To THE EDITOR of THE NATION:
SIR: I desire to call attention to a source of information in regard to John Brown of Osawatomie, which has been overlooked by his biographers. I refer to a series of Pioneer Reminiscences of the Western Reserve by his cousin, Rev. Edward Brown, published in 1892 in the Northwestern Congregationalist, Minneapolis. In one of these articles the writer narrates an incident which furnishes the answer to a question raised by Mr. Oswald Garrison Villard in his excellent biography: "When was it that John Brown . . . first conceived what he calls in his autobiography 'his greatest or principal object' in life — the forcible overthrow of slavery in his native land?" According to the testimony of John Brown's cousin, as will be seen, this determination to wage war against slavery had its definite beginning in November, 1837.
The following quotation is taken from Edward Brown's article, printed in the journal referred to, October 21, 1892:
Among the earliest of the pioneers at Hudson, O., was Owen Brown, my father's brother, in after years a trustee, of Oberlin College. His eldest son, John, a very bright and energetic young man, making a religious profession at sixteen years of age, was desirous of studying for the ministry, incited thereto chiefly by that ardent founder of the American Board, Samuel J. Mills, a kinsman. Unable to furnish him money, his father gave him two horses, which he took, riding one and leading the other, to Connecticut and sold. Then he went to Plainfleld, Mass., where, at an academy and under the private instruction of one Moses Hallock, he was fitted to enter the junior class of Yale College, which he was prevented from doing by a chronic disease of the eyes. . . .
With his father he was among the earliest of Abolitionists. He had been a surveyor in the mountains near Harper's Ferry, Va., and had often remarked that, with a good leader, the slaves, escaping to those fastnesses and fortifying themselves, could compel emancipation.
Prof. Laurens P. Hickok (since president of Union College and a distinguished preacher and writer of philosophical works) became, in 1836, professor of theology in Western Reserve College. He was regarded as conservative on the question of emancipation. One afternoon in November, 1837, we heard a rapid tramping through the college halls, and every room entered. Soon we saw it was Professor Hickok, who entered greatly excited. He said, "I want you all to come down to the old chapel-room immediately on the ringing of the four o'clock bell. I have some very important news to tell you." Promptly on time the room was filled with both faculty and students. Professor Hickok had brought an account of the murder of the Rev. Elijah P. Lovejoy and the destruction of his press at Alton, Ill. (where he was publishing a religious paper of decided anti-slavery views), by a Missouri mob from St. Louis. They had before destroyed his presses, both at St. Louis and at Alton. After reading it, he proposed to us to call a meeting at the Congregational church in the village two days later.
The next day he mounted his horse and rode all over the township, calling at every house and inviting the people to the meeting. At the meeting he made a most eloquent speech, burning with indignation, in which he said, "The crisis has come. The question now before the American citizens is no longer alone, 'Can the slaves be made free?' but, 'Are we free, or are we slaves under Southern mob law?' I propose that we take measures to procure another press and another editor. If a like fate attends them, send another, till the whole country is aroused; and if you can find no fitter man tor the first victim, send me." During the afternoon many speeches were made and strong resolutions passed.
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!" His aged father then rose, and, with stammering speech (for he was a great stammerer), said, "When John the Baptist was beheaded, the disciples took up his body and laid it in a tomb and went and told Jesus. Let us now go to Jesus and tell him." Then, in a very fervent prayer, weeping (but not stammering, for he scarcely ever stammered in prayer), he closed the meeting. . . .
It will be noted that this account explains two other points mentioned by Mr. Villard: the oath which John Brown obtained from several members of his family to do all in their power to abolish slavery, and the reference which he made to Lovejoy in his "Words of Advice" to the "Gileadites."
J. NEWTON BROWN.
Ardmore, Pa., February 5.
To THE EDITOR OF THE NATION:
SIR: I thank you tor having shown me Mr. J. Newton Brown's interesting letter. Stories like this one about John Brown are afloat without number. It is true, however, that the Harper's Ferry raider was at Hudson at the time of Elijah Lovejoy's murder, and doubtless attended the meeting. But undocumented recollections are a trap a wary historian must usually shun, particularly if recorded by one well on in years.
OSWALD GARRISON VILLARD.
New York, February 7.
Note: A copy of The Nation article is in John Brown Pamphlets, Vol. 24 (unbound), Boyd B. Stutler Collection, West Virginia State Archives.