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By William M. S. Rasmussen and Robert S. Tilton

Nathaniel Hawthorne thought John Brown a "blood-stained fanatic" whose plan to free four million slaves was a "preposterous miscalculation of possibilities." Abraham Lincoln deplored Brown's use of "violence, bloodshed, and treason" and dismissed his now famous raid as "so absurd" that most slaves "refused to participate." Ulysses S. Grant reasoned from a military perspective: "It was certainly the act of an insane man to attempt the invasion of the South and the overthrow of slavery, with less than twenty men."

One hundred and fifty years ago, in October 1859, John Brown and his followers gained armed possession of the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. In the immediate aftermath, many Americans denounced the raid as the act of a madman. Six weeks later, however, by the time he was hanged for murder, treason, and inciting slaves to revolt, many commentators in the North and in Europe revered Brown as a martyr who gave his life so that others might be free. Henry David Thoreau proclaimed Brown an American patriot "like the best of those who stood at our bridge once, on Lexington Common, and on Bunker Hill, only he was firmer and higher principled." Ralph Waldo Emerson warned that Brown is "the new saint awaiting his martyrdom, and who, if he shall suffer, will make the gallows glorious like the cross." Victor Hugo "recoil[ed] with horror" that "this liberator, this fighter for Christ . . . is to die slaughtered by the American Republic."

84 pages, Softcover, ISBN 978-0-945015-31-4, Virginia Historical Society, 2009.


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