On October 16, 1859, John Brown led a small group of his soldiers in a raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). Information about the raid is accessible from two major sites on the Web. The University of Virginia provides a John Brown site with a good deal of content and some original historical records, including newspaper images from Virginia and Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where Brown stored his weapons and met with Frederick Douglass shortly before the raid. The Harper's Ferry National Historical Park provides additional information about the raid, and about the history of the area.
Gerrit Smith enters the story of Harper's Ferry more than a decade before the raid, when he first made the acquaintance of John Brown. Their meeting led to a collaboration that included Smith's financial support for Brown's move to North Elba, NY, where he and his family established a farm with the intent of aiding black settlers who had moved to the Adirondack North Country after receiving grants of land from Smith. More than three thousand such gifts of land, averaging 40 acres apiece, had been made to poor black men. Smith sold Brown 244 acres of land ( for $1 per acre) on which he settled his family, the deed for which was transferred in November 1849.
When John Brown went to Kansas to fight (literally) against slavery interests, Smith raised money to support his military operations. When Brown proposed the creation of a permanent refuge in the mountains of Virginia, from which armed groups would help to run off slaves, gradually building an army of insurrectionists, Smith again supported him. When Brown raided the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, he had a check for $100 in his pocket sent to him by Gerrit Smith.
The Harper's Ferry raid has been described as the act that lit the fuse on the start of the American Civil War. For Smith, it represents the ultimate conclusion of twenty five years of organized effort to bring about an end to slavery.
At the beginning of this period, in 1835, Smith had advocated against violence as a method, though on the day the NY Anti-Slavery Society held its first meeting in Peterboro, he had armed himself against the possibility of a pursuing mob. In 1851, he helped to bring about the forcible removal of a fugitive slave from federal custody, and for seven years after publicly celebrated the anniversary of that event. During this interval he financed a minor civil war in Kansas, and began conspiring with Brown and others to bring the war to Virginia. Finally, in 1859, he declined his traditional role as principal speaker at the Jerry Rescue Anniversary, believing the event had become an empty ceremony. In his printed letter to the Chairman of the Jerry Rescue Committee, he spoke of the certain coming of rebellion.
Shortly after the arrest of John Brown and his companions, evidence of the role of his Northern supporters began to surface. Much blame was laid at the feet of Republicans like William Seward, whose Irrepressible Conflict speech was linked to the more direct support of Smith and the others. There was fear of indictments, as well as of assassination attempts, as events unfolded. The men of the Smith household were armed at all times, and local militia reportedly provided protection for the Smith estate. Frederick Douglass as well as most of the other Northern conspirators left the country. Smith, fearful of an effort at extradition, and the prospects of being tried in Virginia, apparently became psychotic.
The story of Smith's breakdown was national news in the midst of John Brown's trial. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper ran a front page story on November 26, with an illustration of Smith, and a report of his admission to the Utica Asylum for the Insane. Though some have speculated that Smith's admission was a deception to help him avoid prosecution, there is substantial evidence that his illness was genuine, and treatment necessary. He was released after seven weeks at Utica, having been treated with morphine and cannabis. A thorough treatment of this subject is provided in the article on this site by McKivigan and Leveille.
Despite the suggestive language of his Jerry Rescue letter, Smith denied he knew that Brown planned a general insurrection, holding that he was aware only of the plan to shelter and arm fugitives in the mountains of Virginia. After his psychotic episode, Smith attempted to avoid any discussion of Harper's Ferry, saying he feared a recurrence of his illness. He nonetheless initiated two related lawsuits, one against a group of New Yorkers who accused him of complicity, and the other against a Chicago newspaper. Even after his death, Smith's family denied his prior knowledge of Brown's plans.
There is no doubt that Smith took pains to avoid having anyone know precisely what he did know about Brown's plans. When others met with Brown at Smith's home, Smith himself was absent from the room. After the Harper's Ferry raid, Smith's son-in-law, Charles Dudley Miller, reportedly help to destroy all correspondence held by Smith or Brown related to their relationship.
Several factors of interest reflect on Smith's reaction to Harper's Ferry. First, the August 1859 letter speaks directly to the fear that Southern white men would have for the protection of women in case of insurrection. Smith was immediately criticized when this letter was published for advocating rape and murder, a criticism that would have been as painful to him as it was valid. For a man who had always held himself out as driven by Christian values, the conflict around this point appears to have been great. In his biography of Smith, Hammond refers to Smith's apparent guilt over this:
He afterward told me of the hallucinations that possessed him. he thought himself the wickedest man in the world. he thought he had indeed been guilty of seeking to incite the slaves to servile insurrection, to murder their masters and outrage southern women, as the aristocratic Fifth avenue committee had charged. (p.73)
Apart from the moral problem presented by Smith's complicity in an attempt at insurrection, there was a significant legal issue. In none of his previous activities could Smith have been said complicit in any crime for which he, himself, faced serious risk. Assisting fugitives from slavery, even after the 1951 law, threatened at worst a fine and imprisonment. Conspiring in a servile insurrection was a different matter. John Brown was convicted of Murder, Treason against the State of Virginia, and Conspiring to promote Servile Insurrection. For the two former offenses he was sentenced to life imprisonment. For the latter, he was hanged.
That Gerrit Smith might reasonably have feared extradition to Virginia is reflected in the fact that federal marshals did go to the home of Frederick Douglass, apparently seeking his arrest. Douglass later published evidence that Governor Wise of Virginia had written to President Buchanan to request federal assistance in capturing Douglass. The same Governor Wise had been quoted as saying he hoped that Gerrit Smith would be taken by a mob and brought to Virginia.