John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights, by David S. Reynolds. Alfred A. Knopf, 578 pages, $35.
On Nov. 7, 1959, The Chicago Defender commemorated the centennial of John Brown’s death: “The paradox of Brown’s idealistic goals and his fearless methods are still being argued in college seminars a century later. Some would exonerate him on grounds of congenital insanity; others see him as a fanatic whose passions knew no bounds. Only a conspicuous few see him in the true perspective of history, as a martyr to a cause-human freedom.” Nearly a half-century on, nothing’s changed: We’re still trying to settle the question of John Brown.
Nothing’s changed-except for the enduring skew of Sept. 11. David Reynolds, author of a rich and detailed “cultural biography” of Brown, believes he was a martyr to human freedom, but the unavoidable shadow of Osama bin Laden darkens the story.
John Brown-“Old Brown,” “Osawatomie Brown,” “Weird John Brown”-died on a scaffold in Virginia on Dec. 2, 1859. He and his small band of followers were captured at Harpers Ferry, Va., where they’d seized the federal arsenal. Brown planned to distribute guns among local slaves, who he believed would rise in spontaneous revolt. He planned to lead his men, the ranks swollen with liberated slaves, into the mountains of the South, slowly spreading terror and freedom into the country of the slaveholders.
He miscalculated. Convicted of plotting against the state of Virginia, Brown was condemned to die. But he was an extraordinary prisoner, “exuberant” in his jail cell, eloquent in the courtroom and brave on the scaffold. He accomplished more by dying than he had by living. As every schoolchild knows, though Brown’s body moldered in the grave, his soul went marching on.
How do we connect the violent career of this enigmatic man to 19th-century American culture-and his failed project to emancipation, civil war and civil rights?
We learn from Mr. Reynolds that Brown, coming of age in the 1820’s, struggled in the turbulence of the emerging market economy. He failed as a tanner, cattle trader, horse trader, lumber dealer, real-estate speculator and wool trader. But he was good at procreation (three of his 20 children died accompanying him in his battles against slavery), and he was unwavering in his dedication to a militant Christianity that inspired his impassioned opposition to the “peculiar institution.” Mr. Reynolds’ passionate Brown was not a madman, even though, to less courageous souls, he has sometimes appeared mad. Mr. Reynolds argues that Brown’s opposition to America’s slave system intensified as the slavery crisis deepened, and he took action while others talked.
Brown moved to Kansas in 1855, joining the frontlines of the war over slavery. It’s here that he first earned his reputation as a terrorist: In May 1856, he and his followers murdered five men at Pottawatomie Creek, hacking them to death with polished broadswords. The act was brutal, but the victims were not innocents. This was an act of war, Mr. Reynolds argues; Brown took the battle right to the pro-slavery border ruffians. And in doing so, he showed slavery’s defenders that at least some among the abolitionists were not afraid to use force.
A few months later, Brown and his men fought valiantly against pro-slavery forces at the battle of Osawatomie. And thanks to good press, Brown’s legend began to spread. Mr. Reynolds traces the legend back to the 19th-century cultural world he knows so well. In earlier books on the American Renaissance and Walt Whitman, he explored the rich literary world of mid-century America. Brown is not a literary figure, but his connections to Thoreau and Emerson and others of their Transcendentalist circle were crucial to the workings of his fame. Had the various sages of Concord not sanctified “the arch-Abolitionist John Brown, he may well have remained an obscure, tangential figure-a forgettable oddball. And had that happened, the suddenly intense polarization between the North and the South that followed Harper’s Ferry might not have occurred.”
For good or ill, this literary turn sets Mr. Reynolds’ book apart from the many previous studies of Brown. It shares our contemporary obsessions with terror and with the media. One of Mr. Reynolds’ goals is to reveal the logic of Brown’s plan to end slavery by examining it “in light of the slave revolts, guerilla warfare, and revolutionary Christianity that were major sources of inspiration for him.” But he also uses Brown to move the New England Transcendentalists back to the center of the great drama of mid-19th-century America. Emerson and Thoreau did not sit back uninvolved as the country moved toward war. Indeed, according to Mr. Reynolds, without them it’s hard to see how Brown could have “sparked the Civil War.” But it’s also true that Brown is just about the only operative link between the Transcendentalists and the unfolding crisis of slavery and secession.
Mr. Reynolds also seems to want to use Brown to bring African-American culture back to the center. Brown “would trigger the Civil War through his antislavery terrorism-and this terrorism itself was largely black-inspired. To see John Brown as the main link between African American culture and the Civil War is to recognize that blacks were prime movers in American history.” Brown may have been the least racist of the white abolitionists, but Mr. Reynolds leaves us with the impression that Brown possessed a somewhat truncated view of African-American culture as the source of terror, but not the source of love or grace.
A reader might be excused for wondering if Mr. Reynolds wasn’t worn out by Brown’s contradictions as he came to conclude his long book. (This reader also wondered why he titled each of the 18 chapters with a word that begins with the letter P: “The Party,” “The Puritan,” “The Pioneer,” “Problems,” “Pilloried, Prosecuted, and Praised,” and so on.) He returns, as we would expect, to the vexed question of terrorism-and runs into trouble, as so many others have, with his defense of Brown. Yes, he was a terrorist, Mr. Reynolds argues, but “he had a breadth of vision that modern terrorists lack. He was an American terrorist in the amplest sense of the word.” That curious phrase is meant to suggest that even though Brown was a religious fanatic, he was an American fanatic who welcomed into his band followers of all faiths (or no faith) and then led them in a struggle for a pluralistic, democratic society.
Brown was also more eloquent than your average terrorist, better with words than Ted Kaczynski or Timothy McVeigh. “John Brown alone wielded both the sword and the sword-pen.” And he kept his focus on race, killing only in response to pro-slavery outrages. “Without the racial factor,” Mr. Reynolds writes, “Pottawatomie seems like heartless butchery and Harpers Ferry appears inane and quixotic. With the racial factor, both make sense.”
Mr. Reynolds can’t quite leave it there. Brown fought for human equality, exercising “the right of the individual to challenge the mass.” Yet once Mr. Reynolds introduces this American individual back into the story of John Brown, his sharp focus on Brown’s heroic challenge to white racism grows wobbly. “America has become a vast network of institutions that tend to stifle vigorous challenges from individuals. Such challenges are needed if the nation is to remain healthy. There must be modern Americans who identify with the oppressed with such passion that they are willing to die for them, as Brown did.” A noble sentiment, to be sure, but Brown was also willing to kill as well as to die, and by the end of the book Brown’s violence has slipped to the background: The martyr has upstaged the terrorist.
Brown is powerful because he was both martyr and terrorist-and that’s what makes it as hard now as it ever was to reconcile the conflicts of this complicated man. John Brown was captured and hanged once in Virginia, but he still eludes our capture: one white American who was not a racist, but one white American who also embodied the tragic contradictions of our flawed Republic.
Ann Fabian teaches American history and American studies at Rutgers University.