John Brown, the Antislavery Entrepreneur (Part 2): Tony Horwitz

Mary Duenwald writes editorials on energy, health care and science for Bloomberg View. She was deputy editor of the New York Times op-ed page and a senior editor at Harper’s Bazaar, Real Simple, the Sciences and Vogue.
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In this, the second of five excerpts from his new book, “Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War,” author Tony Horwitz continues the story of the legendary abolitionist as he braves the tumult of the wool market and attaches himself, more and more strongly, to the cause of slavery’s destruction:

In the 1840s, as John Brown battled back from bankruptcy, his eldest son became enamored of phrenology. This pseudo-science held that a person’s character could be read in the contours of his skull. Brown consented to a “reading” by a leading phrenologist, Orson Fowler, who seems to have gleaned insight from the words and manner of his subject. In any event, his notes on Brown were acute.

“You have a pretty good opinion of yourself -- would rather lead than be led,” Fowler wrote. “You like to have your own way, and to think and act for yourself … are positive in your likes and dislikes, ‘go the whole figure or nothing’ & want others to do the same.” He added: “You like to do business on a large scale, and can make money better than save it.”

Fowler wrote this in early 1847, as Brown embarked on an ambitious venture. A few years earlier, he had formed a partnership with a wealthy Ohio man to raise sheep and sell fine wool. Brown was a skilled shepherd, and the partnership prospered. But as Fowler noted, Brown liked to think big and was very certain of his judgment. Others who knew him described this as “fixedness.”

Wool Business

In this instance, Brown became fixed on the notion that textile manufacturers were fleecing wool producers. He prevailed on his partner to establish a depot in Springfield, Massachusetts, where Brown could buy and grade wool and sell it at a better price, while collecting a broker’s commission.

Brown may have been right that producers were exploited. But his stubborn clinging to the notion was a liability in the wildly fluctuating wool market of the 1840s. When prices plunged, Brown refused to sell; wool and unpaid bills quickly piled up at the depot. Brown also seemed saddled with a growing ambivalence toward business, fed partly by his father’s lifelong admonitions against vanity and materialism.

“I sometimes have dreadful reflections about having fled to go down to Tarshish,” Brown wrote his father from Springfield. In the Bible, Tarshish is the trade port that Jonah sets sail for in an attempt to escape God’s will -- only to be swallowed by a whale and then released to do the Lord’s bidding as a preacher to nonbelievers.

But if Springfield tested Brown’s acumen and dedication as a businessman, it proved an excellent place to pursue the true mission he believed God had given him. The city had a large population of fugitive slaves and was a regular stop on the abolitionist speaking circuit. In late 1847, Brown invited the famous orator and escaped slave, Frederick Douglass, to his home, which the black abolitionist described as extremely humble, with furnishings that “would have satisfied a Spartan.” Douglass also described the wool merchant, then in his late 40s, as “lean, strong and sinewy,” standing “straight and symmetrical as a mountain pine,” with eyes “full of light and fire.”

Army of Liberation

After dinner, Brown showed Douglass a map of the Allegheny Mountains and shared the radical plan he had long mulled. Running diagonally south from Pennsylvania into Maryland and Virginia, and filled with natural forts and caves, the Alleghenies had been placed by God “for the emancipation of the negro race,” Brown said. He planned to use the mountains as a base for guerrillas, who would raid the farm valleys below and “induce slaves to join them.” As this army of liberation grew, it “would run off the slaves in large numbers,” sending them north along the mountains to freedom.

Brown’s objective, he told Douglass, was to undermine slavery by “rendering such property insecure.” Douglass doubted the plan’s feasibility, but he came away deeply impressed by the wool-merchant’s sincerity and commitment. “Though a white gentleman,” Douglass wrote in his abolitionist weekly, Brown was “in sympathy, a black man, and as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery.”

Months later, Brown gave further evidence of his commitment by seeking the support of Gerrit Smith, one of the wealthiest philanthropists in the U.S. Born into the landed gentry of upstate New York, Smith managed his family’s estates while dabbling in the many reform movements of his day, including temperance, vegetarianism and sexual “purity” (a creed advocated by Sylvester Graham, who claimed his coarse-grained crackers curbed lust and masturbation).

But Smith’s abiding passion was abolitionism. He helped found the anti-slavery Liberty Party and ran as its presidential candidate in 1848 (receiving 0.1 percent of the vote). He also granted thousands of acres in upstate New York to free blacks, so they could farm and own enough property to qualify for the vote. But the land was poor, and the Adirondack colony, called Timbucto, struggled from the first.

Brown proposed moving there himself to help black pioneers survey, farm and raise stock. “I can think of no place where I think I would sooner go,” he wrote his father, “than to live with those poor despised Africans to try, & encourage them; & show them a little as far as I am capable.” In 1849, Smith deeded 244 acres to Brown, who settled his family in a log house near Lake Placid and then returned to Springfield with an ambitious plan to wind up his wool business. Rather than sell to domestic buyers at low prices, he shipped tons of his depot’s finest wool to Britain, convinced he could break the American cartel.

Debt and Lawsuits

Yet again, Brown’s business instincts proved poor. British buyers scorned the American wool, forcing him to ship most of it back home, at great expense, for sale at ruinously low prices. His already-troubled business collapsed, and Brown found himself mired in debt and lawsuits, just as he’d been a decade before.

This bitter experience in the wool market seemed only to deepen Brown’s hatred of the cotton-fueled “Slave Power,” whose boosters sought in 1854 to extend slavery’s domain to the newly opened Kansas territory. As both Northern and Southern settlers flooded Kansas, conflict broke out over whether it would become a slave or free state. Five of Brown’s sons joined the migration, staking claims and writing their father about pro-slavery “Ruffians” who attacked and intimidated free-state settlers. Brown’s sons were ready to fight back, if only they had guns. “We need them more than we do bread,” John Brown Jr. wrote.

Brown was broke, and his wife had just given birth. This was no time for her husband to set off on a Western adventure. But his sons were in peril and so was the cause of freedom. In June 1855, Brown carried his son’s letter to a radical abolitionist convention and raised money to buy guns. Heading west, he stopped in Ohio to see his father, by then 84 and in failing health. In a letter to his daughter, Owen Brown expressed parental concern about John’s state of mind. “He has something of a warlike spirit,” Owen wrote. “I think, as much as necessary, for defense. I will hope nothing more.”

A few days later, Owen lent John $40 and said goodbye. He would never see his eldest son again.

(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 second 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 1, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5.)

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