John Brown and North Elba, Part 2

John Brown

We left John Brown set on removing from Ohio to North Elba, New York. There he would teach those black Americans, many former slaves, who took Gerritt Smith’s offer of free land how to farm in the cold, rugged Adirondacks. Thus order would emerge from disorder and Brown would create a community that modeled the America he hoped for, where black and white Americans lived together in harmony and relative equality. Before Brown could do all that, he needed to close out his wool business. Tinkering with prices moved 37,000 pounds of top-grade material, but that still left north of two hundred thousand pounds and tens of thousands of dollars of debt to clear.

Brown decided that the wool manufactures conspired to dominate the market, so he would try shipping his wool to England. He shrugged off news that the English exported wool to the United States, where it sold for less than domestic product despite the tariff. The Englishmen didn’t grade wool like John Brown did. Brown made his plans for export and relocation in the same month, April of 1848. His youngest daughter also caught sick that month and died in his arms. Another daughter reported that Brown “broke down completely and sobbed like a child” when she was buried.

Life had to go on. May found the Browns renting a farm in North Elba until Brown could build his own. Setting things in order consumed June, during the course of which Brown hired black laborers and tried to work out property lines in the unsurveyed mountains. Once, lost travelers happened on his farm. Brown fed them, housed them for the night, and scandalized them by sharing a table with black men and calling them Mister. In July, he left the farm in his daughter’s charge and set off to see to the wool.

Brown arrived in London in August, where he learned he could not sell his wool until September. He tried France and freed himself of only five bales. Brussels, with a side trip to see the Waterloo battlefield, and Hamburg did no better. In desperation, he tried Leeds and got the same result. Finally he sold the lot at a considerable loss. Brown blamed prejudice against Americans in a letter to his business partner, but insisted that he had at least done something to advance American commerce in Europe.

He probably believed that, but the facts do not bear Brown out. A Massachusetts woolens manufacturer offered Brown sixty cents a pound before he exported the wool. The same man bought the same wool back over from England at fifty-two cents a pound, including the costs of shipping and the tariff. The debacle added $40,000 in losses to the more than $50,000 of debt the business already owed. Depressed, facing his second bankruptcy, Brown traveled Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia trying to explain himself and settle up with his suppliers. Many of them opted to sue instead.

Brown turned to dreams of getting rich quickly by establishing a vineyard, but that vision would keep him from North Elba. His mind also turned to the politics of late 1850, which slavery dominated.

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