About the Author

Historian Christopher Hamner teaches at George Mason University, serves as Editor-in-Chief of Papers of the War Department, 1784-1800, and is the author of Enduring Battle: American Soldiers in Three Wars, 1776-1945.

John Brown's Raid

Chicago Press and Tribune (1859)


This early editorial comes from a Democratic newspaper in Illinois: home of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, and a state with mixed attitudes towards both the institution of slavery and its future. The urban areas of northern Illinois concentrated more anti-slavery sentiment, while the lower part of the state evinced deeper connections to the slaveholding South, particularly along the border with Kentucky.

The editorial acknowledges that some will discount the raid due to its modest scale, but casts such arguments as an illusion and the raid as “the presage of the future storm, that shall desolate the whole land, if the people give this abolition doctrine their approval.” Abolitionist doctrine, which according to the editors seeks to define the tension between the free and slaveholding sections of the nation as an “irrepressible conflict,” becomes in this view the root cause of Brown’s actions. Brown himself could thus be linked to the Republican politicians William Seward and Salmon Chase for whom, the editorial argues, Brown and his men simply served as the advance column.

We give full particulars to-day of the late extraordinary proceedings at Harper's Ferry, Va. They will attract general attention, and create great sensation in all parts of the Union. It will be seen that more detailed and authentic accounts sustain entirely the view we yesterday took in commenting upon it. It was an abolition plot to free the negroes of Maryland and Virginia at the point of the bayonet. The leader of it was so-called "Ossawatomie Brown," one of the abolitionists who figured with LANE and MONTGOMERY in the murderous forays in Kansas. Men may well be surprised at the reckless boldness and daring of this operation: He must have taken courage from the late elections in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and supposed that he would have not only the moral, but the physical backing of these two great states in stirring up a servile war in the two states of Maryland and Virginia. The "irrepressible conflict" of the free and slave states, which is preached by the Republican leaders as an orthodox doctrine, is well calculated to lead to such results. This affair at Harper's Ferry is but the "cloud in the distance no bigger than a man's hand," but it is the presage of the future storm, that shall desolate the whole land, if the people give this abolition doctrine their approval. It necessarily tends to servile insurrection, civil war and disunion. BROWN and his followers are but the advance column of the partisan disciples of SEWARD and CHASE, who are burning to make a practical application of the "irrepressible conflict doctrine. They stand ready to deluge the land in blood to carry out their fanatical views; and the momentous question is, do the majority of the people of the free states sympathize with them? The danger of having a Republican-abolition President can now be readily appreciated. Such a President, having his sympathies with the insurrectionists, would be slow to move in arresting their outrages. Delay, indecision and coldness would encourage the very parties against whom he should exert promptly the physical and moral power of the government. And the very fact that there was a President with such sympathies would encourage insurrection all through the slave states. It is for the people, North and South, to say if those things shall be.


American Experience: The Time of the Lincolns. "The Cloud in the Distance No Bigger then a Man's Hand—The First Battle of the 'Irrepressible Conflict'." Chicago Press and Tribune, October 20, 1859. Accessed March 2, 2012.