John Brown (1800–1859) was a radical abolitionist whose 1859 raid at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, made him a hero of the anti-slavery movement. Brown spent many years trying to support his family with failed business ventures. Brown’s economic troubles, however, did not dampen his energy and enthusiasm for his anti-slavery efforts. In 1837, Brown publicly pledged to dedicate his life to ending slavery. In 1849, he helped to found and settled his family at a free black community at North Elba, New York.

In 1855, Brown followed his five sons to Kansas, where he became involved in the fierce battle over the question of slavery in the territory. On May 21, 1856, Brown led a raid on a pro-slavery settlement at Pottawatomie Creek in retaliation for the sack of Lawrence, Kansas. He spent the next several years traveling and attempting to gather support for his plan to incite a widespread slave uprising. In October 1859, with backing from a group of supporters calling themselves the “Secret Six”—Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Samuel Gridley Howe, Theodore Parker, Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, Gerrit Smith, and George Luther Stearns—Brown staged his attempt in another raid, at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Brown’s aim at Harpers Ferry was to seize the federal arsenal there and arm local slaves in an uprising to inspire a broader revolution. The raid did not go as planned, however, and many of Brown’s followers were killed. Brown was captured and tried for treason, murder, and insurrection. Found guilty, Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859. John Brown’s raids in Kansas and Virginia elevated tensions over slavery between the North and the South, pushing the country closer to disunion, and his death made him a martyr of the anti-slavery movement.

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