As a major part of the national acknowledgment of the 150th anniversary of John Brown's raid on the Federal Armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, the Virginia Historical Society presents the exhibition The Portent: John Brown's Raid in American Memory. The exhibition is on display at the VHS through April 11, 2010.
In October 1859, John Brown and twenty-one followers gained armed possession of the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Their intent was to confiscate rifles stored there and with those weapons initiate a massive slave insurrection that would spread throughout the South and eventually free all of the nation's four million slaves. Brown, who had plotted the raid for decades, was driven by religious fervor: he believed himself chosen by God for the mission. Contemporaries used the term "monomaniac" to identify such a person. To them, Brown was comparable to the fictional Captain Ahab in Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick.
In the late 1850s, Brown saw an opportunity in Kansas to launch a strike against slavery. The territory had become a skirmish ground where proslavery and free-state settlers battled to determine whether the region would become a slave state or a free state. Brown traveled to Kansas in 1855 with the idea that the violence there could be escalated into so great a national disturbance that slavery would have to be abolished.
Back east, John Brown turned to abolitionists to finance his efforts in Kansas and his scheme to invade Virginia. His principal supporters kept their anonymity and so came to be known as the "Secret Six." Three of the six were businessmen; two were ministers. All but one lived in or near Boston.
From the start, Brown's efforts to bring an end to slavery were lauded by the poets Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who proved to be the most important of his supporters because of their prominence.
To only a few people did Brown communicate his plan to invade Virginia. One ally was the black leader Frederick Douglass, who admired Brown but declined to become associated with a plan doomed to failure.
To further explore the exhibition, click on one of the four sections on the right.
Although John Brown and his followers easily captured the federal arsenal, the insurgency was put down a day-and-a-half later by a detachment of U.S. Marines. Brown was placed on trial, convicted, and sentenced to hang. Learn more
Observers were conflicted in their judgment of John Brown. Most white southerners denounced him as a lunatic and criminal. In the same way, many in the North rejected his violence, but others eulogized a martyr whose death opened the way to emancipation. Learn more
Which John Brown have Americans remembered? The crusader for abolition or the bloodthirsty terrorist? The earliest historians did little to settle the dispute. Contemporary readers find a wealth of materials that reassess John Brown's legacy. Learn more
John Brown remains one of the most controversial figures in our history. In his mind there was only one possible course of action. He saw what he thought was the ultimate wrong and tried in the only way he could imagine to right it. How do you view John Brown? Learn more