John Brown: Triumphant Failure

By Blight, David W. | The American Prospect, March 13, 2000 | Go to article overview

John Brown: Triumphant Failure


Blight, David W., The American Prospect


"John Brown taught us that the cheapest price to pay for liberty is its cost today."

--W.E.B. Du Bois

In his 1928 epic poem John Brown's Body, Stephen Vincent Benet named the problem of John Brown in America's historical memory:

   The law's our hardstick, and it measures well,
   Or well enough when there are yards to measure.
   Measure a wave with it, measure a fire,
   Cut sorrow up in inches, weigh content.
   You can weigh John Brown's body well enough,
   But how and in what balance weigh John Brown?

   He had no gift for life, no gift to bring
   Life but his body and a cutting edge,
   But he knew how to die.

In so many artistic probings of Brown's memory, the central metaphor is his martyrdom--his crucifixion--for the remission of a nation's sins. How indeed weigh John Brown's body at the turn of the twenty-first century, a time when our notions of violence in a righteous cause are troubled by a litany of terrorism committed by individuals, religious groups, and governments? Can John Brown remain an authentic American hero in an age of Timothy McVeigh, Usama Bin Laden, and the bombers of abortion clinics?

John Brown's Holy War, a documentary directed by Robert Kenner and written by Ken Chowder that will air on the public television series The American Experience on February 28, leaves us pondering these questions while also conveying a good historical tale of tragedy and redemption.

Born in Connecticut in 1800, John Brown grew up largely on the Western Reserve of Ohio. He was raised by staunchly Calvinist and antislavery parents. His mother died when he was eight, the beginning of a lifetime of personal losses that came to define much of Brown's character. He married his first wife Dianth Lusk in 1820 and had seven children with her before she died young. With his second wife Mary, he had 13 children. In all, nine of the 20 Brown children died of disease or accident in infancy. His was a family defined by tragedy, frustration, and survival. Between 1820 and 1855, Brown and his brood entered into some 20 farming and business ventures, including disastrous land speculation in the 1830s, virtually all of which ended in failure and poverty, and some of which led to lawsuits, bankruptcy, and a brief imprisonment. In their documentary, Kenner and Chowder portray very well the despair of a household barely held together by a combination of frontier subsistence and the American dream of the next enterprise over the next hill.

The film makers are also careful to demonstrate the deeply religious faith that sustained the patriarch who ruled this family. Both an orthodox, latter-day Calvinist and a thorough nonconformist, Brown believed in innate depravity, providential signs, special divine messengers, and the total human dependence on a sovereign and arbitrary God. The Bible was his only moral and legal compass. He had an obsession with the wickedness and wrongs of others and never functioned well in any formal antislavery organization. "He gave orders," remembered Brown's younger brother, "like a king against whom there is no rising up." Brown came to see slavery as an unjustifiable state of war by one portion of people against another. Slavery, in his view, had become an evil so entrenched in America that it required revolutionary ideology and means to eradicate it. If some of the wicked died in the necessary purging of national sins, such was God's own historical logic.

After hearing of the murder of abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy in Alton, Illinois, in 1837, Brown stood at the rear of a church in Hudson, Ohio, and declared: "I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery." Litigation and business failures interrupted his crusade for long periods, but by the time the Kansas-Nebraska territory was opened to settlement in 1854-55, Brown and several of his sons were ready to make war on slavery.

John Brown's Holy War does not equivocate about Brown's responsibility for the massacre of five proslavery settlers on Pottawatomie Creek in Kansas in 1856 (his men hacked their victims to death with broadswords). …

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