“A Southern Planter Arming His Slaves to Resist Invasion"

November 19, 1859

Porte Crayon

“A Southern Planter Arming His Slaves to Resist Invasion"

Antebellum Slavery; Black Americans; Civil War, Prelude; John Brown’s Raid at Harper’s Ferry; Wars, American Civil War;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

American South; Virginia;

No caption.

John Brown was a radical (white) abolitionist who encouraged violent slave revolts and was a veteran of Bleeding Kansas, the deadly fight to determine whether slavery should be legalized in Kansas.  On October 16, 1859, Brown and a group of followers attacked and captured the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (today, West Virginia), from which they planned to supply slaves with arms for an insurrection.  Brown and his cohorts were captured on October 18, tried for murder and treason on October 27-30, and executed on December 2, 1859.  John Brown’s raid was a polarizing event in a nation already suffering from increasing sectional tensions centering on the issue of slavery.  This cartoon of a slaveowner arming his slaves to fight against Brown reflects the artist’s view that outside attacks on the South united whites and blacks in defense of the region.

Although Harper’s Weekly later articulated strong support for black civil rights during the editorship of George William Curtis (1863-1892), the journal avoided coverage of the divisive slavery issue in its earlier years.  That stance arose from the Harper brothers’ financial interest in maintaining their national subscription base by not offending Northerners or Southerners, and their political judgment that radical agitators on both sides had needlessly created sectional animosity.  John Brown’s raid, however, was a major story in newspapers across the country and too important for Harper’s Weekly to ignore.  In addition, the newspaper gained an edge when Harper’s leading illustrator-writer, David Hunter Strother (“Porte Crayon”), was in nearby Charles Town when the raid at Harper’s Ferry occurred, allowing him to contribute an eyewitness series of illustrated articles and cartoons.

Strother was a native Virginian known for his colorful tales and sketches of rural life in the South and West, published primarily in Harper’s Monthly.  Although a firm opponent of secession (and a Unionist during the Civil War), his family included many slaveowners and he adamantly opposed abolitionism.  Strother was also related to the special prosecutor at John Brown’s trial, Andrew Hunter, and was therefore allowed to accompany Hunter and Governor Henry Wise as they interviewed Brown.  Aware of the importance of language in influencing readers’ impressions, Strother labeled Brown and his men “outlaws” and the incident an “invasion,” rather than “insurgents” and “insurrection” as many reporters had done.  He understood that the term “insurrection” still resonated with the legitimacy of the American Revolution and implied a local (slave) rebellion against unjust rule.

The fear of many white Southerners that a violent slave uprising might one day erupt was registered in Strother’s dual portrayal of John Brown’s raid as both an evil event and one that was “folly” and “ludicrous.”  He attempted to calm the anxiety of white Southerners by presenting the slaves as child-like, cowardly when left to their own devices, yet fiercely loyal to their masters.  Strother reassured his white audience that the blacks at Harper’s Ferry had neither the foreknowledge of the raid nor the inclination to align themselves with Brown and his followers.  The black railroad porter who was murdered by Brown’s raiders was portrayed as a “heroic” and “faithful” defender of the South. 

Strother’s racism is apparent in the description of slaves and free blacks in his articles, some of the most blatantly racist language to appear in Harper’s Weekly.  He claimed to have interviewed several slaves who had been captured by Brown and his men.  The slaves—presented as too frightened to take up weapons and join Brown—were jubilant to be freed from his clutches and jeered at their former captors.  Readers were informed that “full evidence” supported the contention that the slaves would have “cheerfully” taken up weapons against Brown and his men, if only the slaves’ owners had been present. 

In the featured cartoon, the artist presents the relationship between a master and his slaves as so trustful, and the institution of slavery as so benign, that the master arms his slaves to protect the plantation against the “invasion” of John Brown and his men.  The alleged emotional closeness between the master and slaves is emphasized by an elderly slave (left background) cradling the master’s young son in his arms.  Overall, the cartoon conveys the message that being the slave of a (presumably) kind master is better than being freed by violent abolitionists.  The notion of the commitment of the entire community to the slave system was completed by the reporter’s insistence that the overwhelming majority of the militia volunteers who fought to suppress the raid were non-slaveowners. 

In reality, Southern whites so feared armed blacks and any hint of a slave revolt that state legislatures enacted strict laws prohibiting the use of firearms by blacks.  Such laws were one example of “slave codes”—an elaborate system of state laws and local ordinances that severely limited the liberties of slaves and protected the institution of slavery.  Note that the slaves in this cartoon carry bladed weapons, while the gun is held for the master. 

Furthermore, at least one historian has recently suggested that, contrary to Strother’s portrayal, perhaps as many as 150 slaves and several freemen in the Harper’s Ferry area were aware of, and sympathized with, the intended raid on the federal arsenal.  The torching of slaveowners’ crops and barns during the subsequent trial and execution of Brown and his men is probably attributable to guerrilla activity by local blacks.  The support of the local black community helps clarify why John Brown chose Harper’s Ferry as his intended target to foment a slave rebellion.

Harper’s Weekly showcased Strother’s work on John Brown’s raid and trial for several weeks as it competed for new readership with its leading rival, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.  However, by the time of the execution of Brown and his men, the use of Strother’s work as a marketing tool had reached the saturation point.  With increasing criticism from both Northern and Southern readers, and heightened sectional tension across the nation, Harper’s Weekly chose not to publish Strother’s final drawing and story on Brown’s execution.  Instead, a mundane description of the abolitionist’s death was relegated to the fine print of the “Domestic Intelligence” column in the middle of the paper.  Once again, the contentious issues of slavery and sectionalism virtually vanished from the pages of Harper’s Weekly until secession of the Southern states in the winter of 1860-1861.

Robert C. Kennedy

“A Southern Planter Arming His Slaves to Resist Invasion"
May 29, 2024

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