John Brown has Questions

John Brown

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Charles Robinson and others saw to it that John Brown did not finish his fiery speech denouncing the peace that ended the Wakarusa War. From their perspective, everything came to the best end. Only one antislavery man died and a general battle did not ensue. Lawrence had a very stressful time of it, but the town survived and Robinson and James Lane connived to get Governor Shannon to recognize their militia. Brown thought they gave up something material, acknowledging the supremacy of the territorial laws and government. He left town unmoved by assurances that no one had conceded anything material.

While Lane and Robinson negotiated with Shannon and other proslavery leaders, Brown had a talk with James F. Legate. (Legate previously featured here as the man who warned the free state leadership that Samuel Lecompte’s grand jury issued warrants for their arrest.) In 1879, Legate recalled spending that Saturday night with Brown. Legate had experience living in the South and Brown had many questions.

So far as I can tell, John Brown never made it further into the South than Harper’s Ferry and elsewhere in modern West Virginia. He knew about slavery from seeing enslaved people in the North of his youth and speaking to people who had stolen themselves to freedom. It took only that to convince him of slavery’s monstrous wrong, much as records of the same in slave narratives might do for us, but he had this opportunity to learn more and took it. I haven’t been able to find Legate’s own recollection from the Leavenworth Weekly Press online, but Stephen Oates summarizes:

Were they as passive as some people said? Did they have attachments with their masters? Or were they willing to fight for their liberty should the opportunity arise?

Legate did not inform posterity of how he answered, but the questions themselves point to Brown’s long-range thinking. Right now he had the struggle in Kansas, where few slaves lived to fight for their freedom. He also had Missouri right next door, with rather more slaves on hand. Maybe Brown thought he would take a trip over there in the near future. Maybe he still thought of Virginia, as he had for years.

The conversation turned then to an argument about the prayer and Legate must have found Brown as immovable on his theology as on slavery. That led to Brown praying that the Almighty would strengthen his hand against the Missourians, “enemies of God.”

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