Archive for Thursday, May 25, 2006

John Brown’s crusade turns violent in Kansas

May 25, 2006

Nowadays, there's a lot of talk -- good and bad -- about certain politicians' willingness to blur the once-bright lines between church and state.

John Brown must be spinning in his 146-year-old grave.

No one, after all, blurred the lines more than Brown in his all-consuming quest to stamp out slavery.

By comparison, the thought of today's crusaders fretting over what children need to know about evolution and whether homosexuals ought to marry seems silly.

Brown didn't just talk the abolitionist talk, he freed slaves, he took an eye for eye, he jarred the nation's conscience.

"He was very much a man of action," said Grady Atwater, curator at the John Brown Museum and Historical Site in Osawatomie.

Though Brown spent considerable time in Lawrence, most of his operations were based near Osawatomie.

"John Brown was a complex character," Atwater said. "He was motivated, primarily, by a religious belief that all men are equal in the eyes of God, and that it's a sin to put one race over another.

"And for one race to hold a another race in bondage was an even greater sin."

Born in Connecticut and reared in Ohio, Brown moved to Kansas in 1855. At the time, he was 55 years old, twice married, the father of 20 children and not much of a businessman.

He stayed in Kansas four years -- about as long as it takes to earn a bachelor's Kansas University.

Some key developments during his stay:

Dec. 7, 1855: Brown helped defend Lawrence during the Wakarusa War, during which pro-slavery forces threatened to -- but didn't -- sack the abolitionist stronghold.

May 24, 1856: Brown led the Pottawatomie Massacre, during which five pro-slavery settlers were pulled from their cabins along the Pottawatomie Creek and hacked to death in retaliation for the earlier deaths of six Free State men and for a May 21, 1856, attack on Lawrence.

Whether Brown took part in the actual hacking isn't clear.

June 2, 1856: Captured 29 pro-slavery troops during the Battle of Black Jack.

Aug. 30, 1856: Led an unsuccessful attempt fend off pro-slavery militia during the Battle of Osawatomie.

Sept. 14, 1856: Rallied Lawrence residents against more than 2,700 Missouri ruffians, giving newly appointed Gov. John W. Geary enough time to broker a truce.

Brown's speech, during which he encouraged residents to " keep calm and aim low" is the subject of a plaque near the entrance of the Free State Brewing Co., 636 Mass.

In 1857-58, Brown led several raids on Missouri settlements, stealing cattle, horses and slaves.

He left Kansas in February 1859, intent of raiding the federal arsenal at Haper's Ferry, Va.

Brown was confident the arsenal's weaponry would fuel a slave-led armed rebellion that would lead to liberty and justice for all.

In historical hindsight, the raid was a not-so-good idea that ultimately cost Brown and 17 of his followers their lives.

But Brown wasn't alone in his assumptions, Atwater said.

"If you go back and read what people were thinking in the late 1850s, you'll see there was a common assumption in abolitionist circles that if slaves just had a chance to arm themselves, they would rise up," Atwater said.

Brown, he said, assumed that once they were armed, so many slaves would flee their masters, the Southern economy would collapse, making slavery obsolete.

"He didn't want a bloodbath," Atwater said.

Convicted of murder, conspiracy and treason, Brown was hanged Dec. 2, 1859.

His trial, execution and martyrdom set the stage for the Civil War, which began 18 months later. He's since been called everything from a crazed zealot to a devout freedom fighter.

"It's easy to brand him as a terrorist or a fanatic," said Lawrence historian Karl Gridley, "but you have to put things in the context of their time -- this was a time when slavery had a grip on the entire country and was getting stronger, a time when a country that's supposed to be land of the free has 4,000,000 people in chains.

"I think Kansans can take pride in Brown and his followers and their role in the bringing slavery to an end," Gridley said.

But Americans, he said, still struggle with the fundamental question: "Is it ever right to use violence to achieve our goals? Martin Luther King said no, but John Brown said salvery was so ingrained and so unjust that 'I...am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.'"

Others aren't so sure.

"Some people from North Carolina were in the museum not too long ago," Atwater said. "When they left, I heard one of them whisper, 'He (Brown) was insane.'"

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