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John Brown in Massachusetts

by Franklin Sanborn

IT is still too early, perhaps, to tell the whole of the remarkable story of John Brown, the hero of Virginia in the nineteenth century, as that romantic chieftain of like plainness of name and vigor of spirit, John Smith, was its hero in the seventeenth century. Neither of them belonged to Virginia, -- let us say rather that Virginia belonged to them; they took it for their stage of action, and there, for a few months or years, they exhibited in view of all the world the qualities which all the world with one consent, since the world was made, now agrees to call heroic. Their contemporaries did not all have this opinion of them; the Virginians of John Smith's time found him almost as troublesome as those of our time esteemed John Brown; and though they did not hang him, they would have been glad to do so if they could. The ancestors of John Randolph on the copper-colored side did their best to kill Smith, just as the descendants of John Randolph on the white side, if he had left any, would have joined in the killing of Brown, as the Washingtons and Masons of our time did. This parallel need not be carried further, except by saying that both John Smith and John Brown have also connected their names with Massachusetts history; and it may not be too early to present some reminiscences of Brown in Massachusetts, where his first American ancestor dwelt, and where he found in his last enterprise a few hearty friends and supporters.
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More on arts & culture in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

From the archives:

"Forgotten Heroes of Freedom," by Leon F. Litwack (November, 1999)
"As much as any of the Revolutionary patriots and Founding Fathers," writes our reviewer, a historian of slavery, "we need to recall these plantation rebels and outlaws."

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashback: "Blood and Justice" (May 18, 2000)
Nat Turner and John Brown came to symbolize the radical struggle against slavery in the decades prior to the Civil War. Both were hanged for their actions. Both were at the center of intense controversy. A collection of Atlantic articles, from 1861 to 1922, commemorates the bicentennial of their births.

Flashback: "Denmark Vesey, Forgotten Hero" (December 1, 1999)
The story of a thwarted slave revolt that, had it succeeded, would have been the largest in history.

Flashback: "Rhetoric of Freedom" (September 16, 1999)
Atlantic articles by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Frederick Douglass comment on Lincoln's greatest decision, and his greatest legacy.

Interviews: "Inheriting Slavery" (February 26, 1998)
Edward Ball, the author of Slaves in the Family, set out to reckon with the legacy of his ancestors' plantations.

It would be curious to trace the English ancestry of Captain Brown, which, some suppose, goes back to that stout-hearted John Brown, of Henry VIII's time, who was one of the victims of Popish persecution in the early years of that king. Fox, in his "Book of Martyrs," tells the story of his martyrdom at the stake, in the early summer of 1511, at Ashford, where he dwelt; and adds that his son, Richard Brown, was imprisoned for his faith in the later days of Queen Mary, and would have been burned but for the proclaiming of Queen Elizabeth, in 1558. Peter Brown, who came over in the Mayflower, and his brother John, who came afterward, both settling in Duxbury, near the hill of Miles Standish, may perhaps have been grandchildren or great-grandchildren of John Brown the martyr of Ashford. They were born probably about 1580, but very little is known of their history. The younger of the two brothers, as we suppose, Peter Brown of the Mayflower company, was a carpenter, and was twice married between his landing in 1620 and his death in 1633. He is believed to have had four children, of whom the youngest, Peter, was born in Duxbury in 1632, and, some twenty years later, removed to Windsor in Connecticut, and died there in 1692. From him, through a succession of John Browns, was descended Owen Brown, who married Ruth Mills, daughter of Rev. Gideon Mills of Simsbury, in 1793, and whose oldest son was John Brown, of Kansas and Harper's Ferry. He was born at Torrington, Connecticut, on The 9th of May, 1800.1 Those curious in ethnology may take notice that while the Brown family was English, the Mills family was Dutch, and the Owens, of whom was John Brown's paternal grandmother, were Welsh. His ancestors were mostly farmers, and among them was the proper New England proportion of ministers, deacons, squires, and captains. Both his grandfathers were officers in the Connecticut contingent to Washington's army, and one of them, Captain John Brown, died in the service. It is his gravestone which the pilgrim to his grandson's grave, in the Adirondack woods, sees standing by the great rock that marks the spot.

John Brown, when a boy of five, emigrated with his father to Ohio. His first visit to Massachusetts was probably when he came here at the age of eighteen or twenty to fit for college, -- a purpose which he was soon compelled to abandon, from poverty and weakness of sight. Plainfield, in Hampshire County, a small hill town adjoining Cummington, the birthplace of the poet Bryant, was the place selected for his college preparation. It had been for many years the home of a learned minister, Rev. Moses Hallock, whose brother, Rev. Jeremiah Hallock, of Brown's native region, had married a relative of Brown, and it was through his kinsman, Jeremiah Hallock, that the young student was sent to Parson Hallock's then famous school in Plainfield, where Bryant had been a pupil some years before, and which had a reputation for graduating missionaries and parish ministers. John Brown meant to enter the ministry, after his college course, and we may well believe that his failure to go on with his education was a serious grief to him.

The young student was a tanner by trade, and brought with him from Ohio to Plainfield a piece of sole-leather which he had himself kept in the tanpits of his father at Hudson for seven years, and with which he meant to sole his thick boots when they should require it. He lived in the parsonage-house of Mr. Hallock while he remained in Plainfield, which seems to have been but a few months. His design probably was to enter Amherst College, which was founded about that time, and of which his cousin, Dr. Heman Humphrey, was, soon after, for many years the president. Disappointed in the hope of a ministerial education, and crossed in love, he returned to Ohio about 1820, and soon after, as he says in his autobiography, "led by his own inclination and prompted also by his father, he married a remarkably plain, but neat, industrious, and economical girl, of excellent character, earnest piety, and good practical common sense, about one year younger than himself." The italics here are Brown's own, and they indicate that the excellent Dianthe Lusk, whom he married, was not the Rachel he had striven to win. But she was a good wife to him, and so he goes on to say: "This woman, by her mild, frank, and, more than all else, by her very consistent conduct, acquired, and ever while she lived maintained, a most powerful and good influence over him. Her plain but kind admonitions generally had the right effect, without arousing his haughty, obstinate temper." She was the mother of his first seven children, and died in 1832. The next year he married again; his second wife survives him, and now lives, with four of her thirteen children, in California.

It was about fourteen years after this second marriage that John Brown came again to Massachusetts, where he lived from 1846 to 1849. In the intervening years, since he studied with Parson Hallock at Plainfield, he had been a tanner in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and a shepherd in Ohio, -- the latter occupation, as he says, "being a calling for which in early life he had a kind of enthusiastic longing." At the age of thirty-nine, when he entered upon this "calling" as a regular business, he also had, as he says, "the idea that as a business it bid fair to afford him the means of carrying out his greatest or principal object." This object was the liberation of the slaves, and the plan which he had formed for this was in substance the same in 1839 that it was twenty years later, when he put it in execution. This statement is made on the authority of his wife, who declares that he communicated it to her as early as 1839, and that all her children were brought up to believe in it and to aid in it. The precise time when this plan was formed it is perhaps impossible now to determine, nor is it important to do so, if we accept Mr. Emerson's view of the matter in his speech at Salem, a month after Brown's martyrdom: "His enterprise was not a piece of spite or revenge, a plot of two years, or of twenty years, but the keeping of an oath made to heaven and earth forty-seven years before. Forty-seven years at least, though I incline to accept his own account of the matter at Charlestown, which makes the date a little older, when he said, 'This was all settled millions of years before the world was made.'" He was indeed a most implicit believer in foreordination, as his Puritan forefathers had been. He had long looked upon himself as called to take part in the liberation of the slaves, and how constantly his mind dwelt on this subject will appear from an incident which is now for the first time published.

When he came to live in Massachusetts, in 1846, it was as the agent of sheep-farmers and wool-growers in Ohio, one of whom he had been for half a dozen years. Their interests required, as they thought, that an agency to stand between them and the New England manufacturers, to whom they sold their wool, should be established at Springfield in Massachusetts, and Brown was selected as the fittest person to manage this agency. He accepted the trust and was active and faithful in it, but he held the position also as a means of developing his scheme of emancipation. Before he took up his residence in Springfield he carried his family thither, and his sons there made the acquaintance of a colored man, a fugitive from the eastern shore of Maryland, Thomas Thomas by name, who was living in a humble capacity at Springfield. The young men accompanied Thomas to the African church in the town, learned his history and something of his upright and courageous character, and engaged him to work for their father when he should come to take charge of his wool business at Springfield. In due time John Brown came, and sent for Thomas to call and see him. He did so, and was directed to come and begin work as a porter at the wool-warehouse the next morning. "How early shall I come?" said Thomas. "We begin work at seven," replied Brown, "but I wish you would come round earlier, for I want to talk with you." Thomas accordingly went to his work the next morning between five and six o'clock; found Brown waiting for him, and there received from him the outlines of his plan to liberate the slaves, and was invited to join in the enterprise, which he agreed to do. This was nine years before Brown went to Kansas, four years before the Fugitive Slave Bill was passed, and two years before Sumner, Wilson, Adams, Phillips, Hoar, and their friends formed the Free Soil party of Massachusetts. Thomas was afterwards sent by Brown to look up Madison Washington, the leader of the courageous slaves of the vessel Creole, who was wanted as a leader among the colored recruits that Brown hoped to enlist in his band of liberators. But Washington, when found, proved to be an unfit person for such a position.

The house in which John Brown lived during the three years of his residence in Springfield is still standing, on Franklin Street, a short distance north of the railroad station. His wool-warehouses were close by the railroad, and have been partially removed to make way for new buildings. His business was at one time very large and promised to be successful, but from a variety of causes it turned out badly. He understood the value of wool and the best way to sort and grade it, better than he knew how to deal with his Eastern customers, who preferred to grade their own wool, and did not wish to have any man stand between them and the Ohio farmers, of whom they had formerly bought directly and with much advantage to themselves. Brown believed that some of the manufacturers combined against him, and that they hired a person in his employ to be more careful of their interests than those of his employers. The result was a sharp controversy, ending in lawsuits, some of which he won and some of which he lost; but his business suffered, and was finally ruined by his shipping a large stock of wool to Europe, where it was sold at a low rate and fell into the hands of the very men to whom he had refused it in Springfield. In 1849 he removed from the town and went to live for a while in the Adirondack woods at North Elba.

The occasion of his choosing that wild retreat was characteristic of the man, and an indication of the persistence with which he followed up his great purpose. It was about the time of Brown's visit to Europe, in 1848, that Mr. Gerrit Smith, who had inherited from his father landed estates in more than half the counties of New York, offered to give away his thousands of acres in the Adirondack wilderness for farms to such colored men as would accept them and live upon them. The offer was a princely one and came from a princely heart, but there were many difficulties in the way of its acceptance by the Southern fugitives and the free people of color in the Northern cities. It was then, much more than now, a backwoods region, with few roads, schools, or churches, and very few good farms. The great current of summer travel, which now flows through it every year, had scarcely begun to be felt; a few sportsmen from New York and New England, and the agents of men interested in iron-mines and smelting-forges, were the chief visitors. The life of a settler there was rough pioneer work, the forest was to be cut down and the land burnt over; the family supplies must be produced mainly in the household; the men made their own sugar from the maple woods, and the women spun and wove the garments from the wool that grew on the backs of the farmers' sheep. Winter lingers there for six months in the year, and neither wheat nor Indian corn will grow on these hillsides in ordinary years. The crops are grass, oats, and potatoes; cows, and especially sheep, are the wealth of the farmer and, as Colonel Higginson mentions, the widow of Oliver Brown, who was killed at Harper's Ferry, was considered not to be absolutely penniless, because her young husband had left her five sheep, valued at ten dollars. Such a region was less attractive to the colored people than Canada, for it was as cold, less secure from the slave-hunter, and gave little choice of those humble but well-paid employments, indispensable in towns, to which the colored race naturally resort. There was no opening in the woods of Essex County for cooks or barbers, coachmen or washerwomen, and the hard life of a backwoodsman had few charms even for the fugitive timber-cutters and wood-choppers from the eastern shore of Maryland. Still a small colony braved the hardships of the place, and established themselves on Mr. Smith's property. Hearing of this in 1849, John Brown, who had no previous acquaintance with Mr. Smith, presented himself one day at his hospitable country-house in Peterboro, New York, and made this proposal to him: "I am something of a pioneer, and accustomed to the climate and the way of life that your colony at North Elba have so little experience in. I will take a farm there myself, if you do not object, clear it up and plant it, and show the colored people how such work should be done. I will employ some of them, as I have occasion, look after them in all ways that are needful, and try to be a kind of father to them." Mr. Smith liked the man and his plan, and readily consented to his taking charge of the colony in this way; and Brown did so, living at North Elba himself for a year or more, and leaving his family there the greater part of the ten years' period that intervened between his first settlement there and his death at Charlestown. His eldest living daughter, Mrs. Ruth Thompson, wife of Henry Thompson, who was wounded in one of his Kansas fights, is the only one of his family now living at North Elba, where she occupies, with her husband and children, a farm adjoining that on which John Brown first settled.

There is no doubt that, in retiring with his colored neighbors to the woods of North Elba, he had in view the mustering and training of a company of men which should form the nucleus of his army of liberation at the South. He said this himself, and, if his word needed any confirmation, it could be found in the statements of his wife and children. But neither Gerrit Smith nor any of his later friends and supporters, outside of the small circle of his family connections and a few of the colored people, knew aught of this, till many years after. With all his devotion to the great task of his life, he never neglected the present work which he had in hand; and for several years after removing to North Elba he was engaged in settling up his wool business and in a renewal of sheep-farming in Ohio. The firm of Perkins and Brown, which had carried on business at Springfield under his direction, and in Ohio under that of Mr. Perkins, was involved in several lawsuits, one of which, of much consequence pecuniarily, was tried in Boston before Judge Cushing in the winter of 1852-53, and was one of the last cases tried by Mr. Cushing, before leaving his seat on the Supreme bench of Massachusetts to take his place in General Pierce's Cabinet as Attorney-General. The suit was brought by the Burlington Mills Company of Vermont, represented in Boston by Jacob Sleeper and others, against John Brown and others, for a breach of contract in supplying wool to these mills of certain grades, and the damages were laid at sixty thousand dollars. It was pending for a long time, the counsel against Brown being Rufus Choate and Francis B. Hayes, and his own senior counsel being the eminent New York lawyer, Joshua V. Spencer. It finally came to trial in Boston, January 14, 1853, and after several postponements and the taking of much testimony it was settled, February 3, 1853, by a compromise between the counsel, the anticipated decision of the court being against Brown. About a year later he won a similar suit in a New York court; and he always believed that he should have won his Boston suit, if the case had been tried on its merits. It is not probable that his good opinion of Mr. Cushing and Mr. Choate, or the political cause with which they were identified, was at all increased by the issue of this trial; but, on the other hand, it was not decreased, and could not well be. And it is worth mentioning, that, after his condemnation to death in Virginia, and while an appeal on his case was pending, he spoke of Mr. Cushing as a prominent Democratic lawyer who had knowledge of him, from the circumstances of this wool case, and who would perhaps take some interest in the motion for a new trial in Virginia. Mr. Cushing, however, as might have been anticipated, refused to have anything to do with such a political offender as John Brown.

After Brown's removal from Springfield in 1849, and before the settlement of his Boston lawsuit, he was often in Springfield on various errands of necessity or mercy, and on one of these visits he assisted in the organization of an armed resistance to the Fugitive Slave Bill of 1850, which is so characteristic of his spirit and purposes, through all these years, that it deserves to be specially mentioned. Some notice of it was published in the Independent newspaper two years ago by William Wells Brown, and from his communication is copied this striking paper, written by John Brown in January, 1851. It exists in his handwriting, and is signed by forty-four men and women then resident in Springfield, including both white and colored persons, but largely made up of fugitives from slavery and their connections: --

"WORDS OF ADVICE.

Branch of the United States League of Gileadites Adopted January 15, 1851, as written and recommended by John Brown.

"'UNION IS STRENGTH.'

"Nothing so charms the American people as personal bravery. The trial for life of one bold and to some extent successful man, for defending his rights in good earnest, would arouse more sympathy throughout the nation than the accumulated wrongs and sufferings of more than three millions of our submissive colored population. We need not mention the Greeks struggling against the oppressive Turks, the Poles against Russia, nor the Hungarians against Austria and Russia combined, to prove this. No jury can be found in the Northern States that would convict a man for defending his rights to the last extremity. This is well understood by Southern congressmen, who insisted that the right of trial by jury should not be granted to the fugitive. Colored people have more fast friends amongst the whites than they suppose, and would have ten times the number they now have were they but half as much in earnest to secure their dearest rights as they are to ape the follies and extravagances of their white neighbors, and to indulge in idle show, in ease, and in luxury. Just think of the money expended by individuals in your behalf in the past twenty years. Think of the number who have been mobbed and imprisoned on your account. Have any of you seen the Branded Hand? Do you remember the names of Lovejoy and Torrey?

"Should one of your number be arrested, you must collect together as quickly as possible, so as to outnumber your adversaries who are taking an active part against you. Let no able bodied man appear on the ground unequipped, or with his weapons exposed to view; let that be understood beforehand. Your plans must be known only to yourself, and with the understanding that all traitors must die, wherever caught and proven to be guilty. 'Whosoever is fearful or afraid, let him return and depart early from Mount Gilead.' (Judges, vii. chap., 3 verse; Deut., xx. chap., 8 verse.) Give all cowards an opportunity to show it on condition of holding their peace. Do not delay one moment after you are ready; you will lose all your resolution if you do. Let the first blow be the signal for all to engage, and when engaged do not do your work by halves; but make clean work with your enemies, and be sure you meddle not with any others. By going about your business quietly, you will get the job disposed of before the number that an uproar would bring together can collect; and you will have the advantage of those who come out against you, for they will be wholly unprepared with either equipments or matured plans; all with them will be confusion and terror. Your enemies will be slow to attack you after you have once done up the work nicely; and, if they should, they will have to encounter your white friends as well as you, for you may safely calculate on a division of the whites, and may by that means get to an honorable parley.

"Be firm, determined, and cool; but let it be understood that you are not to be driven to desperation without making it an awful dear job to others as well as to you. Give them to know distinctly that those who live in wooden houses should not throw fire, and that you are just as able to suffer as your white neighbors. After effecting a rescue, if you are assailed, go into the houses of your most prominent and influential white friends with your wives, and that will effectually fasten upon them the suspicion of being connected with you, and will compel them to make a common cause with you, whether they would otherwise live up to their profession or not. This would leave them no choice in the matter. Some would, doubtless, prove themselves true of their own choice; others would flinch. That would be taking them at their own words. You may make a tumult in the court-room where a trial is going on by burning gunpowder freely in paper packages, if you cannot think of any better way to create a momentary alarm, and might possibly give one or more of your enemies a hoist. But in such case the prisoner will need to take the hint at once and bestir himself; and so should his friends improve the opportunity for a general rush.

"A lasso might possibly be applied to a slave-catcher for once with good effect. Hold on to your weapons, and never be persuaded to leave them, part with them, or have them far away from you. Stand by one another, and by your friends, while a drop of blood remains; and be hanged, if you must, but tell no tales out of school. Make no confession."

AGREEMENT.

"As citizens of the United States of America, trusting in a just and merciful God, whose spirit and all-powerful aid we humbly implore, we will ever be true to the flag of our beloved country, always acting under it. We whose names are hereunto affixed do constitute ourselves a branch of the United States League of Gileadites. That we will provide ourselves at once with suitable implements, and will aid those who do not possess the means, if any such are disposed to join us. We invite every colored person whose heart is engaged for the performance of our business, whether male or female, old or young. The duty of the aged infirm, and young members of the League shall be to give instant notice to all members in case of an attack upon any of our people. We agree to have no officers except a Treasurer and Secretary pro tem., until after some trial of courage and talent of able-bodied members shall enable us to elect officers from those who shall have rendered the most important services. Nothing but wisdom and undaunted courage, efficiency, and general good conduct shall in any way influence us in electing our officers."

Then follows, in the original manuscript, a code of laws or regulations, such as John Brown, with his methodical, forward-looking mind, was in the habit of drawing up whenever he organized any branch of his grand movement against slavery. Such he no doubt considered this "League of Gileadites" to be, and companies of this kind were perhaps enrolled elsewhere. Some features of this organization strikingly resemble that formed by him in Canada, in May, 1858, (the Constitution of which was captured, among his papers at Harper's, Ferry,) especially the agreement that "we will ever be true to the Flag of our beloved Country, always acting under it." This was reproduced in the "Provisional Constitution of 1858," the forty-sixth article of which reads thus : --

"ART. XLVI. These Articles not for the Overthrow of Government. The foregoing articles shall not be construed so as in any way to encourage the overthrow of any State Government, or of the General Government of the United States, and look to no dissolution of the Union, but simply to amendment and repeal, and our flag shall be the same that our fathers fought under in the Revolution."

This devotion to the flag and the principles of the Revolution, the latter as set forth in the Declaration of Independence, was fixed and constant in Captain Brown's mind, as it had been in the hearts of his two grandfathers who fought under Washington. He did not believe in the possibility of dissolving the Union, would not willingly bear it discussed, and once said to one of his friends, with the most serious emphasis, weighing every word as he uttered it (such was his manner), "I believe in the Golden Rule and the Declaration of Independence. I think they both mean the same thing; and it is better that a whole generation should pass off the earth, men, women, and children, by a violent death, than that one jot of either should fail, in this country." He acted consistently on this principle, though a man of peace from his youth up, and inclining to the Quaker habit of not bearing arms in time of peace. Writing to his wife at North Elba, from Springfield, about the time he formed his "league" there, in 1851, he says: "Since the sending off of Long (a fugitive) from New York, I have improved my leisure hours quite busily with colored people here, in advising them how to act, and in giving them all the encouragement in my power. They very much need encouragement and advice, and some of them are so alarmed that they tell me they cannot sleep, on account of either themselves or their wives and children. I can only say I think I have been enabled to do something to revive their broken spirits. I want all my family to imagine themselves in the same dreadful condition." Such was the practical way in which he made his exegesis of that text so often on his lips and in his heart, "Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them." No occasion was offered of putting in practice his directions for resisting the seizure of fugitives in Springfield, such as occurred soon after in Worcester and Boston, nor does it appear that Brown was present at any of the fugitive slave trials which disgrace the annals of Massachusetts, though he was with difficulty prevented by his friends in New York, in May, 1854, from going to Boston to head a movement for the rescue of Anthony Burns.

In the winter of 1854-55 the four elder sons of John Brown, John, Jason, Owen, and Frederick, then living in or near Akron, Ohio, made their arrangements to settle in Kansas, then just opened to emigrants, and they did establish themselves the next spring in Lykins County, about eight miles from Osawatomie, a town afterwards made famous by their father's defence of it, August 30, 1856. John Brown himself did not go to Kansas till the autumn of 1855, and in the preceding summer, shortly before he set out to join his sons there, he was again in Massachusetts, and saw some of his old friends in Springfield, -- among them, Thomas, the Maryland fugitive, who had engaged with him in the great work nine years before. He expressed his belief that the struggle for the liberation of the slaves was soon to come on, but does not seem to have made, at that time, any special effort to enlist men for service in Kansas. Probably with his characteristic caution, he meant first to explore the ground and see what was necessary, and what could be done. Nor did he receive any of the money which, in 1855 and 1856, was raised in Massachusetts for the benefit of the Free State men in Kansas, to the amount of $ 100,000 and upward. He was aided by a subscription in Central New York, to which Gerrit Smith contributed, but the amount was not large, and he and his family, for the most part, carried on their Kansas campaign at their own charges. Before going to Kansas he carried back his family, who had been in Ohio with him, to his farm at North Elba, where they remained for several years after his death. In the spring of 1856 he had with him in Kansas, however, all his seven sons and his son-in-law, Henry Thompson, with his wife, Ruth Brown. In the late autumn of that year he left Kansas, leaving one son dead there, and one made temporarily insane by ill-treatment while a prisoner, while another son and his son-in-law had been wounded. It was with these testimonials of service in the Free State cause that he came slowly eastward in the winter of 1856-57, and presented himself before the State Kansas Committee of Massachusetts.

This committee, before which John Brown appeared in January, 1857, had been organized the preceding summer in the midst of the excitement attending the outrages committed in Kansas on the Free State settlers there, many of whom had gone out from Massachusetts. It consisted of many members from different parts of the State, but its work was mainly done by an executive committee, of which, as of the larger committee, the late George L. Stearns of Medford was chairman, and F. B. Sanborn of Concord was secretary. Other members of the executive committee were Dr. S. G. Howe, Dr. Samuel Cabot (who were also members of a National Kansas Committee), Dr. William R. Lawrence, Judge Thomas Russell, and Mr. Patrick T. Jackson, who was treasurer of the committee. In the autumn of 1856 and the following winter the labors of this committee were so active that it was thought proper the secretary should devote his whole time to them, and he did so, occupying an office in Niles's Block, on School Street in Boston, and there receiving all persons who had business with the committee. It was in this room very early in January, 1857, that John Brown of Osawatomie -- "Osawatomie Brown," as he was then called -- first introduced himself to the acquaintance of those Massachusetts men on whom he afterwards relied so much, and who aided him with money and in other ways to carry out his long-cherished design. He came to this room early one morning, accompanied by his son Owen, who had escaped with him from Kansas; he brought a letter of introduction to the secretary from Mr. George Walker of Springfield, and, on making known who he was, his welcome was a very cordial one. The fame of his exploits in Kansas had preceded him, and given him a title to great consideration; but his own aspect and manner would have made him distinguished anywhere, among men who know how to recognize courage and greatness of mind. He was then in his fifty-seventh year, but active and vigorous when not suffering from an ague contracted in Kansas; his figure was tall, slender, and commanding, his bearing military, and his garb a singular blending of the soldier and the deacon. His coat, waistcoat, and trousers were of a brown color, such as he always selected when possible, and of a cut far from fashionable; his gray overcoat was of that shape which our soldiers a few years after made so familiar to all eyes, and he wore a patent-leather stock, which also suggested the soldier of former years. His fur cap was more in keeping with his military overcoat than with the Sunday suit of a deacon, which he wore beneath it; his face was close shaven, displaying the force of his firm and wide mouth, and his positive chin. The long white beard which he wore a year or two later; and which nearly all his portraits now show, added a picturesque finish to a face that was in all its features severe and masculine. His eyes were a piercing blue-gray, not very large, but looking out from under brows

"Of dauntless courage and considerate pride";
his hair was dark brown touched with gray, short and bristling, and shooting back from a forehead of middle height and breadth; his ears were large, his frame angular, his voice deep and metallic, his walk positive and intrepid, though somewhat slow. His manner was modest, and in a large company even diffident; he was by no means fluent of speech, but his words were always to the point, and his observations original, direct, and shrewd. His mien was serious and patient rather than cheerful; it betokened the "sad wise valor" which Herbert praises; though earnest and almost anxious, it was never depressed. In short, he was then, to the eye of insight, what he afterwards seemed to the world, a brave and resolved man, conscious of a work laid upon him, and confident that he should accomplish it.

In a few days Captain Brown made the acquaintance of the men in Boston whom he wished to consult, -- of Mr. Stearns, Dr. Cabot, Theodore Parker, Amos A. Lawrence, Judge Russell, Dr. Howe, Mr. Garrison, and all who were then conspicuous in maintaining the cause of the Kansas pioneers. His special object was to obtain control of some two hundred Sharpe's rifles, belonging to the Massachusetts committee, with which to arm a force of a hundred men for the purpose of defending Kansas and making excursions, if necessary, into Missouri and other slave States. His Virginia plan was then in his mind, but he did not communicate it to any person in Massachusetts for more than a year; only taking pains to say that with the arms, money, and clothing that he might get for his company, be should act on his own responsibility, without taking orders from any committee. With this understanding, and having great confidence in him, the Massachusetts executive committee, on the 8th of January, 1857, gave him an order for taking possession of the two hundred rifles, with their belongings, then stored at Tabor, in the southwestern part of Iowa. This order, however, did not authorize him to make any use of the arms, though it appropriated five hundred dollars for his expenses in getting possession of them; and it was not until April 11, three months later, that a vote was passed allowing Captain Brown to sell a hundred of the rifles to Free State inhabitants of Kansas. At the same time another sum of five hundred dollars was voted him, to be used "for the relief of persons in Kansas." The arms thus placed at his disposal were a part of those afterwards carried by him to Harper's Ferry, and, as the true nature of the transaction by which they came, honestly, into his possession, for use in Virginia, has never been well understood, it may here be explained.

In the winter of 1855-56 a large subscription was collected in Boston by Dr. Samuel Cabot and others, expressly for the purchase of arms for Kansas settlers, and with this money a hundred Sharpe's rifles and some other arms were purchased by Dr. Cabot and forwarded to Kansas early in 1856. These were no part of the arms of Captain Brown, which were purchased by the Massachusetts State Kansas Committee in the autumn of 1856, and forwarded, through the National Committee, having its head-quarters at Chicago, by the Iowa and Nebraska route to Kansas. They never seem to have got farther than Tabor, where they were lying when Captain Brown made his exit from Kansas by that route, in November, 1856. On reaching Chicago, soon after, he appears to have made application to Messrs. George W. Dole, J. D. Webster (afterwards General Webster, of General Grant's staff), and Henry B. Hurd, the Chicago members of the National Committee, for the custody of the rifles at Tabor. This application was not granted, perhaps because the committee distrusted Captain Brown, perhaps because they recognized the Massachusetts committee to be owners of the arms, as the fact was. The Chicago committee did afterwards, however, lay claim to the control of these arms; and one reason for the Massachusetts order of January 8, 1857, above alluded to, was to place them in the hands of a man who had shown his ability to protect whatever was in his custody. Before taking actual possession of them, Captain Brown attended a full meeting of the National Committee at the Astor House in New York, January 22-25, 1857 for the purpose of securing an appropriation from that committee for his company of minute-men; and, in order to settle the question, which Committee controlled the arms at Tabor, he made a request for those arms as a part of the appropriation. This request was vehemently opposed by Mr. Hurd of Chicago, who expressed great anxiety lest Brown should make incursions into Missouri or other slave States. Mr. Sanborn, who represented Massachusetts at the Astor House meeting, as proxy for Drs. Cabot and Howe, supported the application of Captain Brown, which was viewed with favor by a majority of the meeting. As a final compromise, it was voted that the arms at Tabor should be restored to the Massachusetts committee, to be disposed of as they should think best; and that an appropriation of several thousand dollars, in money and clothing, should be made to Captain Brown's company by the National Committee. This left the Massachusetts committee at liberty to use their own property as they saw fit, and they then gave Captain Brown undisputed possession of the arms, subject, however, to future votes of the committee at Boston. In point of fact, though this was not known to the committee till a year later, the rifles were brought from Tabor to Ohio in the year 1857, and remained there till they were sent to Chambersburg by John Brown, Jr., in July, 1859, for use at Harper's Ferry. During the year 1857 the expenditures of the Massachusetts committee, for the relief of the famine in Kansas were very large; and as advances of money were made by the chairman, Mr. Stearns, much in excess of the current receipts, it was finally voted to reimburse him by giving him the assets of the committee. These consisted of the arms above named, certain notes of hand given by the Kansas settlers for clothing, wheat, etc., furnished them by the committee, and other property of small money value. Hence it resulted that, early in 1858, when the Massachusetts committee had ceased its active operations, Mr. Stearns was the legitimate owner of all the assets of the committee, with the understanding that, if he should realize from them more than the amount of his advances, the excess should go into the committee's treasury. No such excess was ever collected, and Mr. Stearns virtually contributed to the committee several thousand dollars which he had thus advanced; but he retained the ownership of the rifles, the money value of which would perhaps cover his contributions.

Thus matters stood in March, 1858 when, as we are told, Captain Brown first communicated to a few of his Boston friends his plan for invading Virginia. Mr. Stearns was one of these, and, as owner of the rifles, he verbally consented that Brown should use them in his expedition. They were therefore legitimately and honestly in Brown's possession in May, 1854 when, at the suggestion of Senator Wilson, Mr. Stearns directed Brown by letter not to use them for any other purpose than the defence of Kansas, "and to hold them subject to my order as chairman of said committee." This letter, it must be said, while intended to prevent any immediate use of the arms in Virginia, was mainly a blind to satisfy Senator Wilson and other Republican politicians, who were alarmed at rumors of Brown's plans, and knew nothing of the real ownership of the arms. In the same spirit Dr. Howe wrote to Mr. Wilson, May 15, 1858, that "prompt measures have been taken and will be resolutely followed up, to prevent any such monstrous perversion of a trust as would be the application of means raised for the defence of Kansas to a purpose which the subscribers of the fund would disapprove and vehemently condemn." This language was literally true, yet it did not express the whole truth, inasmuch as it did not correct the general misapprehension that these arms were then the property of the committee.

But to return to John Brown in Massachusetts. He was here a large part of January and February and the early weeks of March and April, 1857. On the 18th of February he appeared before a committee of the State Legislature to urge that Massachusetts should make an appropriation of money in aid of the emigrants from the State who had settled in Kansas, and his speech on that occasion is printed in Redpath's Life. It was one of the few speeches made by him in Massachusetts that year, and was mainly read from his manuscript. In March he made his first visit to Concord, where he addressed a large audience in the Town Hall, and spoke without notes, in a very impressive and eloquent manner. Among his hearers were Mr. R. W. Emerson and Mr. Henry D. Thoreau, who had made his acquaintance the preceding day, under circumstances that it may be interesting to mention, since both these gentlemen were his warm admirers, and took up his cause when he had but few champions among the scholars of Massachusetts. Mr. Thoreau's noble appeal in his behalf, given at Concord on Sunday evening, October 30, 1859, and repeated at the Tremont Temple in Boston, November 1st, was the earliest address in his praise to which the Massachusetts public listened, as it still is the best; and it was soon followed by Mr. Emerson's famous mention of Brown in a Boston lecture as one who had "made the gallows glorious, like the cross," and by his speech at the Tremont Temple relief meeting, November 18, 1859, at which John A. Andrew presided.

The first occasion of John Brown's visit to Concord was to speak at the public meeting just mentioned, in March, 1857, which had been called at the instance of Mr. Sanborn, then living in that town. On the day appointed, Brown went up from Boston at noon and dined with Mr. Thoreau, then a member of his father's family, and residing not far from the railroad station. The two idealists, both of them in revolt against the civil government then established in this country, because of its base subservience to slavery, found themselves friends from the beginning of their acquaintance. They sat after dinner, discussing the events of the border warfare in Kansas, and Brown's share in them, when, as it often happened, Mr. Emerson called at Mr. Thoreau's door on some errand to his friend. Thus the three men, so celebrated each in his own way, first met under the same roof, and found that they held the same opinion of what was uppermost in the mind of Brown. He did not reveal to them, either then or later, his Virginia plans; but he declared frankly, as he always did, his purpose of attacking slavery, wherever it could be reached; and this was the sentiment of his speech at the evening meeting, when he told the story of his Kansas life to the grandsons of the men who began the war of the Revolution at Concord Bridge. He spoke of the murder of one of his seven sons, the imprisonment and insanity of another; and as he shook before his audience the chain which his free-born son had worn, for no crime but for resisting slavery, his words rose to thrilling eloquence, and made a wonderful impression on his audience. From that time the Concord people were on his side, as they afterwards testified on several occasions. He was again in Concord for several days in April, 1857, and on this visit was the guest of Mr. Emerson for a day; from whose house he drove across the country to Mr. Stearns's house at Medford, one pleasant Sunday morning in that April. The journals of Emerson, Thoreau, and, two years later, of their friend Bronson Alcott, no doubt bear witness to the impression made by Captain Brown on these three founders of a school of thought and literature.

In the latter part of March, 1857, Captain Brown, in company with Martin F. Conway, afterwards a member of Congress from Kansas, and Mr. Sanborn of the Massachusetts committee, met by appointment at the Metropolitan Hotel in New York, and proceeded in company to Easton, Pennsylvania, where Mr. Andrew H. Reeder, a former governor of Kansas, was living, for the purpose of inducing him, if possible, to return to Kansas, and become the leader of the Free State party there. The journey was undertaken at the instance of the Massachusetts committee, of which both Brown and Conway were, or had been, agents. It resulted in nothing, for Governor Reeder was unwilling to leave his family and his occupations at Easton to engage again in the political contests of Kansas. Captain Brown had quite a different conception of his own duty to his family, as compared with his duty to the cause in which he had enlisted. Although he had been absent from home nearly two years, he refrained from a visit to North Elba, where his family then were, until he had arranged all his military affairs in Boston, New York, and Connecticut; and he finally reached his rough mountain home late in April. He found his daughter Ellen, whom he had left an infant in the cradle, old enough to hear him sing his favorite hymn, "Blow ye the trumpet, blow!" to the old tune of Lenox. "He sung all his own children to sleep with it," writes his daughter Anne, "and some of his grandchildren too. He seemed to be very partial to the first verse; I think that he applied it to himself when he was at home (I think it was the first time he came from Kansas), he told Ellen that he had sung it to all the rest, and must to her too. She was afraid to go to him alone" (the poor child had forgotten her father in two years' absence), "so father said that I must sit with her. He took Ellen on one knee and me on the other and sung it to us." How touching this modern rendering of the scene between Hector and Astyanax!

It was on this visit to North Elba that John Brown carried with him the old tombstone of his grandfather Captain John Brown, the Revolutionary soldier, from the burial-place of his family in Canton, Connecticut. He caused the name of his murdered son Frederick, who fell in Kansas, to be carved on this stone, with the date of his death, and placed it where he desired his own grave to be, beside a huge rock on the hillside where his house stands, giving directions that his own name and the date of his death should be inscribed there too, when he should fall, as he expected in the conflict with slavery. That stone now marks his grave and tells a story which more costly monuments and longer inscriptions could not so well declare.

Although Captain Brown spent the winter of 1856-57 in New England, he did not by any means forget or neglect his family at North Elba, but busied himself in securing for them an addition to the two farms in the wilderness, on which his wife and his married daughter, Mrs. Thompson, were living. Several of his Massachusetts friends, chief among whom were Mr. Amos A. Lawrence and Mr. Stearns, raised a subscription of $1,000 to purchase one hundred and sixty acres of land for division in equal portions between these farms. Mr. Stearns contributed $260 to this fund, and Mr. Lawrence about the same amount; these two gentlemen having made up the sum by which the original subscription fell short of $1,000. The connection of Mr. Lawrence with this transaction, and his personal acquaintance with Brown in 1857, were afterwards held to imply that he had some knowledge of Brown's plans, which was not the case. The subscription thus raised was expended in completing the purchase of the tract in question, originally sold by Gerrit Smith to the brothers of Henry Thompson, Brown's son-in-law, but which had not been wholly paid for. In August, 1857, an agent of Messrs. Stearns and Lawrence visited North Elba, examined the land, paid the Thompsons their stipulated price for improvements, and to Mr. Smith the remainder of the purchase-money; took the necessary deeds and transferred the property to Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Thompson, according to the terms arranged by Captain Brown in the preceding spring. When Mrs. Brown sold her farm, on her removal to California, seven or eight years ago, her share of this purchase of 1857 was sold, but Mrs. Thompson still lives on her farm, as thus enlarged.

Notwithstanding the success attending some of his efforts in New EngIand in the spring of 1857, John Brown failed to raise at that time a sufficient sum of money to equip and support his company of mounted minute-men, and he left Massachusetts, late in April, much saddened by this failure. Before leaving Boston he wrote a brief paper, headed "Old Brown's Farewell to the Plymouth Rocks, Bunker Hill Monuments, Charter Oaks, and Uncle Tom's Cabins," in which he says he had been trying, since he came out of Kansas, "to secure an outfit, or, in other words, the means of arming and thoroughly equipping his regular minutemen, who are mixed up with the people of Kansas"; but that he goes back with a feeling of deepest sadness that, after having exhausted his own small means, and with his family and his brave men suffered hunger, cold, nakedness, and some of them sickness, wounds, imprisonment in irons, with extreme cruel treatment, and others death,.... he cannot secure, amidst all the wealth, luxury, and extravagance of this 'Heaven-exalted' people, even the necessary supplies of the common soldier." He had formed an elaborate plan for raising and drilling such a company of men, and, without the knowledge of his Massachusetts friends, had engaged an English Garibaldian, Hugh Forbes, whom he found giving fencing-lessons in New York, to go out with him to Western Iowa, and there train his recruits for service in the field against slavery. Disappointed in raising the money he had expected, Captain Brown was obliged to cancel his engagement with Forbes, who, as the event proved, was a very useless and embarrassing person. Forbes had travelled from New York to Tabor in Iowa, in July and August, 1857, and returned early in November, angry and disappointed, to New York, whence he soon began to write abusive and threatening letters denouncing Brown, and speaking of his plans in a way that surprised Brown's Massachusetts friends, who had never beard of Forbes before, and who knew absolutely nothing of the grand scheme for invading Virginia. It may be that this quarrel with Forbes impelled Brown to impart his plans more fully to his Massachusetts friends, or a few of them; at any rate, he did so impart them, early in the year 1858, and in a manner which will be hereafter related. For the present it is enough to say that, up to the close of 1857, though Brown had then cherished his Virginia scheme for nearly twenty years, and had revealed it ten years before to his colored friend Thomas in Springfield, there was no person among the Abolitionists or Kansas committee-men of Massachusetts, so far as we know, who had even a suspicion of his main purpose. So well had he kept his secret, not by dissimulation, but by mere power of silence, that when it was revealed to a chosen few, in February, 1858, it came upon them all with a shock of surprise.

[ENDNOTE: (1) The house in which John Brown was born is still standing in Torrington on a hill-top, -- a brown wooden farm-house, now tenanted by a colored family; and even the bedroom on the ground floor in which he was born is shown to visitors, and has had half its door cut off and carried away for relics of the martyr. The homestead is "about a mile northwest of the meeting-house," and may be reached from Wolcottville on the Naugatuck Railroad, by drive across the hills.]


The Atlantic Monthly; April 1872; John Brown in Massachusetts - 1872.04; Volume 29, No. 174; page 420-433.