May 18, 2000
This year marks the bicentennial of the births of two American figures, Nat Turner and John Brown, who came to symbolize the radical struggle against slavery in the decades prior to the Civil War. In 1831, Turner, a Virginia slave, led a revolt that left fifty-five white people dead and spread panic throughout the slave-owning world before being brutally suppressed. In the 1850s, Brown, a zealously religious man who likewise believed in the necessity of violence to end human bondage, led massacres of pro-slavery families in the hotly contested territory of Kansas, and in 1859 orchestrated the famous raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. Both men were tried in court and hanged for their actions. Both were focal points of intense controversy. This month, at historic sites in Virginia and Kansas, their lives and deeds are being commemorated.
In August, 1861, The Atlantic Monthly published an article by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, titled "Nat Turner's Insurrection," which defended Turner's slave revolt in Southampton, Virginia, thirty years before. A frequent contributor to The Atlantic and a deeply committed abolitionist, Higginson was also one of six men from Massachusetts who secretly funded John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. In his article on Nat Turner, Higginson emphasized that Turner and his followers exercised admirable restraint in their rampage: though most of these slaves had been "systematically brutalized from childhood," and had seen their wives and sisters raped by white masters, they refrained from similar abuse of their white victims.
From The Atlantic:
"Forgotten Heroes of Freedom," by Leon F. Litwack (November, 1999)
From Atlantic Unbound:
Flashback: Denmark Vesey, Forgotten Hero (December 1, 1999)
Flashback: "Rhetoric of Freedom" (September 16, 1999)
Interviews: "Inheriting Slavery" (February 26, 1998)
The Confessions of Nat Turner
John Brown's Raid on Harper's Ferry
In 1872, Franklin Sanborn, a regular Atlantic contributor and another of the abolitionists who had secretly been involved in funding John Brown's Virginia raid, 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 Harper's Ferry raid had proved highly controversial among those who had supported it. In light of 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 wrote "John Brown" (November 1922), which he intended to be "an analysis of [Brown's] soul." He described Brown as "the most curious American example of the intensity of fanatical enthusiasm." A biographer from Boston, Bradford called his form of writing "psychography"; the article is organized topically rather than chronologically, with an emphasis on the subject's character. Bradford wrote,
To subordinate one's whole being so completely to an all-engrossing purpose is, beyond question, abnormal. It absorbs life, drinks up the soul, sweeps the man quite out of the common course of daily interests and cares....
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