John Brown's Harper's Ferry raid on the abolition of slavery. Brown has variously been referred to as a madman, terrorist, and murderer; others have called him a saint, hero, and a martyr. Regardless of one's opinion of Brown the human being, his place in history and his impact on ending slavery cannot be denied. Deranged or no, Brown was a driven man who lived the courage of his convictions.
There can be little doubt that Brown's raid advanced the cause of abolition by escalating the debate over slavery that was already taking place in a polarized nation. Anti-slavery arguments ran the gamut from the political to the economic to the religious. At one time considered a fringe movement, by the mid-1800s abolition had taken center stage in American politics. A number of anti-slavery organizations had existed in America for years, but it was not until the 1840s that such organizations became politicized. The political debate over slavery escalated with the newly acquired territories which had significantly increased following the War with Mexico. These debates escalated to violence on both sides as an undeclared guerilla war erupted in "Bloody Kansas."
John Brown's relentless opposition to slavery culminated in his raid on Harper's Ferry, ultimately setting the stage for the War Between the States. Renowned abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass certainly credited Brown with precipitating the end of slavery. Douglass proclaimed "If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did at least begin the war that ended slavery." Referring to the Harpers Ferry raid, Douglas argued that "Until this blow was struck, the prospect for freedom was dim, shadowy and uncertain." Like so many, Douglass was dissatisfied with ineffective abolitionist efforts, describing the "irrepressible conflict" as consisting of "words, votes and compromises" (as quoted in Friedheim).
There can be little doubt that Brown's attack was a catalyst in bringing about the ultimate conflict between anti- and pro-slavery forces, the Civil War. The Richmond Enquirer spoke for many Southerners and slavery supporters in an editorial dated October 25, 1859 that proclaimed "The Harper's Ferry invasion has advanced the cause of Disunion more than any other event…since the formation of the Government." The editorial further proclaimed that the raid revived "with tenfold strength the desire of a Southern Confederacy" ("Harper's Ferry Invasion").
Another Virginia newspaper noted that there were "thousands of men" in their midst, who, a month before the raid on Harper's Ferry, would have "scoffed at the idea of dissolution of the Union as a madman's dream, but who now hold the opinion that its days are numbered" (as quoted by Mintz). John Brown's raid caused Southerners to increasingly believe that the South's only options were secession and creation of a slaveholding confederacy.
The reactions of many Northerners and abolitionists were equally implacable. Ralph Waldo Emerson compared Brown to Jesus Christ, announcing that Brown's death had made "the gallows as glorious as the cross" (as quoted by Mintz). William Lloyd Garrison, formerly the strongest proponent of nonviolent opposition to slavery, announced that Brown's execution had convinced him of the "need for violence" to destroy slavery (as quoted by Mintz). The fact that many people throughout the North gathered to mourn Brown, considered a martyr and hero, and that church bells tolled at the hour of his execution was further provocation to the South.
While many people deplored Brown's actions, they were nonetheless sympathetic to his goals. An editorial in the Chambersburg Valley Spirit dated October 26, 1859 shows this understandable ambivalence. The Spirit calls out pro-slavery supporters for their hypocrisy in regarding the Declaration of Independence as having been founded on "glitering generalities," rather than dedication to the principles of liberty and equality which should have uniformly applied to all human beings. In spite of deriding the New York Tribune comments on the attack, the Spirit's editorial comment clearly shows a belief that Brown's raid foreshadows civil war, saying "How anxious, always, to preserve a spirit of harmony in trying times when the Union was agitated with fears of civil war!" ("Harper's Ferry Rioters").
As is typical with politicians running for office, Abraham Lincoln's remarks about John Brown's raid delivered on February 27, 1860 during his Cooper Union address in New York were intended to promote a political agenda. Lincoln's speech sought to distance the Republican party from Brown's attack, as well both discredit the man and minimize…