John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery,
Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights
By David S. Reynolds
Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 1, 2005
John Brown, the militant abolitionist who battled proslavery forces on the
plains and led an assault on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in the hope of
inciting a slave insurrection, has always aroused powerful and conflicting
emotions. An earlier generation of scholars, who saw the Civil War as needless
carnage brought on by irresponsible fanatics, made Brown exhibit No. 1 -- a
madman, criminal or, in today's lexicon, a terrorist who inflamed sectional
hatred. Even today, when most historians view the Civil War as an irrepressible
conflict rooted in the slavery controversy, visitors to the exhibit on "Terror
in America" at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., encounter Brown
alongside Klansmen, anarchists and Islamic extremists.
To Northern intellectuals of the time such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry
David Thoreau, Brown was an example of moral action in a crass, commercialized
world. Brown's execution, Emerson wrote, made "the gallows glorious like the
cross." Since Brown's death, radicals of the left and right, including Eugene V.
Debs, the Weather Underground and antiabortion activists, have revered him as a
man willing to take up arms against an immoral institution. African American
leaders long have hailed Brown as the rare white person willing to sacrifice
himself for the cause of racial justice. Stokely Carmichael named Brown and
radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens as the only white figures in U.S. history
worthy of African American admiration.
David S. Reynolds, a professor of English and American studies at City
University of New York, is Brown's latest convert. The author of several works
on 19th century literature, including "Walt Whitman's America," Reynolds calls
this book a "cultural biography," tracing Brown's dynamic relationship to the
society, politics, literature and religion of his day. He details how others
viewed Brown and how Brown influenced his age. He concludes that in his
religious and racial views and violent methods, Brown was unique.
A lively writer, Reynolds expertly chronicles the course of Brown's life.
Born in rural Connecticut in 1800, Brown grew up in a devoutly Christian family
in which he was taught to pray daily, regard slavery as a sin and treat blacks
as equals. His life reminds us that deep religious conviction can be the seedbed
of political radicalism, not only the conservatism we witness today. Brown's
religion, however, differed from that of other abolitionists, who were inspired
by the religious revivals of what came to be known as the "Second Great
Awakening" in the 1820s. They became persuaded of their ability to convince
slave owners to abandon their sinful ways. Brown's God, however, was not the
forgiving Jesus of the New Testament but the vengeful Jehovah of the Old. He saw
himself, writes Reynolds, as a "Puritan warrior," like England's Oliver
Cromwell, called by God to stamp out slavery by violence.
Brown also became, Reynolds argues, one of a handful of whites to repudiate
completely his era's pervasive racism. He not only demanded political and social
equality for blacks but lived his life according to this principle. He welcomed
blacks into his home, aided impoverished black neighbors and in the 1840s moved
his family to North Elba, N.Y., where philanthropist Gerritt Smith had made
plots of land available to black settlers to help them achieve economic
"The clan raised by John Brown," Reynolds writes, "was the only white family
in pre-Civil War America willing both to live with black people and to die for
Brown devoted his adult life to crusading against slavery. He joined the
Underground Railroad and assisted fugitive slaves. When violence broke out in
1854 between proslavery and antislavery settlers in the territory of Kansas,
Brown and three of his sons joined the fight. There, in his most controversial
act, he and his followers murdered five proslavery settlers alongside
Pottawatomie Creek. Reynolds calls the killings indefensible but insists that
they must be understood in the context of the violence raging in Kansas and
Brown's conviction that slavery itself amounted to a state of war.
Brown's attention next turned to the Harpers Ferry enterprise, for which he
gathered recruits among abolitionists as well as blacks who had fled to Canada
to escape the fugitive slave law. He persuaded some of the leading figures in
Massachusetts society, among them cotton magnate Amos Lawrence and the Rev.
Theodore Parker, to contribute funds. They had little real idea what Brown was
up to, but as Reynolds explains, they believed "the times called for an
antislavery soldier who would stand up to the South."
On Oct. 16, 1859, Brown led his band of 22 men to seize the federal arsenal
in Virginia. The raid was a fiasco. No slaves joined them and they were quickly
subdued by local militia and a squadron of Marines headed by Col. Robert E. Lee.
Brown was wounded, placed on trial for treason and executed.
Though it was a military failure, the raid transformed Brown, in the North at
least, into a folk hero, immortalized in poetry, song, visual images and legend.
In keeping with his concern for cultural influence, Reynolds devotes much of the
book to tracing contemporary reactions to and representations of Brown.
Unfortunately, unlike the narrative of his life, the account of the "memory" of
John Brown is disjointed and repetitious. The excerpts from bad poetry about his
deeds become tedious and the claims for influence are often speculative. (Does
Brown's raid really explain how Emily Dickinson came to write her best poetry?)
But it is fascinating to read of Brown's long-term effect on African American
poets, artists and political leaders.
Most books on John Brown are strongly partisan, and this one is no exception.
Reynolds' account brims with passion and conviction. However, beginning with his
rather hyperbolic subtitle, "The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War,
and Seeded Civil Rights," he tends to exaggerate Brown's uniqueness and
influence. It is not true, as Reynolds claims, that the secession movement
became "well organized" only in reaction to the raid on Harpers Ferry, or that
Brown's act was crucial to Abraham Lincoln's 1860 electoral victory.
(Republicans solidified their voting majority in the North in the 1858
congressional elections.) Reynolds also links Brown's religious convictions to
Lincoln's comment in his second inaugural address that the Civil War could be
seen as divine punishment by a righteous God. He fails to note that Lincoln also
commented that man does not know God's will -- the opposite of Brown's religious
To highlight Brown's humanitarianism, Reynolds denigrates other white
abolitionists as "racists who did not like working with blacks" -- a
considerable exaggeration. Even Thaddeus Stevens, a lifelong advocate of black
rights, is caricatured as supporting black suffrage "chiefly as a means of
punishing the South." Reynolds also portrays Brown as an advocate of equality
for Native Americans, even though his encouragement of the influx of white
settlers into Kansas inevitably meant the dispossession of the Indian
population, and also for women -- an odd claim for the father of 20 children who
left his second wife to fend for herself in frigid North Elba while he
crisscrossed the North on his antislavery mission.
Reynolds' account of the Harpers Ferry raid seems to give Brown the benefit
of what should be serious doubts. Slavery was a minor presence in the
mountainous area of Virginia where the arsenal was situated, and none of the few
slaves who lived there opted to join Brown. Reynolds chides Brown for being
"overconfident," but he almost seems to blame those slaves for its failure --
they were too "confused" and fearful to seize the opportunity presented them.
Lincoln offered a more realistic appraisal: "It was an attempt by white men
to get up a revolt among slaves, in which the slaves refused to participate. In
fact, it was so absurd that the slaves, with all their ignorance, saw plainly
enough that it could not succeed."
Whatever one thinks of John Brown, it cannot be denied that he was a
courageous man with one penetrating insight: Slavery was a system of violence
that could not be eradicated peacefully. "Nothing but war can settle the
question," Brown once wrote. Reynolds ends his book with a simple statement by
W.E.B. Du Bois: "John Brown was right."