For reasons of political expediency, Republicans in the North initially distanced themselves from John Brown and his raid to free people enslaved around Harper’s Ferry.
Many joined the chorus of (often pro-slavery) voices proclaiming Brown insane, no doubt in part to protect their own political party, for as John Brown’s biographer David S. Reynolds put it, “the implication was that Republicans, and by extension many Northerners, were lawbreakers who threatened national peace.”
The truth of course, was that Brown had probably already planned a raid into Virginia to free slaves there before the Republican Party was founded in 1854.
Nonetheless, even Northern Democrats attacked Republicans for the supposed connections with the raiders, and their insane leader. “To be sure he was crazy, and has long been so,” a writer for the New York Journal of Commerce noted, “but he is no more crazy than those by whom he has so long been encouraged in his bloody career.”
On November 18th, 1859 the New York Vigilant Committee met in Manhattan and worked to solidify the link between Republicans and John Brown, even publishing a pamphlet: Rise and Progress of the Bloody Outbreak at Harper’s Ferry.
Southerners took the argument several steps farther arguing that anti-slavery men like Ohio Congressman Joshua Giddings, Henry Ward Beecher (abolitionist Boston preacher and brother of Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe), Wendell Phillips, New York newspaperman Horace Greeley, and then New York Senator (and former New York Governor) William Seward, were traitors and criminals.
Fredrick Douglass was singled out – a bounty of $2,500 was put on his head (and that of Seward’s) by southern slavers. A Richmond newspaper offered $50,000 for “the traitor” Senator Seward. Fellow Senator and later President of the (actually traitorous) Southern Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, called for Seward to be hanged as a traitor. In truth, men like Seward, Douglas, and Abraham Lincoln spoke against John Brown.
Perhaps the single most long-lasting attack on John Brown’s cause was that Brown was crazy – and by extension, so were his followers. The most damaging component of the “madness of John Brown” argument has been the man’s beard.
It wasn’t until the last year of his life that Brown grew his famous beard – he probably stopped shaving in the late fall of 1857. By the spring of the following year, he had a full beard. Contemporary drawings of Brown made when he was arrested at Harper’s Ferry show that his beard had been either been trimmed close or shaved off altogether.
John Brown did not generally wear a beard! Just one photo (of more than a dozen known to exist) taken during his travels in New England in the spring of 1858 shows Brown with a beard. A shaving kit owned by Brown is held by The Ohio Historical Center.
Brown grew his beard to disguise himself during his final preparations for the raid on Virginia (he also used the alias Isaac Smith). He cut off his beard shortly before leaving the Kennedy farm for Harper’s Ferry. John Brown was proud of his campaign to free southern slaves – once the raid was begun he needed neither his alias nor his beard as a disguise.
Yet, images of John Brown continue to focus on his beard, often portrayed as wild and unkempt. And of course the assaults on his mental health continue as well.
“The Last Days of John Brown” is a multi-part series about the life and final days of John Brown and his compatriots, who helped spark the Civil War. You can read the entire series here.
Illustrations, from above; and an engraving from daguerreotype ca 1857 showing his usually shaved appearance.