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Massachusetts Reacts To John Brown's Raid Betty L. Mitchell On the cold and moonless night of October 16, 1859, a band of eighteen men led by John Brown resolutely marched into Harpers Ferry, Virginia, seized the Federal armory, then waited for Virginia's slaves to join in a wholesale uprising. The next morning, Harpers Ferry citizens woke to the sound of church bells tolling the alarm of insurrection . Not since the Nat Turner rebellion of 1831 had the horrifying specter of servile insurrection seemed so near. The threat of an all-out race war proved short-lived, as the invasion ended as abruptly as it had begun. Not a single slave voluntarily joined Brown and his men. In less than thirty-six hours, Federal troops under Robert E. Lee recaptured the arsenal and arrested Brown and his remaining raiders. The attempted rebellion was a dismal failure. But the panic generated by Brown's invasion persisted. Frightened southerners expected at any moment to see an army of John Browns marching down from the North and to hear the anguished cries of men, women and children being ruthlessly butchered by slaves and their abolitionist allies. Anxiously, suspiciously, the South awaited the reaction of its northern brethren. The Harpers Ferry raid polarized the nation as no other act had done before. The well-publicized words of New England Transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau who glorified Brown led traumatized southerners to mistakenly identify these individual sentiments with the main body of northern opinion. Too often historians have erred in similar fashion. Emphasizing the extremist statements of northern abolitionists and newspapers which supported Brown, they have given the impression that radical, pro-Brown sympathy was widespread in the North.1 In fact, no such consensus existed there. Shocked and outraged at the initial report of the Harpers Ferry invasion, the majority of northerners condemned John Brown and his men as fanatics. Northern condemnation of Brown, however, turned to indignation against the South when it became apparent during the old man's trial that formal legal procedures would be hurried over or completely bypassed in order to render a guilty verdict as quickly as possible. The death sentence fur1 For studies which emphasize radical northern reaction see Jules Abies, Man on Fire (New York, 1971), pp. 317-319 and Avery Craven, The Coming of the Civil War (Chicago, 1942), pp. 408-409. See John Michael Ray, "Rhode Island Reacts to John Brown s Raid," Rhode Ishnd History, XX (Oct., 1961), 103-108 for a study of the conservative reaction of one northern state. 65 66CIVIL WAR HISTORY ther angered many northerners who considered the penalty too severe. As the day of execution neared, northern citizens, though still opposed to the raid itself, could not help but admire the heroic conduct, moral integrity, and personal courage ofJohn Brown himself. Northern opinion varied from state to state. Intense expressions of sympathy would logically be expected from those states possessing strongest antislavery sentiments. Which state, if any, would come to Brown's defense? The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, that hotbed of New England abolitionism, "by far the most radical antislavery state in the Union," appeared the most likely candidate. The center of Garrisonian activity and the home of many non-Garrisonian abolitionists, Massachusetts also claimed two of the nation's most vocal antislavery senators, Charles Sumner and Henry Wilson. Five of Brown's Secret Six backers were among Massachusetts' most eminent citizens. Perhaps the strongest of the antislavery states, Massachusetts might be expected to sympathize with John Brown completely.2 It did not. On the contrary, Massachusetts citizens greeted the news of the Harpers Ferry invasion with almost universal condemnation. Not a single group—Democratic, Republican, or abolitionist—wished to claim Brown as its own. Abolitionists hurried to disassociate themselves from the bloodshed at Harpers Ferry. President of the American AntiSlavery Society, William Lloyd Garrison, whose editorials in the Liberator poured weekly installments of hell-fire and brimstone on the heads of southern slaveholders, labeled Brown's efforts to emancipate the slaves by insurrection as "misguided, wild, and apparently insane." Firmly committed to the methods of nonviolent moral suasion, Garrisonian abolitionists could praise the antislavery convictions of the raiders...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 65-79
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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