John Brown (Reclus)

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John Brown

Elisée Reclus

John Brown was one of those rough American workers that education in a free society renders fit for the most diverse occupations. Raised as a trapper in the forests of the west, he became successively a tanner, a wool merchant, and then a farmer; he also changed his residence often, living in turn in Connecticut, Ohio, the state of New York, and Pennsylvania, and in his commercial travels he even crossed the Atlantic to visit England, France and Germany. Returning from Europe in 1849, he established himself close to the village of North Elba (New York), in a cold glen in the Adirondack mountains, and there, aided by his courageous wife and his ten children, he began to clear the soil and tend livestock.

But the farmer was at the same time a citizen. Full of feeling for his duties toward society, he wanted, above all things, to work for the good of his compatriots, to do his part in the great work of improvement of the human species. The hatred of injustice was in him, and, in his conversations, he did not cease to recall the sufferings of the weak and the oppressed. He raised his children to the mission of redressing wrongs; he made heroic devotion to the cause of the unfortunate the very soul of the family, the genius of the domestic hearth.

And yet, around him, in the free communities of the northern states, he hardly saw anything but the indications of prosperity. The cultivators, his neighbors, gained their subsistence honestly and enjoyed the most complete liberty; schools had opened in all the surrounding villages; peace existed in all the federal territory; poverty was nearly unknown; the material progress of the nation was without example in the world. Most Americans, selfishly proud of their liberties, thought that all went for the best in the best of republics.

It is true that the white population of the northern states were happier than any nation of the world had ever been, but the blacks who passed as shadows beside the citizens were only despised pariahs, and in the southern states slaves numbered in the millions.

There, the field workers, instead of being possessors of their land and of the products obtained by their pains, were on the contrary beasts of burden, bought and sold, being deprived of legal name, placed apart from all legal justice, outside of the family even, since their children belonged to the master. "The slave," said all of the codes of the southern states, "is a thing and not a man: it is an automaton fit up with arms with which to work, with shoulders to support the collar, with a back to receive the blows of the whip. It is an object that the master can exchange, sell, hire out, mortgage, ****; it is nothing more or less." "The negro," proclaimed a famous ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States, "has no rights that whites are bound to respect."

These are the abominations which so disturbed John Brown.

From the age of twelve, during a journey that he made to Virginia, he swore, after seeing a small negro beaten with a whip, that for all his life he would be of the party of the weak against the strong. His farm at North Elba became one of the most important stations of the "underground railroad" by which fugitive slaves from the southern states escaped towards Canada. John Brown welcomed the fugitives as brothers, gave them supplies for the journey, marked the stages for them, and arming himself with his rifle, accompanied them at night by forest paths as far as the house of the nearest affiliate. And still, John Brown reproached himself for not doing enough for the cause of liberty.

After taking a family council, towards the end of 1854, John Brown and his sons decided that they would abandon the free and peaceful land of the northern states in order to go and establish themselves in Kansas, on the very frontier of the slave-country. They wished to work, at once with the plow and with the rifle, towards the conquest of that new territory: by cultivating the soil themselves they would put up a barrier to the invasions of the planters and maintain the dignity of manual labor; by defending their fields with arms they would permit peaceful colonists to establish themselves in the still-uncultivated lands of the west, and thus increase the free population. It was a war to the death between the two societies which clashed on the borders of Kansas. From one side, the Missourians arrived, dragging their slaves after them; from the other came the yankee laborers, clearing the soil themselves, opening schools in clearings themselves barely opened, establishing printing shops under the great trees of the forests. The planters declared a state constitution, making slavery the "cornerstone" of their society; the abolitionists passed another, affirming that servitude is "the sum of all infamies." The proslavery forces burned the cabins of the pioneers, who made incursions into Missouri to free blacks; armed bands met on the frontier; for long years, the blood did not cease to flow. In that implacable struggle, between slavery and liberty, no leader was more audacious, more resourceful, more tireless than "Captain" John Brown. In these unceasing combats he lost one of his sons, and another went mad; but in the end he had the pleasure of seeing the abolitionists win. Despite the connivance of the President of the United States with the planters, despite the treason of the governor and all the local administration, the free population of Kansas did not cease to increase, the proslavery forces no longer ventured across the frontier, the servile institution, forevermore restricted from the west coast, suffered its first great defeat in the United States.

John Brown, already close to sixty, could have enjoyed his triumph in peace; he could have cultivated those fields watered with the blood of his sons and thought, finally, of amassing a small fortune for his old age; be he had too high a heart, he loved the oppressed of the south too much to not devote to them what remained of his life. He resolved to execute a deed which he had harbored for more than eight years, that of carrying himself right into enemy territory, to emancipate on a grand scale. Accompanied by three of his sons, two sons-in-law, and some men of like hearts, he went to establish himself on an abandoned farm, situated in slave country, close to the Virginia town of Harper's Ferry, and for several months secretly made military preparations for his great work of liberation. The plan of John Brown was to seize the arsenal of Harper's Ferry, well-stocked in arms of all sorts, to cut the important railroad lines which converged on that point, then to rush into the gorges of the mountains to harass unceasingly the bands organized by the planters, showing himself unexpectedly, sometimes at one point and sometimes at another, as liberator of the negroes. He reckoned he would be able to hold out, for some years, in that savage country of the Alleghenies, until finally the slaves, rising by the thousands, would be able to gain their liberty by force of arms.

The first strike succeeded perfectly. By night, at the head of his small band of twenty-one men, of whom five were black and sixteen white, John Brown seized the arsenal at Harper's Ferry, occupied the railroad bridge over the Potomac, and took sixty prisoners. During all of the first half of the following day, he remained complete master of a town of five thousand inhabitants; but in the desire to convince the population that he wanted to do no harm to his captives and that he only demanded the liberty of a slave

[The pamphlet from which this was translated apparently has one or more lines missing.]

were wounded there; entire populations died of poverty and hunger, vast provinces were devastated; the immense wealth accumulated in the estates of the planters, by several generations of slaves, were almost entirely destroyed. But also when the terrible struggle ended with the victory of the free citizens of the North, servitude was finally abolished; four million blacks who, the day before, had been mere merchandise, became human; the Republic, its crime cleared away, was placed immediately, by its progress of every sort, at the head of the civilized nations. And, in that immense victory, John Brown, dead before the war, did perhaps more than all the others, for it was his memory which inspired the white abolitionists and the 180,000 blacks fighting in the northern army. It is he that was celebrated by the hymn of deliverance sung by the soldiers marching to battle:

Old John Brown’s body lies moldering in the grave,
While weep the sons of bondage whom he ventured all to save;
But tho he lost his life while struggling for the slave,
His soul is marching on.
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
His soul is marching on!

It is to the memory of that man, so great in character, so great in work accomplished, that Madame Gael invites us to render homage. <ref>Cooperation du 30 juin 1867.</ref>

Our duty is to respond to that appeal with all the more haste, as we have allowed eight long years to pass without giving to the family of the victim the expression of sympathy to which they have a right, on the part of all of those who love justice. Last year, Madame Lincoln received with emotion the address and medal that fifty thousand French sent to her, in memory of the services that the assassinated president had rendered to the republic. Madame Brown, who never tried to turn her husband from his path of devotion and who made, with a heroism of spectacular simplicity, the sacrifice of her sons, will not be less touched by the proof of sympathy that we send to her. To work then! We count on all those who struggle for right against force, on all those who do not live egoistically for themselves or their family alone, and who understand the beauty of sacrifice. As for the admirers of violence, to those who scorn the right of the weak, John Brown is for them only a madman, a violator of the laws of his country. From them we ask nothing!