• Sun beginning to set at Harpers Ferry, as seen from Maryland Heights. Photo by NPS Volunteer Buddy Secor.

    Harpers Ferry

    National Historical Park WV,VA,MD

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Oates on Brown Text Transcript

Question 1: Dr. Oates, could you tell me please, what impact, in your judgement, did John Brown have upon the nation with regard to the slavery issue?

Oates: Let me start it this way. John Brown believed by 1858-1859 that slavery was so entrenched in this country, protected by the Constitution and a host of federal and state laws, that there was no way to get rid of it except by blowing it out by violence. He regarded slavery as a violent institution, the ownership of another human being was a violent act and it deserved a violent retaliation. He had fought against the forces of the slave owning South on the Kansas prairies and bleeding Kansas and he thought, this is not the way to resist the spread of slavery. The way to resist it and the way to get rid if it is to attack slavery in the South itself, and he chose Harpers Ferry to begin his war for slave liberation. He chose Harpers Ferry because of the guns stored here, thousands of them, at the government arsenal and armory. He hoped that he could get rid of slavery in this country by a violent act one of two ways. At Harpers Ferry, followed by a guerilla band, he could strike here, grab the guns, strike into the southern mountains, inciting slave insurrections spontaneously in all directions until as he said, I can have the South burning from the Potomac River to the Gulf of Mexico. That was one way he said I could pull the temple down. But an alternative, an alternative objective at Harpers Ferry, which is not often considered in the literature and by people who talk about the raid, was that even if they failed the mere presence of John Brown, a bearded abolitionist with a gun, followed by this small band of followers also armed and five of them black, five men, black men armed with guns... that even if they went into Harpers Ferry and they failed, they were captured, or they were killed and then hanged... even if that happened, it would so polarize the country that it would ignite a sectional holocaust in which he hoped slavery would be destroyed. So one way or the other he hoped to rid this country of what he regarded as a monstrous cruelty and wrong.

Question 2: Why did Brown choose violence? Others, like Frederick Douglass, felt that there were other means to end slavery. But why did Brown choose violence?

Oates: He chose it because as he surveyed the country in 1857 to 1859, when he conceived of Harpers Ferry, he went through every one of the solutions to slavery short of violence and they'd all failed. He pointed out that the abolitionists had been crusading since the 1830s and they were nowhere near close to winning control of the government or winning over most of the northerners. [William Lloyd] Garrison he said had failed in his nonviolent crusade to convince the country to be abolitionists by moral suasion. He said moral suasion was wrong, its failed, the abolitionists were always a tiny percentage of the population, massively unpopular in the North itself. Their crusade had failed in his view. And as far as the Republican Party was concerned, slave containment, even Lincoln said that containing slavery, it might take a hundred years before it died a natural death in the South itself through the Republican program of prohibiting slavery except where it already existed. So Brown said the Republican Party position is no position. Northern democrats under Steven A. Douglas, popular sovereignty, said all the northern Democrats want to do is lick up southern spit. And popular sovereignty had led to a, it was a complete failure, it led to a civil war in Kansas, it wasn't going to work. Slavery was a national problem, not a local problem, as Kansas demonstrated. He goes through all of these positions and not one of them had worked, and slavery, if anything, was more entrenched 1858 and 59 then it had ever been. The slave system was booming. Look at the price of slaves or at the price of field hands, stood 1859, 1858, 1860. The cotton system was booming, how to get rid of it? It's a violent act, it's a violent institution and its protected by the federal Constitution, by state laws, federal laws, and by custom and tradition. The only way to get rid of it, he said was to blow it out. A revolutionary act, blow it out. Striking it with guns and either inciting a massive slave revolt or bringing the two sections into armed conflict.

Question 3: Would you please comment on John Brown's relationship with his God and his belief in the Bible?

Oates: Whenever I go into this most people roll their eyes back in their head. The religious aspect of John Brown and his raid is, you know, we live in a secular age. Let me put it this way, most people aren't turned on to a talk about religion. But I submit that you cannot understand John Brown unless you understand his Calvinist upbringing and his Calvinist theology. He really did believe that human beings are put on here to demonstrate to God that they're worthy of being reunited with him in Heaven at the end of their lives. As he said, we all are sinners in the hands of an angry God. We're all put here to simply endure the torments that God visits on us. More than that we are put here for a purpose. And he believed that by the time he fought against the pro-slavery forces in Kansas that his God was calling him to a special mission. That's what he called it. And that mission was to destroy slavery by the sword. And he lived out of the Old Testament, the old testament was full of stories were God chooses somebody to save the chosen people, and did so by the sword. The Old Testament was full of blood and plunder and swords and warfare and killing. And Brown believed, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," and he thought his God was directing him to go Harpers Ferry. And when he went there he expected God to decide which of the two objectives was going to work. Is he going to go there to and incite a slave insurrection, this is all in Gods hands, he will determine whether that's going to happen or not. Or does Brown go there to bring the two sections into a collision and decide by igniting a sectional conflict, slavery's going to die. That too is in the hands of God. A lot of people dismiss John Brown as a religious nut, as a religious fanatic for such beliefs. But in his time and place there were a lot of people who believed in an activist God. Robert E. Lee believed that everything was in God's hands. When he went to Gettysburg, he said, he goes there without his cavalry, I mean his planning was not much better than what John Brown's was at Harpers Ferry and he goes in there and says "It's all in Gods hand." And Abraham Lincoln believed the same thing, that events hadn't controlled Lincoln but, he had control of this, but the events had controlled Lincoln and events were in the hands of God. But nobody's ever called Robert E. Lee or Abraham Lincoln religious fanatics.

Question 4: Would you rate John Brown in American history as a failure, as a success, or as an enigma?

Oates: In his own terms, he was a success. He went into Harpers Ferry as I said to do two things. The first effort there, the first objective, to insight a massive slave revolt and thereby destroy slavery, that failed. But his second goal -- if the planned insurrection failed -- to bring the sections into armed collision, that was a tremendous success. And in many ways this man who often, so often maligned as a demented dreamer was in fact one of the most perceptive human beings of his generation. He realized that all he had to was set foot in the South with a gun and tell southerners, I'm here to free your slaves by gun point and I've got armed black men here too. And that this would tap into the greatest fears that southerners had. Fears of Nat Turner style insurrections, fears of what happened on Santa Domingo in the 1790s. He tapped into that and knew that his whole court of was to further polarize the country and to play on these, the fears of southerners. Here's this man who came here to incite our slaves to revolt. And he tries to take it to a higher plane than that and says, you know I'm here because I believe in justice, and all those wonderful words that he uttered in court. He was a success, a tremendous success because he was a catalyst of the Civil War. He didn't cause it but he set fire to the fuse that led to the blow up.

Question 5: Why do you feel that John Brown still lives in the American consciousness 135 years after his raid?

Oates: As the journalist Forney said to the Virginians after Brown had been sentenced to hang, he said, you're going to put Brown in the gallows but it's going to be a whole lot harder to take him down than it was to put him up there. His shadow has hung across us for 135 years because he reminded all of us, that generation of Americans, and every generation since then, that this country had institutionalized a massive moral contradiction. The ownership of human beings, the institution of human bondage, in a country based on the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all. And I think that's why he appeals to us. And after all he did chose an archetypal American solution to a problem, he'd grab a gun. We've be doing that since the foundation of the country. And also because I think that there's, you know, Brown's a very complex guy. He's often portrayed as a monomaniac, and a murderer, and an insignificant horse thief on the one hand or the greatest abolitionist hero who ever lived. He was full of conflicts. I think he appeals to us also because he's a human being, he's got contradictions. I love people with contradictions, it makes them human for me. But the one thing I think Brown had going for him that still appeals to us today is that, unlike most Americans at his time, he had no racism. He treated blacks equally. Frederick Douglass, who met him in Springfield, Mass. in the late 1840s wrote one of his friends and said, that John Brown, you talk with him and he's like one of us. It's as though his own soul had been pierced by the iron of slavery. And Brown even impressed white abolitionists like Richard Henry Dana when he came to visit Brown. And Brown addressed his black workers as mister and had them come in and share his meals with them on an equal basis. And I think that's why he appeals to us today as well.

Did You Know?

Robert Harper was granted an exclusive ferry concession in 1861.

Robert Harper operated a ferry across the Potomac River in 1747. His heirs, the Wagers, maintained the operation until 1824 when a bridge was built across the Potomac.