Dispatches from the Potomac#27 | John Brown and the Era of American Disunion in Which He Lived

This is a translation of an article originally written in November 2018 for publication in the January 2019 edition of the Marubeni Group Magazine, M-SPIRIT.

Washington D.C. Office General Manager, Marubeni America Corporation    Yoichi Mineo

John Brown’s Raid and the Secession of the South that Triggered the American Civil War

John Brown

John Brown, who I will be talking about here, is one of the most controversial American figures of the 19th century, in that he decided that the abolition of slavery could not be achieved through talks or negotiations, and instead attempted to incite an armed revolt.

Brown originally operated tannery and sheep wool trading businesses, but was inspired by the abolitionist movement that was gaining momentum at the time, and eventually devoted himself entirely to the abolitionist cause. In May of 1856, an abolitionist band led by Brown attacked and killed five pro-slavery activists and settlers in eastern Kansas. In August of that year, again in eastern Kansas, Brown and his supporters violently clashed with a pro-slavery band, resulting in losses of life on both sides. These two incidents brought national attention to Brown and solidified his reputation as a militant abolitionist.

In October of 1859, roughly two years before the outbreak of the Civil War, John Brown and 21 of his men, armed with weapons donated to them by supporters, raided the town of Harpers Ferry, which is located about 50 miles northwest of Washington D.C. They succeeded in cutting off lines of communication to the outside, but they later attacked a train that had arrived in town, which caused authorities to become aware of the raid sooner than Brown had planned. Brown and his party were successful in capturing the armory on the first day of the raid, but by then the townspeople who had been attacked by Brown’s men began to counterattack using their own weapons. Brown believed that slaves in the area, encouraged by his actions, would be moved to join him and that together they would start an insurrection (the raid on the arsenal was to secure a large cache of weapons for that purpose). Things did not, however, go according to Brown’s design; not one local slave showed up to join in Brown’s attempted rebellion. Nearly overwhelmed by local militia and townspeople, Brown and his men holed up in a small fire engine house located at the arsenal. The following day, the federal government, which had already gotten word of the raid, ordered in U.S. Marines, who surrounded the engine house upon their arrival. Despite this, Brown refused to surrender. During the fighting, many of Brown’s men were wounded or killed, including two of Brown’s sons. Brown himself was wounded and captured soon after. Having been found guilty of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, John Brown was executed on December 2, 1859. In his last testament, he wrote, “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood.”

As States Came to Disagree with the Federal Government, they Responded with the Nullification of Laws and Secession from the Union

Harpers Ferry, the site of John Brown’s raid.

Here I would like to look more closely at the 1850s, when John Brown was most active in his abolitionist efforts. To begin with, one of the things that compelled Brown to choose armed conflict was the passage in the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This was a federal law that required all state officials and their citizens to return any slave who had escaped from a slave state to a free state, regardless of the presence or absence of evidence. Several free states (Vermont, Wisconsin, and others) resisted the act by passing their own state laws intended to impede its enforcement. One of the legal bases for the nullification of federal laws by these free states can be found in the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. It states that the federal government has only those powers delegated to it by the Constitution, with all other powers being reserved for the states or the people. Since the founding of the U.S., the relationship between the federal government and the states had never been so complex, and the issue of slavery brought this complexity to the forefront. It had the effect of heightening tensions between slave states and free states. Needless to say, John Brown’s failed rebellion and execution further provoked anger in slave states and free states alike. In 1860, the year after the events of Harpers Ferry, Abraham Lincoln became the 16th President of the United States. Following his election, many slave states began to secede from the Union, which in 1861 triggered the Civil War. Modern mainstream opinion holds that this secession by the southern states was unconstitutional, but there are some who think the opposite is true. Although the states that seceded and formed the Confederate States of America ultimately lost the war, that in itself does not seem to make secession unconstitutional. In fact, there are advocates for secession in some states even in this century. In addition, even when parties do not take such extreme measures as nullification and secession, disagreements and differing interests between the federal government and the states are problems that have continued uninterrupted to this day. In fact, since the election of Donald Trump, the number of lawsuits brought against the federal government by the states has risen sharply.

This Problem Did Not End in the 19th century

John Brown was criticized as a “misguided fanatic” by President Lincoln and is well known among some Americans. There is, however, a song familiar to most Japanese called “Gonbe-san no aka-chan” (“Mr. Gonbe’s Baby”) that has its roots in an American song titled “John Brown’s Body”, which praises his sacrifice. The song was turned into a military march by the Union Army, then into a schoolchildren’s song called “John Brown’s Baby”. It is the latter that is thought to have been brought to Japan. (The original contains the lyrics “John Brown’s baby had a cold upon his chest, And they rubbed it with camphorated oil”.)

In the 19th century, the issue of slavery, which John Brown believed would only be solved through bloodshed, did in fact propel the United States into the Civil War. Yet the diversity of the U.S. and the complexity of the relationship between its states and federal government are not just matters of history from a century and a half ago. Even now I think they give shape to both the dynamics and difficulties in this country.