John Brown

THE story of John Brown 1 is distinguished among the few narratives of modern history which accumulate additional interest with the lapse of time. Many a man, who has played a great part in human affairs, retains upon the chronicler’s page only the poor survival of a name, almost as impersonal as a convict’s number; whereas Brown, neither statesman nor warrior, only a simple fanatic put to death on the gallows, grows a more vivid, real, and living image with each year that removes into further distance his life in the flesh. This sort of apotheosis is due to the fact that his character and his deeds have that quality which stirs the imagination, and moves the poetic feeling. He is seen walking far apart from the usual ways of men, in strange and solitary paths which he cuts out for himself, differing from the rest of us who travel in masses on the highway, not because he is stronger and can go more miles in a day and get to the head of the column like the ordinary great man, but because he is seeking a peculiar goal by a forbidden route. We do not note him because of his extraordinary brain power or the imperial faculty, but because in his ways of looking at and mingling in the life around him, in his motives and purposes, and in his notions as to his own personal relations to environing facts, he was unlike all others. In a word, he felt, thought, and demeaned himself like those whom the Greeks of old called heroes, human yet in certain respects elevated above the customary and familiar plane of humanity. So grand a subject cannot fail in time to inspire a writer able to do justice to the theme ; and when such an one draws Brown, he will produce one of the most attractive books in the language. But meantime the ill-starred “ martyr ” suffers a prolongation of martyrdom, standing like another St. Sebastian to be riddled with the odious arrows of fulsome panegyrists. With other unfortunate men of like stamp, he has attracted a horde of writers, who, with rills of versicles and oceans of prose, have overwhelmed his simple, noble memory beneath torrents of wild, extravagant admiration, foolish thoughts expressed in appropriately silly language, absurd adulation inducing only protest and a dangerous contradictory emotion. Amid this throng of ill-advised worshipers,Mr. Sanborn, by virtue of his lately published biographical volume, has assumed the most prominent place. Not that he has worked wholly to ill purpose, for he has been industrious in collecting and liberal in printing letters and original papers which will doubtless be of great service to the true biographer, who in time will surely come. But the general reader, who usually undervalues, if he does not actually dislike, this kind of reservoir service, will be disappointed to find little other attraction in the clumsy volume.

Mr. Sanborn believes, if we construe correctly his often-reiterated statements, that John Brown was divinely inspired, which phrase should apparently be taken, not in any commonplace sense, but with the full force which it carries in speaking of the Christian prophets. That is to say, we understand Mr. Sanborn to intend to convey the idea that God communicated to John Brown, specially, directly, and personally, a knowledge of the divine purposes concerning slavery, and of the divine plans for working out those purposes in Kansas and Virginia ; so that Brown, in fulfilling these plans and advancing these purposes, was not following his own judgment, but was, probably intelligently, obeying divine orders. John Brown himself often said, with unquestionable sincerity, that he was a chosen instrument of the Lord, working under God’s guidance in the antislavery cause. Thus Mr. Coleman, of Kansas, reports a singular interview between his wife and Brown concerning the Osawatomie murders. “ My wife spoke, and said, ‘ Then, captain, you think that God uses you as an instrument in his hands to kill men ? ’ Brown replied, ‘ I think he has used me as an instrument to kill men ; and if I live, I think he will use me as an instrument to kill a good many more.’ ” This is no isolated instance of the expression of this feeling by Brown. Coming from his lips, and spoken with a faith so profound and intense as seems to belong to earlier and simpler generations than our own, such words are impressive to the last degree. Such a deep abiding conviction, governing the deeds of a stirring, forceful man, not insane, certainly, in any ordinary sense of the word, renders Brown one of the most imposing figures and interesting studies of modern days. But we regret to say that the frequent assertion by Mr. Sanborn of this inspiration neither makes him impressive, nor his book interesting; giving, on the contrary, an unpleasant sense of feebleness and of a lack of genuineness. Between the grand fanatic, absorbed, devoted, ranking himself with the prophets of God, alleging communion with the divine spirit, and the showman who gets up to talk about this strange being, and to advance the same claims for him, the contrast is very strong and not in favor of the exhibitor.

Without this singular belief concerning his relationship to the Almighty, it must be confessed that Brown would rest in an awkward predicament. Most men are, and must be, judged by their deeds, and their motives must be inferred retrogressively from their actions ; otherwise society could not go on. But it is not so with Brown. We must separate Brown from what Brown did; we must agree that his motives are not such as would be inferred from like acts in the cases of other men, and that his motives give the character to his acts. Take, for example, the Osawatomie transaction : the deed, considered solely in and by itself, without getting color or character from the faith and purposes of the actors, was a series of brutal and cowardly murders. The world, however, is well agreed that John Brown was neither brutal, cowardly, nor murderous. He was one who virtuously committed a frightful atrocity, because he believed himself divinely inspired and ordered to do so. To acquit, even to respect, him, it is only necessary to admit the sincerity of the belief; and this no one now questions. It would seem to us that this is going far enough, and that the wise man would pause at the point at which he has granted not only an extraordinary pardon, but more than a pardon, upon extraordinary grounds for an extraordinary crime. But Mr. Sanborn does not hesitate to go very much further, not only vindicating the actor, but exalting the act itself. He is not content with having it that Brown thought himself divinely inspired; he dares even to demand that the world shall agree with Brown upon this point. If we understand Mr. Sanborn aright — which we hope that we do not — he is of opinion that these acts were a part of the divine plan ; that the wise, merciful, and loving God, the omnipotent God of Christianity, could devise no better mode of forwarding the antislavery cause than these hideous, midnight slaughterings of defenseless men. It would be painful to be obliged to accept him as an authority on this point. His opinion, however, will seem the less valuable, when it is known that he speaks of these deeds as “ executions,” which they certainly were not upon any possible theory of his own, or of any other person who has ever discussed the subject; also, when it is known that he says that “ if Brown was a murderer, then Grant, and Sherman, and Hancock, and the other Union generals are tenfold murderers, for they did simply on a grand scale what he did on a small one.” However else Brown is to be defended, even to the point of changing blame to praise, this is a foolish and utterly unintelligent argument. A private cutting down differs from a public war, whether judgment is to be rendered beneath the code of morals or the code of law.

The interest which attaches to Brown is psychological rather than historical. How greatly it is psychological must already have appeared. On the other hand, that it is only very slightly historical seems to us clear, though here again we are compelled to differ utterly from Mr. Sanborn. He appears to say that the civil war and emancipation proceeded from the Osawatomie foray as directly as a tree springs from a seed, — an absurd, extravagant assumption. In fact, on the contrary, the results of this and of the Harper’s Ferry raid were almost insignificant. They stimulated discussion, intensified passion, affected transitorily the emotions; they were forerunners— those who like the word may call them omens — of what was to come, but they were not efficient causes of great practical effects. Afterward, when Brown had become the hero of martial song, a new influence emanated from his name and memory : but by that time the labor of preparation had been done ; the North had made up its mind and was hard at work. At the time of their doing, these acts neither led the reason, nor strengthened the convictions, nor aroused the consciences of people outside the pronounced antislavery ranks. It was Garrison, primarily, with Parker and Phillips and the other talkers, of whom Brown spoke contemptuously, who were really bringing the minds and hearts of the Northern people to the condition necessary in order to make the war a possibility and emancipation an inevitable result. In a purely historical point of view, Brown is chiefly valuable thermometrically, as showing to what degree of heat persons were arriving in this antislavery business between 1856 and 1859. Even thus, if he had stood wholly at an isolated point of intensity, he and his doings would have been of little historic interest. It was because others were nearly as hot as he, and because at each small remove from the same measure of heat the multitudes who felt the lessened warmth greatly increased, that his position is valuable to the historian. He was not a man who induced many to follow him, who convinced men and caused them to cohere and persist, through permanent influences of reason and the sense of right. He startled people and set them talking, excited all and repelled most. It is certain as such a thing can be that he did not win over the doubting nor incite the lukewarm, at least beyond the circle of those with whom he came into personal contact.

Indeed, it would have been impossible for him to perform such tasks. He was not a man of sufficient intellectual power. In this respect he is not to be named with Garrison, Parker, and Phillips. Mr. Sanborn has the hardihood to compare him with Cromwell, thereby committing the unfortunate blunder of claiming for one’s hero traits which he obviously does not possess. Brown gains nothing and suffers much if he is set beside Cromwell for comparison in any point save as an honest and kindly man. Cromwell was such a clever fanatic that he could not help diluting his fanaticism with liberal dashes of worldly wisdom and hypocrisy. Brown was a fanatic so little clever that he could not help being wholly guileless, simple, and unworldly in his fanaticism. Among Cromwell’s followers were many men like Brown, whom the astute statesman used with infinite skill and great effectiveness; but certainly Brown and Cromwell were alike only in a few wholly superficial points. So far as calibre of brain went, Cromwell’s brain could have been divided to fill the skulls of a whole regiment of Browns. In all the great collection of Brown’s writings furnished by Mr. Sanborn, there is nothing to show that he ever gave a moment’s thought (beyond such attention to crops and cattle as circumstances forced upon him) save to the one matter of negro slavery in the United States. A fervent Christian, he had Scripture ever on his tongue; but he had accepted his creed from childhood, and had only to read and re-read his Bible with simple faith and adoration. The great world held for him only one idea, — the abolition of slavery in the Southern States; all other thoughts and purposes of humankind, all activities of men, all civilizations, all problems, all rights and wrongs, all moral and mental developments and tendencies of the human race, were absolutely as nothing for him. None of these things existed within his vision. His picture of life and the world held only the single figure of one great duty standing alone on the groundwork of Christianity, with no surroundings, no background, no distance, no atmosphere. Of course he became a fanatic, and fell into those errors which entire absence of the perception of relationship, per-

spective, and proportion surely involve. Yet with all these limitations, and in spite of the fact that his achievements have to be vindicated by the immunity accorded to fanatics before they can shed lustre upon the actor, Brown compelled in his lifetime from many, and among posterity is likely to compel from all, both affection and respect. It will freely be admitted that what he did was ill-judged, of limited usefulness, morally defensible only by arguments not generally admissible; but it will be said concerning himself that he was a zealous, courageous, tender-hearted, selfdevoted, noble-souled servant of the loftiest cause which men have yet been called to advance. In life his face told at once his loving-kindness and his fearlessness, his capacity to dare and to suffer for those who needed aid. His manner won the love of little children, inspired the enthusiastic loyalty of friends, extorted a singular respect and forbearance from many foes. All felt that he was not like other men ; that he would not act like-them, nor accept their standards, nor submit to be judged by their laws. The world has yielded to these bold and high demands, and in his case makes exceptions to its usual rules for trial and judgment. In spite of the bloody horrors of Osawatomie and the insane frenzy of the Harper’s Ferry raid, Brown will not be thought a murderer nor quite a madman, and will be held in noble memory by the coming generations of the American people.

  1. The Life and Letters of John Brown, Liberator of Kansas, and Martyr of Virginia. Edited by F. B. SANBORN. Roberts Brothers. 1885.