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Chapter Three
The Abolitionist Calling


Unless otherwise noted, all images are from the Boyd B. Stutler Collection



When John Brown was born in 1800, nearly every northern state had taken action to abolish slavery. Because of gradual emancipation laws, however, slavery had ended in only two states—Vermont and Massachusetts. In Brown’s own birth state Connecticut, for example, a provision for gradual emancipation passed in 1784, but slavery did not completely end there until 1848.

“Before father moved from Hudson to Pa., and while living on the old tannery place, he harbored two runaway slaves. These were the first blacks I ever saw. When I, a small boy appeared in the morning the woman caught me up and gave me a kiss. I well remember trying to rub off the black from my face which I supposed had been transferred to me. This must have been before Western Reserve College had an existence. Father in later years gave me a full account of the concealing of those slaves and of their finally successful escape to Canada.” – John Brown Jr., letter to Frank Sanborn, January 8, 1884, Boyd B. Stutler Collection Still, John Brown was exposed to the anti-slavery message at an early age. The State of Ohio, carved out of the old Northwest Territory in 1803, was free from territorial days. Moreover, Brown’s father Owen opposed slavery from his youth and became an ardent abolitionist, participating in Underground Railroad activities in Hudson. Like his father, John Brown dated his opposition to slavery to his youth, writing many years later that witnessing the treatment of a slave boy during the War of 1812 made him “a most determined Abolitionist.” As a young man, he, too, helped fugitive slaves.

By the 1830s, Ohio had become the center of abolitionism in the west. This was especially true of the Western Reserve along the state’s northern border, across Lake Erie from Canada, where a number of Underground Railroad stops were located. One stop was at Oberlin College, a leading institution in the abolition movement that was founded not far from Hudson in 1833. Owen Brown served as a trustee of Oberlin College 1835-44 and also helped establish the Western Reserve Anti-slavery Society in 1833 on the basis of immediate emancipation.

Unlike his father, John Brown did not join an anti-slavery society. His determination to help blacks was just as strong, however. In 1834, then living in Pennsylvania, he wrote his brother Frederick that he wanted to bring a black youth into his home and raise him as “we do our own.” He also wanted to start a school for black children. In the 1840s, when Gerrit Smith began giving land in upstate New York to blacks, John Brown saw a way to help them. He “felt that he was needed there [North Elba] to encourage and help by his experience the few colored families who had already settled in the wilderness, and those who might move there the following spring.” (Ruth Brown Thompson, quoted in Sanborn, 44) Family and local legend indicate that Brown also participated in Underground Railroad activities while in North Elba, which was near a route in the New York-Vermont border region that conveyed fugitive slaves to Canada. Gerrit Smith
Gerrit Smith

“The first time I ever heard of John Brown raising his voice against slavery was in the church prayer meeting one Thursday afternoon. We got the news that morning that the pro-slavery men had shot Lovejoy . . . John arose and in his calm, emphatic way says: ‘I pledge myself with God’s help that I will devote my life to increasing hostility towards slavery’.” – Lora Case, “Hudson of Long Ago, Reminiscences,” The Hudson Independent, 1897 (reprint, Hudson, OH: The Hudson Library and Historical Society, 1963) At the same time, John Brown was considering more forceful action as well. In 1837, two witnesses recalled years later, after the death of anti-slavery editor Elijah Lovejoy at the hands of a pro-slavery mob, Brown proclaimed his commitment to ending slavery. Several of his children also remembered their father stating in the late 1830s his intention to fight slavery and asking that family members do the same. According to son John Jr.: "Just before the close of the meeting, John Brown, who had sat silent in the back part of the room, rose, lifting up his right hand, saying, "Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!" - Edward Brown, Northwestern Congregationist, October 21, 1892 (quoted in The Nation, February 12, 1914)

Father, mother, Jason, Owen and I were, late in the evening, seated around the fire in the open fire-place of the kitchen, in the old Haymaker house where we then lived [Franklin, Ohio]; and there he first informed us of his determination to make war on slavery . . . by force and arms. He said that he had long entertained such a purpose—that he believed it his duty to devote his life, if need be, to this object, which he made us fully to understand. After spending considerable time in setting forth in most impressive language the hopeless condition of the slave, he asked who of us were willing to make common cause with him in doing all in our power to “break the jaws of the wicked and pluck the spoil out of his teeth,” naming each of us in succession. Are you, Mary, John, Jason, and Owen? Receiving an affirmative answer from each, he kneeled in prayer, and all did the same. . . . After prayer he asked us to raise our right hands, and he then administered to us an oath, . . . [that] bound us to secrecy and devotion to the purpose of fighting slavery by force and arms to the extent of our ability. - John Brown Jr., quoted in Oswald Garrison Villard, John Brown
By the late 1840s, John Brown had formulated his Subterranean Pass Way plan, a militant plan incorporating an “underground railroad” concept but designed to increase the number of blacks escaping from slavery. In November 1847, he shared his plan to utilize an armed force of blacks based in the mountains to attack slavery with abolitionist Frederick Douglass: “My plan then is to take at first about twenty-five picked men, and begin on a small scale; supply them arms and ammunition, post them in squads of fives on a line of twenty-five miles, the most persuasive and judicious of whom shall go down to the fields from time to time, as opportunity offers, and induce the slaves to join them, seeking and selecting the most restless and daring.”

Brown was not alone in the 1840s among abolitionists in concluding that violence against slavery was necessary to bring the end of the South’s “peculiar institution.” However, such thinking was more likely found among black abolitionists such as Henry Highland Garnet and David Walker rather than their white compatriots.

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass

For many, the turning point was passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 as part of the Compromise of 1850. In strengthening existing legislation, the 1850 law denied captured blacks due process and imposed penalties on law enforcement officials or private citizens who failed to enforce the law or aided runaways. Both fugitives who were living in northern communities and free blacks felt threatened by the new law. Many fled to Canada; many others were captured and sent south. John Brown observed in November 1850, “It now seems that the Fugitive Slave Law was to be the means of making more Abolitionists than all the lectures we have had for years.” (Sanborn, 106-7) In January 1851, Brown took direct action, helping organize a group of Springfield blacks, the United States League of Gileadites, to resist the new law and rescue captured blacks. He likewise urged his family and neighbors in North Elba to oppose the law.

William Lloyd Garrison
William Lloyd Garrison
The next few years brought slave rescues in several states as groups of northern whites and blacks sought to oppose the law. In one of the more prominent cases, that of fugitive slave Anthony Burns, who was captured in Boston in May 1854, such noted abolitionists as Wendell Phillips, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and Theodore Parker participated in a failed attempt to free Burns that led to a riot and the death of a deputy. In New York defending Perkins and Brown in a law suit, John Brown stated his intent to go to Boston and help free Burns but was dissuaded from such action by his counsel because of the pending legal case. On July 4, a month after Burns was returned to his Virginia master, William Lloyd Garrison dramatically demonstrated his antipathy for slavery and its support by the federal government.

Producing a copy of the Fugitive Slave Law, he set fire to it, and it burst to ashes. . . . In like manner, Mr. Garrison burned the decision of Edward G. Loring in the case of Anthony Burns, and the late charge of Judge Benjamin R. Curtis to the United States Grand Jury in reference to the "treasonable" assault upon the Court House for the rescue of the fugitive—the multitude ratifying the fiery immolation with shouts of applause. Then holding up the U.S. Constitution, he branded it as the source and parent of all the other atrocities,—"a covenant with death, and an agreement with hell,"—and consumed it to ashes on the spot, exclaiming, "So perish all compromises with tyranny!” - The Liberator, July 7, 1854

Primary Documents:

Owen Brown’s abolitionist statement (from Sanborn, Life and Letters)
Letter, John Brown to Frederick Brown, November 21, 1834
Extract from Edward Brown’s recollections on John Brown
Frederick Douglass account of meeting with John Brown (from Douglass, Life and Times)
Fugitive Slave Act of 1850
United States League of Gileadites (from Sanborn)
Proceedings of the convention of Radical Political Abolitionists, 1855

Secondary Sources:

"John Brown and the Fugitive Slave Law," by William Wells Brown
John Brown and Anthony Burns


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