On this day in 1859, John Brown set in motion a plan he believed would liberate 4 million slaves throughout the American South. Brown envisioned a biblical flood rising at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, as bondsmen rallied to the Harpers Ferry federal arsenal. This army of liberation would break over Dixie in a divine wave, cleansing the the region of its sins. At nightfall, Brown and his men seized the armory and sent patrols to take hostages and alert slaves that the day of jubilee had arrived. The next day, townspeople traded shots with Brown’s gang, until marines arrived and ended the rebellion.

Brown had chosen Harpers Ferry because it evinced federal power, stained by slavery. And as he readied to martyr himself for freedom, he held captive George Washington’s great-grandson, proving that, if nothing else, Brown understood symbolic politics. The marines, though, didn’t consider the raid’s semiotics. Led by Robert E. Lee and J. E. B. Stuart, they stormed the building and freed Lewis Washington. An officer wounded Brown with a sword. The troops then took the bleeding abolitionist to jail, where he remained until his trial. The South’s slaves had to wait for their freedom.

Brown, meanwhile, waited behind bars, impressing his captors with his cool demeanor and his piety. Then, when his trial began, Brown made the courtroom his stage, enacting a morality play, which helpful journalists shared with the entire nation. Throughout the proceedings, Brown lay on a cot, still bleeding. And at his sentencing, he gave a homespun speech making clear his willingness to die:

I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done, in behalf of his despised poor, I did not wrong but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say let it be done.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said that Brown would “make the gallows as glorious as the cross.” And perhaps he did. On December 2, 1859, Brown was hanged. Then his body lay a-mouldering in his grave.

And yet, Brown wielded more power dead than alive. Union troops sang about him, poets venerated him. And Southerners despised him. They saw Brown as the face of abolitionism, of Republicanism, of the North; alive, he had been none of those things. Even militant abolitionists, like Frederick Douglass, had considered him a dangerous tool, a loaded gun with a hair trigger. Republicans, including Lincoln, had viewed him as a political liability. And Northerners had thought about him less than Southerners guessed. But none of that mattered. In death, Brown embodied the South’s greatest anxiety: that armed slaves would rise up and throw off their chains.

From there, Brown’s cultural stock fluctuated across time. After inspiring Yankees during the Civil War, Brown passed through the end of the century as an ambiguous figure in American letters. He had, after all, brutally murdered people throughout his career as the bloodiest of the nation’s radical abolitionists. In 1909, W. E. B. Du Bois resurrected him in a sympathetic biography. Activists in the civil-rights movement later elevated Brown still further. Most recently, though, Brown has become a hero for moral absolutists, anti-abortion crusaders especially, who venerate him for his willingness to kill and die to uplift the innocent.

In this way, I suppose, his soul goes marching on.

[Author’s note: I’ve stolen much of this post from myself.]

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