John Brown Still Lives! America's Long Reckoning with Violence, Equality, & Change

John Brown Still Lives! America's Long Reckoning with Violence, Equality, & Change

John Brown Still Lives! America's Long Reckoning with Violence, Equality, & Change

John Brown Still Lives! America's Long Reckoning with Violence, Equality, & Change


From his obsession with the founding principles of the United States to his cold-blooded killings in the battle over slavery's expansion, John Brown forced his countrymen to reckon with America's violent history, its checkered progress toward racial equality, and its resistance to substantive change. Tracing Brown's legacy through writers and artists like Thomas Hovenden, W. E. B. Du Bois, Robert Penn Warren, Jacob Lawrence, Kara Walker, and others, Blake Gilpin transforms Brown from an object of endless manipulation into a dynamic medium for contemporary beliefs about the process and purpose of the American republic.

Gilpin argues that the endless distortions of John Brown, misrepresentations of a man and a cause simultaneously noble and terrible, have only obscured our understanding of the past and loosened our grasp of the historical episodes that define America's struggles for racial equality. By showing Brown's central role in the relationship between the American past and the American present, Gilpin clarifies Brown's complex legacy and highlights his importance in the nation's ongoing struggle with the role of violence, the meaning of equality, and the intertwining paths these share with the process of change.


Nothing so charms the American people as personal bravery.… the trialfor
life of one bold, and to some extent successful, man… would arouse more sympathy
throughout the nation than the accumulated wrongs and sufferings of more than
three million [slaves]

—John Brown, “Words of Advice

cause and consequence

John Brown in Nineteenth-Century America

John Brown believed that slavery would meet an end that matched its brutality. in 1859, his bold invasion of Harpers Ferry and polarizing trial by the state of Virginia aroused the sympathy and anger that would spark the Civil War. On the day of his execution, Brown seemed to predict the cause and extent of that conflict. “I John Brown,” he wrote, “am, now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with Blood.”

Since December 2, 1859, all manner of writing, art, and memorial have been employed to understand this man. While Brown’s prophesizing underscores his keen understanding of antebellum tensions, the raid on Harpers Ferry ignited a series of debates that have never stopped raging, prompted an endless reckoning with the nature of this man’s character, and provoked swirling questions about the role and meaning of violence, equality, and change. By tracing Brown’s unique and nagging presence in the nation’s memory, this book illuminates the deep roots of America’s continuing struggles with these open questions.

In taking up arms to end slavery, Brown has forced generation after generation to clarify the morality and utility of violence. His progressive but paternalistic relationships with black Americans mirror the troubling limits of interracial efforts to redress the nation’s mistakes. Brown’s martyrdom, ultimately giving his life to liberate his enslaved brethren, admonishes us to disentangle his web of interracial trailblazing, violent abolitionism, and messianic paternalism to make sense of America’s greatest trauma, slavery.

Biographers have tried to locate explanations to these knotty conundrums in the events of Brown’s life, his psychological profile, and the cul-

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