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John Brown

by Gamaliel Bradford

IT is always profoundly interesting to study a controversy where there is right on both sides, though neither can see the right in the other. In the American Civil War the South, with however little fault of its own, was oppressed, smothered by the hideous wickedness of slavery. On the other hand, it was contending for the original principle of state vitality -- the important element in our Constitution, and one steadily undermined by Federal encroachment and, most of all, by the war.

Up to 1861 the most intense complication of these contending principles was in Kansas. There right and wrong fought their battle with furious bitterness, and with a heat of wrath and recrimination which is as pitiful as it is fascinating to behold. And into this thick and bushy tangle of motives and passions John Brown hewed unhesitatingly with the fierce and cruel axe of his unfaltering will. But, as it happens, Brown himself is as complex a puzzle as Kansas; and friends and enemies have torn his memory to pieces in the effort to make him out devil or saint; whereas he was neither, but a human being, with immense aspirations and hopes and struggles, like you or me. In any case, he was perhaps the most curious American example of the intensity of fanatical enthusiasm, and, as such, the analysis of his soul has a profound and absorbing interest.

Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.

More on arts & culture in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

From the archives:

"Forgotten Heroes of Freedom," by Leon F. Litwack (November, 1999)
"As much as any of the Revolutionary patriots and Founding Fathers," writes our reviewer, a historian of slavery, "we need to recall these plantation rebels and outlaws."

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashback: "Blood and Justice" (May 18, 2000)
Nat Turner and John Brown came to symbolize the radical struggle against slavery in the decades prior to the Civil War. Both were hanged for their actions. Both were at the center of intense controversy. A collection of Atlantic articles, from 1861 to 1922, commemorates the bicentennial of their births.

Flashback: "Denmark Vesey, Forgotten Hero" (December 1, 1999)
The story of a thwarted slave revolt that, had it succeeded, would have been the largest in history.

Flashback: "Rhetoric of Freedom" (September 16, 1999)
Atlantic articles by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Frederick Douglass comment on Lincoln's greatest decision, and his greatest legacy.

Interviews: "Inheriting Slavery" (February 26, 1998)
Edward Ball, the author of Slaves in the Family, set out to reckon with the legacy of his ancestors' plantations.

Before beginning such analysis, however, we must have a brief summary of his remarkable career, avoiding controversy as much as is possible where many facts and almost all motives are subject to contest. In making such a summary, we must first acknowledge indebtedness to the admirable biography of Mr. Villard, whose thoroughness of research is equaled only by his obvious desire to be fair to all parties and all men.

Brown was born in Connecticut in 1800. His parents were of English and Dutch stock and his stubbornness through life did not belie his heredity. He had a severe and sternly nurtured youth, growing up with the Bible in one hand and the plough in the other. In later life he wrote a brief autobiography which depicts the struggles of his youth in the terse, tense, rude English he always used. All through it you can see the earnest, passionate, obstinate boy, with his soul set on one object, all the more furiously when he found himself baulked.

The boy was married when a boy, chased fortune in strange fashion all over the country, as a tanner, as a surveyor, as a cattle-breeder, as a wool-merchant, and never once caught her. He had and bred and lost children, lost his wife, married another, and had more children, illimitably. How he fed them all is a mystery. But their feeding was simple, and their lives were simple, and their souls were simple, like his -- if all souls were not so bewilderingly complex.

Through these various financial struggles, it comes out increasingly evident that Brown was not a practical man of business. His temperament was speculative, fed on high hopes, if little else. He worked with borrowed capital, his schemes failed, and he came to grief, like many others. Most of us believe that he was fundamentally honest. But some do not. It may be well to quote here the most scathing piece of abuse that I have met with, as an antidote to much that will come later: 'I knew the old scoundrel long before the war; long before Kansas was known; long before abolition had many advocates. He tried to blow up his mother-in-law with powder; he was guilty of every meanness. He involved his father at one time in ruin, and everybody else he had anything to do with.' So do the saints and martyrs appear to those who have suffered by them.

But, if the practical world rejected Brown and misunderstood him, the unpractical had its revenge in yielding him immortal glory. He gave his life with mad abandonment to the American negro, and that sacrifice raised him on a pedestal no envy and no detraction will ever throw down. Just when Brown's devotion to the abolition cause began cannot be definitely settled. In later life he and his family placed it very early. Mr. H. P. Wilson, who has dissected Brown's soul with searching and ingenious cruelty, but, I think, with utter misapprehension, believes that this early origin was invented, and that Brown's anti-slavery enthusiasm was merely a hypocritical mask to conceal the old greed for gain that had been in so many ways disappointed. I do not see how anyone who has studied Brown's life and letters carefully can question his sincerity for a moment; and I believe, after a thorough consideration of all the evidence, that the passion for freeing the slaves was early conceived and grew and broadened with years, until, when he was nearly sixty years old, it broke out in the wild adventures of Kansas and Harper's Ferry.

Several of Brown's sons went to Kansas in 1854 and 1855. They were led in part, no doubt, by the enthusiasm of the Free-Soil movement, largely also by the instinct for adventure and for seeking fortune under new conditions. Their father was interested in their project from the first. He heard of the violence and aggression of the pro-slavery men, who were thronging into the territory from Missouri, left his wife and other children in North Elba, New York, and made his way to Kansas, well-armed, eager to help his sons, and passionately curious to see what would turn up.

When he arrived, the struggle between the political parties was violently under way. Accounts vary as to the prominence of his earlier part in it. He was never a man to work with others, much less under them. He could contend, command, control; he could not obey. At any rate, he was intimately involved in the furious complications of the end of 1855 and the beginning of 1856, and his antipathy to the advocates of slavery increased in bitterness -- if it could. There was wrath and recrimination everywhere, some unwarranted violence, and a luxury of threats, meaning much or little, but all serving to foment hatred.

Brown made up his mind that a cruel example was needed. In May, 1856, he and a party of his followers, by night, took five pro-slavery men from among their Pottawotamie neighbors, men of bad character but not more criminal than others, and butchered them -- literally hacked them to pieces with cutlasses. Brown always insisted, in a fashion approaching duplicity, that he had no actual hand in the deed; but the whole responsibility was his. In any case, it was a bloody, brutal murder, and quite without immediate excuse. Brown's admirers declare that it saved Kansas to freedom. Less prejudiced historians believe that it did more harm than good.

Brown's course in the West after Pottawatomie was much what it had been before. He was engaged in several so-called battles, with a few men on each side, and behaved always with absolute intrepidity and sometimes with shrewdness. Mr. Wilson insists that his chief motive was plunder. There was plenty of disreputable plundering on both sides, horse-stealing in particular. But there can be no serious doubt that Brown regarded it as a worthy despoiling of the Egyptians, and intended religiously to devote all profit to the advancement of the cause.

In the autumn of 1856 Brown left Kansas. The year 1857 he spent in the Middle West and East, gathering funds and arousing enthusiasm in various societies and individuals, with the ostensible purpose of aiding Kansas, but with, at any rate, some further and deeper plans for a more central attack upon the strongholds of slavery. In the summer of 1858 he returned to Kansas, where conditions were again acute, made a raid into Missouri, captured a considerable number of slaves, and, after a journey full of picturesque vicissitudes, carried them triumphantly to Canada, where the British flag ensured their permanent freedom. John Brown never entered Kansas again.

II

AS there is endless controversy over the date of Brown's first interest in slavery, so historians dispute over his conception of the Harper's Ferry adventure. If the interview recorded by Frederick Douglass as having taken place in 1847 is to be accepted, -- and I think it must be in substance, -- Brown was at that time brooding over the details of some such scheme as he afterward attempted to carry out. He explained to Douglass his plan for subsisting an army of whites and blacks in the mountain fastnesses and so gradually undermining the whole slave-power. In 1849 he made a brief trip to Europe for business objects, and he appears to have attempted a more or less extensive study of battles and battlefields, with a military purpose in mind. For, though he was profoundly religious and by profession a hater of war, like many another such he was born a fighter, and relished nothing more than to have God put a scourge into his hands to lash the devil.

His daughter testifies explicitly that he told her of his Harper's Ferry plan before he first went to Kansas. In the interval between his two Kansas visits the general outline of the scheme was certainly made more or less plain to some of his eastern supporters. And in May, 1858, took place in Chatham, Canada, that singular convention a few whites and a larger number negroes, which adopted the still more singular Provisional Constitution -- Brown's elaborate device for governing the nation within a nation that was to be created by the gradual freeing of the Southern slaves. This instrument with its lofty tone and its complicated establishment of executive, legislative, judiciary, and the rest, seems like a Utopian parody of the Constitution of the United States, elaborated by a slow, thorough, narrow, limited intellect possessed and obsessed by one idea; and such was assuredly Brown's.

Any hope the inventor of this system may have had of putting it immediately into practice was thwarted by the defection of the restless, unreliable adventurer Forbes, who, after being more trusted by his leader than was anyone else, deserted the cause and made perilous revelations as to the methods. Brown was obliged to defer action for a year; but his patience was as indomitable as his energy. 'Young men must learn to wait. Patience is the hardest lesson to learn. I have waited for twenty years to accomplish my purpose.'

At last, in the summer of 1859, Brown settled himself and his little band of followers at the Kennedy farm in Maryland, about five miles from Harper's Ferry. The followers were a somewhat heterogeneous collection. They were by no means all religious men. Perhaps they had not all been virtuous men. They were hardy, energetic young fellows, ready to risk anything and go anywhere. Most, if not all of them, had a superstitious horror of slavery. And everyone of them adored the old man and was willing to die for him.

Just what plan of campaign Brown had adopted, if any definite, will never be known. His friends and his foes have ingeniously supplied him with several, and supported them with what they think are conclusive arguments. But the arguments are as different as the conclusions, and none is convincing. Somehow or other Brown hoped to gather a nucleus of slaves and whites, whose determined action in seizing Harper's Ferry would finally lead to the liberation of every Southern negro. But the method of accomplishing this is obscure. On the one hand, we are told by Brown's son that 'Father had a peculiarity of insisting on order. I felt that at Harper's Ferry this very thing would be likely to trap him. He would insist on getting everything arranged just to suit him before he would consent to make a move.' On the other hand, we have Brown's own impressive words: 'It is an invariable rule with me to be governed by circumstances; or, in other words, not to do anything while I do not know what to do.' No doubt these two positions may be reconciled, but they do not make our puzzle much clearer.

At any rate, the conspirators, about twenty in all, lurked at the Kennedy Farm till the middle of October, slowly accumulating arms and supplies and keeping themselves marvelously hidden from the neighbors' curiosity. Then, on the evening of Sunday, October 16, Brown marched out, at the head of a petty band of adventurers, to challenge deliberately a great nation by assaulting its officers and seizing its property. The complicated evolutions of Sunday night and Monday need not be traced in detail. By Monday night, not only the town of Harper's Ferry, but the State of Virginia and the whole country had been aroused, and had grasped, at least vaguely, the enormous effrontery of Brown's undertaking. Various peaceable citizens had been killed, as well as several of Brown's followers. He himself, after getting possession of the different government buildings and picking up from the surrounding country a number of slaves and also a number of slaveholders as hostages, among whom was a member of the family of Washington, was shut up with the remains of his band and his prisoners in the engine-house and continued there till Tuesday morning. But in the dull gray October dawn a detachment of United States Marines, under Colonel Robert E. Lee, broke in the doors, liberated the prisoners, and killed or captured all the defenders. Brown was cut down fighting, and received several wounds, which were at first thought to be dangerous, but which afterwards proved to be comparatively unimportant.

Virginia and the whole South were naturally infuriated. Brown was speedily tried on various charges, and sentenced to be hanged. His Northern friends complained of indecent haste in the proceedings, but later historians agree that, on the whole, the affair was conducted with as much consideration as could have been expected. Brown bore himself through it all with the admirable dignity that he had shown from the first moment of his capture. Indeed, the testimony of his captors and interrogators to his composure and clear-headedness is as impressive as that of his prisoners to his courage and thoughtful humanity.

During the long weeks of his imprisonment the condemned traitor showed an unbroken serenity and nobleness. He discouraged all attempts at escape or rescue, and urged upon his friends that, as a martyr to the cause, he would serve it more substantially than by any further living effort. He corresponded widely, and his numerous letters, with their poignant directness and incontrovertible sincerity, afford the best evidence of the great qualities of his character.

On the second of December, 1859, John Brown was hanged at Charlestown, Virginia. Great military preparations were made to ensure a peaceful execution of the sentence, and it was carried out with every detail of decorum and decency, except that a painful delay at the last moment prolonged unnecessarily the prisoner's suspense. Brown's bearing was perfect, his courage and calmness flawless. There were no heroics, no rhetoric. He took an affectionate leave of his companions in arms and gave them each a quarter of a dollar, saying that he should have no further use for money.

Of an equally touching simplicity were his words as he was driven to the gallows: 'This is a beautiful country. I never had the pleasure of seeing it before'; and the phrase seems somehow to give a startling insight into the vivid and intense perception of a man who is opening his eyes upon the other world. A few hours later the eyes were closed to this, and John Brown had become a strange, great legendary figure in the complicated progress of humanity.

III

SO died a typical incarnation of ideal, or fanatical, enthusiasm, a man absolutely convinced of the truth and justice of his own ideas of right and wrong, in certain points at any rate, and determined to impose them upon the world, by persuasion if possible, if not, by bloodshed, agony, and slaughter. He was a theorist, a reasoner, all the more rigorous in his theories because their scope was limited. You can see the rigor in the face, especially before it was bearded -- in the set mouth, the cavernous eyes, the sturdy chin, the drawn brows and narrow forehead. There was a tremendous, indomitable stubbornness in the man. 'Let the grand reason, that one course is right and another wrong, be kept continually before your own mind.' He kept it always before his, and walked straight on, no matter whom his footsteps shattered.

To minds of a different type, reflective, curious, analytical, there is endless interest in studying such a temperament in weighing the good and evil of its working in the world -- good and evil to itself, good and evil to the vast body of its fellow beings. Let us trace out some of the ramifications of this as illustrated in the case of Brown.

First as to the evil, and the evil to the world at large. Such natures are intolerant; from their point of view they have the right to be so. They know what should be done and what should not. Paltry excuses, quibbling reserves, charitable allowances, what are they but devices of the Evil One, cunningly assorted to obscure the real issue between heaven and hell? 'I believe in the Golden Rule and the Declaration of Independence,' said Brown. 'I think they both mean the same thing; and it is better that a whole generation should pass off the face of the earth, -- men, women, and children, -- by a violent death, than that one jot of either should fail in this country. I mean exactly so, Sir.' He meant so, he acted so, he lived so.

Such intolerance kills the quiet ease and joy of life. It kills compromise and mutual understanding, and breeds suspicion and mistrust. It breeds wrath and violence, sets father against son and brother against brother, triumphantly justifies such hideous crimes as the brutal murders on the Pottawatomie. And, alas, so often, it does all this from misapprehension, from reasoning with fierce, narrow, unenlightened logic, and reasoning wrong.

The injury of this fanatical temperament to the individual possessor of it is even more obvious than the injury to the world in general. Take intelligence. His temperament cuts him off from curious knowledge, from wide interest in the movement of life and its varied currents and subtle developments. It makes him feel that all that does not renovate society from his point of view is frivolous and contemptible. Brown read -- oh yes, he read the Bible, always the Bible, and he read Plutarch, and he read books, on military science. What if he had read Plato or Montaigne?

And beauty? What room, what leisure is there for beauty, a frivolous distraction, an idle, deceiving siren, which leads the soul astray from the one clear, arduous path it must forever follow? Brown loved music, loved hymns; they fed his strange melancholy, his strange exaltation. Yet probably he would have said of music, with Cowper, 'If it is not used with an unfeigned reference to the worship of God... it degenerates into a sensual delight and becomes a most powerful advocate for the admission of other pleasures, grosser perhaps in degree, but in their kind the same.' And Brown loved nature; but we have seen that he walked through it as a man in a dream, and opened his eyes to it only when they were about to close forever.

It was the same with all the comforts of life, ease, fine clothes, delicate food, luxury, grace, elegance, and charm. The grosser man in us, the simple, natural man, unhaunted by far thoughts and tormenting scruples, enjoys these things, savors them, revels in them. But how can any one enjoy them whose mind is clouded with the misery of the world? How can a life be happy passed in the midst of those who suffer? To be sure, many lives are, but not this man's. He would cut off human wants, cut off superfluous desires, cut off bare needs. Those poor negroes were toiling under the lash, and why should he achieve felicity? He wore old, plain clothes, and ate the simplest sustenance compatible with life. When Douglass visited him, in 1847, he was struck with the utter poverty of everything. 'Plain as was the outside of this man's house, the inside was plainer.... There was an air of plainness about it which almost suggested destitution.' The meal was 'such as a man might relish after following the plough all day.' 'Innocent of paint, veneering, varnish, or tablecloth, the table announced itself unmistakably of pine and of the plainest workmanship.' And while the poverty may have resulted in part from lack of business ability, it came far more from absorption in higher things. 'For twenty years,' said Brown, in 1858, 'I have never made any business arrangement which would prevent me at any time answering the call of the Lord. I have kept my affairs in such condition that in two weeks I could wind them up and be ready to obey the call; permitting nothing to stand in the way of duty -- neither wife, children, nor worldly goods.'

It is equally evident that these lofty spiritual pursuits do not fit well with the lighter side of life, with the more kindly human relations, the trivial exchange of cordial, empty, daily jest and laughter. Brown had a grim, Old Testamentary humor of his own, that relaxed the iron muscles of those mouth-corners just a trifle. But did he ever laugh with abandon? He mingled with men for his own purposes, though even with those closest to him he had a strange and desperate secrecy. For ordinary social converse he had no taste and no aptitude. 'I have one unconquerable weakness,' he said with a smile in those last unsmiling days; 'I have always been more afraid of being taken into an evening party of ladies and gentlemen, than of meeting a company of men with guns.' Even the faculty of consolation, the most exquisite, tender link of friendship, was denied him, or at least not given in large measure. 'I never seemed to possess a faculty to console and comfort my friends in their grief; I am inclined, like the poor comforters of Job, to sit down in silence, lest in my miserable way I should only add to their grief.'

But the crowning interest of the effect of Brown's great aim in life upon his human relations appears in his dealings with his family. He was devotedly attached to both his wives and to his numerous sons and daughters. He was thoughtful of their worldly welfare, as he saw it, to the very end. He was more than thoughtful, he was tender. He was tender to the animals with whom he lived so much. He was tender, divinely tender with human beings. When those he loved were ill, he would give up food, give up sleep, give up immediately necessary labor, to tend them and watch over them with delicate, considerate care. Yet he punished with pitiless severity. When one of his sons had earned a heavy whipping, he inflicted half of it, and then made the boy lash the father's own bare back till the blood came. 'He made his wife ride to church with him on a pillion, on a young and unbroken horse he wished to tame, with the result that she was twice thrown.'

Also, he must rule, dominate, control everything that came near him. He dominated animals. 'He said that he could always, without moving, make a dog or cat leave the room if he wished, by his eye.' Was he not one day to be ruler over thousands? If so, then surely he must dominate at home. 'He was intolerant in little things and in little ways.... I had it from [his son] Owen, in a quiet way, and from other sources in quite a loud way, that in his family his methods were of the most arbitrary kind,' says a not very friendly witness. Douglass, a most friendly one, observes that 'He fullfilled St. Paul's idea of the head of the family. His wife believed in him, and his children observed him with reverence.'

And when a great cause demanded it, both wife and children must be sacrificed without a moment's hesitation. He said it repeatedly, and, when necessary, he did it. The little sacrifices were demanded constantly and given freely. The supreme sacrifice was always held in readiness and accorded at the supreme moment. A son was killed in Kansas, two sons were killed at Harper's Ferry. Still he fought on, if not unmoved or without a tear, absolutely unaltered in his resolution to give what was far dearer than his own life to achieving the one great end of his and their existence on this earth. The strain of living so much apart from all he loved was terrible. It wrung his heart to think of their privation and sickness and sorrow. But even this grief was smothered in the thought of all the greater grief. 'The anxiety I feel to see my wife and children once more I am unable to describe.... The cries of my poor, sorrowstricken, despairing children, whose tears on their cheeks are ever in my eye and whose sighs are ever in my ears, may however prevent my enjoying the happiness I so much desire.'

Truly the strain of this man's life in the grip of his overpowering prepossession illuminates Heine's passionate saying: 'You talk of our having ideas. We do not have ideas. The Idea has us, and martyrs us and scourges us and drives us into the arena to fight for it and die for it, whether we will or no.'

IV

AND what good comes from this tyrannous mastery of an idea, to balance and compensate all the wide weight of privation and misery? Let us consider such good, first, as it affects the individual, then, as it affects the world. To clarify the consideration we must dig a little more deeply into the profound tangle of motives that lies at the base of moral and spiritual, as of all other, effort.

In such a case as Brown's, the persistent, all-excluding nature of the obsession, its constant intrusion in season and out of season, its cruel dominance over all other motives and all other passions, undeniably suggest insanity. This solution has been urged for Brown. It receives support from the man's singular and unfortunate inheritance. Insanity was rampant in his mother's family, and there were a dozen instances in relatives more or less close to him. An effort was made to plead this in court. Brown himself rejected it scornfully. At the same time, I think his frequent recurrence to it indicates that its shadow haunted him with some discomfort. 'I may be very insane,' he wrote, 'and I am so, if insane at all. But if that be so, insanity is like a very pleasant dream to me.' And again: 'If I am insane, of course I should think I know more than all the rest of the world. But I do not think so.' Yet this is precisely what he did think, what every enthusiast and fanatic of his type thinks. In that overmastering, overwhelming assurance of knowing more than all the rest of the world, from whatever source, lies all their power -- and all their weakness. In the greatest examples of the type, the assurance proves itself well founded. The whole wide world comes in time to think as they did, and so to justify their sacrifice and martyrdom. And it is here that more serious doubt arises in regard to Brown. Strong and vigorous as his intelligence was, it ran so much to the fantastic, and the conception, or misconception, of his final effort was so incoherently disastrous, that it is impossible to credit him with clear, commanding intellectual power. At the same time, it is equally impossible to describe him as technically insane. Close and shrewd observers, who watched him at critical moments, affirm his sanity. Men who reason as consistently and will as insistently and act as persistently as he did cannot be set apart as of diseased mind.

Yet 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. And precisely in this absorption, in this excitement, lifting you above all earth, lies one of its charms. Such a nature as Brown's is born to struggle and fight, with something, with anything. He thought he loved peace. So he did, in theory. But the peace he loved was the peace you have to fight for. He was eager, restless. To be quiet was death, and to be comfortable and even to be happy was too like being quiet. 'I expect nothing but to "endure hardness," he said. He wanted nothing but to endure hardness. When he was enduring and resisting, he knew he was alive. One of the most instructive sentences he ever wrote was, 'I felt for a number of years, in earlier life, a steady, strong desire to die; but since I saw any prospect of becoming a "reaper" in the great harvest, I have not only felt quite willing to live, but have enjoyed life much.' He probably enjoyed it most of all in prison, when only a few days of it were left him.

And besides the exhilaration of living for an ideal, there is the element of personal ambition. It is quite unnecessary to assume with Mr. Wilson that Brown was actuated entirely by vulgar greed and narrow personal vanity. Who shall say that the greatest of teachers and prophets is wholly exempt from the delight of feeling, if not saying, 'I did this thing'? The man is worth little who has not the root of such ambition in him. Assuredly Brown had it. Did he not write of himself in youth, 'He very early in life became ambitious to excel in doing anything he undertook to perform'? Did he not write in age, when treading on the heels of performance, 'I have only had this one opportunity, in a life of nearly sixty years; and could I be continued ten times as long again, I might not again have another equal opportunity. God has honored but comparatively a very small part of mankind with any possible chance for such mighty and soul-satisfying rewards'?

Further, there is the delight of mastery, of controlling things and leading men, of feeling that your sole, petty, finite will is making at least a portion of the universe bow and bend before it. To some spirits the thought of this is hateful and the effort for it repulsive. To others it is the supreme joy of life. And such preeminently was Brown. He even carried the instinct so far as to find it difficult to obey when obedience is perhaps the deepest secret of final dominance. He could not work well with others. He must rule or be nothing. Both friends and enemies testify to this. 'Very superstitious, very selfish and very intolerant, with great self-esteem.... He could not brook a rival,' says one witness cited by Mr. Wilson. 'He doted on being the head of the heap, and he was,' says Brown's brother-in-law. And his son's comment is equally decided: 'The trouble is, you want your boys to be brave as tigers, and still afraid of you'; while the father, meditating soberly in his Virginia prison, recognized the same weakness as clearly as anyone. He writes of one of his sons, he 'always has underrated himself; is bashful and retiring in his habits; is not (like his father) too much inclined to assume and dictate.'

Thus, such a temper would like to control and dominate the world, but always for the world's good. In Brown, at least, there was not a trace of conscious desire to rule for evil or for the gratification of any personal motive of mischief or cruelty. In spite of all he had endured, and all the slights and injuries of men, he repeats over and over that no thought of revenge enters into any of his efforts. If the wicked must suffer through his action, it is because they are wicked, not because they have tormented him.

For, back of all the personal element; back even of the abstract desire to do good, there was always God; and in study of such temperaments as Brown's the obscure, vast mystery of God must always be given the largest place. It is here, I think, chiefly, that Mr. Wilson's shrewd analysis is at fault. In all the puzzles, in all the tangles, in all the inconsistencies of this strange man's life, especially in elucidating his plan, or lack of plan, before the attack on Harper's Ferry, we must look to God as the solution. He was a child of destiny, like Napoleon or Cromwell; but with him the destiny was the obvious, constant direction of God. 'The Lord had directed him in visions what to do.' 'He scouted the idea of rest while he held a commission direct from God Almighty to act against slavery.' 'God had created him to be the deliverer to slaves, the same as Moses had delivered the children of Israel.' It is true that Brown several times spoke of himself as naturally skeptical. He was shrewd, hard-headed, far from ready to accept all the fantastic quips and quirks of credulous superstition. But his intense insistence on what he did believe was all the firmer; and he did believe that God had predestined him from eternity to root out the curse from these United States; he did believe that God bade him do fierce and bloody things, that that curse might be rooted out forever. In 1856 Mrs. Coleman asked him, 'Then, Captain, you think that God uses you as an instrument in his hands to kill men?' And he answered, '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.'

And if this sense of immediate direction from God, of being in the hands of God as a mighty agent for his purposes, for everlasting good, even sometimes through apparent evil, is the greatest motive for human accomplishment, is it not also the greatest source of human rapture? The joy it brings is the most acute and exalted of all joy, and the peace it gives is the deepest and the most enduring of all peace. So at least Brown found it, in his prison days, with death awaiting him, having failed in his great undertaking according to the judgment of men, but with the growing consciousness that apparent failure covered God's intention in a mightier triumph, which could be made perfect only by his departure from this troubled world. He was 'fully persuaded that I am worth inconceivably more to hang than for any other purpose.' And in that persuasion his spirit found more contentment than it had known in all his restless sixty years. 'Tell your father that I am quite cheerful; that I do not feel myself in the least degraded by my imprisonment, my chains, or the near prospect of the gallows. Men cannot imprison, or chain, or hang the soul.' And when an effort was made to comfort him, he said, 'I sleep peacefully as an infant, or, if I am wakeful, glorious thoughts come to me, entertaining my mind.'

It is one of the characteristics of this spiritual rapture that it is impelled to extend itself to others. None who feels the ecstasy of God upon him can refrain from communicating it, from striving passionately to make the world over and urging others to make it over also. And none strove thus with more ardor than John Brown. Something magnetic in his obsession touched men of the most diverse temperaments and powers, roused them to think and feel and work as he did.

Take his immediate followers: take that group of boys, or little more than boys, who gathered about him with unquestioning loyalty in the last desperate venture. They were not especially religious. Even Brown's own sons did not adopt his orthodox interpretation of the Bible. But every man of the company had imbibed the spirit of sacrifice; every man was ready to give his life for the cause their leader had preached to them; every man believed that what he said should be done, must be done. 'They perfectly worshiped the ground the old fellow trod on,' said a Southern observer, who had no sympathy with them except in the admiration of splendid courage.

Nor was it only over those who came under his immediate command that Brown exercised the magnetism of inspiration and stimulus. After his capture and during his imprisonment he was surrounded by bitter enemies. But they grew to respect him, and some apparently to have a personal regard for him. Even when they condemned his cause, they esteemed his spirit of sacrifice and his superb singleness of purpose. In the years before the crisis came, he met some of the keenest and most intelligent men in the United States, and they saw and felt in him a man of power, a man of will, a man of ideals above the common average and level of trivial earthliness. 'No matter how inconsistent, impossible, and desperate a thing might appear to others, if John Brown said he would do it, he was sure to be believed. His words were never taken for empty bravado,' wrote Frederick Douglass. That enthusiasts like Gerritt Smith should be carried away was, perhaps, natural. But Alcott was not an enthusiast, Emerson was not an enthusiast, Thoreau was not, Theodore Parker was not. All these men spoke of Brown as one gifted for some divine purpose beyond mortality. All of them thanked the humble farmer and shepherd for that thrill of exaltation which is one of the greatest forces that can touch the heart. No one would call John A. Andrew an enthusiast. He was a practical man of the world, versed in the hard conduct of everyday affairs. Yet Andrew said: 'Whatever might be thought of John Brown's acts, John Brown himself was right.'

And 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. The song that carried his name inspired millions throughout the great Civil War; it has inspired millions since; and John Brown's soul and sacrifice were back of the song.

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. Whatever their limitations, their errors, their defects, or their excesses, it may justly be said, as was said of Brown and his followers, that 'these men, in teaching us how to die, have at the same time taught us how to live.'


The Atlantic Monthly; November 1922; John Brown - 22.11; Volume 130, No. 5; page 646-656.