John Brown—Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights
by David S. Reynolds
Knopf, 592 pages, $35
The violent abolitionist John Brown, whose assault on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in 1859 helped spark the Civil War, has been called many things: savior and monster, saint and murderer, visionary and fanatic. And the interesting thing is that all of them are true. As depicted in David S. Reynolds’ meticulously researched and eloquently written new biography, John Brown—Abolitionist, he was a man who sincerely believed, rightly or wrongly, that the only way to destroy the evil of American slavery was through bloodshed. One wonders whether the slaughter of the Civil War proves he was right—or did his actions help cause the war and thereby make violence the only solution?
Most Americans know how the story ended, with Brown captured by federal troops under the command of the young Robert E. Lee and hanged for murder and treason. Less familiar is Brown’s pre-Harper’s Ferry life as a family patriarch, lay preacher, failed tanner and land speculator, abolitionist agitator, promoter of racial and sexual equality, and terrorist in the mini-civil war known as “Bloody Kansas”—all of which Brown engaged in with indomitable gusto.
One cannot understand John Brown without comprehending the power of religious belief to drive, for good and ill, the course of human affairs. Indeed, few figures in history have in one life demonstrated both the transcendent possibility of faith to lift the believer’s consciousness to the heights of human benevolence, and its potential to mutate into a dangerous utopianism in which one arrogantly presumes to act as the right arm of God. Reynolds admirably lays out this paradox of Brown’s life, expressing tremendous admiration bordering on love for the man, while generally not glossing over the terrible wrongs he committed.
Brown was a through-and-through Calvinist who embraced his faith literally and wholeheartedly. He saw himself as a Puritan and patterned his life after that Puritan deposer of kings, Oliver Cromwell. His belief in predestination bolstered his often difficult life with a stoic spirit that permitted him to accept with true thanksgiving poverty, repeated business failures, physical hardships, the deaths of several children, including two sons at Harper’s Ferry, and his own hanging as the expression of God’s will. It also allowed him to commit heinous murders.
Brown believed wholeheartedly Paul’s words in Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female, for you are one in Christ Jesus.” He lived these beliefs by making his home in North Elba, New York, among a community of freed bondsmen, where he assisted with the Underground Railroad. He advocated not just an end to slavery, but full inclusion of blacks into society, including the rights to vote, work, and be educated. He was willing to die—as he did—to help blacks achieve these ends. No wonder, as Reynolds notes, Brown remains a revered figure among African-Americans to this day.
But it is not until “Bloody Kansas,” three years before Harper’s Ferry, that Brown fully enters the drama of American history. There is an astonishing mural, in Kansas’ state capitol building, showing an enraged Brown in all his prophet-bearded glory, holding a Bible in one outstretched hand and a rifle in the other (with tornadoes portentously in the background), as he leads in the effort to make Kansas free. With the exception of the beard—Brown was clean-shaven in Kansas—there is more truth than legend in this depiction.
Prior to Kansas, Brown had never hurt anyone. But in the 1850s, the slave powers began to gain political ground. With the 1854 passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Missouri Compromise, which had kept the free and slave states in rough political parity, was dissolved. From now on “popular sovereignty,” rather than geography, would decide whether a territory would be admitted into the Union “slave” or “free.”
Popular sovereignty proved the doom of slavery. Most notably, the real potential that slavery would now spread throughout the West, and perhaps even back into the North, enraged Abraham Lincoln and wrenched him out of a discouraged political retirement. It also convinced John Brown that the time for “talk, talk, talk,” had passed. When Lawrence, Kansas was sacked by marauding proslavery ruffians and the great abolitionist senator Charles Sumner was nearly caned to death in the Senate chamber by a slavery-defending congressman, Brown’s last vestige of restraint shattered.
Wanting to fight violence with violence, Brown led a small band of family members and friends to Kansas, intent on joining the fray. As Reynolds tells the story, Brown often acted righteously and heroically in Kansas, standing up to the ruffian raiders while badly outnumbered, and as the Kansas strife came to an end, even liberating slaves from Missouri and escorting them to freedom in Canada. Yet, when chance left a pro-slavery preacher who had murdered Brown’s son entirely within his grasp, he showed remarkable restraint by refusing to take a life for a life, explaining to his followers, “People mistake my objects. I would not hurt one hair of his head. I would not go one inch to take his life; I do not harbor the feelings of revenge. I act from a principle. My aim and object is to restore human rights.”
But though Brown’s deportment in Kansas was at times admirable, it is overshadowed by the slaughter of Pottawatomie—the town where, in the stealth of night, Brown’s band dragged five pro-slavery men out of their beds and hacked them to pieces. Reynolds is a devoted booster of Brown’s place in history, but he does not excuse or gloss over the terrible acts of Pottawatomie. Indeed, reading the graphic depiction of the murders brought Charles Manson powerfully to mind. Like Manson, Brown did not personally wield the swords. But his powerful cult-leader personality easily persuaded his weak-willed followers to commit cold-blooded murders.
After Pottawatomie, Brown was a wanted man. But his general valor in Kansas had also made him an admired figure to the radical abolitionists, including Frederick Douglas, who helped make Brown a star of the movement. Having literally gotten away with murder, Brown toured New England railing against slavery as he raised money and arms for the further defense of freedom in Kansas. But Brown knew that the Kansas struggle was winding down, with freedom already won. As he spoke of Kansas, he was really planning the invasion of Harper’s Ferry.
Harper’s Ferry was supposed to be a quick hit-and-run operation. Brown’s plan was to strike the federal armory, steal weapons, and head for the nearby hills to fight an extended guerrilla war that would slowly work its way south, freeing slaves. Naively, Brown expected the South to quickly see that their cause was hopeless and free the slaves with little bloodshed.
But that fateful night, no one flocked to Brown’s side and the beloved mayor of Harper’s Ferry, who had always been kind to blacks, was senselessly shot and killed, creating a frenzy of rage in the town. Rather than escape to fight another day as originally planned, Brown was apparently discouraged by his failure to ignite a slave revolt, and he hunkered down for a siege in the town. Eventually, a squad of federal troops (led by the future Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart, under the command of Robert E. Lee) ended the siege.
The failed invasion sparked a media frenzy. Newspapers and magazines from both North and South breathlessly printed every word Brown uttered and wrote. Understanding a great advocacy opportunity when he saw it, Brown spent the remaining weeks of his life eloquently condemning slavery and gaining the admiration of even his harshest critics through his personal courage and stoic acceptance of his fate. Brown’s powerful speech at his death sentencing moved the North, and enraged the South: “I did no wrong, but right. Now if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of millions of slaves in this country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say, let it be done.”
Still, Reynolds writes, Brown would probably have been an asterisk in history had the cultural icons of transcendentalism not powerfully influenced Northern public opinion in his favor. Brown had met Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson while on his speaking tour of New England. Now the transcendentalists rallied to his defense as a living demonstration of their belief in the power of the individual to make positive change. Then, after he was hanged, they transformed Brown from someone perceived in the North as a madman into a Christ-like martyr and a rallying icon.
Brown’s influence was increased too by the pro-slavery Democrats, who tried to hang his crimes like a millstone around the necks of their political nemeses, the Republicans. Ironically, the primary political victim of John Brown’s raid turned out to be the cautious anti-slavery governor of New York, William Henry Seward, whose earlier warning of a coming “irrepressible conflict” now made him appear too radical to be nominated for president. To fill the resulting political vacuum, Abraham Lincoln quickly rushed.
While Reynolds occasionally stretches Brown’s influence past the breaking point, most of what he writes rings true. He also provides interesting support for his theory that John Wilkes Booth saw himself as a John Brown of the South when he walked through the doors of Ford’s Theater on Good Friday night, 1865. Still, Reynolds can be irritating. For example, the author is so taken by Brown’s visionary egalitarianism that he dismisses the contributions of far greater abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison, with unfair criticism or faint praise.
He also seems too defensive when striving to convince the reader that Brown was no Osama Bin Laden. Moreover, at the book’s end, Reynolds inexplicably takes a discordant anti-American tack, warning, “Unless America is ready at every moment to see its own failings, it is one step closer to becoming the tyrannical monster it pretends not to be.” Further, he moans, “America has become a vast network of institutions that tend to stifle vigorous challenges from individuals”—as if reformers ever had it easy. But this, too, widely misses the mark. Social activism is diverse and robust today throughout the United States in support of causes great and small, and certainly more generally honored than at any other time in American history.
Still, John Brown—Abolitionist is a superb biography that brilliantly reanimates its larger-than-life subject in all his charisma and zealotry. Reynolds rightly admires Brown for living his faith and dying bravely for a woefully oppressed people. But for all the good he attempted to do, John Brown is no role model. His presumption of the duty to kill in a just cause has no place in modern society.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. He is currently researching a book on the animal-liberation movement.