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Today in 1800, the abolitionist John Brown was born in a humble saltbox house on a farm in Torrington, Connecticut. One of the most controversial figures in United States antebellum history, Brown was, and still is, a polarizing figure. Some see him as a social justice visionary, prepared to do whatever was needed to end the scourge of slavery; others, as an unstable, obsessive zealot who ruthlessly killed others in pursuit of a misguided vision of revolution.
The fourth of eight children, Brown left Torrington at the age of five when his family moved to the Western Reserve of Ohio. As a young man, Brown returned to Connecticut to attend the Morris Academy in Litchfield in hopes of becoming a minister, but had to drop out because of illness and financial struggles.
John Brown, circa 1847.
John, like his father before him, spent most of his adult life wrestling with financial insolvency and moving from place to place in search of steady work. His ardent anti-slavery views began to crystallize in the late 1830s, following the murder of abolitionist preacher Elijah Lovejoy by a pro-slavery mob in Illinois. This radicalized Brown, and in 1846, he moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, where he became deeply involved in the city’s abolitionist movement. Four years of giving speeches, supporting the publication and dissemination of abolitionist literature, and bolstering the Underground Railroad networks that ran through western Massachusetts, convinced Brown that the national stain of slavery could be destroyed only through violent means.
In the 1850s, near Pottawatomie, Kansas, John Brown first attempted to turn this belief into a self-fulfilling prophecy. He led a party of armed abolitionists on a raid that resulted in the killing of five pro-slavery settlers in cold blood. Brown’s Pottawatomie raid triggered several months of bloody retaliations between pro- and anti-slavery settlers that became known as “Bleeding Kansas.”
In October 1859, Brown orchestrated his most extreme plan to end slavery through violence. He attempted an armed takeover of the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. Brown intended to use the arms and munitions stored there to start a massive armed slave uprising that he hoped would consume the entire South. A contingent of U.S. Marines thwarted his efforts, and Brown was subsequently captured, tried, found guilty of treason, and hanged on December 2. His influence, however continued. He was mourned by many as an antislavery martyr whose “truth goes marching on”; reviled by others as the symbol of the North’s stop-at-nothing violent intentions against the South.
A vintage postcard depicts John Brown’s Torrington birthplace before the house was destroyed by fire in 1918.
The original Brown family homestead burned down in 1918, but the foundation is still visible in Torrington — a visual reminder of the humble beginnings of one of America’s most controversial figures in the years leading up to the Civil War. The site is actively maintained by the Torrington Historical Society and became a stop on the Connecticut African-American Freedom Trail in 1997.
“John Brown Birthplace Site,” Torrington Historical Society
Peter Vermilyea, “Hidden Nearby: John Brown’s Torrington Birthplace,” connecticuthistory.org
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