By Doug Lipman

Story Summary:

Some people live their lives in such a way that the story of their life, after they die, accomplishes what they could not. This little-known story about U.S. abolitionist John Brown shows us his last, most courageous – and most effective – decision.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: The Story You Live_John Browns Fatal Decision

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is John Brown a hero or an outlaw?
  2. Why do you think some white people in the 1800s were able to see that slavery was wrong and others defended it?
  3. Do you think John Brown made the right choice to be a martyr for the abolitionist cause?
  4. What do you know about the abolitionist movement? Were you taught it in school? Why or why not?
  5. Would you like to inspire people now and after your death? In what way would you like to be remembered?

Resources:

  • John Brown, the Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights by David S. Reynolds
  • John Brown 1800-1859: A Biography After Fifty Years (1910) by Oswald Garrison Villard
  • Primary Accounts of John Brown, Abolitionist by John Brown

Themes:

  • European American/Whites
  • Taking a Stand and Peacemaking
  • War

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Doug Lipman. Some people live their lives in such a way that the story of their lives after they die, can go on to do things that they could not.

In the early 1860s, slavery was still legal in the United States and parts of it. And one man named John Brown was so devoted to the ending of slavery that he became known as a wild eyed abolitionist. Brown had been a land surveyor in the southern Appalachian Mountains. And there he discovered what he considered to be natural fortresses. Places that were so well protected that he believed that a hundred armed men could hold off an army.

His plan was to get a hundred men to declare it free territory within a slave state. And then he believes with it when the word spread that there was free territory that close, enslaved people would begin to escape from the plantations and they would go there and that would put the lie to the claim of the plantation owners that the enslaved people were happy just as they were.

To get the arms for the 100 men. He and a small group made a raid on the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

The raid failed. John Brown was arrested. He was sentenced to be hanged.

Now many people know the story up to there, but not so many know that after that there was another plot. Not to get arms, but to free Brown himself. And this plot was done by other abolitionists who had supported Brown.  And the plot depended on John Brown’s wife, Mary Brown. They would bring her down and they would take her to where he was, and she would ask to see her husband one last time. And of course she’d be allowed to. And then when she was face to face with her husband she let him know by certain signs and signals what he must do at the right time to be freed.

One of those abolitionists, Thomas Wentworth Higginson traveled to the Brown family farm in upstate New York, and when he first saw Mary Brown she spoke to him. She did not say how is my husband.

She said, “Do you think any good can still come of this for the suffering slaves?”

Higginson traveled with her back down to Virginia. She asked to see her husband and the two of them waited. After a long time the word came, “Mrs. Brown you are permitted to see your husband, but your husband has refused to see you.”

At that moment Higginson thought something and he, he kept thinking it all his life… that the reason that Brown refused to see his wife was John Brown was afraid. He was afraid that if he saw Mary, he would agree to be freed. But that Brown understood that at this point he was of more value to the slaves as a martyr than he could ever be as a free man. So John Brown was hanged.

Eighteen months later the first troops marched out of Massachusetts on their way to the south to enter the war that would eventually end slavery in the United States. And as those troops marched they had John Brown’s name on their lips and his story in their hearts. They sang,

John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in its grave.
John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in its grave.
John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in its grave, but his truth goes marching on.

Glory, Glory, Glory Hallelujah
Glory, Glory, Glory Hallelujah

His truth goes marching on.

 

The Story You Live (John Brown’s Fatal Decision)