John Brown's Raid on Harper's Ferry

The time period from 1859 to 1863 was a complicated
time in the history of America. Slavery was becoming a
major political issue, the economy was reflecting this
dissension, and relations between the North and the South
were changing and evolving almost daily. Then came the
proverbial straw that broke the camel's back: John Brown
and several of his followers raided the defense arsenal at
Harper's Ferry, Virginia. This was yet one more issue which
had the potential to divide the nation, and divide the
nation it did. Sentiments rose up both against and in favor
of Brown and his actions. Such sentiments served as a
perfect mirror to the general feelings of Americans at the
time. Opinions about John Brown and his famed raid were not
immediately set in stone, for as relations between the North
and South changed views on the Harper's ferry raid evolved
as well.
The Harper's Ferry raid took place in 1859, and almost
immediately early opinions rose up in support- and
denouncement- of John Brown and his actions. Many people,
both southerners and northerners, used Brown's actions to
further their own purpose. The Topeka Tribune in "bloody
Kansas" accused the Republicans of "building up a reputation
of martyr for Brown and his confederates"(doc. C). Lincoln
himself accused the Democrats of seizing upon "the
unfortunate Harpers Ferry affair to influence other
elections then pending"(doc. E). This goes to further
illustrate the growing rift between northern and southern
sentiments. Even some northerners refuted Brown. The New
York Tribune published an editorial by Horace Greeley which
stated that "Of course, we regard Brown's raid as utterly
mistaken and, in its direct consequences, pernicious" (doc.
A). Some historians believe that before the Civil War, most
people (primarily northerners) were afraid to compliment
John Brown because they were racist themselves and didn't
really care about slavery. Such people were probably just
looking for a reason to indict the South for whatever reason
they could find to do so. However, not all early opinions
were anti-Brown. Henry David Thoreau became enthralled by
the incident, writing several essays on it, and stating
that, following the raid, there was even "a slight revival
of old religion." His belief that moral law, in this case,
was more important than human law, was one the first of its
kind to be generated, but would certainly not be the last.
As North/South relations and sentiments began to
escalate towards war, opinions about John Brown's Harper's
Ferry raid began to change, too. Where the North had first
(for the most part) attempted to reprimand the late John
Brown immediately following the incident, as time passed and
the War seemed eminent, more and more northerners began to
began to lionize Brown, proclaiming as a hero the man whom
they had earlier tried to disown. Frederick Douglass, an
ex-slave and famed abolitionist wrote in a letter to a group
of abolitionists (regarding Brown) that "We do but honor to
ourselves in doing honor to him," (doc. F). Even soldiers
in the army would make references to Brown being "a soldier
in the army of the Lord" (doc. G) in their battle hymns, a
huge irony considering that it was a federal arsenal which
Brown had first attacked. Possibly one of the most
convincing pieces of evidence as to the Northern change of
mentality came in the form of a Currrier & Ives lithograph
published in 1863 (doc. H). The decidedly pro-Brown
document uses subtle imagery to declare Brown as a hero. In
the style of Renaissance art, Brown is depicted as the "God
figure" in a scene which bears a striking resemblance to
well-known art scenes illustrating the Virgin Mary (in the
lithograph, a slave woman) and her Baby, with the God-figure
(Brown) in the background. The slave woman is also shown in
a Greek style toga, symbolizing slavery as an issue of
democracy . Finally, on the white banner highlighting
Brown's head, a Latin phrase loosely translating to "defeat
of tyranny" is featured, indicating that with the defeat of
slavery (a cause Brown essentially gave his life for) will
come freedom. A blindfolded Lady Justice is also featured.
By 1863, the Civil War was well under way, and it is a
reasonable assumption to say that by this time northerners
were looking for any way they could to prove themselves
better than the South. By depicting Brown as a much-loved
"folk hero," the North got away with not only a giant lie
(for racism was just as dominant in the North as the South)
but also managed to offer Brown as a giant red herring at
the same time. The South at this time had probably not
changed its views on Brown--