Sunday, March 21, 2010

Lincoln and Davis On John Brown's Raid

In my search for Kentuckians' thoughts on John Brown's raid, I somehow almost overlooked two of the state's most important native personalities of the era; Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. I suppose that my oversight was largely due to the little time that either man actually lived in Kentucky. Lincoln's family moved Indiana when he was seven years old and the Davis family left for Louisiana (and then Mississippi) when Jefferson was only two or three years old.

Both men would eventually return to the Bluegrass State during their lives for brief times. Lincoln would come back in 1841 to visit his Illinois friend Joshua Speed at his Farmington Plantation outside of Louisville. Davis would return for his education. He first studied at St. Thomas, a Catholic school in Washington County, Kentucky, and then returned again for college at Transylvania University in Lexington before going on to West Point.

Since Lincoln and Davis were in opposing parties at the time of John Brown's raid, it is not surprising that their opinions differ somewhat; although only slightly. Lincoln, the Republican, had proclaimed that he was not against slavery where it already existed, but he was against the extension of slavery into the western territories. Davis, the Democrat, slaveholder, and ideal Southerner believed that the territories were open to settlement and that settlers had the right to bring their slave property with them.

Lincoln commented on Brown several times in the fall and winter of 1859-60. In one speech in Kansas, Lincoln stated that Brown has been wrong in his actions for two reasons. One reason was that Brown's method was against the law. The second reason was that the raid was useless as an attempt to get rid of a "great evil." He called Brown a man of "great courage," and "rare unselfishness," but ultimately concluded that Brown was "insane." Later on during the same Kansas trip, Lincoln said that Brown had been "executed for a crime against a state." He continued that if Kansas chose to go with those that would seek to destroy the Union, then "it would be our [I suppose he means federal government's] duty to deal with Kansas as old John Brown has been dealt with." In his famous address at Cooper Union in New York City on February 27, 1860, Lincoln reiterated the thoughts he has shared in Kansas, but went on the offensive. He claimed that there was not any connection between Brown and the Republican party. Lincoln said that Harpers Ferry was not a slave insurrection, but rather "an attempt by white men to get up a revolt among slaves, in which the slaves refused to participate." He explained that Southerners had attempted time and time again since the event to make political capital out of it. Lincoln claimed it was the perfect example of the South's attempt to "rule or ruin."

At the time of Harpers Ferry, Davis was a Mississippi senator in Washington DC. In speeches Davis called Harpers Ferry "a murderous raid," and "a conspiracy against a portion of the United States, a rebellion against the constitutional government of a State." He called for investigations into the affair and was a committee member who took an active role. In a senate speech on December 6, only four days after Brown was hanged, Davis explained the major reason an investigation was necessary. "The great consideration is the invasion of a State to disturb its domestic peace, the preservation of which is a purpose which stands prominent among the great objects for which our Union was formed."

Lincoln and Davis seem to differ little in opinion on Harpers Ferry, but while Lincoln could consider that Brown had courage and was unselfish, Davis would not have consented to such an idea. Both thought Brown wrong in that he violated the constitutional laws of a State. But, Lincoln saw Harpers Ferry as an isolated event. He thought slave insurrections were no more common after the formation of the Republican party than before. Davis, on the other hand, saw Harpers Ferry as what Southerners could expect from an unsympathetic North.


  1. what was his connection with john brown?

  2. While Lincoln may have thought John Brown insane, du Bois' biography shows him to be a man of strong religious convictions. Historians consider that Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry was one of the causal factors of the Civil War, which was actually all about slavery, that Brown was attempting to eliminate and to bring about justice in the land.