m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

D E C E M B E R  1 8 7 9 

Three Interviews With Old John Brown

by William A. Phillips

UPON the 2d of July, 1856, Captain John Brown called on me at the Eastern House, in Lawrence, Kansas. He had left his company, twenty-two men, camped on the Wakerusa, a few miles from town. The state legislature was to assemble at noon, at Topeka, on the 4th. Franklin Pierce was then president, and the federal officials of the Territory, who all sympathized with the pro-slavery party, had determined that the legislature should not meet. There had been a lull in the winter, but with the spring hostilities set in. Finding the Missourians unable longer to cope with the free-state men, Buford and his men came from the far Southern States to reinforce them. Lawrence had been sacked and the Free State hotel and printing houses bombarded and burned in May. From that time forward there had been a skirmish or a fight almost every day. Bands of armed men, of both parties, roamed over the country. At first the pro-slavery men had the best of it; but Captain Brown captured Pate at Black Jack, after a sharp struggle, and the enemy lost some of their artillery at Franklin, and as the tide was turning the other way the United States troops came on the scene, for the alleged purpose of keeping the peace. Altogether it was neither a place nor a time for conservative men. The free-state governor and other officials were under guard at Lecompton, charged with treason. The pro-slavery party determined that the legislature under the Topeka constitution should not assemble. Their original purpose was to lead a Border Ruffian army to Topeka, to break it up; but the events of June rendered that a precarious enterprise. Topeka was seventy-five miles from the border. It would be difficult to get a large force up there, and as matters stood might be more difficult to get it back. Provisions and ammunition were stored at Topeka, and it was expected that a thousand armed free-state men would be there, if necessary, to defend the legislature. In this situation of affairs the programme was changed. A proclamation was issued, denouncing the legislature as a treasonable body, and commanding that it disperse. United States troops were sent to enforce this order. Colonel E. V. Sumner, with several hundred of the first cavalry and a battery, moved from Fort Leavenworth, and on the 3d of July camped close to the capitol on the southeast, while Colonel Philip St. George Cooke, with a still larger force, moved simultaneously from Fort Riley, and camped on the northwest of the town. The federal territorial officers, with marshals and deputy-marshals, clustered in the federal camp. From all directions companies of armed men were going to Topeka.
Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.

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 was a part of this general plan that John Brown and his company were on their way from Ossawatomie to Topeka. He was not in the habit of subjecting himself to the orders of anybody. He intended to aid the general result, but to do it in his own way.

During the day he stayed with me in Lawrence I had my first good opportunity to judge the old man's character. I had seen him in his camp, had seen him in the field, and he was always an enigma, a strange compound of enthusiasm and cold, methodic stolidity, -- a volcano beneath a mountain of snow. He told me of his experiences as a wool merchant and manufacturer in Ohio, and of his travels in Europe. I soon discovered that his tastes ran in a military rather than a commercial channel. He had visited many of the fortifications in Europe, and criticised them sharply, holding that the modern system of warfare did away with them, and that a well armed, brave soldier was the best fortification. He criticised all the arms then in use, and showed me a fine specimen of repeating-rifle which had long-range sights, and, he said, would carry eight hundred yards; but, he added, the way to fight was to press to close quarters. He had a couple of small pamphlets or circulars; one he had had printed on the armies and military systems of Europe; the other was addressed to the soldiers of the armies of the United States, and was an odd mixture of advice as to discipline and soldierly habits, and wound up by advising them to desert whenever there was an attempt made to use them against a free government and human liberty. He looked upon passing political movements as mere preliminaries or adjuncts to more important events in the future. With him men were nothing, principles everything.

I had intended to drive from Lawrence to Topeka with a friend that day, but he urged me to wait until evening and go with him, and I was so interested in him that I did so. We rode down Massachusetts Street, followed by one of his men, a sort of orderly, if I may so designate him. We ascended Mount Oread, and proceeded to the point where the state university now stands, and there reined our horses and looked at the scene,while we waited for the company, which was now slowly winding towards the base of the hill, where the old California road ascended it. It was a glorious landscape. Lawrence lay to the northeast, at our feet. Kaw River, like a sheet of silver, could be seen here and there through breaks in the forest. Away to our right was the Wakerusa, winding and twisting to meet it. A few miles distant rose the double-peaked Blue Mound. The streams and creeks were marked by feathery lines of trees, and away five or six miles before us, where the Kaw and Wakerusa met, there was an immense mass of timber veiling the meeting of the waters. The sun went down as we looked at it, and as I turned my eyes to his I saw he had drunk in the glorious beauty of the landscape.

"What a magnificent scene, captain!" I exclaimed.

"Yes," he said, in his slow, dry way; "a great country for a free State."

The company had climbed the hill, riding by twos, and we rode towards them. There was no recognition. We silently took our places at the head of the little column; he gave the command to march, and we rode up the California road. Darkness set in long before we reached " Coon Point." While on the march the captain was reticent, and apologized to me for being so on the ground of discipline. The road runs, or ran, some four miles to the south of Lecompton, the pro-slavery capital, and as we neared that region he carefully examined his men, and all appeared to be more vigilant. It was late when we reached Big Springs, and there we left the road, going in a southwesterly direction for a mile, when we halted on a hill, and the horses were stripped of their saddles and other articles, and picketed out to graze. The grass was wet with dew. The men ate of what provision they had with them, and I received a portion from the captain. I was not at all hungry, and if I had been I doubt if I could have eaten it. It was dry beef, which was not so bad; but the bread had been made from corn bruised between stones, and then rolled in balls and cooked in the coal and ashes of the camp fire. These ashes served for saleratus. Captain Brown observed that I nibbled it very gingerly, and said, -- "I am afraid you will be hardly able to eat a soldier's harsh fare." "I must be frank enough to say that I have doubts on that subject myself," I responded.

We placed our two saddles together so that our heads lay only a few feet apart. He spread his blanket on the wet grass, and, when we lay together upon it, mine was spread over us. Previous to doing this he had stationed a couple of guards. It was past eleven o'clock, and we lay there until two in the morning, scarcely time enough for sleep; indeed, we slept none. He seemed to be as little disposed to sleep as I was, and we talked; or rather he did, for I said little more than enough to keep him going. I soon found that he was a very thorough astronomer and he enlightened me on a good many matters in the starry firmament above us. He pointed out the different constellations and their movements. "Now," he said, "it is midnight," and he pointed to the finger marks of his great clock in the sky.

In his ordinary moods the man seemed so rigid, stern, and unimpressible when I first knew him that I never thought a poetic and impulsive nature lay behind that cold exterior. The whispering of the wind on the prairie was full of voices to him, and the stars as they shone in the firmament of God seemed to inspire him. "How admirable is the symmetry of the heavens; how grand and beautiful. Everything moves in sublime harmony in the government of God. Not so with us poor creatures. If one star is more brilliant than others, it is continually shooting in some erratic way into space."

He discussed and criticised both parties in Kansas. Of the pro-slavery men he spoke in bitterness. He said that slavery besotted everything, and made men more brutal and coarse. Nor did the free-state men escape his sharp censure. He said that we had many noble and true men, but that we had too many broken-down politicians from the older States. These men, he said, would rather pass resolutions than act, and they criticised all who did real work. A professional politician, he went on, you never could trust; for even if he had convictions, he was always ready to sacrifice his principles for his advantage.

One of the most interesting things in his conversation that night, and one that marked him as a theorist (and perhaps to some extent he might be styled a visionary), was his treatment of our forms of social and political life. He thought society ought to be organized on a less selfish basis; for while material interests gained something by the deification of pure selfishness, men and women lost much by it. He said that all great reforms, like the Christian religion, were based on broad, generous, self-sacrificing principles. He condemned the sale of land as a chattel, and thought that there was an infinite number of wrongs to right before society would be what it should be, but that in our country slavery was the "sum of all villainies," and its abolition the first essential work. If the American people did not take courage and end it speedily, human freedom and republican liberty would soon be empty names in these United States.

He ran on during these midnight hours in a conversation I can never forget. The dew lay cold and heavy on the grass and on the blanket above us. The stars grew sharper and clearer, and seemed to be looking down like watchers on that sleeping camp. My companion paused for a short time, and I thought he was going to sleep, when he said, --

"It is nearly two o'clock, and as it must be nine or ten miles to Topeka it is time we were marching," and he again drew my attention to his index marks in the sky. He rose and called his men. They responded with more alacrity than I expected. In less than ten minutes the company had saddled, packed, and mounted, and was again on the march.

He declined following the road any farther, but insisted on taking a straight course over the country, guided by the stars. It was in vain that I expostulated with him, and told him that three or four creeks were in the way, and that the country was rough and broken, and that it would be difficult to find our way in the dark. He was determined not to go by Tecumseh. We had, it is needless to say, a rough time of it that night, and day broke while we were floundering in the thickets of a creek bottom some miles from Topeka. As soon as daylight came and we could see our way, we rode more rapidly; but the sun had risen above the horizon before we rode down the slopes to Thung-gah-nung. Across the creek and nearly two miles to the right we saw the tents, and in the morning stillness could hear the bugles blow in Colonel Sumner's camp.

John Brown would not go into Topeka, but halted in the timber of the creek, sending one of his men with me, who was to be a messenger to bring him word when his company was needed. He had his horse picketed, and walked down by the side of my horse to the place where I crossed the creek. He sent messages to one or two of the gentlemen in town, and, as he wrung my hand at parting, urged that we should have the legisture meet, and resist all who should interfere with it, and fight, if necessary, even the United States troops.

THE second interview occurred, I think, in February, 1857. lt was a cold, snowy Sabbath morning, about eight o'clock, when a son of Mr. Whitman rode into Lawrence, and told me the "old man" was at his father's, and wanted to see me. He brought a led horse for me. It was a cold and disagreeable ride that morning, but as I had not heard of the whereabouts of Captain Brown for some time, I concluded to go.

When I reached Mr. Whitman's I found him, and with him Kagi and Whipple, or Stevens, and Cook; in fact,most of the men who were with him at Harper's Ferry. He took me to an apartment where we could be alone, and then he first inquired as to the condition of the free-state cause. He was very apprehensive that many of the free-state leaders would jeopardize the principles of the party in order to get power. He said whenever the free-state party gave itself over to selfish interests, its virtue and usefulness ended, and for good results it was far more desirable that it should be kept on the strain and suffer than make selfish compromises with the enemy. He asked earnestly many questions about the free-state leaders. One very good man he criticised for several things he had done, and in response to my assurances about him he used one of his striking comparisons. He took out a large pocket compass, and unscrewing its brass lid laid it down on the table before me, and pointing at the needle fixed his eyes on me, while he said: --

"You see that needle; it wabbles about and is mighty unsteady, but it wants to point to the north. Is he like that needle?"

He told me that some friends in the East had raised for him and placed in his hands a very large sum of money, in all nearly five thousand dollars. He had picked his company, and would like a few more, if he could get the right kind of men. He had spent some time in Iowa and some on the Kansas border. He was drilling and educating his company, and training them to hardship and to be perfectly faithful and reliable. He desired, he said, to get my advice as to the best way of using his force and resources, so as to advance the great interests of freedom and humanity.

Long before that time I had understood John Brown well enough to know that there was little probability about our agreeing on that subject, or of his being governed by the advice of anybody. He urged me so strenuously, however, that for a short time I actually permitted myself to suppose that he might really take advice. I had just previously discovered the site and location for a town, where the city of Salina now stands, and as it was then fifty miles beyond the settlement I told him I would give him any interest I then had in the place, and advised him to go there with his company. Each of them, I said, could take claims on the rich farming lands adjacent; they could be the pioneer builders of the town, could invest their funds in a stock of goods and a mill, and drill, if he thought it best, an hour each morning, and maintain in everything perfect discipline, and be ready for any emergency.

Before I had concluded my rather practical and conservative advice, I could perceive that it did not at all harmonize with the views and purposes of Captain Brown, and I suspected that a location one hundred and eighty miles from the Missouri border was in his opinion rather remote from the scene of operations. He suggested that it was only fair, as Missouri had undertaken to make a slave State of Kansas and failed, that Kansas should make a free State of Missouri, and proceeded at length to show, in the most logical manner, that it was not for the interests of Kansas to have a powerful slave State so close to it, and that the process of putting an end to slavery there was exceedingly simple. He said that he intended to spend some time near Tabor, lowa where he expected to be joined by others, who would need discipline and organization; and that he expected also to visit Canada, with the view of studying personally its suitability for receiving, and protecting negro emigration. And so we parted on that occasion.

I heard of the old man occasionally, sometimes in one place, sometimes in another. It was during the ensuing winter that he made one or two raids into the State of Missouri, generally, if not always, visiting those who had taken an active part in the Kansas outrages. He was on hand on the southeast border very soon after the Mer du Cygne massacre, no doubt to punish the perpetrators. Many persons will remember when he took from Missouri a large number of negroes, and led them through Kansas, Iowa, and other States and territories to Canada. During that march several parties tried to catch old John Brown, but they invariably caught a Tartar. He passed through Kansas some miles to the south of Lawrence, and the night they camped at the nearest point Kagi and Stevens came up to town and gave me all the particulars of that adventure, which were in the New York Tribune at the time. They also brought from the old man the text of his celebrated "parallels" to show me.

THE most important interview, the one that has peculiar historical significance was the last I ever had with him. It occurred during the same year of the Harper's Ferry affair, although several months before. He had been absent from Kansas for some time. Now we could hear of him in New England, now in Canada, now in Ohio or Pennsylvania. I had lost track of him, when one day Kagi came to my house in Lawrence, and told me that the old man had arrived and was at the Whitney House, and wished to see me. At first I refused to go, and sent him word by Kagi that as he never took my advice I did not see any use in giving him any. Kagi soon returned, and said that the old man must see me; he was going away, and might never see me again.

I found him in a small room at the Whitney House, then one of the Lawrence hotels, down towards the river. He had changed a little. There was in the expression of his face something, even more dignified than usual; his eye was brighter, and the absorbing and consuming thoughts that were within him seemed to be growing out all over him. He evinced his customary caution by telling Kagi to go out and close the door, and watch on the outside, for fear that some one should come to listen. Then he began.

He sketched the history of American slavery from its beginnings in the colonies, and referred to the States that were able to shake it off. He recalled many circumstances that I had forgotten, or had never heard of. He said the founders of the republic were all opposed to slavery, and that the whole spirit and genius of the American constitution antagonized it, and contemplated its early overthrow. He said this remained the dominant sentiment for the first quarter of a century of the republic. Afterwards slavery became more profitable, and as it did the desire grew to extend and increase it. The condition of the enslaved negroes steadily became worse, and the despotic necessities of a more cruel svstem constantly pressed on the degraded slaves. Rights they at first possessed were taken from them. The little of domestic happiness and independence that had been left them was taken away. The slave-trade being ended, it was profitable to breed negroes for sale. Gradually the pecuniary interests that rested on slavery seized the power of the government. Public opinion opposed to slavery was placed under ban. The politicians of the South became slavery propagandists, and the politicians of the North trimmers. When the religious and moral sentiment of the country indicated a desire to check this alarming growth, a threat of secession was uttered, and appeals were made not to risk the perpetuation of this glorious republic by fanatical antislaveryism. Then began an era of political compromises, and men full of professions of love of country were willing, for peace, to sacrifice everything for which the republic was founded.

"And now," he went on, " we have reached a point where nothing but war can settle the question. Had they succeeded in Kansas, they would have gained a power that would have given them permanently the upper hand, and it would have been the death-knell of republicanism in America. They are checked, but not beaten. They never intend to relinquish the machinery of this government into the hands of the opponents of slavery. It has taken them more than half a century to get it, and they know its significance too well to give it up. If the republican party elects its president next year, there will be war. The moment they are unable to control they will go out, and as a rival nation along-side they will get the countenance and aid of the European nations, until American republicanism and freedom are overthrown."

I have endeavored to quote him, but it is quite impossible to quote such a conversation accurately. I well remember all its vital essentials and its outlines. He had been more observant than he had credit for being. The whole powers of his mind (and they were great) had been given to one subject. He told me that a war was at that very moment contemplated in the cabinet of President Buchanan; that for years the army had been carefully arranged, as far as it could be, on a basis of Southern power; that arms and the best of the troops were being concentrated, so as to be under control of its interests if there was danger of having to surrender the government; that the secretary of the navy was then sending our vessels away on long cruises, so that they would not be available, and that the treasury would be beggared before it got into Northern hands. All this has a strangely prophetic look to me now; then it simply appeared incredible, or the dream and vagary of a man who had allowed one idea to carry him away. I told him he surely was mistaken, and had confounded everyday occurrences with treacherous designs.

"No," he said, and I remember this part distinctly, -- "no, the war is not over. It is a treacherous lull before the storm. We are on the eve of one of the greatest wars in history, and I fear slavery will triumph, and there will be an end of all aspirations for human freedom. For my part, I drew my sword in Kansas when they attacked us, and I will never sheathe it until this war is over. Our best people do not understand the danger. They are besotted. They have compromised so long that they think principles of right and wrong have no more any power on this earth."

My impression then was that it was his purpose to carry on incursions on the borders of the free and slave States, and I said to him, --

"Let us suppose that all you say is true. If we keep companies on the one side, they will keep them on the other. Trouble will multiply; there will be collision, which will produce the very state of affairs you deprecate. That would lead to war, and to some extent we should be responsible for it. Better trust events. If there is virtue enough in this people to deserve a free government, they will maintain it."

"You forget the fearful wrongs that are carried on in the name of government and law."

"I do not forget them, -- I regret them."

"I regret and will remedy them with all the power that God has given me."

He then went on to tell me of Spartacus and his servile war, and was evidently familiar with every step in the career of the great gladiator. I reminded him that Spartacus and Roman slaves were warlike people in the countries from which they were taken, and were trained to arms in the arena, in which they slew or were slain, and that the movement was crushed when the Roman legions were concentrated against it. The negroes were a peaceful, domestic, inoffensive race. In all their sufferings they seemed to be incapable of resentment or reprisal.

"You have not studied them right," he said, "and you have not studied them long enough. Human nature is the same everywhere." He then went on in a very elaborate way to explain the mistakes of Spartacus, and tried to show me how he could easily have overthrown the Roman empire. The pith of it was that the leader of that servile insurrection, instead of wasting his time in Italy until his enemies could swoop on him, should have struck at Rome; or, if not strong enough for that, he should have escaped to the wild northern provinces, and there have organized an army to overthrow Rome.

I told him that I feared he would lead the young men with him into some desperate enterprise, where they would be imprisoned and disgraced.

He rose. "Well," he said, "I thought I could get you to understand this. I do not wonder at it. The world is very pleasant to you; but when your household gods are broken, as mine have been, you will see all this more clearly."

I rose, somewhat offended, and said, "Captain, if you thought this, why did you send for me?" and walked to the door.

He followed me, and laid his hand on my shoulder, and when I turned to him he took both my hands in his. I could see that tears stood on his hard, bronzed cheeks. "No," he said, "we must not part thus. I wanted to see you and tell you how it appeared to me. With the help of God, I will do what I believe to be best." He held my hands firmly in his stern, hard hands, leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek, and I never saw him again.

The Atlantic Monthly; December 1879; Three Interviews with Old John Brown - 1879.12; Volume 44, No. 266; page 738-744.