During the years between 1859 and1863 the North and South, or the United States as a nation, witnessed a significant transition from the ephemeral ability to compromise on topics such as slavery to the inability to reconcile anymore due to a rapid growth of sectionalism that had greatly exhausted the principle of compromise to its end. The reason for such significant change in North-South relations is evident through the actions, views, and words of John Brown. A precursor to the North-South struggle began at Pottawatomie, Kansas during the time period known as “Bleeding Kansas.” The violence that had occurred at Pottawatomie indeed was a sign of further violence to come between the North and South. Following these acts of violence was an attack on the Harpers Ferry Armory, which was led and constructed by John Brown himself (A People and A Nation p. 375,380). Although a small and unsuccessful raid these acts of violence came to greatly impact and influence North-South relations. Thus, the attack on Harpers Ferry and the execution of John Brown sparked the inevitable fire between the North and South, which grew every year until it was finally a blazing conflagration. Evidence of this growing tension between the North and South can be seen through the Crittenden compromise, the transcendentalists and abolitionists, Democratic-Republican politics, and finally the Emancipation Proclamation issued by Abraham Lincoln.
Furthermore, following the raid on Harpers Ferry there was much uncertainty on the North’s part of whether or not to praise Brown as a hero or apologize for him as a criminal. This uncertainty is expressed in the Topeka Tribune where the North is classified into two groups: Some who honor Brown as a hero or “a Washington and a Bolivar” and then some who apologize for Brown’s action but at the same time express that he had the right “intentions” (Doc. C). Such hesitation and uncertainty on the North’s part was greatly expurgated by the execution of Brown along with the influence of the Northern intellectuals, namely the Transcendentalists. Men such as Emerson and Thoreau greatly endorsed and supported the ideals and actions of John Brown. Thoreau states that after the execution of Brown the Northerners could finally look past human law and see the true “eternal justice and glory” that Brown was attempting to achieve (Doc. B). Further, the Northern abolitionists, notably Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, also had a strong impact on the changing North-South relations. As Douglass states that it was a great honor and privilege for him to know and learn from John Brown (Doc. F). The mindset of the North can further be summarized by this statement by Douglass, “John Brown began the war that ended American slavery and made this a free Republic” (PBS). Another abolitionist who strongly influenced the North on the basis of John Brown was William Lloyd Garrison and his paper the Liberator. In the Liberator, Garrison connected the actions of John Brown to the American Revolution and that in both cases the same principles were being fought for: the abolishment of injustice and tyranny (Garrison on the Death of John Brown). Therefore, it is clear by this time that the Northern and Southern views on John Brown were beginning to develop into two extremes. The South with strong detest and the North was with overwhelming praise. What resulted next was the affect John Brown had on Democratic-Republican politics during 1860 to further add to the inevitable conflagration between the North and South.
Moreover, with the introduction of John Brown into politics and the clear weakening of North-South relations becoming even more apparent, the Democratic and Republican parties equally became less cooperative with each other and were soon unable to compromise anymore. As Abraham Lincoln expresses the frustration of the Republican party, “The Democrats seized upon the Harpers Ferry affair to influence other elections then pending.” It can henceforth be implied that the Democrats were portraying the Republicans as scapegoats of the Harpers Ferry incident and using this incident to incite anger of fellow Americans to their advantage (Doc. E). Such blame placed on the Republicans further illustrates the changing North-South relations. Just as sectionalism had engulfed the nation geographically, now sectionalism had infiltrated politics. The polarity in politics finally reached its breaking point when Abraham Lincoln was elected President and as a result the southern states succeeded from the Union. At a final attempt at compromise, Senator John Crittenden from Kentucky attempted to reconcile North-South relations (Crittenden Compromise). Lincoln rejected the Crittenden compromise; thus signaling the end of all possible compromise and reconciliation with North and South. Therefore, from this point forward the Union did not enter a war against the South, but a moral war against slavery and injustice. The words “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave; but his soul is marching on” were sung throughout the Union ranks as John Brown became the symbol and martyr for what the Union was fighting for. (Doc. G)
In addition, the extent to which John Brown affected North-South relations culminated in Abraham Lincoln’s issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862 and Jan. 1st, 1863 (A People and A Nation p. 404). In a general summation, this Proclamation was a commitment to the abolishment of slavery. Although, the Proclamation only freed slaves where the Union had no authority, it signaled the end of the institution of slavery once the South had been defeated. Although John Brown had been dead for four years by 1863, his spirit, motives, and strong willingness to abolish what he knew was wrong lived on with the Union soldiers and came alive in the Emancipation Proclamation with the commitment to abolish slavery. Truly the United States had witnessed a significant increase in North-South tension based on the controversial actions of one man: John Brown.
In all, Victor Hugo, a famous French poet, predicts the “fissure” between the North and the South with the execution of John Brown, as he states, “Politically speaking, the murder of John Brown would be an uncorrectable sin. It would create in the Union a latent fissure that would in the long run dislocate it… Let America know and ponder on this: there is something more frightening than Cain killing Abel, and that is Washington killing Spartacus.” (VH letter to London News) John Brown, a man who struggled for the proliferation of democracy, equality, and justice, of which the United States was founded on, was in essence executed by those same principles. Clearly, a man struggling for such ideals, which can be connected to the American Revolution, would become the ignition for controversy between a nation divided, which had kept its difference inside for too long. In the words of Frederick Douglass, “[John Brown’s] zeal in the cause of freedom was infinitely superior to mine. Mine was as the taper light; his was as the burning sun. I could live for the slave; John Brown could die for him.” What resulted was a swift change in North-South relations which inevitably led to the only alternative left: a civil war.
Hugo, Victor. “Victor Hugo’s letter to the London News regarding John Brown.” Victor Hugo Central. 16 Dec 2007
Norton, Mary, and David Katzman. A People and a Nation. 6th ed. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Hotchkiss, Jed. “John Brown’s Raid.” John Brown. 17 Dec 2007
“The Emancipation Proclamation.” Antietem National Battlefield. 17 Dec 2007
“The Crittenden Compromise.” The American Civil War. The University of Tennessee. 18 Dec 2007
“John Brown’s Holy War.” The American Experience. PBS. 17 Dec 2007
Garrison, William Lloyd. “William Lloyd Garrison on the Death of John Brown.” The History Place. 18 Dec 2007