The Jury’s Still Out on John Brown

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John Brown, abolitionist. Used with permission from the Kansas History Project

John Brown, abolitionist. Used with permission from the Kansas History Project

It’s one thing to admire someone and quite another to like him or her. This reality slapped me in the face when I visited the homestead of John Brown near Lake Placid, New York.

Brown’s dedication to eradicating slavery is much easier to appreciate than his methods (lying and murder) or his treatment of his family. Brown was one wild and crazy guy, ready to put his financial security and even his family members’ lives on the line for what he believed. For long periods he frequently left his second wife Mary (who bore him thirteen children) and offspring while he freed slaves and solicited funding for other abolitionist projects. The Browns’ former life farming in Ohio poorly prepared them to cultivate the thin soil the Adirondack mountain community where the growing season was considerably shorter.

Before Brown emigrated to Kansas, he solicited funds far and wide for his numerous antislavery schemes. One of them was to create a farm community near Lake Placid for freed slaves on land donated by Gerrit Smith (cousin of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, best friend of Susan Anthony).  This was to circumvent an early New York State law that denied suffrage to freedmen unless they owned two hundred acres. Unfortunately, the community ultimately failed due to the difficult growing conditions, coupled with the freedom seekers’ former occupations as clerks and skilled tradesmen, which equipped them with little farming know-how.

Was Brown straightforward when he solicited funds for his ultimate debacle at Harper’s Ferry? Certainly his inner circle, consisting of the Secret Six, knew what he was up to. So did Frederick Douglass, who declined to get involved. However, there are some indications that he did not always fully elaborate on the desperate cause where he was planning to spend donated money.

It’s likely that many of the Anthonys knew of Brown’s plans for Harper’s Ferry, especially Merritt Anthony, who had fought with “Old Brown” at Osawatomie. For whatever reason, Merritt did not fight alongside Brown at Harper’s Ferry.

 

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