John Brown's raids

From Anarchy In Action
John Brown

“No man sent me here; it was my own prompting and that of my Maker. I acknowledge no master in human form.[1] John Brown said these words after being captured at Harpers Ferry armory by the federal government in 1859. An organizer and participant of numerous battles against slavery, the American abolitionist had planned to use the weapons he seized at the federal armory to launch a nationwide slaves' insurrection against their masters. Although he did not achieve this goal, a number of historians agree that Brown's raid did become a critical tipping point that made inevitable the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves in the US.

In his beliefs and practices, Brown had an anti-authoritarian orientation with regard to gender, race, economics and politics. Frederick Douglass found remarkable the relatively egalitarian division of labor among genders in Brown's household, and Brown opposed the dispossession of Native Americans. Brown believed in communally-owned property and was considered a socialist by his son John Brown, Jr. According to the historian David Reynolds, Brown “verged on anarchism in his hatred of government.”[2]

Following the Harpers Ferry raid, Brown was hung by the state of Virginia. He has been a source of inspiration for freedom fighters ever since.

At a time when slavery was legal, Brown, a white man (who likely would have gladly abolished whiteness as the 20th-century anarchist journal Race Traitor would one day advocate), took direct action against an institution he considered deeply an affront to basic morality. In the words of Henry David Thoreau:

[John Brown] did not recognize unjust human laws, but resisted them as he was bid...No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature, knowing himself for a man, and the equal of any and all governments.[3]

Background and Beliefs

John Brown was born in Torrington, Connecticut on 9 May 1800. Raised a Calvinist, Brown would always believe in predestination of human action. Describing the moral basis of his politics, Brown once said, “I believe in the Golden Rule, sir, and the Declaration of Independence. I think that both mean the same thing; and it is better that a whole generation should pass off the face of the earth—men, women, and children—by a violent death than that one jot of either should fail in this country. I mean exactly so, sir.”[4]

Brown opposed capitalism and according to his son John Brown, Jr., “Father's favorite theme was that of the Community plan of cooperative industry, in which all should labor for the common good; 'having all things in common' as did the disciples of Jesus in his day.”[5] When living in Springfield, Massachusetts, Brown tried to organize a wool growers' cooperative. It failed because he refused to lower prices below what he thought was fair to the producers.[6]

Brown supported women's suffrage and the early feminist movement. Brown "made sure that males and females shared tasks equally, with no regard to gender stereotypes."[7] Frederick Douglass wrote about a visit to Brown's household: “The mothers, daughters and sons did the serving, and did it well. Supper over, the boys helped to clear the table and wash the dishes. This style of housekeeping struck me as a little odd. I mention it because household management is worthy of thought.”[8]

Throughout his life, Brown had a “respect for Native American culture” and in Kansas he befriended Sacs, Foxes, and Ottawas, whose tribes faced displacement from pro-slavery settlers and politicians.[9] According to Thoreau, Brown in Kansas “was befriended only by Indians and a few whites.”[10] He read deeply on indigenous resistance, such as the Seminole Wars, as well as slave revolts and maroon communities.[11]

Despite his strict Calvinism, Brown collaborated closely with people of other religions, including the Jews August Bondi and Theodore Weiner, the latter of whom joined Brown in the Pottawatomie attacks. When Brown's sons refused to kill their captive pro-slavers, Weiner “dealt the 1st blow” with his sword. “If Wiener hadn’t been there, the raid would have failed,” contends the historian Lenni Brenner.[12]

Provisional Constitution

According to Reynolds, Brown “verged on anarchism in his hatred of government and other institutions.”[13] There was an element of truth to this, but when Brown sat down at Frederick Douglass's house to write a new Constitution to be implemented after the Harpers Ferry insurrection, He produced a fascinating document that was in some ways radical, in some ways reformist, and in some ways reactionary.

Radically, the constitution guaranteed equal protection under the law regardless of race and gender, and it opposed private property. On equality, Article 1 decreed, “All persons of mature age, whether proscribed, oppressed, and enslaved citizens, or of the proscribed and oppressed races of the United States, who shall agree to sustain and enforce the Provisional Constitution and Ordinances of this organization, together with all minor children of such persons, shall be held to be fully entitled to protection under the same.”[14] Far from making defense a solely masculine endeavor, Article 43 encouraged both men and women to carry arms.

Article 38 did away with private property:

All captured or confiscated property and all property the product of the labor of those belonging to this organization and of their fami­lies, shall. be held as the property of the whole, equally, without distinction, and may be used for the common benefit, or disposed of for the same object; and any person, officer, or otherwise, who shall improperly retain, secrete, use, or needlessly destroy such property, or property found, captured, or confiscated, belonging to the enemy, or shall willfully neglect to render a full and fair statement of such property by him so taken or held, shall be deemed guilty of a misde­meanor, and, on conviction, shall be punished accordingly.[15]

In a more reformist vein, the provisional constitution left the federal government more or less fully intact, and Article 46 even said outright that the constitution was “not for the overthrow of government.”[16] In some respects, the constitution advanced puritanical restrictions on people's behavior. Article 40 declared, “Profane swearing, filthy conversation, indecent behavior, or indecent exposure of the person, or intoxication or quarreling, shall not be allowed or tolerated, neither unlawful intercourse of the sexes.”[17] Negating the separation of church and state, Article 42 declared that schools would be “for the purpose of reli­gious and other instructions.”[18]

Pottawatomie attack

Probably Brown's most controversial action, the attack on a Pottawatomie settlement left five white pro-slavery activists dead. The so-called “Pottawatomie massacre” is one of the main reasons that Brown is still, according to Wikipedia, “sometimes vilified as a madman and a terrorist.”[19]

The five victims of Brown's so-called “massacre” were active members in the pro-slavery movement, and most of them had threatened people who wanted Kansas to be a slavery-free state.

The attack took place during the “Bleeding Kansas” conflict between the Free State movement that did not want slavery in Kansas and the pro-slavers, many of them who crossed into Kansas over the Missouri border. In one incident, a group of pro-slaver ruffians sacked the Free State town of Lawrence, burning houses, destroying a hotel, and looting anti-slavery newspaper offices. This sacking and the Lawrence residents' nonviolent surrender infuriated Brown. A day or two later, Brown reacted with extreme frustration when hearing that pro-slavery Representative Preston Brooks had taken his cane and physically beaten the anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner. Brown's son Jason recalled that Brown “went crazy” hearing this news.[20]

Later that same month, May 1856, Brown and seven others set out to Pottawatomie to carry out one of the abolitionist movement's first acts of violence. They began the attack on the 24th, around 10 pm. The party went to certain cabins and took captive those adult men who were active in the movement. Led to the forest, the prisoners were hacked to death with swords.[21]

The first victims were James Doyle and his adult sons William and Drury, who all belonged to the pro-slavery Law and Order Party. James Doyle and his oldest son had threatened an antislavery store owner with death, forcing the shopkeeper to flee town.[22] Next, the abolitionists killed Alex Wilkinson, who served as district attorney in the court of pro-slavery Judge Sterling Cato. Wilkinson was “abusive” toward Free State residents.[23] Lastly, they killed William Sherman, who owned the tavern where the aforementioned Judge Cato held court. Cato's court had issued spurious arrest warrants on the Browns for being abolitionists.[24] In the early hours of the 25th, Brown and his party fled before being captured.

Historian David Reynolds summarizes the impact of the raid:

Brown had changed the terms of the slavery struggle. Before Pottawatomie, the Abolitionists were considered laughable cowards who either shirked war, as at Lawrence, or could be whipped into submission, as in the caning of Sumner. After it, they seemed like ferocious criminals intent on attacking Southern institutions.

John Brown had aroused a new emotion in slavery's defenders: fear of Northerners.[25]

Battles of Black Jack and Osawatomie

In June and August of 1856, Brown led the anti-slavery side in two important battles in Kansas, increasing his infamy among pro-slavery whites.

First, in the Battle of Black Jack, Brown and nine others tricked a camp of fifty-five pro-slavery vigilantes into surrendering. Attacking at 6 am, Brown's party gave the false impression that they had many more men than they actually had. Brown's son Frederick confidently rode his horse near the camp waving his sword and screaming, “Hurrah! Come on, boys! We've got 'em surrounded.” Frightened, the camp's leader Captain Henry Pate quickly surrendered. Brown's party left with twenty-three captives, the camp's provisions, and horses.[26]

Then, there was the Battle of Osawatomie. In August, when a pro-slavery column attacked the Free State town of Osawatomie, Brown led a group trying to defend it. Although the town was captured, Brown's party did put up a fierce resistance, inflicting damage on the attackers and successfully escaping at the last minute. Reynolds argues, “He had lost the battle but had won a moral victory. The odds against him had been enormous, but he had accepted them bravely, knowing that he might die.”[27]

Harpers Ferry raid

In October 1859, Brown led a group of twenty-two militants, five of them Black, on a raid of Harpers Ferry, a federal armory in Virginia. Their plan was to take the weapons they took and distribute it to slaves at various plantations so they could form an insurrectionary force. Brown had planned this raid for years, consulting with people such as Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman, whose illness prevented her from joining Brown's raid.[28]

On 16 October, Brown's party captured the Harpers Ferry arsenal, and some of the fighters went to a nearby plantation owned by Lewis Washington, the grand-nephew of the United States' first president. They took Washington hostage and liberated his slaves. Next, they freed the slaves at a farm owned by a man named John Allstadt. Early in the morning on 17 October, Brown could have taken his followers into the Appalachian mountains with the stolen weapons and conducted a guerrilla war. Had he done so, Reynolds speculates, “his plan might have succeeded.”[29]

Instead, Brown stalled for mysterious reasons. It may have been because he was surprised by the lack of enthusiasm among the freed Blacks, some of whom feared that Brown was trying to trick them. Reynolds writes, “The response of the freedmen was mixed at best. By several reports, most were confused, and several actually feared that they were being captured to be sold south...The reality of the situation had hit him: his long-anticipated revolution of Blacks was not happening.”[30]

One of Brown's mistakes, Reynolds argues, is that he tried to instigate a rebellion instead of letting Blacks instigate it themselves: “Scores of times enslaved American Blacks had risen up violently against their masters. But that was the key. They had risen up. They were not led by an outside party, least of all whites. The impulse for revolt came from within.”[31]

Returning to the armory, Brown and the other fighters had thirty captives, including Harpers Ferry workers captured on their way to work.[32] Until noon on the 17th, Brown's party still controlled the town's two bridges and perhaps could have still escaped.[33] Militias surrounding the armory increasingly made any sort of escape impossible. Later that day, U.S. Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee arrived with ninety marines.[34]

Surrounded by militiamen and Marines, it was only a matter of time before Brown and his party were captured on the morning of 18 October. According to Brown's hostage Lewis Washington, Brown was “the coolest and firmest man I ever saw in defying danger and death. With one son dead by his side, and another shot through, he felt the pulse of his dying son with one hand and held his rifle with the other, and commanded his men with the utmost composure, encouraging them to be firm and to sell their lives as dearly as they could.”[35]

Brown was hung by the state of Virginia. Historians such as James McPherson and Edward Baptist consider Brown's raid to be one of the sparks that set off the Civil War and the abolition of formal slavery. Baptist explains, “For now southerners believed they had to choose: run the risks created by making good on the threat to leave the Union, or remain in the Union and risk another Harpers Ferry...Whites began to look at any neighbor of uncertain origin, eyeing them as potential John Browns, seeing every newspaper report of a local murder as part of a wider plot.”[36]

Anti-Authoritarian Legacy

The Haymarket anarchists were influenced by John Brown.[37] Between 2002 and 2009, anarchists in Kansas formed the John Brown Gun Club, teaching radicals to use guns and distributing anti-racist literature at gun shows. Members went on to form Redneck Revolt.[38]

The anarchist-friendly journal Race Traitor viewed Brown as a model for so-called “white” folks to adopt a traitorous identity against their assigned race. Editor Noel Ignatiev wrote:

John Brown's attack on Harpers Ferry was not an aberration but the logical application of the abolitionist strategy. From Harpers' Ferry, each step led inexorably to the next: Southern bullying, Lincoln's election, secession, war, Blacks as laborers, soldiers, citizens, voters. The war that began with not one person in a hundred foreseeing the end of slavery was transformed within two years into an anti-slavery war, and a great army marched through the land singing, "As He died to make men holy, let us fight to make men free."[39]

Crimethinc argues in From Democracy to Freedom (2016) that John Brown's autonomous action provides an example of how anarchist forces can autonomously fight oppression without relying on the state:

“Meanwhile, abolitionists like Nat Turner and John Brown were able to act decisively without need of a central political authority—indeed, they were able to act thus only because they did not recognize one. Were it not for the pressure generated by autonomous actions like theirs, the federal government would never have intervened in the South; had more people taken the imitative the way they did, slavery would not have been possible and the Civil War would not have been necessary.”[40]

  1. Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience and Other Essays (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1993), 48.
  2. David Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 82.
  3. Thoreau, “A Plea for Captain John Brown” in Civil Disobedience and Other Essays, 40.
  4. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist, 24.
  5. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist, 82.
  6. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist, 83.
  7. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist, 123.
  8. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist, 123.
  9. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist, 168-9.
  10. Thoreau, “A Plea for Captain John Brown, 35.
  11. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist, 107.
  12. Lenni Brenner, “Thin is In, but Fat Was Where It Was At,” Counterpunch, 23 May 2003,
  13. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist, 82.
  14. “John Brown's Provisional Constitution,”
  15. “John Brown's Provisional Constitution.”
  16. “John Brown's Provisional Constitution.”
  17. “John Brown's Provisional Constitution.
  18. John Brown's Provisional Constitution.”
  19. ”John Brown (abolitionist),” Wikipedia, Accessed 13 February 2017,
  20. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist, 156-159.
  21. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist, 171-172.
  22. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionists, 166, 172.
  23. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist, 167, 172.
  24. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist, 167, 173.
  25. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist, 178.
  26. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist, 185-186.
  27. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist, 201-202.
  28. Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States (New York: HarperPerennial, 2003), 185.
  29. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist, 310.
  30. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist, 313-315.
  31. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist, 314.
  32. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist, 318, 320.
  33. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist, 319.
  34. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist, 326.
  35. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist, 327.
  36. Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014), 386. Also, James McPherson describes the mood in the South following Brown's hanging: “John Brown's ghost stalked the South...Keyed up to the highest pitch of tension, many slaveowners and yeomen alike were ready for war to defend hearth and home...” McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War (New York: Ballantine Books, 1988), 212-213.
  38. “Rednecks with Guns and other anti-racist stories and strategies,” Libcom, 11 September 2014,
  39. Noel Ignatiev, “The Point Is Not To Interpret Whiteness But To To Abolish It,” Race Traitor,
  40. Crimethinc Ex Workers' Collective, From Democracy to Freedom.