Reading Material: John Brown’s Letters

I have just found the niftiest historical widget. has 202 of John Brown’s letters online and you can filter them by recipient, the place he wrote from, or the date he wrote. The filters aren’t perfect, but they are fascinating, and it’s a neat way to shuffle through Brown’s voluminous correspondance.

These 202 letters were written between 1833 and 1859, with the vast majority of them (56) being written in 1859. This is not particularly surprising given what John Brown was up to that year. Among other things, they have John Brown’s will, written on the 1st of December, the day before he was hanged. Most of his children got only a Bible from him, “as good a copy of the Bible as can be purchased at some bookstore in New York or Boston, at a cost of $5 each in cash. . .” His grandchildren were to receive Bibles worth $3.

The one-sided view we get of Brown’s correspondance is by turns tantalizing and poignant. What are we to make of letters like this:

Charlestown, VA., Nov. 30, 1859.

DR. THOS. H. WEBB, Boston.

MY DEAR SIR, I would most gladly comply with your request most kindly made in your letter of the 26th inst., but it came too late. It is out of my power. Farewell: God bless you!

Your friend, JOHN BROWN.

And then there is this one:


Dec. 1, 1859.


MY DEAR FRIEND, I have only time to say I got your kind letter of the 26th of November this evening. Am very grateful for all the good feelings expressed by yourself and wife. May God abundantly bless and save you all! I am very cheerful, in hopes of entering on a better state of existence in a few hours, through infinite grace in Christ Jesus my Lord. Remember the poor that cry,” and them that are in bonds as bound with them.” Your friend as ever,


Anyhow, it’s worth a little time to click over there and rifle through John Brown’s correspondance and watch him develop, as it were, pointing himself with greater and greater surety toward the tragedy at Harpers Ferry. Interestingly he never expresses anything but peace at the thought of his execution. One might almost think that John Brown wanted to be a martyr to the abolitionist cause.


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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Actually, you’re right. After he was defeated at Harper’s Ferry, Brown knew of only one way that he could serve the cause of slavery and that was by going to the gallows. When he began his long road to Harper’s Ferry, he always felt that his own death was a possibility and he was willing to die if necessary. But Brown had no death wish. Having tried and failed, he faced death with joy that his efforts would not be wasted. He understood very well the implications of his death in official execution by the state of Virginia. This was also why he was initially discomfited by the possibility that he would be lynched immediately after his capture. Had he been lynched by a mob, he would not have had the ability to use his death as a public spectacle.

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