The first European boats that came to the Americas in 1492 were slave ships.
The enslaved labor of Indigenous and African people was crucial to the colonial economies founded by Spain (1492-1810) and England (1600-1865).
The English settlers who formed their own independent United States in 1776 enshrined (racial) slavery in their Constitution. See Article I Section 2: Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. Language such as “life, liberty and the right to pursue happiness” in the Declaration of Independence applied exclusively to white, male property owners.
While the Southern states developed a feudal, slave-based, agricultural economy from the 1600s up until the mid 19th Century, the Northern states based their economies on industry, employing “free” workers under a system of hourly or daily wages, also known as “wage slavery.” Of course, racial/ethnic and gender oppression were also intrinsic to the character the North’s economy.
Like most abolitionists of the 19th Century, John Brown’s abolition was born out of his religious convictions. He considered himself an Old Testament Calvinist, outraged by the degrading effects of the peculiar institution on both master and servant. After his failed uprising at Harpers Ferry, Brown was on the 19th Century equivalent of Death Row.
Brown had no spiritual advisor while in jail, especially from the local clergy. Norval Wilson, a Methodist preacher, and others of the cloth called on him. Brown asked Wilson, “Do you believe in slavery?” Wilson replied, “I do under the present circumstances.” Then, said Brown, “I do not want your prayers. I don’t want the prayers of any man who believes in slavery.” Brown wrote to a friend: “You may wonder, are there no ministers of the gospel here? I answer no. There are no ministers of Christ here. These ministers who profess to be Christian, and hold slaves or advocate slavery. I cannot abide them. My knees will not bend in prayer with them while their hands are stained with the blood of souls (Cohen 84).
Curiously, while Brown used his religion to call for insurrection against slavery, most religious leaders used religion to maintain slavery. A notable exception was the Boston Unitarian Minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson.
Africans living in bondage often times escaped from the plantations to escape to the Northern states and/or Canada. A clandestine support network called the Underground Railroad was formed in order to assist these refugees. Of course, Southern planters used their wealth to stop this from happening. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Law obliged Northern states to assist in “recovering” this “stolen property.”
Abolitionists in Massachusetts formed the Boston Vigilance Committee shortly thereafter to oppose the forced deportation of suspected fugitives. Black people had to show papers in order to prove to suspicious whites they had a “free” status. Police told captured suspects to confess their guilt for escaping, warning that if they demanded a trial and legal counsel, it would only delay shortly the inevitable victory of the master. The only reward for exercising these rights would be the master’s wrath once they were returned. Slave owners were permitted to torture slaves, and they usually owned several members of the same family.
Thus, when Anthony Burns, a suspected fugitive slave, demanded legal representation and a trial, Boston abolitions rushed to his aid. They provided Burns with a lawyer and began a legal defense campaign. The abolitionists held a large protest and a 24 hour-a-day vigil in front of the courthouse where Burns was held between the three days of his trial and sentencing. When the judge predictably ruled against Burns, a faction of the crowd decided to use direct action. Minister Higginson and other unidentified white and black abolitionists stormed the courthouse doors with a battering ram and entered the building, where an altercation resulted in the death of a deputy, possibly by friendly fire. Higginson was later acquitted in all charges arising from the action. Nevertheless, Burns was still sent back into bondage.
In 1854, the Kansas Nebraska Act opened up these new territories for settlement and the establishment of state constitutions. While Southern slave-owners subsidized pro-slavery settlers to turn Kansas into a slave state, abolitionists, such as the Middlesex County Kansas Committee responded in kind. In 1856, a free-state settler was killed by pro-slavery vigilantes. John Brown at this time armed and trained free-state militias to defend themselves against the vigilantes and free slaves. The decisive battle for Kansas was at Osawataomie, in which Brown stated, "I have only a short time to live – only one death to die, and I will die fighting for this cause. There will be no peace in this land until slavery is done for. I will give them something else to do than to extend slave territory. I will carry this war into Africa" (23). As a result, Kansas became a free state.
It should be noted that the desire for more slave territories also drove the wars against Mexico for Texas (1835-6) and the southwestern states (1846-8).
After Kansas, Brown kept his weapons and network of insurgent abolitionists and spent the next two years preparing for the Harpers Ferry Raid. Harpers Ferry was an armory and military base in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, a slave state. Brown hoped to start an uprising which would incite the local slave population to rebel. The mountainous territory to the north and the nearby borders of Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania would give strategic depth to the insurgents. The wooded moutains would be a base of operations to lauch attacks against surrounding plantations. Brown’s forces took over Harpers Ferry in 1859, but were eventually overcome by the military and local volunteers. The anticipated massive rebellion did not come at that time.
Brown was tried in the Jefferson County Courthouse for treason. The next treason trial in this courthouse would be against striking coal miners in 1922.
Although the U.S. government executed Brown for his acts, the same government invoked his name and cause to promote the Civil War just two years later.
Lessons From Brown
Brown felt that when slaves faced and defeated their masters, they could overcome the moral degradation suffered under bondage. Compare this philosophy with Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln was reelected on a platform to preserve slavery. During the Civil War, his Proclamaion only freed slaves in those counties of states which were still at war with the North. Instead of working with blacks to allow them to free themselves, Lincoln kept them in chains and then paternalistically used their “emancipation” to destabilize his enemies. Lincoln was never committed to the upholding the humanity of Africans in the Americas (Zinn 127-47).
In 1860, the 4 million black slaves made up 13% of the total population (23 million). Compare this statistic to the 12 million undocumented workers in the U.S. in 2011, making up 4% of the total population (312 million) (“American”).
In the 1850s, abolitionists in Massachusetts resisted deportations from their communities and worked in solidarity with people on the front lines of Kansas. The Underground Railroad facilitated the northward migration of oppressed people, even though it was “illegal” under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. Abolitionists advised detainees to invoke what little legal rights they had instead of voluntarily enslaving themselves.
In 2011, human rights advocates in California resist deportations from their communities and work in solidarity with people on the front lines of Arizona. Neoliberal trade policies and U.S. military intervention are pushing oppressed people to migrate northward. Certain laws consider these global workers “deportable” and racist vigilantes label them “illegal.” Nevertheless, people of conscience resist these policies and insist on the dignity and rights of all people. Activists advise detainees to invoke what little legal rights they have instead of signing voluntary deportations and waiving their rights to legal counsel, due process, the right against self-incrimination, etc.
- Cohen, Stan. John Brown: “The Thundering Voice of Jehovah.” Missoula, MA: Pictorial Histories, 1999.
- Rossbach, Jeffrey. Ambivalent Conspirators: John Brown, the Secret Six, and a Theory of Slave Violence.” Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1982.
- Zinn, Howard. La Otra Historia de Los Estados Unidos. Tr., Strubel, Toni. New York: Siete Cuentos Editorial, 2001.