Yes, most American kids know the song, or did, but few know the fuller history.
What most shocked the nation at the time of the 1859 raid John Brown led on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, wasn’t so much that it happened as the fact it happened from the antislavery side of the struggle.
Slavery, after all, is a violence-prone institution. Most of the nation’s military officers, in fact, came from slaveholding states, for good reason.
The admission to Kansas as a state of the union threatened to tip the balance of power in the nation to the slave owners, who already had more congressmen per voter than did those in the free states. The conflict grew fierce in what became Bloody Kansas. This was, let’s not forget, class warfare pitting cheap slave labor against working-class white families. Sound familiar? The entire frontier was at stake.
When a proslavery posse led by the sheriff sacked the free-soil settlement of Lawrence in 1856, the injustice was too much for abolitionist Brown, who parted ways with the majority of the antislavery side, the ones who expected to prevail through peaceful democratic persuasion. In response, he led an attack that killed five slavery supporters.
His opponents throughout the South were startled by violence in response to violence. Makes me wonder about the current gun-control debate in our own time, for one thing. Throughout the nation, this was a wakeup call, one that led to great panic as well.
After the assault at Harpers Ferry failed, Brown was convicted and executed on charges of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia (note the imposition of sovereignty by the state rather than the nation) and for inciting a slave insurrection. Plantation owners had every reason to fear as a racial minority in some districts.
There are those who call Brown our first domestic terrorist, though that conveniently overlooks those who sacked Lawrence. What he did do most effectively was raise the emotions that erupted in secession and civil war.
As we’re seeing, emotions and politics can be a volatile mixture, especially when a nation and its wealth are so divided.