Was John Brown the Weirdest Man in American history?

John Brown, the architect of the Raid on Harper’s Ferry, is one person historians blame for America’s Civil War.

Brown was also one of the weirdest men in American history. That is saying a lot in a nation famous for producing weirdos and whackjobs.

Today we remember John Brown for leading an abolitionist raid on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, (now West Virginia). Brown’s life and actions, however, were incredibly strange.

Some weird things about John Brown include:

  • He moved East when most Americans were moving West in the 19th Century. Brown grew up in Hudson, Ohio, but moved east to Richmond, Pennsylvania, then to Springfield, Massachusetts, and finally settled in North Elba, New York.*
  • Even though we remember him as “John Brown of Kansas,” Brown was never a permanent resident of that territory. Instead, Brown followed his sons to Kansas only to wage war on slave supporters there.
  • Contemporaries also knew him as “Osawatomie Brown” because of the Battle of Osawatomie. The Battle of Osawatomie was a fight between Brown and his followers and the Border Ruffians, a force of pro-slavery mercenaries.
  • Brown was one of America’s first media celebrities. Newspaper accounts of Brown’s activities in Kansas transformed him from an obscure sheep farmer into a celebrity. Brown became famous because the telegraph and steam-powered presses made mass-circulation newspapers and national news coverage possible.
  • Brown was one the last Americans to kill his enemies with a sword. On 24 May 1856, Brown and his sons used broadswords to kill five pro-slavery Kansans in the Pottawatomie Massacre.
  • Brown was once a pacifist who evaded mandatory militia service by paying a tax. Author H. W. Brands, notes that as a young man Brown visited US Army camps during the War of 1812 and hated what he saw there. The experience led Brown to evade mandatory militia service.*
  •  Brown the pacifist wanted to wage war on the United States government and the South.
  •  Brown thought he could lead a guerrilla war against the US government. Brown’s plan to establish bases in Southern mountains from which his forces could raid plantations and free slaves to form an army to fight the Slave Power.
  • Brown who was well-read thought of himself as a 19th Century Spartacus. I think the Greek mercenary turned gladiator turned rebel Spartacus inspired Brown. Spartacus waged a successful guerrilla campaign against slavery in the Roman Republic during the Third Servile War.
  • Brown wanted to use Medieval weapons in his 19th Century war on the US government. To elaborate, Brown hired a blacksmith to make hundreds of pikes. A pike is a pole is a long pole with a blade on one end. It was a popular infantry weapon in the 16th Century.*
  •  Incredibly, repeating weapons including revolvers and multi-shot rifles were available in the 1850s, the decade of Brown’s private war. Thus Brown’s pike-wielding soldiers would have made excellent targets for enemy infantry.
  •  Brown wrote at least two Constitutions for the United States government and made himself chief executive.
  • One of Brown’s Constitutions almost got Frederick Douglass arrested and killed. In 1859, after the Harper’s Ferry raid, Douglass remembered he had one of Brown’s Constitutions in his desk drawer in his house in Syracuse, New York. Douglass feared that Virginia authorities could use the Constitution as evidence against him. *
  •  Fortunately, Douglass’s son hid or destroyed the Constitution before federal marshals raided Douglass’s house. Douglass wisely fled to Canada, a British territory, where he was safe from arrest. Douglass; who was black, feared that could he tried, convicted, and executed or lynched if they extradited him to Virginia from New York State.*
  •  Brown had been telling people about his plans for a guerrilla war on slavery for years before he attempted it. For instance, he may have told Douglass about his plans as early as 1847. Douglass dismissed Brown as a nut until he carried out his plans.*
  • Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry could have succeeded. The raid could have worked if Brown had followed his original plan of taking weapons and running away. Instead, Brown stood his ground in order to make a statement against slavery.
  • Brown had a death wish. Brown knew his forces were no match for federal troops and militia forces but holed up in an engine house (fire station) so government forces could capture him.
  •  United States Marines captured Brown. President James Buchanan (D-Pennsylvania) sent in the Marines because they were the only federal troops available. The Army was Out West fighting Native Americans.
  • Future Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and JEB Stuart captured Brown. Although Colonel Robert E. Lee was an Army officer, Buchanan asked him to command the federal response to Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. Lee was available because he was on leave at home in Arlington, Virginia. Lee asked Stuart, then a Calvary Lieutenant, to serve as his second-in-command.
  •  One of Brown’s biggest fans was actor John Wilkes Booth. Booth joined a militia unit at Harper’s Ferry to see Brown hanged. Booth went on to serve as a Confederate spy and assassinate President Abraham Lincoln (R-Illinois). Booth admired Brown because of his radicalism and violence, not his politics, which Booth a racist and slavery supporter hated.*
  • Brown’s other admirers included the pacifist Henry David Thoreau, who called Brown a “superior man.”* Some historians credit Thoreau with inventing nonviolent resistance and inspiring Gandhi.
  •  The song “John Brown’s Body;” known to us as the Battle Hymn of the Republic, a favorite of Elvis, began as a joke. Union soldiers created the song to mock a comrade named John Brown. The tune the soldiers created as a joke became so popular that music publishers began printing it as sheet music.*
  • Abraham Lincoln hated The Battle Hymn because it linked the Civil War to Brown’s crusade against slavery.

John Brown was a pivotal figure in American history, but he was also a weirdo and a freak.

* See The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American Freedomby H. W. Brands for many details of John Brown’s weird life and strange times.