John Brown's Legacy
WHEN I WAS A CHILD in Louisiana, John Brown and the wrathy Protestant God were inseparably mixed up in my mind. The songs "John Brown's Body" and "Battle Hymn of the Republic" had much to do with this. They appeared in the school songbooks, but the teachers would skittishly refuse to let them be sung "because some people might be offended." This censorship aroused my muddled awe, and hence the "glory of the coming of the Lord" became John Brown--a terrible bodiless head moving over the land, withering all it gazed upon.
After I grew more sophisticated, I assumed that John Brown had been the one who confused himself with God. He was an anti-slavery settler in Kansas who had gone berserk and had raided Harpers Ferry, Virginia, upon Orders from Above. There is plenty of support for such a view of the man. Even the Dictionary of American Biography ( 1929 edition), which uniformly tries to see the brighter side of its subjects, devotes its entry on Brown to a hooting polemic that stresses the insanity in his family and the unsoundness of his plans. He did not seem to be one who could offer precepts and inspiration to a foe of latter-day slavery.