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John Brown and the Beginning of the Civil War

The main problem that we analyse behind John Brown’s historical movements for social change was the use of violent weapons in response to the Southern aggression. This has not only been realised by the then political leaders but also by those participants who were present in the sectional conflict over slavery and the prejudices of their historical heirs (Sinha, 2006). Even some historians mention his violence to be the main cause behind the civil war.

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It was his attitude towards the Americans that have always found it difficult to write fairly about John Brown as a controversial figure. It was for the rage he had within him that brought him death on the gallows for attacking Harpers Ferry and this is the reason we see that despite being a heroic figure those who have dealt with him have with rare exception been either passionately for or against the man. Irrespective of Brown being right or wrong and irrespective of the fact that either he was an authentic and immortal hero who sacrificed his life so that America’s poor Africans might be free from slavery, or he was a terrible, vicious man, we can see through historical significance his dissatisfaction with the pacifism that was encouraged by the organised abolitionist movement to whom he said that all we need is action.

Historians write and it is true that Brown escorted such a crime on Pottawatomie Creek in Kansas that is unable to justify his wealth of self-sacrifice, and the nobility of his aims for ameliorating freedom. Another reason for the civil war shouldered on Brown was the overconfidence and optimism of the free state settlers and pro-slavery companions of Brown who thought that they could easily bring Kansas into the union as a slavery-free state. However, this misconception later in 1855 and 1856 was cleared to Brown that pro-slavery forces were willing to violate the rule of law in order to force Kansas to become a slave state. Brown was confident within him that violent actions and terrorism possess the ability to become the obvious agenda of the pro-slavery supporters, which were then known as ‘Border Ruffians’ (Oates, 1979, p. 23). When the pro-slavery activists began a campaign to acquire Kansas in 1856, Brown adopted violent behaviour against the pro-slavery forces and the Free State settlers. This was where he went violent.

As a matter of fact, questioning about his violence was not made in 1855, but in the summer of 1857 after Brown’s experiences in the Kansas civil war. The evidence at that time convinced that Brown did not conceive the Harpers Ferry or Virginia scheme, which involved a slave insurrection in the South, until the fall of 1856 or spring of 1857, as a result of his own private war against the ‘Slave Power’ which began with the Pottawatomie massacre (Oates, 1979, p. 26). It is not that that Brown had no ideas about opposing the South with force and action before that time, on the contrary, he was supposed to have developed by 1847 a secret project called the Subterranean Pass Way, which probably derived from his experiences with the Ohio Underground Railroad. This project required an armed guerrilla contingent, with Brown as commander, to run slaves out of the South through the Allegheny Mountains. Brown’s perception about these operations reduce the value of slave property, thereby rendering the institution so ‘insecure’ that Southerners would have to abolish it themselves. Therefore the Subterranean Pass Way scheme was a sort of hobby of Brown’s from 1847 until he left for Kansas in 1855.

Despite the Pottawatomie massacre, Brown was still considered a hero doing battle with injustice, a man who possessed straightforward unselfishness and a willingness to suffer for others traits dramatically exhibited when he made his sacrifice for the altar of liberty at Harpers Ferry and on the gallows at Charlestown, Virginia. Brown thought his own country while admitting his mistakes without undue palliation or excuse, will forever acknowledge the Jivine that was in him by the side of what was human or faulty, and blind and wrong (Oates, 1979, p. 24).

Many historians believe that theologically, Brown was an orthodox nineteenth-century Calvinist who believed in foreordination, the doctrine of election, innate depravity, and in man’s total dependence on a just and omnipotent God. He believed that once God saved poor dependent slaves, He would remain a constant, all-powerful, directive force in his life. This way Brown believed that God had chosen him to free the slaves a notion that lay behind his invasion of Virginia was an outgrowth of his intense Calvinist faith.

Another mistake was when Brown went to Kansas in 1855 to fight for freedom, without giving a thought to settlement there. This shows his outrageous and furious personality due to which he violently took action without even thinking of the consequences. Initially Brown planned to follow his sons to the Territory to engage in surveying and investigate business prospects there and this he could have done by relocating in Kansas along with his family to settle the Territory with antislavery pioneers who would vote to make it free. But after getting to know that business opportunities were not promising in Kansas, and discovering that how a great war between freedom and slavery was about to begin there, beseeching his father to gather a number of guns for free-state forces, Brown altered his original intentions (Sinha, 2006).

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John Brown was inextricably caught up in the slavery issue and he devised his own solution to that monstrous and inflammable problem and he died, too, in the conflicts and hostilities that slavery generated. John Brown was a white Northerner who hated slavery from the outside and it was this slavery issue in America that imperilled Brown himself and his family. Brown had striven hard to endure his trial on earth and prepare himself for paradise and a union with his Calvinist God, however, it is another thing that the same God, in a burst of omniscient rage, well destroyed.

Brown alone was not acquired by the slave-cursed land and sweep, other Americans, Brown and his wife and children included into the fires of an everlasting hell as well. As Brown smouldered over the manifold evils of slavery, he also suffered through a failure-scarred life that in itself reveals a lot about human suffering and it reveals a great deal about nineteenth-century America, too, since Brown struggled for forty years to succeed in the system as a Christian businessman, only to fail again and again.

In 1859, when John Brown led a handful of young revolutionaries in a sudden attack against Harpers Ferry in northern Virginia, in what Brown envisioned as the first blow in an all-out war for slave liberation, with his twenty-one followers, what he intended to incite was a Southern wide slave revolt and to establish a black state in the Southern mountains. Else he thought and hoped to ignite a sectional holocaust between North and South in which slavery would be destroyed. Such notions, courage and optimism for a fifty-nine-year-old abolitionist, uncovered the short-sighted consequences of a failure in virtually everything ever tried, for this was the supreme moment of his life, the moment he had been working for since he had committed himself to violence in the Kansas civil war of 1856. All he was visualising was the years of trial, of affliction and sorrow, were behind him and he and his men were going to liberate some four million human beings from bondage, thereby removing a monstrous wrong from American society. Such haphazard decisions and lack of analysis lead Brown to a situation where he perceived that slavery was an egregious ‘sin against God’, a sin that violated the commandments of an all-wise, all-powerful Providence, and that contradicted the Declaration of Independence, too, which guaranteed all men the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

When in 1859, tensions between Republicans and Southern whites were at a combustible state and needed an overt act against the South, John Brown served himself as a spark to set a conflagration roaring. Apart from the South, John Brown for two years had been secretly plotting his bold and audacious attack against slavery in Virginia. If that attack of Brown had failed, even then it possessed alternative objectives like exploding into civil war. Old Brown has also been accused of alienating many of his supporters when he publicly burned a copy of the U.S Constitution and proclaimed it as nothing more than a pact with slaveholders investing half the country (Toledo, 2002, p. 40).

Many believe that despite attempting so many mistakes, for those fighting against racial oppression, Brown is the great ancestor, to be memorialised and enshrined. Similarly, Brown is depicted in radical sources, in histories and novels as an immortal soldier of freedom whom today’s black and white children should idolize. He is also been defended, from ‘racist’ biographies, which ascribe human error and vulnerability to him. The legend of John Brown was initiated at the end of 1859 and emerged as an immortal hero who faced the worst circumstances and finally, abolitionists extolled him as an American saint.

Many researchers and writers believe by providing evidence that Brown had instigated the massacre, but argued that he was justified in doing so, in as much as the victims were crude, violent, proslavery ‘poor whites’ who would likely have massacred Brown and his free-state neighbours had he not killed them first. But apart from the facts the biographers disregarding unfavourable aspects of Brown’s character and career, presented him as a great man in the manner of Samson, Hercules, and Oliver Cromwell a steadfast warrior who saved Kansas for liberty in 1856 and then gave his life in Virginia so that the slaves might be free (Oates, 1979, p. 23).

Had John Brown not reacted violently, he would have not being accused of the massacre of five proslavery settlers on Pottawatomie Creek in Kansas, thereby committing murder and the usage of violent weapons. John Brown became a revolutionary figure and he rejected peaceful alternatives in favour of violent means to remove injustice. His violent actions were responsible for giving rise to the antislavery guerrilla forces during the frontier wars known as ‘Bleeding Kansas’ (Blight, 2000) to which he is still remembered as a debatable figure – an ‘abolitionist’.

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Work Cited

Blight W. David, (2000) “John Brown: Triumphant Failure” In: Magazine Title The American Prospect. Volume: 11. Issue: 9.

Oates B. Stephen, (1979) Our Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, and the Civil War Era: University of Massachusetts Press: Amherst, MA.

Sinha Manisha, (2006) “His Truth Is Marching On: John Brown and the Fight for Racial Justice” In: Civil War History. Volume: 52. Issue: 2.

Toledo Gregory, (2002) The Hanging of Old Brown: A Story of Slaves, Statesmen, and Redemption: Praeger: Westport, CT.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, October 21). John Brown and the Beginning of the Civil War.

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