John Brown was an American abolitionist leader. First reaching national prominence for his radical abolitionism and fighting in Bleeding Kansas, he was eventually captured and executed for a failed incitement of a slave rebellion at Harpers Ferry preceding the American Civil War. A man of strong religious convictions, Brown believed he was “an instrument of God”, raised up to strike the death blow to American slavery, a “sacred obligation”. Brown was the leading exponent of violence in the American abolitionist movement: he believed that violence was necessary to end American slavery, since decades of peaceful efforts had failed.
Brown said repeatedly that in working to free the enslaved he was following the Golden Rule, as well as the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which states that “all men are created equal”. Brown first gained national attention when he led anti-slavery volunteers and his own sons during the Bleeding Kansas crisis of the late 1850s, a state-level civil war over whether Kansas would enter the Union as a slave state or a free state. He was dissatisfied with abolitionist pacifism, saying of pacifists, “These men are all talk. What we need is action – action!”.
In May 1856, Brown and his sons killed five supporters of slavery in the Pottawatomie massacre, a response to the sacking of Lawrence by pro-slavery forces. Brown then commanded anti-slavery forces at the Battle of Black Jack and the Battle of Osawatomie. In October 1859, Brown led a raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (today West Virginia), intending to start a slave liberation movement that would spread south; he had prepared a Provisional Constitution for the revised, slavery-free United States he hoped to bring about.
He seized the armory, but seven people were killed, and ten or more were injured. Brown intended to arm slaves with weapons from the armory, but only a few slaves joined his revolt. Those of Brown’s men who had not fled were killed or captured by local militia and U.S. Marines, the latter led by Robert E. Lee. Brown was hastily tried for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, the murder of five men, and inciting a slave insurrection. He was found guilty of all counts and was hanged on December 2, 1859, the first person executed for treason in the history of the United States.
The Harpers Ferry raid and Brown’s trial, both covered extensively in national newspapers, escalated tensions that led, a year later, to the South’s long-threatened secession and the American Civil War. Southerners feared that others would soon follow in Brown’s footsteps, encouraging and arming slave rebellions. He was a hero and icon in the North. Union soldiers marched to the new song “John Brown’s Body”, that portrayed him as a heroic martyr. Brown has been variously described as a heroic martyr and visionary, and as a madman and terrorist.
Some of the best quotes from John Brown are listed below.
- “Be mild with the mild, shrewd with the crafty, confiding to the honest, rough to the ruffian, and a thunderbolt to the liar. But in all this, never be unmindful of your own dignity.” – John Brown
- “Caution, Sir! I am eternally tired of hearing that word caution. It is nothing but the word of cowardice!” – John Brown
- “Had I so interfered on behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or on behalf of any of their friends… every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.” – John Brown
- “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!” – John Brown
- “Holiness does not consist in mystic speculations, enthusiastic fervors, or uncommanded austerities; it consists in thinking as God thinks, and willing as God wills.” – John Brown
- “I am gaining in health slowly, and am quite cheerful in view of my approaching end, – being fully persuaded that I am worth inconceivably more to hang than any other purpose.” – John Brown
- “I am quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood. I had, as I now think vainly, flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.” – John Brown
- “I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done…in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right.” – John Brown
- “I cannot remember a night so dark as to have hindered the coming day.” – John Brown
- “I don’t think the people of the slave states will ever consider the subject of slavery in its true light till some other argument is resorted to other than moral persuasion.” – John Brown
- “I have been whipped, as the saying is, but I am sure I can recover all the lost capital occasioned by that disaster; by only hanging a few moments by the neck; and I feel quite determined to make the utmost possible out of a defeat.” – John Brown
- “I have only a short time to live, only one death to die, and I will die fighting for this cause. There will be no peace in this land until slavery is done for.” – John Brown
- “I think every family should have a dog; it is like having a perpetual baby; it is the plaything and crony of the whole house. It keeps them all young.” – John Brown
- “I want you to understand that I respect the rights of the poorest and weakest of colored people, oppressed [to deny others their rights or liberty] by the slave system, just as much as I do those of the most wealthy and powerful. That is the idea that has moved me, and that alone.” – John Brown
- “I was shot down by a fifth ball, which struck me squarely in the face, and passed out.” – John Brown
- “I will answer anything I can with honor, but not about others.” – John Brown
- “I will have nothing to do with so mean an act. I would sooner take my gun and help drive you out of the country.” – John Brown
- “It is not a case we are treating; it is a living, palpitating, alas, too often suffering fellow-creature.” – John Brown
- “No man, with a man’s heart in him, gets far on his way without some bitter, soul-searching disappointment. – Happy he who is brave enough to push on another stage of the journey, and rest where there are living springs of water, and threescore and ten palms.” – John Brown
- “Now let us thank the eternal power, convinced That Heaven but tries our virtue by affliction: That oft the cloud that wraps the present hour Serves but to brighten all our future days.” – John Brown
- “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!” – John Brown
- “So far as I ever observed God’s dealings with my soul, the flights of preachers sometimes entertained me, but it was Scripture expressions which did penetrate my heart and in a way peculiar to themselves.” – John Brown
- “Symptoms are the body’s mother tongue; signs are in a foreign language.” – John Brown
- “Talk is a national institution, but it does not help the slave.” – John Brown
- “The angels are ministering spirits; they are not governing spirits.” – John Brown
- “The intent and not the deed is in our power; and, therefore, who dares greatly, does greatly.” – John Brown
- “The same eye cannot both look up to heaven and down to earth.” – John Brown
- “There is a shrine in the temple of age, where lie forever embalmed the memories of such as have deserved well of their country and their race.” – John Brown
- “These men are all talk; What is needed is action – action!” – John Brown
- “Tis mean for empty praise of wit to write, as foppling’s grin to show their teeth are white.” – John Brown
- “When I strike, the bees will begin to swarm, and I want you to help hive them.” – John Brown
- “Whereas, Slavery, throughout its entire existence in the United States, is none other than a most barbarous, unprovoked, and unjustifiable War of one portion of its citizens upon another portion; the only conditions of which are perpetual imprisonment, and hopeless servitude or absolute extermination; in utter disregard and violation of those eternal and self-evident truths set forth in our Declaration of Independence.” – John Brown