John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry A Brief History with Documents

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  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2008-01-04
  • Publisher: Bedford/St. Martin's

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Despised and admired during his life and after his execution, the abolitionist John Brown polarized the nation and remains one of the most controversial figures in U.S. history. His 1859 raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia, failed to inspire a slave revolt and establish a free Appalachian state but became a crucial turning point in the fight against slavery and a catalyst for the violence that ignited the Civil War. Jonathan Earle's volume presents Brown as neither villain nor martyr, but rather as a man whose deeply held abolitionist beliefs gradually evolved to a point where he saw violence as inevitable. Earle's introduction and his collection of documents demonstrate the evolution of Brown's abolitionist strategies and the symbolism his actions took on in the press, the government, and the wider culture. The featured documents include Brown's own writings, eyewitness accounts, government reports, and articles from the popular press and from leading intellectuals. Document headnotes, a chronology, questions for consideration, a list of important figures, and a selected bibliography offer additional pedagogical support.

Author Biography

JONATHAN EARLE (Ph.D., Princeton University) is Associate Professor of History at the University of Kansas, where he is also Associate Director for Programming at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics. In 2005, Earle was named a ÒTop Young HistorianÓ by the History News Network. His book Jacksonian Anti-Slavery and the Politics of Free Soil, 1824–1854 won the James A. Broussard Best First Book Award from the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. Earle has also authored many scholarly articles and book chapters on abolitionism, the history of the early republic, and John Brown. He has received fellowships from the NEH and the American Council of Learned Societies.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents



List of Maps and Illustrations

PART ONE. INTRODUCTION: Abolitionist, Warrior, Martyr, Prophet

Brown’s Early Life

John Brown and the Rise of Abolitionism

A Radical Abolitionist

Making Kansas Bleed

The Plan

The Raid

The Trial

Reckoning with John Brown

The Harpers Ferry Raid: Dramatis Personae


1. The Making of a Radical Abolitionist

1. John Brown, Words of Advice to the United States League of Gileadites, January 15, 1851

2. Kansas Territorial Legislature, An Act to Punish Offenses against Slave Property, 1855

3. John Brown, Letter to Wife and Children from Kansas Territory, December 16, 1855

4. Mahala Doyle and Louisa Jane Wilkinson, Accounts of the Pottawatomie Massacre, 1856

5. John Brown, An Idea of Things in Kansas, 1857

6. John Brown, John Brown’s Parallels: Letter to the Editor of the New York Tribune, 1859

2. The Raid and Trial

7. John Brown, Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the People of the United States, May 8, 1858

8. Osborne Anderson, A Voice from Harpers Ferry, 1861

9. John Brown, Interview with Senator James Mason, Representative Clement Vallandigham and Others, October 18, 1859

10. Excerpts from the Trial of John Brown,1859

Opening Remarks of John Brown to the Virginia Court, October 27, 1859

John Brown’s Response to Claims of His Insanity, October 28, 1859

Last Address of John Brown to the Virginia Court, November 2, 1859

3. The Making of a Martyr

11. John Brown, Selected Prison Letters, October 21–December 2, 1859

4. Responses to John Brown’s Raid

12. Northern and Southern Newspapers React to the Raid and Trial, 1859

New Hampshire Patriot, The Harpers Ferry Affair, October 26, 1859

Petersburg (Virginia) Express, The Harpers Ferry Conspiracy, October 25, 1859

Albany, New York, Evening Journal, From the Philadelphia Press, November 30,


13. Henry David Thoreau, A Plea for Captain John Brown, October 30, 1859

14. Governor Henry Wise, Message to the Virginia Legislature, December 5, 1859

15. U.S. Senate Select Committee on the Harpers Ferry Invasion, The Mason Report, June 15, 1860

16. William W. Patton, John Brown’s Body, 1862


A Chronology of John Brown and Events of the Civil War Era (1800–1865)

Questions for Consideration

Selected Bibliography


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