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Surprising Facts About John Brown
In this age of terrorism, there are few historical figures as intriguing as John Brown, the controversial Abolitionist who used terrorist tactics against slavery and single-handedly changed the course of American history. When does principled resistance become anarchic brutality? How can a murderer be viewed as a heroic freedom fighter? How can conservative Christianity drive the most progressive social agenda? The case of John Brown opens windows on these timely issues. Was Brown an insane criminal or a Christ-like martyr? A forerunner of Osama Bin Laden or of Martin Luther King? David Reynolds sorts through the tangled evidence and makes some surprising findings:
1. A devout Calvinist who believed God had predestined him to wipe out slavery, John Brown was in fact the product of his times. His distinctive brand of antislavery Christianity stemmed from the radical Puritanism that took on a social conscience when it blended with the republicanism of the Revolutionary era. His choice of violence and guerilla tactics was shaped by his observations of slave revolts at home and abroad. His capacity to wage brutal war in the name of God grew from his admiration for Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan leader of the English civil wars whose once-dubious reputation had improved notably during Brown’s lifetime.
2. John Brown was not insane. He was a flawed yet ultimately noble reformer. His fixation on slavery was often labeled “monomania” in his time and “paranoia” by historians like Allan Nevins, who claimed Brown should have been committed to “an asylum for the criminally insane.” Having read the total range of writings by and about Brown, Reynolds provides conclusive evidence of Brown’s sanity.
3. John Brown was the most forward-looking white reformer of his era on the issue of race. He manifested no racial prejudice. Here he differed from other antislavery figures, including Lincoln, William Lloyd Garrison, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. John Brown lived among blacks, worked with them, and envisaged an integrated America in which people of all races and both sexes had full rights. No white person in American history has been so widely revered by blacks as was John Brown, whose chain of influence reaches to the modern-day civil rights movement.
4. Had it not been for the Transcendentalists, John Brown may have been forgotten by history, discarded as a forgettable crank or a heinous criminal–an early sketch, say, of the Unabomber. Emerson, Thoreau, and their circle praised him at a time when the rest of the nation damned him. Often viewed as politically complacent, the Transcendentalists were in fact major players in the cultural forces that led the nation to war. Thoreau began the resurrection of Brown’s image by insisting that Brown was a peerless hero devoted to high ideals. Emerson proclaimed that Brown made “the gallows as glorious as the cross,” an image that sped through American culture like a ricocheting bullet, inspiring the North and outraging the South. Suddenly John Brown was a polarizing figure who inflamed deeply felt, hostile passions.
5. Although Brown took military action because he hated what he called “Talk! talk! talk!,” it was through his words that he gained his greatest influence. In the weeks between his capture at Harpers Ferry and his execution, the imprisoned Brown spoke to the world through letters and interviews that were widely reprinted. Thoreau pointed out that Brown’s words were far more effective than his rifles. Brown’s speech before the Virginia court, in which he expressed his antislavery vision, was so powerful that Emerson later ranked it with the Gettysburg Address. Brown’s eloquence was one of the chief things that distinguish him from today’s terrorists, many of whom are faceless tools of a cause, not original interpreters of one.
6. Without John Brown in the picture, the Civil War may not have happened when it did. Had it come later, it could only have been worse than it was, and its outcome might have been different, with tragic consequences for American blacks. Sparking the war that ended slavery, John Brown did his nation a service by speeding the inevitable. Brown’s spirit hovered over the war. One proslavery writer typically denounced Lincoln for waging “a stupendous John Brown raid” on the South. Lincoln, for his part, was at first reluctant to engage in a war that he said would be “equivalent to a John Brown raid, on a gigantic scale.’” But Lincoln increasingly embraced John Brown’s approach to ending slavery through all-out violence. His Second Inaugural Address, in which he declared that a stern God might make the war last “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword,” coupled antislavery passion with Calvinistic images in a manner reminiscent of Brown.
7.No other American–not even Washington or Lincoln–resonated on so many levels of American culture as did John Brown. Melville, Whitman, and Whittier featured him in poetry. Victor Hugo revered Brown, whose influence is felt in Les Misérables. A host of popular writers made John Brown the topic of plays, poems, and songs. One song, “John Brown’s Body,” was thundered forth by the Union armies as they marched to battle. The song went through endless permutations and became fused with national myth when Julia Ward Howe used it as the basis for “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
From the Hardcover edition.