“The democratic papers, says the O.S. Journal [Ohio State Journal], speak of the capture of the United States Arsenal as unprecedented in the history of this nation. The truth of history requires that this should be corrected. In 1855, on the 4th of December, the United States Arsenal at Liberty, Missouri was seized in a manner which undoubtedly formed the precedent for Brown’s seizure at Harpers Ferry.” – Wyandot Pioneer, November 3, 1859
John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry is widely acknowledged as a cataclysmic event that propelled the United States towards civil war, one contemporary newspaper pronouncing that the raid “advanced the cause of disunion more than any other event.” From October 16 – 18, 1859, Brown and his army of 21 men invaded Harpers Ferry, Virginia, capturing the Federal armory, arsenal, and rifle factory, and taking dozens of prisoners, all with an eye towards ending the institution of slavery. In less than 33 hours the raid was suppressed, with ten of Brown’s men killed, and Brown and six others captured. Over the following weeks Brown’s trial on charges of murder, conspiracy, and treason, splashed across newspapers north and south, forcing even the ambivalent to choose sides on the issue of slavery.
Many were quick to draw comparisons between Brown’s recent raid at Harpers Ferry and the invasion of the arsenal at Liberty, Missouri less than four years earlier. After explaining the particulars of the raid, the Wyandot Pioneer continued that…
“The seizure of an arsenal was to procure arms for the celebrated Missouri invasion against Lawrence, an expedition not much worse than Brown’s, except that his was to free slaves, and theirs to murder freemen to make a way for slaves. This sort of thing has gone far enough. We are glad the government has had its attention called to it. It was singularly resigned to the Missouri affair, but the recent repetition shows that such things are infectious. Now we call on the President to go in vigorously. All these Missourians can be found, without doubt. They have an excellent gift of preserving their own hides. These leaders probably hold government appointments; that is the haven to which most of these patriots drifted. Judge J.T.V. Thompson is no doubt high in authority in Missouri. So also Captain Rice…and Mr. Rout. Let the government indict and hang these insurgents that seized a United States Arsenal, these invaders of a peaceful territory, and these traitors to the nation. This will be an excellent preparation for the execution of Old Brown. Then all the people will exalt the justice of our government. But if all these insurgents, robbers, murderers and traitors, are to go free, and Old Brown is hung, the people and future generations will call it a cowardly murder, totally destitute of the first principle of justice.”
The following month U.S. Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois delivered a lengthy address on the senate floor, defending his Republican party against southern attacks seeking to align Republicans with John Brown…
“It seems that the arsenal at Liberty was broken up, and what remained of the arms were shipped to other military posts. Now, sir, there is a very striking similarity between the breaking into that arsenal and the attack upon the one at Harpers Ferry. The question of slavery had to do with both. The arsenal in Missouri was broken into for the purpose of obtaining arms to force slavery upon Kansas; the arsenal at Harpers Ferry was taken possession of for the purpose of expelling slavery from the state of Virginia – both unjustifiable, and it seems to me both proper subjects to be inquired into.”
“Perhaps the latter would never have occurred if inquiry had been made, and the proper steps had been taken when the cry came up from Kansas of these outrages, and when citizens of Kansas were murdered by the very army taken from this arsenal, or at any rate by persons in the same army with them. Then the complaints that were made were treated as the “shrieks of bleeding Kansas,” and they could not be heard. I trust they may get a better hearing now. Now, sir, when the shrieks of Virginia are heard, and the ears of the country are opened, I trust those from Kansas may get a hearing also. I am prepared to hear both; and I hope that the investigation in regard to Harpers Ferry may be impartial, thorough, and complete, and let whoever is implicated in the unlawful transactions there be held responsible; and so, too, in regard to the seizure of the arsenal in the state of Missouri.”
That both raids focused on the institution of slavery is perhaps the easiest comparison to draw, as they diverge quickly from there. The Liberty raid had been orchestrated by pro-slavery Missourians intent on seeing Kansas admitted tot he Union as a slave state, while Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry sought to attack the institution in its stronghold of Virginia. If Brown could drive slavery from one county in Virginia, he could weaken in the institution in the entire state, thereby weakening slavery throughout the South.
It’s a matter of some conjecture whether the raid at Liberty “formed the precedent” as the Wyandot Pioneer suggests, though the possibility is tantalizing. We know Brown was in Lawrence, Kansas, in December 1855, steeled against the looming attack by the border ruffians who were armed with the very weapons that had been stolen from the Liberty arsenal. The widespread reporting on the Liberty raid would likely have caught Brown’s attention, though to this author’s knowledge Brown left no record of the Liberty raid serving as an inspiration for his own later raid.
Even if Liberty had piqued Brown’s interest – and perhaps contrary to popular belief – Brown’s survivors did not abscond from Harpers Ferry with any government weapons, nor did Brown make any such attempt. By Brown’s own admission, he believed his own Sharps rifles were superior to those weapons produced at Harpers Ferry. Indeed, plans were affected to move Brown’s arsenal from the Kennedy farmhouse to a schoolhouse nearer the Ferry where they could be more quickly accessed. Rather than stealing away from the Ferry with wagonfuls of weapons as the Missourians had from Liberty, Brown’s wagon brought from the Kennedy Farmhouse to Harpers Ferry was found after the raid to have been packed with “pikes, picks, shovels,” and “kindling bark saturated with fluid,” seemingly materials to sustain Brown’s command for an envisioned campaign in the mountains. Thus, while Brown’s command was eventually hemmed in and captured, negating any opportunity to steal away with the Harpers Ferry weapon cache, Brown also made no preparations to do so.
The two raids were equally distant in terms of violence. While no assault on a government facility (past or present) could be deemed peaceful, the Liberty raid resulted in no bloodshed or loss of life. Only a small handful of government employees were briefly detained. Meanwhile, the Harpers Ferry raid left sixteen individuals dead (including civilians and raiders), others injured, and dozens of private citizens and government employees held hostage for hours. Brown had entreated his men to avoid taking the life of any individual during the course of the raid, but allowed his men that “if it is necessary to take life in order to save your own, then make sure work of it.” The violence that quickly erupted ensured that reprisal and punishment would be swift.
And as Lyman Trumbull pointed out, the resulting punishment for the raids could not have been further apart. The Missouri raid resulted in no arrests, no trials, and no fines. Even Colonel Edwin V. Sumner lamented that he could not risk apprehending the guilty parties “without taking sides in this momentous quarrel.” By comparison, Brown and six of his compatriots were quickly tried and found guilty of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, murder, and conspiracy. The quick trial and execution were as much out of vengeance as they were a deterrent from any who might be inspired by Brown’s actions, just as much as Brown might have been inspired by the raid at Liberty.
It’s easy for us today to try and pigeonhole John Brown as a zealot, a fanatic, or a terrorist. We want to make Brown fit into our times and our understanding of how violent events have shaped our world. Rather, we should approach John Brown within the context of his time. Brown was very much a man of his time, and a product of the violence he witnessed, suffered, and inflicted in Kansas. At various times Brown could be counted as victim or aggressor.
All of this is to say Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry was not an unprecedented event. The December 1855 raid at Liberty, Missouri served as an earlier example of using force against a government installation to spark further action on the slavery issue, and maybe – just maybe – served as an inspiration for “the meteor of the war.”
 Wyandot Pioneer, November 3, 1859
 Richmond Enquirer, October 25, 1859
 Wyandot Pioneer
 Trumbull, Lyman. On Seizure of Arsenals at Harper’s Ferry, Va., and Liberty, Mo., and in Vindications of the Republican Party and Its Creed, in Response to Senators Chesnut, Yulee, Saulsbury, Clay and Pugh. Washington, DC: Buell & Blanchard. 1859.
 Baltimore Daily Exchange, October 19, 1859
 Villard, Oswald G. John Brown, 1800 – 1859: A Biography Fifty Years After. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1910. 433.
 Mullis, Tony R. Peacekeeping on the Plains: Army Operations in Bleeding Kansas. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press. 2004. 162
 Melville, Herman. The Works of Herman Melville – Standard Edition: Volume XVI. London: Constable and Company Ltd. 1924. 6.