John Brown, Leader of the Harper's Ferry Insurrection.

John Brown, Leader of the Harper's Ferry Insurrection.

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In 1859, John Brown launched his infamous raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, which he hoped would trigger a widespread slave revolt. His attempts at seizing the arsenal were quickly thwarted by U.S. Marines led by the future Confederate general, Robert E. Lee. After his capture, Brown was tried and executed by hanging on December 2, 1859.
This print from around the time of Brown’s execution presents the imposing figure of the abolitionist, seated cross-legged in a chair, gazing out of the image towards the viewer. In his right hand, the he clutches a copy of the New York Tribune, the newspaper that had provided constant coverage of Brown’s exploits, trial, and death. Hanging above his right shoulder is a map of Kansas, signifying Brown’s connection to the Bleeding Kansas crisis, which erupted after the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.
Designed to open the western territories to settlement, the Kansas-Nebraska Act employed the doctrine of popular sovereignty to allow the people living in Kansas and Nebraska to vote these states into the Union as either slave or free. This resulted in the outbreak of violence between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions in the Kansas Territory, earning it the nickname “Bleeding Kansas.” This print depicts scenes of violence by pro-slavery “border ruffians” from Missouri who have crossed into Kansas against the free-soil settlers living there. John Brown himself traveled to Kansas to protect anti-slavery settlers there. After pro-slavery militants ransacked the town of Lawrence, Kansas, followers of Brown murdered five supporters of slavery in the Pottawattamie Massacre.
A polarizing figure, the American public saw him as either a patriot or a terrorist. As the nation neared closer to war, however. Many in the North fashioned Brown into a hero and martyr, celebrating his anti-slavery convictions in prints, poems, and songs. One popular tune, “John Brown’s Body,” was later adapted by Julia Ward Howe into the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Although a nearly-identical version of this print was produced by the Kellogg brothers of Hartford, Connecticut, the print in the National Museum of American History’s collection was created by Currier & Ives. Nathaniel Currier (1813-1888) was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, and after serving an apprenticeship in Boston, he moved to New York City in 1834. In New York, he briefly partnered with Adam Stodart, but their firm dissolved within a year, and Currier went into business on his own until 1857. James M. Ives (1824-1895) was a native New York lithographer who was hired as a bookkeeper by Currier in 1852. In 1857, the two men partnered, forming the famous lithography firm of Currier and Ives, which continued under their sons until 1907.
Currently not on view
Object Name
Object Type
Date made
Brown, John
Currier & Ives
place made
Physical Description
paper (overall material)
ink (overall material)
image: 12 in x 8 1/2 in; 30.48 cm x 21.59 cm
ID Number
catalog number
Credit Line
Harry T. Peters "America on Stone" Lithography Collection
Communication, newspapers
Reform Movements
Civil War
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Cultural and Community Life: Domestic Life
Clothing & Accessories
Domestic Furnishings
American Civil War Prints
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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