John Brown: hero or terrorist?

Yesterday was the 152nd anniversary of John Brown’s conviction for murder and treason. This fascinating bit of history has been on my mind since I visited Harper’s Ferry in August. It was rekindled this morning by listening to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tony Horwitz discuss his new book on NPR.

In “Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War,” Horwitz discusses Brown’s Calvinist upbringings and his insistence that God drove his campaign to right a wrong. That wrong was slavery.

On Oct. 16, 1859, Brown led 21 men to Harpers Ferry in what is today West Virginia. The plan was to take the town’s federal armory and to ignite a nationwide uprising against slavery. After 32 hours, Brown and his men were trapped in what is today known as “John Brown’s fort,” in reality a building no bigger than a typical two-car garage.

Brown refused to surrender and U.S. Marines, led by Gen. Robert E. Lee, bashed down the door and captured the men by force. Brown was beaten, but survived. Had he died, the 59-year-old might not be remembered as much more than a footnote in history, Horwitz says.

Instead, it was Brown’s writings and speeches in the ensuing six weeks that left such a fascinating imprint on history.

When he was given the chance to address the court, Brown delivered his now-famous words:

“If it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel and unjust enactments — I submit; so let it be done!”

Brown is a remarkable figure for so many reasons. He changed the course of history and many think Harper’s Ferry was the true start of the Civil War. He is to be admired for his convictions, which developed rather late in life. Brown was a businessman for many years and into his 50s when he took up arms.

Brown was a progressive thinker rare for his time. He once said he’d rather his daughter marry an ambitious black man than a lazy white man. This was an extraordinary statement for 1857.

But mainly, Brown continues to fascinate us at a time we are battling terrorists. Opponents consider him the first anti-American terrorist. And he killed men in cold blood. Sometimes innocent men.

What do you think of John Brown? Hero or terrorist?

About John Hilton

I grew up in Susquehanna County, Pa. and graduated Syracuse University with a dual degree in journalism/political science in 1998. After working for nearly three years for a weekly paper in upstate New York, I came to southcentral Pennsylvania. I spent 13 years as a reporter and editor for The Sentinel in Carlisle and joined the York Daily Record as religion reporter in September 2011.
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