John Brown (1800-59) was an American abolitionist who famously led a raid on the U.S. federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry and was hanged for his efforts. He was viewed by many as a terrorist, while at the same time becoming a martyr for the antislavery movement.
Prior to that, Brown, who engaged with mixed success in a variety of occupations for his livelihood, was active in the antislavery movement around the country. In 1855, he moved to Kansas with several of his sons and became a leader in the antislavery faction in the strife following the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
In 1859, he and a small band of followers seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry (then in Virginia, now in West Virginia) hoping to spark a slave insurrection. The arsenal was retaken by marines led by Col. Robert E. Lee and Brown was tried for insurrection, treason, and murder by a Virginia court and hanged.
A popular song, John Brown's Body was composed in his honor. Later, Julia Ward Howe composed the Battle Hymn of the Republic which was written to the same tune.
John Brown was born on May 9, 1800 in Torrington, Connecticut, the son of Owen Brown (b. 1771) and Ruth Mills Brown.
On both sides of the family, Brown could trace his ancestry back to 17th century New England Puritans. Brown himself was certain that, on the father's side, his earliest New World ancestor had come over on the Mayflower in 1620. On the mother's side, his ancestors had come from Holland. Both eventually settled in Connecticut.
Both of Brown's grandfathers had served in the Revolutionary War, with his paternal grandfather, a captain in the Continental Army, giving his life for the cause in 1776, leaving Owen's mother to cope with a large family by herself.
Owen Brown married Ruth Mills in 1793 and wrenched out a living as a farmer, tanner, and shoemaker. Both were strongly Calvinist. On the crucial issue of slavery, they were early Abolitionists, having come to view slavery as both sinful (a violation of the Golden Rule) and as fundamentally in opposition to the principles of the Revolution as embodied in the Declaration of Independence.
- Oates, Stephen B., To Purge This Land with Blood: a Biography of John Brown