Late in 1859, news of John Brown’s failed raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry alarmed Abraham Lincoln, and his dismay worsened when prominent Northerners celebrated Brown as a saint. For five years, Lincoln had been working to build an antislavery political coalition across the North that would finally break the Southern slaveholders’ domination of the government. Fending off absolutists who proclaimed a moral law higher than the Constitution, battling Northern racists who hurled slurs unprintable today, Lincoln and the fledgling Republican Party would put slavery on what Lincoln called “the course of ultimate extinction.” After decades in the political wilderness, slavery’s opponents were at last seriously contending for national power.
Suddenly, on the eve of a crucial presidential election year, Brown’s attempted insurrection, doomed from the start (as Frederick Douglass told Brown when he refused to join it), endangered everything. Instantly, a national chorus from Stephen A. Douglas to Jefferson Davis blamed the incident on the party they vilified as the “Black Republicans,” now disgraced as lawless traitors. Worse for Republicans, some prominent high-minded Northerners exalted Brown’s crime as a sublime act by a Christlike hero who transcended petty party politics. Ralph Waldo Emerson declared that Brown’s blood sacrifice would “make the gallows as glorious as the cross.” In some New England towns, church bells pealed at the hour of Brown’s execution.
The next day, Lincoln, on the verge of commencing to run for president, drew a distinction that was escaping some of his panicky fellow Republicans. “Old John Brown has just been executed for treason,” Lincoln wrote, and though he granted that Brown was perfectly right about slavery, he repudiated Brown’s undertaking. Brown’s antislavery convictions hardly made him a Republican; neither could they justify a desperate, even suicidal effort to instigate a violent rebellion. Nor could Brown’s strange mystique hide the damage his exploits had done to the growing antislavery cause. “It could avail him nothing that he might think himself right,” Lincoln concluded. At a time of inexorable polarization, Lincoln permitted neither racist smears nor radical pieties to deflect his own antislavery purpose.