August Bondi

The Jew who fought beside John Brown


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John Brown (1800-1859), the radical abolitionist, remains one of the most controversial figures in American history. Some see him as a principled freedom fighter, others as an outlaw. Brown led the anti-slavery Free State forces in “Bloody Kansas,” which many historians see as a rehearsal for the Civil War. Brown reached the height of his notoriety in a raid on the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859.

Not well known is that three immigrant Jews were among Brown’s small band of antislavery fighters in Kansas: Theodore Wiener, from Poland; Jacob Benjamin, from Bohemia; and August Bondi (1833-1907), from Vienna. Of the three, August Bondi left the most enduring mark on American Jewish history.

In contrast to Brown, whose ancestors arrived in America on the Mayflower, Bondi’s family immigrated to St. Louis in 1848, in the aftermath of an unsuccessful democratic revolution in Austria. Bondi had been a member of the student revolutionary movement in Vienna and his idealism carried over to his adopted country. In 1855, he moved to Kansas to help establish the Free State movement there.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 decreed that, in 1855, the settlers in the Kansas Territory would decide by vote whether Kansas would be a slave or free state. Pro-slavery Border Ruffians and anti-slavery Free States poured into Kansas Territory, hoping to capture the election.

Anti-slavery forces appeared to hold the upper hand, but on election day some 5,000 heavily armed pro-slavery Missourians swarmed into the territory, overwhelmed the polling places, captured the ballot boxes, and elected a pro-slavery legislature. Once in control of state government, the pro-slavery forces launched violent attacks against anti-slavery settlers.

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Michael Feldberg, Ph.D. is executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. From 1991 to 2004, he served as executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, the nation's oldest ethnic historical organization, and from 2004 to 2008 was its director of research.

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