Harpers this month has a long review of a new book on John Brown: The Good Terrorist, by David S. Reynolds.
Brown's always been an ambiguous figure, and I don't think this book's going to clear anything up. Brown represents for me the extent to which a too-fervent belief in anything -- even so laudable a thing as the abolition of slavery -- can lead you into comically grandiose delusions. He was an effective and passionate advocate, no doubt, both before and after his Raid. Ultimately on the side of the angels, absolutely. But as an ends-justify-the-means Total Warrior, he was less Spartacus (the comparison he'd have most liked) than he was the abortion bomber Eric Rudolph of his time. And as a tactical and strategic thinker he was about as incisive as Yosemite Sam: The notion that the slaves of Harpers Ferry -- relatively well-treated urban domestic servants rather than the hideously abused fieldhands of the big plantations to the south that had spawned Nat Turner 20 years previously -- would rise up and take to a life of Castro-like guerrilla warfare in the Blue Ridge is pretty silly. A levelheaded person, unblinded by ideology, would have shunned the Harpers Ferry Raid like a dirty shirt. As did, for example, Frederick Douglass.
But those were times when levelheaded people weren't very thick on the ground. (Unlike oh, say, now, for example.)
Perhaps it's a measure of how terribly the country was divided in 1859 that Brown's execution -- the meting out of justice by a duly empowered State -- was perceived by many as the opposite of justice. The Abolitionist North viewed the aftermath of Brown's miserably incompetent raid as the revenge of an outraged South -- Ralph Waldo Emerson, it's noted, said Brown made "the gallows glorious like the cross."
Some causal relationships tend to get forgotten or overlooked. Three years before his raid, on May 24, 1856, in Pottawatomie, Kansas, Brown and four of his sons used broadswords to brutally murder five pro-slavery settlers. This fact is often recounted in history textbooks without context, and it becomes a bit more understandable (if not a whit more excusable) when it's remembered that Brown's actions were a small part of a brutal frontier war over the spread of slavery into new territories.
It shouldn't be forgotten, either, that on May 20, four days before the Pottawatomie events, Sen. Charles Sumner (R. Mass.) had risen in the Senate to excoriate the Kansas-Nebraska Act as a cynical swindle (which it was) and mocked the Act's authors, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina, comparing them to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Sen. Sumner's tirade included this little gem:
With regret, I come again upon the Senator from South Carolina (Mr. Butler), who, omnipresent in this debate, overflowed with rage at the simple suggestion that Kansas had applied for admission as a State and, with incoherent phrases, discharged the loose expectoration of his speech, now upon her representative, and then upon her people.Uh-oh. "Incoherent phrases"? "Loose expectoration of his speech"?
Butler had suffered a stroke. His speech was slurred.
Ooooh: Low blow!
Two days later, on May 22, Preston S. Brooks, a congressman from South Carolina and a kinsman of Butler, whaled the stuffing out of Sumner with a cane on the floor of the Senate. Absolutely poleaxed him. It took Sumner three years to recover enough to return to office.
Two days after that, five settlers died in Kansas under Brown's "terrible swift sword."
Not a bad argument for civility in legislative discourse, is it?