The Virginia Campaign of John Brown (Part III)

The third installment in a six-part series about the abolitionist rebel, written by one of the New Englanders who secretly funded his efforts and featuring excerpts of his own writings

This is part three of a six-part series. Read part one here, part two here, part four here, part five here, and part six here.


In coming now to the great purpose of John Brown’s life during the last ten years that he lived, — to his secret plans for the overthrow of Southern slavery by armed intervention on the side of the slave, and to his means and methods for destroying slavery by rendering it insecure and keeping it in perpetual alarm, — I approach a topic which cannot yet be treated so plainly and boldly as it deserves. The civil war and its extraordinary results have done much to relieve Brown’s memory from the charges of crime and mad folly that were so generally made at the time, even by men who could not but admire his courage and his other great qualities. But there still lingers in the public mind, and, yet more, in the memory and the conscience of individuals, an aversion to the fatal step which Brown took first of all, and to which he compelled the unwilling nation. Compromises that seemed easy and natural before his attack on Harper’s Ferry were no longer possible afterwards, and there can be little doubt that this attack hastened our political crisis by at least ten years. Before that event, civil war was really inevitable, but was not seen to be so; afterwards, the South, at least, saw that its only hope of maintaining slavery was by dissolving the Union and fighting for a national existence of which slavery should be the accepted basis. Hence the swiftness with which the passionate leaders of the South rushed into rebellion.

But this view of the matter, if correct, will seem to many persons (who do not sufficiently consider the share claimed by divine justice in the immediate government of the world) to throw upon Brown and his friends the odium of precipitating the civil war. To some also Brown will seem chargeable with the intention, at least, of exciting a servile war, with all the traditional horrors which history delights in ascribing to such a war. Hence it may well be that some who knew Brown and admired him, and who even knew and gave countenance to his plans, shrank, at the final moment, from a public avowal of their connection with him, and perhaps wished they had never been so connected. If there were any such among those whose counsels and purposes came to my knowledge, I should not feel justified in declaring what they might hesitate to confirm; preferring to leave to each person the promulgation of his own intimacy with John Brown. Something, however, is due to the truth of history. Believing that the time has come to reveal the plans of Brown, and to set his undertaking in its true light, so far as I have the means of doing this, I write this record, — not, I trust, to the annoyance or injury of others.

It was the condition of Kansas in 1856 which placed me in a situation to learn, a year or two later, what Brown’s purposes were. That State, then a newly-settled Territory, had been opened to slavery by base and pernicious legislation at Washington. The people of the North had resolved that Kansas should be controlled by freemen, and that slavery should never be tolerated there. In pursuance of this resolution they had formed societies and committees to colonize Kansas with Northern men, who would never vote to establish slavery, and by one of these organizations—the New England Emigrant Aid Company—a portion of Kansas was in fact colonized during the years 1854 and 1855. At that time I was in college, and so occupied with my private affairs that, except to vote and read the newspapers, I took little interest in those of the public. But upon leaving college and going to reside in Concord in 1855, I became more actively concerned in regard to the political situation, and early took up the opinion that the battle between the North and the South was first to be fought in Kansas. In the spring of 1856 one of my brothers became a Kansas colonist. Soon after, the outrages of the Missouri invaders of Kansas grew so frequent and alarming that the indignation of Massachusetts and of the whole North was aroused, and action began to be taken in a new form. “Kansas committees” were organized in towns, counties, and States, and finally a national committee, among the members of which were Abraham Lincoln, Gerrit Smith, and Dr. S. G. Howe. Mr. Lincoln never acted, I believe, but the committee did much work at one time, and raised thousands of dollars to colonize towns and support colonists in Kansas. Between May, 1856, and January, 1857, I passed through all the grades of these Kansas committees, beginning in June, 1856, as secretary of the Concord town committee; then in July helping to organize a county committee for Middlesex, of which I acted as secretary for a year; then accepting the post of secretary to the Massachusetts State Kansas Committee, which I held from August, 1856, until the committee dissolved in 1858-59; and finally serving upon the national committee at its last meeting, in January, 1857. In these different positions I became somewhat familiar with Kansas affairs, and with the men who gave money or worked actively to make and keep Kansas a free State; and in consequence of this familiarity became the intimate friend of the late George L. Stearns and of John Brown. I had been for some years a parishioner and friend of Theodore Parker, at whose house I first met Dr. Howe. Edwin Morton, another of the confidants of Brown’s plans, was my college classmate and close friend, and through him I had become acquainted with the late Gerrit Smith, whose love and respect for Brown were never disguised. These circumstances, unimportant in themselves, are mentioned to explain how it was that a young and unknown person like myself came to be trusted with matters so important as the secret purposes of Brown.

The promotion of the gravest political movements by the agency of committees is a traditional custom of the Anglo-Saxon peoples. It was a committee of barons that extorted from King John the great charter of English liberties at Runnymede. It was by committees of Parliament that King Charles was driven from the throne; and the court that sentenced him to death was nothing more than an enormous committee. The committees of correspondence devised by Samuel Adams in 1772 prepared the American Revolution and gave it the unity needful for success. “When a certain masterly statesman,” wrote John Adams in 1775, “invented a committee of correspondence in Boston, did not every colony, nay, every county, city, hundred, and town upon the whole continent, adopt the measure as the happiest means of cementing the union, and acting in concert?” Since that time almost every great movement in America has been carried on by committees in this manner, and the results of such action, when earnestly taken, are often remarkable. The Sanitary Commission, during the civil war, was perhaps the latest instance of this committee-work on a grand scale; and what the Sanitary Commission did for the Union armies as a whole, the Kansas committees of 1856-57 did for the pioneers of Kansas. Something more was done, too; for these committees supplied rifles, cartridges, and cannon to the defenders of freedom in Kansas: a work which the Sanitary Commission could leave to the national government. The first large sum of money raised to buy arms for Kansas was perhaps that contributed in Boston during the winter of 1855-56: some thousands, of dollars, which were expended in the purchase of Sharps rifles. The “Fanenil Hall Committee,” of Boston, organized in May, 1856, pledged itself to raise money for use “in a strictly lawful manner” in Kansas; but most of the other committees were not so scrupulous, and gave their money freely to arm the colonists who went out from New England. The State Kansas Committee (which grew out of the Fanenil Hall Committee and those appointed in some of the Massachusetts counties) had no hesitation in buying rifles and ammunition for the Kansas men, and did, in fact, buy the rifles which John Brown carried to Harper’s Ferry. This State committee, and its auxiliaries in the towns and counties, raised throughout Massachusetts, during 1856, at least one hundred thousand dollars in money and supplies, which were sent to the Kansas people. Some towns, Concord for example, raised in proportion to their population much more than this; for it was estimated that, if all Massachusetts had contributed as freely as Concord did, the amount raised in the State would have been nearly one million dollars. Personally I undertook to canvass Middlesex County that summer and autumn, and visited more than half the towns to appoint committees, hold meetings, or solicit subscriptions. Enough was subscribed, in Massachusetts and the other Northern States, to carry our colonists in Kansas through their worst year; and but for these supplies of money, arms, and clothing, it is quite possible they would have been driven out or conquered by the Missourians, the United States troops, and their other enemies.1

John Brown was thus driven out of Kansas, in the autumn of 1856, after fulfilling his mission there for that year, and virtually rescuing the Territory from the slave-holders. During the winter and spring of 1857, he was busily engaged in efforts to raise money enough to arm and equip a hundred mounted men for service in Kansas and Missouri, but without much success. Although the National Kansas Committee, at its Astor House meeting in January, had voted him an appropriation of five thousand dollars, he received nothing under this vote, except one hundred and ten dollars, and that not until the summer of 1857. The money voted him, by the Massachusetts Committee about the same time was soon exhausted, and so were the small collections he had made in New England from January to April, 1857. The efforts made for legislative appropriations in Massachusetts, New York, and other Northern States, in aid of the Kansas colonists, all failed. Brown had labored in person for such an appropriation in Massachusetts, going before the joint committee of the legislature in the State House, at Boston, on the 18th of February, and giving his testimony as an eye-witness of what had happened in Kansas the year before. It was during his examination by this committee that he uttered one of his famous sayings. Being asked what kind of emigrants were needed in Kansas, he replied, almost in the words of Cromwell’s speech to the Parliament in 1657 (which, doubtless, Brown had never heard of), “We want good men, industrious men, men who respect themselves, who act only from the dictates of conscience; men who fear God too much to fear anything human.”2 He also varied so far from his proud custom of never soliciting gifts as to make an appeal through the newspapers, in the winter of 1857, in which he said, —

The undersigned, whose individual means were exceedingly limited when he first engaged in the struggle for liberty in Kansas, being now still more destitute, and no less anxious than in times past to continue his efforts to sustain that cause, … asks all honest lovers of liberty and human rights, both male and female, to hold up my hands by contributions of pecuniary aid, either as counties, cities, towns, villages, societies, churches, or individuals. … It is with no little sacrifice of personal feeling I appear in this manner before the public.”

So small, upon the whole, were the contributions made in response to this appeal, and to the personal efforts of Brown in raising money, that when he withdrew from his native New England in April, 1857, he sent to a few of his friends this sorrowful and indignant remonstrance: —


To the Plymouth Rocks, Bunker Hill Monuments, Charter Oaks, and Uncle Thom’s Cabbins.

He has left for Kansas. Has been trying, since he came out of the Territory, to secure an outfit, or, in other words, the means of arming and thoroughly equipping his minutemen, who are mixed up with the people of Kansas, and he leaves the States 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, cruel treatment, and others death; that after lying on the ground for months, in the most sickly, unwholesome, and uncomfortable places, with sick and wounded, destitute of any shelter, and hunted like wolves; sustained and cared for in part by Indians; that after all this, in order to sustain a cause which every citizen of this “glorious republic” is under equal moral obligation to do, and for the neglect of which he will be held accountable to God; a cause in which every man, woman, and child of the entire human family has a deep and awful interest; that, when no wages are asked or expected, he cannot secure, amidst all the wealth, luxury, and extravagance of this “heaven-exalted” people, even the necessary supplies of the common soldier. “How are the mighty fallen!”

Boston, April, A. D. 1857.

* * *

Yet it must not he supposed from this complaint that Brown had raised no money in New England. Probably his collections there in 1857, including five hundred dollars voted him by the Massachusetts Kansas Committee, were more than one thousand dollars, and in addition to this, the sum of one thousand dollars was raised to pay for one hundred and sixty acres of land in North Elba, which was to be added, in equal parts, to the farms of his wife and his married daughter living there. The subscription for this purchase of land was headed by George L. Stearns and Amos A. Lawrence of Boston, who, together, paid more than half the amount. A portion of it, was to go to the original owner of the land, the late Gerrit Smith, at Peterboro, New York, and the rest to two of the Thompsons, brothers-in-law of Ruth (Brown) Thompson, who had improved and partly paid for the tract. I was the person appointed to visit Peterboro and North Elba to make these payments (as I did) in August, 1857. At Mr. Smith’s I heard for the first time of Hugh Forbes, who had called there on his way from New York to Western Iowa, in July. This Englishman had so much to do with the affairs of John Brown for two or three years, that he may here claim some description, although I never saw him, nor, after the spring of 1858, held any correspondence with him.

Hugh Forbes was so unfortunately conspicuous after Brown’s arrest in 1859, that I fear some injustice may have been done him at that time. He had been a hanger-on at the Tribune office for a while, and had occasionally obtained a few dollars from the easily opened purse of Horace Greeley. The last of these contributions seems to have been twenty dollars, paid about the time when Forbes went towards Kansas in 1857; and, in explanation of this gift, Mr. Greeley, two years afterwards, drew a portrait of Forbes in the Tribune, which was far from flattering. He was represented as an adventurer, at once fanatical and mercenary, and as wanting in common sense. He is spoken of by others who knew him as a handsome, soldierly-looking man, skillful in the sword exercise, and with some military experience, gained under Garibaldi in the Italian revolution of 1848-49. He had been a silk-merchant, it was said, at Sienna, before joining Garibaldi; in New York he was a fencing-master, while his wife and daughter were living in Paris upon remittances sent by him from New York. He had been engaged by Brown in the spring of 1857, without the knowledge of his New England friends, to drill his Kansas soldiers for partisan warfare, and to him Brown had communicated, with more or less detail, his plans for invading Virginia, before any of his New England friends, except a few of the colored people, knew them. Judged by his letters, his little book (Manual of the Patriotic Volunteer), and all the accounts given by persons who knew him, he was a brave, enthusiastic, undisciplined person, with little discretion, and quite wanting in the qualities which would fit him to be a leader of American soldiers. Yet he was ambitious, eager to head a crusade against slavery, and apparently desirous of taking Brown’s place as commander of what he regarded as a great antislavery movement, having the support of thousands in the Northern States. Having been accustomed to see European insurrections managed by committees outwardly similar to the various antislavery committees which he found or heard of in America, he hastily inferred that these American committees were all working for the same revolutionary end, and were ready to support a design which Brown had as yet communicated to none of them, and which none of them would or could have aided, had they known it. He was really connected with Brown’s enterprise but a few months; having joined his rendezvous at Tabor in Iowa, on the 9th of August, 1857, and parted from him in early November of the same year. His complaining letters, in December, 1857, and January, 1858, were the first intimation received by the Boston friends of Captain Brown that there was any peculiar relation between the Kansas hero and the British revolutionist; and these letters, by a singular chance, occasioned the first disclosure of Brown’s plans to his Boston friends. The earliest of these letters were addressed to Senator Sumner, and by him transmitted to Dr. Howe and myself; they led to questions asked of Brown concerning his agreement with Forbes, and in answer to these he communicated his whole project to a few persons in New England and New York.

In April and May, 1858, learning that the enterprise of Brown was still going forward, Forbes went to Washington, called on Senators Wilson, Hale, Seward, and other prominent republicans, disclosed some part of the scheme, and threatened further disclosures unless his own proposals were complied with. This brought about a change of plans, much against Brown’s first inclination; he gave up his attack upon Virginia, which had been fixed for the middle of May, 1858, and returned to Kansas in the summer of that year, as has been mentioned in a previous chapter. After this, Forbes was heard of no more until the attack at Harper’s Ferry had been made; then he was reported as in New York, again threatening disclosures, and several of his letters found their way into the newspapers. Then, if I have been correctly informed, he thought better of his purpose to betray the confidence of Brown, went back to Italy, and again served under Garibaldi, who in that very year, 1859, was making his remarkable campaign in Sicily and Southern Italy. But concerning this I can only speak from the report of others.

While Forbes was living with Brown in Western Iowa, in the autumn of 1857, Brown made use of what he considered the greater skill of Forbes with the pen, to draw up an address to the soldiers of the army, urging them not to fight against the friends of freedom. Brown sent this to Theodore Parker, in a letter dated “Tabor, Fremont Co., Iowa, September 11, 1857,” and it was shown to me soon after by Mr. Parker. In the same letter Brown said, “My particular object in writing is to say that I am immediate want of some five hundred or one thousand dollars for secret service, and no questions asked. I want the friends of freedom to prove me now herewith.” On the 2d of February, 1858, Brown wrote again to Mr. Parker, saying, “I have nearly perfected arrangements for carrying out an important measure, in which the world has a deep interest, as well as Kansas, and only lack from five to eight hundred dollars to enable me to do so, — the same object for which I asked for secret-service money last fall. It is my only errand here,” that is, in Rochester (New York), where he was then staying, incognito, at the house of Frederick Douglass. He added, “I want to bring the thing about during the next sixty days. Please write N. Hawkins, care William J. Watkins, Esq., Rochester, N. Y.” I received a similar letter from Brown about the same time, and was informed by my correspondent Morton, who was often in Rochester, that Brown had hopes of doing “more than has yet been done” with the eight hundred dollars asked for. Brown himself wrote me that he expected “to overthrow slavery in a large part of the country,” and asked me to meet him in Central New York. At the same time one of my Kansas correspondents sent me word that Brown had disappeared from among them, and that some of the Kansas people thought him insane. All this, combined with the complaints and intimations of Forbes, led me to imagine that Brown had some plan for an uprising of slaves such as had often been spoken of among the abolitionists; but, if so, I supposed it would be on the Kansas border or in some part of Missouri. To Colonel Higginson, then living at Worcester, Brown wrote on the 12th of February: “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. I am very anxious to have you come along; certain as I feel that you will never regret having been one of the council.” To a letter from myself, inviting him to meet Messrs. Stearns, Parker, and Higginson in Boston, Brown replied on the 17th of February, still at Rochester, “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.” He therefore declined to visit Boston, and urged those of us (four in all) to whom he had written concerning his project, to meet him not far from Rochester before the end of February. Neither Mr. Parker nor Mr. Stearns could go at that time; Colonel Higginson was also detained at home, and thus it happened that Mr. Morton and myself were the only Massachusetts men present when Brown at last revealed his plans, on the evening of Monday, February 22, 1858, — the anniversary of Washington’s birthday.

He began by asking us to read or listen to his “Provisional Constitution” from the first draft of that singular paper, which he had written while lodging with Frederick Douglass in the two or three preceding weeks. And in connection with its elaborate provisions for controlling an armed force of Liberators and for disposing of conquered territory and captured property, he explained his plan of a campaign which, to our astonishment, was to begin in Virginia, and, if successful, to be extended along the flanks of the Virginia mountains, into Kentucky, Tennessee, and more Southern States. We listened at first with incredulity to the expectations which he cherished, and could scarcely believe him determined upon an undertaking that seemed so certain to end in defeat and destruction to all who might engage in it. But we soon found that Brown had asked us to consult with him, not so much for the purpose of seeking our advice, still less of accepting it, as in order to engage us to take part in his enterprise, upon which he showed himself irrevocably bent. No objection moved him from his purpose; no unwillingness on our part to help him would prevent him from going forward with such aid as he had found, and with the undoubted favor, as he believed, of Almighty God. His plans were perfect in their most trivial details; he knew exactly how each of his forts could be built, how many men could hold it, how they could retreat from that position to another; how the first news of his attack would be received, and what would follow from the blind rage and terror that such an attack would excite among the slave-holders. He had calculated, like a skillful player, on every rebound and collision of his ball; he did not wish to begin with a great force, but with one that could be easily handled; he did not expect the slaves to come to him in great numbers, nor did he wish it, for he wanted no more followers than he could easily arm and discipline. He did not then propose to attack Harper’s Ferry, but to begin in some remote and less accessible region. He did not expect to be driven out of the slave States, but he meant to leave a road open behind him by which he could retreat if necessary. He did not anticipate disunion or even civil war, except of that sort in which he had taken part for three years upon the Kansas prairies. His ideal was something like the Florida war, where a few Indians and negroes had for years withstood the forces of the government; and he more than once referred to Plutarch’s Spanish hero, Sertorius, as the model that he meant to follow, — a warrior who with a small force contrived to elude and finally to defeat great armies of the Romans. Brown did not deal much, however, in historical associations; he read Plutarch with pleasure, but his own Kansas commentaries were more in his mind than the examples of the Greeks and Romans. Most of all he dwelt upon the Old Testament encouragements to valor and enterprise on the Lord’s side. The words of Scripture came naturally to his lips, and the idea of duty and of God’s guidance in the path of duty was no less natural to his soul. Possessed by these thoughts he was invulnerable to argument, and when the agitated party broke up their council for the night, it was perfectly plain that Brown could not be held back from his purpose.

The question then arose, — and this was the one most anxiously considered on the second day, — What should be done by the friends to whom he had appealed, and on whose generosity he had relied for aid? Three courses were open to us: to aid him so far as we could, to discountenance and oppose his plans, and to remain neutral or indifferent. Of course there was no thought of betraying his confidence, nor of treating him as a madman, incapable of counsel. And it was soon evident that where Brown was concerned there could be no neutrality and no indifference. It is the privilege of heroism, as of beauty and of sanctity, to impose its own conditions upon the beholder; they claim and they receive their due homage. A casual glance, a frivolous mind, might be deceived in Captain Brown. His homely garb and plain manners did not betoken greatness; but neither could they disguise it. That antique and magnanimous character which amid wounds and fetters and ferocious insults suddenly fastened the gaze of the whole world; those words of startling simplicity uttered among the corpses of his men, or before his judges, or in his prison cell, and listened to by all mankind—all things that were peculiar to John Brown and distinguished him among the multitude, lost nothing of their force when he was seen at nearer view, and heard within the walls of a chamber. Let no man conceive that impressive personality, whose echoes so long filled the air of our camps, to have lacked its effect upon the few who came within his influence before the world recognized his greatness. We saw this lonely and obscure old man choosing poverty before wealth, renouncing the ties of affection, throwing away his ease, his reputation, and his life, for the sake of a despised race and for “zeal to his country’s ancient liberties.” Moved by the attraction of this example, shamed by the nobleness of this generosity, was it to he imagined that young meu and devoted abolitionists would examine cautiously the sober grounds of prudence, or timidly follow a scrupulous conservatism? Without accepting Brown’s plans as reasonable, we were preparing to second them merely because they were his; under the impulse of that sentiment to which John A. Andrew afterwards gave utterance when he said, “Whatever might be thought of John Brown’s acts, John Brown himself was right.”

His strong influence over his own men rendered it unnecessary for him to urge them to a course which they saw him pursuing. Edwin Coppoc, one of the youngest of his followers at Harper’s Ferry, told his captors that he had not at first wished to join in that attack. “Why did you, then?” “Ah, gentlemen,” said Coppoc, “you don’t know Captain Brown; when he calls for us we never think of refusing to come. It was perhaps in allusion to this that Brown said, during his trial at Charlestown, “I hear it has been stated by some of them that I have induced them to join me. But the contrary is true. I do not say this to injure them, but as regretting their weakness. There is not one of them but joined me of his own accord, and the greater part at their own expense.”

In what terms he sometimes set forth the reasons for joining his expedition to Virginia may be seen by the following letter, which he wrote me the day after our conference broke up: —

—, N. Y., 24th Feb’y, 1858.

My Dear Friend, — Mr. Morton 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,

* * *

I received this letter soon after my return to Concord. On my way through Boston I had communicated to Theodore Parker (at his house in Exeter Place, where I had taken Brown in January, 1857, and where he met Mr. Garrison and other abolitionists) the substance of Brown’s plan, and upon receiving the letter I transmitted it to Parker. He retained it, so that it was out of my possession in October, 1859, when I destroyed most of the letters, of Brown and others, which could compromise our friends. Two or three years afterwards, probably in 1862, when Parker had been dead two years, my letters to him came back to me, and among them this touching and prophetic letter of Brown’s. It has to me an extreme value from this association with the memory of two of my best and noblest friends; but in itself is also a remarkable utterance. That it did not draw me into the field as one of Brown’s band was due, perhaps, to the circumstance that the interests of other persons were then too much in my hands and in my thoughts to permit a change of my whole course of life, except under the most unmistakable direction of that Spirit who governs the fate of nations and of men. Long accustomed to guide my life by leadings and omens from that shrine whose oracles may destroy but can never deceive, I listened in vain, through months of doubt and anxiety, for a clear and certain call. But it was revealed to me that no confidence could be too great, no trust nor affection too extreme, towards this aged poor man whom the Lord had chosen as his champion against wrong. In any event of his designs, — had he failed as conspicuously as he has succeeded, — I could still have had nothing to regret in the little aid I had afforded him, except that I could not aid him more. The work upon which he had entered was dangerous and even desperate; none saw this better than those who stood with him; but his commission was from a Court that could bear him out, whatever the results. It is a maxim even of worldly prudence that desperate diseases require desperate remedies: in rebus arduis ac tenui spe fortissimo queque consilia sunt optima. And can high courage and unselfish humility be less acceptable to the Heavenly Wisdom?

Oft He seems to hide His face,
But unexpectedly returns,
And to His faithful champion hath in place
Borne witness gloriously; whence Gaza mourns,
And all that hand them to resist
His uncontrollable intent:
His servants He, with new acquist
Of true experience, from this great event,
With peace and consolation hath dismissed,
And calm of mind, all passion spent.

This is part three of a six-part series. Read part one here, part two here, part four here, part five here, and part six here.
  1. The records of the Massachusetts Kansas Committee, including its large correspondence, were in my possession for a few years as secretary. Before the attack on Harper’s Ferry, or soon after, I transferred them to the custody of the chairman of the committee, George L. Stearns, and I have not seen them for at least fifteen years. If preserved (I have come reason to think they were destroyed, along with the records of the Massachusetts Anti-slavery Society, in the Boston fire of 1872), they will be found to contain much historical information and some curious revelations concerning political movements in those years. They will also probably confirm the statements made in The Atlantic Monthly in 1872, concerning the ownership of the arms carried by John Brown to Virginia. Some of these statements have been questioned but the facts in regard to the arms are substantially what was there alleged. The Massachusetts Committee voted them to John Brown as its agent in 1857, and though they were nominally reclaimed in 1858, they were never out of his custody till captured in Maryland. They had ceased to be the property of the committee, except in name, before the correspondence of May, 1858 (printed in Senator Mason’s Report of 1860, pp. l76, 177), in which Mr. Stearns, the real owner of the arms, warned Brown not to use them for any other purpose than the defense of Kansas, “and to hold them subject to my order as chairman of the committee.” On the 20th of May, 1858, Mr. Stearns wrote thus to a person cognizant of Brown’s designs, but not a member of the Kansas committee: “I have felt obliged, for reasons that cannot be written, to recall the arms committed to B——‘s custody. We are all agreed on that point, and if you come to Boston I think we can convince you that it is for the best.” That this recall was only nominal appears from a memorandum made by Mr. Stearns’s correspondent when he did “come to Boston” early in June. “I found,” he says, “that the Kansas committee had put some $500 in gold into Brown’s hands, and all the arms, with only the understanding that he should go to Kansas, and then be left to his own discretion.” In fact, no member of the committee who was consulted ever suggested the actual recall of the arms from Brown, well knowing that he would not give them up unless he pleased. Nor, according to my recollection, did any member who gave advice (probably only Mr. Stearns, Dr. Howe, and myself, who had long been the three acting members of a committee practically defunct, were consulted) desire to have Brown surrender the arms.
  2. Cromwell related in his speech a colloquy with his cousin Hampden, in 1642, when he was about raising men for his troop of Ironsides to serve in Lord Essex’s army, and added, “Mr. John Hampden was a wise and worthy person, and he did think that I talked a good notion, but an impracticable one. Truly I told him I could do somewhat in it. I did so; I raised such men as had the fear of God before them; as made some conscience of what they did; and from that day forward I must say to you they were never beaten, and wherever they were engaged against the enemy, they beat continually.” In a fair field this was true of Brown’s men; they were never beaten unless caught in a trap, s they were at Harper’s Ferry.