Recently, a senator claimed he was having his Spartacus moment, indicating that he was going to the mat for some principle, risking being expelled from the Senate because of his unruly behavior. That was hardly the case. It turned out to be quite a joke on this “brave” politician, as the supposed confidential information he said he was revealing at his own risk had already been approved to be released. Hardly Spartacus; more like unintentional, egg-in-your-face comedy.
But there has been a true American Spartacus in our history, even though he himself was not a slave nor a black man. His name was John Brown, an abolitionist but with a puritanical, visceral hatred of that “peculiar institution,” American slavery.
Financed by a cabal called the “Secret Six,” a small group of well-off abolitionists in New England, John Brown went about acquiring 950 pikes and 198 Sharps Rifles for a planned slavery revolt that was meant to be triggered by his attack on the United States Arsenal in Harper’s Ferry — an attack on a federal facility in order to make a statement but also to acquire even more weapons with which to arm slaves that, he believed, would swarm to such a cause based on the notoriety of seizing such a conspicuous target. All of this was pretty much identical to the way slaves all over ancient Italy had swarmed to join Spartacus after his initial successes against Roman legions.
John Brown attempted to start a massive slave revolt with a band of 21 souls in the attack on Harper’s Ferry, which included 5 blacks. The plan was a simple one: to arm the expected throng of rebellious slaves, take refuge in the Blue Ridge Mountains with them, and from there make calculated attacks on slave plantations deep into the South until slavery itself would come crumbling down.
To trigger the tidal wave of rebellious slaves, John Brown sent a party of 6 men — 3 whites and 3 blacks — north of Harper’s Ferry to liberate the slaves in several plantations. One plantation was targeted in particular, that of Colonel Lewis Washington, the great-grandnephew of George Washington, who had in his possession a sword given by Frederick the Great to George Washington to commemorate the American Revolution. John Brown intended to use that sword as the symbol of the planned slave uprising. Lewis Washington, his liberated slaves, and the symbolic sword were all brought back to Harper’s Ferry. John Brown would brandish the sword during the ensuing siege.
John Brown’s plan was a simple one but also an overly ambitious one, for the anticipated massive response by slaves never materialized — neither slaves nor black freedmen flocked to the cause, as John Brown had expected — and John Brown and his would-be emancipators instead found themselves trapped in Harper’s Ferry by a federal force sent to quell this incipient rebellion, a federal force ironically under the command of Robert E. Lee.
John Brown had asked Frederick Douglass to participate in the attack on Harper’s Ferry, and Douglass has declined, thinking that such an attack was suicidal and the height of folly, but of John Brown, Douglass subsequently wrote: “His zeal in the cause of freedom was infinitely superior to mine. Mine was as the taper light, his was as the burning sun. Mine was bounded by time. His stretched away to the silent shores of eternity. I could speak for the slave. John Brown could fight for the slave. I could live for the slave. John Brown could die for the slave.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of John Brown and his impending execution: “That new saint, than whom none purer or more brave was ever led by love of men into conflict and death,–the new saint awaiting his martyrdom, and who, if he shall suffer, will make the gallows glorious like the cross.“
There are many who think the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C. They are mistaken. The very first shots were fired at Harper’s Ferry.
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