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 in an "underground army of liberation" (135). It was his arrival in October 1859 that convinced an antsy Brown [End Page 394] to launch the raid. While his depiction of the Brown raid is unoriginal, Lubet breaks new ground by wrapping Oberlin into its aftermath. He chronicles how Johnson traveled to Virginia to implicate his "local enemies" in "Brown's plot" (158, 162). The marshal extracted a confession from Copeland in prison, in which Copeland emphasized that he had not meant to "participate in an insurrection" (163). Nevertheless, Copeland became a "hero of Harper's Ferry" in the antislavery North (198).
Lubet's work contains a few shortcomings. First, his emphasis that Copeland never intended to participate in a grandiose rebellion as envisioned by Brown undercuts his argument that Copeland underwent a drastic radicalization far beyond the pacifism of Oberlin. After all, Copeland garnered praise from Oberliners for his violent role in the slave rescue. What were the contours of non-resistance as practiced by the Oberlin mainstream? And had Copeland become a through-and-through militant on par with Brown if he journeyed to Virginia to replicate the Oberlin Rescue there? Lubet needs to reconcile these competing themes—a task made admittedly difficult by the limited sources available. Second, Lubet alludes to a complex class structure in black Oberlin, in which craftsmen like the Copelands were elites and runaways were "laborers," but should touch more on the subject (85). Did class tensions among black Oberliners mar the egalitarian paradise at all? Did Copeland's elite status contribute to his decision to join Brown? Lubet does not offer details on the matter.
Despite the flaws in Lubet's book, however, it is an excellent work and a valuable contribution to the historiography of antislavery reform. In clear prose, Lubet makes a compelling argument for the centrality of Copeland to the Brown raid. Perhaps more vital is his depiction of Oberlin and the myriad links between the town and the affair at Harpers Ferry. Indeed, the fascinating connections between Oberlin and the raid, whether through Copeland, Johnson, or the Oberlin professor who sought to recover Copeland's body from proslavery medical students, offer an enriching understanding of the dynamics of antebellum reformist communities. Lubet has offered a novel take on the Brown raid with implications stretching beyond Harpers Ferry. His work thus comes highly recommended. [End Page 395]
Frank Cirillo is a graduate student at the University of Virginia. He is currently writing his dissertation on the divisions among abolitionists over the Union war effort during the Civil War.
1. I have referred to "Harpers Ferry" using the modern spelling of the town name, whereas Lubet consciously used the nineteenth-century form "Harper's Ferry."
2. The modern scholarship on Brown and the Harpers Ferry raid includes John Stauffer, The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race (Cambridge, MA, 2001); Merrill Peterson, John Brown: The Legend Revisited (Charlottesville, VA, 2002); Louis A. Decaro, Jr., "Fire from the Midst of You": The Religious Life of John Brown (New York, 2005); David S. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights (New York, 2005); and Tony Horwitz, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War (New York, 2011). Lubet has previously written about another Brown raider, John E. Cook, in Steven Lubet, John Brown's Spy: The Adventurous Life and Tragic Confession of John E. Cook (New Haven, CT, 2012).