Biography Explores John Brown's Legacy

Detail from the cover of 'John Brown, Abolitionist'

hide captionReynolds has also authored Walt Whitman’s America and Beneath the American Renaissance.

John Brown's violent campaign against slavery — punctuated by the dramatic 1859 raid at Harper's Ferry, Va. — made him a divisive figure, then and now. He's been portrayed as an insane fanatic and as a noble martyr. His actions unquestionably helped set in motion events that led to the Civil War.

Author David Reynolds stands next to a marker for the scaffold on which Brown was executed.

hide captionReynolds stands next to a West Virginia marker for the scaffold on which Brown was executed in 1859.

Aline Pansoy

Brown's Historical Impact

A new biography by David Reynolds examines the abolitionist's life and his far-reaching cultural impact. Linda Wertheimer talks with Reynolds.

Read an Excerpt from John Brown, Abolitionist

The Party

One of the most symbolic events of the Civil War occurred in a mansion. The event was the reception held on January 1, 1863, at the Medford, Massachusetts, estate of the businessman George L. Stearns to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation, which had been issued that afternoon by President Lincoln.

Stearns called the affair "the John Brown Party." The highlight of the evening was the unveiling of a marble bust of John Brown, the antislavery martyr who had died on a scaffold three years earlier after his doomed, heroic effort to free the slaves by leading a twenty-two-man raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

Brown's presence was felt elsewhere in America that day. The Union general Robert H. Milroy, stationed near Harpers Ferry, read Lincoln's proclamation aloud to his regiment, which spontaneously thundered forth the war song "John Brown's Body," with its heady chorus about Brown "mouldering in the grave" while "his soul keeps marching on." The Emancipation Proclamation made General Milroy feel as though John Brown's spirit had merged with his. "That hand-bill order," he said, "gave Freedom to the slaves through and around the region where Old John Brown was hung. I felt then that I was on duty, in the most righteous cause that man ever drew sword in."

In Boston, a tense wait had ended in midafternoon when the news came over the wires that the proclamation had been put into effect. At a Jubilee Concert in Music Hall, Ralph Waldo Emerson read his Abolitionist poem "Boston Hymn" and was followed by performances of Handel's Hallelujah Chorus, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, and Mendelssohn's "Hymn of Praise." That evening at Tremont Temple a huge crowd cheered as the proclamation was read aloud and exploded into song when Frederick

Douglass led in singing "Blow Ye the Trumpet, Blow!" the joyous hymn that had been Brown's favorite and had been sung at his funeral.

A number of people missed the Boston celebration because they had gone to George Stearns's twenty-six-acre estate in nearby Medford for the John Brown Party. The party was, in its own way, as meaningful as Lincoln's proclamation. It celebrated the man who had sparked the war that led to this historic day. Lincoln's proclamation, freeing millions of enslaved blacks, sped the process that led eventually to civil rights. John Brown's personal war against slavery had set this process in motion.

Gathered in Stearns's elegant home was a motley group. Stearns himself, long-bearded and earnest, had made a fortune manufacturing lead pipes. His guests included the bald, spectacled William Lloyd Garrison and the volatile Wendell Phillips, pioneers of Abolitionism; the stately, reserved philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, magus of Transcendentalism; his idealistic cohort Amos Bronson Alcott, who was there with his daughter, Louisa May, soon to captivate young readers with Little Women; Franklin Sanborn, the Concord schoolteacher whose students included children of Emerson, John Brown, and Henry James, Sr.; and the red-haired, vivacious Julia Ward Howe, writer of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." They represented cultural threads that had once been aimed in various directions but were now unified in their devotion to the memory of John Brown.

Garrison and Phillips had since the 1830s called for immediate emancipation of the slaves or, barring that, separation of the North and the South. Garrison, long committed to pacifism, had advocated moral argument as the sole means of fighting slavery until John Brown's self-sacrificing terrorism inspired him to espouse a more militant stance. Phillips, long driven by his disgust with slavery to curse the Constitution and the American Union, had come to espouse Brown's vision of a unified nation based on rights for people of all ethnicities.

Emerson had begun his career alienated from the antislavery cause but had taken it up with growing zeal that culminated in his famous statement that John Brown would "make the gallows as glorious as the cross." Along with Thoreau, who had died the previous year, he had been chiefly responsible for rescuing Brown from infamy and oblivion. Alcott, too, had played a part in the resuscitation of Brown, whom he called "the type and synonym of the Just." If, as Alfred Kazin suggests, without John Brown there would have been no Civil War, we would add that without the Concord Transcendentalists, John Brown would have had little cultural impact.

And without Julia Ward Howe, John Brown may not have become fused with American myth. The wife of Samuel Gridley Howe, one of those who had financed Brown, she wrote "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" to the tune of "John Brown's Body," retaining its "Glory, glory hallelujah" and changing "His soul goes marching on" to "His truth is marching on." With her memorable images of a just God "trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored," and loosening "the fateful lightnings of His terrible swift sword" against the slaveholding South, she caught the essence of John Brown, a devout Calvinist who considered himself predestined to stamp out slavery. She had coupled his God-inspired antislavery passion with the North's mission and had thus helped define America.

Another of Stearns's guests, Frank Sanborn, helped define John Brown. In 1857 he had introduced Brown to several reformers who, along with him, would make up the group of Brown's backers known as the Secret Six. A zealous Brown booster, he would perpetuate the legend of the heroic Brown in his writings of the post-Civil War period.

As for George Stearns, besides having been the chief contributor of funds and arms to Brown, he was largely responsible for pushing Brown's ideal of racial justice toward civil rights. He once declared, "I consider it the proudest act of my life that I gave good old John Brown every pike and rifle he carried to Harper's Ferry." Just as Brown had assigned prominent positions to blacks in his antislavery activities, so Stearns led the recruitment of blacks for the Union army. After the war, Stearns would fight for passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave suffrage to blacks.

That these and assorted other reformers, writers, and society people would gather on Emancipation Day to honor John Brown was more than fitting. From their perspective, it was inevitable. Everyone present believed that without John Brown this day would not have come, at least not as soon as it did.

Several at the party had doubts about President Lincoln. Despite his deep hatred of slavery, Lincoln had acted with politic moderation early in his presidency. Hoping to preserve the Union by conciliating the South, he had supported the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (anathema even to some of the most conservative Northerners), had endorsed a constitutional amendment preserving slavery where it already existed, had revoked an emancipation proclamation in Missouri, and had advocated colonization for blacks, who, he said, could never live on equal terms with whites in America due to racial differences. In response, Wendell Phillips had written a bitter article, "Abraham Lincoln, Slave-hound of Illinois." Garrison was so angry that he wrote of Lincoln, "He has evidently not a drop of anti-slavery blood in his veins; and he seems incapable of uttering a humane or generous sentiment respecting the enslaved millions in our land."

As strange as such statements appear today, they were not so to those who had known John Brown and had absorbed his progressive racial views. There was good reason Stearns had organized a John Brown Party instead of an Abraham Lincoln Party.

Although Stearns and his guests were overjoyed by the president's proclamation, they saw Lincoln as a latecomer to emancipation, a goal for which John Brown had given his life. In 1861, two years before Lincoln's proclamation, Stearns, Sanborn, Phillips, and other followers of Brown had formed an Emancipation League, whose aim was to win over Lincoln to the idea that freeing the slaves must be the primary mission of the Union war effort. The league issued a public document demanding emancipation "as a measure of justice, and as a military necessity." As a first step, Stearns wrote in a letter to Lincoln, black troops were needed to ensure a Union victory. Lincoln accepted the strategy after Stearns had devoted most of 1862 traveling thousands of miles throughout the North and organizing ten black regiments, including the famous 54th Massachusetts, led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.

The use of black soldiers was just one of Brown's forward-looking measures that impelled George Stearns to single out John Brown for tribute that evening.

Although the white marble bust of Brown, which Stearns and his wife had commissioned Edwin A. Brackett to sculpt in 1859 while the imprisoned Brown awaited execution, had long been a fixture in the Stearns mansion, unveiling it anew on Emancipation Day gave it fresh significance. The bust, which many compared to Michelangelo's Moses, was an idealized rendering. It invested the stern, hatchet-faced Brown with a calm Jovian dignity. It gleamed against the black walnut wainscoting on the landing of the Stearns's curved staircase as the hushed crowd below heard Emerson read his "Boston Hymn" and Julia Ward Howe give a powerful recitation her "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

The journalist James Redpath would later see the bust in the Boston Athenaeum amid Roman statuary and would comment that it might well be Moses but certainly was not John Brown. True: but, then, who was John Brown?

Perhaps the most significant meaning of the John Brown Party was that everyone present was joined by an idealistic vision of a man who, in other circles, was branded as a murderer, a thief, and an insane fanatic. The pristine purity of Brackett's bust was as distant from John Brown's real looks as the starry-eyed hero worship of Stearns's guests was from a true appraisal of his achievements.

The fact is that during his life and after it Brown gave rise to significant misreadings that shaped the course of American history. Brown himself had misread the slaves and sympathetic whites among the locals, whom he expected to rally in masses to his side as soon as his raid on Harpers Ferry began. The blacks he liberated misread him, since, by most reports, few of them voluntarily joined him in the battle against the Virginia troops — a fact that may have contributed to the fatal delay on the part of Brown, who had expected "the bees to hive" as soon as his liberation plan became known among the slaves.

Most important, Brown himself became the subject of crucial misreadings. Although after the raid he was at first denounced by most Northerners, a few influential individuals, especially the Transcendentalists, salvaged his reputation by placing him on the level of Christ — a notable misreading of a man who, despite his remarkable virtues, had violent excesses, as evidenced by the nighttime slaughter of five proslavery residents he had directed in Pottawatomie, Kansas. The Transcendentalist image of Brown spread throughout the North and was fanned by books, melodramas, poems, and music-culminating in "John Brown's Body," the inspiring song chanted by tens of thousands of Union troops as they marched south.

At the same time that this misreading swept the North, an opposite one was pervading the South. The South's initial grudging admiration for Brown's courage was quickly overwhelmed by a paranoid fear that he was a malicious aggressor who represented the entire North — a tremendous and tragic misreading, since virtually everyone in the Northern-led Republican Party, from Lincoln to Seward, actually disapproved of his violent tactics. The South's misreading was fanned by Democratic Party propaganda that unjustifiably smeared the Republicans with responsibility for Harpers Ferry. In this view, "Black Republicanism" meant not only "nigger-worship" but also deep alliance with John Brown, whom the Democrats characterized as a villain of the blackest dye.

These dual misreadings, positive and negative, were perpetuated in biographies of Brown. The early biographers were mainly people who had known Brown personally and who idolized him — they therefore twisted facts to make him seem heroic, at times godlike. In reaction, there arose a school of biographers intent upon exploding this saintly image. They swung to the other extreme of portraying him as little more than a cold-blooded murderer, horse thief, inflexible egotist, fanatical visionary, and shady businessman.

These extremes of hagiography and vilification were in time answered by scholarly objectivity. Several biographers — most notably Oswald Garrison Villard and Stephen B. Oates — present information about Brown's life factually, unfiltered by partisan bias. Villard and Oates pitilessly expose Brown's savagery at Pottawatomie and question the wisdom of his provisional constitution and his attack on Harpers Ferry, even as they praise his humanitarian aims.

Still, there is a danger to an overstrict insistence on impartiality. One reviewer's comment on Villard — i.e., that he "holds a position of impartiality, and almost of aloofness" — speaks for the best modern biographies. For example, biographers have waffled on the issue of Brown's sanity, leaving it as an unsolved problem. One can be objective without remaining impartial about the crucial moral, political, and human issues that Brown's life poses.

My stand on some key issues is: (a) Brown was not insane; instead, he was a deeply religious, flawed, yet ultimately noble reformer; (b) the Pottawatomie affair was indeed a crime, but it was a war crime committed against proslavery settlers by a man who saw slavery itself as an unprovoked war of one race against another; and (c) neither Brown's provisional constitution nor the Harpers Ferry raid were wild-eyed, erratic schemes doomed to failure: instead, they reflect Brown's overconfidence in whites' ability to rise above racism and in blacks' willingness to rise up in armed insurrection against their masters.

The current book develops these and other arguments by placing Brown fully in historical context. This is emphatically a cultural biography, a term that demands explanation. Cultural biography is based on the idea that human beings have a dynamic, dialogic relationship to many aspects of their historical surroundings, such as politics, society, literature, and religion.

The special province of the cultural biographer is to explore this relationship, focusing on three questions: How does my subject reflect his or her era? How does my subject transcend the era-that is, what makes him or her unique? What impact did my subject have on the era?

Cultural biography takes an Emersonian approach to the human subject. As Emerson writes, "the ideas of the time are in the air, and infect all who breathe it. . . . We learn of our contemporaries what they know without effort, and almost through the pores of our skin." The cultural biographer explores the historical "air" surrounding the subject and describes the process by which the air seeped through the pores of his or her skin. "Great geniuses are parts of the times," Melville wrote; "they themselves are the times, and possess a correspondent coloring." Once the biographer accepts the cultural environment as a viable area of study, new vistas of information and insight open up. John Brown emerges in cultural biography not as an isolated, insane antislavery terrorist but as an amalgam of social currents-religious, reformist, racial, and political-that found explosive realization in him.

From John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights by David Reynolds, excerpted with permission from Alfred A. Knopf publishers.

Books Featured In This Story

John Brown, Abolitionist
John Brown, Abolitionist

The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights

by David S. Reynolds

Hardcover, 578 pages | purchase

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