The Life and Times of John Brown

I’m Mr. Beat I’m here in Osawatomie, Kansas in front of the John Brown Museum. John Brown, that’s right. The infamous abolitionist, probably the most infamous abolitionist in history. He moved to Kansas during the Bleeding Kansas era. He wanted Kansas to be a free state. He ended up killing people in the name of ending slavery. Was John Brown a hero or was he a terrorist? But first, let’s go back to the beginning. John Brown was born in Torrington, Connecticut on May 9, 1800. His parents, Owen and Ruth Brown. He was the fourth one born of their eight kids. No, he didn’t look like that when he was a baby. No one knows what he looked like when he was a baby, silly. Brown’s family moved around a lot when he was a kid, but he spent most of his youth in Ohio. He had a very religious upbringing. Owen and Ruth also raised John to absolutely hate slavery. At 16 years old, he left his family and went to Plainfield, Massachusetts, where he studied to become a Congregationalist minister. Ultimately, though, Brown went into the same business as his dad. He raised cattle and worked as a tanner. You know, making leather from animal skins. At one point he was also a surveyor. You know, checking out the land and stuff. In 1820, he married Dianthe Lusk. The couple eventually had 7 children together, and ended up settling in New Richmond, Pennsylvania. This is what’s left of the tannery John Brown ran while living there. Between 1825 and 1835, the tannery was an important stop on the Underground Railroad. No it wasn’t an actual railroad, you silly goose. The Underground Railroad was just what they called the secret network of routes and safe houses used to aid runaway slaves. It’s estimated that Brown helped more than 2,500 slaves at that tannery. The 1830s didn’t begin so well for Brown. In 1831, his 4-year old son Frederick died. Brown himself got really sick and his businesses struggled, causing him to get in big debt. The next year, Dianthe died while giving birth to an unnamed son who also died shortly afterward. Clearly, this was a low point in Brown’s life, but he soon met someone new…Mary Ann Day. She was 16. He was 32. They married on June 14, 1833. Eventually, they had 13 more kids together, although only six of them made it to adulthood. In 1836, the Browns moved to what is now Kent, Ohio. The next year, after a pro-slavery mob murdered the influential abolitionist Elijah Parish Lovejoy, Brown stood up in the back of a church and said “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery.” Meanwhile, in Ohio he had attempted again to operate a tannery, but struggled to make money from it. By 1839, he was again heavily in debt, and ended up losing his farm and getting arrested when he refused to give it up to its new owner. A federal court declared him bankrupt on September 28, 1842. The next year, four of his kids died of dysentery. Around this time Brown had taken an interest in sheep and wool. He partnered with a dude named Simon Perkins and became a shepherd. But he never made much money from wool, either. In 1846, he returned to New England, convincing Perkins to come with him and moving the family to Springfield, Massachusetts, where the whole abolitionist movement was starting to take off. Brown’s experiences in Springfield had a profound effect on him. It was there he got to see lectures by two African American abolitionists who had escaped slavery earlier in life- Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. He also got to see the famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. By 1850, the wool business had struggled again and Brown had become more radicalized than ever. In other words, now increasingly Brown talked about violence as the only solution to end slavery. Brown told folks that God had personally selected him to lead a major slave rebellion. In response to the Fugitive Slave Law, passed that year as part of the (sing) Compromise of 1850, he created a militant group to protect runaway slaves. By this time, he and his family lived in North Elba, New York, where a rich abolitionist named Gerrit Smith actually gave away free land to African Americans at a farming colony called Timbuctoo. Brown wanted to assist blacks trying to establish new communities in the area, and Smith gave him some land to farm while he did so. Brown was happy there, but his attention shifted back west after the passage of a horrible law known as The Kansas-Nebraska Act. The law created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska and established popular sovereignty in both territories, allowing the settlers who lived in both to decide whether or not to have slavery there. Well five of John Brown’s sons, John Brown Jr., Jason, Owen, Frederick II, and Salmon all decided to get up and move to Kansas Territory to help it become a free state, not a slave state. They ended up near the town of Osawatomie. Shortly after his sons arrived in Kansas, it became known as “Bloody Kansas” or “Bleeding Kansas” due to the violence there between anti-slavery folks and pro-slavery folks trying to establish power there. For more about this violence, you should most definitely check out my video Why Kansas Hates Missouri. It was crazy, man. Anyway, it was this violence that caused John Brown himself to move out to Kansas. Grady: The reason why he ultimately came here was because his son, John Brown Jr. wrote him a letter that stated, you know Father, we need guns more than anything else. “Cause they had come out here with a rifle, with a pistol and a shotgun. and that’s all the five brothers had between them. Mr. Beat: I mean, he was a father worried about the safety of his sons, after all. He got there in the fall of 1855, along with his son Oliver and son-in-law Henry Thompson. They all helped to make Kansas a free state. Grady: John Brown, out of concern of his family came out here, and literally stopped at four or five abolitionist towns and gathered up enough weapons to fill up a wagon. Mr. Beat: Like I said earlier, I’m in front of the John Brown Museum, and in that museum is the Adair cabin. Brown and his sons spent much time here. It was the home of Florella Adair, Brown’s half-sister, and her husband, the Reverend Samuel Adair. They let John Brown and his sons stay there sometimes. Grady: and they could come and go from here ’cause it was very close to Osawatomie, which was an abolitionist stronghold. The original location of that cabin was about a mile from this location they moved it here, built a museum around it and today you can still see how it really looked. Later Brown added on an addition as a place where runaway slaves could stay. But yeah, this cabin became a headquarters of sorts for Brown and his sons. Keep in mind that at the time John Brown moved to Kansas, he was a nobody. He wasn’t famous. Nobody knew who he was until he started killing people. Killing people? Yep, that started in 1856. In May 21st of that year, a group of pro-slavery forces destroyed and looted much of Lawrence, one of the leading anti-slavery towns in Kansas. When Brown found out about this, he was angry VERY angry. He also was angry, VERY angry, after he heard about Preston Brooks beating the crap out of the anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner the day after the sacking of Lawrence. I have a video about that, too, by the way. Brown had had enough. On the night of May 24 and morning of May 25, he led a group of abolitionists who dragged pro-slavery settlers out of their homes and murdered them. This is the approximate location of where it happened, and it became known as the Pottawatomie Massacre. Brown went into hiding, but Captain Henry Pate captured and arrested two of his sons- John Brown Jr. and Jason, and destroyed the family homestead. On June 2, Brown caught up to Pate and a group of Missourians he was leading near what today is Baldwin City. After some fighting, Brown and his forces captured 22 of Pate’s men and held them for ransom. Brown agreed to release them after Pate released his sons. This became known as the Battle of Black Jack. After this, Brown and his sons went back into hiding, but continuing to lead guerilla attacks throughout Northeastern Kansas. On August 30, General John William Reid and between 250 and 400 pro-slavery forces attacked Osawatomie. Despite being outnumbered more than seven to one, Brown and his small group put up a good fight trying to defend the town. However, they killed Brown’s son Frederick II and ultimately took the town over, looting and burning it to the ground. Still, Brown emerged as an abolitionist hero after that battle. The violence calmed down quite a bit in the fall, and Brown and three of his sons returned back East to try to raise money for the abolitionist cause. For the next two years, he not only raised money, but gathered weapons. He was planning something big. He returned to Kansas in the summer of 1858 to continue leading raids and freeing slaves. He also spent some time in Iowa, but ultimately ended up back east to carry out a plan he had in his head for decades- he wanted to raid the Southern slave states to free all the slaves. It was ambitious. It was crazy. It was totally John Brown. Brown even wrote a constitution for the area in the Southern slave states for after he took them over. His constitution called for things like direct elections of the President and Vice President, working on roads and other public projects as a punishment for crimes, and the banning of “profane swearing, filthy conversation, indecent behavior, indecent exposure of the person, and unlawful intercourse of the sexes.” While Brown got several delegates to sign his constitution, he struggled to get volunteers to join his forces. Throughout 1859, he traveled the continent trying to get people to help him with his planned invasion. He tried to get Frederick Douglass to join him, but Douglass politely declined. At one point, THE Harriet Tubman joined him to help gather up more former slaves to join his forces. Soon Brown had his eyes on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (which today is in West Virginia), as the place where he wanted to begin the rebellion. His plan was to raid a federal arsenal there and use the weapons from the arsenal to give to local slaves so that they could then help with the uprising. Well spoiler alert. That plan would fail miserably. First of all, Brown could only gather 21 men to help him raid the arsenal. On the rainy night of October 16, 1859, Brown and his men did easily take over the arsenal, which was guarded by just one dude. They even cut telegraph lines and rounded up hostages who were nearby. However, the next day, the Virginia militia arrived and surrounded them. Brown’s insurrection was already failing. By the end of the day, eight of his men were dead or dying. Two of the dead were Brown’s sons Watson and Oliver. Five others were separated from the main group, two had been captured, and two had escaped across the Potomac River. Brown’s men did end up killing four people. The next day, federal troops arrived under the command of Robert E. Lee, and had surrounded Brown and his remaining men in an engine house, which today is known as John Brown’s Fort. Brown refused to surrender, apparently now wanting to be a martyr at that spot. However, he would be a martyr later on at a different spot. The Marines swept in and captured him, along with seven others. They were quickly put on trial for murder, conspiracy, and treason against Virginia. It was a quick trial. On November 2, just a couple weeks after the raid, the jury found Brown guilty on all three counts. The judge sentenced him to be hanged in public. Brown received little sympathy from most Americans. Even most abolitionists distanced themselves from him, saying it he was too extreme and that this was not the way to end slavery, man. William Lloyd Garrison called the raid “misguided, wild, and apparently insane.” On the morning of his death, he wrote these foreboding words: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.” Many historians point to his raid on Harper’s Ferry as a big cause of the American Civil War war, by the way. John Wilkes Booth, the famous actor who later assassinated Abraham Lincoln, snuck into Brown’s execution. Major Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, who became famous later during the American Civil War that started a year and a half later, also was there. He wrote later that day: “John Brown was hung today at about 11 1/2 A.M. He behaved with unflinching firmness.” Brown died at 59 years old. He was buried at his old farm in upstate New York, and you can visit his tomb today at what is now John Brown Farm State Historic Site. Like I said, John Brown was mostly seen unfavorably at the time of his death by both Northerners and Southerners. However, many African American leaders of the time and later greatly respected him, often referring to him as a martyr for the cause of ending slavery. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the image of John Brown as a hero made a huge comeback for those other than African Americans. Today, however, the debate still goes on. Was John Brown a hero or a terrorist? Grady: If you look at both sides of the issue, it was two groups of terrorists attacking each other. So, by our modern definition, yes he was. By their definition, he was a guerilla fighter at the time. If you’re going to be fair to John Brown, and even fair to the pro slavery guerillas, they were guerilla fighters. I did poll Twitter this question last week. And most said he was a hero. But what do YOU think? Neil and Grayson, two of my amazing former students, had pretty good replies. Why not “anti-hero?” Or, why not “both?” A shout out to Cjkavy, a Patreon supporter who suggested this video topic. Finally, I got to make a video about John Brown. Also, if you want your video topic suggestion heard, At least at the $15 a month level or higher That’s the Grover Cleveland level. Speaking of that level or higher here is my montly shout out to my Patreon supporters. Matt Standish, Andrew Schneider Jojo’s Dogtail, Sean Conant Unnamed Muffin, Austin Rudolph, Zachary F. Parker Elcaspar, Eric B. Wolman, Chris John Johnson, Alicia Solberg, Kit Walker and PresidentStorm. Thank you all for your support and thank YOU for watching this video.

70 Replies to “The Life and Times of John Brown”

  1. Hello Mr.Beat, Former Texan living in Wichita here, I do really enjoy your videos.

    I would say that Mr.Brown supported a good cause as slavery was a terrible thing, but when you kill someone based on their beliefs does that make it just? Sure, his actions sparked a movement that further helped the abolitionist movement, but does the killing of slave owners make him a hero or terroris?

  2. Normally he would be a terrorist. However, it's complicated by the fact that the institution he was overthrowing was inherently violent and murderous.

    So is it fair to call him a terrorist and slave owners not?

    He was also correct that slavery only ended through war and that slave owners were perfectly willing to kill people by the thousands to preserve their right to own other humans.

    I will therefore land on the hero side of the debate.

  3. John Brown's actions should not be celebrated, nor should any of the pro-Union side in the years following. The Civil War was a massive, traumatic, unnecessary disaster that killed a huge number of people, destroyed countless lives, and damaged the south so much that it would be over a century before they even began to catch up with the north once again. Slavery could have been ended in a less damaging and traumatic way.

    But there's another dimension to why John Brown should not be celebrated; praising a man for taking action into his own hands and initiating violence lays the rhetorical groundwork for people today who want to commit violence against people with whose views they disagree. The whole "punch a Nazi" mentality exists because figures like John Brown have been lauded by the educational establishment. We need to reject political violence and do battle with words and ideas instead.

  4. Good video Mr Beat on a subject that has many grey areas (see how I avoided saying black or white, oops). You have said that before the civil war Americans saw themselves not as American citizens but as citizens of their state. Given that mindset, John Brown could be considered a filibuster, trying to impose his northern values on sovereign southern states. I would like to suggest a video for you: What would have happened to slavery in the United States if we had not fought a civil war? Would its end have come about by a more peaceful means?

  5. John Brown was a freedom fighter. The institution of slavery was a terrorizing force by nature. Those who subscribed to or were complicit with the institution were terroristic in nature. John Brown only used violence because that was the only language Slave States understood at that time. Personally he wasn't a terrorist to me. He did what he felt was right given the circumstances and collective mindset of the times.

  6. The man fought against slavery and paid for it with his life. Heroes don't have to be saints. They just have to do right.

  7. Calling him a "terrorist" seems anachronistic to me. Although the term had started seeing use due to the Jacobins' "Red Terror" phase of the French Revolution half a century before, it still wasn't as widely used as it is today. John Brown wasn't accused of terrorism, he was accused of treason, and hung to death because of that.
    No, what we should be asking is, was his sentence fair? Was he judged appropriately according to his crimes? Did he receive a fair trail?

  8. Can u compare
    Reno and Vegas
    Buffalo and New York City
    Jacksonville and Miami
    Okc and Tulsa
    Memphis and Nashville
    Cleveland and Cincinnati
    Singapore and Hong Kong
    London and Liverpool
    Charlotte and Raleigh

  9. "Hero [clean shaven] or terrorist [long beard]?" That plays on some current stereotypes about a certain group of people, don't you think?

  10. Thats the way it has to be a HOSTILE TAKE-OVER, the same way it was done in AFRICA! Would you say the white man that came to AFRICA were terrorists? Let's not all answer at once…lololololo

  11. He was a terrorist. Plain and simple. His connection to the Jesuits will explain alot more about what was really going on. He was working with them to agitate and frighten the South into seceedding from the Union. It was their goal to create a civil war in this country to try to destroy it. And John Brown was just a tool to make that happen. People really should look more into this and other things concerning the Jesuits and our nation and what historical figures have said about them. Including Abraham Lincoln when referring to them and the civil war. They have had numerous of our Presidents murdered. George Washington (poisoned), Thomas Jefferson (poisoned), John Adams (poisoned), just to name a few. God help us. Anyone reading don't take my word. I urge you to look into these things yourself and come to your own conclusion

  12. I think he was in some ways a terrorist, and did partake in some unnecessary acts of violence, but he was correct that (as much as I am against violence) the only way to end something as horrible and violent as slavery, was with violence. He could have tried to do less extreme things, so I see him as someone with the right cause who went too far.

  13. He strikes me as quite like the great Louis Riel in Canada. Somebody who fought for freedom, was captured and condemned as either insane or a terrorist, and ultimately executed by the tyrannical state. The statues of Robert E. Lee ought to be replaced by that of John Brown.

  14. I don't know how to judge John Brown – I didn't live at that time and I didn't have his experiences. I do, however, weep for the state of humanity if the comments under this video are in any way emblematic.

  15. I genuinely believe that john brown was one of the most morally upright and righteous people in american history, fought for what was right despite the calls for moderation and compromise from the cowardly politicians. Violence was the only way to end the violent system of slavery and it still is, his soul goes marching on.

  16. Just because you're a murdering dickhead doesn't mean your heart isn't in the right place. Or maybe just because your heart is in the right place doesn't mean you're not a murdering dickhead.

  17. I grew up in West Hartford so Hero butttttttt i moved in High school to northern VA so terrorist #1. Then i moved to Harpers ferry so it depends on who you ask?

    I did get to do the most imteresting college class called Journey through Hallowed Ground where we went on a field trip to Keeps tryst and we walked the walk of the raiders (we also walked the walk of the underground railroad in VA) and had a tour of the places they were.

  18. John Brown had me until that third quote from his proposed constitution at 10:20. 😉
    Jokes aside, I think that Mr. Atwater summarised the issue very well saying that there were two groups of terrorists/guerilla fighters attacking each other, with my sympathies being definitely on the side of the anti-slavery ones.
    I wouldn't be myself if I wasted a chance to bring up a Polish connection, se here's a poem by Cyprian Kamil Norwid:


    (From a letter written to America in 1859, in November)

    Over the Ocean’s undulant plain
    A song, like a seagull, I send you, o! John…
    To the land of the free maybe in vain
    It will fly — for it doubts: is that land gone?…
    — Or, like a ray of your hair gray and noble
    White — on an empty scaffold will land:
    So Your hangman’s son, with his little boy’s hand,
    At the visitor gull with throw stones!


    Thus, ere the ropes will test your bare neck
    To find it remains unyielding;

    Thus, ere you seek the ground with your heel,
    To kick the disgraced planets aside
    And the earth under your feet, like a panicked reptile
    Shall flee —
    Thus, ere they’ll say: “He’s hanged…” —
    They’ll say and stare, are lies being told? — —

    Thus, o’er your face a hat they fold,
    So America, disavoing her son,
    To its twelve stars wouldn’t shout:
    “Douse the fireworks on my crown,
    Night’s coming — a black night with a Black man’s face!”


    Thus, before Kościuszko’s shadow and Washington’s
    Will tremble — accept the first bars of this song, o! John…

    Before the song matures, man will die again,
    Yet ere the song dies, people will rise.

    from Poems by Cyprian Norwid, translate by Danuta Borchardt in collaboration with Agata Barjerska-Mazur, Archipelago Books, 2011.

  19. @Mr. Beat. Hes a hero, definitely, and the fact that you see him as maybe a hero or a terrorist, says more about you than him

  20. Everyone's preferred destiny is to be a hero- God like. The premise of course is morally and fundamentally consistent with what God would do.Fundamentally Good vs Evil.

  21. As I understand it, Booth didn't have to sneak in to witness the execution–at the time, he was just another Private in the ranks.

  22. I think that deep down, Brown knew that the plan for Harper's Ferry was quixotic. However, his actions terrified the south (believing he was just the tip of the abolitionist iceberg), and did indeed hasten the coming of the war (which was brewing one way or the other). With his martyrdom, he not only showed the slavers that there were indeed those who were willing to actually stand up and fight to end the evil practice, but also gave some much needed backbone to the abolitionists.

    In the end, John Brown was right–it took bloodshed to end slavery in the US.

  23. One's Hero is Another's Terrorist. On one side he was trying to help those in need. On the other side he killed someone's father, son, uncle, husband, friend, and so on. It just depends on who you ask and what side of history you're on.

  24. 47-year BeLiever in JeHoVah GOD & 47-year HATER of SODOMITES!!!
    Yet, I WILL VOTE ANY DEMOCRAT against ANY RePunkLIE Con, ALways!!!
    Source of My Anger===>
    Justin Martyr; #51 Bus Line; Eugene, Oregon
    ———— —————–

  25. Nicely done, sir. You really need to read John Brown's Trial by Brian McGinty. It brings up a lot of interesting notions about the trial itself, including this: how could John Brown be convicted of treason if he wasn't a citizen of Virginia? Isn't treason reserved for citizens who betray their homeland? And the attack was on the federal arsenal, making it a federal enclave. Why wasn't it a federal trial instead of a state trial?

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