Ohio History Journal

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Analyst, National Research Council


On October 16, 1859, long-smoldering passions in North and

South, which within a year and a half would burst into the flame

of civil war, were thrown new fuel. On that day John Brown and

eighteen staunch followers raided Harper's Ferry, Virginia, "to

free the slaves."1 After more than twenty-four hours of havoc,

Colonel Robert E. Lee, commanding a handful of United States

troops, forced the remnants of Brown's party into submission. One

week later Brown was on trial for his life; and on December 2 he

was hanged from the Charlestown, Virginia, gallows.

During this tense period northerners and southerners of all

shades of opinion concerning slavery eagerly followed the latest

developments in the John Brown story. Many southerners with

slave property were convinced that this felon must meet a speedy

death as a warning to others who might succeed where Brown had

failed, while abolitionists in the North found in Brown a martyr

to their cause.

In some quarters of the North, however, saner counsels prevailed.

Among those who offered them was the majority of the editors

of those religious journals which made it a practice to comment

on secular affairs. Their role in attempting to urge reason and

sanity, in place of indignation and hate, was certainly an important

one. These editors of the generally conservative religious press

realized that the John Brown affair, if exploited by excitable

northerners, would tend to undermine established principles of

law and order. So, they attempted to point out that Brown's deed

was unchristian, that Brown himself was a fanatic more to be

execrated than canonized. But they labored in vain, and the tide of

disunion continued to flow inexorably toward open warfare.

1 This was John Brown's answer to Senator J. M. Mason's question, "What was

your object in coming [to Harper's Ferry]?" Oswald Garrison Villard, John Brown

A Biography Fifty Years After (New York, 1943), 458.