John Brown, the Antislavery Entrepreneur (Part 1): Tony Horwitz

In 1859, John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, propelled a divided nation toward Civil War. Brown’s wild hair and desperate scheme to free and arm slaves helped foster his enduring image as a crazed fanatic, a zealot on the far fringe of American society.

But for most of his 59 years, the abolitionist was a clean-shaven entrepreneur -- a mercantilist everyman in the rapidly expanding economy of the 19th century.

Born in 1800 to a New England farm family of Puritan roots, he became a less-than-successful tannery owner, land developer and wool merchant. The world of commerce infused his secret war on slavery, which he called his “wool business,” funded with venture capital from Northern industrialists. Brown’s flaws as an entrepreneur carried over to his failed, but ultimately prophetic, strike against slavery.

In the first of five excerpts from his new book, “Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War,” author Tony Horwitz tells of the abolitionist’s early years as a striver on the American frontier:

In 1857, as John Brown solicited funds for his plot to overthrow slavery, he dined at the home of George Luther Stearns, a wealthy Boston industrialist. Stearns’s 12-year-old son was so inspired by the abolitionist’s words that he donated his pocket money (30 cents) to the cause.

Brown’s Early Life

In return, Brown wrote the boy a revealing letter about his own youth at the start of the century. Brown’s early life was marked by dislocation and loss. At the age of 5, he moved with his family by oxcart from rural Connecticut to the Ohio frontier. Three years later, his mother died in childbirth. Though his father quickly remarried an “estimable woman,” Brown “never adopted her in feeling,” he wrote, and “continued to pine after his own Mother for years.”

This loss magnified the influence of his father, Owen, an austere Calvinist, ever vigilant against sin and attachment to the material world. From an early age, Brown hewed closely to his father’s example of hard work and strict piety. He “never attempted to dance,” never learned cards and “grew to a dislike of vain & frivolous conversations and persons.”

He went to work young, “ambitious to perform the full labour of a man.” At 12, Brown drove cattle 100 miles on his own and took up leather tanning, his father’s trade. Brown wrote that he “habitually expected to succeed” and felt sure his plans were “right in themselves.” This drive and confidence impressed adults, but Brown confessed that he “came forward to manhood quite full of self-conceit.”

At 20, prompted by his father, Brown married “a remarkably plain; but industrious & economical girl; of excellent character; earnest piety; & good practical common sense.” Dianthe Lusk was 19 and, in the first four years of their marriage, bore Brown three sons. Like his father, Brown pioneered new territory, in northwest Pennsylvania, where he cleared land, built a tannery, raised stock, and became a Mason and civic leader, founding a school and church and serving as the area’s first postmaster.

But this seemingly conventional ascent faltered in Brown’s early 30s. In an echo of his boyhood loss, his wife died after giving birth to their seventh child, a stillborn son. Brown remarried months later, to 17-year-old Mary Day, with whom he would have 13 more children, as he worked tirelessly to support his growing family. He showed talent for tanning, surveying, cattle-breeding and sheep-herding, winning prizes for his wool and publishing articles about livestock.

Money Management Problems

But Brown’s diligence and work ethic were repeatedly undone by his inability to manage money. “I am running low for cash again,” Brown wrote in 1828 to Seth Thompson, a partner in his tanning and cattle business. “I was unable to raise any cash towards the bank debt,” he wrote in 1832. In these early letters, Brown always expressed regret over his financial straits -- and blamed them on the weather, ill health or the monetary policies of President Andrew Jackson.

Brown may also have been distracted by his budding concern for affairs other than business. It was in the early 1830s that he first wrote of his determination to help slaves. At the time, organized abolitionism was just emerging, under the leadership of William Lloyd Garrison, a staunch pacifist. Brown initially shared Garrison’s faith in education and moral suasion as the tools necessary to defeat slavery. But Brown soon went in his own, more militant, direction.

In 1837, when a pro-slavery mob murdered an abolitionist editor, Elijah Parish Lovejoy, Brown attended a church meeting called to protest the killing. Lifting his right hand, he declared: “Here before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery.”

Abolitionists created hundreds of societies in the 1830s, from national groups to local knitting circles. Brown joined none of them. Instead, late one night, he gathered his wife and three oldest sons by the fire and spoke of armed struggle against slavery. “He asked who of us were willing to make common cause with him in doing all in our power to ‘break the jaws of the wicked and pluck the spoil out of his teeth,’” his eldest son wrote. After each family member assented, Brown knelt in prayer and administered an oath, pledging them to secrecy and devotion to slavery’s defeat.

Land Speculation

This initiation, however, coincided with a collapse in Brown’s worldly ventures. He moved back to Ohio in 1835, amid a property boomed fueled by easy credit and the many transportation projects under way in the fast-growing nation. Brown began speculating on land along a proposed canal route, subdividing lots and borrowing to buy more property. Then the canal company abruptly changed its plans.

“I do think it is best to sell all out if we can at any thing like a fair rate,” Brown wrote his long-suffering partner, Seth Thompson, who wanted to cut their losses. “But I think the time unfavourable. If we have been crazy getting in, do try & let exercise a sound mind about the maner of getting out.”

Six months later, the economy crashed in what became known as the Panic of 1837. Almost half the nation’s banks closed, credit evaporated and the U.S. entered its first economic depression. Brown, already in trouble, was now buried in debts and lawsuits. By 1840, he was “flat down” and unable to afford so much as postage.

Then things got worse. Brown refused to vacate a piece of land to which he’d lost title. Instead, he armed his sons and holed up in a cabin on the property until he and two of his boys were arrested and briefly jailed. A year later, in 1842, an Ohio court declared Brown bankrupt. The court’s meager inventory of household “necessaries” the Brown family was allowed to keep included “2 Earthen Crocks Broke,” “3 Bags old,” 11 Bibles, “8 Womens and childrens aprons” and a tin pail valued at 6 cents.

Brown’s plight wasn’t rare; more than 40,000 Americans filed for bankruptcy under a law enacted after the 1837 Panic. But for a man who hated to “abandon anything he fixed his purpose upon,” failure of this scale was especially galling. He had fallen far short of his own, exacting standards and borrowed heavily from friends and family, including his father, who lost his farm after underwriting one of his son’s loans.

Family Tragedy

A year after the bankruptcy, Brown’s large household was struck by severe dysentery, possibly cholera. Four children died within days, the oldest just 9. “They were all children to whom perhaps we might have felt a little partial,” Brown wrote, after burying all four in a single grave.

In the early 1800s, roughly a third of Americans died before reaching adulthood. Premature death was so common that parents recycled the names of their offspring. The Browns, after losing children named Sarah, Frederick and Ellen, replaced them with newborns also named Sarah, Frederick and Ellen. In all, nine of his 20 offspring would die before the age of 10.

Though Brown was all too familiar with early death, burying four of his young flock in 1843 plunged him into a profound depression. The family’s impoverishment, which had necessitated moving to a crowded and possibly unsanitary log house, deepened the wound. “I felt for a number of years,” Brown later wrote a young abolitionist, “a steady, strong desire: to die.”

But in the same letter, he expressed his undying commitment to the destruction of slavery. “Certainly the cause is enough to live for,” Brown wrote. He knew he would “endure hardness” in pursuing his dream. “But I expect to effect a mighty conquest, even though it be like the last victory of Samson.”

(Tony Horwitz is the author of “A Voyage Long and Strange,” “Blue Latitudes,” “Confederates in the Attic” and “Baghdad Without a Map.” This is the first in a five-part series excerpted from his new book, “Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War,” to be published Oct. 25 by Henry Holt and Co. The opinions expressed are his own. See Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.)

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