Transforming the “Madman into a Saint”: The Cultural Memory Site of John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry in Antislavery Literature and History

  • Kristen Proehl


In the summer of 1859, John Brown rented a farm across the Potomac River from the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. Disheartened by the slow progress of the antislavery reform movement, Brown concluded that all “moral and political actions against slavery had failed,” and insisted that only violent measures could effectively crush the institution of slavery (McPherson 1982, 114). One evening, he invited black leader and fugitive slave Frederick Douglass into his home and disclosed his scheme for a massive slave insurrection.1 He planned to seize the federal arsenal, arm thousands of slaves, and demand immediate emancipation. Recognizing that he would need assistance to organize this army of slaves, Brown identified Douglass as a special asset: “I want you for a special purpose,” he explained, “When I strike, the bees will begin to swarm, and I shall want you to help hive them” (115). Brown believed that the slaves in surrounding areas would abandon their plantations and fight for their own liberation—a factor that proved to be critical to the success of his plan. After listening to Brown’s ambitious plot, Douglass predicted that the raid would be a personal and political failure (Reneham 1995, 190). He even explicitly warned Brown that his plan was a “perfect steel trap” and that he would never get out alive (190).


Slave System Cultural Memory Violent Measure Moral Suasion African American Historian 
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© Andrew Taylor and Eldrid Herrington 2005

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  • Kristen Proehl

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