Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/Representative men: The Puritan militant, John Brown

Once a Week, Series 1, Volume II (1859-1860)
Representative men: The Puritan militant, John Brown
by Harriet Martineau (as Ingleby Scott)


It could hardly be expected that at this time of day any fresh illustration would arise of the old Covenanter cast of character. In days of religious persecution, especially during the struggle between the High Church and the Puritans, there was a Judaic type of the Christian character conspicuous in every society in which the Calvinistic aspect of the Reformation was more or less established. We are all familiar with this order of character in history and in fiction; and it is preserved for future generations, not only in English, but in German, French, and American literature. In New England, above every other country, the old type is familiar: for the region was settled, and for a long time governed, by the Judaic Christian confessors who are venerated under the title of the Pilgrim Fathers. Not even there, however, did any historical student or any poet dream that there could ever again be a revival of the old type,—a real Puritan confessor and martyr living and dying, acting and suffering in the genuine old spirit, but using the language, and wearing the manners of the ordinary daily life of the latter half of the 19th century. Such a phenomenon we have before us in the leader of the Harper’s Ferry invasion—John Brown.

John Brown was a Connecticut man: and Connecticut was Judaic even beyond the other New England States—its laws being taken bodily out of Deuteronomy, with as little variation as could be permitted. This circumstance—of the man’s birth-place—should be borne in mind, though he was early removed into Ohio. The associations which surround the first years of life in Connecticut may well impress the character for life.

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I am not going to relate the life of John Brown; for we are less supplied with particulars of it than we shall be some months hence, when the Americans will send us a full biography of the most remarkable man of their generation. I wish merely to offer such traits of character as may show how the old type has been revived for a very special occasion. I will only say, in regard to his history, that his ancestry was thoroughly puritan and militant.

John Brown was sixth in descent from one of the veritable Pilgrim Fathers—Peter Brown, who landed from the Mayflower, on Plymouth Rock, in Massachusetts Bay, on the 22nd of December, 1620. Peter’s great-grandson—John’s grandfather—was a gallant soldier in the Revolutionary war. He led out the Connecticut company of which he was captain to the conflict when its seat was New York; and he died in camp in the year of the Declaration of Independence, 1776. One of his many children was a judge in Ohio. One of his grandsons was for twenty years the president of a New England university. Owen, one of the sons of the captain, and father of John, married into a family as good as his own—his father-in-law having been the officer in charge of the prisoners when General Burgoyne’s army surrendered. Thus John inherited a military spirit from both lines of ancestry.

He seemed framed for a military existence: but the religious tendency prevailed in the very years when martial ardour is strongest. He desired to be in the Church; and he went from Ohio back into Connecticut for the sake of a college education to fit him for the pulpit. Inflammation of the eyes, which became chronic, prevented study, and compelled him to give up his wish. But he was, in his temper of mind and domestic and social character, a minister of the Gospel, as he understood it, through life.

He had a large family; and as the sons grew up they pushed westwards from Ohio, in the pioneering fashion of the far west, moving with their waggons and farm-stock, and settling down on new land beyond the Mississippi. Through life the whole family had abhorred negro slavery—regarding it not only as the disgrace and curse of their country, but as a heathen vice and cruelty upon which every true Christian was bound to make war to the death. In Kansas there was free scope for their action, when the border banditti of Missouri strove to compel the adoption of slavery in Kansas, against the wishes of the free settlers. The Browns suffered cruelly in the border warfare, several of John’s sons being slain or wounded. It is not true, however, that John or his sons ever inflicted retaliatory injury on the border ruffians—at Ossawatomie or elsewhere. What John did was to run off as many slaves as he could from Missouri, where everything is ripe for emancipation, and where the farmers would have abolished slavery long ago, but for the control of their banditti neighbours. John used to prepare a certain number of negroes, through his messengers, for a long ride on some appointed night; then meet them with horses, and escort them to the Canada frontier, or some friendly shelter short of it. On one occasion, when the pursuit was hot, and the escape nearly hopeless, he turned aside among the trees, put on some disguising article of dress, slipped in among the pursuers as they came up, and by his evident knowledge of the tracks, obtained the direction of the party, and led them wide apart from the negroes, every one of whom reached Canada. He well knew the faces of some of the border ruffian party; but they did not recognise him, in such a place, and in such company as their own.

It seems to have been in some such way as this that he proposed to free the Virginia negroes: and no doubt he chose the point of invasion from his knowledge that, as in Missouri, slavery is near its end in Virginia, being unpopular among the farmers, and precarious all through the State. If he had desired a servile insurrection, he would have gone further south, among the cotton plantations. An extract from one of his letters, from his condemned cell, on the 15th of November, will show what his view of his errand was. He is addressing an aged teacher of his, the Rev. H. L. Vaill.

My dear Old Friend,—I do assure you I have not forgotten our last meeting, nor our retrospective look over the route by which God had then led us; and I bless His name that he has again enabled me to hear your words of cheering and comfort at a time when I, at least, am on the “brink of Jordan.” (See Bunyan’s Pilgrim.) God in infinite mercy grant us soon another meeting on the opposite shore. I have often passed under the rod of Him whom I call my Father; and certainly no son needed it oftener: and yet I have enjoyed much of life, as I was enabled to discover the secret of this somewhat early. It has been in making the prosperity and happiness of others my own,— so that really I have had a great deal of prosperity. I am very prosperous still; and looking forward to a time when “peace on earth and goodwill to men” shall everywhere prevail. I have no murmuring thoughts or envious feelings to fret my mind. “I’ll praise my Maker with my breath.” I am an unworthy nephew of Deacon John, and I loved him much; and in view of the many choice friends I have had here, I am led the more earnestly to pray, “gather not my soul with the unrighteous.” Your assurance of the earnest sympathy of the friends in my native land is very grateful to my feelings; and allow me to say a word of comfort to them.

As I believe most firmly that God reigns, I cannot believe that anything I have done, suffered, or may yet suffer, will be lost to the cause of God or of humanity. And before I began my work at Harper’s Ferry, I felt assured that in the worst event it would certainly pay. I often expressed that belief; and I can now see no possible cause to alter my mind. I am not, as yet, in the main, at all disappointed. I have been a good deal disappointed as it regards myself, in not keeping up to my own plans; but I now feel entirely reconciled to that even; for God’s plan was infinitely better, no doubt, or I should have kept to my own. Had Samson kept to his determination of not telling Delilah wherein his great strength lay, he would probably have never overturned the house. I did not tell Delilah, but I was induced to act very contrary to my better judgment, and I have lost my two noble boys, and other friends, if not my two eyes. But, “God’s will, not mine, be done.” I feel a comfortable hope that, like that erring servant of whom I have just been writing, even I may (through infinite mercy in Christ Jesus) yet “die in faith.” As to both the time and manner of my death, I have but very little trouble on that score; and am able to be (as you exhort) “of good cheer.”

When this letter was written, he had, as we see, lost two more of his sons, slain in the enterprise which had failed. He had undergone, while suffering from wounds, a trial unfair to the last degree. He had sent his positive commands to distant friends that no one should come to his assistance from the free States, because he knew that they would never return; and he refused the aid of local counsel, because he did not choose to run the risk of being kept silent, or made to say what he did not think. Thus alone, in his condemned cell, bereaved of many beloved sons, feeble from his wounds, and expecting to be hanged on the 2nd of December, he was not only as calm as when conducting family worship at home, but as cheerful as at the head of his own table. The most irresistible proof of the fixed heroism of his temper is, that he has imbued his wife with it. The night before his death, she was with him at his supper—having persisted in going to him, and thus for once deciding on her duty apart from him. They had settled some affairs; she had received his instructions about the children and some other matters; they had supped together—on prison fare so dished up that they could eat it with their fingers, as knife and fork were forbidden; and now it was getting late in the night, and she must go. Some tears fell from her eyes, but not many. Her husband tapped her on the shoulder, saying, “Now, Mary, this is not right. Show that you have nerve.” As by an electric shock she was roused; she drew up to her full height, and wept no more. As she was leaving the cell, her husband said he might have something to add, and would write it; turning to the jailer, and asking, “What is the hour to-morrow?” to which the answer was, “Eleven o’clock.” Mrs. Brown had put two pairs of stout woollen socks on his feet, to lessen the pressure of the chain on his ancles. She made interest to get possession of that chain, to transmit as a family honour to future generations.

His guards and attendants can talk of nothing but his natural cheerfulness, which seems never to have given way at all. He was a man of few words; and any long conversations, any preachments, given out as his utterances, must be distrusted. His conduct and manners were just those of a man to whom nothing particular was happening. When an officer, impressed with this, asked him plainly whether he really felt no recoil at all from what awaited him; he replied, Why, no; but that fear was not his trial. He was not liable to fear. He had in the course of his life suffered far more from bashfulness than fear.

The aid of clergy was constantly pressed upon him till he decisively closed the subject. He objected that a slave-holding clergyman could do nothing for him, not being up to his business—“not understanding the A B C of Christianity.” “I should wish, if he came,” he said, “to treat him as a gentleman; but it must be understood that it would be as a heathen gentleman.” In no circumstances would he, a man whose hourly walk was with God, have admitted the intervention of a priest. Such was his view of the matter; and when the Virginia clergy were offered—priests who committed what seemed to him an act so anti-Christian as to be a deadly crime—he showed himself as thorough-going a puritan worshipper as when he prayed aloud in public in Kansas for divine direction what to do with his prisoners: “O Lord, what wilt Thou that I should do with these men?” And when a judge, there present, burst out a laughing at so unusual a mode of conducting a trial, Brown turned upon him with on intimation that if he did not suppress such unseemly levity, he should know what to do with him, “without asking the Lord anything about it.”

After his wife had left him, the officer who escorted her improved the occasion (for which his neighbours praised him), by addressing arguments to her in favour of “the peculiar institution.” And some governor or other, proud of the repute of his chivalrous State, told her—actually pressed it upon her at that hour of her life—that if she should ever be disposed to come to Charlestown (near Harper’s Ferry) again, the inhabitants would be happy to show her what Virginia hospitality was. Meantime, her husband was writing. He wrote till past midnight; then slept for some hours, and rose to write again. When his wife examined these papers (instructions for her guidance) she found a P.S., beginning, “I have time just to add,” &c. This was written at the last moment before leaving his cell. His handwriting was the same as ever—clear, but “angular and constrained.” His work had been more with the plough, the team, and the rifle, than with the pen, since he was disappointed of his clerical career.

In court, at his trial, he had been the object of the keenest attention, and we know exactly what he looked like, and how he carried himself; at least during the short time that his condition from his wounds allowed him to stand. When on his couch on the floor of the court he covered himself up, and shut his eyes, only occasionally conversing with a youth, Mr. Hoyt, of Boston, sent to give him legal assistance, without incurring the danger which any established professional man would have incurred on such an errand. While standing up, Brown looked about, and observed everything with his keen blue eye; and, as usual, when he had nothing else to do with his long arms, he drummed upon his knees with his fingers. Just so it was when he came out of the jail to die. He wore his ordinary amused smile at seeing any spectacle; and nothing escaped him. He had nothing to ask or to say. He had throughout declared that he would ask no favour of Virginia, or any of her officials. He took his seat on his coffin. It was of oak. The undertaker had some days before sent him a message of advice that he should have a metal coffin provided; to which Brown replied that, considering the weather would be cool, he was confident that he “should keep” till his wife reached home with the coffin; and that was all that was necessary.

On mounting the scaffold (which he was the first of the party to reach) he looked round upon the military display, which kept the crowd at a great distance; and while he observed upon it, he was patting his knees as usual. His eye fixed on the range of the Blue Mountains, which rose across the plain on the horizon, and observed that he had never seen them so well before—had not noted them in his hasty travelling. When the moment arrived for covering his face, he carelessly threw his black wide-awake on the floor beside him; and during the unpardonable delay which followed he showed no sort of agitation. For eight—some say ten—-minutes after he ought to have been turned off, the military commander made his troops march hither and thither, as if about to receive an attack from an enemy. So atrocious was the suspense that the word was given at last before the evolutions were complete. Brown had stood still, steady and silent. He was asked whether he was tired. “No, not tired,” he said; “but do not keep me longer than is necessary.” He was desired to step upon the drop. He answered, “You have put this thing upon my head so that I cannot see. You must lead me, gentlemen.” So they did. The accounts vary as to how long he moved; but the surgeons say he must have ceased to suffer instantly, as the spinal cord was ruptured, though the neck was not dislocated. Strange to say, his countenance was not deformed, more or less. A bruise near the right eye was the only sign of violence. The surgeons felt the pulse, laid their cars against his chest, steadying the body by passing an arm round it. In a little more than half an hour the corpse was taken down, and it fell together as if it had not a bone in it while the coffin was got ready. The flashing blue eye is half closed and dim; the grey hair no longer stands up like ruffled plumage, but falls damp and dead. The sinewy limbs bend as they are disposed; but the hard-featured face is unchanged, unless it be even more placid than usual.

His widow was well attended as she went homewards with her charge. Every effort was made to secure privacy on the journey; but the public interest baffled all. At Philadelphia the mayor and other authorities and a great crowd attended the coffin to the station, and saw it deposited in the train. Warning was taken by this: and at New York the coffin was not landed till two a.m. Mrs. Brown’s arrival was also not announced. Yet early in the morning crowds assembled at the house where the body was; and it was necessary to allow access to the coffin. The serene face was looked at by eager thousands. There was no shroud; but the man lay in his ordinary clothes. An eminent citizen from Philadelphia, and another from New York, and another from Boston escorted Mrs. Brown to her home in Vermont, and witnessed her hero’s burial. She and her children are adopted by the free States. It will be time enough to speak of the results of John Brown’s crusade when we see more of them. They are abundantly remarkable already, and they will be more so by the time this portrait is in print. Our business has been with the character of the man. It has impressed the national imagination for ever in his own country. Some eminent citizens of Virginia cannot bear the force of it, and are preparing to migrate, with their property, to Europe. (Their slaves they must leave behind). Among those who must remain, the children will never forget the man, nor lose the impression of the winter nights following his death. In Cumberland the aurora borealis is called “Lord Derwentwater’s lights,” because it was particularly splendid the night after his execution. The Virginia children will shiver for life when they remember John Brown’s lights—those mysterious lights which ascend every night in the direction of Harper’s Ferry, and are answered from various parts of the horizon—in spite of all efforts of police and military to make out what they mean. John Brown is as sure of immortality as Washington himself.

Ingleby Scott.