John Brown, Martyr or murderer?

A figure who has polarized political opinion from the Civil War to today

Thomas Hovenden, The Last Moments of John Brown, c. 1884, oil on canvas, 117.2 x 96.8 cm (de Young Museum, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) A Seeing America video. Speakers: Dr. Lauren Palmor, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and Dr. Steven Zucker

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Hovenden, John Brown

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Key points

  • The abolitionist John Brown led a raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry (in what is now West Virginia) in 1859. He intended to redistribute the weapons to slaves and incite a rebellion that would lead to the end of slavery. Within two months of the raid and his arrest, Brown was tried, sentenced, and executed.
  • The violent actions of John Brown to end slavery were controversial at the time. The debate surrounding the morality of the raid polarized American politics. It is believed to have contributed directly to the secession of southern states in 1860-61, but even some abolitionists were concerned by Brown’s violent methods.
  • During the Civil War, John Brown became a hero to Union soldiers and the subject of a popular marching song. By World War I, this had changed, and today his place in history is controversial and complex.
  • Painted 25 years after the raid at Harpers Ferry, Thomas Hovenden’s image is clearly sympathetic with John Brown. He depicts Brown on his way to his execution: his arms are bound, a noose is visible around his neck, and he is heavily guarded by armed men, yet he pauses to tenderly kiss a young child (a story that circulated in the press but was never confirmed). Hovenden also used religious references to elevate John Brown to the status of a martyr, depicting him with a long white beard like Moses and creating a subtle crucifix behind him.

Go deeper

See this work at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Learn more about the relationship between John Brown and Frederick Douglass

See images and other documents depicting the raid on Harpers Ferry

Read an essay on John Brown’s complicated place in American history

Learn more details about Harpers Ferry and its legacy

Read the lyrics and listen to the song “John Brown’s Body”

More to think about

How do you respond to the speakers’ question about whether John Brown should be seen as a martyr or a terrorist? What reasons or historical examples inform your answer?

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.