Louis A. DeCaro Jr.
Brown’s earliest documented visit took place in December 1838, when he spent the better part of a week in “new York,” writing to his wife back home in Ohio that “I have not yet succeeded in my business, but think the prospect such that I do not by any means despair of final success.” But this kind of optimism would often decorate his disappointments. After a decade of doing reasonably well in Pennsylvania, for some reason Brown had returned to his home state of Ohio in the mid-1830s and gotten himself involved in land speculation, as well as buying western cattle for a firm in Connecticut. When the former venture collapsed, he used money from the latter to pay off some debts, determined that he would quickly replace the borrowed funds with the profits from his livestock venture. When his cattle sales proved disappointing, Brown somberly packed his bag and headed eastward in the hopes of securing a loan from a New York bank. But interviews and applications came to nothing, and after being likewise disappointed in Boston, 38-year old John Brown found himself returning home empty handed–the first leg of a journey of miles and tears that ultimately led to bankruptcy in 1842.
Brown's Hatred of Slavery
Brown's Hatred of SlaveryThe prevailing view of many historians is that John Brown’s zeal for the anti-slavery cause grew in proportion to his failures in business. However, the reality is that he was reared in a devotedly abolitionist home where it was expressly taught that Africans and Native Americans were human beings made in God’s image. John Brown’s father was a stubborn Yankee who moved his family to the frontier in 1805, settling on Connecticut’s “western reserve” lands in the wilderness of northeastern Ohio. Owen Brown was a tanner known for his piety, his abolitionist zeal, and his tendency to stutter in speech–except when addressing the Almighty in prayer. He had been converted to the anti-slavery cause by Puritan revivalists in Connecticut, and took these sentiments with him to Ohio where he befriended local Native Americans and aided fugitives from slavery coming up from Kentucky and other slave states. A good businessman, Owen did quite well in land sales, and it was undoubtedly his example that first inspired young John to dream of surpassing his father’s attainment of wealth and support of the anti-slavery cause.
Later in life, when he wrote an autobiographical sketch for a friend in New England, Brown discussed his early years on the frontier, his inclination toward livestock and sheep farming, and a painful experience with slavery that he never forgot. After single-handedly herding some of his father’s “beef cattle” a great distance for sale to federal troops during the War of 1812, Brown recalled being treated very kindly by his white host. The man doted over 12-year old John, making much of his bravery and independence. But John was aghast when the same kind man acted out in sheer brutality and violence toward a black youth right before his eyes. John Brown always remembered this young man–fatherless and vulnerable–as representing the plight of enslaved blacks throughout the South. With all that his father had taught him, it was nevertheless this incident that solidified his unrelenting hatred of slavery.
Brown has often been portrayed as being a terribly reckless and untalented businessman, and his failures have usually been highlighted in order to discredit his later anti-slavery activities. However, while he was hardly a great businessman, the economy of the nation was shaky and uncertain. Many more capable businessmen also failed in the first half of the 19th century, especially in the western states which suffered for lack of a national bank, and where currency was inferior and entrepreneurs often found themselves entangled in debt involving unreliable promissory notes and drafts. Indeed, what is interesting about Brown’s business career is that despite major setbacks, his sterling reputation went unquestioned and some of his ideas–though not his tactics–were later implemented by other businessmen to some success.
Throughout the 1830s and 1840s, John Brown dreamed of using the profits of capitalism to advance the anti-slavery cause and provide assistance to the black community. Others were already so engaged, such as Gerrit Smith, a pious magnate in upstate New York, and the brothers Arthur and Lewis Tappan down in New York City, who generously funded educational and religious efforts among abolitionists. Brown’s early ideas were conservative, such as establishing a school for blacks. But with the passing of years and the worsening of conditions in the antebellum era, he undoubtedly became more militant in his plans. In between business trips, Brown thus applied himself to aiding blacks en route to Canada. Sometimes he was known to make forays into Kentucky and Indiana for the purpose of smuggling fugitives under the cover of a furniture wagon. Gradually, however, it became clear that he would never attain great wealth, and John Brown began to reassess his place in the anti-slavery cause, although it would take another decade before he willingly exchanged his role of entrepreneurial facilitator for that of militant freedom fighter.
By the mid-1840s he began to distinguish himself in the area of livestock, especially fine sheep and wool. In partnership with Simon Perkins, a wealthy investor from Akron, Ohio, Brown traveled throughout the northeast, examining flocks and conferring with wool growers, especially those with anti-slavery sentiments. By 1845 he had become something of an authority, writing pieces for agricultural journals, preparing certificates of quality for wool growers, developing cures and treatments for sheep, and making the Perkins flock one of the best in the country. In the midst of these activities, Brown came to the conclusion that the wool growers of the nation were at the mercy of the manufacturers in New England. As he saw it, U.S. wools had a bad reputation abroad partly because the wool growers themselves were careless and even dishonest in preparing their product for market. But they were nevertheless at the mercy of capitalists who controlled prices and manipulated the wool growers accordingly.
To answer this injustice, in 1846 the two Ohio partners set up a wool commission business in Springfield, Massachusetts, where Brown himself would carry the mandate of the wool growers to the New England manufacturers. By uniting the wool men and providing standards for quality and pricing, or so he believed, the whole nation would benefit. At the same time, Brown began to associate with leaders in Springfield’s black community, especially those affiliated with the city’s leading black Methodist church. While bankers thought him somewhat eccentric and stubborn in business matters, whites working closest to him were probably more put off by Brown’s passionate interest in the slavery question. Conversations with black employees and associates sometimes kept him in the office until late in the evening. John Brown was developing a plan to undermine slavery on a grand scale, and he wanted to recruit black men to help him.
But the wool venture failed, and while its demise was bound up with Brown’s business decisions, the firm was far more hurt by a lack of unity among the wool growers as well as the subterfuge of the manufacturers, who moved against him in the market and even placed an agent inside his wool commission. Furthermore, the wool venture was a partnership, and certainly Simon Perkins shared the blame for the failure, especially since he made no effort to contradict Brown’s management at any time. Some writers have exaggerated the significance of the firm’s failure to John Brown’s personal life, though in truth it was more a hassle than a heartbreak, and Perkins absorbed the loss without complaint. Indeed, he thought so highly of Brown’s skills and work ethic that he pressed upon him to continue the management of his flock and farm back in Ohio. Sitting in a lackluster hotel room in Manhattan in February 1851, Brown thus wrote home that his disappointed partner still seemed “anxious to have us go back to Akron, and wants me to go on with him.”
The Browns, New York City, & Phrenology
In the aftermath of business failure, the partners faced a good many lawsuits involving manufacturers and former clients, and these kept Brown living out of a suitcase. Besides business stopovers, his visits to New York City in 1849-50 also entailed seeing his eldest son, John Jr., who had become an associate of the phrenology firm of Fowler & Wells. In the antebellum era, phrenology was upheld as the science of measuring human intellect, ability, and personality according to the shape of the skull. Inspired by a European theory that was carried across the Atlantic in the 1830s, traveling phrenologists in the U.S. lectured widely, providing skull-based evaluations and advice, and promising a future where advanced knowledge could be applied to practical use for the betterment of society. Unlike their European counterparts, advocates of phrenology in the U.S. blended scientific claims with other popular therapies and moral reforms, such as water-cure, temperance, mesmerism, and spiritualism.
Unlike his Puritan father who believed mainly in the Bible and the Declaration of Independence, John Jr. was always attracted to novel ideas ranging from science to the supernatural. In this case, however, it appears that both father and son were impressed by phrenology, perhaps after encountering Orson Fowler who, with his brother Lorenzo, were its foremost advocates in the country. The Fowlers lectured, advertised, and published a variety of materials applying phrenology to many social problems in their American Phrenological Journal and Miscellany. With branch offices in Boston and Philadelphia, they kept their headquarters and publishing company in New York City, where they formed a partnership with Samuel Wells. It is not clear which John Brown, father or son, was first attracted to the claims of phrenology, though they apparently became aware of it during their time in Springfield. Perhaps the Browns had heard Orson Fowler lecture at Springfield’s Town Hall, or had read about Fowler & Wells in newspapers like the Springfield Republican and the New York Tribune, which they favored for their anti-slavery sympathies.
Fowler’s “Description” is quaint and at some points seems no more revelatory than a popular horoscope:
Your mind. . .is of the kind that is continually expanding and improving. . . . You are very active both physically and mentally–are positive in your likes and dislikes. . . . You have strong domestic feelings, and are very fond of children. . . .It would be an advantage to you if you had a little more hope, and would allow yourself to look more on the bright side of things.
On the other hand, some of the analyst’s remarks seems quite true to the subject, probably demonstrating Fowler’s keen perceptions as an interviewer more so than the reliability of his science:
You have a pretty good opinion of yourself–would rather lead than be led. . . . In making up your mind you are careful & judicious, but are firm as the hills when once decided. You like to have your own way. . . . As a religious man you would become inclined to “deal justly and love mercy” than to pay much regard to forms and ceremonies. . . .You like to do business on a large scale, and can make money better than save it–you want it for its uses (in one form of another) rather than for its own sake.
To be sure, while Brown’s ability to make money was quite uneven, he never seems to have had any great passion for wealth in itself. Indeed, his supposed predisposition toward “business on a large scale” and the acquisition of money “for its uses” were never more evident than when he became a full-time soldier in his own personal war on slavery.
It is no surprise that Brown was pleased that his son was leaving New York. While the booming metropolis undoubtedly had its benefits, its liabilities were all too evident, especially for someone accustomed to open land and mountain air. New York City was experiencing the birth pangs of modernity, and had already outgrown Philadelphia as the largest city in the country. By mid-19th century, the population swelled to a half a million, and although the city grid had already been expanded to accommodate growth, most residents were crammed into noisy, muddled areas in the lower third of the island. The sound of carriage traffic alone could be deafening at times, and one Manhattan resident wrote to the Tribune complaining that the city had become “a large, crowded, ill-ventilated, vulgar collection of bricks and mortar, and dirty streets and unsightly wharves.” John Brown must have worried at the thought that his family members were living amidst the racket and congestion of “new York.”
Although John Brown was hardly xenophobic, his Puritan heart was probably a bit discomforted by the idea of an influx of Roman Catholics in the United States. However, if he had anything against the immigrants, particularly the Irish, it was probably that they seemed to be feeding into the worst aspects of race and racism in the city and nation as a whole. Despite their own flight from famine and oppression in Europe, the Irish–followed by other European immigrants in later years–quickly adapted to the racist norms of white society. “It bears terrifying witness to what happened to everyone who got here, and paid the price of the ticket,” James Baldwin writes. “The price was to become ‘white.’” In their quest to distinguish themselves from the most despised minority, the new immigrants often became far more virulent and antagonistic in their prejudices than even the Anglo-Saxon Protestants. These prejudices eventually exploded in the Draft Riots of 1863, when the resentment of immigrants in New York City turned in violent rage against black men, women, and children. In his visits to major eastern cities like New York and Boston, John Brown undoubtedly saw the vivid impact that white racism was having on the new immigrants, and how it was only worsening the condition of the despised black population.
Racist New York & Slave "Renditions"
To be sure, it would be nearly a century before New York became the “Big Apple” that jazz musicians adored, nor was the great black metropolis of Harlem even a remote possibility in the 1850s. Indeed, from the perspective of an abolitionist visitor like John Brown, New York City was one of the worst places for African Americans to live. Flagrant acts of racism were common, and blacks not only faced regular occurrences of open insult and physical assault by white ruffians, but lived under a system of de facto segregation. For black people in New York, every aspect of life was poisoned by white prejudice, from housing and employment to public facilities and entertainment. Apart from their own organizations and protest efforts, blacks had few choices, even fewer allies, and certainly no options whenever whites decided to pull rank according to skin privilege.
In 1855, the Rev. James W. C. Pennington, the prominent pastor of the Prince Street Presbyterian Church, found himself in such a dilemma when he was violently removed from a Sixth Avenue street car by the driver and conductor. Determined to have justice, Pennington held onto the back of the car, running behind it all the way downtown to the depot, where he found a policeman and demanded that the officer arrest the driver who had assaulted him. Instead of receiving justice, however, the minister was told to forget his complaint and move on. Outraged, Pennington argued with the policeman, only to find himself arrested and jailed. While a magistrate dismissed charges against the prominent pastor, nothing came of Pennington’s complaint–the incident only serving to suggest how much worse things were for blacks of no reputation or social standing. Unlike the Pennington incident, the injustices blacks experienced on a daily basis in the city were hardly reported in the Tribune or any other city newspaper. Although New York would one day become a haven for white liberals and black nationalists, in the antebellum era it was essentially a hostile environment for African Americans and white abolitionists. Indeed, compared to New York City, John Brown’s “western reserve” section in Ohio was a far more liberal and progressive society.
With the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act in the fall of 1850, things in New York and throughout the North could only get worse for blacks. While the law of the land already supported the capture and return of fugitives from slavery, the pro-slavery precept empowered the institution in unprecedented ways. Marshals and man hunters were authorized with the maximum support of the government, and those who refused to cooperate and assist them could be fined and imprisoned. Judges were awarded more money for blacks they sent back into slavery than for those they released, and blacks themselves had no voice in their own trials. Within a short time of the passing of the law, several black New Yorkers were seized, tried, and sent to the South in chains. The most notable incident was that of Henry Long whose case became noteworthy because the despised abolitionists of the city rallied to provide him legal aid, postponing his return and creating financial inconvenience for the Southerner who claimed to be his master. In response, the “Union Safety Committee” was formed by city merchants and businessmen, who successfully raised money to hire additional legal assistance on behalf of the slave owner. Thanks to their intervention, Long was finally returned to slavery.
Another case was that of Horace Preston, a fugitive living in Brooklyn who was not aware that a policeman from New York’s 6th Ward had conspired with a city lawyer to seize and return him to slavery in Maryland. According to the Tribune, in April 1852 Preston was arrested on false charges and jailed “in the lower part of the Tombs, not under the control of the regular Warden of that prison.” When friends offered to pay Preston’s bail, they were refused, as was the offer of counsel. He was secretly arraigned with no legal representation so that the false charge could be laid aside and the slave law invoked. By the time any effective action could be taken on Preston’s behalf, it was already too late, the conspirators having made sure of their reward.
Ally For Freedom
John Brown greeted the Fugitive Slave Law with a peculiar theological optimism. He followed the reports of “slave renditions,” noting that the Long case in New York City had sent shock waves throughout the black community, including his friends up in Springfield, Massachusetts. But rather than see the law as an overwhelming monster, Brown believed it was God’s way of fueling the fire of the anti-slavery cause. “It now seems the fugitive slave law was to be the means of making more abolitionists than all the lectures we have had for years,” he wrote to his wife Mary during a business trip. But Brown also saw the passing of the law as an opportunity for action, and he gathered black friends and associates together in Springfield, organizing a self-defense group which he called “The United States League of Gileadites”--an allusion to the biblical story of a small army of Israelites who organized to fight against foreign invaders. He then drafted an organizational document for the Gileadites which included advice and strategies for militant struggle resistance. According to Brown, there were to be no Henry Longs or Horace Prestons taken from Springfield, as the Gileadites should expediently kill any agent of slavery who dared to operate in their town. According to local black history, one Sunday morning after service at the Zion Methodist Church, Brown stood in the back of the sanctuary passing out Bowie knives to the parishioners. Interestingly, the presence of the Gileadites not only seems to have dissuaded man hunters from coming into town, but in a real sense the organization also established John Brown as the most influential militant leader in Springfield’s black community until “Temple No. 13" of the Nation of Islam was established by Malcolm X over a century later.
During this period, Brown, his wife, and younger children had settled into a small community nearby a colony of African Americans in the chilly Adirondack community of North Elba, known today as Lake Placid. Even as the wool business in Springfield was winding down, Brown had become enamored with the idea of joining the efforts of free blacks who had received land grants from the wealthy abolitionist, Gerrit Smith of Peterboro. Smith had inherited thousands of wilderness acreage from his father, and devised the plan of giving parcels of land to blacks from New York State, thus enabling them to overcome racist voting restrictions that limited suffrage to property owners. Contrary to what has sometimes been reported, none of the black grantees were ex-slaves or fugitives from the South, but hailed from cities like Troy, Albany, New York, and Brooklyn. All they needed to do was claim their deeds and settle their lands.
Brown was delighted to hear about Smith’s plan and imagined himself settling along with them as a kind of fatherly consultant, particularly since they were urban folks who would need guidance and instruction in the ways of the wilderness.
The problem with Smith’s land grant program was that its strength was in sentiment rather than practicality. It would have been hard enough for city dwellers to learn the skills necessary to establish an agrarian based settlement. But when they arrived, the black settlers found that much of the land was not arable. In addition, the climate seemed enduringly cold, the planting season short, and vegetation stunted. Nor were they free of the subterfuge of unscrupulous whites who set about scamming some of the settlers out of their deeds. Notwithstanding the many challenges facing the colony, Brown had irreversibly determined that the program was full of potential, and then threw himself and his family head-first into the effort. Moving into a rented farmhouse in the spring of 1849, the Browns began to reach out to the fledgling black community, which called itself “Timbuctoo” after the great cultural center in African history. Throughout 1849-51, Brown was frequently moving back and forth between Springfield and the Adirondacks, struggling to close out business affairs while providing for his family and looking out for the interests of the “Timbuctoo” colonists.
But even before moving to North Elba, Brown had established regular communication with Willis Hodges, the foremost black leader associated with the grantee program. Hodges, a Brooklynite with roots in Virginia, was distinguished as one of the leading blacks in the state, and had co-founded a newspaper called The Ram’s Horn with the black restauranteur Thomas Van Rensselaer, whose popular eatery was located on the corner of John and Williams Streets in Manhattan. Brown had made great efforts to promote and support The Ram’s Horn, and even wrote a quaint piece for the paper under the guise of a black writer. The article, entitled “Sambo Mistakes” (not “Sambo’s Mistakes” as many of us have previously supposed), was Brown’s way of identifying a set of behaviors and attitudes–Sambo mistakes–that diminished black manhood, weakened the struggle for justice, and reinforced prevalent racist stereotypes. The article showed real chutzpah, but John Brown was not patronizing and he wore his literary black face with genuine determination; if the editors actually ever read it, they probably felt Brown’s audacity more thoughtful than offensive. Nevertheless, it has long been a scholarly presumption that Hodges and Van Rensselaer published Brown’s little essay sometime between 1848 and 1849. Unfortunately, almost nothing of the paper has survived, and our only source for the piece comes from Brown’s own copy pad. If “Sambo Mistakes” was actually published, we have no way of telling from the few extant fragments of The Ram’s Horn.
Regardless, Hodges and Brown thereafter carried on a warm correspondence in the early days of the black colony experiment in the Adirondacks. Hodges himself had headed up another Adirondack colony called “Blackville.” From time to time, Brown wrote letters of encouragement to Hodges, and purchased food and supplies to be shared among the colonists. By the later 1850s, however, most of the grantees from “Timbuctoo” and “Blackville” had fled the cold wilderness, leaving only a few determined settlers on the land. Hodges himself pulled out sometime in the early 1850s and returned to his home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The next time he saw his somber blue-eyed friend, John Brown was sporting a long white beard and plotting a raid upon the slave states.
Though African American leaders knew of him a whole decade before the raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, Brown remained on the margins of the abolitionist community and was unknown to prominent white leaders like the fiery writer and orator, William Lloyd Garrison of Boston. Not only was he stubbornly independent, but he increasingly dismissed abolitionists for their talk-only inclinations. Most of all, Brown was convinced that the pacifist doctrine of “moral suasion” was nonsense, and that the institution of slavery had become so monstrous, unrelenting, and morally reprobate that the only manner it could be defeated was through the use of force. [continued]