Flashbacks May 2005

John Brown in The Atlantic

A collection of writings—some by Brown's friends and collaborators—sheds light on the abolitionist who took a violent stand against slavery

In the mid-1850s, as tensions over the issue of slavery mounted in the United States, a militant abolitionist named John Brown led massacres of pro-slavery families in the hotly contested territory of Kansas, and in 1859 he orchestrated a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. His Virginia raid failed, and he was captured, tried in court, and hanged for his actions.

For generations, Brown's story has been recounted as a curious footnote to Civil War history. He has been portrayed as a somewhat crazed zealot, and his efforts to oppose the institution of slavery through organized violence have been construed as ineffectual failures. But a new biography, by David S. Reynolds, suggests that Brown and his role in putting an end to slavery have long been underestimated.

As Christopher Hitchens explains in his review of Reynolds's book in the April Atlantic, at the time that Brown made his violent stand, Lincoln and the rest of his party were gradually accommodating the creep of slavery so as to prevent the issue from coming to a head. Brown, who had forged strong personal connections with a number of African-Americans, both slave and free, couldn't countenance such acquiescence. Hitchens argues that his attacks against slavery's proponents were not senseless and bloodthirsty rampages, but part of a calculated—and successful—effort to signal to the South that the abolitionists would not bend so easily after all.

The slaveholders ... had begun to boast that northerners and New Englanders were congenitally soft and altogether lacking in "chivalric" and soldierly qualities. What could be more apt than that they should encounter John Brown, careless of his own safety and determined to fill the ungodly with the fear of the risen Christ? Every Cavalier should meet such a Roundhead. After Pottawatomie the swagger went out of the southerners, and after the more conventional fighting at Osawatomie, and Brown's cool-headed raid to liberate a group of slaves and take them all the way to Canada, they came to realize that they were in a hard fight.

This in turn, Hitchens explains, "made it harder and harder for the invertebrate Lincolnians to keep the issue of slavery under control." And once Brown's Harpers Ferry raid had, in Hitchens's words, "sounded a trumpet that could never call retreat," the opportunity for compromise slipped away. Perhaps, then, Hitchens writes, the old accepted clichés about what really launched the war are due for revision.

It was not at all the tear-jerking sentiment of Uncle Tom's Cabin that catalyzed the War Between the States. It was, rather, the blood-spilling intransigence of John Brown, field-tested on the pitiless Kansas prairies and later deployed at Harpers Ferry.

In 1872, Franklin Sanborn, a regular Atlantic contributor and one of six men from Massachusetts who secretly funded John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, wrote two articles that detailed Brown's relationship with his Massachusetts supporters. "John Brown in Massachusetts" (April 1872) traced the activist's life story and described in detail the transfer of money and rifles between the Massachusetts abolitionists and Brown. "John Brown and his Friends" (July 1872) contained Brown's correspondence with his northern supporters and described the formation of the secret committee that funded his Virginia venture. Both articles were published without Sanborn's byline, and they described his role in the scheme in the third person. His decision to remain anonymous likely reflects the fact that the Harpers Ferry raid had proved highly controversial among those who had supported it. After the raid's unsuccessful outcome, some wished to be entirely dissociated from Brown, others proudly took credit for having attempted to promote the cause, and still others expressed remorse for having sent Brown off on a doomed mission.

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