On October 16, 1859, John Brown and a band of followers, black and white, attacked the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. The raid was part of a larger plan to destroy the slave system by freeing and arming slaves. The raiders were captured and John Brown was executed on December 2, 1859. The unique documents discussed here examine John Brown’s beliefs and actions in the context of growing national divisions over slavery in the 1850s.
“Did John Brown fail? John Brown began the war that ended American slavery and made this a free Republic.” —Frederick Douglass
The late 1840s and the 1850s were a turbulent and complex time in American history as the country ground inexorably toward civil war. Abolitionist and pro-slavery positions hardened both north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line as events built toward a bloody confrontation. John Brown would be a catalyst that triggered the violent reaction. As he wrote just before his execution: “I...