The Anti-Slavery Crusade - Volume 28 In The Chronicles Of America Series
by Jesse Macy
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Returning from church on Sunday evening, Grinnell found a message awaiting him from Mr. Werkman, United States marshal at Iowa City, who was a friend of Grinnell. The message in part read: "You can see that it will give your town a bad name to have a fight there; then all who aid are liable, and there will be an arrest or blood. Get the old Devil away to save trouble, for he will be taken, dead or alive." Grinnell showed the message to Brown, who remarked: "Yes, I have heard of him ever since I came into the State.... Tell him we are ready to be taken, but will wait one day more for his military squad." True to his word he waited till the following afternoon and then moved directly towards Iowa City, the home of the marshal, passing beyond the city fourteen miles to his Quaker friends at Springdale. Here he remained about two weeks until he had completed arrangements for shipping his fugitives by rail to Chicago. In the meantime, where was Marshal Werkman of Iowa City? Was he of the same mind as the deputy marshal who had accompanied Colonel Sumner? Two of Brown's men had visited the city to make arrangements for the shipment. The situation was obvious enough to those who would see. The entire incident is an illuminating commentary on the attitude of both government and people towards the Fugitive Slave Law. In March the fugitives were safely landed in Canada and the rest of the horses were sold in Cleveland, Ohio. The time was approaching for the move on Virginia.

Brown now expended much time and attention upon a constitution for the provisional government which he was to set up. In January and February, 1858, Brown had labored over this document for several weeks at the home of Frederick Douglass at Rochester, New York. A copy was in evidence at the conference with Sanborn and Gerrit Smith in February, and the document was approved at a conference held in Chatham, Canada, on May 8, 1858, just at the time when Forbes's revelations caused the postponement of the enterprise. It is an elaborate constitution containing forty-eight articles. The preamble indicates the general purport:

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: Therefore, we the citizens of the United States, and the Oppressed People, who, by a decision of the Supreme Court are declared to have no rights which the White Man is bound to respect; together with all other people degraded by the laws thereof, Do, for the time being ordain and establish for ourselves, the following PROVISIONAL CONSTITUTION AND ORDINANCES, the better to protect our Persons, Property, Lives and Liberties and to govern our actions.

Article Forty-six reads:

The foregoing articles shall not be construed so as in any way to encourage the overthrow of any State Government or of the general government of the United States; and look to no dissolution of the Union, but simply to Amendment and Repeal. And our flag shall be the same that our Fathers fought under in the Revolution.

In Article Forty, "profane swearing, filthy conversation, and indecent behavior" are forbidden. The document indicates an obvious intention to effect a revolution by a restrained and regulated use of force.

Mobilization of forces began in June, 1859. Cook, one of the original party, had spent the year in the region of Harper's Ferry. In July the Kennedy farm, five miles from Harper's Ferry, was leased. The Northern immigrants posed as farmers, stock-raisers, and dealers in cattle, seeking a milder climate. To assist in the disguise, Brown's daughter and daughter-in-law, mere girls, joined the community. Even so it was difficult to allay troublesome curiosity on the part of neighbors at the gathering of so many men with no apparent occupation. Suspicion might easily have been aroused by the assembling of numerous boxes of arms from the West and the thousand pikes from Connecticut. Late in August, Floyd, Secretary of War, received an anonymous letter emanating from Springdale, Iowa, giving information which, if acted upon, would have led to an investigation and stopped the enterprise.

The 24th of October was the day appointed for taking possession of Harper's Ferry, but fear of exposure led to a change of plan and the move was begun on the 16th of October. Six of the party who would have been present at the later date were absent. The march from Kennedy farm began about eight o'clock Sunday evening. Before midnight the bridges, the town, and the arsenal were in the hands of the invaders without a gun having been fired. Before noon on Monday some forty citizens of the neighborhood had been assembled as prisoners and held, it was explained, as hostages for the safety of members of the party who might be taken. During the early forenoon Kagi strongly urged that they should escape into the mountains; but Brown, who was influenced, as he said, by sympathy for his prisoners and their distressed families, refused to move and at last found himself surrounded by opposing forces. Brown's men, having been assigned to different duties, were separated. Six of them escaped; others were killed or wounded or taken prisoners. Brown himself with six of his men and a few of his prisoners made a final stand in the engine-house. This was early in the afternoon. All avenues of escape were now closed. Brown made two efforts to communicate with his assailants by means of a flag of truce, sending first Thompson, one of his men, with one of his prisoners, and then Stevens and Watson Brown with another of the prisoners. Thompson was received but was held as a prisoner; Stevens and Watson Brown were shot down, the first dangerously wounded and the other mortally wounded. Later in the afternoon Brown received a flag of truce with a demand that he surrender. He stated the conditions under which he would restore the prisoners whom he held, but he refused the unconditional surrender which was demanded.

About midnight Colonel Robert E. Lee arrived from Washington with a company of marines. He took full command, set a guard of his own men around the engine-house and made preparation to effect a forcible entrance at sunrise on Tuesday morning in case a peaceable surrender was refused. Lee first offered to two of the local companies the honor of storming the castle. These, however, declined to undertake the perilous task, and the honor fell to Lieutenant Green of the marines, who thereupon selected two squads of twelve men each to attempt an entrance through the door. To Lee's aide, Lieutenant Stuart, who had known Brown in Kansas, was committed the task of making the formal demand for surrender. Brown and Stuart, who recognized each other instantly upon their meeting at the door, held a long parley, which resulted, as had been expected, in Brown's refusal to yield. Stuart then gave the signal which had been agreed upon to Lieutenant Green, who ordered the first squad to advance. Failing to break down the door with sledge-hammers, they seized a heavy ladder and at the second stroke made an opening near the ground large enough to admit a man. Green instantly entered, rushed to the back part of the room, and climbed upon an engine to command a better view. Colonel Lewis Washington, the most distinguished of the prisoners, pointed to Brown, saying, "This is Osawatomie." Green leaped forward and by thrust or stroke bent his light sword double against Brown's body. Other blows were administered and his victim fell senseless, and it was believed that the leader had been slain in action according to his wish.

The first of the twelve men to attempt to follow their leader was instantly killed by gunshot. Others rushed in and slew two of Brown's men by the use of the bayonet. To save the prisoners from harm, Lee had given careful instruction to fire no shot, to use only bayonets. The other insurgents were made prisoners. "The whole fight," Green reported, "had not lasted over three minutes."

Of all the prisoners taken and held as hostages, not one was killed or wounded. They were made as safe as the conditions permitted. The eleven prisoners who were with Brown in the engine-house were profoundly impressed with the courage, the bearing, and the self-restraint of the leader and his men. Colonel Washington describes Brown as holding a carbine in one hand, with one dead son by his side, while feeling the pulse of another son, who had received a mortal wound, all the time watching every movement for the defense and forbidding his men to fire upon any one who was unarmed. The testimony is uniform that Brown exercised special care to prevent his men from shooting unarmed citizens, and this conduct was undoubtedly influential in securing generous treatment for him and his men after the surrender.

For six weeks afterwards, until his execution on the 2d of December, John Brown remained a conspicuous figure. He won universal admiration for courage, coolness, and deliberation, and for his skill in parrying all attempts to incriminate others. Probably less than a hundred people knew beforehand anything about the enterprise, and less than a dozen of these rendered aid and encouragement. It was emphatically a personal exploit. On the part of both leader and followers, no occasion was omitted to drive home the lesson that men were willing to imperil their lives for the oppressed with no hope or desire for personal gain. Brown especially served notice upon the South that the day of final reckoning was at hand.

It is natural that the consequences of an event so spectacular as the capture of Harper's Ferry should be greatly exaggerated. Brown's contribution to Kansas history has been distorted beyond all recognition. The Harper's Ferry affair, however, because it came on the eve of the final election before the war, undoubtedly had considerable influence. It sharpened the issue. It played into the hands of extremists in both sections. On one side, Brown was at once made a martyr and a hero; on the other, his acts were accepted as a demonstration of Northern malignity and hatred, whose fitting expression was seen in the incitement of slaves to massacre their masters.

The distinctive contribution of John Brown to American history does not consist in the things which he did but rather in that which he has been made to represent. He has been accepted as the personification of the irrepressible conflict.

Of all the men of his generation John Brown is best fitted to exemplify the most difficult lesson which history teaches: that slavery and despotism are themselves forms of war, that the shedding of blood is likely to continue so long as the rich, the strong, the educated, or the efficient, strive to force their will upon the poor, the weak, and the ignorant. Lincoln uttered a final word on the subject when he said that no man is good enough to rule over another man; if he were good enough he would not be willing to do it.


Among the many political histories which furnish a background for the study of the anti-slavery crusade, the following have special value:

J. F. Rhodes, "History of the United States from the Compromise of 1860," 7 vols. (1893-1906). The first two volumes cover the decade to 1860. This is the best-balanced account of the period, written in an admirable judicial temper. H. E. von Holst, Constitutional anal Political History of the United States," 8 vols. (1877-1892). A vast mine of information on the slavery controversy. The work is vitiated by an almost virulent antipathy toward the South. James Schouler, "History of the United States," 7 vols. (1895-1901). A sober, reliable narrative of events. Henry Wilson, "History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America," 3 vols. (1872-1877). The fullest account of the subject, written by a contemporary. The material was thrown together by an overworked statesman and lacks proportion.

Three volumes in the "American Nation Series" aim to combine the treatment of special topics of commanding interest with general political history. A. B. Hart's "Slavery and Abolition" (1906) gives an account of the origin of the controversy and carries the history down to 1841. G. P. Garrison's "Westward Extension" (1906) deals especially with the Mexican War and its results. T. C. Smith's "Parties and Slavery" (1906) follows the gradual disruption of parties under the pressure of the slavery controversy.

From the mass of contemporary controversial literature a few titles of more permanent interest may be selected. William Goodell's "Slavery and Anti-slavery" (1852) presents the anti-slavery arguments. A. T. Bledsoe's "An Essay on Liberty and Slavery" (1856) and "The Pro-slavery Argument" (1852), a series of essays by various writers, undertake the defense of slavery.

Only a few of the biographies which throw light on the crusade can be mentioned. "William Lloyd Garrison," 4 vols. (1885-1889) is the story of the editor of the Liberator told exhaustively by his children. Less voluminous but equally important are the following: W. Birney, "James G. Birney and His Times" (1890); G. W. Julian, "Joshua R. Giddings" (1892); Catherine H. Birney, "Sarah and Angelina Grimke" (1885); John T. Morse, "John Quincy Adams." Those who have not patience to read E. L. Pierce's ponderous "Memoir and Letters of Charles Sumner," 4 vols. (1877-1893), would do well to read G. H. Haynes's "Charles Sumner" (1909).

The history of the conflict in Kansas is closely associated with the lives of two rival candidates for the honor of leadership in the cause of freedom. James Redpath in his "Public Life of Captain John Brown" (1860), Frank B. Sanborn in his "Life and Letters of John Brown" (1885), and numerous other writers give to Brown the credit of leadership. The opposition view is held by F. W. Blackmar in his "Life of Charles Robinson" (1902), and by Robinson himself in his Kansas Conflict (2d ed., 1898). The best non-partizan biography of Brown is O. G. Villard's "John Brown, A Biography Fifty Years After" (1910).

The Underground Railroad has been adequately treated in W. H. Siebert's "The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom" (1898), but Levi Coffin's "Reminiscences" (1876) gives an earlier autobiographical account of the origin and management of an important line, while Mrs. Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" throws the glamour of romance over the system.

For additional bibliographical information the reader is referred to the articles on "Slavery, Fugitive Slave Laws, Kansas, William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, James Gillespie Birney," and "Frederick Douglass" in "The Encyclopaedia Britannica" (11th Edition).


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