On 16 October 1859 John Brown and a small band of men invaded the town of Harpers Ferry Virginia, took over the federal armory and attempted to stir up a revolt among the slaves of the surrounding plantations. Brown easily took the armory for it was not heavily guarded but a slave revolt was virtually non existent. C. Van Woodward tells that the South’s initial reaction to the raid was rather mild for it was suppressed rather quickly, slaves remained loyal to their masters, and it was a complete failure. However, this nonchalant mood did not last long when secessionist and Southern newspapers caught wind of the raid for they exploited it and used it as propaganda for secession. Brown’s raid on the armory was more than the work of a madman for the outcome of it was tremendous. His raid confirmed the worst fears and suspicions that the South had concerning abolitionists and through exploitation, propaganda, Southern and Northern opinion, John Brown’s raid pushed the South to secession.
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Adrinne Phillips agrees with Woodward that the South took the raid lightly in the beginning. However, in the Journal of Mississippi History she asserts that as the papers began to publish information and Northern opinion on the raid, public fears in the South increased greatly concerning abolitionists. When Southern papers published information on Brown’s raid, they did so in a fashion that would strike total horror in the reader. Phillips cited an example out of the Vicksburg Whig in which the paper described pikes used by Brown and his men during the raid:
It is as ugly an instrument for murder as one could be devised, and in the hands of a stout Negro, might be made to do merciless execution. The blade is about twelve inches long, very stout at the handle, and tapering to a point, both edges very sharp.
Papers used such descriptions to point out the potential destruction of life and property had Brown’s raid been a success. Also, the papers used such exaggerated descriptions to push for secession. This was the case for the description of the pike, it was a normal puke but since it was Brown’s it was more than a normal pike: it was an ‘ugly instrument for murder.’
Phillips continued by characterizing the raid as an invasion by outside forces: the North. She claims that the raid ‘should be more properly described as an invasion of Virginia by a gang of abolitionists.’ This statement was originally published in the New Orleans Picayune in order to help promote secession among the Southerners. Through the help of Newspapers, Phillips claims that Southerners were able to link the Harpers Ferry affair to prominent abolitionists in the North and by association and implication with the newly formed, highly sectional Republican Party. Once this association was made, the raid became an extremely powerful tool for secessionists.
Southern newspapers and secessionists exploited Brown’s raid to the fullest extent and began to use it as propaganda for secession. If the Republican party won the White House, the South would have no one to look to for protection. Newspapers and secessionists knew this for they often times exaggerated (as Brooks Blakey discussed earlier) stores on the raid and Republicans. During their hard push for secession, the secessionists also began to label ‘the John Brown conspiracy as a symbol of Yankee aggression, making the abolitionists movements and the North synonymous in Southerners eyes.’
After Browns hanging, his raid became a rallying point for radical secessionists, or ‘Fire Eaters’, and was uses continuously by them to point out the need for secession. The papers, Phillips continued, tried to convince Southerners, through their analysis of Northern public opinion on Harpers Ferry, that the South was unsafe. The papers did acknowledge that Northern meetings and rallies were taking place in opposition to Browns raid, but did so with great suspicion.
Not surprisingly, the majority of the Northern population did not support Brown’s raid. Many of them viewed Brown as a madman or a lunatic, even President Lincoln spoke out in opposition to Brown’s raid for it was ‘an attempt by white men to get up a revolt among slaves, in which the slaves refused to participate [is] so absurd that the slaves, with all their ignorance, saw plainly enough it could not succeed.’ However, there were a handful who supported Brown and even considered him a Saint.
For Southerners, the whole Brown raid and their perception of the Northern response to it became the deciding factors that pushed them toward secession. Had Brown been a crude, vulgar, profane madman, most Northerners would undoubtedly have ignored or condemned him. Instead, what they perceived as his fine ‘Christian’ example after the raid caused notable Northern ministers to memorialize him, inadvertently adding fuel to Southern fires. Northern clergymen demonstrated support for Brown in their public speeches and prayers, their attendance at public mass meetings, and in their letters.
During the nineteenth century the Christian church in America had a large role in shaping public opinions. When Brown delivered his farewell speech he quoted the bible numerous times. Northern Ministers took notice of the speech and began to see the evils of slavery. From then on Brown frequently provided inspiration for their sermons and, according to Schroeder, ‘few could equal John Brown’s pure and heroic example.’
Ministers frequently described Brown’s deed and person by presenting comparisons between him and some aspect of Biblical history. Schroeder found at least twenty-one analogies in Northern sermons including several comparisons to Moses. Many ministers, along with radical abolitionists, believed that Brown’s raid was a sign delivered directly from god, protesting the evils of slavery.
The Northern sermons on Brown always presented biblical justification for the assault. Schroeder concluded her article by asserting that the majority of the Northern sermons had nothing to do with John Brown but were not the sermons that Southerners saw. Like the abolitionists, they may have been few in number but ‘[they were] loud and active.’ With help from secessionists and Southern papers, the sermons Southerners saw were the pro-brown sermons which broke at least one more post in the bridge that connected the North and the South into one country.
Like Political parties, the Church had split. The Church in the South had become orientated with a pro-slavery argument and in 1845, both the Methodist and Baptist split along sectional lines. The South justified slavery through the bible. According to the Bible, slaves were to obey their masters.
The more the Southern papers printed the North’s pro-Brown opinions and sermons on the raid, the more the North became synonymous with John Brown. To the South it was ludicrous that this Bible quoting Yankee was considered a martyr to Northern ministers for both the North and South both knew that ‘like St. Paul, Brown firmly believed that he held a direct commission from god.’
The Chinese historian Yang Liwen agreed with Schroeder that the Northern perception of Brown was a good one. Liwen also agrees with the Northern ministers that brown was justified for his actions through the bible. However, unlike Schroeder and the ministers, Liwen believed, like Brown himself, that only violence could end the institution of slavery. He maintains this position due to numerous attempts of compromise (Missouri compromise, Wilmot proviso, fugitive slave laws, etc), Bleeding Kansas, and most of all, the American Civil War.
To Liwen, Brown was one of the most intelligent figures in American history for his plan ‘was a strategic one for eliminating slavery, accomplished only by his own intelligence, wisdom, and hard work.’ He justifies his position by the American Civil War, claiming that it was Browns theory (violence) that ended slavery. With this in mind, Liwen sees Brown as an emancipator of Slaves, not a murdering madman.
Each Historian has a different view on the effect that Brown had on America. However, all agree that Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry was much more than a fanatical assault on an Armory. This was an assault on the South initiated by the North and Brown was the leader.
Slavery was protected by the constitution, it was their (Southerners) property. Technically, there was no difference between a slave and a mule; they were property. To deprive a Southerner of his slaves was to deprive him/her of his/her property, thus violating the 5th Amendment of the Constitution. Should you violate someone of their constitutional rights, you violate them of their liberties.
This is what the North attempted to do: deprive the South of their liberties. As Brooks Blakey stated earlier, Southern newspapers and Fire Eaters created a synonymous comparison between John Brown and the North: the North was out to abolish slavery. To the Southerners, not only was the North out to abolish slavery, but their liberty and their rights as well.
Brooks Blakey agrees with Liwen that violence was the only cure Slavery. Time after time numerous attempts were made to control the spread of the institution and all failed miserably. Brown was foreshadowing what was to come: The American Civil War. However, murdering innocent people was not the answer to the abolishment of slavery.
John Brown was a murdering madman. The North may have viewed Brown as a martyr but he was far from it. Brown was a wondering, jobless, worthless individual who had little economic value. The South knew this (through the help of Southern Newspapers) and these known facts helped kindle the fire for secession. Then why would the North consider a man of such low caliber a Saint? Simply put they saw him as the emancipator of slaves sent from god himself. The sermons of Northern ministers and Southern Journals also reinforced the Southern perception of the North: it was a land of John Brown’s.
The Northern opinion the South saw was one of pro-John Brown. This may not have been the actual perception the North (as a whole) had of Brown, but it didn’t matter. What the South did see was support of the lunatic. This had a strong impact, strong enough to be one of the largest causes of secession. Why would the South want to be in a Country where half of it are John Browns? Why would the South want to be in a Country where their liberty and Constitutional rights were being infringed upon? It didn’t and it had been pushed into a corner long enough, secession was the only choice. John Brown’s raid alone did not cause the South to secede, it was the outcome. Through Northern and Southern opinion, Southern journals exploiting the raid as a need for secession, and Fire Eaters using the event as Propaganda for secession it lead the South to secession.
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