MHS News

John Brown: Martyr to Freedom or American Terrorist—or Both?

Photomechanical of John Brown

Abolitionist John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry on 17 October 1859 was one of the major events leading up to the Civil War and remains one of the most controversial episodes in American history. To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the raid, the MHS will explore Brown's legacy through an exhibition and series of corresponding programs.

The exhibition John Brown: Martyr to Freedom or American Terrorist—or Both? consists of personal papers, photographs, broadsides, engravings, weapons, and artifacts that illuminate Brown’s life together with evidence of the continuing arguments about the morality and meaning of his actions. Beginning with Richard Henry Dana, Jr.’s remarkable diary account of meeting Brown at his hard scrabble Adirondack farm, long before Brown came to national prominence, the exhibition will document his violent career in “Bleeding Kansas" in the 1850s, and the strong support he received from abolitionists in Massachusetts—five of his chief financial supporters, the “Secret Six,” lived in the Boston area. The exhibition will focus on the events at Harpers Ferry in 1859, Brown’s trial and execution later that year, and the controversy about how to interpret his life and these events that has continued ever since. Visitors can see examples of the weapons Brown stockpiled for the attack and one of the last letters he sent to his family from jail while he awaited execution in Charlestown, (now West) Virginia. For the debate on the interpretation of his life and death that began almost immediately after his execution—including in the rooms of the MHS, where many members had known and/or supported him—the Society will show letters and documents about Brown gathered by MHS members during and after the Civil War. Was Brown a freedom fighter or a terrorist? A brave Christian martyr or a murderous former horse thief? A patriot or a traitor? Come examine the historical evidence and decide for yourself.

The exhibition opens on 12 October with an Open House from 11 AM to 4 PM in conjunction with the Fenway Alliance's Opening Our Doors Festival. The exhibition will be open to the public Monday-Saturday, 1:00-4:00 PM, from 12 October-23 December.

The MHS is also part of a team of organizations presenting John Brown and New England, a series of public programs commemorating the anniversary of the raid at Harpers Ferry. The MHS will contribute two lectures to the series, which is funded in part by Mass Humanities. The first lecture, The Kaleidoscope of History: John Brown after Fifteen Decades, will be presented on 27 October by Bruce Ronda, professor and chair of the Department of English at Colorado State University. On 7 November, David S. Reynolds, distinguished professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, will discuss Warriors for Freedom: John Brown and Henry David Thoreau. For more information on these events, visit the MHS online calendar.

Published: Monday, 28 September, 2009, 4:54 PM