Lincoln’s Election, Southern Secession: 1860 to April 1861

John Brown’s Failure

What was so important about George Washington’s sword?

Almost as soon as he arrived in John Brown’s presence, Colonel Lewis Washington saw that Brown had taken his sword—which had once belonged to his famous relative—strapped to his body. Colonel Washington did not speak of the matter; very likely, he did not realize the importance that Brown attached to it.

Like the vast majority of Americans in 1859, Brown had a profound reverence for George Washington. Almost no American—North, South, East, or West—had anything bad to say about the founder of the nation. But in Brown’s eyes, Washington’s success had been incomplete. He had indeed created a nation based on the idea of freedom, but had not gone all the way to eradicating slavery. Therefore, one reason Brown specifically wanted Colonel Lewis Washington was for George Washington’s sword. The idea was simple, but powerful. Brown would complete what Washington had left undone.


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