Abolitionist hero or murderous madman? These descriptions of John Brown (1800-1859) illustrate the controversy caused by his words and actions as he attempted to free slaves in America. Whether you think him a hero or a maniac, Brown’s words certainly left their mark on history.
John’s journey as a notable abolitionist began, by his own account, in his early childhood as he witnessed the treatment of a young slave very close to his own age.
“During the war with England a circumstance occurred that in the end made him a most determined Abolitionist: & led him to declare, or Swear: Eternal war with Slavery.” - speaking about himself in a Letter to Henry Stearns about his childhood, 1857
“Another trifling error of my life has been that I have always expected to secure the favour of the whites by tamely submitting to every species of indignity contempt & wrong, insted [sic] of nobly resisting their brutual [sic] aggressions from principle & taking my place as a man” - “Sambo’s Mistakes” essay, 1847
“Talk! Talk! Talk! That will never free the slaves. What is needed is action — action!" - remarks at a New England Anti-Slavery Society meeting, 1859
“We came to free the slaves, and only that.” - on why he raided Harper’s Ferry, 1859
Brown described himself as tenacious and wasn’t afraid to reflect on his own errors in life.
“I have spent my whole life devouring silly novels & other miserable trash such as most of newspapers of the day & other popular writings are filled with, thereby unfitting myself for the realities of life & acquiring a taste for nonsense & low wit” - “Sambo’s Mistakes” essay, 1847
“Another error of my riper years has been that when any meeting of colored people has been called in order to consider of any important matter of general interest I have been so eager to display my spouting talents & so tenacious of some trifling theory or other that I have adopted that I have generally lost all sight of the business in hand consumed the time disputing about things of no moment & thereby defeated entirely many important measures calculated to promote the general welfare” - “Sambo’s Mistakes” essay, 1847
“If my friends will hold up my hands while I live: I will freely absolve them from any expense over me when I am dead. I do not ask for pay but shall be most grateful for all the assistance I can get.” - speech to solicit funds for the Kansas crusade, 1857
“I am quite cheerful under all my afflicting circumstances and prospects; having, as I humbly trust, ‘the peace of God which passeth all understanding’ to rule in my heart.” - letter to Maria Child, 1859
The last words of John Brown were debated for decades. But history never leaves anything undiscovered forever.
John Brown drafted multiple wills before his death, and most of them listed out all that he’d leave his wife and kids. However, one of his wills was solely about keeping his cause alive.
“I give and bequeath all trust funds and personal property for the aid of the Free-State cause in Kansas” - from John Brown’s Will, April 13,1858
While on trial for the Harper’s Ferry raid where he and a group of like-minded individuals attempted to free slaves, Brown was given the chance to speak on his own behalf.
“I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection.” - Address to the court, 1859
“I believe that to have interfered as I have done — as I have always freely admitted I have done — in behalf of His despied [sic] poor, was not wrong, but right.” - Address to the court, 1859
“Now 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!” - Address to the court, 1859
Brown concluded his statement in court by commenting on those who worked in conjunction with him.
There is not one of them but joined me of his own accord, and the greater part of them at their own expense. A number of them I never saw, and never had a word of conversation with, till the day they came to me; and that was for the purpose I have stated. Now I have done.
On the morning of his execution, John Brown gave John Avis a note that read:
I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with Blood. I had … vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed, it might be done.
No civilians were allowed at the hanging, and no officials in attendance were permitted to be near Brown, so for nearly 100 years, it was assumed this note bore his last words. However, in 1955, reporter Porte Crayon’s account of the hanging was published. In it, Crayon suggests Brown’s last spoken words before hanging to death were:
This is a beautiful country. I did not have the chance to see it before.