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

By Link, William A. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, July 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

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


Link, William A., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights * David S. Reynolds * New York: Knopf, 2005 * xii, 580 pp. * $35.00

In any rendition of the series of events leading up to secession and Civil War, there is probably no more critical figure than John Brown. His attack on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, on 16 October 1859, thoroughly alarmed slaveholders across the South and brought to life their nightmare scenario: outside invaders, sponsored by a sectionalized Republican Party (and the federal government), waging war by inciting slaves to armed insurrection. Most past biographers have reduced John Brown to a fanatic; some have suggested insanity. In a new, revisionist look, David S. Reynolds provides a highly sympathetic, even neo-abolitionist, portrait that remakes Brown into righteous abolitionist, racial egalitarian, freedom fighter, and prophet of slavery's destruction.

Reynolds connects John Brown to divergent trends of antebellum America, including ongoing black violent resistance, Transcendentalism, the abolitionist movement, and the struggle for black freedom that continued after Brown's hanging. Primarily a radical egalitarian, Brown, argues Reynolds, was convinced that only violence could destroy slavery and that this struggle would involve armed bands of radical white abolitionists and insurrectionary slaves. Conceiving of the Harpers Ferry attack by the early 1850s, Brown became a proto-terrorist whose main training camps were in Bleeding Kansas, where open war raged between pro- and antislavery partisans. John Brown, in Kansas, was best known for the brutal and bloody killings of five proslavery men at Pottawatomie Creek in May 1856. In Reynolds's telling, this massacre, rather than a cold-blooded murder, was a calculated act of political violence in the war against slavery and part of a "revolutionary scheme" that "surged from the heart of racial oppression" (p. 167). Brown's Harpers Ferry attack, rather than suicidal, was a rational plan seeking to ignite a slave uprising and establish hideouts and staging areas in the western Virginia mountains. …

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