By Tony Horwitz
John Brown was born with the nineteenth century and didn’t launch his attack on Virginia until he was nearly sixty. But almost from birth, he was marked in ways that would set him on the road to rebellion at Harpers Ferry.
Brown was named for his grandfather, a Connecticut farmer and Revolutionary War officer who marched off to fight the British in 1776. Captain John Brown died of dysentery a few weeks later, in a New York barn, leaving behind a pregnant widow and ten children. One of them was five-year-old Owen, who later wrote: “for want of help we lost our Crops and then our Cattle and so became poor.”
Owen was forced “to live abroad” with neighbors and nearby relations, and went to work young, farming in summer and making shoes in winter. As a teenager he found religion and met a minister’s daughter, Ruth Mills, pious and frugal like himself. Soon after their marriage, Ruth gave birth to “a very thrifty forward Child,” a son who died before turning two. The Browns moved to a clapboard saltbox in the stony hills of Torrington, Connecticut, and had another son. “In 1800, May 9th John was born,” Owen wrote, “nothing very uncommon.”
A portrait of Owen Brown in later years depicts a thin-lipped, hawk-beaked man with penetrating eyes: an antique version of his famous son. Owen also bestowed on John his austere Calvinism, a faith ever vigilant against sin and undue attachment to the things of this world. In his late seventies, after rising from childhood penury to become a prosperous landowner and respected civic leader known as Squire Brown, Owen wrote a brief autobiography for his family. It began: “my life has been of but little worth mostly fild up with vanity.”
John brown also wrote a short autobiography, in his case for a young admirer. Two years before the uprising at Harpers Ferry, while seeking money and guns for his campaign, he dined at the home of George Luther Stearns, a wealthy Massachusetts industrialist. Stearns’s twelve-year-old son, Henry, was inspired by Brown’s antislavery fervor and donated his pocket money (thirty cents) to the cause. In return—and after some prodding from Stearns senior—Brown wrote Henry a long letter describing his own youth in the early 1800s.
The letter was didactic in tone, doubtless intended to impress Henry’s wealthy father as much as the boy himself. But it was nonetheless a telling account, delivered in the direct, emphatic, and grammatically irregular voice that distinguished so much of Brown’s speech and writing.
“I cannot tell you of anything in the first Four years of John’s life worth mentioning,” Brown wrote, narrating his story in the third person, “save that at that early age he was tempted by Three large Brass Pins belonging to a girl who lived in the family & stole them. In this he was detected by his Mother; & after having a full day to think of the wrong; received from her a thorough whipping.”
If Brown’s earliest memory was of sin and chastisement, his next was of dislocation. When he was five, his family moved by oxcart to northeast Ohio. This territory, Connecticut’s “Western Reserve,” was pioneered by New Englanders seeking to extend their godly settlement. “I came with the determination,” Brown’s father wrote, “to build up and be a help in the seport of religion and civil order.” He and his neighbors formed communities centered on Congregational churches and village greens, much like the world they left behind.
Young John’s experience of Ohio was very different. When he was a boy, he wrote, the Western Reserve seemed a wondrously untamed place, “a wilderness filled with wild beasts, & Indians.” He rambled in the woods, wore buckskins, learned to live rough (a skill that would serve him well in later years), and dressed the hides of deer, raccoons, and wolves. Those first few years in Ohio were the happiest and freest of his life.
“But about this period he was placed in the School of adversity,” Brown wrote of himself, “the beginning of a severe but much needed course of dicipline.” First, an Indian boy gave him a yellow marble, which he treasured but lost. Then he nursed and tamed a bobtail squirrel and grew to dote on his pet. “This too he lost,” and “for a year or two John was in mourning.” At the age of eight, he suffered a much greater trauma: the death of his mother in childbirth.
This loss “was complete & permanent,” Brown wrote. Though his father quickly remarried “a very estimable woman,” John “never adopted her in feeling; but continued to pine after his own Mother for years.” The early loss of his mother made him shy and awkward around women. It also magnifi ed the influence of his formidable father, who would marry a third time in his sixties and sire sixteen children.
From an early age, John hewed closely to his father’s example of hard work and strict piety. He was prone to fibbing and “excessively fond of the hardest & roughest kind of plays,” such as wrestling and snowball fights, but gave no sign of rebelliousness. A tall, strong boy, he was educated at a log school and went to work young, “ambitious to perform the full labour of a man.” At twelve, he drove his father’s cattle a hundred miles, on his own, and soon took up Owen’s trade of leather tanning. He also became “a firm believer in the divine authenticity of the Bible,” and briefly studied for the ministry. John “never attempted to dance,” he wrote, never learned any card games, and “grew to a dislike of vain & frivolous conversation & persons.”
John followed Owen in family matters, too. At twenty, “led by his own inclination & prompted also by his Father,” Brown wrote, “he married a remarkably plain; but industrious & economical girl; of excellent character; earnest piety; & good practical common sense.” Dianthe Lusk was nineteen, the daughter of Brown’s house keeper. A son was born a year after their marriage—the first of a brood that would grow, like Owen’s, to almost biblical proportions.
Brown also raised animals, displaying a particular skill and tenderness with sheep. “As soon as circumstances would enable him he began to be a practical Shepherd,” Brown wrote, “it being a calling for which in early life he had a kind of enthusiastic longing.” But here, too, loss haunted him. One of the first creatures he tended, apart from his pet squirrel, was “a little Ewe Lamb which did finely till it was about Two Thirds grown; & then sickened and died. This brought another protracted mourning season.”
Brown ended his brief autobiography with his entrance into manhood. At twenty-one, he was already a tannery owner, a family man, and, as some of his peers saw it, a bit of a prig. He quickly fell out with Dianthe’s brother, who was only able to visit on Sundays. Brown disapproved of this. His church reserved the Sabbath for religious observance; even “worldly” conversation, visiting friends, and making cheese on Sunday were violations of Christian duty. (The church also excommunicated a deacon who “did open his house for the reception of a puppet show.”) Brown required his tannery workers to attend church and a daily family worship. One apprentice later described his employer as sociable, so long as “the conversation did not turn on anything profane or vulgar.” Scripture, the apprentice added, was “at his tongues end from one end to the other.”
While demanding of others, Brown was hardest on himself. In his autobiographical letter, he wrote of young John’s “haughty obstinate temper” and inability to endure reproach. He “habitually expected to succeed in his undertakings” and felt sure his plans were “right in themselves.” This drive and confidence impressed elders he esteemed, which in turn fed his vanity. “He came forward to manhood quite full of self-conceit.” Brown wrote that his younger brother often called him “a King against whom there is no rising up.”
These traits—arrogance, self-certitude, a domineering manner—would bedevil Brown as he navigated the turbulent economy of the early nineteenth century. But they would also enable his late-life reincarnation as Captain John Brown, a revolutionary who took up arms in the cause of freedom, as his namesake had done two generations before him.
In 1800, the year of Brown’s birth in the thin-soiled hills of Connecticut, the United States was just entering its adolescence. The Constitution turned thirteen that year. For the first time, a president took up residence in the newly built White House, and Congress convened on Capitol Hill. The young nation barely extended beyond the Appalachians; its largest city, New York, had sixty thousand people, equal to present-day Bismarck, North Dakota.
In many respects, daily existence at the time of Brown’s birth was closer to life in medieval Europe than modern-day America. Most people worked on farms and used wooden plows. Land travel moved at horse or foot speed on roads so awful that the carriage bringing First Lady Abigail Adams to Washington got lost in the woods near Baltimore. Crossing the ocean was a weeks-long ordeal. News wasn’t new by the time it arrived.
In this preindustrial society of five million people, almost 900,000 were enslaved, and not only in the South. Though northern states had taken steps toward ending the institution, most of these measures provided for only gradual emancipation. Brown’s home state had almost a thousand slaves at the time of his birth, and New York twenty times that number.
Slavery was also safeguarded by the Constitution, albeit in convoluted language. The Revolution had raised an awkward question: how to square human bondage with the self-evident truth that all men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights? The Framers answered this, in part, by employing a semantic dodge. They produced a forty-four-hundred-word document that did not once use the term “slave” or “slavery,” even though the subject arose right at the start.
Article I of the Constitution mandated that each state’s delegation to the House of Representatives would be based on the number of free people added to “three fifths of all other Persons”—meaning slaves. In other words, every fifty slaves would be counted as thirty people, even though these “other Persons” couldn’t vote and would magnify the representation of white men who owned them.
The Constitution also protected, for twenty years, the “importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper.” “Such Persons,” of course, were African slaves. Furthermore, any “Per-son held to Service or Labour” who escaped to a free state—that is, any slave who ran away—had to be “delivered up” to his or her master.
These measures reflected the horse-trading needed to forge a nation from fractious states. Another deal, struck in 1790, led to the nation’s capital being located on the Potomac River, between the slave states of Virginia and Maryland. In all, slaveholders had deftly entrenched their “species of property,” as one South Carolina delegate euphemistically put it.
Even so, as the turn of the century approached, there were signs that slavery might wane. The exhaustion of the Chesapeake region’s soil by tobacco weakened the economic basis for slavery in Maryland and Virginia, home to half of all southern slaves. A growing number of owners in these states were freeing their slaves, driven in part by evangelical fervor and the Revolution’s emphasis on personal liberty. Other slave owners, such as Thomas Jefferson, acknowledged the “moral and political depravity” of the institution and expressed hope for its gradual end.
But all this would change markedly in the early de cades of the nineteenth century, as John Brown came of age. The cotton gin, the steamboat, and the rapid growth of textile mills made it possible and hugely profitable to grow and ship millions of bales of what had previously been a minor crop. Andrew Jackson, himself a cotton planter, championed the policy of Indian “removal,” dislodging southern tribes and opening vast tracts of new land for cultivation. This expansion, in turn, created a vibrant market for the Chesapeake’s surplus slaves, who were sold by the thousands to gang-labor plantations in the Deep South.
Southerners also dominated government, largely because the three-fifths clause padded the representation of slave states in Congress and the electoral college, throughout the antebellum period. Southerners won thirteen of the first sixteen presidential contests, ruled the Supreme Court for all but eight years before the Civil War, and held similar sway over leadership posts in Congress.
But this clout—economic as well as political—depended on continual expansion. The South needed new lands to plant and new states to boost representation, to keep pace with the industrializing and more populous North. This inevitably sowed conflict as the nation spread west. With the settling of each new territory a contentious question arose: would it be slave or free?
The first serious strife flared in 1819, when Missouri sought statehood. Missouri had been settled mainly by Southerners; its admission to the Union would carry slavery well north and west of its existing boundaries and upset the numerical balance between slave and free states. After lengthy debate, Congress finessed the crisis by admitting Maine along with Missouri and by drawing a line across the continent, forbidding any further slavery north of the 36° 30′ parallel. This deal—the Missouri Compromise of 1820—formed the basis for a three-decade détente over slavery’s spread.
But Thomas Jefferson, then in his late seventies, immediately sensed the danger inherent in the agreement. In demarcating a border between slave and free, the compromise underscored the country’s fault line and fixed the nation into two camps. “This momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror,” Jefferson wrote of the debate over Missouri and slavery. “I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment, but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence.”
In his autobiographical letter to young Henry Stearns, John Brown said he felt the first stirrings of his “Eternal war with Slavery” at age twelve, when he saw a slave boy beaten with iron shovels. “This brought John to reflect on the wretched, hopeless condition, of Fatherless & Motherless slave children,” he wrote. Brown, who was also motherless and subject to childhood beatings, may have identified with the slave boy. But his burning hatred of racial oppression had another source. Like so much else in his life, it reflected the influence of his father.
In most respects, Owen Brown’s religious faith harked back to his Puritan forebears, who believed they had a covenant with God to make America a moral beacon to the world. In the eighteenth century, Calvinist ministers began speaking of slavery as a threat to this special relationship— a breach of divine law that would bring down God’s wrath upon the land. Owen was strongly affected by this preaching, and like many other New England emigrants, he carried his antislavery convictions to the Western Reserve.
He also displayed an unusual tolerance toward the native inhabitants of Ohio. “Some Persons seamed disposed to quarel with the Indians but I never was,” he wrote. Nor did he proselytize, or damn natives as heathens, as Puritans of old would have done. Instead, he traded meal for fish and game; he also built a log shelter to protect local Indians from an enemy tribe. Young John “used to hang about” Indians as much as he could—the beginnings of a lifelong sympathy for natives that stood in stark contrast to the prevailing hostility of white Americans.
As Owen Brown established himself in Ohio, he and his neighbors helped fugitive slaves, making the town of Hudson a well-traveled stop on the Underground Railroad. John followed suit, aiding runaways who came to the log cabin he shared with a brother while he was still a bachelor. He continued to aid fugitive slaves after his marriage, but he had a great deal else to occupy him.
During the first four years of their union, Brown and his wife had three sons. Like his father before him, Brown pioneered new territory, taking his wife and toddlers to a sparsely settled section of northwestern Pennsylvania. He cleared land, built a tannery, raised stock, and, like Owen, became a civic leader, founding a school and church and serving as the area’s first postmaster. “An inspired paternal ruler” was how one of his neighbors described him, “controlling and providing for the circle of which he was the head.”
This circle quickly grew to include three more children. Brown, raised by disciplinarians, became one himself, hewing to the Calvinist belief in the depravity of human nature. His firstborn, John junior, was required to keep a ledger listing his sins and detailing the punishment due each: “unfaithfulness at work” earned three lashes; “disobeying mother” brought eight. The second born, Jason, had a vivid dream about petting a baby raccoon that was “as kind as a kitten,” and described the encounter as if it had really happened. He was three or four at the time, and his father thrashed him for telling a “wicked lie.” Five-year-old Ruth muddied her shoes while gathering pussy willows and then fibbed about how she’d gotten wet. Her father “switched me with the willow that had caused my sin,” she recalled.
Corporal punishment was common at the time, but Brown dispensed the rod with especial vigor. He was determined to root out sin, not only in his offspring but also in himself and others. When he was a young man, this compulsion to punish wrongs was primarily manifest in small acts of moral policing. Brown apprehended two men he encountered on the road who were stealing apples, and smashed a neighbor’s whiskey jug after taking a few sips and deciding the liquor had dangerous powers.
Despite his severity, Brown was beloved by his children, who also recalled his many acts of tenderness. He sang hymns to them at bedtime, recited maxims from Aesop and Benjamin Franklin (“Diligence is the mother of good luck”), cared for his “little folks” when they were ill, and was gentle with animals: he warmed frozen lambs in the family washtub.
Brown nursed his wife as well. Dianthe came from a family with a history of mental illness, and not long after her marriage she began to exhibit signs of what relatives called “strangeness.” She also faltered physically, suffering from “a difficulty about her heart,” Brown wrote.
Though the nature of her affliction isn’t clear, it probably wasn’t helped by bearing six children in nine years, one of whom, a son, died at the age of four. A year after his death, Dianthe went into labor a seventh time; the child, another boy, was stillborn and had to be extracted “with instruments,” Brown wrote. After three days of “great bodily pain & distress,” Dianthe also died, at the age of thirty-one. Brown buried her beside their unnamed son, beneath a tombstone bearing Dianthe’s final words: “Farewell Earth.”
This loss, which echoed his mother’s death in childbirth, appears to have sent Brown into shock. “I have been growing numb for a good while,” he wrote a business partner. He also complained of vague physical symptoms. “Getting more & more unfit for anything.”
Brown and his five children—the youngest was not yet two—briefly moved in with another family. Upon returning to his own home, he hired a house keeper, whose sixteen-year-old sister, Mary Day, often came along to help. Several months later, Brown proposed to Mary by letter. They married in July 1833, less than a year after Dianthe’s death.
A tall, sturdy teenager of modest education, Mary was half her husband’s age and only four years older than his eldest child. She would bear him thirteen more children and endure great economic hardship. Brown was a tireless worker and skilled at diverse trades: tanning, surveying, farming, cattle breeding, sheepherding. He won prizes for his fine wool, published articles about livestock (“Remedy for Bots or Grubs, in the heads of Sheep”), and filled a pocket diary with practical tips, such as rules for measuring hay in a barn and a farm lady’s advice on making butter. (“In summer add plenty of cold water to the milk before churning. The slower the churning the better.”)
But Brown’s diligence and work ethic were repeatedly undone by his inability to manage money. This was a leitmotif of his earliest surviving letters, mostly to a partner in his tanning and cattle business. “I am running low for cash again,” Brown wrote Seth Thompson in 1828. “I was unable to raise any cash towards the bank debt,” he wrote in 1832. Then, later that year: “Unable to send you money as I intended.” And in 1834, again: “I have been uterly unable to raise any money for you as yet.” In these and many other letters, Brown expressed regret for his financial straits—and blamed them on forces beyond his control: the weather, ill health, the monetary policies of President Andrew Jackson.
Brown may also have been distracted by his budding concern for affairs other than business. It was in the early 1830s that he first wrote of his determination to help slaves. He also showed signs of a truculent and nonconformist spirit. Brown joined the Freemasons but quickly fell out with the secret society amid accusations that Masons had murdered one of their critics in New York. Far from being cowed by the controversy, Brown openly proclaimed his opposition to the group and circulated the published statement of a Mason who claimed that he’d been selected to cut the throat of a “brother” who revealed the order’s secrets.
“I have aroused such a feeling towards me,” Brown wrote his father in 1830, “as leads me for the present to avoid going about the streets at evening & alone.” Brown knew his father would approve of his defiance, if not of the other measure he took. Owen was a committed pacifist; his son, a warrior at heart, acquired his first gun.
Excerpted from Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War by Tony Horwitz.
Copyright © 2011 by Tony Horwitz.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the publisher.
TONY HORWITZ is the bestselling author of Midnight Rising, A Voyage Long and Strange, Blue Latitudes, Confederates in the Attic, and Baghdad Without a Map. He is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has worked for The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker.Tags: Civil War, Harpers Ferry, John Brown