John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War and Seeded Civil Rights by David S. Reynolds (Vintage, 2006)
What to do with John Brown? Any historian or student of history interested in the Civil War or the lead-up to one of the greatest calamities in U.S. history must grapple with that same question. Or, perhaps, to re-frame the question, how does one explain the enigma of John Brown, this walking contradiction, a man who somehow managed to be both ahead of his time and behind the times, a militant abolitionist politically, a tolerant Calvinist religiously, a man who believed in the true equality of blacks and whites in a time when even the most progressive white abolitionists still embodied the racist sentiments prevalent in that period. In his magisterial biography of John Brown, the abolitionist who became infamous for the murders he oversaw in the fight over "Bleeding Kansas" and for his attack on Harpers Ferry, David Reynolds seeks to unravel this riddle of American history, and for that attempt alone this book is worth the effort needed to plow through over five hundred pages of sometimes densely written text and complex argument.
As much about John Brown the symbol and the historiography of Brown as it is about the man himself, Reynolds deftly places "Osawatomie Brown" in the context of his times and brings a balanced treatment to the topic, something that other historians failed to do (or, in the case of the early 20th Century revisionist historians with their pro-Southern sympathies, didn't try to do in the first case). Brown must surely rank as one of the most remarkable figures in our history, a man who embodied Calvinist attitudes towards religion that had long since fallen out of favor at the same time as he embodied views on race that were downright progressive. His view that blacks and whites were inherently equal, that the two races could live together in harmony and that blacks deserved the same full rights as citizens (he held the same opinion about Native Americans), while mainstream today were revolutionary for the time. Many abolitionists, while noble in their condemnation of slavery, were less noble in their views on race. Some held that the two races could never live in peace and advocated the removal of freed slaves back to Africa; William Lloyd Garrison famously proposed ending the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1863, suggesting that its mission had been accomplished. This action exposed his view that, at least initially, blacks should not have full rights as citizens and did not need post-emancipation protections against their former masters (51). Even Lincoln, while he spent most of his career as a pragmatist who abhorred slavery rather than an Abolitionist, made several statements in which he agreed that blacks were inherently inferior to whites, notably in his debates with Douglas (273). Thus Brown may be considered one of the few non-racists in the United States during the period, going so far as to begin a small town at North Elba where he put his beliefs into practice by living among blacks with his family.
Most interesting of all in the work is Reynolds' treatment of the role of the Trancendentalists in supporting Brown while he was alive and lionizing the man after his capture and subsequent execution for his attack on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry. It is a remarkable and overlooked fact that Emerson and Thoreau spearheaded the movement to rehabilitate Brown and make him a more potent force for abolition in death than he was even when alive. The reasons as to why these men, pacifists at heart, would embrace a radical like Brown who called for anti-slavery violence long before Harpers Ferry is a discussion interesting in and of itself, as is the final portion of the book where Reynolds' traces the legacy of Brown. While some may think that the subtitle of the work is going too far, given the complexity of the slave issue in U.S. history and the lead-up to civil war, I think that the author accurately makes the case that, at the least, the actions of John Brown and the subsequent glorifying of his intentions by many in the North accelerated the already-lit fuse that led to war. Reynolds' asserts that, as pro-slavery feeling in the South had only been strengthening for decades rather than the reverse, the war would have come at some point. The attack on Harpers' Ferry only helped to ensure that the war came in 1861 rather than a decade or two later.
John Brown: Abolitionist is the remarkable end-result of what must have been years of copious, detailed research, a fascinating look at a man who has too-often been sidelined (or completely ignored) in discussions of the Civil War, dismissed as a madman, or worse. Anyone with interest in the man or the period owes it to themselves to take a look at this work, which will help to develop a deeper understanding of the countdown to Fort Sumter.