In 1859, John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, propelled a divided nation toward Civil War. Brown’s wild hair and desperate scheme to free and arm slaves helped foster his enduring image as a crazed fanatic, a zealot on the far fringe of American society.
But for most of his 59 years, the abolitionist was a clean- shaven entrepreneur — a mercantilist everyman in the rapidly expanding economy of the 19th century.
Born in 1800 to a New England farm family of Puritan roots, he became a less-than-successful tannery owner, land developer and wool merchant. The world of commerce infused his secret war on slavery, which he called his “wool business,” funded with venture capital from Northern industrialists. Brown’s flaws as an entrepreneur carried over to his failed, but ultimately prophetic, strike against slavery.