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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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Thursday, February 21, 2019

John Brown and the Samson Story

Before and after the raid, John Brown drew upon the biblical imagery of Samson, the flawed judge of Israel who managed to snatch victory at the end of his life by pulling down the great temple of Dagon upon the heads of his enemies.  His use of Samson prior to the Harper's Ferry raid suggests that he had contemplated the possibility--if the not the likelihood--of his death in his struggle against slavery.  After the raid, however, he returned to the Samson theme one last time as part of his jailhouse reflections.

     Before the raid, Samson was Brown’s symbol of self-sacrifice.  In one of his most revealing personal letters, he wrote to Franklin B. Sanborn on February 24, 1858, evidently hoping to win the abolitionist educator's fullest support.  Apparently, Brown had been informed of Sanborn's interest by Edwin Morton, an associate of Gerrit Smith of Peterboro, N.Y.  Ultimately, Sanborn would join Smith and four other prestigious figures in what historians have referred to as Brown's "Secret Six."  However, in early 1858, Brown was not yet sure of the extent of Sanborn's support, and in his letter he seeks to persuade him without illusion or misrepresentation.  "I would flatter no man into such a measure if I could do it ever so easily," Brown wrote. "I expect nothing but to “endure hardness”: but I expect to effect a mighty conquest even though it be like the last victory of Samson."1

Those acquainted with Brown's story know that he spent time in the spring of 1858 canvassing for black support among the African American expatriate communities in Canada, especially in Chatham, Ontario, then known as Canada West.  Chatham was the site of his famous summit with black leaders and potential enlistees on May 8 and 10, 1859. According to the Canadian historian, Victor Lauriston, when Brown was endeavoring to recruit black fighters in Chatham, he had a conversation with Isaac Shadd, a U.S.-born black leader and publisher of the Provincial Freeman.  In that conversation, Shadd challenged him about his methods, suggesting that perhaps Brown ought to adhere to "Constitutional methods."  Brown balked.  "Constitutional methods!  For twenty years men have used constitutional methods, and got--where?  I hate these milk and water agitators.  The situation demands force."  Lauriston, who portrayed this conversation in a journalistic piece, says that Brown further pointed out to  Shadd that black people had not gained freedom by going to Canada based upon constitutional methods.  "Did your people in Canada gain their freedom by waiting for the slave-holding sons of Belial to let them go?"

Shadd deferred, but raised the prospect of great risk in seeking to invade Virginia.  To this, Brown replied that he believed himself an instrument of God, "stormily beating down all further argument" by citing the examples of Gideon and Samson, Israelite judges who delivered their nation from pagan conquerors.  If he perished, Brown stated, he would perish like Samson of old.  "Samson perished, yet he pulled down the temple of the Philistines upon them."2

Finally, after his defeat, Brown fell back on the story of Samson as a means of acknowledging his tactical errors while defending his integrity as a liberator in two letters written from his jail cell in Charlestown, Virginia.  In a poignant letter to his old school teacher and friend, Herman Vaill, Brown wrote on November 19:

I have been a good deal disappointed as it regards myself in not keeping up to my own plans; but I now feel entirely reconciled to that even: for Gods plan, was Infinitely better; no doubt; or I should have kept to my own.  Had Samson kept to his determination of not telling Delilah wherein his great strength lay; he would probably have never have overturned the house.  I did not tell Delilah; but I was induced to act very contrary to my better judgment; & I have lost my Two noble boys; & other friends, if not my Two eyes.3
Good Calvinist as he was, Brown acknowledged his tactical errors in straying from his own plans and intentions by delaying at Harper's Ferry.  But he immediately bows before "Gods plan," which he acknowledges to be "Infinitely better."  Samson, he continues, made the same error by abandoning his purpose to reveal his strength to Delilah the Philistine.  Then Brown adds curiously, "I did not tell Delilah"--by which he means to say that although he failed to adhere to his own plan, he had not betrayed any of the details of his plan to the enemy.  He had lost much by his errors at Harper's Ferry, but he had not betrayed himself as a prisoner.

In a letter to a less sympathetic associate, Brown wrote on November 25 to his renowned cousin, the Rev. Dr. Heman Humphrey, a Congregational minister and former president of Amherst College.  Humphrey was an antislavery conservative who was embarrassed and disturbed by his cousin's actions in Virginia.  Humphrey had written to Brown, his letter being a kind of sympathetic condemnation suggesting that the latter was not in his right mind, and certainly that he had taken the wrong course by attacking Harper's Ferry.  Brown did not write back to his cousin in an argumentative manner, but instead sought to reason with him and explain himself, once again alluding to Samson the judge of Israel:

If you were here on the spot, and could be with me by day and by night, and know the facts and how my time is spent here, I think you would find much to reconcile your own mind to the ignominious death I am about to suffer, and to mitigate your sorrow. I am, to say the least, quite cheerful. "He shall begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines." This was said of a poor erring servant many years ago; and for many years I have felt a strong impression that God had given me powers and faculties, unworthy as I was, that he intended to use for a similar purpose. This most unmerited honor He has seen fit to bestow; and whether--like the same poor frail man to whom I allude, my death may not be of vastly more value than my life is, I think quite beyond all human foresight. I really have strong hopes that notwithstanding all my many sins, I too may yet die " in faith."4
The reference to Samson as the opponent of the Philistines, the "poor erring servant many years ago," and "the same poor frail man," served Brown's apologia well.  Brown is clear that he believed himself called by God, which he experienced in his life as a "strong impression."   In today's world of careers and self-help, such an idea might seem strange.  But many in the 19th century still believed in vocation--a divine calling to a role or purpose, not mediated necessarily through visions and voices, but rather by what Brown calls a "strong impression."   It was this belief, he appeals, that brought him to Virginia ultimately.  And while he had failed, he stresses that he was cheerful and yet full of hope that not only would he died as a faithful Christian, but that he would yet accomplish something of his vocation.


Brown's self-identification with the fallen judge of Israel was quickly embraced by admirers in the North, especially by James Redpath.  The Scottish abolitionist perhaps inspired by seeing some of Brown's jail letters published in the newspaper, probably was the author of the poem, “Samson Agonistes,” that appeared in the New York Tribune less than three weeks after Brown’s death.5  The same poem afterward was featured on the closing page of Redpath’s own 1860 biography, The Public Life of Capt. John Brown.  The poet thus revels in the apparent defeat of his Samson, bound and blinded by the South, but in whose death is spelt the destruction of slavery:

Oh fools! his arms are round your temple pillars:Oh blind! his strength divine begins to wake.Hark! the great roof-tree trembles from its center—Hark! how the rafters bend, and swerve, and shake!

"Samson Agonistes," New York Daily Tribune, Dec. 22, 1859
Wendell Phillips, approximating a similar appreciation for the meaning of Brown’s death and the end of slavery, presented instead the image of a great tree, felled in the wilderness, all but dead except for its vestiges of verdant green that soon would likewise die. “John Brown has loosened the roots of the Slave system,” Phillips declared at the Old Man’s graveside in 1859. “[I]t only breathes—it does not live—hereafter.”6

Of course, these sentiments were not without prescience considering all that followed in the wake of Brown’s death. Still, the image of John Brown as Samson, the one in whose death was the fall of slavery, is a reading of the judge vis a vis a Christological lens.  To Redpath and the rest of Brown’s admirers, the plight of Samson as a prisoner of the Philistines is only a veil--one that thinly concealed the imminent victory of the hero over the wicked.  As they saw it--probably in keeping with the Old Man's own self-interpretation--in the last weeks of his life as a prisoner in Virginia, John Brown's Samson regained his strength and mounted the scaffold a brave and fearless hero.  He fell, but the same trapdoor that launched him into eternity had indeed become the unstoppable drain of the South, sucking down the world of slaves and slaveholders after him.  Others cut through the veil, drawing their conclusions based upon the image of the ultimate Liberator:  John Brown as Samson really was John Brown as Christ--something that both both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Harriet Tubman observed in their own distinct invocations of the cross. --LD


     1 John Brown to Franklin Sanborn, Feb. 28, 1858. Sanborn included an image of this letter in his Life and Letters of John Brown (1885), on the flyleaf between pp. 444-45.  A poor copy of this letter is found in the John Brown Jr. Papers, Box 2: Folder 3, in Ohio Historical Society.  It is transcribed in Sanborn's articles, "The Virginia Campaign of John Brown," Atlantic Monthly (March 1875): 330-31, and “John Brown and His Friends,” Atlantic Monthly (July 1872), 53-54.  The original mss. was sold by Heritage Auction Galleries (Dallas, Tex.) in New York City, No. 626, on Feb. 19, 2006, for $13,145.00.  It appeared again on the auction website of Seth Kaller Inc. in 2008, this time on sale for $40,000, and once again in May 2009, on the QuestRoyal Fine Art LLC auction website. 

     2 Victor Lauriston, "Samson in the Temple," Canadian Magazine (Jun. 1932): 9.

     3  Transcription from the original manuscript, sold by Sotheby’s on 3 April 2008, N08507, Presidential and Other American Manuscripts from the Dr. Robert Small Trust, Lot 18. Also see transcription by Louis Ruchames in A John Brown Reader (New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1959), pp. 135-36. This letter was first published under “A Prisoner of Jesus Christ,” The Independent [New York], 24 Nov. 1859, p. 1, with an introductory letter from the Rev. Leonard W. Bacon.  Also see Redpath, The Public Life of Capt. John Brown, pp. 354-55.  Vaill’s letter to Brown dated 8 Nov. 1859, appears in Redpath, Echoes from Harper’s Ferry, p. 388. 

      4  John Brown to Heman Humphrey, Nov. 25, 1859, in Franklin B. Sanborn, Life and Letters of John Brown (1885), pp. 603-05.

      5 See "Samson Agonistes," New York Daily Tribune, Dec. 22, 1859, p. 6.

      6 “The Burial of John Brown.  The Passage of the Body to North Elba.  The Funeral. Speeches of Mr. McKim and Mr. Phillips.  From Our Special Reporter” [dated at Troy, NY, 10 Dec.], New York Daily Tribune, Dec. 12, 1859, p. 6.