John Brown and His Friends

How a coterie of New Englanders—including the author—secretly funded John Brown's raid
More

AT the beginning of the year 1858, nobody in Massachusetts, except here and there a fugitive slave perhaps, had heard of John Brown's plan for the invasion of Virginia though he had made much progress toward its execution. He had enlisted men and engaged the English Garibaldian, Hugh Forbes, to drill them; but this engagement was quite unknown to Brown's Massachusetts friends, who had never seen Forbes, and only heard of him casually and incidentally. They had never been consulted by Brown in regard to paying Forbes, nor, of course, had Brown given Forbes any assurances that they would pay him the salary stipulated, between Forbes and Brown; of which in fact, they knew nothing whatever. It was therefore with much surprise and mystification that, about Christmas-time, 1857, Dr. S. G. Howe and Mr. Sanborn began to receive passionate and denunciatory letters, written by Forbes, complaining of ill-treatment at their hands, and assuming to hold them responsible for the termination of his engagement with Brown, by which, he said, he had been reduced to poverty, and his family in Paris, deprived of pecuniary aid from him, had suffered great hardship. Two of these letters were addressed to Senator Sumner, and were forwarded by him to Dr. Howe and Mr. Sanborn, who in great ignorance as to what such abusive epistles meant, answered them with some curtness and severity. This correspondence temporarily closed in January, 1858, and the substance of it was communicated to Brown, then in Kansas, with the request that he would explain the meaning of Forbes's anger, and state what their real relations with each other were. Before replying to this request, which probably was not received till weeks afterward, Brown suddenly left Kansas without the knowledge of his friends there, and appeared, in the beginning of February, 1858, at the house of Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York. From there he wrote, February 2, to Theodore Parker, George L. Stearns, F. B. Sanborn, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, asking them to aid him in raising a small sum of money to carry out "an important measure in which the world has a deep interest." This, he tells Mr. Parker, is his only errand at the East, and he goes on: "I have written some of our mutual friends in regard to it, but none of them understand my views so well as you do, and I cannot explain without their committing themselves more than I know of their doing. I have heard that Parker Pillsbury, and some others, in your quarter, hold out ideas similar to those on which I act, but I have no personal acquaintance with them, and know nothing of their influence or means. Do you think any of our Garrisonian friends, either at Boston, Worcester, or in any other place, can be induced to supply a little 'straw,' if I will absolutely make 'bricks'? I must beg of you to consider this communication strictly confidential, unless you know of parties who will feel and act and hold their peace." (2)

Brown's letters of the same date and for a few weeks after, to Colonel Higginson and Mr. Sanborn, were of a similar tenor, though rather more explicit, but they conveyed no distinct intimation of his plans. He wrote to Higginson, February 2, from Rochester: "I am here, concealing my whereabouts for good reasons (as I think), not, however, from any anxiety about my personal safety. I have been told that you are both a true man and a true abolitionist, and I partly believe the whole story. Last fall I undertook to raise from five hundred to one thousand dollars for secret service, and succeeded in getting five hundred dollars. I now want to get, for the perfecting of by far the most important undertaking of my whole life, from five hundred to eight hundred dollars within the next sixty days. I have written Rev. Theodore Parker, George L. Stearns, and F. B. Sanborn, Esquires, on the subject, but do not know as either Mr. Stearns or Mr. Sanborn are abolitionists. I suppose they are." On the 12th of February he wrote again in response to a remark in Higginson's reply about the Underground Railroad in Kansas: "Railroad business on a somewhat extended scale is the identical object for which I am trying to get means. I have been connected with that business, as commonly conducted, from my boyhood, and never let an opportunity slip. I have been operating to some purpose the past season, but I now have a measure on foot that I feel sure would awaken in you something more than a common interest, if you could understand it. I have just written my friends G. L. Stearns and F. B. Sanborn, asking them to meet me for consultation at ----. I am very anxious to have you come along, certain as I feel that you will never regret having been one of the council." It was inconvenient for any of the persons addressed to take the long journey proposed, and on the 13th Mr. Sanborn wrote for himself and Mr. Stearns, inviting Brown to visit Boston, and offering to pay his travelling expenses. To this request Brown replied, February 17th: "It would be almost impossible for me to pass through Albany, Springfield, or any of those parts, on my way to Boston, and not have it known; and my reasons for keeping quiet are such that, when I left Kansas, I kept it from every friend there; and I suppose it is still understood that I am hiding somewhere in the Territory; and such will be the idea until it comes to be generally known that I am in these parts. I want to continue that impression as long as I can, or for the present. I want very much to see Mr. Stearns, and also Mr. Parker, and it may be that I can before long; but I must decline accepting your kind offer at present, and, sorry as I am to do so, ask you both to meet me by the middle of next week at the furthest. I wrote Mr. Higginson of Worcester to meet me also. It may be he would come on with you. My reasons for keeping still are sufficient to keep me from seeing my wife and children, much as I long to do so. I will endeavor to explain when I see you." This letter was written from Rochester.

There was no doubt in the mind of Mr. Sanborn that the promised explanation would clear up the mystery of Forbes's letters, which had grieved as well as annoyed him and the few friends of Brown in Boston who had seen them. Therefore, when Mr. Stearns was still unable to accept this second and pressing request from Brown for a meeting in Central New York, Mr. Sanborn determined to go, and invited Colonel Higginson to join him at Worcester on the 20th, but in fact he made the journey alone, and reached the place of meeting on the evening of Washington's birthday, February 22d. A few friends of Brown were there gathered, among them another Massachusetts man, Mr. Edwin Morton of Plymouth, now of Boston, but then residing in the family of Mr. Gerrit Smith as tutor and private secretary.(3) In the long winter evening which followed, the whole outline of Brown's campaign in Virginia was laid before the little council, to the astonishment and almost the dismay of all present. The constitution which he had drawn up for the government of his men, and such territory as they might occupy, and which was found among his papers at the Kennedy Farm, was exhibited by Brown, its provisions recited and explained, the proposed movements of his men indicated, and the middle of May was named as the time of the attack. To begin this hazardous adventure he asked for but eight hundred dollars, and would think himself rich with a thousand. Being questioned and opposed by his friends, he laid before them in detail his methods of organization and fortification; of settlement in the South, if that were possible, and of retreat through the North, if necessary; and his theory of the way in which such an invasion would be received in the country at large. He desired from his Massachusetts friends a patient hearing of his statements, a candid opinion concerning them, and, if that were favorable, then that they should co-operate with him and persuade others to do so. This was the important business which he had to communicate on the anniversary of Washington's birthday.

After what has passed in the last ten years, no one can picture to himself the startling effect of such a plan, heard for the first time in the dismal days of Buchanan's administration, when Floyd was Secretary of War, and Jefferson Davis and Senator Mason omnipotent in Congress. Those who listened to Captain Brown had been familiar with the bold plots and counter-plots of the Kansas border, and had aided the escape of slaves in various parts of the South. But to strike at once at the existence of slavery, by an organized force, acting for years, if need be, on the dubious principles of guerilla warfare, and exposed, perhaps, to the whole power of the country, was something they had never contemplated. That was the long-meditated plan of a poor, obscure, old man, uncertain at best of another ten years' lease of life, and yet calmly proposing an enterprise which, if successful, might require a whole generation to accomplish. His friends listened until late at night, proposing objections and raising difficulties, but nothing shook the purpose of the old Puritan. To every objection he had an answer; every difficulty had been foreseen and provided for; the great difficulty of all, the apparent hopelessness of undertaking anything so vast with such slender means, he met with the words of Scripture, "If God be for us, who can be against us?" and "Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain."

To all suggestions of delay until a more favorable time, he would reply, "I am nearly sixty years old; I have desired to do this work for many years; if I do not begin soon, it will be too late for me." He had made nearly all his arrangements; he had so many hundred weapons, so many men enlisted, all that he wanted was the small sum of money. With that he would open his campaign with the spring, and he did not doubt that his enterprise would pay. But those who heard him, while they looked upon the success of Brown's undertaking as a great blessing and relief to the country, felt also that to fail, contending against such odds, might hazard for many years the cause of freedom and union. They had not yet fully attained the sublime faith of Brown when he said, "A few men in the right, and knowing they are right, can overturn a king. Twenty men in the Alleghanies could break slavery to pieces in two years."

On the 23d of February the discussion was renewed, and, as usually happened when he had time enough, Captain Brown began to prevail over the objections of his friends. At any rate, they saw that they must either stand by him, or, leave him to dash himself in pieces alone against the fortress which he was determined to assault. To withhold aid would only delay him, not prevent him; nothing, short of betraying him to the enemy would do that. As the sun was setting over the snowy hills of the region where they met, the Massachusetts delegate walked for an hour with the principal person in the little council of war, leaving Captain Brown to discuss religion with an old captain of Wellington's army who, by chance, was a guest in the house. The elder of the two, of equal age with Brown and for many years a devoted abolitionist, said, "You see how it is; our old friend has made up his mind to this course of action and cannot be turned from it. We cannot give him up to die alone; we must stand by him. I will raise so many hundred dollars for him; you must lay the case before your friends in Massachusetts and see if they will do the same. I see no other way." The same conclusion had been reached by his younger companion, for himself, and he engaged to bring the scheme at once to the attention of the three Massachusetts men to whom Brown had written, and also of Dr. S. G. Howe, who had sometimes favored action almost as extreme as this proposed by Brown.

Sanborn returned to Boston on the 25th of February, and on the same day communicated the enterprise to Theodore Parker and Colonel Higginson. At the suggestion of Parker, Brown, who had gone to Brooklyn, New York, was invited to visit Boston secretly, and did so early in March, taking a room at the American House, in Hanover Street. He registered himself as "J. Brown," instead of writing out the customary "John" in full, and remained for the most part in his room (No. 126) during the four days of his stay. Parker was one of the first persons to call on him, and promised aid at once. He was deeply interested in the project, but not very sanguine of its success; he wished to see it tried, however, and gave Brown substantial proof of his interest and support; while Brown in return gave him the fullest confidence in respect to the whole movement. Parker left the country, never to return, early in the following year; but he was kept informed in a general way of the progress of the affair, and as late as September 29, 1859, three weeks before the outbreak at Harper's Ferry, he wrote to inquire what Captain Brown was doing, and said: " I wish I had something now to drop into the hat for the same end. Tell me how our little speculation in wool goes on, and what dividend accrues therefrom."

Two years after the death of Parker, in 1860, one of his executors found among his papers this letter of Brown's, which has never been printed, written just before his visit to Boston, in March, 1858. It was not addressed to Mr. Parker, but had been sent to him by the person who received it.

-- N. Y. 24th Feb'y, 1858

MY DEAR FRIEND: -- Mr. X. has taken the liberty of saying to me that you felt half inclined to make a common cause with me. I greatly rejoice at this for I believe when you come to look at the ample field I labor in, and the rich harvest which (not only this entire country, but) the whole world during the present and future generations may reap from its successful cultivation, you will feel that you are out of your element, until you find you are in it, an entire unit. What an inconceivable amount of good you might so effect, by your counsel, your example, your encouragement, your natural and acquired ability for active service. And then, how very little we can possibly lose? Certainly the cause is enough to live for, if not to ---- for. I have only had this one opportunity in a life of nearly sixty years; and could I be continued ten times as long again, I might not again have another equal opportunity. God has honored but comparatively a very small part of mankind with any possible chance for such mighty and soul-satisfying rewards. But, my dear friend, if you should make up your mind to do so, I trust it will be wholly from the promptings of your own spirit, after having thoroughly counted the cost. I would flatter no man into such a measure, if I could do it ever so easily.

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. I felt for a number of years in earlier life, a steady, strong desire to die, but since I saw any prospect of becoming a " reaper" in the great harvest, I have not only felt quite willing to live, but have enjoyed life much; and am now rather anxious to live for a few years more.

Your sincere Friend,

JOHN BROWN.(4)

In a collection of Brown's letters, this would rank among the first for the light it sheds on his life and character. The reference to his longing for death in his youth is one of the few revelations made by him of his early mental struggles, and, no doubt, means that he was unfortunate in love, and in other ways found the world a melancholy place. His early religious experiences, occurring at the same period, must have deepened the sadness which sprang from disappointed affection; but the strength of his religious faith finally overcame it, and gave him peace of mind. The allusion to the last victory of Samson is repeated in one of his letters from prison, in November, 1859, when he wrote to his old schoolmaster, Rev. H. L. Vaill, "Had Samson kept to his determination of not telling Delilah wherein his great strength lay, he would probably have never overturned the house." This comparison of himself to Samson was not from vanity, but under a profound sense of a divine mission, like that of the Hebrew champion; and he never entered upon his dangerous expeditions in Kansas or elsewhere, without thoughts to which Milton has given utterance in his "Samson Agonistes": --

"Happen what may, of me expect to hear

Nothing dishonorable, impure, unworthy

Our God, our law, my nation or myself, --

The last of me or no I cannot warrant."

Captain Brown reached Boston Thursday, March 4, 1858, and left it Monday, the 8th, for Philadelphia. On Friday and Saturday, in Boston, he had seen at his hotel Theodore Parker, Dr. Howe, Messrs Sanborn, Stearns, and Higginson, and perhaps one or two other persons. He kept himself private, however, and did not, as when he was in Boston a year before, go to the Sunday-evening reception at Mr. Parker's in Exeter Place, where he had met Mr. Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and other antislavery leaders in 1857. He therefore communicated with Parker on Sunday, March 7th, by letter; and this letter, an unusually long one for Brown, is printed in Weiss's "Life of Parker."(5) He begins by an apology for writing letters on Sunday, and goes on to ask Parker to draw up for him an address to the officers and soldiers of the United States Army, whom he soon expected to meet as opponents, as he had in Kansas. Such an address had been prepared six months before by Forbes, and a copy sent to Parker; but Brown was not satisfied with this, and in this letter gives directions for composing a better address, and also another paper "intended for all persons, old and young, male and female, slaveholding and non-slaveholding"; and a third tract "for every male and female" prisoner on being set at liberty, and to be read by them during confinement." It does not appear that Parker ever tried his hand at these papers, or that they were prepared by any person. It may be worth mentioning, however, that Parker sent Brown from his library on this Sunday the report of McClellan on the European armies, which was then a new book, and was thought likely to be of service to Brown. At the same time Brown praised Plutarch's Lives as a book he had read with great profit for its military and moral lessons, and particularly mentioned the life of Sertorius, the Roman commander who so long carried on a partisan warfare in Spain. He wished to get a few copies of Plutarch for his men to read in camp, and inquired particularly about the best edition.

Although Brown communicated freely to the persons above named his plans of attack and defence in Virginia, it is not known that he spoke to more than one person in Boston of his purpose of surprising the arsenal and town of Harper's Ferry. Both Dr. Howe and Mr. Stearns testified before Mason's committee, in 1860, that they were ignorant of Brown's plan of attack, which was true so far as the place and manner of beginning the campaign were concerned. It is probable that in 1858 Brown had not definitely resolved to seize Harper's Ferry, since, when he spoke of it to the person referred to, he put it as a question, and did not seem to have made up his mind to a course of action so immediately hazardous. He then argued that it would strike great terror into the whole slaveholding class to find that an armed force had strength enough to capture a place so important and so near Washington; and it was to inspire terror, rather than to possess himself of the arms there, that he then proposed to capture the arsenal. It is believed that Theodore Parker was aware of this half-formed plan of Brown's, but it was not communicated to his men until a year and a half later, or just before the attack was actually made. Charles Plummer Tidd, one of Brown's men, who escaped from Harper's Ferry, afterwards enlisted in a Massachusetts regiment under the name of Plummer, and died under Burnside in North Carolina, is authority for this statement. He said that when Brown called his small company together in October, 1859, on the Maryland shore of the Potomac, and disclosed to them his plan for the capture of the town, they all declared that it would be fatal to attempt it, and refused to take part in it; even his own sons, except Owen, being unwilling to follow their father to what they said would be certain defeat and death. But Brown had now decided upon his course, and adhered to it inflexibly; he would make the attack with a single man, if only one man would obey him. His sons, finding their father so determined, and knowing how impossible it was to change his purpose, first gave in their adhesion; they believed it to be a fatal scheme, but they would not desert him. Gradually all the others came round to the same opinion, and the attack was made with precisely the result that Brown's followers had predicted. We have no reason to doubt that Tidd's statement was true in substance.

On the departure of Brown from Boston in March, 1858, the five persons mentioned -- Parker, Howe, Higginson, Sanborn, and Stearns -- formed themselves into a secret committee to raise for him the money (now set at $1,000) which it was agreed should be raised in New England. Each of the five was to raise $100, and as much more as he could, Dr. Howe having hopes of securing a larger subscription from his friend Mr. George R. Russell. Mr. Stearns was made treasurer of the committee, and ten days after Brown's departure $250 had been paid in. By the 1st of April $375 had been collected, and on the 20th of April $410, Of which Stearns, Parker, and Higginson had each paid $I00, Sanborn $60, and Howe $50. Stearns pledged $200 more, and Brown had collected $260 outside of New England; so that the small sum judged necessary for beginning the enterprise was nearly made up, either in money or pledges, before the 1st of May, at which time Brown was on his way from Iowa to Ohio, with the arms that had been stored in Iowa, and with some of his men. He was to enlist others in Canada about May 8th, and to strike his first blow in the latter part of the same month. On the 28th of April Brown was in Chicago; on the 2d of May at Chatham, in Canada. But, meanwhile, a formidable obstacle had appeared. Hugh Forbes interposed again, writing from Washington, and threatened to disclose the whole plan to the Republican leaders, and even to the government.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Why Did I Study Physics?

In this hand-drawn animation, a college graduate explains why she chose her major—and what it taught her about herself.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Video

What If Emoji Lived Among Us?

A whimsical ad imagines what life would be like if emoji were real.

Video

Living Alone on a Sailboat

"If you think I'm a dirtbag, then you don't understand the lifestyle."

Video

How Is Social Media Changing Journalism?

How new platforms are transforming radio, TV, print, and digital

Video

The Place Where Silent Movies Sing

How an antique, wind-powered pipe organ brings films to life

Feature

The Future of Iced Coffee

Are artisan businesses like Blue Bottle doomed to fail when they go mainstream?

Writers

Up
Down
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In