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John Brown
A portrait of John Brown from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 1859.

John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights. By David S. Reynolds ’70. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. 578 pp. $35 hardcover.

Here again is the epic story of old John Brown, newly and well told. John Brown, Abolitionist follows the life of the flinty commando whose 1859 antislavery raid at Harpers Ferry, Va., can indeed be said to have sparked the Civil War.

The story of Brown’s abolitionist career actually began 22 years earlier, in Hudson, Ohio, in November 1837, when he attended a prayer vigil protesting the murder of the abolitionist editor Elijah P. Lovejoy by a pro-slavery mob in Illinois. As the meeting ended, Brown stood, raised his hand and swore: “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!” David Reynolds notes that, at the time, few other Americans so consecrated their lives.

Brown kept his vow, ultimately making a national reputation for himself and his men—including four obedient sons—in the 1850s, in “Bleeding Kansas,” where his small guerrilla band battled pro-slavery “ruffians” from Missouri. 

In his lifetime Brown’s reputation was not seriously hurt by the single most horrific action he took: in May 1856 his men seized five pro-slavery Kansas settlers from their homes at Pottawatomie Creek and butchered them to death in the night. Reynolds says “the real horror of the Pottawatomie incident did not stand out in the general mayhem” then sweeping Kansas; in fact, Brown’s culpability in the slaughter was not widely known until he had been dead 20 years. (Reynolds writes, seemingly in Brown’s defense, that Pottawatomie, “gruesome and vile as it was, was John Brown’s impulsive response to equally violent crimes committed by the pro-slavery side.” Brown, he says, “gave the South some of its own medicine” and showed that “a Northern group could slaughter the enemy just as Southern mobs had for decades….”)

Brown’s heroic reputation among antislavery northerners was based primarily on two other events that occurred soon after Pottawatomie and before Harpers Ferry. One was a fight at Osawatomie, Kan., in August, between his band of only 38 men and a pro-slavery force more than seven times greater. Brown lost the battle, but his bold tactics and tenacity earned him the admiring nickname “Osawatomie Brown.”

The second event that helped make Brown famous occurred in the summer of 1858 when he led a raid into Missouri, liberated 11 slaves and conveyed them 1,000 miles to freedom in Canada. The daring rescue party received many cheers as it traveled north.

Often John Brown, Abolitionist is assertive and provocative. Was Brown, for instance, a “terrorist”? Reynolds introduces this contemporary note by describing him as such. Pottawatomie, he writes, was “an act of terrorism” or “what Doris Lessing calls ‘good terrorism’—that is, terrorism justified by obvious social in-justice.”

Well, yes. At Pottawatomie, extreme violence was used against defenseless civilians (albeit active pro-slavery ones). It was meant to shock and awe, and it was driven by religious fervor. In this topical vein, however, Reynolds does not make it clear that Brown’s violent activity was not terrorism in the Timothy McVeigh or Osama bin Laden sense: his victims were not massacred indiscriminately. They did not include women and innocent children. In fact, Brown once admonished a paramilitary group, his “League of Gileadites,” to “make clean work with your enemies—and be sure you meddle not with any others.”

Elsewhere the author argues—persuasively, this reader finds—that if Brown was a terrorist, he was also eminently sane, contrary to the opinion of many historians and despite the savage crimes of Pottawatomie. He was respectable and sane enough, for instance, to be embraced by many prominent abolitionists, to have tea at the home of Ohio Congressman and Mrs. Joshua Giddings, and to address the Massachusetts state legislature on the subject of Kansas. 

Reynolds contends that even Brown’s suicidal attack on Harpers Ferry was rational: “If John Brown’s effort to wipe out slavery by raiding Virginia with a tiny band of men seems absurd when viewed as an isolated military act,” he writes, “it makes sense when seen in light of the slavery revolts, guerrilla warfare, and revolutionary Christianity that were major sources of inspiration for him.”

Contemporary observers were impressed by Brown’s calm stability. One of his Southern captives in the Virginia raid, Col. Lewis Washington, a slave-holder, declared that Brown was “the coolest and firmest man I ever saw in defying danger and death. With one son dead by his side, and another shot through, he felt the pulse of his dying son with one hand and held his rifle with the other, and commanded his men with the utmost composure, encouraging them to be firm and to sell their lives as dearly as they could.” 

Gov. Henry Wise of Virginia called him, simply, “the gamest man I ever saw.”

So it is reasonable to conclude he was sane. Reynolds is less convincing when he presses, repeatedly, another thesis: that the New England Transcendentalists, led by Emerson and Thoreau, “rescued” Brown “from infamy and possible oblivion.” After Brown’s capture, Reynolds asks, “Who kept alive his reputation long enough for sympathy to take root?” He asserts that, “Had the Transcendentalists not opened up the possibility of a positive response to him, he might have been lost in the tide of negative opinion” after Harpers Ferry.

True, much publicity was given to Emerson’s startling declaration that Brown, tried and sentenced to hang, would “make the gallows glorious like the cross.” Reynolds himself, though, provides ample evidence that Brown did not need the praise of the Transcendentalists to make him a hero and martyr. He acknowledges that Harpers Ferry “had an immense impact because of the way Brown behaved during and after it….He won the battle not with bullets but with words.”

Indeed, Brown’s words to the Virginia courtroom, not as well known today as they should be, stand with the great utterances of history. Consider:

I see a book kissed, which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament, which teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to remember them that are in bonds as bound with them. I endeavored to act up to that instruction….I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done, in behalf of His despised poor, 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 in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say, let it be done.

Abolitionist Wendell Phillips declared, “His words…have changed the thoughts of millions, and will yet crush slavery.”

As he was led to the gallows on a clear and mild December morning, Brown handed a note to a guard. Its punctuation was awkward, but its words were prophetic: “I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood.”

And it came to pass.

Although some claims in this new study may be arguable, John Brown, Abolitionist is an impressive portrait of a fateful time. 

—Douglas C. Wilson ’62
The reviewer retired three years ago after a career that included 13 years as a newspaper reporter and 25 as editor of this magazine.

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