for “Abolitionist Month” to counter McDonnell’s declaration of April as Confederate History Month. I wonder how he would respond if given such a proposal with a large, influential support network behind it.

  2. victorray

    That is a good idea Hillbilly. A national call for such a month would be an interesting counter to the recent craziness with the right wing changes to Texas’ curriculum too.

  3. Joe

    And we can also add a month of celebration of the civil rights demonstrators who protested, and sometimes died, in the 1950s and 1960s to liberate ALL Americans from the totalitarian system called Jim Crow segregation. Imagine what this country would be like without their heroism. Something like 100 people died in connection with the civil rights protests since WW II.

  4. Seattle in Texas

    Thank you for this excellent post on John Brown.

    While I was trying to take a break from commenting and blog spheres, etc. (like permanently), this is a site I do return to every so often. Anyway, I did feel compelled to comment on this post….

    John Brown named one of his sons “Fredrick” after Fredrick Douglass. As Fredrick grew into adulthood, he traveled with his father on antislavery missions, as did one of his other sons. On one of their travels, Fredrick went left the campsite unarmed to go down the creek/river nearby to fetch water for their group. During his trip, some Southerners were passing by and to put it mildly–they shot and killed him. They did more, but will skip the details. Later his other son was also killed and his body was taken to a university and used for medical students to further their studies in anatomy. His skin was removed and they studied the muscle structures, etc.

    On John Brown’s execution–they deliberately made it slow and painful, as they used a special rope made just for him. A few pro-slavery folks made ropes for specifically for his execution and requested they be used…the one selected sufficed the sadistic goal for a longer death for those who hoped for suffering. The rope used resulted in suffocation and he died by strangulation–it took 20-25 minutes for John Brown to die. Though, if I remember correctly, his body hung for 45 minutes before they examined his body and pronounced him dead. During these times executions were public spectacles–(and as Joe noted above with regard to the high level of respect many communities had for him) because of fear of a violent community/public revolt, or an attempt to free John Brown before he was executed, the state made it a private event.

    …and I agree that it would be nice if all the slavery and Jim Crow abolitionists were officially recognized, honored, and taught about in this nation.

    Anyway, great post and Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers, single fathers, and father’s who are too “great mothers” alongside their “fathering” 🙂


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