NY Times Book Review, April 17, 2005
'John Brown, Abolitionist': A Soldier in the Army of the Lord
By BARBARA EHRENREICH
First Chapter: 'John Brown, Abolitionist' (April 17, 2005)
THIS may not be the most auspicious time for a sympathetic biography of a
religious fanatic who repeatedly sought to advance his cause through
violence. Even before the war on terrorism, John Brown had been largely
relegated to a loony sidebar of American history. The high school history
textbooks that the sociologist James Loewen surveyed in 1995 either brushed
Brown off or labeled him insane, while, at a loftier level of intellectual
discourse, Michael Ignatieff accused him of ''sadistic
self-righteousness.'' So it takes courage, if not a touch of Brownian
madness, to argue, as David S. Reynolds does in his absorbing new
biography, ''John Brown, Abolitionist,'' that Brown was not the Unabomber
of his time, but a reasonable man, well connected to his era's intellectual
currents and a salutary force for change.
Reynolds, a professor of English and American studies at the City
University of New York, best known for his book ''Walt Whitman's America,''
buries the insanity charge under a mountain of contrary evidence. Even
Brown's seemingly suicidal raid on Harpers Ferry represented a strategy no
crazier than the Civil War practice of throwing infantry into massed rifle
fire and hoping a few men would survive to break through the enemy lines:
Brown's long study of slave revolts suggested that an act of exemplary
violence would set off huge slave uprisings and self-emancipation. And what
could be saner than his 1858 attack on three Kansas slave owners, in which
Brown freed 11 blacks with only a single death?
As for Brown's monomaniacal hostility to slavery, which seems so
inexplicable to many critics, he was not the only white man so afflicted.
The antislavery publisher Elijah Lovejoy, for example, had his printing
presses destroyed three times by pro-slavery mobs in Illinois. Each time,
he coolly acquired a new press and went on crusading, until the mob got him.
Nor did Brown's rigidly Calvinist version of Christianity isolate him
intellectually, bin Laden-style, from the intellectual ferment of his time.
Reynolds reports that he traveled long distances to hear feminist
lecturers, and took their cause to heart. At various times, his little band
of armed recruits included Jews and agnostics, and engaged in heated
discussions of ''religious themes, mesmerism, ventriloquism, necromancy,
spiritualism, psychology,'' not to mention earthquakes and astronomy. More
important for Brown's legitimacy, he was embraced by the leading
intellectuals of his time, Henry Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who found
in him an exemplar of the ''higher law'' their Transcendentalism aspired to.
To those who argue that Brown's commendable goals were sullied by his
bloody methods, Reynolds retorts that violence was in fact central to his
message and his legacy. In the 1850's, it was the pro-slavery forces that
held a monopoly on armed force -- terrorizing antislavery citizens in the
Midwest as well as the South, or proudly proclaiming, as did one Kansas
newspaper editor, that he lived to kill an abolitionist: ''If I can't kill
a man, I'll kill a woman; and if I can't kill a woman, I'll kill a child!''
Antislavery activists, on the other hand, were often pacifists and usually
the victims of their political opponents -- a relationship symbolized by a
South Carolina congressman's crippling beating of the abolitionist Charles
Sumner on the floor of the United States Senate. With his guns and pikes,
Brown reversed the equation -- stiffening the backbones of Northern
abolitionists, terrifying the white South -- and hastening, through both
effects, the Civil War and emancipation.
There are times when Reynolds goes almost as far as the Transcendentalists
in beatifying Brown. Maybe the Brown family members were, as Reynolds
claims, the only nonracist whites in America. Certainly Reynolds cites some
appallingly racist statements by antislavery leaders, including Abraham
Lincoln. Brown, in contrast, fought not only to end slavery but to achieve
full equality of the races, a goal he prefigured by recruiting blacks into
leadership roles in his armed band and by settling in the largely black
community of North Elba, N.Y. But the reader might wonder why Brown
attracted so few black men to his Harpers Ferry raid and, devastatingly
enough, failed to give the local slaves a heads-up in the weeks before.
Reynolds also portrays Brown as a sort of all-around progressive saint,
sympathetic to the various liberation movements of his time. But his
credentials as a feminist are undermined by the fact that he inflicted 20
births on two sequential wives, the first of whom was mentally unstable.
There is disappointingly little here about Mary Brown, the stolid second
wife who ran the farm and raised the children while her husband raided
Kansas and swanned around New England's abolitionist circles. Did she get
to travel to the suffrage lectures with him? I tend to doubt it.
On the other hand, there are points where Reynolds might have been stronger
in Brown's defense. After the Fugitive Slave Act (1850) and the Dred Scott
decision (1857), white people of conscience could no longer content
themselves with supporting the Underground Railroad. A slave was a slave
anywhere, the law declared, and for all time. Violence was beginning to
look like the answer, not just to Brown, but eventually to Lincoln too.
It was Brown's killing of five Pottawatomie, Kan., pro-slavery men --
dragged from their beds and hacked to death -- that has made commentators
queasy ever since, Reynolds included to some extent. He offers the rather
feeble judgment that it would be ''misleading'' to compare the Pottawatomie
attack to modern terrorism. Yet if terrorism is defined as the random
killing of civilians to make a political point, then it is not just
misleading to call Brown a terrorist, it is flat-out wrong. Brown selected
his victims carefully; all had reportedly threatened abolitionists and the
Brown family in particular. At any rate, the Pottawatomie violence exacted
a high price: Brown's son John Jr. suffered a long episode of insanity, and
three other sons remained deeply disturbed by the killings.
How do we judge a man of such different times -- and temperament -- from
our own? If the rule is that there must be some proportion between a
violent act and its provocation, surely there could be no more monstrous
provocation than slavery. In our own time, some may discern equivalent
evils in continuing racial oppression, economic exploitation, environmental
predation or widespread torture. To them, ''John Brown, Abolitionist,'' for
all its wealth of detail and scrupulous attempts at balance, has a
shockingly simple message: Far better to have future generations complain
about your methods than condemn you for doing nothing.
Barbara Ehrenreich's most recent book is "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not)
Getting By in America."