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The Coppock Brothers: Heroes of Harper's Ferry


A 1914 essay by US socialist leader Eugene V. Debs. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.



Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926) was a preeminent late 19th-early 20th century socialist leader in the United States and one of the defining political figures of the era. For further, see Nick Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2007, 2nd Ed.).


The Appeal to Reason (1895-1922), the socialist weekly in which Debs published this essay, was for years one of most popular journals in the United States. It was undoubtedly the most successful socialist periodical in US publishing history. Debs joined many other well-known writers – including Jack London, Helen Keller, Upton Sinclair – in the pages of the Appeal.


Debs wrote this historical appreciation of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry to contradict the then-prevalent characterization of Brown as a mad fanatic. Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, one of the most influential early twentieth-century historians of the antebellum South, wrote that “As soon as the insane folly of Brown’s scheme became apparent, as well as its hideous criminal character, the fierce hatred of the South towards its perpetrators and abettors gave place to a widespread hatred than had ever existed before toward all antislavery men in the North.” According to Phillips, this single incident unified popular sentiment in the South against the North. Phillips, Georgia and States Rights: A Study of the Political History of Georgia from the Revolution to the Civil War, with Particular Regard to Federal Relations in Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1901, vol. 2 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1902)186-187. An authoritative source from the period, The Cambridge Modern History (Cambridge: University Press, 1903) describes Brown’s raid as “the mad folly of an almost crazed fanatic” (vol. vii, 439). The author of this characterization of Brown was future US president Woodrow Wilson.  


Thus in writing an essay praising Brown, Debs wrote in opposition to an overwhelming body of orthodox historical opinion condemning him. Moreover, this is an essay that seeks to expand Brown’s spirit by describing the lives and fates of two of his followers, Edwin and Barclay Coppock, abolitionist brothers from Iowa. Debs describes an idyllic small Quaker town of Salem, Ohio, where the brothers were born, as having nurtured their belief in human equality and opposition to slavery. (42-44) He naturalizes their resistance to slavery and willingness to fight together with John Brown, locating that impulse in an American heartland. Debs relies on correspondence from Edwin Coppock prior to his execution concerning his motives and his desire “to live to see the principles of the Declaration of Independence fully realized.” (50) After reviewing this history, Debs concludes “Some day the hatred and prejudice” against John Brown and his followers “will all have died away and then these men, summoned to the bar of enlightened judgment, will be crowned as the greatest heroes in American history” (51).


Source: Labor and Freedom: The Voice and Pen of Eugene V. Debs (St. Louis: Phil Wagner, 1916) 39-51; originally published in Appeal to Reason, May 23, 1914.


- Joe Lockard