John Brown (abolitionist)

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These men are all talk; What is needed is action — action!

John Brown (9 May 18002 December 1859) was an American abolitionist who advocated and practiced insurrection as a means to the abolition of slavery. First reaching national prominence for his radical abolitionism and fighting in Bleeding Kansas, he was eventually captured and executed for a failed incitement of a slave rebellion at Harpers Ferry preceding the American Civil War.

Quotes

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  • Nothing so charms the American people as personal bravery.
    • Introductory address to The League of Gileadites, quoted in John Brown, the Making of a Revolutionary by Louis Ruchames, pp 84-5. New York, Grosset's Univeral Library.[1]
  • I bring you one of the best and bravest persons on this continent — General Tubman as we call her.
    • Introducing Harriet Tubman to Wendell Phillips, as quoted in The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (1898) by Wilbur Henry Siebert, p. 185 also in "The Underground Railway" (27 May 1902) by W. H. Withrow, as published in Proceedings
If it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!
I believe that to have interfered as I have done as I have always freely admitted I have done in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right.
All persons known to be of good character and of sound mind and suitable age, who are connected with this organization, whether male or female, shall be encouraged to carry arms openly.
Slavery, throughout its entire existence in the United States, is none other than the most barbarous, unprovoked and unjustifiable war of one portion of its citizens against another portion, the only conditions of which are perpetual imprisonment and hopeless servitude, or absolute extermination, in utter disregard and violation of those eternal and self-evident truths set forth in our Declaration of Independence.
John Brown died that the slaves might be free. His soul goes marching on. ~ John Brown's Body
  • These men are all talk; What is needed is action — action!
    • Remarks at the New England Anti-Slavery Convention (May 1859), quoted in William Lloyd Garrison by Wendell and Francis Garrison.
  • I am gaining in health slowly, and am quite cheerful in view of my approaching end, — being fully persuaded that I am worth inconceivably more to hang than any other purpose.
  • I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed, it might be done.
  • This is a beautiful country.

Provisional Constitution and Ordinances (1858)

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Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the people of the United States (1858)
  • Whereas slavery, throughout its entire existence in the United States, is none other than the most barbarous, unprovoked and unjustifiable war of one portion of its citizens against another portion, the only conditions of which are perpetual imprisonment and hopeless servitude, or absolute extermination, in utter disregard and violation of those eternal and self-evident truths set forth in our Declaration of Independence. Therefore, we, citizens of the United States, and the oppressed people who, by a recent decision of the Supreme' Court, are declared to have no rights which the white man is bound to respect, together with all other people degraded by the laws thereof, do, for the time being, ordain and establish for ourselves the following Provisional Constitution and Ordinances, the better to protect our persons, property, lives, and liberties, and to govern our actions.
    • Preamble.
  • The marriage relation shall be at all times respected, and families kept together, as far as possible; and broken families encouraged to reunite, and intelligence offices established for that purpose. Schools and churches established, as soon as may be, for the purpose of reli­gious and other instructions; for the first day of the week, regarded as a day of rest, and appropriated to moral and religious instruction and improvement, relief of the suffering, instruction of the young and ignorant, and the encouragement of personal cleanliness; nor shall any persons be required on that day to perform ordinary manual labor, unless in extremely urgent cases.
    • Article XLII.
  • All persons known to be of good character and of sound mind and suitable age, who are connected with this organization, whether male or female, shall be encouraged to carry arms openly.
    • Article XLIII.

Prison interview (1859)

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Prison interview (19 October 1859)
  • I acknowledge no master in human form.
  • You had better — all you people at the South — prepare yourselves for a settlement of this question, that must come up for settlement sooner than you are prepared for it. The sooner you are prepared the better. You may dispose of me very easily, — I am nearly disposed by now; but this question is still to be settled, — this negro question I mean; the end of that is not yet.

Speech to the Court (1859)

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Speech to the Court at his Trial, after his conviction (2 November 1859)
  • In the first place, I deny everything but what I have all along admitted, the design on my part to free the slaves.… I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection.
  • Had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment. This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to "remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them." I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say, I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done as I have always freely admitted I have done in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!

Quotes about Brown

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  • While I cannot approve of all your acts, I stand in awe of your position since your capture, and dare not oppose you lest I be found fighting against God; for you speak as one having authority, and seem to be strengthened from on high.
    • Letter from "Christian Conservative" in West Newton, Mass., quoted in the Annual Report of the American Anti-Slavery Society (1861)
  • In his biography of John Brown, W. E. B. Du Bois declared this final message to be "the mightiest abolition document." He was, Du Bois said, "the man who of all Americans has perhaps come nearest to touching the real souls of black folk."
    • Bettina Aptheker Woman's Legacy: Essays on Race, Sex, and Class in American History (1982)
  • Susan B. Anthony organized a memorial meeting in honor of John Brown in Rochester, New York, on the day of his hanging. Parker Pillsbury, then editor of the Liberator, agreed to deliver the main address.
    • Bettina Aptheker Woman's Legacy: Essays on Race, Sex, and Class in American History (1982)
  • I looked at the traitor and terrorizer with unlimited, undeniable contempt.
  • One of the most marked characters, and greatest heroes known to American fame.
  • His zeal in the cause of freedom was infinitely superior to mine. Mine was as the taper light, his was as the burning sun. Mine was bounded by time. His stretched away to the silent shores of eternity. I could speak for the slave. John Brown could fight for the slave. I could live for the slave. John Brown could die for the slave.
  • His zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine - it was as the burning sun to my taper light - mine was bounded by time, his stretched away to the boundless shores of eternity. I could live for the slave, but he could die for him.
  • We do not believe in violence, neither in the despised violence of the raid nor the lauded violence of the soldier, nor the barbarous violence of the mob, but we do believe in John Brown, in that incarnate spirit of justice, that hatred of a lie, that willingness to sacrifice money, reputation, and life itself on the altar of right. And here on the scene of John Brown’s martyrdom we reconsecrate ourselves, our honor, our property to the final emancipation of the race which John Brown died to make free. Our enemies, triumphant for the present, are fighting the stars in their courses. Justice and humanity must prevail.
  • On another occasion, I returned to Boston, where Cell 16 had fulfilled one of my dreams by organizing a forum in historic Fannueil Hall in old Boston. In that hall, Lucy Stone, the Grimké sisters, Sojourner Truth, William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, and Frederick Douglass had held antislavery and profeminist meetings during the decades before the Civil War. Their legacy had motivated me to move to Boston to launch female liberation.
  • that new saint than whom none purer or more brave was ever led by love of men into conflict and death,—the new saint awaiting his martyrdom, and who, if he shall suffer, will make the gallows glorious like the cross.
  • For, by the logic of Concord, Lexington, and Bunker Hill, and by the principles enforced by this nation in its boasted Declaration of Independence, Capt. Brown was a hero, struggling against fearful odds, not for his own advantage, but to redeem others from a horrible bondage, to be justified in all that he aimed to achieve, however lacking in sound discretion. And by the same logic and the same principles, every slave-holder has forfeited his right to live, if his destruction be necessary to enable his victims to break the yoke of bondage; and they, and all who are disposed to aid them by force and arms, are fully warranted in carrying rebellion to any extent, and securing freedom at whatever cost.
  • To-night with greenest laurels we'll crown/North Elba's grave where sleeps John Brown,/Who made the gallows an altar high,/And showed how a brave old man could die.
  • Dear Friend: Although the hands of Slavery throw a barrier between you and me, and it may not be my privilege to see you in your prison-house, Virginia has no bolts or bars through which I dread to send you my sympathy. In the name of the young girl sold from the warm clasp of a mother’s arms to the clutches of a libertine or profligate (a completely immoral and shameless person), - in the name of the slave mother, her heart rocked to and fro by the agony of her mournful separations -- I thank you that you have been brave enough to reach out your hands to the crushed and blighted of my race. You have rocked the bloody Bastille (a famous prison stormed and liberated during the French Revolution in 1789); and I hope from your sad fate great good may arise to the cause of freedom. Already from your prison has come a shout of triumph against the giant sin of our country. We may earnestly hope that your fate will not be a vain lesson, that it will intensify our hatred of Slavery and love of Freedom, and that your martyr grave will be a sacred altar upon which men will record their vows of undying hatred to that system which tramples on man and bids defiance to God. . . You have rocked the bloody Bastille; and I hope that from your sad fate great good may arise to the cause of freedom. Already from your prison has come a shout of triumph against the giant sin of our country...
  • Politically speaking, the murder of John Brown would be an uncorrectable sin. It would create in the Union a latent fissure that would in the long run dislocate it. Brown's agony might perhaps consolidate slavery in Virginia, but it would certainly shake the whole American democracy. You save your shame, but you kill your glory. Morally speaking, it seems a part of the human light would put itself out, that the very notion of justice and injustice would hide itself in darkness, on that day where one would see the assassination of Emancipation by Liberty itself. ...
    Let America know and ponder on this: there is something more frightening than Cain killing Abel, and that is Washington killing Spartacus.
  • Victor Hugo in an open letter Actes et paroles written December 2, 1859, published in New York Times and quoted in a biography by his daughter Adèle
  • Eugene Debs would sit in our kitchen and recite the death speech of John Brown.
  • You charge that we stir up insurrections among your slaves. We deny it, and what is your proof? Harper's Ferry? John Brown? John Brown was no Republican, and you have failed to implicate a single Republican in his Harper's Ferry enterprise. If any member of our party is guilty in that matter, you know it or you do not know it. If you do know it, you are inexcusable for not designating the man and proving the fact. If you do not know it, you are inexcusable for asserting it, and especially for persisting in the assertion after you have tried and failed to make the proof. You need to be told that persisting in a charge which one does not know to be true, is simply malicious slander. Some of you admit that no Republican designedly aided or encouraged the Harper's Ferry affair, but still insist that our doctrines and declarations necessarily lead to such results. We do not believe it. We know we hold to no doctrine, and make no declaration.
  • Ideas made the opposite impact in the Confederacy. Ideological contradictions afflicted the slave system even before the war began. John Brown knew the masters secretly feared their slaves might revolt, even as they assured abolitionists that slaves really liked slavery. One reason his Harpers Ferry raid prompted such an outcry in the South was that slave owners feared their slaves might join him. Yet their condemnations of Brown and the 'Black Republicans' who financed him did not persuade Northern moderates but only pushed them toward the abolitionist camp. After all, if Brown was truly dangerous, as slave owners claimed, then slavery was truly unjust. Happy slaves would never revolt.
  • Amongst whites representing the anti-racist tradition, John Brown remains the best known martyr. But there are more to be researched, documented, and taught about. Today who even knows the name of William Moore, the ex-Marine postal worker from Baltimore who had grown up in Mississippi and thought its people were basically good? In April 1963, he walked down Deep South highways, wearing a sandwich-board bearing anti-racist slogans, with the goal of hand-delivering a letter, a civil rights plea, to the governor of Mississippi. After 70 miles he was shot dead at close range on U.S. Highway 11 in Alabama. People blamed the victim: "He should have known better. Must have been crazy." We need to honor such "craziness." Rev. Jonathan Daniels, a young northern minister who had been working with the black community, was shot dead in Lowndes County, Alabama, in 1965. That same year, Viola Liuzzo, a civil rights volunteer from Detroit who had come to join the Selma-Montgomery march, was shot dead by Klansmen while driving a local black youth home after the event. We hear a little more about two white Summer Project volunteers, Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, murdered together with Black activist James Chaney at Philadelphia, Mississippi.
    • Elizabeth Martinez Letters from Mississippi: Reports from Civil Rights Volunteers and Freedom School Poetry of the 1964 Freedom Summer (2007 edition)
  • Important as they are, we need more than just the heroic stories of militant resistance of suffragists chained to railings, slaves burning plantation houses, armed revolts like that of John Brown. Stories of accommodation, collaboration, and outright defeat are just as important because they give us ways to understand our lives as caused rather than just existing.
  • Women are stripped to the skin in the presence of leering, white-skinned, black-hearted brutes and lashed into insensibility and strangled to death from the limbs of trees. A girl child of fifteen years was lynched recently by these brutal bullies. Where has justice fled? The eloquence of Wendell Phillips is silent now. John Brown’s body lies moldering in the grave. But will his spirit lie there moldering, too? Brutes, inhuman monsters—you heartless brutes—you whom nature forms by molding you in it, deceive not yourselves by thinking that another John Brown will not arise.
  • In this country, one man who cut through to the imagination of all was John Brown, that meteor, whose blood was love and rage, in fury until the love was burned away. That crazy murderous old man, he must be called by Lincoln, and he must be hanged, condemned in agony. But that precipitating stroke, like the archaic bloody violence of the Greek plays, spoke to many lives.
  • John Brown deserves to be hung for being a hopeless fool! He attempted to capture Virginia with seventeen men when he ought to know that it would require at least twenty-five.
  • He done more in dying, than 100 men would in living.
    • Harriet Tubman, as quoted in Bound For the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero (2004), by Kate Larson.
  • If John Brown were still alive, we might accept him.
    • Malcolm X, when asked if white people could join the Organization of Afro-American Unity. [1]
  • Frederick Douglass had met with Brown. He argued against the plan from the standpoint of its chances of success, but he admired the ailing man of sixty, tall, gaunt, white-haired.

John Brown's Body

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John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
But his soul goes marching on.

Chorus:
Glory, glory, hallelujah,
Glory, glory, hallelujah,
His soul goes marching on.

He's gone to be a soldier in the Army of the Lord,
He's gone to be a soldier in the Army of the Lord,
His soul goes marching on.

Chorus:

John Brown's knapsack is strapped upon his back,
John Brown's knapsack is strapped upon his back,
His soul goes marching on.

Chorus:

John Brown died that the slaves might be free,
John Brown died that the slaves might be free,
His soul goes marching on.

Chorus:

The stars above in Heaven now are looking kindly down,
The stars above in Heaven now are looking kindly down,
His soul goes marching on.

Old John Brown’s body lies moldering in the grave,
While weep the sons of bondage whom he ventured all to save;
But though he lost his life while struggling for the slave,
His soul is marching on.

John Brown was a hero, undaunted, true and brave,
And Kansas knows his valor when he fought her rights to save;
Now, though the grass grows green above his grave,
His soul is marching on.

He captured Harper’s Ferry, with his nineteen men so few,
And frightened "Old Virginny" till she trembled through and through;
They hung him for a traitor, themselves the traitor crew,
But his soul is marching on.

John Brown was John the Baptist of the Christ we are to see,
Christ who of the bondmen shall the Liberator be,
And soon throughout the Sunny South the slaves shall all be free,
For his soul is marching on.

The conflict that he heralded he looks from heaven to view,
On the army of the Union with its flag red, white and blue.
And heaven shall ring with anthems o’er the deed they mean to do,
For his soul is marching on.

Ye soldiers of Freedom, then strike, while strike ye may,
The death blow of oppression in a better time and way,
For the dawn of old John Brown has brightened into day,
And his soul is marching on.

  • Some versions, instead of "nineteen men so few" sing "nineteen men so true." Some versions sing "themselves the traitor crew" as "themselves the traitorous crew." Some versions sing "with its flag red, white, and blue" as "with its flag o' red, white, and blue" and some read "of" instead of "o'". The word soul is sometimes replaced with truth. [2]
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