As the hostilities between North and South festered in the 1850s, John Brown's zealous opposition to slavery grew. On October 16, 1859, having long dreamt of organizing a guerrilla force to liberate the slaves, he began implementing his plan with an armed raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. The scheme, however, failed disastrously, and Brown was tried for murder and treason. On December 2, 1859, he was hanged.
The Harpers Ferry raid freed no slaves, but it did bring the nation one step closer to civil war. Moved by Brown's heroic dignity as he went to his death, many northerners concluded that he was the victim of evil, and they regretted not that he had acted but that he had failed. In turn, southerners viewed Brown's actions as a sign that they must either break their allegiance to the Union or be destroyed by an increasingly fanatical North.
Except for the face, this portrait of Brown is the same as a print of Abraham Lincoln. Thus, it is thought that after a sufficient number of prints had been made from the lithography stone bearing Lincoln's image, the printmaker erased the President's face and substituted Brown's in its place.