American Experience: Season 12, Episode 10

John Brown's Holy War (28 Feb. 2000)

TV Episode  |   |  Documentary, History
8.1
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Extremism in Pursuit of Abolition.
4 July 2015 | by (Deming, New Mexico, USA) – See all my reviews

Brown was born in the early years of the 19th century in Connecticut, a land of flinty Calivinists. He and his family moved to Pennsylvania and then to the Adirondacks where making a living was extraordinarily difficult due to climate and terrain. He eventually fathered more than a dozen children, some of whom died in childhood, and he treated them with the same severity with which he treated himself. One of his sons kept a notebook account of the number of lashes for each sin -- lying, being lazy at work, impudence, and so forth. In the 1840s, at the time of the Great Awakening, Brown underwent some sort of epiphany in the woods and came to embrace abolition of slavery as his greatest aim in life.

Some of his sons had moved to a small town in Kansas, near Lawrence, and reported to Brown on the activities of the "Border Ruffians" -- pro-slavery southerners who had pushed across the border and abused the local prohibitionists, including the murder of a newspaper editor. Brown joined his sons and organized a bloody raid on the households of pro-slavery families, hauling the men outside and then hacking them to death and shooting them. The Border Ruffians fought back and it cost Brown the lives of two sons. This was the period when the territory was known as "bleeding Kansas." Brown became a hero to the North. He was the hero of plays like "Ossowatomi Brown" in New York. And by this time he was ready to carry the war against slavery to the South. He traveled for two years, visiting wealthy abolitionists and trying to collect enough guns and money to begin the battle, which he saw as a great uprising of slaves led by himself. He may have been wanted for murder in Kansas, but in Massachusetts he was a guest in the house of Ralph Waldo Emerson and had lunch with Thoreau. He had features that looked as if rough-hewn from the trunk of an oak tree. He'd memorized every word of the Bible. At the dinners served by his genteel hosts he would shock them by producing a pistol from one boot and an evil-looking knife from the other. The guy was en fuego. God preserve us from religious zealots.

By the summer of 1859, just before the Civil War, Brown had made his plans to attack the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, a tiny Appalachian town located at the confluence of two rivers and surrounded by very tall hills -- impossible to defend. He had recruited only twenty-one men: fugitive slaves, freemen, college students, and three of his own sons. The group took the lightly guarded arsenal. But there was no slave revolt. Instead, townspeople hid in the hills and took pot shots at Brown's men, and soon the Virginia militia arrived and surrounded the building. Brown's numbers were whittle down to five. One of his dying sons lay in agony on the floor, begging Brown to put him out of his misery, but Brown's advice was to "be a man." The arrival of federal troops under Robert E. Lee put an end to the occupation and Brown was captured, wounded but alive.

Following his conviction, he stood up and gave a perceptive and moving speech. A few months later, he went wilfully to the gallows. John Wilkes Booth watched the hanging, filled with hatred. Abraham Lincoln's response was prudent. The nation could not do anything but condemn John Brown even though many Americans agreed with him. Prominent southern newspapers agreed with him too, at least on one point: There will be blood. Less than a year and a half later, the first shot of the Civil War was fired at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. That John Brown remains a controversial figure is, at least to some extent, probably reflected in these reviews.


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