John Brown, Abolitionist

Against the Current, No. 119, November/December 2005

Jennifer Jopp

The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights
by David S. Reynolds
Alfred A. Knopf (New York), 2005
578 pages, $35 cloth.

Why do some people take literally the admonitions of our faiths, both religious and secular? We are all advised to “do unto others.” We all hear, from early childhood, that “all men are created equal.” Yet, not all of us abide by these “faiths of our fathers.”

Why, indeed, do some people draw from “the air” ideas and ideals that inspire them to live in a way that others find incomprehensible and disconcerting?

The life of John Brown presents us with just such a person, one who continues to discomfit and unsettle. In the immediate aftermath of his death, writers began to both sanctify and vilify him. Every generation has recreated this dichotomous treatment of Brown. These opposing views reflect the difficulties we face — still today — in placing Brown in any kind of framework that aids our comprehension of him.

John Brown continues to fascinate. Biographers are drawn to his incandescent spirit as moths to a flame and, yet, almost all are burned in the bright light of his life’s work. Few are able to see Brown the man. Few want to see Brown the man.

Transcendalism as the “Historical Air”

David S. Reynolds is a notable exception. He crafts a work of “cultural biography” to tell the story of the life of the man John Brown. Drawing on the Emersonian notion that “the ideas of the time are in the air,” Reynolds sets out to study the “air” in which Brown lived. Reynolds mines extensively poems, songs, stories, letters, lectures — virtually all kinds of written material produced in the period — to recreate the culture of nineteenth-century America.

Currier & Ives print: “John Brown. Meeting the slave-mother and her child on the steps of Charlestown jail on his way to execution,” c. 1863 (Library of Congress)

In Reynolds’ telling, the Transcendentalists created John Brown, and it is to the Transcendentalists that Reynolds turns to fashion the framework within which he studies Brown. Emerson’s notion of “Self-Reliance” informs Reynolds’ excavation of the culture and “historical air” breathed by Brown.

“Through the pores of his skin” Brown absorbed life’s lessons. Frederick Douglass remarked of Brown that it was “as if his own soul” had been pierced by slavery. And it was. From childhood, Brown was shaped by a life of Bible reading, arduous and unremitting labor, and an abhorrence of slavery.

Perhaps it is this very life that struck fear in the hearts of men, for none of the prizes that others so desire had any allure for John Brown, and none of the ways in which other men tell themselves they have made necessary compromises held any sway with him: material gain meant little, and he remained steadfast in dedication to his cause.

Reynolds opens his telling of the rough and tumble life of John Brown, oddly enough, with the story of a party in a mansion, an event he describes as “[o]ne of the most symbolic events of the Civil War.” (3)

The event was a “John Brown Party,” held to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation. The unveiling of an idealized bust of Brown, the recitation of Emerson’s “Boston Hymn,” and a rendition of Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” brought neatly together in one place many of the mythmakers, many of those creators of Brown’s “sainthood.” Reynolds then travels the long road back, through Brown’s childhood, his peripatetic existence, and his eventual execution in the aftermath of the raid on Harpers Ferry.

John Brown’s life is indivisible from his religious beliefs. Puritan religious devotion was intense on both sides of his family. The religion of the Brown clan was not that modified by time, but rather the “Orthodox Calvinism of Puritan times.” (25)

Indeed, Brown modeled himself on the Puritan warrior, Oliver Cromwell. Owen Brown had bequeathed to his son an intense hatred of slavery. Brown took as his text those words of the Bible that admonished “You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped…Rather he shall dwell with you.” (Deuteronomy 23: 15-16)

Throughout his life, Brown turned to the Bible for solace and guidance. His father’s “errand into the Wilderness” (in this case, on the Ohio frontier) during his childhood and the grueling labor of pioneer life “both toughened and humanized” Brown. (28)

Brown patterned himself on Biblical patriarchs, fathering a large brood of children and schooling them as soldiers in his holy war. Like earlier Puritan fathers, Brown extended his reach to all who might come into his “little Commonwealth.” He was tireless in his efforts to construct community and no issue — libraries, labor, moral behavior — was beyond his interest. Stern, unrelenting, and exacting, Brown meted out penalties for transgressions.

His family life also reveals Brown’s deep and abiding attachments. Grief gnawed at him for much of his life, especially one horrific year in which he lost four children. Yet death was not the only shadow cast over Brown’s life. His children shared his battle against slavery and suffered along the way.

Reynolds’ life of Brown presents a portrait of a man whose guiding faith shaped his ideas about all aspects of life. Brown’s economic views are no exception, and Reynolds’ elucidation of Brown’s business ventures aid in understanding the complexity of Brown’s relationship to the society in which he lived. Measured against the standards of the day, Brown was a failure in all his various business enterprises: He declared bankruptcy, moved his family frequently, and constantly sought loans. Brown’s business “failures,” as Reynolds explains, were, rather, favorable portents.

Indeed, Brown selected his own standards, letting the Biblical patriarchs be his guide. In his wool business, Brown embarked on a cooperative approach, outlining his ideas in “To Wool Growers.” Such a tack was unlikely to bring commercial success in the burgeoning market economy of antebellum America. But “failure” did not worry John Brown; rather prosperity ate at his soul. Indeed, all his life he remained “devoted to the subsistence economy” that had predated the capitalist one. (43)

After excavating Brown’s early life, Reynolds turns to the unfolding of Brown’s plans to invade the South to free the slaves. Having felt that we’ve come to know Brown, we see why he believed as he did. We see the truth of Douglass’ observation.

Yet Reynolds admirably balances his empathy for Brown with a clear-eyed look at his weaknesses. A constant interplay between Brown and the culture in which he lived informs Reynolds’ study. Most importantly, we see at all times that on any given topic, Brown was not alone.

The Use of Violence

Take, as but one example, the issue of violence. Reynolds asserts that “Brown was the only white man in America both willing to live with Blacks, and to die for them.” What drove Brown, he asks, to embrace the insurrectionary violence that drove other abolitionists to pacifism? (56)

Brown, in Reynolds’ sensitive portrayal, is a man open to all aspects of the Black experience. He drew lessons in the fight for freedom from maroon communities, as well as fugitives fleeing to the North; from the Haitian Revolution, as well as the Underground Railroad; from Black men and women, as well as their white supporters.

“Only scattered voices” endorsed the use of violence in the struggle to end slavery. Reynolds plumbs a deep sea searching for echoes of Brown’s ideas. His soundings reveal that the idea, indeed, crossed the minds of others. Thomas Jefferson prophesied a cataclysmic end as early as 1787 remarking, “’Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” (95) Most abolitionists preferred not to think about such an end, clinging instead to the hope of a peaceful end to the problem of slavery.

Under Reynolds’ careful consideration we see that there were, indeed, others who espoused the use of violence; Brown, too, had heroes. The author again uses literature as a way to gain insight into the “cultural air” of the times.

In Life and Opinions of Julius Melbourne, author Jabez D. Hammond declares that the relation between master and slave is “necessarily a state of war.” (98) Others, among them martyr Charles T. Torrey, also echoed the ideals of Brown. Reynolds remarks that Torrey embodied the paradox Brown later more famously represented: in a time of immoral laws, patriotism looks like treason. Lowell thus eulogized Torrey with words that could later be applied to Brown, “Woe worth the hour when it is crime, To plead the poor dumb bondsman’s cause.”

Reynolds next turns to Pottawatomie, site of John Brown’s execution of unarmed men in Kansas. Pottawatomie was a crime, but a war crime, insists Reynolds. He reminds us that in Brown’s view, slavery was a state of war; and whoever would understand Pottawatomie must give careful consideration to the context of Brown’s behavior.

Reynolds peels back the layers of revenge and retribution to reveal the meaning that both abolitionist and proslavery forces attributed to Kansas. Both sides saw the future staked out in Kansas and both sides resorted to violence to wrest their beloved away from their enemy.

Endemic violence plagued the region. For Brown, the time had come. Citing Deuteronomy’s warning “Their foot shall slide in due time,” he began to relish confrontation with proslavery settlers.

In anticipation of such conflict, Brown traveled armed to Kansas in the Fall of 1855. He was following five of his sons: they had arrived earlier to stake claims to both land and an identity as antislavery warriors. (144) The Browns, father and sons, came to believe that war was  “decreed and certain… if the ‘Slave power’ …[did not] desist from its aggressive acts upon the settlers of Kansas.” (151) Escalating violence, continued assaults on Free State people, and the caning of Senator Charles Sumner drove Brown to violent action.

In launching the raid that was to claim the lives of five men, Brown declared that it was time “to strike terror in the hearts” of the supporters of slavery. Brown and his sons and followers took the men at night from their homes and savagely stabbed and hacked them to death.

Pottawatomie, in Reynolds’ telling, is the crucible of later events. Indeed, the pace of the story quickens thereafter. Southern newspapers erroneously linked Brown’s violent actions to organized abolitionism; indeed, many in the South saw Pottawatomie as proof that the abolitionists had secret military organizations. (176)

For Brown, himself, the event proved formative. One of the most fascinating aspects of Reynolds’ treatment of Pottawatomie is his discussion of the weapons selected by Brown.  Drawing on his extensive knowledge of slave uprisings, and also of Native American battles, Brown chose knives as the weapon of choice.

In a chapter entitled “Pariah and Legend,” Reynolds traces the two strains of thinking about Brown — vilification and deification — to the period after Pottawatomie. Brown’s notion that individual conscience surpassed laws found a sympathetic ear among the Concord Transcendentalists. They, disgusted with the turn of events on a national level, eagerly sought heroes. Emerson’s lecture “Courage” featured Brown.

Harpers Ferry and Beyond

Brown, in his turn — and no stranger to self promotion — used this connection to Concord for his own purposes. His plans to invade the South, decades in the making, required above all cash. The Transcendentalists generally, and the inner circle of the Secret Six more specifically, sought to oblige.

By the 1850s the Transcendentalists, disgusted by the Mexican War and the Fugitive Slave Law, faced their failure: the age was as corrupt and commercial as ever. Brown appeared in the guise of a Cromwellian warrior ready to battle corrupt political institutions in the name of a higher law.

They rallied to his cause — albeit from afar. Veneration of Cromwell in the popular imagination and the historical moment conditioned the Concord group’s response to Brown and his activities.

Just what did Brown envision in a post-invasion south? Inspired by the histories of durable maroon communities in Jamaica, Brown imagined that his revolution would spread from an initial invasion; thousands would flee to him, establishing an independent community that could — if so required — survive for years.

The U.S. Constitution, Brown believed, condoned “none other than the most barbarous, unprovoked, and unjustifiable war of one portion of its citizens upon the other portion.” His proposed new constitution, by contrast and in defiance of the then-recently decided Dred Scott decision, declared Blacks to be citizens. (251)

In the years of preparation that preceded Harpers Ferry, Brown continued his tireless efforts to promote his plan and to engage in any number of efforts to strike at the slave system. Just one example from his efforts in the late 1850s reveals his embrace of full equality (there are many such examples). In these years, Brown founded Black Strings, an organization dedicated to liberation, whose members were required to pledge belief that “all mankind are created free and equal, without distinction of color.”

Brown traveled continually in search of funds and friends for his cause. Brown believed in the transformative power of possessing a weapon. “Give a slave a pike,” he declared, “and you make him a man.” (306) Yet Brown valued life very highly, admonishing his men to resort to violence only when necessary and reminding them how dear life was to them and to their loved ones. Nor did Brown ever engage in acts of private revenge.

The raid, when it came at last, was rife with irony and coincidence. It did not ignite slave insurrection as Brown had wildly hoped, but rather prefigured the Civil War in completely unexpected ways. Harpers Ferry, Reynolds theorizes, was the Civil War in microcosm. Ultimately, Brown ended up engaged in exactly the kind of battle he sought to avoid; it was the aftermath of the raid that proved so decisive.

Brown prophetically declared upon his capture, “I wish to say…that you had better — all you people of the South — prepare yourselves for a settlement of this question. You may dispose of me very easily. I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is still to be settled — this negro question, I mean. The end of that is not yet.”

Asked at this moment near the end of his life what had inspired him to act as he did, Brown replied that the Golden Rule applied to all who would help others gain their liberty.  Here, certainly, was a man imbued with the “faiths of our fathers.” His religiosity deeply unsettled his listeners, who then hastened to denounce him.

As Brown himself noted with irony, had he intervened on the behalf of “the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great” it would have been deemed worthy of reward rather than punishment. But, as he took up the cause of “His despised poor” the outcome would be otherwise.

In “Pilloried, Prosecuted, and Praised” Reynolds broadens his lens again to view Brown’s capture, incarceration and hanging as a cultural event. Witnessed by the entire nation through the press, the last days of John Brown left a lasting imprint on the nation. Among the strange ironies of the days after the raid were the responses to Brown’s raid: proslavery southerners praised Brown’s courage and resolution, while many northerners — abolitionists among them — scrambled to distance themselves from him.

At the outset. the Transcendentalists alone — led by Thoreau — publicly defended Brown and, by so doing, planted the seeds of his later veneration. Brown’s words, Thoreau insisted, “were more powerful than any gun he carried.” Brown devoted his time in prison to the work at hand: martyrdom. Newspapers printed his prison correspondence. The porous prison system of the 1850s allowed for a steady stream of visitors, and their impressions, too, found their way into the media of the day.

By the time of his execution, Brown was an extremely polarizing figure. Eulogized by Thoreau as embodying “transcendent moral greatness,” Brown was, for Andrew Johnson, nothing more than “a murderer…and traitor.” (402) The sorrow and anger provoked by his execution helped to unify warring antislavery factions in the North. Elsewhere, as well, there was reaction to his execution; a secessionist fury swept the South.

In his concluding chapters, Reynolds brings his discussion to the contingency of Brown’s existence and the ways in which it overlapped with specific social and cultural conditions. For Reynolds, literature appears to be a kind of cultural mirror wherein we can see our history. Thus, he devotes considerable attention to literature inspired by Brown. No one in American history, he asserts, was so recognized in drama, literature, song, and verse.

Writing this review convinced me of the veracity of this assertion; the outpouring continues today. At every turn, I found another song, poem, commentary, biographical sketch or literary depiction of Brown.

Understanding Brown

Reynolds also follows the twists and turns of the historiography on Brown. In a fascinating discussion, Reynolds shows that Black writers remained committed to the memory of Brown. The attitude of white writers, by contrast, had grown more negative by the 1880s.

How, then, are we to understand Brown?  Do all these stories, poems, and songs explain him? As we are poised on the brink of another explosion of new works on Brown, what truly helps us to understand him?

In a great essay entitled “Puritans and Prigs,” Marilyn Robinson reminds us, “the assumption of present responsibility for the present state of things was a ritual feature of life in this culture for two and a half centuries, and is entirely forgotten by us now.” (in The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, Mariner Books, 1998, 155)

The theological basis for Jonathan Edwards’ definition of “justice,” continues Robinson, was the thought that no one is so contemptible or worthless “but the Lord shows him to be one to whom he has deigned to give the beauty of his image.” (172) Such a sense of personal responsibility and of justice motivated Brown and inspired his actions.

The use of the word “terrorist” to describe Brown has its parallel in the nineteenth-century view of Brown as insane and serves to distance ourselves from such a man and such action — for to acknowledge that he was sane is to accept some responsibility for our inaction.

A terrorist uses terror as a method to demoralize a government, to sow fear. Indeed, his actions struck terror in the hearts of men throughout the South. For his actions raised the specter of Toussaint L’ouverture, of Denmark Vesey, of Nat Turner. But terror was not Brown’s goal, emancipation was.

In other words, the story was not about the whites but rather about Blacks. The questions pondered by, turned over by whites — Was he insane? Had his enterprise a chance of success? Was it doomed at the outset? — are not the questions that Black writers and thinkers pore over.

Driven though he was, obsessed though he was, Brown’s goal was not about himself, but about the lives of others.

The transcendentalist sanctification of Brown is the other side of this coin: saints are difficult to approximate and we needn’t feel that we’ve strayed so far from the mark if he was, after all, unlike other men.

In the cacophony of voices calling for Brown’s sanctification, one is hard pressed to remember the quiet courage of his daily life as a man of a century that defined material accumulation and visible wealth as prosperity, Brown lived by the creed that “‘tis prosperous to be just” (from James Russell Lowell’s “Once to Every Man and Nation”).

Venerating him as a saint also removes him from the context of Black militancy (where he himself was most comfortable), and makes it difficult to see the true courage of a man who lived with, worked with, fought alongside of Blacks in an age in which even the most vocal abolitionist feared radical action by Blacks.

His uncompromising belief in the necessity for equal education, his commitment to Black agency, and his absolute conviction about the necessity of eradicating slavery shaped his everyday existence.

Taking seriously his intent to write a cultural biography, Reynolds at all times also keeps his eye on the larger picture. We see the ways in which Brown moved among his contemporaries, responding to and corresponding with them. Such a broad canvas deepens our understanding.

This dual focus on man and culture perhaps allows Reynolds, more so than any previous biographer, to present a sensitive and nuanced portrait. Thus, it might seem churlish to criticize so full and complex a work. And yet, readers might well ask if Reynolds doesn’t remain just a little too transfixed by the Transcendentalists? Without such veneration, implies Reynolds, Brown might have lived and died in obscurity. Yet what of the Black writers who wrote of Brown? Or of writers for whom the questions were different?

An earlier biographer, W.E.B. DuBois, might have answered these questions. Also a work of cultural biography, DuBois’ John Brown opens with a discussion of Africa’s “mystic spell” over America. He implicitly ties Brown’s birth in 1800 to the history of slave revolts generally when he writes that “John Brown was born just as the shudder of Haiti was running through all the Americas…” (DuBois, 40) Thus, for DuBois, the focus is on Blacks and the Black experience.

Brown saw himself, as Reynolds reminds us, as a “God-inspired person who acted upon sympathy for oppressed Blacks, not as an antislavery reformer.” (68) Such a person is far more dangerous than an abolitionist and, after reading about Brown’s life, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that we yell so loudly about his abolitionist activities so that we needn’t think too deeply about all of the ways in which he challenged the society in which he grew to adulthood, and — indeed — even ours.

One cannot help but admire a man who had the strength of character to live by the Golden Rule’s admonition to “Do Unto Others…” as a daily creed. Therein is the root of his radicalism, and the radical challenge he offered both in his own time and in ours.

ATC 119, November-December 2005