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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Monday, January 09, 2017

January 1859

One hundred fifty-eight years ago at this time, John Brown was moving about the Kansas territory, using Shubel Morgan as his nom de guerre, and following through on a liberation effort that he had undertaken just prior to Christmas 1858.  On the night of December 20-21, Brown and his men had formed into two parties with the intention of liberating a total of eleven enslaved people from three different Missouri farms.  As Brown later recalled at the conclusion of his trial in Virginia in November 1859, he had accomplished the Missouri liberation "without the snapping of a gun."1

The Snapping of a Gun

Of course, Brown was being subjective to a fault, since the other party of his men were not so fortunate in the Missouri raid.  In their case, when a slaveholder drew his gun to protect his "property," he was shot and killed.   Brown has been accused of deception in this matter, although Brian McGinty, a legal scholar and the leading authority on Brown's trial, characterizes the abolitionist's description in court as a misstatement, not a deceit.  Brown "was not lying," McGinty concludes, "for a lie is an intentionally false statement made for the purpose of deception and fraud. Brown's Charlestown speech was neither deceptive nor fraudulent, merely imperfect."2

While I agree with McGinty, I'd further suggest that Brown's alleged misstatement was also reflective of his tendency to err on the upside in any assessment.  As Boyd Stutler observed of Brown many years ago, I can also attest that invariably he tended to cast things in optimistic terms, even his criticisms of others.  John Brown was the proverbial "glass-half-full" kind of guy, so it is no surprise that he would see his Missouri raid as exemplary of diminished violence rather than as one where a slaveholder was killed.  After all, his overall point was that he was no insurrectionist in the conventional sense--he had not set about to kill slaveholders, either in Missouri or in Virginia.  He wished to liberate the enslaved, if possible, without wiping out slaveholders (as would be the case in a classic insurrectionary format), and certainly it was his wish to avoid "the snapping of a gun" when he went into Missouri in December 1858.  Indeed, it may be the case that had Brown led the other raiding party, the shooting might have been averted.  But he could not be in two places at once, and the lieutenant to whom he entrusted the second raiding party perhaps lacked the finesse that Brown demonstrated.

On December 21, Brown and his men escorted the liberated party out of Missouri, taking them about thirty-five miles over to Osawatomie, in the Kansas Territory a free state settlement nearby the Brown family claims.  Ultimately, Brown and his band escorted them across country to Canadian freedom, although the larger story of their trek will be reserved for another time on this blog.  On March 12, the liberated party  passed across the Detroit River into Canada at Windsor, Ontario.   Of more immediate interest, however, is the period of several weeks in December and January during which Brown, his men, and the liberated party had remained before finally departing from the Territory on January 20, 1859.  The delay was understandable and strategic.  Had Brown and his men attempted right away to escort the liberated black people out of the Territory, they might very well have been apprehended immediately.

The Controversy

Meanwhile, the outrage over the killing of a slaveholder by Brown's party was intense. To no surprise, the proslavery Missouri press shrieked loudly over the incident.  But some conservative free state people in the Territory also disdained Brown's Missouri invasion, some of them bitterly.   This was no more true than in the case of the contemptible G. W. Brown (no relative of the abolitionist), an opportunistic and cowardly editor who turned on John Brown with malicious intent (and continued to harangue the abolitionist vehemently throughout his final days in Virginia later that year).3 Biographers Oswald Villard and Stephen Oates both observed that free state opinion was actually divided over Brown's raid.4

The reason for this divided opinion seems to be that the free state element that criticized Brown's Missouri foray did so for reasons of realpolitik, since white free state settlers were far more concerned about their own immediate security than antislavery principles.  Of course, John Brown's intent in going to Kansas from the start was not to achieve peace in the Territory between proslavery and free state settlers, but to see the political conflict as an occasion against slavery.  According to Brown, it was his "deliberate Judgment since 1855 that the most ready & effectual way to relieve Kansas would be to meddle directly with the peculiar institution."5

Quite in contrast, many free state people were primarily concerned with avoiding retaliation from the proslavery side as a result of Brown's invasion of Missouri.  One irate settler named George Crawford told Brown off to his face, arguing that it was easy for him to strike a blow because he could leave the Territory.   It was the free state settlers, he continued, that would have to face the wrath of the proslavery side.  Brown responded to the effect that he was hardly comfortable in the circumstances, being away from home and risking his life for the sake of freedom.6  However, the real point was Brown's political priorities.  After all, it was his own family's security that had brought him to the Territory in the fall of 1855; yet for the Browns in Kansas, fighting the slave power was their family commitment. The same cannot be said for many of the free state people, who hated the "peculiar institution" but had not moved to Kansas to fight slavery, and who were both politically and psychologically unprepared to support black equality as a priority.

Yet, in all fairness to the free state side, Brown had more than pushed the envelope, and only the most radical abolitionists could cheer him on without reservation since he not only had had the audacity to invade Missouri in an armed foray, but also had run roughshod over every major federal law and ruling that protected the rights of slaveholders.  He had not only "stolen" "chattel" from slaveholders, but had the nerve to tax them in some measure of reparations.  Thus, Brown's men seized livestock, food, bedding, clothing, footwear, a wagon, and a shotgun from the three targeted Missouri slaveholders--what the Old Man called the "lawfully acquired earnings" of the enslaved.7 It is telling of the racial astigmatism that afflicted many free state people at the time, that they could not see the consistency of Brown's policy of seizing reparations for liberated black people, when surely they would have demanded the very same thing if their own interests were involved.   (Perhaps this failure of vision has continued in the more contemporary denial of any discussion about reparations for slavery and the subsequent theft of life and property that beset black people after the short-lived period of Reconstruction.)

A Wanted and an Unwanted Man

As far as the proslavery government in Washington D.C. was concerned, John Brown was a criminal that should have been brought to justice immediately.  President James Buchanan thus offered a reward of $250 for Brown's arrest, along with that of Capt. James Montgomery.  Montgomery was one of the leading "Jayhawkers"--militant free state opponents of the proslavery invasion in the Kansas Territory.  Montgomery's antislavery militancy became notable two years before, in 1857, when he formed a company of free state fighters to both resist and harass proslavery intruders in the Territory.  The newly appointed territorial governor, Samuel Medary, an Ohio Democrat, also issued a reward for Brown's capture, in the amount of $3000.8   After Brown had safely delivered the victims of slavery to Canadian freedom, a rumor spread that he had in turn issued a counter-reward for President Buchanan for $2.50.  It was not so, although the rumor had even caused the Old Man to chuckle in his own silent manner.9  Nor was he unaccustomed to rewards being placed on his head; the proslavery element had already offered a reward for $1000 for him in 1857.10   Still, Brown was not shy in his defiance. According to one source, when he spoke in Cleveland later in 1859, he declared that he "asked no favors of the General Government, nor of the Governor of Missouri, and expected none from either."  The report concluded that Brown avowed that he did not mean to be taken.11

Although wanted by authorities, John Brown was not necessarily wanted by free state settlers, who either resented his actions or blended personal admiration with disdain for his radical actions. General James Lane, the anti-abolitionist Democrat who somehow became one of the free state leaders, gratuitously sought authority from Governor Medary to arrest both Brown and Montgomery.12  It was a self-aggrandizing and shabby effort that fortunately was not taken seriously by the governor, although it showed Lane's true colors.  Lane also sent down another Democrat to speak to Brown in January in order to file a report with President Buchanan.13  Montgomery, William Hutchinson (the Kansan correspondent of the New York Times, and Brown's Ohio abolitionist friend, Augustus Wattles, all wished that Brown had never invaded Missouri.  Fearing a counter-attack, Montgomery endeavored some peace talks through Hutchinson.  In the words of Oswald Villard, Wattles "severely censured" Brown for his actions, to which Brown responded that he was through with Missouri and was now intent on "draw[ing] the scene of the excitement to some other part of the country."14
Of course, Brown was alluding to Virginia, where he hoped to do precisely the same thing as he had done in Missouri, only on a far grander scale, and with the hopes of a more far-reaching effect.

Departure and Documents

Brown left the Territory before the month of January had passed, armed to escort his black friends to Canadian freedom.  However, afterward he was definitive that he was not forced out of the Territory, either by friend or foe.  Writing to a journalist associate in Iowa in March, Brown made this point clear, apparently after reading a report by the New York Tribune that he had been virtually driven out by free state imperatives.  "The Tribune man was mistaken in supposing I was requested to leave Kansas," Brown wrote.  "No such request was ever made   I did not escape from Kansas but left solely to secure safety."15  The safety that Brown intended, no doubt, was that of the eleven people that he had liberated, including one who gave birth during the arduous sojourn.

James Montgomery (Kansapedia)
Two documents survive from the December 1858-January 1859 Kansas episode that should be included here.  The first is a brief letter from Brown to James Montgomery, dated January 2, 1859.  It is unsigned but clearly written in the pinched hand of John Brown:

               Turkey Creek, 2d, Jany, 1859.

Capt James Montgomery

                                        Dear Sir

Osawatomie men made a drive into Missouri
the other night; since which some of the settlers
& other friends have made a stand on the line to
prevent an invasion.  You are requested to
hold yourself in reddiness [sic] to call out rein-
-forcements at a moments notice

                Respectfully Your Friend

This document (held by the Kansas State Historical Society) conveys the sense of concern that had arisen following his "drive into Missouri," with free state men standing guard in the event of a counter-attack by Missourians.

Brown to Montgomery, 2 January 1859, Kansas State Historical Society Collection

More notably, before his departure, Brown penned a response to his critics, written in the very home of his esteemed friend Wattles, but vaguely dated as January 1859 at "Trading Post," to spare his host any further trouble.   In this epic rejoinder, Brown refers to the 1858 massacre of free state men by proslavery thugs, which resulted in neither arrest nor prosecution from either the territorial or federal government.   Then, explaining the circumstances by which he had intervened in liberating the enslaved people in Missouri, Brown demands a "comparison."
Eleven persons are forcibly restored to their natural & inalienable rights, with but one man Killed, & all "Hell is stirred from beneath." It is currently reported that the Governor of Missouri has made a requisition upon the Governor of Kansas for the delivery of all such as were concerned in the last named "dreadful outage."  The Marshal of Kansas is said to be collecting a possee [sic] of Missouri (not Kansas) men at West Point, in Missouri, a little town about ten miles distant, to "enforce the laws". All proslavery conservative Free State, doughfaced men & administration tools are filled with holy honor. 
Consider the two cases and the action of the Administration party 
Respectfully yours 
John Brown 
They hypocrisy of the federal government is made quite clear as Brown points out the fury that had been aroused by his actions, while nothing had been done about the killings of free state men.  The original copy of this document in Brown's hand is also held by the Kansas State Historical Society, but it is amply reproduced in texts.   Happily for Brown, too, the letter was published by a number of newspapers, beginning with Horace Greeley's New York Tribune, pictured below from the January 22, 1859 (p. 6) edition:

As Oswald Villard concluded, "Indubitably, the parallel was an effective one." As a result, his critics in the Kansas legislature were blunted, and Montgomery tried to wash his hands, writing to a local newspaper that he was not responsible for Brown's actions.  "Brown keeps his own counsels," Montgomery squeaked, "and acts on his own responsibility."   In February, while Brown was marching his liberated friends toward freedom, Montgomery surrendered himself to a judge in Lawrence.  For Brown, however, his successful Missouri raid's success had convinced him "of the telling effect upon the crumbling foundations of slavery of a similar undertaking on a larger scale."16
That undertaking would be his raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia, at the end of the year.--LD


      1 "I intended certainly to have made a clean thing of that matter [i.e. the Harper's Ferry raid], as I did last winter when I went into Missouri, and there took slaves without the snapping of a gun on either side."  Statement of John Brown to the court, 2 Nov. 1859, Charlestown, Va., in John Brown Speaks: Letters and Statements from Charlestown.  Edited by Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2015), 105.

     2 Brian McGinty, John Brown's Trial (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009), 229.

     3 See my discussion about G. W. Brown's strenuous efforts in attacking John Brown after the Harper's Ferry raid in Freedom's Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2015), 203-07.

     4 Oswald G. Villard, John Brown: A Biography 1800-1859 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1929), 370; Stephen B. Oates, To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown (New York: Harper, 1970), 262.

     5 John Brown to John Teesdale, March 1859, in Villard, John Brown, 386.

     6 Oates, To Purge this Land With Blood, 263;

     7 Villard, John Brown, 386.

     8 Ibid., 371.

     9 Katherine Mayo's interview with Sarah Brown, Sept. 1908, in Box 6, Miss Sarah Brown folder, Oswald G. Villard-John Brown Papers, Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Collection (OGV).

     10 S. L. Adair to "Dear Bro. & Sis Davis," from Osawatomie, Kansas Territory, 23 Oct. 1856, Transcript, in Box 1, OGV.

     11 Unidentified clippings from typewritten copies of newspaper articles from Cleveland, 1859, in JB in Cleveland, March 1859 folder, Box 4, OGV.

     12  Villard, John Brown, 370-71.

     13  Ibid., 374.

    14  Ibid., 375.  Villard draws Wattle's account from the Congressional Report on the Harper's Ferry Raid, popularly known as the Mason Report.

    15  Brown to Teesdale, in Villard, 386.

    16 Villard, 376-78.