In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Writ In Blood:John Brown’s Charter of Humanity, The Tribunal of History, and the Thick Link of American Political Protest
  • Zoe Trodd

All the great charters of humanity have been writ in blood. I once hoped that American democracy would be engrossed in less costly ink.

—Theodore Parker, 1859

I leave it to an impartial tribunal to decide whether the world has been the worse or the better of my living and dying in it.

—John Brown, 1859

If General Tubman is the Mother of Our Country and Frederick Douglass the Father . . . then bloody old Shenandoah Brown . . . is some kind of Godfather. Blood may be thicker than water, but politics is thicker than either.

—Terry Bisson, 1988

Sketching the Charter of Blood

[Brown] has struck the bottom line of the philosophy which underlies the abolition movement . . . Slavery is a system of brute force . . . It must be met with its own weapons.

—Frederick Douglass, 1859

If you commence, make sure work," advised David Walker in his protest pamphlet, Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829). Addressing all blacks who might rebel, he continued: "Do not trifle, for they will not trifle with [End Page 1] you—they want us for their slaves, and think nothing of murdering us in order to subject us to that wretched condition—therefore, if there is an attempt made by us, kill or be killed." The pamphlet prophesied millennial violence if slavery was not abolished: "The Americans may be as vigilant as they please," warned Walker, "but they cannot be vigilant enough for the Lord, neither can they hide themselves, where he will not find and bring them out." He called blacks to action, to "go to work and prepare the way of the Lord," explaining: "There is a great work for you to do."1

In 1848, John Brown helped republish Walker's pamphlet (alongside an oration by the militant black abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet). Two years after this republication, the Fugitive Slave Law passed. Black abolitionists advocated responses to the law ranging from nonviolent civil disobedience to violent resistance. One, Joshua B. Smith, circulated weapons at an abolitionist meeting, and another, William P. Newman, wrote to Frederick Douglass: "I am frank to declare that it is my fixed and changeless purpose to kill any so-called man who attempts to enslave me or mine, if possible . . . To do this . . . would be an act of the highest virtue, and white Americans must be real hypocrites if they say not to it—amen!" At a meeting in Philadelphia, on October 14, 1850, several hundred free blacks passed a resolution that concluded: "In full view of the unheard of atrociousness of the provisions of this infernal fugitive slave bill, we solemnly declare before the Most High God, and the world, to resist to the death any attempt to enforce it upon our persons." The following year, when fugitives fought slave catchers trying to re-enslave them in Pennsylvania, the black radical James McCune Smith proclaimed: "Our white brethren cannot understand us unless we speak to them in their own language; they recognize only force. They will never recognize our manhood until we knock them down a time or two; they will then hug us as men and brethren." Echoing Smith, Mr. Culver in Martin Delaney's Blake: or, the Hut of America (1859) tells the black rebel Blake: "If you want white man to love you, you must fight im!" Blake sets out to incite a slave rebellion, Culver's words ringing in his ears: "Go on young man, go on!" John Brown's soon-to-be infamous strategies of violent resistance had a bloodline, traceable through the history of black abolitionism from Walker to Blake.2

Brown himself responded to the Fugitive Slave Law by forming the League of Gileadites, a black self-defense unit named after the Biblical army tested by God before battle. He wrote a document entitled "Words of Advice," and 44 black residents of Springfield, Massachusetts, signed an "Agreement" on January 15, 1851. Brown's advice included a range of guerilla tactics: "A lasso might possibly be applied to a slave-catcher," he suggested, or recommended...