My favorite maniac

Only a few generations ago, there were millions of slaves in America, people sold as property, owned by someone other than themselves.

John Brown saw slavery for what it was — institutionalized human oppression from birth to death, with everyday torture, rape, and murder.

He wanted to stop it.

Unlike most abolitionists, he wasn’t content to print pamphlets and make speeches. He purchased land for escaped slaves, raised a black orphan as his own son, and was active in freeing slaves through the Underground Railroad

I’m wondering today whether I’d have had the courage to do anything like that. It's easy to say 'sure' now, but I've always been a pamphlet guy. "These men are all talk," Brown once said of men like me, "what is needed is action — action!" 

After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 became law — putting free blacks in the north in peril from any whites who claimed to be their owners — Brown helped establish the League of Gileadites, an otherwise all-black "mutual defense" group, armed and intent on protecting themselves through, as a later radical said, "any means necessary."

When he was already in his 50s, Brown came to Kansas territory, then widely called "bleeding Kansas" for its violent clashes between pro- and anti-slavery factions. He settled near the anti-slavery town of Lawrence, which was later attacked by pro-slavery raiders, leaving more than 150 townsfolk dead.

The attack had been ordered by a grand jury in the neighboring pro-slavery state of Missouri, and led by that county's sheriff. In retaliation, Brown launched a raid on a Missouri enclave, seizing five men and boys from their homes, killing them and dismembering their bodies.

Now fully radicalized, Brown led further attacks into the slave state of Missouri, leaving another man dead, and freeing 11 slaves. Some of the freed men followed him.

Would I have followed John Brown, and hit back directly at a system that shackled people for their entire lives? Or would I have kept my head low and typed up another pamphlet?

Hoping to strike closer to the heart of American slavery, Brown took his fight to Harper's Ferry, Virginia, where the federal government operated an armory, manufacturing muskets, rifles, and pistols. He rented a farm across the Potomac River from the armory, and in the farmhouse, Brown assembled his strike force.

Targeting the armory was, of course, about the stupidest strategy imaginable, but what’s the 'right' thing to do, in the face of unfathomable wrong?

On October 16, 1859, Brown led 21 men — five black, 16 white — in an attack on the arsenal. It was, as his friend Frederick Douglass had said in trying to dissuade him, "a perfect steel-trap" — a strike against the U.S. government that could only lead to a disastrous ending.

Colonel Robert E Lee (yeah, that Robert E Lee) was ordered to put down the insurrection, and eight of Brown's men were killed in the gun battle that followed. Brown was charged with treason, murder, and insurrection. His trial was quick and efficient.

"Had I interceded in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved, had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, sister, wife or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been right. Every man in the court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment."

—John Brown, in court after his conviction  

An eyewitness at the hanging wrote that Brown behaved with "unflinching firmness" as the sheriff put a noose around his neck.

Brown was buried at his farm, near the village of Timbuctoo, New York, an enclave of former slaves. The Civil War started about a year and a half later.

He was a murderer and a terrorist, and probably out of his mind, but John Brown (1800-1859) lived by what he believed. Few people can say that. I sure can't. Dude died for freedom, as much as any American casualty of any war.

A song was written to memorialize him, called John Brown's Body. Listen to it; it's riveting.

Like the man himself, the song was a little too much for most folks, though, so its lyrics were re-written by abolitionist poet Julia Ward Howe. It's the Battle Hymn of the Republic, literally the theme song of the Union Army during in the Civil War.

Howe's lyrics are mostly about God, but some of it still sounds suspiciously like it's about John Brown.

I have seen him in the watch-fires
        of a hundred circling camps
They have builded him an altar
        in the evening dews and damps
I have read his righteous sentence
        by the dim and flaring lamps
His truth is marching on...

Republished: 5/10/2023  


  1. You really love this man, don't you? Let me devil's advocate this... other than that he was on the right side of history and theyre on the wrong side, what is the difference between what John Brown did and what happened on January 6 or anti-abortion people bombing abortion clinics?

    1. The only difference that matters is that he was on the right side of his issue, and the idiots you mentioned simply aren't. They're plain evil or dupes. Pretty big difference though, ain't it?


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