JOHN BROWN AND HIS JUDGES
Americans have always found it difficult to write fairly about controversial figures in their past, and this has been especially true of John Brown. Since he died on the gallows for attacking Harpers Ferry, those who have dealt with him—biographers, poets, novelists, essayists, and, alas, professional historians—have with rare exception been either passionately for or against the man. Either Brown was right or he was wrong. Either he was an authentic and immortal hero who sacrificed his life so that America's "poor, despised Africans" might be free, or he was a "mean, terrible, vicious man," a demented horse thief, a murderer, a psychopath. For over one hundred years, American writers—popular and scholarly alike— have engaged in such heated controversy over whether Brown was right or wrong, sane or crazy, hero or fanatic, that scarcely anyone has taken the time to try to understand him.
The legend of Brown as hero emerged from a succession of worshipful biographies published between 1860 and 1910. Those written by James Redpath, Franklin B. Sanborn, and Richard J. Hinton —all of whom had been friends and associates of Brown—portrayed him as a deeply principled "Puritan soldier," "an idealist with a human intent," "a simple, brave, heroic person, incapable of anything selfish or base." The legend-builders did not always agree on facts. Redpath, the propagandist of the Brown legend, asserted that the Old Hero did not commit the Pottawatomie murders in Kansas, that he was somewhere else when they occurred. Sanborn, followed by Hinton, gave evidence that Brown had instigated the massacre, but argued that he was justified in