On 15 October 1859, “Near Harpers Ferry, Virginia John Brown, as commander in chief, signed this commission for Aaron Dwight Stevens as a captain in the army Brown hoped to raise under a provisional antislavery constitution for the United States. The following night, Brown led his “army”—consisting of twenty-one men—in a forlorn raid on the Federal Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). John H. Kagi, the “secretary of war” who also signed the commission, died in the attack; Brown and Stevens both were wounded and captured; they were tried and executed by the Commonwealth of Virginia–Brown on 2 December and Stevens three months later on 16 March 1860.
A Provisional Constitution to End Slavery in the United States In May 1858, John Brown recruited forty-eight African American and white abolitionists to meet in a secret antislavery convention in Chatham, Canada West [Ontario, Canada] to draw up a Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the “proscribed and oppressed people” of the United States. The preamble of the Provisional Constitution made its purpose clear: “Whereas slavery throughout its entire existence in the United States is none other than a most barbarous unprovoked and unjustifiable War of one portion of its citizens upon another portion, the only conditions of which are perpetual imprisonment and hopeless servitude or absolute extermination in utter disregard and violation of those eternal and self-evident truths set forth in our Declaration of Independence.” The convention was unable to persuade any member present to accept the post of president under the Provisional Constitution, but appointed John Brown the commander in chief of its armed forces and John H. Kagi, another veteran of the border war in Kansas, as the secretary of war. Seventeen months later, Brown led a small force of white and black followers including John Kagi and Aaron Stevens, and several other men who had fought with him in Kansas and participated in the Chatham convention, in a hopeless attempt to instigate a slave rebellion in Virginia.
Who Was Aaron Dwight Stevens?
Aaron Dwight Stevens was born in Lisbon, Connecticut, in 1831. As a teenager he enlisted in the regiment of Massachusetts volunteers raised by Caleb Cushing during the Mexican War. Later he reenlisted in the United States Army, serving in the First Regiment of Dragoons in New Mexico, but after a drunken brawl in 1855, he was tried for mutiny and assaulting an officer. His death sentence was commuted to a term at hard labor, but he escaped from prison and joined the antislavery forces in “Bleeding Kansas,” where he led a Free Soil militia unit under the pseudonym of “Colonel Charles Whipple.” In Kansas, Stevens met and joined forces with John Brown, and followed him first to Canada and then to Virginia. A figure of considerable personal magnetism and a determined foe of slavery, Stevens was one of only a few of Brown’s followers with any prior military experience. Unlike Brown, Stevens was not motivated by religious zeal, but was an agnostic and freethinker. Severely wounded at Harpers Ferry while trying to negotiate under a flag of truce, Stevens survived his wounds, but was tried by Virginia for attempting to aid slaves to escape to freedom and sentenced to death. Although Thomas Wentworth Higginson and other supporters of John Brown plotted to rescue Stevens and the other surviving prisoner from the Harpers Ferry raid, Albert Hazlett, the captives thought that any attempt would be futile, and they were executed together on 16 March 1860.
Sources for Further Reading:
The Massachusetts Historical Society holds a small John Brown collection relating to his role in Kansas in 1856, and at Harpers Ferry in 1859, collected by various people between 1861 and 1918. View the bibliographic record for the John Brown collection in ABIGAIL.
The Society also holds a small collection of Stevens family papers, 1770-1911, which include material related to Aaron Stevens, the Harpers Ferry raid, and Stevens’ trial and execution. View the bibliographic record for the Stevens family papers in ABIGAIL.
The Provisional Constitution and other papers captured at Harpers Ferry were published by the Commonwealth of Virginia as “The Brown Papers” in: Calendar of Virginia State Papers and Other Manuscripts from January 1, 1836, to April 15, 1869; Preserved in the Capitol at Richmond. H. F. Fournoy, ed. Vol. 11. Richmond: R. F. Walker, 1893, 269-349.
Oates, Stephen. To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.
Reynolds, David S. John Brown, Abolitionist. New York: Knopf, 2005.
Ronda, Bruce A. Reading the Old Man: John Brown in American Culture. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2008.