In 1859, relations between the North and the South continued to deteriorate. Resentment of the North reached an all-time high in white communities throughout the South. Weary of Northern criticism of their morals, Southern whites also worried that anti-slavery feelings in the North were growing so strong that the federal government might soon force the South to abolish slavery against its will. In the North, meanwhile, anger at the South's continued defense of slavery and its occasional threats to secede was widespread. As people all around the country struggled to control their anger and frustration, it did not seem as if relations between America's Northern and Southern sections could get any more strained. But in October 1859, the activities of a radical abolitionist named John Brown (1800-1859) managed to worsen an already hostile and distrustful environment.
John Brown was a deeply religious man who viewed slavery as an evil institution that should be immediately abolished. A white Northerner, he allied himself with the abolitionists during the 1830s and 1840s. Brown's willingness to use violence in the anti-slavery cause, however, did not become evident until the mid-1850s, when he joined the abolitionist settlers who were trying to establish Kansas as a free state. Four days after proslavery raiders attacked the abolitionist town of Lawrence, Brown and four of his sons slaughtered five proslavery settlers in revenge, even though they had not been involved in the raid.
By the late 1850s, Brown had decided that Southern whites would never willingly abolish slavery. Convinced that the only way to end slavery was through force, he made plans to start a violent slave rebellion all across the South. Aided by a group of Northern abolitionists that came to be known as the Secret Six, Brown decided to attack a federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now part of West Virginia). He believed that he could use the weapons stored in the armory to outfit nearby slaves, and convinced himself that once the uprising started, slaves all across the South would join the rebellion.
The first part of Brown's scheme unfolded according to plan. Leading a band of twenty-two men— black and white—the radical abolitionist successfully captured the Harpers Ferry armory on the night of
October 16, 1859. But as the evening wore on, it became clear that Brown's plan was flawed. Slaves in the area were unsure about what was going on, and they elected not to join Brown. In addition, white citizens of Harpers Ferry managed to surround the raid ing party's position, and by the next day, Brown and his men were trapped.
Brown refused to surrender. But on October 18, a company of marines commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee (1807-1870)
captured the abolitionist and his crew after a brief but bloody battle. Brown and the remnants of his band were led away, leaving behind several dead civilians, including the mayor of Harpers Ferry, and ten dead abolitionists. Brown and seven of his men were subsequently convicted of murder, treason, and inciting a slave insurrection, and they were all executed. But Brown remained defiant during and after his trial. "This Court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God," he proclaimed after being sentenced to hang. "I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done in behalf of His despised poor, is no wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further . . . with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say let it be done."
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