The Virginia Campaign of John Brown (Part IV)

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


From the first moment of their disclosure to the public, by the midnight attack at Harper’s Ferry in October, 1859, there has been a persistent mistake concerning the plans and purposes of Brown in making that attack. It was assumed at once that he struck his blow at that particular point in order to get possession of the arms stored in the national arsenal at Harper’s Ferry; and although this was immediately denied by Brown, the denial was little heeded. It was next assumed that he wanted these thousands of arms in order to put them in the hands of thousands of men, whom he expected, it was said, to rally to his support, either from the North or from the South; and then the next assumption followed at once, as an inference, that he meant to excite a general insurrection of slaves, and thus bring on a servile war. This also Brown denied, again and again; but though his word was not doubted, it was hardly taken as evidence, and this fiction of his purposes having once gained currency, it seemed quite impossible to withstand it. Then came the next link in the chain of fallacies: if he was exciting a general insurrection he must have powerful supporters, who had contrived the whole conspiracy and were using Brown as their instrument in the work. This mistake at once fastened upon the public mind at the South, and in a large part of the North, and led to many of the proceedings taken in 1859-60 to inculpate leading statesmen of the North. Mr. Vallandigham, the Ohio democrat, was one of the first to declare that Brown could not have planned the campaign. Writing to the Cincinnati Gazette a week after the attack, he said: —

“Though engaged in a wicked, mad, and fanatical enterprise, Brown is the farthest possible remove from the ordinary ruffian, fanatic, or madman; but his powers are rather executory than inventive, and he himself never had the depth or breadth of mind to originate and contrive the plan of insurrection which he undertook to carry out. The conspiracy was, unquestionably, far more extended than yet appears, numbering among the conspirators many more than the handful of followers who assailed Harper’s Ferry, and having in the North and West, if not also in the South, as its counselors and abettors, men of intelligence, position, and wealth. Certainly, it was among the best planned and executed conspiracies that ever failed.”

I suppose it is now clear, as it soon became evident to the Southern leaders in Congress, that this opinion of Vallandigham was completely unfounded. The plan of Brown was wholly his own, so far as I know, both in its general scope and in its details; nor was it known, even in a vague way, to many persons at the North. There were thousands of persons who knew that Brown meant to do what he could against slavery; there were a few hundred, perhaps, who knew that he meant to harass the slave-holders in some part of the South, with an armed force; but of those who knew with any fullness the details of his Virginia enterprise, I suppose the number never at any one time exceeded a hundred, — perhaps they were not more than fifty, — and these were scattered over the whole country from Boston to Kansas, from Maryland to Canada. Many of them were fugitive slaves; indeed, the first person, out of his own family, to whom Brown communicated his purpose seems to have been a Maryland fugitive, Thomas Thomas, who was a porter in Brown’s wool-warehouse at Springfield in 1846-48. Another Maryland fugitive, a woman named Harriet Tubman, was trusted with the secret ten years later, and was engaged in recruiting soldiers for Brown’s company when he made his attack at Harper’s Ferry. Probably no more than thirty or forty of the persons cognizant of the undertaking were ever assembled together, and most of them were unknown to each other and held no correspondence. Many of them, too, had derived their knowledge of what was to be done from brief hints given them by Brown, or from the statements of other persons to whom Brown had spoken. Thus there was much difference of opinion among Brown’s own men as to what his plans actually were; and it was not until a few weeks before the blow was struck that the men who were with him knew they were going to Harper’s Ferry. Still less was this known to his friends at a distance, who were surprised, when the outbreak came, to find Brown there instead of farther South and West. Hence the readiness with which some of them afterwards declared that they knew nothing of his Harper’s Ferry plot, as certainly they did not; and, further, that they would have disapproved it, had they known it, for so they would. It was, in fact, protested against not only by Frederick Douglass, who learned it for the first time at Chambersburg, three or four weeks before the attack, but by all Brown’s men, including his own sons. Edwin Coppoc said to his captors at Charlestown, “Brown wrote to me in July, 1859, to come on from Iowa to Chambersburg, where he first revealed the whole plot. The whole company was opposed to making the first demonstration at Harper’s Ferry, but Captain Brown would have it his own way, and we had to obey orders.” The same statement was made to me in March, 1860, by Charles Tidd, one of those who escaped with Owen Brown. Frederick Douglass, in a letter to Gerrit Smith, published in 1867, said, “Three or four weeks previous to his invasion of Harper’s Ferry, Captain Brown requested me to have an interview with him at Chambersburg; and in that interview he informed me that he had determined upon that invasion, instead of carrying out his old plan of going into the mountains. He did not tell me that you knew anything of this new plan. I do not suppose that any of his friends at the North, outside of his own family, knew of it.” Very few of his friends did, in fact, know of it; and by this circumstance several of them were enabled to deny, as they did, any knowledge of his actual plans.

It was not possible for me, however, to plead any such ignorance and I therefore avoided very carefully all occasions of testifying in regard to the matter, both in the winter of 1859-60, and at one or two periods afterwards. Brown had sounded me, in 1858, as to the expediency of attacking the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, not for the sake of capturing the arms, but in order to strike terror into the South by an audacious exhibition of strength; and although he never returned to the subject, and I had forgotten the proposition, it all came back to my recollection when the attack was really made there. I then remembered how Brown spoke of capturing the arsenal as we were sitting together in his room at the American House in Boston, one day in the spring of 1858, and what arguments he used in favor of it. He said that nothing would give the country a greater opinion of his resources than the fact that he had ventured to attack a government arsenal; that he would be supposed to have a thousand men, at least, and that after such a stroke he could retire to the mountains and carry out his original plan all the more easily. Whether he used these same arguments with Douglass and his own men in 1859 I cannot say, but I have never seen any cause to believe that he meant to occupy Harper’s Ferry, or to make a stand in that immediate neighborhood. As Douglass says, in the letter already cited: “For years before, Captain Brown’s long-entertained plan was to go into the mountains in the slave States, and invite the slaves to flee there and stand for their freedom. His object was to make slavery unprofitable by making it insecure.” Brown himself, when questioned concerning his plans at Harper’s Ferry, the day after his capture, made statements quite consistent with this. Being asked if he did not expect to encounter the Federal troops, he replied, “Not if I had followed up my plans. I intended to remain here only a few hours; but a lenient feeling towards the citizens led me to a parley with them as to compromise, and by prevarication on their part I was delayed until attacked, and then in self-defense was forced to intrench myself.” When asked which way he would have marched, he replied, “I had a general idea on that point, but do not wish to be too closely questioned, lest I should say something which might compromise me hereafter. But to your inquiry I answer, I purposed a general southwest course through Virginia, varying as circumstances dictated or required.” The language here is that of the reporter, and not Brown’s own words; but the substance of what was said he repeated to others. When Governor Wise, accompanied by Andrew Hunter, questioned him about his designs on the day of his capture, he was particularly asked whether he meant to carry the slaves off, and “he promptly and distinctly replied,” as Hunter testifies, “that such was not his purpose; he designed to put arms in their hands to defend themselves against their masters, and to maintain their position in Virginia and the South.” As his strength increased, he told Governor Wise, he meant to “enlarge the area under his control, furnishing a refuge for the slaves and a rendezvous for all whites who were disposed to aid him,” until eventually he should overrun the whole South. When during his trial he said something which seemed to imply that his purpose was to carry off the slaves to Canada, as he had done the year before in Missouri, Governor Wise was struck with the inconsistency of this statement with the one previously made, and went to see Brown about it, in his cell, where the prisoner reiterated that his purpose was to free the slaves in Virginia and keep them there. He also sent for Mr. Hunter and gave him an explanation in writing of the “seeming confliction,” as he calls it, between his two statements.1

Should any doubt remain of Brown’s purpose respecting the freed slaves in Virginia, my own testimony may be introduced. He explained to me in the spring of 1858 what his method of warfare would be, and it certainly did not involve the sending away of slaves to Canada, except as a last resort. His intention was, he told me, to gain possession of both slaves and masters; to hold the latter as hostages and the former for soldiers or laborers as might be best. He did not expect the colored people would all fight for him, or the white people all against him, and the particular service which he desired of me was to take charge of his white hostages, the slave-holders, and convince them in one way or another that their best course was to set free their own slaves and advise others to do the same. His band, at first small, was to intrench itself in log forts, made proof against bombs and cannon shot by being covered with earth, and protected against musketry and assault by timber palisades, in which a few men could maintain themselves against great odds. Provision was to be made for retreating from one of these forts to another, and for extending them, when an incursion was successful, until finally they should inclose and protect a considerable space of arable land near the mountains, which were to be his base of operations. This land was to be occupied and tilled by the colored people, only a part of whom were to be kept under arms, except in case of attack; when all, even women and children, were to have pikes put in their hands and be set to defend the fortifications. For this purpose he had a thousand pikes made in Connecticut, considering that rude and simple weapon better than more costly arms, for the use he had in mind. His own soldiers were to be armed with Sharpe’s rifles, of which he had two hundred, and with pistols, of which he also had two hundred. I did not understand from him that he expected to arm more than two hundred soldiers at first; indeed, I think his chosen number was a hundred; and with this small force, skillfully handled, he hoped to be a match for all the militia that would be sent against him. His Kansas experience had made him confident on this point; and he anticipated less trouble from the United States dragoons in the Virginia mountains than on the Kansas prairies. His own forces were to act either as infantry or cavalry; and he meant to press into his service all the horses of the slave-holders that he might need. Any other property of theirs which was needed to support their slaves or his own men he meant to take without scruple, but not to burn or pillage, nor to permit bloodshed, except in battle or as retaliation for the killing of his own men when captured. His hostages were to be held partly for purposes of retaliation, but more as a means of obtaining recruits and making converts; for he would have given up each white man in exchange for a certain number of slaves, and he hoped to persuade many of them either to join him or to remain neutral. Upon this point he has left written evidence, in a letter addressed to Theodore Parker, and sent to him (by my hand) from the American House in Boston, on Sunday afternoon, March 7,1858. He begins his letter by apologizing for writing on the Lord’s day, thus: “Since you know that I have an almost countless brood of poor, hungry chickens to ‘scratch for,’ you will not reproach me for scratching even on the Sabbath; at any rate, I trust God will not.” Then he asks Parker to write him an address “directed to the officers and soldiers of the United States army;” and finally he says: —

“I also want a similar short address, appropriate to the peculiar circumstances, intended for all persons, old and young, male and female, slave-holding and non-slave-holding, to be sent out broadcast over the entire nation. So by every male and female prisoner on being set at liberty, and to be read by them during confinement. I know that men will listen and reflect, too, under such circumstances. Persons will hear your antislavery lectures, or abolition lectures, when they have become virtually slaves themselves. The impressions made on prisoners by kindness and plain-dealing (instead of barbarous and cruel treatment, such as they might give, and instead of being slaughtered like vile reptiles, as they might very naturally expect) are not only powerful but lasting. Females are susceptible of being carried away entirely by the kindness of an intrepid and magnanimous soldier, even when his bare name was a terror but the day previous.”

This letter was written within a fortnight from the time when I met Brown in Central New York, and there first heard from him the outlines and many of the details of his plan. In this fortnight (from February 22 to March 7, 1858) I had returned to Massachusetts, and Brown had followed me at an interval of perhaps a week. Meantime I had communicated his plans, at his request, to Theodore Parker, Wentworth Higginson, and Dr. Howe, and had given Mr. Stearns some general conception of them. For a special reason, Captain Brown wished to make the disclosure to Mr. Stearns himself, and did so during his visit to Boston between the 4th and the 8th of March. How full this disclosure then was I cannot say, but in all our councils afterwards Mr. Stearns was a participant, and it was by him that more than half the money raised, and nearly all the arms furnished, were supplied. No other person in New England except these four was informed by me of the affair, though there were many who knew or suspected Brown’s general purpose. I was given to understand by Mr. Stearns, some months afterwards, that his wife was acquainted with Brown’s Virginia enterprise, but I cannot remember that I ever talked with her concerning it, until after it culminated. Mr. Parker did not communicate it to any of his family or friends, who were surprised after his death to learn how much he had known concerning it. His knowledge was, indeed, in some respects, more complete than that of either Mr. Stearns or Dr. Howe, for I remember talking with him about the proposal to attack Harper’s Ferry, of which neither of the others, nor, I believe, Colonel Higginson, was informed. Parker called on Brown at the American House, in March, 1858, and met him there again in May and June of that year, after which he never saw him, though many of Brown’s letters of the summer and autumn of 1858 passed through Parker’s hands. In raising money for Brown’s enterprise, Parker drew upon some of his friends who were in the habit of giving him money to be used at his discretion, without inquiring what became of it. He was not very sanguine of Brown’s success, but he used to say, “We shall make many mistakes before we find the right way to abolish slavery; this plan may be one of them; it may fail, but it is worth trying.” So, in writing to Francis Jackson from Rome, in November, 1859, Parker could well say, “Of course I was not astonished that an attempt had been made to free the slaves in a certain part of Virginia. Such things are to be expected; for they do not depend on the private will of men like Captain Brown and his associates, but on the great general causes which move all humankind to hate wrong and love right. Such ‘insurrections’ will continue as long as slavery lasts, and will increase both in frequency and in power, just as the people become intelligent and moral.” It was in the spirit of these utterances that he had acted the year before, in counseling with Brown and raising money for his Virginia campaign.

Brown’s first request in 1858 was for a fund of a thousand dollars only; with this in hand he promised to take the field either in April or May. Mr. Stearns acted as treasurer of this fund, and before the first of May nearly the whole amount had been paid in or subscribed, Stearns contributing three hundred dollars and the rest of the committee smaller sums. It soon appeared, however, that the amount named would be too small, and Brown’s movements were embarrassed from lack of money before the disclosures of Forbes, in the early part of May, came to his knowledge. What Forbes did has already been briefly mentioned; but the result was such as to call for a more extended notice. I do not find among my papers the precise language of Forbes’s threats, but the effect of them is visible enough in the letters before me. On the 20th of April, 1858, I had written thus to one of the secret committee: —

“I have lately had two letters from Mr. Hawkins,2 who has just left Canada for the West, on business connected with his enterprise. He has found in Canada several good men for shepherds, and, if not embarrassed by want of means, expects to turn his flock loose about the 15th of May. He has received four hundred and ten dollars of the five hundred guaranteed him in Massachusetts, but wants more, and we must try to make up to him the other five hundred dollars. Part of it is pledged and the rest ought to be got, though with some difficulty. … Hawkins’s address is ‘Jason Brown,’ under cover to John Jones, Chicago. He has gone West to move his furniture and bring on his hands. He has received two hundred and sixty dollars from other sources than our friends, and is raising more elsewhere, but got little in New York or Philadelphia.”

On the 28th of April Brown was still at Chicago, ignorant of Forbes’s treachery, and was on his way a day or two later, with a dozen or twenty “shepherds,” for the “market” at Chatham in Canada, where he wrote his Massachusetts friends to meet him. But just then came a letter to me from Forbes, followed by one to Dr. Howe, threatening to make the matter public. On the 2d of May, Dr. Howe, Mr. Stearns, and myself met for consultation on the new aspect of affairs presented by these letters from Washington, where Forbes then was. Mr. Parker was also consulted on the same day, and I wrote the result to Higginson as follows: —

“It looks as if the project must, for the present, be deferred, for I find by reading Forbes’s epistles to the doctor that he knows the details of the plan, and even knows (what very few do) that the doctor, Mr. Stearns, and myself are informed of it. how he got this knowledge is a mystery. He demands that Hawkins be dismissed as agent, and himself or some other be put in his place, threatening otherwise to make the business public. Theodore Parker and G. L. Stearns think the plan must be deferred till another year; the doctor does not think so, and I am in doubt, inclining to the opinion of the two former.”

This was written on the 6th of May. On the 7th, the most important person in our counsels from outside of New England wrote me: “It seems to me that in these circumstances Brown must go no further, and so I write him. I never was convinced of the wisdom of his scheme. But as things now stand, it seems to me it would be madness to attempt to execute it. Colonel Forbes would make such an attempt a certain and most disastrous failure. I write Brown this evening.”

On the 9th of May, Higginson wrote to Parker from Brattleboro, protesting against delay. “I regard any postponement,” he said, “as simply abandoning the project; for if we give it up now, at the command or threat of H. F., it will be the same next year. The only way is to circumvent the man somehow (if he cannot be restrained in his malice). When the thing is well started, who cares what he says?”

To this, on the 10th of May, Parker replied: “If you knew all we do about ‘Colonel’ Forbes, you would think differently. Can’t you see the wretch in New York?” At the same time Dr. Howe wrote thus to Higginson: “T. P. will tell you about matters. They have held a different view from the one I have taken, which agrees mainly with yours. I think that the would-be traitor is now on the wrong track. I told him some truth, which he will think to be false (for he thinks evil), and he will probably be bungling about in the dark and hesitating until the period for his doing harm has passed. Forbes has disclosed what he knows to Senator Seward, or says he has.” A few days after this, however, Dr. Howe also became satisfied that the enterprise must be postponed. I was in almost daily consultation with him, and on the 18th of May I wrote to Higginson: “Wilson as well as Hale and Seward, and God knows how many more, have heard about the plot from Forbes. To go on in the face of this is mere madness, and I place myself fully on the side of Parker, Stearns, and Dr. Howe. Mr. Stearns and the doctor will see Hawkins in New York this week, and settle matters finally.”

On the 20th, Mr. Stearns was in New York, and wrote to Higginson that “we are all agreed” about the recall of the arms, “for reasons that cannot be written.” On the 14th of May Mr. Stearns had written to Brown that the arms were not to be used for any other purpose than the defense of Kansas, and on the 16th Dr. Howe had written to Senator Wilson that there would be no perversion of Kansas funds to a totally different object. On the 24th of May a meeting of the secret committee was held at the Revere House, in which it was agreed that Brown himself should go to Kansas. A few days later he came to Boston, consented to go there, and postponed his enterprise for a year, in accordance with the opinion of six out of the seven persons consulted.

Thus far I have written with the original letters of 1858 before me, and have quoted from them enough, perhaps, to convince the reader that the persons whom I have named—Parker, Howe, Higginson, and Stearns—did know in much detail the Virginia plans of Brown, though only one or two of them had heard of Harper’s Ferry as a possible point of attack. In regard to one phase of the matter in 1858, the nominal withdrawal of the Kansas arms from Brown’s custody, something more needs to be said, because there has been more or less of public controversy upon this point. In 1858 the State Kansas Committee of Massachusetts, though never formally dissolved, and still continuing at intervals to pass votes and write letters in its executive committee, had long been practically defunct, for the very good reason that its funds were exhausted, and there was little expectation of raising more. It had supplied the starving people of Kansas with wheat and clothing in 1857, and in order to do this had advanced money far beyond the amount raised in that year. I remember this with much distinctness because I had myself advanced two or three hundred dollars at that time; but the principal advances were made by our chairman, Mr. Stearns, whose liberality, where his heart was interested, knew no bounds but the limit of his means.3 At the time, therefore, when his Massachusetts friends first heard of the Virginia plans of Brown, and gave them their reluctant approval, as has been mentioned, the rifles in Brown’s possession, though nominally belonging to the Massachusetts Kansas Committee, were pledged to Mr. Stearns, along with the other property, for the reimbursement of his advances; and it was with his full consent, as owner, not as chairman of the committee, that they remained in Brown’s hands for use in Virginia. But the public had never been notified that the committee had thus turned them over to its chairman, with liberty to sell them or dispose of them in any other way; and had it been disclosed to the public that they were in Brown’s possession for an attack on slavery in Virginia in 1858, it would have been impossible to convince people that the committee had not acted in bad faith. It had not so acted, because the transaction by which the arms were pledged to Mr. Stearns really took place long before any of us knew of the Virginia plans, although the formal vote transferring them to his custody, “to meet any liabilities,” may not have been passed until after March 1, 1858. But a statement of the exact facts in the case, if made after an outbreak in Virginia, would have seemed like a mere device to conceal the bad faith of the committee in allowing Brown to use the arms there. The three members of the committee who had knowledge of Brown’s purposes were therefore placed by Senator Wilson’s letter in a false position. If they allowed the project to proceed, they could be charged by Wilson and others with having knowingly perverted a trust to uses which those who made them trustees would never have sanctioned; and they could also have been reproached by their colleagues on the committee with having concealed from them some very important matters. In reality, everything that the committee had done was completely regular, and appropriate to the exigency of 1856-57; they had collected much money, had expended it judiciously, and had allowed a generous individual, their chairman, to place in their hands more money, for which he was willing to wait without payment until the property of the committee could be turned into cash. Then, to give him all the security in its power, the committee had made over this property to him, with no restriction as to what he should do with it. Mr. Stearns had chosen, after hearing Brown’s plans in the spring of 1858, to intrust him with the further use of the arms, without calling upon the committee in any way to sanction it, because he was dealing with his own property. Yet this transaction, perfectly legitimate in itself, not having been made public, nor even communicated to the whole committee (which had not met for months), would have had a very suspicious look to the public; and it was this circumstance which really prevailed most strongly with some of the friends of Brown to have his first attack postponed. They were indifferent to the reproach of having aided him, but they could not bear the thought of being charged with diverting other people’s money into his hands. I have always understood that this weighed much with Mr. Stearns, who, as a merchant, was scrupulous of his credit in such matters; and with Dr. Howe, who, in a long experience, collecting and disbursing philanthropic contributions, had never found himself in exactly such a dilemma. Hence, although he agreed with Colonel Higginson that it was bad policy to delay the attack, he felt that it was necessary to make the postponement. As soon as possible after Brown had consented to the alternative of going to Kansas in the summer of 1858, the business of the Kansas committee was put in such shape that its responsibility for the arms in Brown’s possession should no longer fetter his friends in aiding his main design.

It was very evident that Brown himself did not cheerfully consent to the change of plan. On the 14th of May, while these consultations were going on in Boston, but before the final decision was reached, he wrote from Chatham in Canada, in these words: “As it is an invariable rule with me to be governed by circumstances, or, in other words, not to do anything while I do not know what to do, none of our friends need have any fears in relation to hasty or rash steps being taken by us. As ‘knowledge is (said to be) power,’ we propose to become possessed of more knowledge. We have many reasons for begging our Eastern friends to keep clear of Forbes personally, unless he throws himself upon them. We have those who are thoroughly posted up to put on his track, and we humbly beg to be allowed to do so. We also beg our friends to supply us with two or three hundred dollars without delay; pledging ourselves not to act other than to secure perfect knowledge of facts in regard to what F. has really done and will do; so that we may ourselves know how we ought to act. None of us here or with you should be hasty or decide the course to be taken while under excitement. ‘In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths.’ A good cause is sure to be safe in the hands of an all-good, all-wise, and all-powerful Director and Father. Dear sir, please send this to the friends at Boston and at Concord at once; and in the mean time send on without delay all that Forbes may hereafter write and say, in a plain copy.” A day or two after this, Brown must have received Senator Wilson’s letter to Dr. Howe, which was mailed to him on the 14th of May from Boston by Mr. Stearns, accompanied by positive directions not to proceed with the Kansas rifles in the direction of Virginia. As soon as possible after this, Brown visited Boston, and while there held a conversation with the person to whom the letter just quoted was sent. A record of this conversation, made at the time (June 1, 1858), states that Brown was full of regret at the decision of the Revere House council (May 24th), at which it was determined to postpone the attack till the winter or spring of 1859, when the secret committee would raise for Brown two or three thousand dollars; “he meantime to blind Forbes by going to Kansas, and to transfer the property so as to relieve them” (the Kansas committee) “of responsibility, and they in future not to know his plans.” “On probing Brown,” this record goes on, “I found that he considered delay very discouraging to his thirteen men, and to those in Canada. Impossible to begin in the autumn, and he would not lose a day” (he finally said), “if he had three hundred dollars; it would not cost twenty-five dollars apiece to get his men from Ohio, and that was all he needed. The knowledge that Forbes could give of his plan would be injurious, for he wished his opponents to underrate” (overrate?) “him; but still the increased terror produced would perhaps counterbalance this, and it would not make much difference. If he had the means he would not lose a day.” He complained that his Massachusetts friends were not men of action, that they were intimidated by Wilson’s letter and magnified the obstacles. Still, it was essential that they should not think him reckless, he said, “and as they held the purse, he was powerless without them, having spent nearly everything received this campaign, on no-count of delay, — a month at Chatham, etc.” The same friend who noted down this conversation learned, a few days afterwards, from Dr. Howe, that Brown left Boston on the 3d of June, or thereabout, with five hundred dollars in gold and liberty to retain all the arms, and that “he went off in good spirits.”

At this time Forbes was in Philadelphia, on his way from Washington back to New York. On the 6th of June, 1858, he wrote to Colonel Higginson a long, rambling, self-conceited letter, in course of which he said: “The patent business which called me to Washington detained me longer than I anticipated; besides, certain financial difficulties threw obstacles in my way: … I am little disposed to trust certain letters by the U. S. mail addressed to obnoxious individuals. You can get from F. B. Sanborn and Dr. S. G. Howe a sight of my letters to them, unless Dr. H. may have thrown them behind the fire, as he said he would do if he did not like their tone, — as if he thought himself the Pope, or the autocrat of Austria, Japan, or China. I have been grossly defrauded in the name of humanity and anti-slavery. … I have for years labored in the antislavery cause, without wanting or thinking of a recompense. Though I have made the least possible parade of my work, it has nevertheless not been entirely without fruit; the very protest presented to the U. S. Senate and House against the Clayton clause of the organic Act, which deprived foreigners of the right of voting in Kansas, was mainly my doing. … I consider, therefore, that if my family were from any circumstance to be in distress, that distress ought cheerfully and effectually to be alleviated by the antislavery men of every school. … Patience and mild measures having failed, I reluctantly have recourse to harshness. Let them not flatter themselves that I shall eventually become weary and shall drop the subject; it is as yet quite at its beginning. The Massachusetts senators, Sumner and Wilson, wrote to Boston about it; but Howe, Lawrence, Sanborn, and associates, prefer to accumulate injury on injury rather than acknowledge their fallibility by redressing a wrong they have committed. I am on my way to New York, but I shall stop in this city” (Philadelphia) “for three days, because I wish to see some antislavery people here. I had letters to Mr. Miller McKim, but by him I was told that I could expect nothing from the Pennsylvania wing of the antislaveryites, because my remedy lay in New England, and because funds were low and prospects gloomy, etc., etc. Of course funds must be low, and prospects must be gloomy, if antislavery men pillage the families of antislavery men, so that mutual reliance and co6peration vanish. For my own part, I will, from principle, always do whatever I kay be able to do against slavery; but never will I act in connection with the rascals who have cheated me and have persecuted my family.”

This fragment of a letter will be enough to show what sort of man Forbes was, and it may easily be imagined how correspondence with him was a pleasure that soon grew monotonous. Let it be remembered that the persons whom he pestered with his letters and interviews had either never seen him at all, or as an unknown adventurer; that they never made nor authorized any person to make (nor ratified after it was made) any agreement with him of any kind, and that his whole claim upon them was founded on baseless assumptions. The more one knew of him, the less one desired to know; and when he disappeared from our knowledge, as he did after this letter, nobody took much pains to learn anything more about him, except, indeed, Brown himself, who dispatched Richard Realf from Cleveland to New York about the time Forbes was returning thither from Philadelphia, say the 10th of June, 1858. The reason for sending Realf (who was a young Englishman, and Brown’s “secretary of state” under the “provisional constitution”) was thus given by Realf before Masons committee of the Senate, January 21, 1860, after Brown’s execution: —

“John Brown sent me to New York city for this purpose: knowing that Forbes had made these revelations of which I have spoken, and knowing, too, that it incapacitated him for the time being from prosecuting his plan, he desired me to go on to New York, [and] somehow or other procure an introduction to Forbes; and he being an Englishman and I an Englishman, he thought we might presently establish mutual good relations; that, by ingratiating myself into his esteem, I might ultimately be able to possess myself, acting for Brown, of that obnoxious correspondence held by Forbes, written by Brown to him, in which Brown had developed his plans. For that purpose I went on to New York, with the intention of securing that correspondence; … so that, when Forbes was called upon (as Brown supposed would be the case) to substantiate his statements, he should not have the means of doing so. … I did not see Colonel Forbes in New York city. I cannot recollect whether I made any attempt to see him or not.”

In fact, instead of looking up Forbes, as he had undertaken to do, Realf himself slipped back to England, and from England went over to France and sailed thence to New Orleans in the spring of 1859, giving himself no further trouble about Brown or his purposes. Forbes seems to have been equally indifferent, for nothing more was heard from him until after the attack on Harper’s Ferry. It is not probable, in spite of what Realf testified, that Forbes ever had possession of much written matter that could have compromised Brown; though he doubtless had knowledge enough of the details of the grand plan to thwart its execution if he had chosen to make it public, which he never did. His disclosures to Senator Wilson and others at Washington were very general in their character, and, though they had the effect of deferring Brown’s attack for a year, they were not so followed up by any one as to put the secret project within the knowledge of persons to whom it had not been otherwise communicated. When Brown made his raid into Missouri eight months after Forbes’s disclosures, Senator Wilson, and no doubt others, imagined that to have been the enterprise which Forbes was trying to thwart

Returning from this long digression to the further consideration of what the details of Brown’s project were, let me here call attention to Realf’s own account of them, which he professed to have made up from recollections of a speech delivered by Brown at the secret convention in Chatham, in May, 1858. It is evidently colored and exaggerated in many of its particulars by the imagination of the reporter, and at several points it is contrary to what is otherwise known of Brown’s plans. But with these abatements, it may be taken as a good general outline of what Brown actually said. This is Realf’s testimony: —

“John Brown, on rising, stated that for twenty or thirty years the idea had possessed him like a passion of giving liberty to the slaves; that he made a journey to England in 1851 (in which year he took to the International Exhibition in London samples of wool from Ohio) during which he made a tour upon the European continent, inspecting all fortifications, and especially all earthwork forts, which he could find, with a view of applying the knowledge thus gained, with modifications and inventions of his own, to a mountain warfare in the United States. He stated that he had read all the books upon insurrectionary warfare that he could lay his hands on: the Roman warfare, the successful opposition of the Spanish chieftains during the period when Spain was a Roman province—how with ten thousand men, divided and subdivided into small companies, acting simultaneously, yet separately, they withstood the whole consolidated power of the Roman empire through a number of years.4 In addition to this, he said he had become very familiar with the successful warfare waged by Schamyl, the Circassian chief, against the Russians; he had posted himself in relation to the war of Toussaint L’Ouverture; he had become thoroughly acquainted with the wars in Hayti and the islands round about; and from all these things he had drawn the conclusion,5 — believing, as he stated there he did believe, and as we all (if I may judge from myself) believed,6 that upon the first intimation of a plan formed for the liberation of the slaves, they would immediately rise all over the Southern States. He supposed that they would come into the mountains to join him, where he purposed to work, and that, by flocking to his standard, they would enable him (making the line of mountains which cuts diagonally through Maryland and Virginia, down through the Southern States into Tennessee and Alabama, the base of his operations) to act upon the plantations on the plains lying on each side of that range of mountains; that we should be able to establish ourselves in the fastnesses; and, if any hostile action (as would be) were taken against us, either by the militia of the States or by the armies of the United States, we purposed to defeat first the militia, and next, if possible, the troops of the United States; and then organize the free blacks under this provisional constitution, which would carve out for the locality of its jurisdiction all that mountainous region in which the blacks were to be established, in which they were to be taught the useful and mechanical arts, and all the business of life. Schools were also to be established, and so on. The negroes were to be his soldiers. John Brown expected that all the free negroes in the Northern States would immediately flock to his standard;7 that all the slaves in the Southern States would do the same. He believed, too, that as many of the free negroes in Canada as could accompany him would do so. The slave-holders were to be taken as hostages, if they refused to let their slaves go; they were not to be killed. They were to be held as hostages for the safe treatment of any prisoners of John Brown’s that might fall into the hands of hostile parties. Those non-slave-holders who would not join the organization of John Brown, but who would not oppose it, were to be protected; but those who did oppose it were to be treated as the slave-holders themselves. John Brown said that he believed a successful incursion could be made; that it could be successfully maintained; that the several slave States could be forced (from the position in which they found themselves) to recognize the freedom of those who had been slaves within the respective limits of those States; that immediately such recognitions were made, then the places of all the officers elected under this provisional constitution would become vacant.”

In this last sentence Realf unquestionably understood Brown correctly, though he has in other places supplied his own words and thoughts in the place of Brown’s. The forty-sixth article of the provisional constitution deals with this matter, and says: “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.” That is to say, Brown believed it possible to carry on the sort of warfare he should wage without necessarily interfering with the civil government of Virginia or of the Union, although the local functions of government might be suspended through fear, or absolutely superseded, for a time, by his own frame-work of provisional government. In this forecast of a possible struggle for emancipation, he was not so far as he might have been from the expectations of John Quincy Adams on the same subject, in 1820. When the Missouri Compromise was under fierce debate in Congress, Mr. Adams (being then Secretary of State, and Mr. Calhoun Secretary of War to President Monroe) made this entry in his journal: —

February 24, 1820. I had some conversation with Calhoun on the slave question pending in Congress. He said he did not think it would produce a dissolution of the Union, but, if it should, the South would be from necessity compelled to form an alliance, offensive and defensive, with Great Britain. I said that would be returning to the colonial state. He said, ‘Yes, pretty much, but it would be forced upon them.’ ... I pressed the conversation no further, but if the dissolution of the Union should result from the slave question, it is as obvious as anything that can be foreseen of futurity, that it must shortly afterwards be followed by the universal emancipation of the slaves; ... the destructive progress of emancipation, which, like all great religious and political reformations, is terrible in its means, though happy and glorious in its end. Slavery is the great and foul stain upon the North American Union, and it is a contemplation worthy of the most exalted soul, whether its total abolition is or is not practicable; if practicable, by what means it may be effected, and, if a choice of means be within the scope of the object, what means would accomplish it at the smallest cost of human sufferance. A dissolution, at least temporary, of the Union, as now constituted would be certainly necessary, and the dissolution must be upon a point involving the question of slavery, and no other. The Union might then be reorganized on the fundamental principle of emancipation. This object is vast in its compass, awful in its prospects, sublime and beautiful in its issue. A life devoted to it would be nobly spent or sacrificed.”

Such a life was that of John Brown. He entered upon it when, as a boy, “during the war with England,” seven years before this colloquy of Adams with Calhoun, he saw his little black playmate starved and beaten, and with boyish ardor “swore eternal war with slavery. He ended it on the gallows in Virginia, and men said he died as a fool dieth.” But the method that he devised for emancipation was that which, within five years after his death, the nation adopted and carried to a successful issue. It was the method of force, and it proceeded gradually, as Brown had foreseen that it must, from State to State, and without overthrowing the general government. There was, however, what Adams had predicted, a temporary dissolution of the Union, followed by “amendment and repeals” as Brown had desired, and then by that which both Adams and Brown had longed for, a reorganization of the Union “on the fundamental principle of emancipation.” Thus again in human history, as so many times before, did the divine paradox reassert itself, and the stone which the builders rejected became the head of the corner. Beside the Potomac, where the Founder of our Republic lived and died, crowned with honors, it was decreed that the Restorer of the Republic should also die by the hangman’s hand. The work that Washington left unfinished, Brown came to complete; and Lincoln with his proclamations, Grant and Sherman with their armies, and Sumner with his constitutional amendments, did little more than follow in the path which Brown had pointed out. “Of all the men who were said to be my contemporaries,” wrote a Concord poet, “it seemed to me that John Brown was the only one who had not died. I meet him at every turn. He is more alive than ever he was; he is no longer working in secret; he works in public, and in the clearest light that shines on this land.”

This is part four of a six-part series. Read part one here, part two here, part three here, part five here, and part six here.
  1. Since many have been misled by imperfectly understanding Brown’s meaning in his speech to the court, November 2, 1859, it may be well to quote here his exact words, and his explanation of them to Governor Wise and Mr. Hunter some weeks after. In the beginning of his speech to the court he said, “I have all along admitted the design on my part to free the slaves. I intended certainly to have made a clean thing of that matter, as I did last winter, when I went into Missouri, and there took slaves without the snapping of a gun on either side, moved them through the country, and finally left them in Canada. I designed to have done the same thing again, on a larger scale. That was all I intended. I never did intend murder or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection.” This might easily be understood to imply that he meant to take his freed slaves out of Virginia. But on the 22d of November, writing to Mr. Hunter, Brown alludes to his former statement to Governor Wise, and says, “I had given Governor Wise a full and particular account of that, and when called in court I was taken wholly by surprise, as I did not expect my sentence before the others. In the hurry of the moment I forgot much that I had before intended to say, and did not consider the full bearing of what I then said. I intended to convey this idea, that it was my object to place the slaves in a condition to defend their liberties, if they would, without any bloodshed, but not that I intended to run them out of the slave States. What I said to Governor Wise was spoken with all the deliberation I was master of, and was intended for truth; and what I said in court was equally intended for truth but required a more full explanation than I then gave.”

    He also in an interview with Mr. Hunter assured him that the statement originally made at Harper’s Ferry was the correct one, and desired Mr. Hunter to vindicate his memory from the charge of having intended to deceive by his statement in court.
  2. This was Brown’s assumed name in 1853; the next year it was “Isaac Smith.”
  3. I have forgotten how many thousand dollars he advanced in this way, but it was so many that the value of the arms in the custody of the committee was not enough to reimburse him, and it was agreed that he should not only have these as a security for his money, but should also be at liberty to reimburse himself out of the avails of promissory notes given by the Kansas farmers in payment for the wheat and other supplies furnished to them in 1867. At the time these notes were given, it was hoped that most of them would be paid, and many of them were, but I fancy very little of the money ever came into the hands of Mr. Stearns. Some of it was paid to John Brown, as the agent of the committee, in the summer and autumn of 1858, by the agents of Mr. E. B. Whitman, in whose hands most of the notes were first placed. I have before me, in Brown’s handwriting, an “account of money, etc., collected of E. B. Whitman’s agents on National Kansas Committee account,” in which something less than two hundred dollars, mostly In small sums, is set down as received from S. L. Adair, William Partridge, William Hutchinson, and other Kansas residents, between August 21, 1858, and January 20, 1859. Mr. Whitman acted as agent both for the National Committee and for the Massachusetts Committee, and the business had become so complicated in one way and another, that when Brown levied upon the committee’s agents for moneys claimed by him under votes of the committees, it excited a lively dispute in Kansas. The Massachusetts Committee, however, stood firmly by Brown, even after its three active members (Stearns, Howe, and Sanborn) were apprised of his Virginia plans—as they were before he began to collect money on their notes in 1858. Indeed, Mr. B. P. Hallowell has quoted from a report of mine as secretary, made In September, 1858, in which, among the assets of the Massachusetts Kansas Committee, are mentioned “one hundred and ninety rifles in the hands of our agent,” who was no other than John Brown. I should be glad to see the whole report published, because I fancy it is the document the executive committee drew up in order to avoid the awkward complication in which Senator Wilsons letter of May, 1868, had found them. This letter, it may be said, is still in existence, and might well be published. The original was destroyed by Dr. Howe, but the copy that was sent to Brown and had his Indorsement upon it was preserved at North Elba, and, I suppose, is still extant.
  4. The reference here is to Sertorius in the days of Pompey and Metellus Pius.
  5. Here Mr. Realf, pausing to take breath, solaced himself, apparently, with the rhetorical restorative called anacoluthon, or non-sequitur, — the latter part of his sentence forgetting the beginning. The conclusion that Brown really drew from these historical examples was that which Byron had expressed long before, that

    “Freedoms battle, once begun,
    Bequeathed by bleeding sire to son,
    Though baffled oft, is ever won.”
  6. Speak for yourself, Mr. Realf; there is no evidence that John Brown ever believed or even hoped for any such thing.
  7. He expected no such impossibility; but he supposed that a portion of them would do so, and especially such as had fled from the region in which he might be fighting.