“Give one or more of your enemies a hoist” John Brown and the League of Gileadites, Part 1

John Brown

As John Brown brooded over the collapse of his wool business and the staggering debts he faced, the national politics concerned slavery more than usual. The end of 1850 brought the great compromise of that year and with it the Fugitive Slave Act. Emboldened slave catchers forged northwards and white northerners who had little previous cause to see themselves as connected to slavery now found themselves obligated to give them aid. He imagined the running dogs of the Slave Power coming into his home at Springfield, Ohio, or North Elba for that matter, to collect his black friends back to bondage.

Taking inspiration from the Book of Judges, and aware of his sleepless neighbors, Brown decided to do something. On January 15, 1851, he convened a meeting and presented his plan for the League of Gileadites. If the slave catchers came, they would fight back together. He reminded his black audience of the example of the Amistad case to argue that they had more white allies than they knew:

Colored people have ten times the number of fast friends among the whites than they suppose, and would have ten times the number they now have were they but half as much in earnest to secure their dearest rights as they are to ape the follies and extravagances of their white neighbors, and to indulge in idle show, in ease, and in luxury.

Like many who fought for racial justice, Brown found it in him to blame the victims. Black leaders could do it just as well, often arguing on the same grounds as Brown did. If black Americans just worked twice as hard and became suitably respectable, prejudice would wane. Some radicals among them also preached revolt against white enslavers.

Brown joined them in the argument, advising that a vigilant group of able-bodied and always armed men should stand ready for the slave catchers. They must keep their plans and organization secret “with the understanding that all traitors must die” and act at once when called upon. No half measures, no delay save to secure a comfortable majority against the enemy, just an armed rescue and come what may.

He did advise secret rescues when possible, to have the advantage of surprise, but ultimately Brown expected that the slave catchers might fight back. On that occasion, they could expect division among white opinion and much local sympathy for their cause. In the case of retaliation, rescuers should take shelter with their families in the homes of prominent white friends. Brown did not advise asking first, but rather that his Gileadites force the choice upon them and hope their consciences or their shame would do the work.

If things came to a trial, then Gileadites should have means to disrupt it:

You may make a tumult int he court-room where a trial is going on, by burning gunpowder freely in paper packages, if you cannot think of any better way to create a momentary alarm, and might possibly give one or more of your enemies a hoist.

In other words, one could disrupt a fugitive rendition by blowing up a slave catcher. From that point, he moved on to suggest lassoing the same men as a good idea. Above all, the Gileadites must stand together “while a drop of blood remains” and face execution without betraying any secrets.

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