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.
In "Three Interviews with Old John Brown" (December 1879), William Addison Phillips, a radical anti-slavery journalist and politician, recounted interviews he had conducted with Brown during the 1850s while working in Kansas as a special correspondent for the New York Tribune. Phillips went on to fight in the Union Army and by the time of this article's publication was a congressman from Kansas. The talks described here provide a rare and respectful portrait of Brown during his time in Kansas, and they reveal Phillips's own ambivalence toward Brown's violent brand of activism. "I told him," Phillips writes, "that I feared he would lead the young men with him into some desperate enterprise, where they would be imprisoned and disgraced." Brown, however, was not convinced and asserted that "With the help of God, I will do what I believe to be best."
More than forty years later Gamaliel Bradford, a Boston-based biographer, wrote "John Brown" (November 1922), an article that sought to look past the hyperbolic myths and legends about Brown to discern what kind of man Brown really was. "Friends and enemies have torn his memory to pieces in the effort to make him out devil or saint," Bradford wrote. "Whereas he was neither, but a human being, with immense aspirations and hopes and struggles, like you or me."
Bradford reviewed Brown's life story, analyzing his actions, his relationships with his family, and even the stubborn set to his face. Brown was not insane, Bradford concluded. But he was a man obsessed. Slavery was an abomination to him, and he was unable to rest until he had done all in his power to undermine it.
Even after Brown was captured by his enemies at Harpers Ferry, Bradford noted, he comported himself with such stubborn dignity that his captors came to respect him. And as the story of his courageous stand became widely known, he became an inspiration not just to his own generation, but to those that came after.
The influence of such a man and such a life and such a death flowed out and on, beyond the men who obeyed him, beyond the men who met him, to those who never knew him and had hardly even heard of him, to the whole country, to the wide world....
That is what Brown meant when he said, 'I am worth inconceivably more to hang than for any other purpose! That is what men of his type achieve by their fierce struggle and their bitter self-denial and their ardent sacrifice. They make others, long years after,—others who know barely their names and nothing of their history,—achieve also some little or mighty sacrifice, accomplish some vast and far-reaching self-denial, that so the world, through all its doubts and complications and perplexities, may be lifted just a little toward ideal felicity.