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´╗┐Title: John Brown - An Address at the 14th Anniversary of Storer College
Author: Douglass, Frederick, 1818-1895
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "John Brown - An Address at the 14th Anniversary of Storer College" ***

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                             JOHN BROWN.

                             AN ADDRESS


                         FREDERICK DOUGLASS,

                                AT THE

                        FOURTEENTH ANNIVERSARY


                           STORER COLLEGE,

             HARPER'S FERRY, WEST VIRGINIA, MAY 30, 1881.

                            DOVER, N. H.:



       *       *       *       *       *


       *       *       *       *       *


In substance, this address, now for the first time published, was
prepared several years ago, and has been delivered in many parts of
the North. Its publication now in pamphlet form is due to its delivery
at Harper's Ferry, W. Va., on Decoration day, 1881, and to the fact
that the proceeds from the sale of it are to be used toward the
endowment of a John Brown Professorship in Storer College, Harper's
Ferry--an institution mainly devoted to the education of colored

That such an address could be delivered at such a place, at such a
time, is strikingly significant, and illustrates the rapid, vast and
wonderful changes through which the American people have been passing
since 1859. Twenty years ago Frederick Douglass and others were mobbed
in the city of Boston, and driven from Tremont Temple for uttering
sentiments concerning John Brown similar to those contained in this
address. Yet now he goes freely to the very spot where John Brown
committed the offense which caused all Virginia to clamor for his
life, and without reserve or qualification, commends him as a hero and
martyr in the cause of liberty. This incident is rendered all the more
significant by the fact that Hon. Andrew Hunter, of Charlestown,--the
District Attorney who prosecuted John Brown and secured his
execution,--sat on the platform directly behind Mr. Douglass during
the delivery of the entire address and at the close of it shook hands
with him, and congratulated him, and invited him to Charlestown (where
John Brown was hanged), adding that if Robert E. Lee were living, he
would give him his hand also.


Not to fan the flame of sectional animosity now happily in the process
of rapid and I hope permanent extinction; not to revive and keep alive
a sense of shame and remorse for a great national crime, which has
brought its own punishment, in loss of treasure, tears and blood; not
to recount the long list of wrongs, inflicted on my race during more
than two hundred years of merciless bondage; nor yet to draw, from the
labyrinths of far-off centuries, incidents and achievements wherewith
to rouse your passions, and enkindle your enthusiasm, but to pay a
just debt long due, to vindicate in some degree a great historical
character, of our own time and country, one with whom I was myself
well acquainted, and whose friendship and confidence it was my good
fortune to share, and to give you such recollections, impressions and
facts, as I can, of a grand, brave and good old man, and especially to
promote a better understanding of the raid upon Harper's Ferry of
which he was the chief, is the object of this address.

In all the thirty years' conflict with slavery, if we except the late
tremendous war, there is no subject which in its interest and
importance will be remembered longer, or will form a more thrilling
chapter in American history than this strange, wild, bloody and
mournful drama. The story of it is still fresh in the minds of many
who now hear me, but for the sake of those who may have forgotten its
details, and in order to have our subject in its entire range more
fully and clearly before us at the outset, I will briefly state the
facts in that extraordinary transaction.

On the night of the 16th of October, 1859, there appeared near the
confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, a party of nineteen
men--fourteen white and five colored. They were not only armed
themselves, but had brought with them a large supply of arms for such
persons as might join them. These men invaded Harper's Ferry, disarmed
the watchman, took possession of the arsenal, rifle-factory, armory
and other government property at that place, arrested and made
prisoners nearly all the prominent citizens of the neighborhood,
collected about fifty slaves, put bayonets into the hands of such as
were able and willing to fight for their liberty, killed three men,
proclaimed general emancipation, held the ground more than thirty
hours, were subsequently overpowered and nearly all killed, wounded or
captured, by a body of United States troops, under command of Colonel
Robert E. Lee, since famous as the rebel Gen. Lee. Three out of the
nineteen invaders were captured whilst fighting, and one of these was
Captain John Brown, the man who originated, planned and commanded the
expedition. At the time of his capture Capt. Brown was supposed to be
mortally wounded, as he had several ugly gashes and bayonet wounds on
his head and body; and apprehending that he might speedily die, or
that he might be rescued by his friends, and thus the opportunity of
making him a signal example of slave-holding vengeance would be lost,
his captors hurried him to Charlestown two miles further within the
border of Virginia, placed him in prison strongly guarded by troops,
and before his wounds were healed he was brought into court, subjected
to a nominal trial, convicted of high treason and inciting slaves to
insurrection, and was executed. His corpse was given to his
woe-stricken widow, and she, assisted by Anti-slavery friends, caused
it to be borne to North Elba, Essex County, N. Y., and there his dust
now reposes, amid the silent, solemn and snowy grandeur of the

Such is the story; with no line softened or hardened to my inclining.
It certainly is not a story to please, but to pain. It is not a story
to increase our sense of social safety and security, but to fill the
imagination with wild and troubled fancies of doubt and danger. It was
a sudden and startling surprise to the people of Harper's Ferry, and
it is not easy to conceive of a situation more abundant in all the
elements of horror and consternation. They had retired as usual to
rest, with no suspicion that an enemy lurked in the surrounding
darkness. They had quietly and trustingly given themselves up to
"tired Nature's sweet restorer, balmy sleep," and while thus all
unconscious of danger, they were roused from their peaceful slumbers
by the sharp crack of the invader's rifle, and felt the keen-edged
sword of war at their throats, three of their number being already

Every feeling of the human heart was naturally outraged at this
occurrence, and hence at the moment the air was full of denunciation
and execration. So intense was this feeling, that few ventured to
whisper a word of apology. But happily reason has her voice as well as
feeling, and though slower in deciding, her judgments are broader,
deeper, clearer and more enduring. It is not easy to reconcile human
feeling to the shedding of blood for any purpose, unless indeed in the
excitement which the shedding of blood itself occasions. The knife is
to feeling always an offence. Even when in the hands of a skillful
surgeon, it refuses consent to the operation long after reason has
demonstrated its necessity. It even pleads the cause of the known
murderer on the day of his execution, and calls society half criminal
when, in cold blood, it takes life as a protection of itself from
crime. Let no word be said against this holy feeling; more than to law
and government are we indebted to this tender sentiment of regard for
human life for the safety with which we walk the streets by day and
sleep secure in our beds at night. It is nature's grand police,
vigilant and faithful, sentineled in the soul, guarding against
violence to peace and life. But whilst so much is freely accorded to
feeling in the economy of human welfare, something more than feeling
is necessary to grapple with a fact so grim and significant as was
this raid. Viewed apart and alone, as a transaction separate and
distinct from its antecedents and bearings, it takes rank with the
most cold-blooded and atrocious wrongs ever perpetrated; but just here
is the trouble--this raid on Harper's Ferry, no more than Sherman's
march to the sea can consent to be thus viewed alone.

There is, in the world's government, a force which has in all ages
been recognized, sometimes as Nemesis, sometimes as the judgment of
God and sometimes as retributive justice; but under whatever name, all
history attests the wisdom and beneficence of its chastisements, and
men become reconciled to the agents through whom it operates, and have
extolled them as heroes, benefactors and demigods.

To the broad vision of a true philosophy, nothing in this world stands
alone. Everything is a necessary part of everything else. The margin
of chance is narrowed by every extension of reason and knowledge, and
nothing comes unbidden to the feast of human experience. The universe,
of which we are a part, is continually proving itself a stupendous
whole, a system of law and order, eternal and perfect: Every seed
bears fruit after its kind, and nothing is reaped which was not sowed.
The distance between seed time and harvest, in the moral world, may
not be quite so well defined or as clearly intelligible as in the
physical, but there is a seed time, and there is a harvest time, and
though ages may intervene, and neither he who ploughed nor he who
sowed may reap in person, yet the harvest nevertheless will surely
come; and as in the physical world there are century plants, so it may
be in the moral world, and their fruitage is as certain in the one as
in the other. The bloody harvest of Harper's Ferry was ripened by the
heat and moisture of merciless bondage of more than two hundred years.
That startling cry of alarm on the banks of the Potomac was but the
answering back of the avenging angel to the midnight invasions of
Christian slave-traders on the sleeping hamlets of Africa. The history
of the African slave-trade furnishes many illustrations far more cruel
and bloody.

Viewed thus broadly our subject is worthy of thoughtful and
dispassionate consideration. It invites the study of the poet,
scholar, philosopher and statesman. What the masters in natural
science have done for man in the physical world, the masters of social
science may yet do for him in the moral world. Science now tells us
when storms are in the sky, and when and where their violence will be
most felt. Why may we not yet know with equal certainty when storms
are in the moral sky, and how to avoid their desolating force? But I
can invite you to no such profound discussions. I am not the man, nor
is this the occasion for such philosophical enquiry. Mine is the word
of grateful memory to an old friend; to tell you what I knew of
him--what I knew of his inner life--of what he did and what he
attempted, and thus if possible to make the mainspring of his actions
manifest and thereby give you a clearer view of his character and

It is said that next in value to the performance of great deeds
ourselves, is the capacity to appreciate such when performed by
others; to more than this I do not presume. Allow me one other
personal word before I proceed. In the minds of some of the American
people I was myself credited with an important agency in the John
Brown raid. Governor Henry A. Wise was manifestly of that opinion. He
was at the pains of having Mr. Buchanan send his Marshals to Rochester
to invite me to accompany them to Virginia. Fortunately I left town
several hours previous to their arrival.

What ground there was for this distinguished consideration shall duly
appear in the natural course of this lecture. I wish however to say
just here that there was no foundation whatever for the charge that I
in any wise urged or instigated John Brown to his dangerous work. I
rejoice that it is my good fortune to have seen, not only the end of
slavery, but to see the day when the whole truth can be told about
this matter without prejudice to either the living or the dead. I
shall however allow myself little prominence in these disclosures.
Your interests, like mine, are in the all-commanding figure of the
story, and to him I consecrate the hour. His zeal in the cause of my
race was far greater than mine--it was as the burning sun to my taper
light--mine was bounded by time, his stretched away to the boundless
shores of eternity. I could live for the slave, but he could die for
him. The crown of martyrdom is high, far beyond the reach of ordinary
mortals, and yet happily no special greatness or superior moral
excellence is necessary to discern and in some measure appreciate a
truly great soul. Cold, calculating and unspiritual as most of us are,
we are not wholly insensible to real greatness; and when we are
brought in contact with a man of commanding mold, towering high and
alone above the millions, free from all conventional fetters, true to
his own moral convictions, a "law unto himself," ready to suffer
misconstruction, ignoring torture and death for what he believes to be
right, we are compelled to do him homage.

In the stately shadow, in the sublime presence of such a soul I find
myself standing to-night; and how to do it reverence, how to do it
justice, how to honor the dead with due regard to the living, has been
a matter of most anxious solicitude.

Much has been said of John Brown, much that is wise and beautiful, but
in looking over what may be called the John Brown literature, I have
been little assisted with material, and even less encouraged with any
hope of success in treating the subject. Scholarship, genius and
devotion have hastened with poetry and eloquence, story and song to
this simple altar of human virtue, and have retired dissatisfied and
distressed with the thinness and poverty of their offerings, as I
shall with mine.

The difficulty in doing justice to the life and character of such a
man is not altogether due to the quality of the zeal, or of the
ability brought to the work, nor yet to any imperfections in the
qualities of the man himself; the state of the moral atmosphere about
us has much to do with it. The fault is not in our eyes, nor yet in
the object, if under a murky sky we fail to discover the object.
Wonderfully tenacious is the taint of a great wrong. The evil, as well
as "the good that men do, lives after them." Slavery is indeed gone;
but its long, black shadow yet falls broad and large over the face of
the whole country. It is the old truth oft repeated, and never more
fitly than now, "a prophet is without honor in his own country and
among his own people." Though more than twenty years have rolled
between us and the Harper's Ferry raid, though since then the armies
of the nation have found it necessary to do on a large scale what John
Brown attempted to do on a small one, and the great captain who fought
his way through slavery has filled with honor the Presidential chair,
we yet stand too near the days of slavery, and the life and times of
John Brown, to see clearly the true martyr and hero that he was and
rightly to estimate the value of the man and his works. Like the great
and good of all ages--the men born in advance of their times, the men
whose bleeding footprints attest the immense cost of reform, and show
us the long and dreary spaces, between the luminous points in the
progress of mankind,--this our noblest American hero must wait the
polishing wheels of after-coming centuries to make his glory more
manifest, and his worth more generally acknowledged. Such instances
are abundant and familiar. If we go back four and twenty centuries, to
the stately city of Athens, and search among her architectural
splendor and her miracles of art for the Socrates of to-day, and as he
stands in history, we shall find ourselves perplexed and disappointed.
In Jerusalem Jesus himself was only the "carpenter's son"--a young man
wonderfully destitute of worldly prudence--a pestilent fellow,
"inexcusably and perpetually interfering in the world's
business,"--"upsetting the tables of the money-changers"--preaching
sedition, opposing the good old religion--"making himself greater than
Abraham," and at the same time "keeping company" with very low people;
but behold the change! He was a great miracle-worker, in his day, but
time has worked for him a greater miracle than all his miracles, for
now his name stands for all that is desirable in government, noble in
life, orderly and beautiful in society. That which time has done for
other great men of his class, that will time certainly do for John
Brown. The brightest gems shine at first with subdued light, and the
strongest characters are subject to the same limitations. Under the
influence of adverse education and hereditary bias, few things are
more difficult than to render impartial justice. Men hold up their
hands to Heaven, and swear they will do justice, but what are oaths
against prejudice and against inclination! In the face of
high-sounding professions and affirmations we know well how hard it is
for a Turk to do justice to a Christian, or for a Christian to do
justice to a Jew. How hard for an Englishman to do justice to an
Irishman, for an Irishman to do justice to an Englishman, harder still
for an American tainted by slavery to do justice to the Negro or the
Negro's friends. "John Brown," said the late Wm. H. Seward, "was
justly hanged." "John Brown," said the late John A. Andrew, "was
right." It is easy to perceive the sources of these two opposite
judgments: the one was the verdict of slave-holding and
panic-stricken Virginia, the other was the verdict of the best heart
and brain of free old Massachusetts. One was the heated judgment of
the passing and passionate hour, and the other was the calm, clear,
unimpeachable judgment of the broad, illimitable future.

There is, however, one aspect of the present subject quite worthy of
notice, for it makes the hero of Harper's Ferry in some degree an
exception to the general rules to which I have just now adverted.
Despite the hold which slavery had at that time on the country,
despite the popular prejudice against the Negro, despite the shock
which the first alarm occasioned, almost from the first John Brown
received a large measure of sympathy and appreciation. New England
recognized in him the spirit which brought the pilgrims to Plymouth
rock and hailed him as a martyr and saint. True he had broken the law,
true he had struck for a despised people, true he had crept upon his
foe stealthily, like a wolf upon the fold, and had dealt his blow in
the dark whilst his enemy slept, but with all this and more to disturb
the moral sense, men discerned in him the greatest and best qualities
known to human nature, and pronounced him "good." Many consented to
his death, and then went home and taught their children to sing his
praise as one whose "soul is marching on" through the realms of
endless bliss. One element in explanation of this somewhat anomalous
circumstance will probably be found in the troubled times which
immediately succeeded, for "when judgments are abroad in the world,
men learn righteousness."

The country had before this learned the value of Brown's heroic
character. He had shown boundless courage and skill in dealing with
the enemies of liberty in Kansas. With men so few, and means so small,
and odds against him so great, no captain ever surpassed him in
achievements, some of which seem almost beyond belief. With only eight
men in that bitter war, he met, fought and captured Henry Clay Pate,
with twenty-five well armed and mounted men. In this memorable
encounter, he selected his ground so wisely, handled his men so
skillfully, and attacked the enemy so vigorously, that they could
neither run nor fight, and were therefore compelled to surrender to a
force less than one-third their own. With just thirty men on another
important occasion during the same border war, he met and vanquished
four hundred Missourians under the command of Gen. Read. These men had
come into the territory under an oath never to return to their homes
till they had stamped out the last vestige of free State spirit in
Kansas; but a brush with old Brown took this high conceit out of them,
and they were glad to get off upon any terms, without stopping to
stipulate. With less than one hundred men to defend the town of
Lawrence, he offered to lead them and give battle to fourteen hundred
men on the banks of the Waukerusia river, and was much vexed when his
offer was refused by Gen. Jim Lane and others to whom the defense of
the town was confided. Before leaving Kansas, he went into the border
of Missouri, and liberated a dozen slaves in a single night, and, in
spite of slave laws and marshals, he brought these people through a
half dozen States, and landed them safely in Canada. With eighteen men
this man shook the whole social fabric of Virginia. With eighteen men
he overpowered a town of nearly three thousand souls. With these
eighteen men he held that large community firmly in his grasp for
thirty long hours. With these eighteen men he rallied in a single
night fifty slaves to his standard, and made prisoners of an equal
number of the slave-holding class. With these eighteen men he defied
the power and bravery of a dozen of the best militia companies that
Virginia could send against him. Now, when slavery struck, as it
certainly did strike, at the life of the country, it was not the fault
of John Brown that our rulers did not at first know how to deal with
it. He had already shown us the weak side of the rebellion, had shown
us where to strike and how. It was not from lack of native courage
that Virginia submitted for thirty long hours and at last was relieved
only by Federal troops; but because the attack was made on the side of
her conscience and thus armed her against herself. She beheld at her
side the sullen brow of a black Ireland. When John Brown proclaimed
emancipation to the slaves of Maryland and Virginia he added to his
war power the force of a moral earthquake. Virginia felt all her
strong-ribbed mountains to shake under the heavy tread of armed
insurgents. Of his army of nineteen her conscience made an army of
nineteen hundred.

Another feature of the times, worthy of notice, was the effect of this
blow upon the country at large. At the first moment we were stunned
and bewildered. Slavery had so benumbed the moral sense of the nation,
that it never suspected the possibility of an explosion like this, and
it was difficult for Captain Brown to get himself taken for what he
really was. Few could seem to comprehend that freedom to the slaves
was his only object. If you will go back with me to that time you will
find that the most curious and contradictory versions of the affair
were industriously circulated, and those which were the least rational
and true seemed to command the readiest belief. In the view of some,
it assumed tremendous proportions. To such it was nothing less than a
wide-sweeping rebellion to overthrow the existing government, and
construct another upon its ruins, with Brown for its President and
Commander-in-Chief; the proof of this was found in the old man's
carpet-bag in the shape of a constitution for a new Republic, an
instrument which in reality had been executed to govern the conduct of
his men in the mountains. Smaller and meaner natures saw in it nothing
higher than a purpose to plunder. To them John Brown and his men were
a gang of desperate robbers, who had learned by some means that
government had sent a large sum of money to Harper's Ferry to pay off
the workmen in its employ there, and they had gone thence to fill
their pockets from this money. The fact is, that outside of a few
friends, scattered in different parts of the country, and the
slave-holders of Virginia, few persons understood the significance of
the hour. That a man might do something very audacious and desperate
for money, power or fame, was to the general apprehension quite
possible; but, in face of plainly-written law, in face of
constitutional guarantees protecting each State against domestic
violence, in face of a nation of forty million of people, that
nineteen men could invade a great State to liberate a despised and
hated race, was to the average intellect and conscience, too monstrous
for belief. In this respect the vision of Virginia was clearer than
that of the nation. Conscious of her guilt and therefore full of
suspicion, sleeping on pistols for pillows, startled at every unusual
sound, constantly fearing and expecting a repetition of the Nat Turner
insurrection, she at once understood the meaning, if not the magnitude
of the affair. It was this understanding which caused her to raise the
lusty and imploring cry to the Federal government for help, and it was
not till he who struck the blow had fully explained his motives and
object, that the incredulous nation in any wise comprehended the true
spirit of the raid, or of its commander. Fortunate for his memory,
fortunate for the brave men associated with him, fortunate for the
truth of history, John Brown survived the saber gashes, bayonet wounds
and bullet holes, and was able, though covered with blood, to tell his
own story and make his own defense. Had he with all his men, as might
have been the case, gone down in the shock of battle, the world would
have had no true basis for its judgment, and one of the most heroic
efforts ever witnessed in behalf of liberty would have been confounded
with base and selfish purposes. When, like savages, the Wises, the
Vallandinghams, the Washingtons, the Stuarts and others stood around
the fallen and bleeding hero, and sought by torturing questions to
wring from his supposed dying lips some word by which to soil the
sublime undertaking, by implicating Gerrit Smith, Joshua R. Giddings,
Dr. S. G. Howe, G. L. Stearns, Edwin Morton, Frank Sanborn, and other
prominent Anti-slavery men, the brave old man, not only avowed his
object to be the emancipation of the slaves, but serenely and proudly
announced himself as solely responsible for all that had happened.
Though some thought of his own life might at such a moment have seemed
natural and excusable, he showed none, and scornfully rejected the
idea that he acted as the agent or instrument of any man or set of
men. He admitted that he had friends and sympathizers, but to his own
head he invited all the bolts of slave-holding wrath and fury, and
welcomed them to do their worst. His manly courage and self-forgetful
nobleness were not lost upon the crowd about him, nor upon the
country. They drew applause from his bitterest enemies. Said Henry A.
Wise, "He is the gamest man I ever met." "He was kind and humane to
his prisoners," said Col. Lewis Washington.

To the outward eye of men, John Brown was a criminal, but to their
inward eye he was a just man and true. His deeds might be disowned,
but the spirit which made those deeds possible was worthy highest
honor. It has been often asked, why did not Virginia spare the life of
this man? why did she not avail herself of this grand opportunity to
add to her other glory that of a lofty magnanimity? Had they spared
the good old man's life--had they said to him, "You see we have you in
our power, and could easily take your life, but we have no desire to
hurt you in any way; you have committed a terrible crime against
society; you have invaded us at midnight and attacked a sleeping
community, but we recognize you as a fanatic, and in some sense
instigated by others; and on this ground and others, we release you.
Go about your business, and tell those who sent you that we can afford
to be magnanimous to our enemies." I say, had Virginia held some such
language as this to John Brown, she would have inflicted a heavy blow
on the whole Northern abolition movement, one which only the
omnipotence of truth and the force of truth could have overcome. I
have no doubt Gov. Wise would have done so gladly, but, alas, he was
the executive of a State which thought she could not afford such
magnanimity. She had that within her bosom which could more safely
tolerate the presence of a criminal than a saint, a highway robber
than a moral hero. All her hills and valleys were studded with
material for a disastrous conflagration, and one spark of the
dauntless spirit of Brown might set the whole State in flames. A sense
of this appalling liability put an end to every noble consideration.
His death was a foregone conclusion, and his trial was simply one of

Honor to the brave young Col. Hoyt who hastened from Massachusetts to
defend his friend's life at the peril of his own; but there would have
been no hope of success had he been allowed to plead the case. He
might have surpassed Choate or Webster in power--a thousand physicians
might have sworn that Capt. Brown was insane, it would have been all
to no purpose; neither eloquence nor testimony could have prevailed.
Slavery was the idol of Virginia, and pardon and life to Brown meant
condemnation and death to slavery. He had practically illustrated a
truth stranger than fiction,--a truth higher than Virginia had ever
known,--a truth more noble and beautiful than Jefferson ever wrote. He
had evinced a conception of the sacredness and value of liberty which
transcended in sublimity that of her own Patrick Henry and made even
his fire-flashing sentiment of "Liberty or Death" seem dark and tame
and selfish. Henry loved liberty for himself, but this man loved
liberty for all men, and for those most despised and scorned, as well
as for those most esteemed and honored. Just here was the true glory
of John Brown's mission. It was not for his own freedom that he was
thus ready to lay down his life, for with Paul he could say, "I was
born free." No chain had bound his ankle, no yoke had galled his neck.
History has no better illustration of pure, disinterested benevolence.
It was not Caucasian for Caucasian--white man for white man; not rich
man for rich man, but Caucasian for Ethiopian--white man for black
man--rich man for poor man--the man admitted and respected, for the
man despised and rejected. "I want you to understand, gentlemen," he
said to his persecutors, "that I respect the rights of the poorest and
weakest of the colored people, oppressed by the slave system, as I do
those of the most wealthy and powerful." In this we have the key to
the whole life and career of the man. Than in this sentiment humanity
has nothing more touching, reason nothing more noble, imagination
nothing more sublime; and if we could reduce all the religions of the
world to one essence we could find in it nothing more divine. It is
much to be regretted that some great artist, in sympathy with the
spirit of the occasion, had not been present when these and similar
words were spoken. The situation was thrilling. An old man in the
center of an excited and angry crowd, far away from home, in an
enemy's country--with no friend near--overpowered, defeated, wounded,
bleeding--covered with reproaches--his brave companions nearly all
dead--his two faithful sons stark and cold by his side--reading his
death-warrant in his fast-oozing blood and increasing weakness as in
the faces of all around him--yet calm, collected, brave, with a heart
for any fate--using his supposed dying moments to explain his course
and vindicate his cause: such a subject would have been at once an
inspiration and a power for one of the grandest historical pictures
ever painted....

With John Brown, as with every other man fit to die for a cause, the
hour of his physical weakness was the hour of his moral strength--the
hour of his defeat was the hour of his triumph--the moment of his
capture was the crowning victory of his life. With the Alleghany
mountains for his pulpit, the country for his church and the whole
civilized world for his audience, he was a thousand times more
effective as a preacher than as a warrior, and the consciousness of
this fact was the secret of his amazing complacency. Mighty with the
sword of steel, he was mightier with the sword of the truth, and with
this sword he literally swept the horizon. He was more than a match
for all the Wises, Masons, Vallandinghams and Washingtons, who could
rise against him. They could kill him, but they could not answer him.

In studying the character and works of a great man, it is always
desirable to learn in what he is distinguished from others, and what
have been the causes of this difference. Such men as he whom we are
now considering, come on to the theater of life only at long
intervals. It is not always easy to explain the exact and logical
causes that produce them, or the subtle influences which sustain them,
at the immense heights where we sometimes find them; but we know that
the hour and the man are seldom far apart, and that here, as
elsewhere, the demand may in some mysterious way, regulate the supply.
A great iniquity, hoary with age, proud and defiant, tainting the
whole moral atmosphere of the country, subjecting both church and
state to its control, demanded the startling shock which John Brown
seemed especially inspired to give it.

Apart from this mission there was nothing very remarkable about him.
He was a wool-dealer, and a good judge of wool, as a wool-dealer ought
to be. In all visible respects he was a man like unto other men. No
outward sign of Kansas or Harper's Ferry was about him. As I knew him,
he was an even-tempered man, neither morose, malicious nor
misanthropic, but kind, amiable, courteous, and gentle in his
intercourse with men. His words were few, well chosen and forcible. He
was a good business man, and a good neighbor. A good friend, a good
citizen, a good husband and father: a man apparently in every way
calculated to make a smooth and pleasant path for himself through the
world. He loved society, he loved little children, he liked music, and
was fond of animals. To no one was the world more beautiful or life
more sweet. How then as I have said shall we explain his apparent
indifference to life? I can find but one answer, and that is, his
intense hatred to oppression. I have talked with many men, but I
remember none, who seemed so deeply excited upon the subject of
slavery as he. He would walk the room in agitation at mention of the
word. He saw the evil through no mist or haze, but in a light of
infinite brightness, which left no line of its ten thousand horrors
out of sight. Law, religion, learning, were interposed in its behalf
in vain. His law in regard to it was that which Lord Brougham
described, as "the law above all the enactments of human codes, the
same in all time, the same throughout the world--the law unchangeable
and eternal--the law written by the finger of God on the human
heart--that law by which property in man is, and ever must remain, a
wild and guilty phantasy."

Against truth and right, legislative enactments were to his mind mere
cobwebs--the pompous emptiness of human pride--the pitiful
outbreathings of human nothingness. He used to say "whenever there is
a right thing to be done, there is a 'thus saith the Lord' that it
shall be done."

It must be admitted that Brown assumed tremendous responsibility in
making war upon the peaceful people of Harper's Ferry, but it must be
remembered also that in his eye a slave-holding community could not be
peaceable, but was, in the nature of the case, in one incessant state
of war. To him such a community was not more sacred than a band of
robbers: it was the right of any one to assault it by day or night. He
saw no hope that slavery would ever be abolished by moral or political
means: "he knew," he said, "the proud and hard hearts of the
slave-holders, and that they never would consent to give up their
slaves, till they felt a big stick about their heads."

It was five years before this event at Harper's Ferry, while the
conflict between freedom and slavery was waxing hotter and hotter with
every hour, that the blundering statesmanship of the National
Government repealed the Missouri compromise, and thus launched the
territory of Kansas as a prize to be battled for between the North and
the South. The remarkable part taken in this contest by Brown has been
already referred to, and it doubtless helped to prepare him for the
final tragedy, and though it did not by any means originate the plan,
it confirmed him in it and hastened its execution.

During his four years' service in Kansas it was my good fortune to see
him often. On his trips to and from the territory he sometimes stopped
several days at my house, and at one time several weeks. It was on
this last occasion that liberty had been victorious in Kansas, and he
felt that he must hereafter devote himself to what he considered his
larger work. It was the theme of all his conversation, filling his
nights with dreams and his days with visions. An incident of his
boyhood may explain, in some measure, the intense abhorrence he felt
to slavery. He had for some reason been sent into the State of
Kentucky, where he made the acquaintance of a slave boy, about his own
age, of whom he became very fond. For some petty offense this boy was
one day subjected to a brutal beating. The blows were dealt with an
iron shovel and fell fast and furiously upon his slender body. Born in
a free State and unaccustomed to such scenes of cruelty, young Brown's
pure and sensitive soul revolted at the shocking spectacle and at that
early age he swore eternal hatred to slavery. After years never
obliterated the impression, and he found in this early experience an
argument against contempt for small things. It is true that the boy is
the father of the man. From the acorn comes the oak. The impression of
a horse's foot in the sand suggested the art of printing. The fall of
an apple intimated the law of gravitation. A word dropped in the woods
of Vincennes, by royal hunters, gave Europe and the world a "William
the Silent," and a thirty years' war. The beating of a Hebrew
bondsman, by an Egyptian, created a Moses, and the infliction of a
similar outrage on a helpless slave boy in our own land may have
caused, forty years afterwards, a John Brown and a Harper's Ferry

Most of us can remember some event or incident which has at some time
come to us, and made itself a permanent part of our lives. Such an
incident came to me in the year 1847. I had then the honor of spending
a day and a night under the roof of a man, whose character and
conversation made a very deep impression on my mind and heart; and as
the circumstance does not lie entirely out of the range of our present
observations, you will pardon for a moment a seeming digression. The
name of the person alluded to had been several times mentioned to me,
in a tone that made me curious to see him and to make his
acquaintance. He was a merchant, and our first meeting was at his
store--a substantial brick building, giving evidence of a flourishing
business. After a few minutes' detention here, long enough for me to
observe the neatness and order of the place, I was conducted by him to
his residence where I was kindly received by his family as an expected
guest. I was a little disappointed at the appearance of this man's
house, for after seeing his fine store, I was prepared to see a fine
residence; but this logic was entirely contradicted by the facts. The
house was a small, wooden one, on a back street in a neighborhood of
laboring men and mechanics, respectable enough, but not just the spot
where one would expect to find the home of a successful merchant.
Plain as was the outside, the inside was plainer. Its furniture might
have pleased a Spartan. It would take longer to tell what was not in
it, than what was; no sofas, no cushions, no curtains, no carpets, no
easy rocking chairs inviting to enervation or rest or repose. My first
meal passed under the misnomer of tea. It was none of your tea and
toast sort, but potatoes and cabbage, and beef soup; such a meal as a
man might relish after following the plough all day, or after
performing a forced march of a dozen miles over rough ground in frosty
weather. Innocent of paint, veneering, varnish or tablecloth, the
table announced itself unmistakably and honestly pine and of the
plainest workmanship. No hired help passed from kitchen to dining
room, staring in amazement at the colored man at the white man's
table. The mother, daughters and sons did the serving, and did it
well. I heard no apology for doing their own work; they went through
it, as if used to it, untouched by any thought of degradation or
impropriety. Supper over, the boys helped to clear the table and wash
the dishes. This style of housekeeping struck me as a little odd. I
mention it because household management is worthy of thought. A house
is more than brick and mortar, wood or paint; this to me at least was.
In its plainness it was a truthful reflection of its inmates: no
disguises, no illusions, no make-believes here, but stern truth and
solid purpose breathed in all its arrangements. I was not long in
company with the master of this house before I discovered that he was
indeed the master of it, and likely to become mine too, if I staid
long with him. He fulfilled St. Paul's idea of the head of the
family--his wife believed in him, and his children observed him with
reverence. Whenever he spoke, his words commanded earnest attention.
His arguments which I ventured at some points to oppose, seemed to
convince all, his appeals touched all, and his will impressed all.
Certainly I never felt myself in the presence of a stronger religious
influence than while in this house. "God and duty, God and duty," run
like a thread of gold through all his utterances, and his family
supplied a ready "Amen." In person he was lean and sinewy, of the best
New England mould, built for times of trouble, fitted to grapple with
the flintiest hardships. Clad in plain American woolen, shod in boots
of cowhide leather, and wearing a cravat of the same substantial
material, under six feet high, less than one hundred and fifty lbs. in
weight, aged about fifty, he presented a figure straight and
symmetrical as a mountain pine. His bearing was singularly impressive.
His head was not large, but compact and high. His hair was coarse,
strong, slightly gray and closely trimmed and grew close to his
forehead. His face was smoothly shaved and revealed a strong square
mouth, supported by a broad and prominent chin. His eyes were clear
and grey, and in conversation they alternated with tears and fire.
When on the street, he moved with a long springing, race-horse step,
absorbed by his own reflections, neither seeking nor shunning
observation. Such was the man whose name I heard uttered in
whispers--such was the house in which he lived--such were his family
and household management--and such was Captain John Brown.

He said to me at this meeting, that he had invited me to his house
for the especial purpose of laying before me his plan for the speedy
emancipation of my race. He seemed to apprehend opposition on my part
as he opened the subject and touched my vanity by saying, that he had
observed my course at home and abroad, and wanted my co-operation. He
said he had been for the last thirty years looking for colored men to
whom he could safely reveal his secret, and had almost despaired, at
times, of finding such, but that now he was encouraged for he saw
heads rising up in all directions, to whom he thought he could with
safety impart his plan. As this plan then lay in his mind it was very
simple, and had much to commend it. It did not, as was supposed by
many, contemplate a general rising among the slaves, and a general
slaughter of the slave masters (an insurrection he thought would only
defeat the object), but it did contemplate the creating of an armed
force which should act in the very heart of the South. He was not
averse to the shedding of blood, and thought the practice of carrying
arms would be a good one for the colored people to adopt, as it would
give them a sense of manhood. No people he said could have
self-respect or be respected who would not fight for their freedom. He
called my attention to a large map of the U. States, and pointed out
to me the far-reaching Alleghanies, stretching away from the borders
of New York into the Southern States. "These mountains," he said, "are
the basis of my plan. God has given the strength of these hills to
freedom; they were placed here to aid the emancipation of your race;
they are full of natural forts, where one man for defense would be
equal to a hundred for attack; they are also full of good hiding
places where a large number of men could be concealed and baffle and
elude pursuit for a long time. I know these mountains well and could
take a body of men into them and keep them there in spite of all the
efforts of Virginia to dislodge me, and drive me out. I would take at
first about twenty-five picked men and begin on a small scale, supply
them arms and ammunition, post them in squads of fives on a line of
twenty-five miles, these squads to busy themselves for a time in
gathering recruits from the surrounding farms, seeking and selecting
the most restless and daring." He saw that in this part of the work
the utmost care must be used to guard against treachery and
disclosure; only the most conscientious and skillful should be sent on
this perilous duty. With care and enterprise he thought he could soon
gather a force of one hundred hardy men, men who would be content to
lead the free and adventurous life to which he proposed to train them.
When once properly drilled and each had found the place for which he
was best suited, they would begin work in earnest; they would run off
the slaves in large numbers, retain the strong and brave ones in the
mountains, and send the weak and timid ones to the North by the
underground Rail-road; his operations would be enlarged with
increasing numbers and would not be confined to one locality.
Slave-holders should in some cases be approached at midnight and told
to give up their slaves and to let them have their best horses to ride
away upon. Slavery was a state of war, he said, to which the slaves
were unwilling parties and consequently they had a right to anything
necessary to their peace and freedom. He would shed no blood and would
avoid a fight except in self-defense, when he would of course do his
best. He believed this movement would weaken slavery in two
ways--first by making slave property insecure, it would become
undesirable; and secondly it would keep the anti-slavery agitation
alive and public attention fixed upon it, and thus lead to the
adoption of measures to abolish the evil altogether. He held that
there was need of something startling to prevent the agitation of the
question from dying out; that slavery had come near being abolished in
Virginia by the Nat. Turner insurrection, and he thought his method
would speedily put an end to it, both in Maryland and Virginia. The
trouble was to get the right men to start with and money enough to
equip them. He had adopted the simple and economical mode of living to
which I have referred with a view to save money for this purpose. This
was said in no boastful tone, for he felt that he had delayed already
too long and had no room to boast either his zeal or his self-denial.

From 8 o'clock in the evening till 3 in the morning, Capt. Brown and I
sat face to face, he arguing in favor of his plan, and I finding all
the objections I could against it. Now mark! this meeting of ours was
full twelve years before the strike at Harper's Ferry. He had been
watching and waiting all that time for suitable heads to rise or "pop
up" as he said among the sable millions in whom he could confide;
hence forty years had passed between his thought and his act. Forty
years, though not a long time in the life of a nation, is a long time
in the life of a man; and here forty long years, this man was
struggling with this one idea; like Moses he was forty years in the
wilderness. Youth, manhood, middle age had come and gone; two
marriages had been consummated, twenty children had called him father;
and through all the storms and vicissitudes of busy life, this one
thought, like the angel in the burning bush, had confronted him with
its blazing light, bidding him on to his work. Like Moses he had made
excuses, and as with Moses his excuses were overruled. Nothing should
postpone further what was to him a divine command, the performance of
which seemed to him his only apology for existence. He often said to
me, though life was sweet to him, he would willingly lay it down for
the freedom of my people; and on one occasion he added, that he had
already lived about as long as most men, since he had slept less, and
if he should now lay down his life the loss would not be great, for in
fact he knew no better use for it. During his last visit to us in
Rochester there appeared in the newspapers a touching story connected
with the horrors of the Sepoy War in British India. A Scotch
missionary and his family were in the hands of the enemy, and were to
be massacred the next morning. During the night, when they had given
up every hope of rescue, suddenly the wife insisted that relief would
come. Placing her ear close to the ground she declared she heard the
Slogan--the Scotch war song. For long hours in the night no member of
the family could hear the advancing music but herself. "Dinna ye hear
it? Dinna ye hear it?" she would say, but they could not hear it. As
the morning slowly dawned a Scotch regiment was found encamped indeed
about them, and they were saved from the threatened slaughter. This
circumstance, coming at such a time, gave Capt. Brown a new word of
cheer. He would come to the table in the morning his countenance
fairly illuminated, saying that he had heard the Slogan, and he would
add, "Dinna ye hear it? _Dinna_ ye hear it?" Alas! like the Scotch
missionary I was obliged to say "No." Two weeks prior to the meditated
attack, Capt. Brown summoned me to meet him in an old stone quarry on
the Conecochequi river, near the town of Chambersburgh, Penn. His arms
and ammunition were stored in that town and were to be moved on to
Harper's Ferry. In company with Shields Green I obeyed the summons,
and prompt to the hour we met the dear old man, with Kagi, his
secretary, at the appointed place. Our meeting was in some sense a
council of war. We spent the Saturday and succeeding Sunday in
conference on the question, whether the desperate step should then be
taken, or the old plan as already described should be carried out. He
was for boldly striking Harper's Ferry at once and running the risk of
getting into the mountains afterwards. I was for avoiding Harper's
Ferry altogether. Shields Green and Mr. Kagi remained silent listeners
throughout. It is needless to repeat here what was said, after what
has happened. Suffice it, that after all I could say, I saw that my
old friend had resolved on his course and that it was idle to parley.
I told him finally that it was impossible for me to join him. I could
see Harper's Ferry only as a trap of steel, and ourselves in the wrong
side of it. He regretted my decision and we parted.

Thus far, I have spoken exclusively of Capt. Brown. Let me say a word
or two of his brave and devoted men, and first of Shields Green. He
was a fugitive slave from Charleston, South Carolina, and had attested
his love of liberty by escaping from slavery and making his way
through many dangers to Rochester, where he had lived in my family,
and where he met the man with whom he went to the scaffold. I said to
him, as I was about to leave, "Now Shields, you have heard our
discussion. If in view of it, you do not wish to stay, you have but to
say so, and you can go back with me." He answered, "I b'l'eve I'll go
wid de old man;" and go with him he did, into the fight, and to the
gallows, and bore himself as grandly as any of the number. At the
moment when Capt. Brown was surrounded, and all chance of escape was
cut off, Green was in the mountains and could have made his escape as
Osborne Anderson did, but when asked to do so, he made the same answer
he did at Chambersburgh, "I b'l'eve I'll go down wid de ole man." When
in prison at Charlestown, and he was not allowed to see his old
friend, his fidelity to him was in no wise weakened, and no complaint
against Brown could be extorted from him by those who talked with him.

If a monument should be erected to the memory of John Brown, as there
ought to be, the form and name of Shields Green should have a
conspicuous place upon it. It is a remarkable fact, that in this small
company of men, but one showed any sign of weakness or regret for what
he did or attempted to do. Poor Cook broke down and sought to save his
life by representing that he had been deceived, and allured by false
promises. But Stephens, Hazlett and Green went to their doom like the
heroes they were, without a murmur, without a regret, believing alike
in their captain and their cause.

For the disastrous termination of this invasion, several causes have
been assigned. It has been said that Capt. Brown found it necessary to
strike before he was ready; that men had promised to join him from the
North who failed to arrive; that the cowardly negroes did not rally to
his support as he expected, but the true cause as stated by himself,
contradicts all these theories, and from his statement there is no
appeal. Among the questions put to him by Mr. Vallandingham after his
capture were the following: "Did you expect a general uprising of the
slaves in case of your success?" To this he answered, "No, sir, nor
did I wish it. I expected to gather strength from time to time and
then to set them free." "Did you expect to hold possession here until
then?" Answer, "Well, probably I had quite a different idea. I do not
know as I ought to reveal my plans. I am here wounded and a prisoner
because I foolishly permitted myself to be so. You overstate your
strength when you suppose I could have been taken if I had not allowed
it. I was too tardy after commencing the open attack in delaying my
movements through Monday night and up to the time of the arrival of
government troops. It was all because of my desire to spare the
feelings of my prisoners and their families."

But the question is, Did John Brown fail? He certainly did fail to get
out of Harper's Ferry before being beaten down by United States
soldiers; he did fail to save his own life, and to lead a liberating
army into the mountains of Virginia. But he did not go to Harper's
Ferry to save his life. The true question is, Did John Brown draw his
sword against slavery and thereby lose his life in vain? and to this I
answer ten thousand times, No! No man fails, or can fail who so
grandly gives himself and all he has to a righteous cause. No man, who
in his hour of extremest need, when on his way to meet an ignominious
death, could so forget himself as to stop and kiss a little child, one
of the hated race for whom he was about to die, could by any
possibility fail. Did John Brown fail? Ask Henry A. Wise in whose
house less than two years after, a school for the emancipated slaves
was taught. Did John Brown fail? Ask James M. Mason, the author of the
inhuman fugitive slave bill, who was cooped up in Fort Warren, as a
traitor less than two years from the time that he stood over the
prostrate body of John Brown. Did John Brown fail? Ask Clement C.
Vallandingham, one other of the inquisitorial party; for he too went
down in the tremendous whirlpool created by the powerful hand of this
bold invader. If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he
did at least begin the war that ended slavery. If we look over the
dates, places and men, for which this honor is claimed, we shall find
that not Carolina, but Virginia--not Fort Sumpter, but Harper's Ferry
and the arsenal--not Col. Anderson, but John Brown, began the war that
ended American slavery and made this a free Republic. Until this blow
was struck, the prospect for freedom was dim, shadowy and uncertain.
The irrepressible conflict was one of words, votes and compromises.
When John Brown stretched forth his arm the sky was cleared. The time
for compromises was gone--the armed hosts of freedom stood face to
face over the chasm of a broken Union--and the clash of arms was at
hand. The South staked all upon getting possession of the Federal
Government, and failing to do that, drew the sword of rebellion and
thus made her own, and not Brown's, the lost cause of the century.

       *       *       *       *       *

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