John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights

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John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights. By David S. Reynolds. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. Pp. x, 580; $35, cloth.)

Although almost a century and a half has passed since his execution, John Brown (1800-1859) remains one of the most controversial-and divisive-figures in American history. Excluding those who wish to have it both ways, there are essentially two views of Brown: W. E. B. Du Bois's declaration that "John Brown was right," and Nathaniel Hawthorne's judgment that "nobody was ever more justly hanged." Throughout the course of this work, David S. Reynolds argues that the first view is the correct one, but, perhaps in spite of himself, provides some evidence to support the latter contention, too. This may be unavoidable, because the essential problem Brown presents is this: when does the choice of "bloody bullets" over "peaceful ballots" (to quote Abraham Lincoln) become legitimate, particularly in a democratic republic? Reynolds recognizes this conundrum and, with varying degrees of success, argues that in Brown's case, this was not merely the correct choice, but the inevitable one.

The central thesis of Reynolds' s work is that Brown was neither a fanatic nor insane, but rather a man driven to desperate measures by the existence of slavery. Brown's activities, then, are justified by the fact that slavery itself was violent and that he was, in particular, retaliating against the violence of the pro-slavery forces that entered Kansas in the 1850s in an attempt to have the territory admitted into the Union as a slave state. Brown was thus reacting to violence, rather than instigating it. Reynolds does concede, however, albeit with some hesitation, that the Pottawatomie Creek massacre was indeed a crime.

Reynolds demonstrates persuasively how progressive Brown was when it came to questions of race and gender during his era, especially when he discusses the abolitionist's much-misunderstood "Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the People of the United States" (pp. 249-55). He also argues that Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, far from being a Quixotic attempt to rouse southern slaves to rebel, was in fact a carefully planned assault based on his extensive knowledge of successful slave revolts in Jamaica, Haiti, and elsewhere, albeit one that ultimately went wrong. Indeed, argues Reynolds, by failing, Brown ultimately succeeded, because by his bravery in court and subsequent martyrdom, he stoked the fires of secession in the South and provoked the spirit of abolitionism in the North.

Alert readers will recognize that this argument resurrects, in part, the old school of Civil War history that blamed fanatics on both sides-northern abolitionists and southern fire-eaters-for starting a war the rest of the nation could have done without. Although Reynolds neither regards the war as unnecessary nor morally equates the abolitionists with the slaveowners as the old school did, his depiction of the Transcendentalists' promotion of Brown versus the secessionists' vilification of him places his work within this tradition. His evidence is impressive: Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry undeniably created a state of fear in the South, and this, plus apparent northern sympathy for the executed abolitionist, pushed many hitherto moderate southerners into the secessionist camp. His arguments regarding the Transcendentalists' importance in promoting, if not creating, Brown's legacy are especially convincing, even if, on occasion, they reminded the reviewer of the traditional complaint against intellectuals: useless in a fight, but always quick to take a vicarious thrill in the violence of others. …