- The "Colored Hero" of Harper's Ferry: John Anthony Copeland and the War Against Slavery by Steven Lubet
John Anthony Copeland, Harper's Ferry, Slavery, Antislavery, Abolition
John Brown's body may lie moldering in the grave, but the militant abolitionist and his October 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry are alive and well in modern scholarship.1 Recent works have cast Brown as an idealistic revolutionary who fought for racial equality, albeit through controversial means. The historiography, however, overlooks the other participants in the Brown raid.2 Legal scholar Steven Lubet here expands our knowledge of the Brown cadre with a biography of the black raider John Anthony Copeland. Born free in North Carolina in 1834, Copeland moved as a child with his family to Oberlin, Ohio, and soon became a mainstay in the abolitionist community. He was inculcated in the "tenets of nonviolence" practiced by the antislavery citizens, only to undergo a conversion from "idealism to militancy" that culminated in the attack on Harpers Ferry (2, 6). By shedding light on Copeland and his reformist background, Lubet aims to demonstrate that the Oberlin carpenter "played a key role in Brown's own planning for, and execution of, the historic raid" (8). For Lubet, a man previously portrayed as a "loyal spear carrier" in the raid deserves "center stage" in the saga (9).
In order to elucidate Copeland's life, Lubet delves into an impressive array of archival sources. Because of the limited resources on Copeland [End Page 393] proper, however, most of his material deals with the "abolitionist environs" that shaped the young activist (69). Lubet offers a compelling portrayal of Oberlin as a "unique environment in the antebellum United States" that combined an "ideology of racial egalitarianism with an exceptional reverence for the rescue of slaves" (135). He gracefully sketches the key players in the town, including white abolitionists like James Fairchild, pacifistic African American reformers like Charles Langston, and militant black activists like Copeland's cousin Lewis Leary. Oberlin was a "paradise" for families like the Copelands, offering John a sense of dignity not readily available elsewhere (43). The young carpenter became an active member of the local antislavery society and aided fugitive slaves. He was, in many ways, a model product of the radical hotbed.
Copeland's path to militancy began in 1858, when President Buchanan appointed a federal marshal to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act in defiant northern Ohio. Lubet shines in depicting the attempts of the marshal, Matthew Johnson, to impose "pro-Southern and pro-slavery" policies on Oberlin (65). When Johnson's deputy engineered an attempt to capture the fugitive John Price in the famed Oberlin Rescue of September 1858, Copeland leapt to prominence. He led enraged Oberliners in trapping the kidnappers in a hotel, and then stormed the building to rescue Price. The town leaders recognized Copeland's role in the rescue by appointing him to escort Price to Canada. Lubet does fine work in uncovering Copeland's previously unnoticed role in the affair. The author's depiction of the trial of the Oberlin rescuers, in which the defendants put slavery on trial by appealing to the "ideal of higher law" in the courtroom, is also a highlight (119).
The Copeland-led rescue not only convinced the activist of the righteousness of violence, but also attracted Brown, who was seeking recruits for a mission whose objective—capturing Harpers Ferry—was known only to him. Brown journeyed to Ohio to enlist the rescuers. He gave a lecture on slave rescue attended by Leary, which Lubet credits as the reason that Leary and Copeland "join[ed] Brown's command" (127). The men believed that they would again be rescuing individual slaves. As Lubet emphasizes, the two Oberliners proved essential to Brown's plan: for Brown desired, but had failed in gaining, more than one black recruit. Copeland, reared and valorized in the abolitionist cocoon of Oberlin, had more reason than most black northerners to envision himself as an empowered soldier...