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The importance of John Brown

John Brown

[Grad-school notes...] I'm reading about John Brown--David Reynolds' John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights--an excellent, massive book that rehabilitates Brown from the propaganda that he was insane and a fanatic...

John Brown, hero. R. W. Emerson: “John Brown will make the gallows as glorious as the cross.” Did you know he had wild support among Northern intellectuals and Northern soldiers during the Civil War? Alfred Kazin said the war wouldn’t have happened without him. (Probably false. But he definitely hastened it.) Brown knew that only violence could end slavery.

Reynolds’ book is “cultural history.” The cultural biographer asks three questions: how does his subject reflect his era, how does he transcend it, and how did he impact it. Brown was not insane; he was an amalgam of social currents. Sheds light on the legacy of Puritanism, the social impact of Transcendentalism, the significance of slave revolts, the popular culture of the time (its reactions to him), the causes of the Civil War. Reynolds wants to show how and why Brown was unique among Abolitionists in his espousal of violence—how, that is, he “transcended” his time. Regarding his impact: first of all, Brown didn’t end slavery but he killed it. After Harpers Ferry (in 1859) it was doomed. Likewise, didn’t cause the Civil War but sparked it. Contributed to Lincoln’s election because after Harpers Ferry the Republicans had to choose a moderate candidate over controversial ones. Had a cultural impact, though, mainly because the Transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau took up his cause. Union soldiers sang a song called “John Brown’s Body,” to the tune of which Julia Ward Howe wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”—a song that aptly fuses the two themes that sum up Brown, namely antislavery and religious devotion. Was a Calvinist, a fervid Puritan in the old Cromwellian way. “The last Puritan.” But fused his Puritanism with democratic egalitarianism, a concern for social rights. Anticipated civil rights goals of the mid-20th century.

In the South, “New England Puritanism” was considered a major cause of the war because it was linked with reform. Why? Because of its heritage of antinomianism—the breaking of human law in the name of God. Militant Abolitionism, Transcendentalist self-reliance (cf. Thoreau’s civil disobedience), the “individual sovereignty” of anarchists and free-love activists. “Northern Calvinistic insubordinatism vs. Southern Episcopal subordinatism.” Brown was descended from Puritans and his father was an Abolitionist. “I believe in the Golden Rule,” he said, “and the Declaration of Independence. I think that both mean the same thing.” Uniquely combined Calvinism and a republican belief in human rights. Believed in predestination, of course: thought he was predestined from all eternity to free the slaves.

William Lloyd Garrison (pacifist) vs. John Brown. Slave revolts horrified the former, inspired the latter. Five or six major slave revolts before Harpers Ferry. Brown admired Nat Turner and Cinque above all. (Amistad, 1837.) Why did he accept insurrectionary violence when other whites didn’t? Because he was thoroughly open to the black experience. Least racist white American. Lived with blacks in rough conditions on the frontier, played with them as a child, tried to educate them, fought with them against whites, studied the history of guerilla uprisings, hid fugitive slaves. Once went into a church and was stunned to see black people sitting at the back, out of sight of the minister and choir. Furious, he escorted them to his own preferred pew—while reminding the congregation that God “was no respecter of persons”—and then he and his family sat in the seats vacated by the blacks. In the mid-1830s, proslavery forces turned violent; this brought out the militancy in Brown. Particularly when Elijah Lovejoy, an antislavery editor, was killed in 1837. This event pushed other Abolitionists away from violence; it pushed Brown towards it. He asked his sons to make common cause with him against slavery.

In the ’50s there were other violent white Abolitionists sympathetic to violence, for instance the anarchist Lysander Spooner, but Brown was the most determined and ambitious. Discussed his plans with Frederick Douglass to invade the South with 25 men, free slaves and establish a colony in the Appalachian mountains which would be their home-base for successive mini-invasions, each one freeing more slaves. The South would be terrorized as during slave revolts in the past; the whites’ control over blacks would become insecure. “Twenty men in the Alleghenies could break slavery to pieces in two years.” His plan wasn’t as unrealistic as you might think: it had many precedents in the New World. (Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Second Seminole War of the late ’30s, etc.) He set his sights on Harpers Ferry in the early ’50s because it was a symbol of government and had an arsenal that produced most of the weapons of the armed services.

John Brown, beloved by Malcolm X, was an exemplary man. Supported feminism (suffrage), even split the household duties between males and females; was tolerant, respectful, friendly towards people of all religions (or no religion), classes and races; gave to the poor even when he was in dire financial straits (i.e., most of his life); and he started a little community in North Elba, New York where blacks and whites lived and worked together on equal terms. It was also a stop on the Underground Railroad. But in the mid-1850s he went to Kansas with his sons because proslavery forces were gathering there and he worried that it would become a slave state, which might have a domino effect on Nebraska and other territories. It was in Kansas that Pottawatomie happened.

There was a lot of proslavery violence in Kansas, “border ruffians” stuffing ballot boxes with proslavery votes and assaulting Free State men (who were not Abolitionists but wanted Kansas to be free of slaves, indeed all blacks). Anarchy. In 1855, 1200 proslavery men gathered to attack Lawrence, a Free State town, thus starting the “Wakarusa War.” John Brown and his sons arrived to defend the town, but the tension was defused at the last instant and the battle was called off. But the next year they did attack Lawrence, burned it, destroyed it. Brown decided it was time to retaliate, especially since Senator Charles Sumner had just been brutally beaten in the halls of Congress by a Southerner, and President Franklin Pierce had a proslavery attitude, and Kansas was steeped in proslavery terror, etc. etc. So Brown gathered some men and went to Pottawatomie in the middle of the night. Their weapons were swords rather than guns because Brown wanted to kill in the way that Indians or blacks would have. Wanted the attack to be symbolic of race. The men went to houses of known proslavery men, knocked on the door, then escorted the man or men who answered to the forest, where they were killed. There were five victims that night. The murders had a minimal impact on the political situation in Kansas, but around the nation their impact was huge. They initiated the Southerners’ misreading of the North as aggressively Abolitionist, thus aggravating tensions between the North and the South and, in the long run, pushing the nation towards civil war. Whereas slavery’s defenders had previously considered Abolitionists to be laughable cowards, now they were afraid of these “ferocious criminals.” Many Northerners came to see Brown as a hero, a legend, especially since he resisted capture in the months after Pottawatomie. It was in those months, too, that he won the battle of Black Jack and fought the battle of Osawatomie, where he was heavily outnumbered but inflicted heavy losses.

“Take more care to end life well than to live long.” Brown’s characteristic pithiness.

Went east to raise funds and buy weapons—met major intellectuals, antislavery businessmen—then went back west to plan the attack on Harpers Ferry and recruit men. Stayed at F. Douglass’s house for three weeks and wrote a Provisional Constitution for post-slavery America, in which there would be complete social equality for all races and sexes. Then he went to Canada and organized a convention attended by thirty-four blacks and twelve whites; he told them his plans and tried to recruit men, and they discussed and voted on his constitution.

In the following months, more action and heroism. Freed eleven slaves and took them 1000 miles to Canada, won small battles, eluded capture, raised funds for Harpers Ferry.


Transcendentalism and Puritanism. Connection? Transcendence. Thoreau: Brown was “a Transcendentalist above all—a man of ideas and principles.” Puritanism. Secular Puritanism. Puritanism and Hannah Arendt’s “revolutionary tradition,” with its “lost treasure” of spontaneous, grassroots democratic upsurges. Connection? Maybe not direct. Two manifestations of modern individualism; not-incompatible reactions to the emerging capitalist order. In fact, mutually reinforcing: anti-authoritarian. Freedom—though Calvinism may be a more individualistic kind of freedom than radical democracy is.

Paper topic: locate Brown in the tradition of revolution, from the English Civil War to the 20th-century Hungarian Revolution. (Hannah Arendt. Chatham etc. = grassroots democracy.) Not a fringe figure, not a freak; his Provisional Constitution, antislavery convention, interracial community of North Elba, League of Gileadites and so on were central expressions of the revolutionary spirit that hung over three centuries and more (ending in 1968). Came close to espousing communist ideals. Tie him, with his thoroughgoing Puritanism, to the Levellers… “The last Puritan.”

Popularity of “John Brown’s Body” among soldiers. “The song was largely a framework for improvisation of lyrics by soldiers on long marches. These ‘verbal riffs,’ [Reynolds] suggests, appropriately paralleled the centrality of improvisation in such African-American music forms as slave spirituals, blues, and jazz (p. 468). The song thus unites Reynolds’s dual focus on Brown as an embodiment of Transcendentalism and a representative of white receptiveness to black culture. The shared value of improvisation, moreover, is particularly significant in the typical performance context of the song, the Union army arrayed in rank and file… The troops did not show quite the same affection for ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ a far more conventionally Christian anthem that, as Franny Nudelman has recently noted, turned away from the immortal individualism that John Brown symbolized. Like the supporters of slavery, Union ideology found it impossible to keep Brown’s name and fame out of the war.” Individualism and, perhaps, proto-democracy in the military, sort of like in Cromwell’s military of the 1640s. Sort of. White receptiveness to black culture: revolutionary. Yet another expression of the revolutionary spirit. Popular culture of the time, some of it black-inspired, radically democratic. Walt Whitman. John Brown a product of this, not a fanatic or a freak. In some ways the epitome of his age, in some ways a remarkable throwback—because a man, endued with courageous convictions and the courage of those convictions.


H. D. Thoreau, who idolized John Brown, said that people who regarded Brown as a criminal or who didn’t recognize his wisdom and nobleness “either have much flesh, or much office, or much coarseness of some kind. They are not ethereal natures in any sense. The dark qualities predominate in them.” Metaphorical language but insightful. He’s right. On such matters one can’t help speaking metaphorically because literal concepts like ‘reasonable’ or ‘moral’ or ‘intelligent’ are not full-blooded enough. They’re thin, undescriptive. Such people, anti-Brownians, are, on the whole, indeed coarse and unethereal, unspiritual, un-lucid, with dark flesh-imprisoned minds fixated (be)nightedly on themselves, closed to new impressions of whatever sort, locked in the past. Thoreau even called these people “decidedly pachydermatous.” After Brown’s hanging, Thoreau wrote that “he has not laid aside the sword of the spirit, for he is pure spirit himself, and his sword is pure spirit also.” Those aren’t empty phrases; Hegel would have agreed with them while interpreting them in an emphatically un-Thoreauvian way. John Brown was mainly spirit, Spirit, a step forward in world history. He may have been “wrong” in his methods—though I don’t think so—but Hegel would have said that accusation is irrelevant, as irrelevant as it was in the case of Napoleon. (Napoleon, of course, was despicable; there’s no gainsaying that.) Spirit, History, was working through John Brown, who knew that slavery would not be abolished except through violence.

You have to read this book. It’ll change your views on the slavery era. “No one in American history—not even Washington or Lincoln—was recognized as much in drama, verse, and song as was Brown. Most of this expression was eulogistic.” John Brown truly was one of the most important Americans of the 19th century.


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