John Brown’s People: John Brown and the League of Gileadites, Part 2

John Brown

On January 15, 1851, John Brown explained his plan for the League of Gileadites to members of Springfield’s black community. They would band together to fight any slave catchers who came for one of their own. They should prepare and arm themselves and stand ready for swift action. He also offered helpful advice about blowing up proslavery men in court to cause a distraction.

The League of Gileadites affair counted as a public meeting, so Brown had the customary set of resolutions prepared. In this case they read like organization bylaws as much as sense of the group declarations. The first names the group. The second declared

All business of this Branch be conducted with the utmost quiet and good order; that we individually provide ourselves with suitable implements without delay; and that we will sufficiently aid those who do not possess the means, if any such are disposed to join us.

In other words, members needed to arm themselves. If anyone wanted to join and couldn’t afford a gun, they should take up a collection. All enrolled would report themselves to a committee “of one or more discreet, influential men”. The resolutions specifically admitted people “whether male or female, whether old or young.”

That posed obvious an obvious problem: What would the Gileadites do with non-combatants who signed up? Nineteenth century more shrank from the idea of women involving themselves in violent matters. Children and the aged could not defend themselves. On the other hand, people of every age and sex faced the horrors of slavery. Brown thought they could serve a vital role in the organization:

to give instant notice to all other members of any attack upon the rights of our people, first informing all able-bodied men of this League or Branch, and next, all well known friends of the colored people; and that this information be confined to such alone, that there may be as little excitement as possible and no noise in the doing.

John Brown’s biographers do not generally praise him as a prose stylist, but he wrote something unusual here and appears to have meant it: our people. Obviously, Brown sees himself as a Gileadite at least ex officio. He probably wrote the resolutions with himself in mind as the chief officer of the group so a form of inclusion makes sense, but few Northern whites would describe black Americans as substantially their own people. Southerners did so to signify both legal ownership and pretend to a familial connection. Brown opposed the former to the utmost. To do that and then declare blacks a part of his extended family deserves recognition as a remarkable statement of solidarity.


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