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This Brown fought against slavery with words

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, May 7, 2012, at 12 a.m.

Ad Astra

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating Kansas history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: To the stars through difficulties.

He was the other Brown in Bleeding Kansas, the one who didn’t approve of the things John Brown did.

Like John Brown, George Washington Brown was an abolitionist, an outspoken voice of the times held prisoner for his beliefs. The similarities end there.

George Washington Brown came to Kansas during the fall of 1854 and would soon become one of the Kansas Territory’s most visible and controversial journalists. He had been a lawyer who came to Kansas with the New England Emigrant Aid Society and settled in Lawrence, where he began operating one of the first free-state newspapers in the territory, The Herald of Freedom.

His paper angered those who wanted Kansas to be pro-slavery.

From 1854 to 1861, Kansas became the keystone state for human rights when abolitionists and slavery proponents wrestled over how Kansas would enter the Union.

It was bloody, messy and turbulent, earning the state the nickname "Bleeding Kansas."

In the thick of it were the Browns, who were not related. Each approached the abolitionist movement in a different way — one with words; the other with swords.

In May 1856, a pro-slavery posse headed by Douglas County Sheriff Samuel L. Jones arrested George Washington Brown and six other businessmen in town, held them prisoner and sacked and burned Lawrence.

Brown was held prisoner for four months by federal troops near Lecompton following an indictment for high treason and later let go when his case was dismissed.

He wrote his friend Eli Thayer telling him of the conditions he was enduring as a prisoner and what happened when the pro-slavery forces raided Lawrence — how nearly a thousand of his law books had been destroyed as well as his printing presses and all the type and fixtures for his news and jobbing office.

“The Demons of the slave power are rampant today, and all because they come in the name of the law, clothed with authority of the federal government,” Brown wrote. “We have been denied bail, and shall be compelled to remain here on the open prairie, under a tent, exposed to an oppressive summer sun, and guarded by United States.”

And then there was John Brown, a fiery and controversial militant. John Brown and several of his followers brutally killed five pro-slavery settlers on May 24, 1856, near Pottawatomie Creek in what is now Miami County. He led free-state forces at the Battle of Black Jack on June 2, and at the Battle of Osawatomie on Aug. 30 that same year. In the fall of 1859, Brown led members of his family and followers from Kansas in an attack on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Va., in an effort to incite a national slave rebellion. His plan failed and he was hanged for his actions.

George Washington Brown urged caution in making John Brown a historic hero in the abolitionist movement.

In “The Truth At Last, Reminiscences of Old John Brown,” George Washington Brown would write in 1880:

“Must this state of things always continue? Shall they who endured all but death … ever faithful to their convictions be pushed permanently aside to make room for those who were really destitute of merit? Shall … the other immortal dead rest in unknown graves while … the brightest page of history emblazon the name of him who retarded our efforts, threw obstacles in the way of our success, discouraged honest endeavor, and who blackened our otherwise bloodless escutcheon with crime and death?”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com

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