John Brown

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Brown, John,

1800–1859, American abolitionist, b. Torrington, Conn. He spent his boyhood in Ohio. Before he became prominent in the 1850s, his life had been a succession of business failures in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York. An ardent abolitionist (he once kept a station on the Underground RailroadUnderground Railroad,
in U.S. history, loosely organized system for helping fugitive slaves escape to Canada or to areas of safety in free states. It was run by local groups of Northern abolitionists, both white and free blacks.
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 at Richmond, Pa.) and a believer in the equality of the races, he consecrated (1837) his life to the destruction of slavery. Brown settled (1855) with five of his sons in Kansas to help secure the territory's entry as a free state. He became "captain" of the colony on the Osawatomie River. The success of the proslavery forces in violent attacks on antislavery leaders, and particularly in their sack of LawrenceLawrence.
1 City (1990 pop. 26,763), Marion co., central Ind., a residential suburb of Indianapolis, on the West Fork of the White River. It has light manufacturing.

2 City (1990 pop. 65,608), seat of Douglas co., NE Kans., on the Kansas River; inc. 1858.
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, aroused Brown, and in order "to cause a restraining fear" in 1856 he, with four of his sons, a son-in-law, and two other men, savagely murdered five proslavery men living on the banks of the Pottawatomie Creek. In this he asserted he was an instrument in the hand of God. His exploits as a leader of an antislavery band received wide publicity, especially in abolitionist journals, and as "Old Brown of Osawatomie" he became nationally known.

Late in 1857 he began to enlist men for a project that he apparently had considered for some time and that took definite form at a convention of his followers held at Chatham, Ont., the next spring. He planned to liberate the slaves through armed intervention by establishing a stronghold in the Southern mountains to which the slaves and free blacks could flee and from which further insurrections could be stirred up. Early in 1859, Brown rented a farm near Harpers Ferry, Va. (now W.Va.), and there collected his followers and a cache of arms.

On the night of Oct. 16 he, two of his sons, and 19 other followers crossed the Potomac and without much resistance captured the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, made the inhabitants prisoners, and took general possession of the town. Strangely enough, he then merely settled down, while the aroused local militia blocked his escape. That night a company of U.S. marines, commanded by Col. Robert E. Lee, arrived, and in the morning they assaulted the engine house of the armory into which Brown's force had retired. In the resulting battle, 10 of Brown's men were killed, and Brown himself was wounded. News of the raid aroused wild fears in the South and came as a great shock to the North. On Dec. 2, 1859, Brown was hanged at Charles Town. His dignified conduct and the sincerity of his calm defense during the trial won him sympathy in the North and led him to be widely regarded as a hero and a martyr. The Civil War broke out just over a year after the raid.


The standard contemporary account is contained in The Life, Trial and Execution of Captain John Brown (1859, repr. 1969). See also biographies by O. G. Villard (rev. ed. 1965), S. B. Oakes (1970), J. Abels (1971), and D. S. Reynolds (2005); A. Keller, Thunder at Harper's Ferry (1958); J. C. Malin, John Brown and the Legend of Fifty-Six (1942, repr. 1970); R. O. Boyer, The Legend of John Brown (1973); J. Stauffer, The Black Hearts of Men (2002); F. Nudelman, John Brown's Body (2004); B. McGinty, John Brown's Trial (2009); R. E. McGlone, John Brown's War against Slavery (2009); T. Horwitz, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War (2011); J. Stauffer and Z. Trodd, ed., The Tribunal: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid (2012); H. W. Brands, The Zealot and the Emancipator (2020).

Brown, John,

1810–82, Scottish essayist. He was a physician. His writing was collected in Horae Subsecivae (3 vol., 1858–82), which included his unique picture of a dog, Rab and His Friends (1859), and a memoir of that gifted child known to Walter Scott's circle as "Pet Marjorie," Marjorie Fleming (1863).


See his letters (ed. by his son and D. W. Forrest, 1907).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Brown, John


Born May 9, 1800, in Torrington, Connecticut; died Dec. 2, 1859, in Charles Town, Virginia. Fighter for the emancipation of the Negro slaves in the USA. One of the leaders of the left wing of the abolitionist movement. Author of antislavery pamphlets.

Brown participated in the activity of the so-called underground railroad. In 1855-56 he organized an armed struggle against slaveholders in Kansas. He worked out a plan for the establishment of a free republic in the Allegheny Mountains as a base for the struggle against slavery, and he composed a draft for its democratic “provisional constitution.” Carrying out his plan, Brown captured the government arsenal in Harpers Ferry (in the slaveholding state of Virginia) on Oct. 16, 1859, with a band of 18 people (including five Negroes). The band was surrounded by troops and almost completely annihilated. Two of Brown’s sons were killed, and he was himself seriously wounded. In accordance with a court sentence Brown was hanged in Charles Town. Brown’s uprising, which immediately preceded the Civil War of 1861-65, was an open challenge to slavery. His name became a symbol for revolutionary action and the struggle for the rights of the Negro people.


Marx, K., and F. Engels. Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 30, p. 4.
Chernyshevskii, N. G. Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 6. Moscow, 1949. Pages 448-54.
Du Bois, W. Dzhon Braun. (Translated from English.) Moscow, 1960.
Dement’ev, I. P. “N. G. Chernyshevskii i konstitutsiia Dzhona Brauna.” Voprosy istorii, 1959, no. 12.
Zakharova, M. N. Narodnoe dvizhenie v SShA protiv rabstva: 1831-1860. Moscow, 1965.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Brown, John

(1800–1859) abolitionist; attempted to liberate slaves. [Am. Hist.: Jameson, 64]

Brown, John

(1800–1859) abolitionist leader; died for antislavery cause. [Am. Hist.: Hart, 111]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Brown, John

(1800–59) abolitionist; born in Torrington, Conn. Son of an itinerant tradesman, he grew up in Hudson, Ohio, and received little formal schooling. His mother died insane when he was eight years old; several of her nearest relations were also seriously disturbed. He became a tanner, one of his father's trades, then successively a land surveyor, shepherd, and farmer. He married in 1820 and again in 1831 after the death of his first wife, fathering 20 children altogether. He migrated from place to place in the 1830s and 1840s, failing in several businesses and engaging in unprofitable land speculations. He had been an abolitionist from his youth, but he was in his fifties before he began to plot emancipation by main force. By 1855 he and six of his sons and a son-in-law had moved to Osawatomie, Kansas, to participate in the struggle to keep it a non-slave state. After proslavery forces attacked and burned the town of Lawrence, Kansas, Brown led a small force, including four of his sons, to nearby Pottawatomie Creek where on the night of May 24, 1856, they killed five proslavery men; he took full responsibility for the killings. Returning to the East, now dangerously obsessed with abolition through violence, he gained the patronage of northern activists such as Gerrit Smith, who supplied him with money, arms, and moral support. Dreaming of setting up a free state for liberated slaves in the Virginia mountains, he planned a raid on the Harpers Ferry, Va., armory. He and his men seized the armory on October 16, 1859, but were captured when a detachment of U.S. Marines under Col. Robert E. Lee stormed the building. Tried for treason and hanged on December 2, he became the stuff of legend, a martyr to Northern supporters such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, and a dangerous fanatic to most Southerners.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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