John Brown
(1800–1859)

The “monomaniac” or “saint” who waged a holy war on slavery

By age 55, John Brown had engaged in more than twenty business ventures, such as tanning, land speculating, and sheep herding. Most of them failed, some ending in bankruptcy, two in crime. Yet this unstable personality would become a feared monomaniac (in the South) and legendary martyr (in the North). His actions would pour kerosene on the smoldering debate over slavery; soon the nation would be engulfed in the inferno. Born in Connecticut in 1800, Brown passed his boyhood in Hudson, Ohio. John was raised by a devout Calvinist and abolitionist father and a mother afflicted with mental illness. At age 18, he intended to become a Congregational minister. He instead became a wanderer and business failure. He married twice and fathered twenty children; a few were judged insane. Throughout his life, Brown was an abolitionist. His barn in Pennsylvania was a station on the Underground Railroad. He lived for a time in a black community in New York. During an Ohio church service, following a sermon on slavery, he stood in the sanctuary and declared, “Here, before God and in the presence of these witnesses, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery.” But he was well past 50 before the idea of freeing slaves possessed him. He became convinced that nothing but bloodshed would free the nation from its sin of slavery. God was leading him to battle. In August 1855, Brown set out for Kansas in a one-horse wagon filled with guns and ammunition. In Kansas in the 1850s, two parties fought for possession of the new territory’s government; the winner would determine whether slavery would be accepted in Kansas. Conditions bordered on ...

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