July 1872 The Civil War

John Brown and His Friends

How a coterie of New Englanders—including the author—secretly funded the raid on Harpers Ferry

Thought to be the earliest portrait of John Brown, this daguerreotype was made by the African American photographer Augustus Washington. Produced in 1846 or 1847—about a decade before Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry—the image shows Brown with a hand raised, calling to mind the pledge he made to fight for the eradication of slavery. Brown was living at this time in Springfield, Massachusetts, and, finding himself increasingly stirred by the anti- slavery fervor emanating from Boston, he had begun planning for armed action against slave- holding Southerners. (Augustus Washington/National Portrait Gallery)


In 1856, John Brown, a militant abolitionist who’d had 20 children and string of failed businesses, earned notoriety by murdering five pro-slavery men in Kansas. The following year, he hatched the idea of establishing a militarized outpost of abolitionists in the Blue Ridge Mountains. His plan was to seize the federal armory at Harpers Ferry and arm the legions of slaves he imagined would rise up. Though the band of men he led into Harpers Ferry in Ocrober 1859 did seize the armory, the raid was quickly suppressed and Brown was hanged for conspiracy, treason, and murder

Across the North, Brown gained fame as a martyr, but the South was horrified, both by Brown’s actions and the celebration of them.

Shortly after the raid, it came to light that Brown had obtained secret funding from New England abolitionists. After the war, one of those supporters, Franklin Sanborn (writing anonymously and referring to himself in the third person, recounted how he and his fellow abolitionists—through clandestine meetings and a “secret committee”—had funneled money and weapons to Brown’s cause.

—Sage Stossel

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 …

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” …

Mr. Sanborn … made the journey [to see Brown in Rochester] alone, and reached the place of meeting on the evening of Washington’s birthday, February 22d. A few friends of Brown were there gathered … 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 …

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.”

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