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“The John Brown way” (part 1)

Grassroots frameworks, interlinked movements

David Whitehouse tells a different story about John Brown, who led the 1859 raid against slavery in what was then Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. This article is Part One of Two. Part Two is here.

In 1859, John Brown led an armed raid into northern Virginia. The raiding party included fourteen white men and five Black men. They left three others behind to work on repositioning weapons closer to Harpers’ Ferry, which was the site of the raid.1

The operation had several objectives. One was to strike fear into slaveholders throughout the South. Another was to free some captive Black people and to arm those who wanted to join the fight. The third main objective was to retreat into the mountains with the new recruits. The big idea was to repeat the process of raids and to build guerrilla bases through the whole length of the Appalachians.2

The raid succeeded in the first two objectives: striking fear into slaveholders and arming some Black fighters. They didn’t pull off the third objective—the retreat—so there was no chance to start the guerrilla war. Nevertheless, the raid did have a huge impact, and I’ll say a few things about that later.

But to start with, I want to mention the common suspicion that Brown was a White Savior who thought he could bestow freedom on Black people. I’ll try to show instead that John Brown and his comrades were trying to open opportunities for Black self-emancipation. That is, they were trying to lower some of the obstacles to the formation of Black collective agency.

Obstacles to revolt

Let’s start by looking at that problem—the difficulties in pulling together collective resistance.

Most people in slavery worked on plantations. A plantation, of course, was a labor camp for captive workers—a special kind of prison. As with all prisons, plantations developed methods for stopping collective resistance. One of the methods was preventive. That was to set up different levels of repression—as in a prison—where the warden dispenses “privileges” to some of the prisoners. They allow certain kinds of freedom that are denied to other prisoners—and in return, these “trustees” serve as informants. In slavery as in prison, people were recruited to perform various tasks of supervision and surveillance. They were thus rewarded for spying and treachery against the other captives. The people typically doing these jobs on the plantation were the work foremen known as drivers, plus the workers at the Big House like coach drivers and household servants.

Another weapon in heading off collective action was the overwhelming asymmetry in physical force—just as in a prison. This included a regular resort to torture. And as in a regular workplace, troublesome workers could also be “fired”; that is, they could be sold away from friends and family.

Because the threats of betrayal and punishment were ever-present, captive workers became astute at estimating the risk of various kinds of forbidden activities. That could include slacking off on the pace of work or slipping away to a neighboring plantation to visit friends and loved ones. For such individual acts of resistance, people knew the risks.3

When captive workers considered revolt—one form of collective resistance—they kept a keen eye on the balance of forces and looked for special moments when there was some kind of breach in the web of repression. That’s why, most of the time, plantation workers thought that direct confrontation would be suicidal. The obstacles to battle-readiness included restrictions on access to weapons and training. In contrast, white men got constant experience in collective armed action through participation in slave patrols, militias, and the army.

The U.S. and the Haitian Revolution

With these things in mind, let’s consider the Haitian Revolution, which was in full swing when John Brown was born.

Before their own revolution, more than 600 Black and biracial (in the terms of the time, “mulatto”) Haitians got some battle experience in the American Revolution. Operating under French command, they were trying to break the British siege of Savannah, Georgia in 1779. Many of those who saw action would become military and political leaders in the Haitian Revolution, which began twelve years later.4

Now, in Haiti, where more than 90 percent of the population was enslaved, the balance of forces was actually pretty favorable to the rebels, and what’s more, the colonizing powers were on the other side of the Atlantic. For comparison, the only U.S. state at the time with a Black majority was South Carolina, and the colonizing forces in the U.S. were local, surrounding the plantations for hundreds of miles around.

The Haitian Revolution was the most major blow, up to that point, against the colonizing project of the nascent capitalist powers of Europe. Of course, by then, the capitalist colonizers also included the United States.

Painted portrait of a Black man with gray hair in a double-breasted black coat. A white shirt underneath shows as a high collar. He’s shown from the chest up. He’s wearing a silver medal and looking to the right.
Henri Christophe as King of Haiti in 1816. Christophe was a commander in the Haitian Revolution. He received military training from France—and battle experience—when France intervened against the British during the U.S. war for independence. Painting by Richard Evans. Cropped and modified by Tempest.

The revolution also settled the question of whether enslaved people were capable of self-emancipation. It had never been done before. They didn’t just escape slavery—which would have been legitimate and impressive—they abolished the institution of slavery through their own efforts.

People in the U.S. followed news of the Haitian revolution very closely from its outbreak in 1791, in part because most U.S. states then had legal slavery, including in the North. Haiti was also important to U.S. commerce. It was a sugar colony, the most lucrative slave society in the world. Trade between Haiti and the U.S. was greater than U.S. trade with all other places in the hemisphere combined.5

As a result, there were well-established channels for transmitting news between the two countries. Trade goods had to be moved by sailing ships, and ships carried sailors and passengers—who carried news by word of mouth. Ships also carried newspapers from each port of call to every other one. Newspaper editors in the U.S. would freely republish the interesting bits of what they found in other papers, so a genuine national press had already been developing for decades. Many free Black people in the South could read the news themselves and pass it on to enslaved and free Black people who could not read.

In addition, refugees from the war carried first-hand knowledge of the revolution. This included enslaved people who came with those whites who fled to the United States. Some of these Black and Brown immigrants themselves became revolutionary fighters. This was notable in the 1811 revolt on the “German Coast” in Louisiana—which included sugar cultivators transplanted from Haiti.6

Later on, John Brown and Black rebels like Denmark Vesey in Charleston would study the Haitian revolution, including the military aspects of the struggle.7

Over Brown’s lifetime, the speed and the reach of the news expanded greatly with the improvement of postal service and the advent of steamships, railroads, and telegraphs.

Brown’s youth and the Second Great Awakening

John Brown was born in Connecticut in 1800. His parents, Owen and Ruth, were touched by a wave of religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening, which broke out after the U.S. war for independence. It featured outdoor “camp” meetings that went on for days, with multiracial crowds—in the North, South, and West.

The meetings featured a number of women preachers, and the movement articulated the personal trials that people found they were going through after the revolution. Religious ideas, fueled sometimes by competing interpretations of the Bible, became the terms in which large numbers of people argued about politics, morality, and the social order.

The Baptists and the Methodists experienced rapid growth. Frances Lloyd, future mother of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, was a Baptist convert and lay preacher from a young age. Nat Turner, who became a rebel leader in Virginia, was himself a preacher to those around him—in the language of the time, an “exhorter”—as were two others of his initial core of five conspirators.8

In the 1810s, racial schisms within Methodist congregations produced the AME, the African Methodist Episcopal church. Sometime early on, Black Christians began to liken themselves to the Children of Israel, who were destined to escape the captivity of Egypt. This view was common right through the Civil War, and it showed up in Martin Luther King’s final speech in Memphis, where he talked about seeing the Promised Land. This kind of talk enraged the slaveholding class—since they were cast as Pharaoh, the villain of the story. Many concluded that Black people shouldn’t be left to make their own interpretations of the Bible.9

The various denominations published periodicals that circulated by mail. By the 1820s, these subscriptions far outstripped the circulation of secular newspapers. They helped build a grassroots framework for activation around moral and political issues in the ensuing decades.10

Hand-colored engraving of a big outdoor meeting with speakers on a raised wooden platform. The scene is framed by large trees, and the peaks of white tents are visible behind.
Hand-colored engraving of a Methodist camp meeting from 1819. Someone has fainted in the foreground. In the background, tents are visible. Artist: Jacques Gérard Milbert. Engraved by M. Dubourg. Modified by Tempest.

Before John Brown was born, his parents converted to an updated version of Calvinism, the doctrine that originally animated the Puritans of England and New England. One Puritan judge had condemned slavery as far back as 1700 because it violated the Golden Rule: “Do unto others…” Brown’s father Owen believed in that Biblical interpretation along with the political-religious doctrine that Jefferson had espoused in the country’s founding Declaration about the God who had created all men equal. Young John thus grew up with a father who not only rejected slavery but racial prejudice as well.11

Owen was the head of a struggling farm family, and his son John was poor all his life. When John was five, the family moved to Hudson, Ohio, a tiny town about thirty miles south of Cleveland. Three years later, John’s mother Ruth died in childbirth. Hudson was a station on the Underground Railroad, and Owen Brown was a station agent. He was unusual among his neighbors in getting along as equals with the Indians in Ohio, who were more numerous than the whites at the time. Owen established regular trade with them and also didn’t try to convert them to Christianity. John Brown would take after his father in combining strict religious observance for himself with an ability to cooperate with people of different backgrounds and faiths.12

As a boy, John befriended an enslaved Black boy and eventually witnessed his abuse at the hands of his white owners. When he recalled the experience later, Brown wrote in a letter that it “made him a most determined Abolitionist,” swearing “eternal war on Slavery.” Working for the Underground Railroad was a regular feature of his life. When he started his own household at 18, he would stop work when a new fugitive came in and take them north to Cleveland or some other safe haven. When he was in his thirties, he built a secret room in his barn to accommodate escaped slaves.13

So John Brown grew up unusual. Unlike a number of the well-off white abolitionists of the East, who came to oppose slavery as adults through reading and a sense of charity, Brown grew up with an egalitarian education and spent time frequently in the company of poor Black people, both free and recently liberated.

He also grew up to have a large family. His first wife Dianthe bore seven children, and after she died in 1832, his second wife Mary bore thirteen. Out of these twenty, eleven survived past childhood. Many of them grew up to be serious abolition activists themselves.

Colonization vs. abolition

Abolitionists were a small minority, especially early on, and they were also divided by different approaches to emancipation. Some of the cleavage lines were racial. In 1816, some white opponents of slavery founded the American Colonization Society (ACS). That was a euphemism for ethnic cleansing. Black people, once they were freed, would be strongly encouraged to deport themselves to a new colony in West Africa. That was the idea behind the U.S. colony of Liberia in western Africa, the brainchild of the ACS, to which some thirteen thousand free African Americans emigrated between 1822 and the colony’s independence in 1846. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe endorsed the idea—and, for most of his life, so did Abraham Lincoln.

Not surprisingly, free Black people didn’t want to be deported. They held mass meetings in protest across the North from the 1810s into the 1830s. They knew that the colonizationists were rejecting the idea of civil and social equality.14

There was another scheme for ethnic cleansing in the same years—the expulsion of Native Americans to lands west of the Mississippi, a plan known as “Indian removal.” A number of the prominent abolitionists of the 1830s had taken their first steps into political action when they petitioned and spoke out against Indian removal beginning in the 1820s. This included women especially, such as Catharine Beecher, whose sister Harriet later wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Angelina Grimké, who until 1829 was stuck in Charleston in a slaveholding household. The men included William Lloyd Garrison and Theodore Weld, who married Grimké after she moved north. The background to this activity was the Christian movement’s missionary work among Indians and their financing of schools for Indian children.15

The Indian Removal Act passed Congress in 1830 because Southern politicians were hell-bent on slavery expansion into Indian-held lands in Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida. They won only because the Three-Fifths Clause gave them extra votes in Congress.16

As with colonization, Black abolitionists took an early leading role against Indian removal. The combination of the two issues helped to radicalize some of the white abolitionists, who began to take anti-racism and equality more seriously. The experience with the movement against Indian removal—and collaboration with Black activists—led some whites who initially favored Black colonization to reject it. These included Grimké, Weld, and Garrison. By the early 1830s, such anti-racist whites had joined with Black allies to make up a distinct, radicalized minority alongside the larger number of whites who remained colonizationists. According to abolitionist Lewis Tappan, it was the “united and strenuous opposition” of Black activists “to the expatriation scheme that first induced Garrison and others to oppose it.”17

Masthead of a nineteenth-century newspaper, with parts of the paper’s name cropped out on the sides. Behind are engraved images. The foreground image depicts a Black family being separated by an auctioneer, and there’s a whipping in the background. In addition, sheets of paper reading “INDIAN TREATIES” lie on the ground.
The masthead of William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator in 1832, two years after the passage of the Indian Removal Act. The foreground image depicts a Black family being separated by an auctioneer, and there’s a whipping in the background. In addition, sheets of paper reading “INDIAN TREATIES” lie on the ground (between the “E” and the “L”). Clip from microfilm image by the author.

The Brown family, far removed from this Eastern social set, already had all those bases covered. In Hudson, however, most of the antislavery whites favored colonization. A bit farther west, Oberlin College was founded in 1833 in answer to such politics. Oberlin was virtually unique in being racially integrated and coeducational. Its founders called for immediate emancipation with no compensation to the slaveholders—and no deportations, of course. This position was called “immediatism.” Owen Brown was one of the founding supporters of the college. The town of Oberlin, Ohio became a major hub of the Underground Railroad.18

The country’s leading outlet for the ideas of immediatism was The Liberator, a national newspaper that Garrison founded in 1831. The publication was sustained in its early years by its Black readers, who initially formed the majority of the subscribers.19

The project of The Liberator was to change people’s minds. It featured factual exposure of  slavery’s evils along with ethical and theological arguments. This program of “moral suasion”—which also went by the name of “non-resistance”—was supposed to change even the minds of slaveholders. An example of this approach was the 1836 pamphlet by Angelina Grimké called Appeal to the Christian Women of the South.20

Black abolitionists, moral suasion, and militance

Black abolitionists generally supported Garrison’s style of immediatism, including Frederick Douglass, who had escaped from slavery in Maryland in 1838. But a significant number of ordinary Black people had doubts about moral suasion. For one thing, they supported slave revolts. There was also evidence that this kind of resistance was more persuasive than “non-resistance.”

In the year John Brown was born, in 1800, a major conspiracy to revolt was discovered around Richmond, Virginia. It was led by a blacksmith named Gabriel. This sent a shock through the South, and even though it didn’t even get launched, the revolt also gave a push to the sluggish movement to abolish slavery in the northern states.21

Another Virginia rebellion—Nat Turner’s in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831—also had a big impact on elite white opinion. Following the revolt, which killed about sixty white people, the state legislature even debated the abolition of slavery. Leading the way were politicians of western Virginia, the area that became the free state of West Virginia at the beginning of the Civil War.22

One of the voices of Black militancy was David Walker, a free Black man who moved from the Carolinas to Boston and published a pamphlet in 1829 called An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World. This was a call to revolt addressed to Black people—not to the conscience of Southern whites. It was intended for secret distribution in the South, and it argued that slaves had the right to shed blood to win their freedom.

Martin Delany, a Black doctor, was a different kind of radical. He actually favored colonization because he didn’t trust that white people would ever overcome their racism. Delany wasn’t opposed to putting up a fight, though, and he collaborated with John Brown.

Henry Highland Garnet was another militant, a preacher who escaped from Maryland as Douglass had. Like Walker, he thought Black people needed to rely on themselves. In an 1843 speech to the National Convention of Colored Citizens in Buffalo, Garnet advocated rebellion. In a narrow vote, the group decided not to publish it.

Five years later, it was John Brown who scrounged up the money to publish Garnet’s speech for the first time. He packaged it together in a single edition with David Walker’s pamphlet.23

Such Black abolitionists, and the rebel captives themselves, were the folks whom Brown aligned himself with.

Consecrating his life

As an adult, John Brown was involved in a number of failed business ventures. One of them was selling western sheep’s wool in the east. My sense is that he was too forthright and not enough of a manipulator to be a good salesperson. His ventures meant that he moved around a lot—into Pennsylvania, to Springfield, Massachusetts. Wherever he could, he went to hear feminist speakers. Sometimes his family moved with him, and sometimes he was on his own.24

Brown even took a trip to Europe to try to sell wool and took the chance to visit some battle sites around the continent. He had studied European wars, especially guerrilla warfare. This was in addition to reading about armed Caribbean enclaves of maroons—escapees from slavery who set up their own settlements. He also may have been inspired by the hit-and-run tactics of the Seminoles in Florida, a group that kept the U.S. Army engaged for seven years starting in 1835.25

Everywhere he went in the U.S., he met with white and Black abolitionists, learning the different pathways of the Underground Railroad, and helping out the activists who kept these operations going. The activists were organized into “vigilance committees,” which served to “conduct” fugitives North. For the most part, fugitives came out of bondage broke and friendless, so the vigilance committees, many of which were majority-Black or all-Black, also supported new arrivals where they settled.26

One incident in this period affected Brown strongly—the lynching of the abolitionist publisher Elijah P. Lovejoy. A pro-slavery mob killed him in Alton, Illinois in 1837. John and his father attended a memorial at a church in Hudson. Toward the end, John stood up, raised his hand, and said, “Before all these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery.”27

In the same decade, there were two slave revolts that impressed Brown.28

One was Nat Turner’s in southern Virginia in 1831. It showed that major resistance could be built in the middle of a slave state. He may also have been interested in the tactics. For one thing, Turner’s plan, like the plan of Denmark Vesey nine years before, called for the use of bladed weapons like swords and pikes. That’s because most recruits would be inexperienced with guns.29

For another thing, the apparent plan of Turner’s revolt was to strike terror quickly, gather recruits, raid an armory to get guns, and retreat to a defensible position where the fighters could train with the firearms. In Turner’s case, that would be the Great Dismal Swamp—a walk of a day or two from his neighborhood—where escapees had hidden out in the past.30

Black and white engraving of a Black man in his mid-twenties shown from the arms up. He’s wearing a flowing white shirt, open in a “V” in front, and he looks at the artist with a calm and serious expression.
Lithograph of Joseph Cinque (Sengbe Pieh). Cinque led the uprising on the slave ship Amistad in 1839. This portrait was done when he was awaiting trial in Connecticut. Lithography by Moses Yale Beach, from a portrait probably by James or Isaac Sheffield. Cropped by Tempest.

The other rebel of the time who impressed Brown was Joseph Cinque (Sengbe Pieh), who led the takeover of the slave ship Amistad in 1839. In this case, he was impressed that the revolt killed just four people—spilling only the necessary amount of blood to take control.31

It was around this time that Brown started developing a plan for his raid into the South.32

A number of things intervened before he could carry it out. One was a change in Brown’s personal life—the opening up of North Elba in 1846, a predominantly Black settlement near Lake Placid, New York. A wealthy abolitionist friend, Gerrit Smith, had acquired 120,000 acres of land in the Adirondacks where free and escaped Black people could get a start in farming and also satisfy New York’s property requirement for voting. Brown supported the project and moved his family to North Elba in 1849.33

In the next year, political history began to accelerate.

Thanks to David Courtenay-Quirk, who steered me toward some good sources and away from some beginner’s mistakes.


Anderson, Osborne Perry. A Voice from Harper’s Ferry. A Narrative of Events at Harper’s Ferry. Library of Congress, 2023 (facsimile of 1861 edition).

Anonymous (“Our special reporter”). “The Harper’s Ferry outbreak,” New York Herald, October 21, 1859, page 1.

Aptheker, Herbert. American Negro Slave Revolts. 5th edition. New York: International Publishers, 1983.

Clinton, Catherine. Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom. 1st ed. Boston, Mass: Little, Brown, 2004.

Diouf, Sylviane A. Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons. Reprint edition. New York: NYU Press, 2016.

Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Times Of Frederick Douglass. Facsimile of the 1881 edition. Secaucus, N.J: Citadel, 2000.

Du Bois, W. E. B. John Brown. Edited by David R. Roediger. New edition. Modern Library, 2001.

Forbes, Hugh. Letter to S[amuel] G[ridley] Howe, dated May 14, 1858, published in “The Harper’s Ferry outbreak,” New York Herald, October 27, 1859, 4.

Geffert, Hannah, with Jean Libby. “Regional Black involvement in John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry,” in McCarthy and Stauffer, 165–79.

Greenberg, Kenneth S., ed. Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Gridley, Karl. “‘Willing to die for the cause of freedom in Kansas’: free state emigration, John Brown, and the rise of militant abolitionism in the Kansas Territory,” in McCarthy and Stauffer, 147–64.

Grimké, Angelina E. Appeal to the Christian Women of the South. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.

Hershberger, Mary. “Mobilizing Women, Anticipating Abolition: The Struggle against Indian Removal in the 1830s.” The Journal of American History 86, no. 1 (1999): 15–40. Also available online from the History Cooperative.

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. Black Rebellion: Five Slave Revolts. Facsimile of 1889 (first) edition, introduced by James McPherson. Arno Press, 1969.

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. Army Life in a Black Regiment: And Other Writings. Edited by R. D. Madison. New York: Penguin Classics, 1997.

Joy, Natalie. “The Indian’s Cause: Abolitionists and Native American Rights.” Journal of the Civil War Era 8, no. 2 (2018): 215–42.

Kennedy, Lionel H., and Thomas Parker. An Official Report of The Trials of Sundry Negroes, Charged With An Attempt to Raise An Insurrection in The State of South-Carolina. Charleston, SC: James R. Schenk, 1822.

Litwack, Leon F. North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Masur, Louis P. “Nat Turner and sectional crisis,” in Greenberg, ed., 2003, 148–61.

Mayer, Henry. All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery. New York: St Martins Press, 1998.

McCarthy, Timothy Patrick, and John Stauffer, eds. Prophets Of Protest: Reconsidering The History Of American Abolitionism. New York: The New Press, 2006.

Meyer, Eugene L. Five for Freedom: The African American Soldiers in John Brown’s Army. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2018.

Nicolay, John G., and John Hay, “Lincoln’s Cooper Institute speech, and other political events of 1859–60,” The Century; A Popular Quarterly, v. 34, 1887, 509–33. Available online from Hathi Trust.

Oates, Stephen B. To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown. Echo Point Books & Media, LLC, 2021.

Parramore, Thomas C. “Covenant in Jerusalem,” in Greenberg, ed., 2003, 58–76.

Portnoy, Alisse. Their Right to Speak: Women’s Activism in the Indian and Slave Debates. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2005.

Quarles, Benjamin. Black Abolitionists. Da Capo Press, 1991.

Rasmussen, Daniel. American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt. HarperCollins 2011.

Redpath, James. The Public Life of Capt. John Brown, by James Redpath, with an Auto-Biography of His Childhood and Youth. Boston: Thayer and Eldridge, 1860. Facsimile of the first edition available from the Library of Congress.

Reynolds, David S. John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights. Reprint edition. New York, NY: Vintage, 2006.

Sanborn, F.B. The Life and Letters of John Brown: Liberator of Kansas, and Martyr of Virginia. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1885. Available online from HathiTrust.

Saunt, Claudio. Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory. Reprint of 2020 release. W. W. Norton & Company, 2021.

Scott, Julius S. The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution. Verso, 2018.

Strother, D.H. “The late invasion in Harper’s Ferry,” Harper’s Weekly, November 5, 1859, 712-14. Available from the Internet Archive at

Sinha, Manisha. “The Beautiful Struggle” (book review), New York Review of Books, April 20, 2023.

Walker, David. David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. Edited by Peter P. Hinks. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2000.

Warch, Richard, and Jonathan Fanton, eds. John Brown. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall, 1973.

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David Whitehouse View All

David Whitehouse is a member of the Tempest Collective in Oakland. Some of his
writings appear at Works in Theory.