Abolitionist John Brown Revisited

LiveAuctionTalk.com:  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

When abolitionist John Brown was young in the 19th century he drove a herd of cattle, by himself, almost 100 miles to market for his father.  On one of his drives he witnessed a young slave boy about his own age in rags being beaten with a shovel by his owner.

The disgrace of hanging does not trouble me in the least. In fact I know that the very errors by which my scheme was marred were decreed before the world was made.
— John Brown

It was a scene Brown never forgot.  It was a scene that stuck in his head like glue to paper.  For Brown there would be no middle ground with slavery. 

As an adult his anti-slavery efforts grew more and more violent.  The zealot ultimately died on a scaffold, hung for his revolt at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

Brown’s plan was to take guns manufactured and stored at the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry and give them to slaves so they could free themselves. 

"You're walking into a perfect steel-trap," Frederick Douglass, fellow abolitionist  warned him, "and you will never get out alive."

Oct, 16, 1859 was Brown’s appointment with history.  He and 21 men, 16 whites and five blacks including his two sons cut telegraph wires, raided the armory and took 60 people from the town hostage. 

Brown was hoping their slaves would join his fight.  They didn’t.

Local farmers and militia ultimately overwhelmed Brown and his men.  Under a white flag Brown’s son was sent out to negotiate.  He was shot and killed.  Brown was also wounded and taken to Charlestown, Virginia (now Charlestown, West Virginia), along with other captives.  

They were tried, sentenced, and executed for their role in the plot.   

“The disgrace of hanging does not trouble me in the least,” he said.  “In fact I know that the very errors by which my scheme was marred were decreed before the world was made.”

Brown was a deeply religious, damaged, and courageous reformer who was convinced he was predestined by God to free the slaves.

He also believed the Golden Rule applied to everyone, not just whites.  Brown’s actions as an abolitionist helped trigger the Civil War sixteen months later. 

Some historians call Brown a martyr and visionary others call him the father of American terrorism. 

“It was his peculiar doctrine that a man has a perfect right to interfere by force with the slaveholder, in order to rescue the slave.  I agree with him,” Henry David Thoreau, author and advocate of civil disobedience said.

Violence against slaveholders seemed like a viable solution for writers like Thoreau, at least on paper.  It was righteous bloodshed.

“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with Blood,” he said.

Jacob Lawrence was a skilled 20th century African-American painter.  He painted the struggles of his people from Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman to John Brown’s resistance.

On Oct. 8, 09, Swann Auction Galleries, featured one of Lawrence’s screenprint portfolios in its African-American Fine Art auction.  “The Legend of John Brown”, 1977; 60 signed and numbered pieces sold as one lot for $84,000.  Each measured 20 inches by 25 7/8 inches. 

Update:   This $84,000 stands as the highest price realized at auction.

Here are values for other African-American works of art sold in the auction.


Augusta Savage; painted plaster; “Gamin,” circa 1929; 9 inches high;  $40,800.

Norman Lewis; oil on canvas; “Sinister Doings By Gaslight,” signed and dated; 1952; 40 inches by 52 inches;  $78,000. 

John Biggers; oil and acrylic on canvas; “Shotguns,” 1987; 42 inches by 49 7/8 inches;  $216,000.

Elizabeth Catlett; red cedar sculpture with painted carved details; “Homage to My Young Black sisters,” incised initials lower right; 1968; 68 inches by 12 inches;  $288,000. 

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her LiveAuctionTalk.com website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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