John Brown's War against Slavery

Article excerpt

John Brown's War Against Slavery. By Robert E. McGlone. (New York and other cities: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. x, 451. $35.00, ISBN 978-0-521-51443-9.)

This landmark biography argues that the famous abolitionist John Brown was not "sui generis," as admirers and critics later claimed, but was "a man shaped by his time" (p. 23). By hewing closely to contemporary sources and challenging "aphoristic stories" used uncritically by previous biographers, Robert E. McGlone brilliantly moves beyond older portraits of Brown as a saintly martyr or delusional fanatic while also raising questions of broader interest about what historians can learn from psychologists (p. 16).

Three of the book's conclusions will likely spark the most debate. First, while emphasizing Brown's religiosity, it argues that "secular concerns largely shaped his day-to-day life," especially his concerns as a firstborn son in an extensive family whose collective concern for their clan's reputation and welfare were crucial to Brown (p. 8).

Second, McGlone stresses Brown's experiences in Bleeding Kansas and his direction of five murders along Pottawatomie Creek as turning points in his abolitionist career, rightly emphasizing the unexpectedness of the killings. Through close readings of Brown family correspondence, McGlone also argues that the Pottawatomie murders were provoked partly by Brown's "growing sense of peril to his family" and ongoing desire to please his aging father (p. 112). In Brown's continuous identification with family, McGlone discovers an explanation for the changes wrought in him by Kansas.

Third, McGlone persuasively argues that Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, "is better understood as a political than as a military act" and that Brown "was a strikingly successful propagandist" who was concerned with gathering dangers to republican "governance" as well as with "rescuing slaves" (pp. 221, 203,248). McGlone understands the raid's denouement as a result of its mixed goals as liberation mission and political assault on the Slave Power, thereby offering a striking new explanation of Brown's capture: to attract national attention to his purposes, Brown had to stay in Harpers Ferry long enough for word to spread, but he misjudged this delicate timing in the fog of combat and was surprised by rapidly organized resistance from town inhabitants.

McGlone also considers at length the possibility that Brown suffered from mental illness, eliminating several diagnoses before concluding that if Brown had an "illness or personality disorder, it eludes classification" (p. 200). Some readers may feel the book pays undue attention to questions about Brown's mental health. But since mental health is partly a function of "brain chemistry," McGlone believes biographers should take seriously the possibility of mental disease, especially since empirical diagnostic criteria used by modern psychologists enable historians to offer partial assessments of mental health without having to "psychoanalyze" their subjects (pp. …