DBQ relating to John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry
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The views of John Brown’s raid of the federal armory at Harpers Ferry illustrate the changing of North-South relations between the years of 1859 and 1863. After the event occurred, many looked down upon it in order to try and prevent the inevitable Civil War. However, throughout the next few years many people began to praise him for his radical abolitionism, even to the point of martyrdom.
Horace Greeley, a well known anti-slavery activist and editor of the New York Tribune at the time, disagreed with Brown’s method, although he did agree with Brown’s motives. In a December 3rd, 1859 editorial he wrote, “There are fit and unfit modes of combating a great evil; we think Brown at Harpers Ferry pursued the latter…And, while we heartily wish every slave in the world would run away from his master tomorrow and never be retaken, we should not enter a slave state to incite them to do so…” It is this excerpt that shows his negative opinion of John Brown’s modus operandi and his wish that slavery would be abolished through other means. This was a common viewpoint in the North, which leaned toward abolition. This viewpoint on Brown’s actions signified the rising tensions between the North and South.
However, another editorial written weeks before in the Topeka Tribune condemned the act and Brown’s resulting martyrdom, which contradicted Greeley’s view of the martyrdom. They openly accuse two types of people, Republicans and “Men belonging to the Wendell Phillips school.” The editor states that the latter group calls him a patriot and Christian giving him the praise of a hero. The Republicans, being a northern based political party and mostly anti-slavery, are said to apologize for the act but underneath their veil they praise him as much as they can in their papers without taking responsibility. A good example is the first document by Greeley who himself personally push Lincoln to abolish slavery. Most of the disgust in this article comes from Brown’s reputation in the Bleeding Kansas years when he literally hacked up five pro-slavery activists. Most Northerners who praise John Brown are ignorant to his horrid and demented past in Kansas. At this point in time North-South relations were starting to degrade as the slavery issue hung over everyone’s head.
When Southern Democrats began associating the incident with the Republican Party it caused problems for the Republicans running for office in the 1860 elections. Presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln began accusing the Democrats of “bushwhacking.” He argues that the Democrats are only trying to gain ground after being “whipped” in some state elections by raving about the Republican involvement without any evidence to back their claim. This, a year before the Civil War began, illustrates the growing political rift between the North and South. It continues even after the war because of the Solid South mentality towards politics.
Many freed slaves praised Brown for his attempts at abolition. One such freedman named Frederick Douglass wrote a letter to a group of abolitionists in 1860. In this letter he expressed his gratitude and respect toward Brown saying, “To have been acquainted with John Brown…I esteem as among the highest privileges of my life. We do but honor to ourselves in doing honor to him…” This type of attitude towards Brown was common throughout the North in 1860 although most had looked down on the act in 1859 because it had killed ten innocents including a freed black. Not until after his hanging did people really begin to martyr him.
John Brown is one of the most sung about people in the Civil War, one war tune entitled The Old Song praises him saying that his soul marches on while he is in a grave and also that he is now a soldier in the army of the Lord. The North martyred him during the war and the South used it as a fuel for hatred. Also in a lithograph by Currier and Ives depicts him as an angelic figure, which enforces the song’s view, striding to the scaffold with the spirit of freedom in his wake. They say John Brown knew that after Harpers Ferry the most helpful thing he could do for the cause was die. So instead of pleading for insanity to be exonerated of the charges, he sat through the trial in a courageous and dignified matter. On the day of his hanging he strode to the scaffold without flinching and his last words, “…this is a beautiful country,” became famous, thus adding to the martyrdom of John Brown. Horace Greeley, although not present, made up a story of how a black mother and her child were outside the jailhouse and on his way to the execution site John Brown kissed the baby. This story however was not true. This all happened during the Civil War which shows the last string broken because the entire North now openly praises John Brown’s actions.
In retrospect, the views of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry changed from 1859 to 1863 and thus did relations between the North, who generally approved which lead to Brown’s martyrdom, and the South who resented the attempt to free slaves. The change of feelings in the North and the Republican influence on abolition, ultimately led to the Civil War in which Brown was immortalized in songs and minds.