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Chapter 4: Perkins and Brown, wool Factors.

John Brown went to Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1846. The following extract from a private letter by an eminent citizen of that place, to whom, when in prison, he wrote for legal assistance, will show the estimation in which he was held by the conservative men with whom he came in contact in his business relations there.

John Brown in Springfield.

Your letter asking for such information as I am able to give you respecting John Brown is received, and in order to enable me to answer it more fully than I could otherwise have done, I have called upon a man who was his bookkeeper when he lived here. This person informs me that he came here from Akron, Ohio, in the spring of 1846, and engaged in the business of wool-dealing. He was afterwards associated in business with a Mr. Perkins, of Ohio. and their firm was Perkins and Brown. They sold large quantities of wool on commission; most of it was for farmers living in Western Pennsylvania. Mr. Brown left here in 1850 or 1851, and removed with his family to North Elba, Essex County, New York. This person says Gerritt Smith gave him a large tract of land there. He says he knows it because he saw the deed. ... Mir. Brown's integrity was never doubted, and he was honorable in all his dealings, but peculiar in many of his notions, and adhering to them with great obstinacy. Mr. Brown was a quiet and peaceable citizen, and a religious man. Rev. Mr. Conklin, who was settled here in the North Congregational Church, and who separated himself in a great measure from other [54] ministers because he thought them culpably indifferent to the sin of slavery, was intimate with Mr. Brown, and they sympathized in their anti-slavery ideas. Mr. Brown used to talk much on the subject, and had the reputation of being quite ulra. His bookkeeper tells me that he and his eldest son used to discuss slavery by the hour in his counting room, and that he used to say that it was right for slaves to kill their masters and escape, and thought slaveholders were guilty of a very great wickedness. He says Brown had lived in Ohio forty years, and had been out there from Connecticut several times on foot; that he was familiar with the region about Harper's Ferry, and knew the wool growers in all that part of the country.

Since Brown went to Kansas he has been in town several times. I have seen him repeatedly. Once he called on me to inquire whether the Emigrant Aid Company would assist him to purchase arms for the protection of himself and his neighbors. I told him he could get no aid from them. I understood he afterwards solicited subscriptions from individuals. I never knew how he succeeded. He was here again last summer, and called on me, and told me what he had been doing in Kansas. His story was such that I told him I did not think he had done wrong. He professed to have acted solely for the protection of himself and his neighbors, and said he went to Missouri to help the slaves escape, merely to frighten the Missourians, and keep them from going to Kansas to disturb the people, and that he was successful in it. I cannot learn that he spoke to any one in this region of his Harper's Ferry enterprise, and do not believe that he did. A lady here asked him if he was not going to lead a quiet life hereafter, and he replied that he should unless he had a call from the Lord.

A local journalist thus writes of John Brown's character in Springfield:

While a resident of this city Brown was respected by all who knew him for his perfect integrity of character. ... He is so constituted that when he gets possessed of an idea he carries it out with unflinching fidelity to all its logical consequences, as they seem to him, hesitating at no absurdity, and deterred by no unpleasant consequences to himself.1 . . Brown was here about a year ago, and spent several days. He talked freely with his friends in respect to his running off slaves from Missouri. He seemed to feel that he had a special mission in respect to slavery, and he justified the running off of slaves, not on the ground of personal vengeance for the bitter wrongs he had received, but as an [55] effective mode of operation against the institution itself. His theory was then, and it was the secret of his Harper's Ferry movement, that his mission was to make the institution insecure, to increase the general feeling of its insecurity at the South, and thus to act upon the fear and prudence of the slaveholders. In all this he was deliberate, calm, and conscientious. Doubtless his personal wrongs had contributed to the establishment of this fixed purpose of his life; but his vengeance was directed not against slaveholders, but against the institution itself. It was a matter of religion with him. He is a Presbyterian in his faith, and feels that it is for this very purpose that God raised him up.2

His failure in wool speculations.

There are conflicting accounts of the reasons that induced John Brown to remove to Springfield. The best authenticated records, thus far produced, go to show that it was the result of that same spirit of resistance to organized wrong that had distinguished itself in his own history and the history of his ancestry. A half-friendly writer says:

John Brown initiated the system of grading wools — a system at this day universally adopted, and with perfect success; but the New England manufacturers combined against him. He had at Springfield, Massachusetts, a large deposit of graded Western wools, and he warred against the combination of New England manufacturers, who, having [56] had the wool buying all their own way, did not fancy that a party should step in between them and the producers to show the latter what was for their interest, and to prevent the practice of imposition upon them. The combination was successful, and Brown, impetuous and indignant, shipped his wools to England, to find out that the price in Massachusetts was better than in Europe.

Another writer says:

In 1848 we find him in a large woollen warehouse in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he was known as a quiet, modest man, of unswerving integrity. Indeed, hundreds of wool-growers in Northern Ohio consigned their stock to him to be sold at discretion. A combination of Eastern manufacturers, who wished to have no such stern and unflinching man between themselves and the wool-growers, formed in league against him, and forced him to send his wool to Europe for a market, which resulted in a second disaster, and Brown was again reduced to poverty.

The amount thus taken to Europe was two hundred thousand pounds, which was sold in London for half its value, and then reshipped to Boston.

John Brown in Europe.

Of John Brown's travels in Europe, the only record in existence, as far as the writer can ascertain, is the following extract from reminiscences of conversations with him (already quoted) by a noted friend of freedom in Massachusetts:

I heard from him an account of his travels in Europe, and his experience as a wool-grower. He had chiefly noticed in Europe the agricultural and military equipment of the several countries he visited. He watched reviews of the French, English, and German armies, and made his own comments on their military systems. He thought a standing army the greatest curse to a country, because it drained off the best of the young men and left farming and the industrial arts to be managed by inferior men. The German armies he thought slow and unwieldy; the German farming was bad husbandry, because there the farmers did not live on their land, but in towns, and so wasted the natural manures which should go back to the soil. England he thought the best cultivated country he had ever seen, but the seats of the English gentry he thought inferior to those of the wealthy among us. He visited several of the famous battle grounds of Napoleon, whose career he had followed with great interest; but he thought him [57] wrong in several points of strategy, particularly in his choice of ground for a strong position; which Captain Brown maintained should be a ravine rather than a hill top. In riding with him in an adjoining county, he pointed out several such ravines, which, he said, could be held by a few men against a large force, adding that he had acted on this principle in Kansas, and never suffered from it. He ascribed his winning the battle of Black Jack to his choice of ground.3 He thought no American could visit Europe without coming home more in love with our own country, for which he had a most ardent affection, while he so cordially hated its greatest curse — Slavery.

He was noted for his skill in testing and recognizing different qualities of wool. Give him two samples of wool, one grown in Ohio and the other in Vermont, and he would distinguish each of them in the dark. I have heard this story told of him while in England, where he went to consult wool-merchants and wool-growers. One evening, in company with several of these persons, each of whom had brought samples of wool in his pocket, Captain Brown was giving his opinion as to the best use to be made of certain varieties of wool, when one of the party, wishing to play a trick on the Yankee farmer, handed him a sample, and asked him what he would do with such wool as that? His eyes and fingers were then so good, that he had only to touch it to know that it had not the minute hooks by which the fibres of wool are attached to each other. “ Gentlemen,” said he, “if you have any machinery that will work up dog's hair, I would advise you to put this into it.” The jocose Briton had sheared a poodle and brought the hair in his pocket, but the laugh went against him; and Captain Brown, in spite of some peculiarities of dress and manner, soon won the respect of all whom he met.

When in England at this time, John Brown divulged his plan of liberation to several prominent anti-slavery men ; but there, as elsewhere, while they felt and professed an unbounded sympathy for the slave, they neither countenanced nor approved of the very earnest scheme of this dreadfully-in-earnest abolitionist. The Peters had but little sympathy with the Richards — the Heralds of Freedom, although an earnest people, looked with suspicion and distrust on the equally earnest Crusaders. Singular that the [58] preachers of the word should only half welcome the actors of it! Both are noble, and needed, and God-commissioned; but the greatest of the Heralds, I think, was not worthy to untie the latchet of John Brown's shoes.

John Brown and Anthony Burns.

In the course of the partnership of Perkins and Brown, a lawsuit arose, which is thus described by a correspondent at Vernon, near Utica:

During the years 1852, 1853, and 1854, Mr. Brown was one of the firm of Perkins & Brown, doing a large wool trade, buying and selling, in Ohio, New York, and Massachusetts. The sale of a large quantity of wool to parties in Troy, N. Y., brought on a lawsuit between Perkins & Brown and those parties. Mr. Brown's counsel resided in Vernon, and he was here many times during those years. He prosecuted that suit with all the vigor and pertinacity which he is said to have since displayed in other matters. He obtained a verdict in his favor, just before the Anthony Burns affair in Boston — I think in 1853. The Trojans appealed from their verdict, and Brown then spent some weeks here in looking over the testimony with his counsel, and preparing an answer.

The morning after the news of the Burns affair reached here, Brown went at his work immediately after breakfast; but in a few minutes started up from his chair, walked rapidly across the room several times, then suddenly turned to his counsel, and said, “I am going to Boston.” “Going to Boston!” said the astonished lawyer. “Why do you want to go to Boston?” Old Brown continued walking vigorously, and replied, “ Anthony Burns must be released, or I will die in the attempt.” The counsel dropped his pen in consternation. Then he began to remonstrate; told him the suit had been in progress a long time, and a verdict just gained. It was appealed from, and that appeal must be answered in so many days, or the whole labor would be lost; and no one was sufficiently familiar with the whole case except himself. I took a long and earnest talk with Old Brown to persuade him to remain. His memory and acuteness in that long and tedious lawsuit — not yet ended, I am told — often astonished his counsel. While here he wore an entire suit of snuff-colored cloth, the coat of a decidedly Quakerish cut in collar and skirt. He wore no beard, and was a clean-shaven, scrupulously neat, well-dressed, quiet old gentleman. He was, however, notably resolute in all that he did.

1 This statement was advanced as a proof that John Brown was a monomaniac! I think it is the bitterest satire on the age that I have ever read — an unconscious and unintentional, but no less resplendent eulogium on the character of my friend.

2 A correspondent who visited Springfield in 1847, and saw John Brown there, thus records an incident illustrative of his great strength of memory:

In the summer of 1847, it happened to me that I spent a Sunday at the American House, in Springfield, Mass. A stranger who had seen my name on the register of the hotel, came to my room and claimed acquaintance with me. He was a plain man, intelligent in his appearance, with something of that independent air which so naturally characterizes Western men, his head beginning to be whitened, (if I remember correctly,) but his upright frame still perfectly firm and sinewy. As I was quite unable to recognize him, he told me he was John Brown, and made me remember, at last, that we were school-fellows more than fifty years before, when I was one of the least of the pupils in the little log-cabin school at Hudson. I cannot recollect distinctly what he told me about his residence, his occupation, or his history; but I remember clearly the impression that he was an earnestly religious man, with somewhat more of the old Puritan sternness than is common in these days, and with some tendency to that eccentricity of opinion and of action which in modern phrase is called “ultraism.” I am not sure that slavery was spoken of between us; but it was evident that his mental and moral idiosyncrasy would place him among men to whom extreme opinions on such a subject are most natural.

3 John Brown had undoubtedly great skill in choosing his ground and in erecting rude fortifications. Many of them still exist in Southern Kansas.

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