John Brown was an American abolitionist who sought to bring an end to the institution of slavery in the United States through armed struggle.
He played a prominent role in countering the pro-slavery groups during the Bleeding Kansas crisis of 1856.
Brown later masterminded the famous raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, an event which became a key precursor to the American Civil War.
John Brown opposed slavery from an early age. He helped create secret hideouts for slaves escaping their masters along the famous Underground Railroad. Brown initially hoped that the issue of slavery could be peacefully resolved through a constitutional effort.
However, as he moved to Springfield, Massachusetts in 1846, his views began to change. He realized that the South would not allow a peaceful resolution of the issue and that ultimately, armed struggle of at least a limited scope would be necessary to find a solution.
In 1854, violence erupted in the proposed state of Kansas over the issue of slavery. The Congress had decided that the people of Kansas would ultimately decide the issue. So pro-slavery and anti-slavery groups started arriving in the area to change the demographics and affect the vote.
John Brown’s family was based in the Kansas territory. When anti-slavery groups started threatening his family, Brown gathered up arms, funds and supporters and set out for Kansas.
In Kansas, John Brown organized a group of anti-slavery militants in order to counter the armed pro-slavery groups. He attacked several of these groups and these attacks ushered in the bloodiest period of the Bleeding Kansas. Brown lost his son and several other close relatives during this fighting. He coordinated closely with other Free State leaders who wanted to establish a free state in Kansas.
In 1859, John Brown organized a raid on the United States arsenal located at Harpers Ferry in Virginia. Brown had hoped that he and his men would be able to gather up weapons from arsenal which can then be used in an anti-slavery insurrection.
They also hoped that the slaves across Virginia would come to their support after hearing of the raid. However, the raid didn’t go as expected. Brown’s plans for the raid were leaked and he couldn’t rally much support for the attack.
During the raid, nearly all of his men were killed or captured once the military surrounded the arsenal. Robert E. Lee, the main commander of the Confederate forces during the subsequent American Civil War, was among the officers involved in countering Brown’s attack.
During the failed raid on Harpers Ferry, John Brown was captured. During the period of his arrest, he was guarded by Stonewall Jackson, who would later serve as one of the key Confederate generals in the Civil War. Brown was later hastily tried for treason and sentenced to death. Brown’s execution was attended by many notable figures including Mark Twain and the later assassin of President Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth.