• How a Young John Brown Became the Legendary Militant Abolitionist

    H. W. Brands on the Early Life of an American Avenger

    How does a good man challenge a great evil? How can a man of God confront the work of Satan?

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    John Brown remembered when he realized this was the fundamental issue of his life. He was sitting in a crowded church in Hudson, Ohio. He was surrounded by neighbors, but also by strangers who had come to the town to protest the killing of Elijah Lovejoy, an abolitionist preacher and publisher. Few in the assembly knew Lovejoy, and the shooting had occurred hundreds of miles away, in Illinois. But Hudson was a hotbed of abolitionism, and many that day could imagine that what had befallen Lovejoy might claim them. They gathered to praise him, to reassure themselves and to rededicate themselves to the cause of ridding their country of slavery.

    John Brown was familiar to many in the group. Some had known him as a child. His father had moved the family from Connecticut, where John was born, to Ohio—“then a wilderness filled with wild beasts & Indians,” he remembered many years later. “He was called on by turns to assist a boy five years older (who had been adopted by his Father & Mother) & learned to think he could accomplish smart things in driving the cows; & riding the horses,” he wrote, speaking of himself in the third person. “Sometimes he met with rattle snakes which were very large; & which some of the company generally managed to kill.”

    His new home was a wonder. “After getting to Ohio in 1805 he was for some time rather afraid of the Indians, & of their rifles; but this soon wore off: & he used to hang about them quite as much as was consistent with good manners; & learned a trifle of their talk.” His father took up the tanning trade and taught his son the craft. Before long the boy was an expert. “He could at any time dress his own leather such as squirrel, raccoon, cat, wolf or dog skins; and also learned to make whip lashes: which brought him some change at times; & was of considerable service in many ways.” Itchy feet that would mark his whole life appeared early. “At six years old John began to be quite a rambler in the wild new country finding birds and squirrels and sometimes a wild turkey’s nest.”

    The narrator John Brown was telling his story to the son of a friend. The lad had inquired of Brown’s biography, and Brown obliged. He included episodes of which he was not proud. “I must not neglect to tell you of a very bad & foolish habit to which John was somewhat addicted. I mean telling lies; generally to screen himself from blame; or from punishment. He could not well endure to be reproached; & I now think had he been oftener encouraged to be entirely frank, by making frankness a kind of atonement for some of his faults; he would not have been so often guilty in after life of this fault; nor have been obliged to struggle so long with so mean a habit.” The struggle, he feared, wasn’t over.

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    Struggle of another sort was less blameworthy. “John was never quarrelsome; but was excessively fond of the hardest & roughest kind of plays; & could never get enough of them. Indeed when for a short time he was sometimes sent to school the opportunity it afforded to wrestle, & snow ball & run & jump & knock off old seedy wool hats, offered to him almost the only compensation for the confinement & restraints of school.” This attitude made an indifferent scholar. “He would always choose to stay at home & work hard rather than be sent to school.”

    The effect of what he saw during the war was to so far disgust him with military affairs that he would neither train, or drill; but paid fines; & got along like a Quaker until his age finally has cleared him of military duty.

    He discovered a knack for self-reliance. “To be sent off through the wilderness alone to very considerable distances was particularly his delight; & in this he was often indulged so that by the time he was twelve years old he was sent off more than a hundred miles with companies of cattle; & he would have thought his character much injured had he been obliged to be helped in any such job.”

    At eight he lost his mother to what in those days was the most dangerous of maternal activities: childbearing. His father quickly remarried. John could find no fault in his stepmother, yet neither could he get close. “He never adopted her in feeling, but continued to pine after his own Mother for years.” From the distance of half a century, he reflected, “This operated very unfavorably upon him; as he was both naturally fond of females &, withal, extremely diffident; & deprived him of a suitable connecting link between the different sexes; the want of which might under some circumstances, have proved his ruin.”

    He was twelve when America went to war with Britain—the second time, in 1812. His father provisioned the army with beef and enlisted young John to herd and drive the cattle to the camps. He became a pacifist as a result. “The effect of what he saw during the war was to so far disgust him with military affairs that he would neither train, or drill; but paid fines; & got along like a Quaker until his age finally has cleared him of military duty.”

    The experience changed him in another way. “He was staying for a short time with a very gentlemanly landlord since a United States marshal who held a slave boy near his own age very active, intelligent, and good feeling; & to whom John was under considerable obligation for numerous little acts of kindness. The Master made a great pet of John: brought him to table with his first company; & friends; called their attention to every little smart thing he said or did, & to the fact of his being more than a hundred miles from home with a company of cattle alone; while the negro boy (who was fully if not more than his equal) was badly clothed, poorly fed; & lodged in cold weather; & beaten before his eyes with iron shovels or any other thing that came first to hand. This brought John to reflect on the wretched, hopeless condition, of Fatherless & Motherless slave children: for such children have neither Fathers or Mothers to protect & provide for them. He sometimes would raise the question is God their Father?

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    He continued to reflect as he grew older. The boy became a young man who was sober and spottily educated. “He never attempted to dance in his life; nor did he ever learn to know one of a pack of cards from another. He learned nothing of grammar; nor did he get at school so much knowledge of common arithmetic as the four ground rules.” He sprouted rapidly in his mid-teens. “He became very strong & large of his age & ambitious to perform the full labour of a man; at almost any kind of hard work.”

    The sympathy he had discovered for slaves at twelve was emerging slowly and uncertainly.

    He was shy around those his own age, preferring the company of his elders. “This was so much the case; & secured for him so many little notices from those he esteemed; that his vanity was very much fed by it: & he came forward to manhood quite full of self-conceit; & self-confident; notwithstanding his extreme bashfulness.” His siblings noticed; a younger brother called him “a king against whom there is no rising up.” The narrator John Brown acknowledged the fault. “The habit so early formed of being obeyed rendered him in after life too much disposed to speak in an imperious or dictating way.”


    He married at twenty to a woman as sober as he. They had seven children in a dozen years; she died just after the birth of the last. Two of the children themselves died young, but the others were strong and hearty. John Brown was a stern father, hoping to keep his children from falling into the bad habits he had learned at their age. The neighbors recalled the severity of the punishments he administered. One of his sons, Jason, remembered having a dream so vivid he thought it was real. He told his father, who said it was only a dream. When Jason insisted that it was true, his father thrashed him for lying. The boys were confused as to what was expected of them. Another son, Watson, later told his father, “The trouble is, you want your boys to be brave as tigers, and still afraid of you.” A visitor to the homestead remarked that John Brown looked like an eagle. “Yes,” said Watson, “or some other carnivorous bird.”

    Five years into the marriage Brown decreed that the family would move. The tanning business he operated in Hudson was thriving, and he had just built a new house for his growing family, but the itch was on him, and neither his wife, Dianthe, nor any of the children dared object. They landed in Richmond, in western Pennsylvania, where he channeled his restless energy and abundant strength into clearing twenty-five acres and building a new tannery. He became a model citizen of the district and in time its postmaster.

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    Richmond was where Dianthe died and John remarried. His second wife, Mary, was half his age, poor and unschooled. Her father was happy to marry her off. If she was daunted by the prospect of taking on Brown and his five children, she kept quiet about it. She did what was expected of her, minding the home and bearing children, lots of them. She had thirteen children in all, making a total of twenty for John Brown. Seven of Mary’s children died early.

    Yet they considered taking in more. The sympathy he had discovered for slaves at twelve was emerging slowly and uncertainly. “I have been trying to devise some means whereby I might do something in a practical way for my poor fellow-men who are in bondage,” Brown wrote to his brother in 1834. “And having fully consulted my wife and my three boys”—the ones still at home—“we have agreed to get at least one negro boy or youth and bring him up as we do our own—viz., give him a good English education, learn him what we can about the history of the world, about business, about general subjects, and, above all, try to teach him the fear of God. We think of three ways to obtain one: First, to try to get some Christian slaveholder to release one to us. Second, to get a free one if no one will let us have one that is a slave. Third, if that does not succeed, we have all agreed to submit to considerable privation in order to buy one. This we are now using means in order to effect, in the confident expectation that God is about to bring them all out of the house of bondage.”

    He would stay in one place for a time and then, without obvious reason or explanation, up stakes and move on.

    The adoption of one black child was just the start. “I have for years been trying to devise some way to get a school a-going here for blacks,” he told his brother. “I do think such advantages ought to be afforded the young blacks, whether they are all to be immediately set free or not. Perhaps we might, under God, in that way do more towards breaking their yoke effectually than in any other. If the young blacks of our country could once become enlightened, it would most assuredly operate on slavery like firing powder confined in rock, and all slaveholders know it well. Witness their heaven-daring laws against teaching blacks. If once the Christians in the free states would set to work in earnest teaching the blacks, the people of the slaveholding states would find themselves constitutionally driven to set about the work of emancipation immediately.”

    Brown could be better at dreaming than at doing. He and his wife never adopted a black child, and he never started a school. His wanderlust recurred, and he led the family back to Ohio, but to the hamlet of Franklin Mills rather than Hudson. Something about Brown kept him at a distance from neighbors. He wasn’t unfriendly, in any overt way, but he formed no deep attachments. He would stay in one place for a time and then, without obvious reason or explanation, up stakes and move on. He moved in no consistent direction. Many in his day trended west, following the advancing frontier. But Brown moved east as often as west. His family, of course, went with him, and they learned to ask no questions. The model might have been one of the nomadic tribes of the Old Testament.

    He shifted from herding cattle to tending sheep, which he hoped would bring him greater returns. He was vigilant and sensitive to the animals’ needs, and his flocks grew. He had less luck with people. In the mid-1830s loose credit caused land prices to bubble, and Brown joined the speculation. A financial crisis in 1837 burst the bubble, catching many of the speculators short. Brown found himself deeply in debt. John Brown Jr. recalled the lesson his father learned from the experience, a lesson he shared with his son. “Instead of being thoroughly imbued with the doctrine of pay as you go,” Brown said, “I started out in life with the idea that nothing could be done without capital, and that a poor man must use his credit and borrow; and this pernicious notion has been the rock on which I, as well as many others, have split. The practical effect of this false doctrine has been to keep me like a toad under a harrow most of my business life.” Another son, Jason, later remarked, “It is a Brown trait to be migratory, sanguine about what they think they can do; to speculate; to go into debt; and to make a good many failures.”

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    Brown’s bankruptcy forced a move back to Hudson, where his father still lived. And it was in Hudson where he discovered his life’s mission. When Brown had left the town, slavery was an important issue in American politics but not one that dominated everything else. During the 1830s it achieved that dubious distinction. Two events triggered the change. In 1831 a slave called Nat Turner led a rebellion in southern Virginia that killed dozens of whites before being bloodily suppressed. The episode reminded Southern slaveholders that they sat atop a keg of powder. At any time other slaves might mimic Nat Turner and burst out murderously against their masters. The possibility of revolt had long inhabited the nightmares of slaveholders; now it filled their waking hours. 

    But Britain’s decision to end slavery had a special effect on Americans, for Britain had introduced slavery to America in colonial days.

    The second event was the decision of the British government to end slavery in the British empire. Abolition had already come to other countries: France and its empire, most of the New World republics that broke free from Spain. But Britain’s decision to end slavery had a special effect on Americans, for Britain had introduced slavery to America in colonial days, and its law and practices were most akin to those in America. If the British could abolish slavery, thought both the friends and the foes of slavery in the United States, so could Americans.

    Abolitionism became a growing force in American politics. William Lloyd Garrison founded The Liberator, a Boston paper that even its subscribers often judged intemperate in its treatment of slavery and slaveholders. Other papers appeared in other cities, including St. Louis, where Elijah Lovejoy denounced slavery with growing vehemence. It took courage to do so, for while New England abolitionists like Garrison were surrounded by people of similar views, Lovejoy operated in enemy territory—Missouri being a slave state. Lovejoy alienated his neighbors, some of whom were apologists for slavery, others who simply thought his agitation would harm the businesses and prospects of them all. Lovejoy’s enemies smashed his printing presses repeatedly, eventually driving him across the Mississippi to Alton, in the free state of Illinois, where he launched a new abolitionist paper.

    The move didn’t save him. In November 1837 a crowd of slavery defenders attacked the building that housed Lovejoy’s press. This time he fought back, opening fire on the attackers. In the exchange that followed, he was killed.

    The news reached Hudson a short while later. The abolitionists in town could speak of nothing else. The excited discussion spilled over into the Thursday prayer meeting at the Congregational church Brown attended. He sat in the back of the room saying little but listening much. Finally, as the meeting drew to a close, he stood up. He raised his right hand, and in a determined tone that stuck in the memory of those present, declared, “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery.”


    The Zealot and the Emancipator, H. W. Brands

    From The Zealot and the Emancipator by H. W. Brands, published by Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2020 by H. W. Brands.

    H.W. Brands
    H.W. Brands
    H. W. BRANDS holds the Jack S. Blanton Sr. Chair in History at the University of Texas at Austin. He has written more than a dozen biographies and histories, including The General vs. the President, a New York Times bestseller, and Our First Civil War, his most recent book. Two of his biographies, The First American and Traitor to His Class, were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.

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