Tony Horwitz, author of Confederates in the Attic, not only one of my favorite books about the Civil War, but one of my favorite non-fiction books ever, has recently published a new book on John Brown’s raid. Titled Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War, Horwitz demonstrates in lively prose the centrality of the Brown’s 1859 attack on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia in creating the nation’s most deadly conflict.
Midnight Rising isn’t as profound as Confederates in the Attic. Nonetheless, Brown provides a straightforward and engaging story about one of the nation’s most polarizing figures, a man who still resonates with many people today. Horwitz’s Brown is a passionate, disturbed man, a failure in business and in everything else except agitating against slavery. Concerned with little other than eradicating the evil institution, Brown wrecks havoc not only on slaveholders who cross his path but his own family, terrorizing them one minute, creating devoted followers of them the next. Horwitz notes, and I think correctly, that Brown was almost certainly manic-depressive. His own writings admit that he felt great one minute and utterly horrible the next. In fact, Brown’s family had a significant history of mental illness.
The unhinged nature of Brown’s family was not helped by his actions. One of the most compelling parts of Horwitz’s story was how Brown’s 1855 attack on Kansas slaveholders at Pottawatomie Creek tramitized his sons who participated. Owen Brown, John’s oldest son did not want to participate. Convinced to do so, he went into a long depression because he personally killed one of the victims. The second son, Frederick Brown, basically went insane, castrating himself some time later. Even sons who did not take part, Jason and John Jr., began having major psychological problems after the raid. On top of this, since everyone knew Brown was involved, proslavery raiders quickly burned his home and possessions, leaving the family’s women poor, scared, and on the run, conditions that would be all too typical of life with John Brown.
Horwitz speeds through Brown’s first 55 years very quickly. Perhaps too quickly. By page 44 Brown is in Kansas and even that story is dealt with fairly rapidly. Horwitz wants to get to Harpers Ferry as soon as possible. He tells the story with aplomb, showing the convoluted ways Brown tried to make the operation work, his difficulty raising money (and his terrible business sense that led him to waste the money he did receive), how he gained his few followers, his plans for taking Harpers Ferry, and the disastrous results of his raid.
A point I frequently make to my students is how Southern politicians violently overreacted to every northern move to oppose slavery. Horwitz reinforces my feelings about this with his discussion of Henry Wise. Virginia’s governor in 1859 and an opportunist to the core, Wise sought to take advantage of the raid to improve his own political stock. A die-hard slaveholder and soon to be one of Virginia’s leading secessionists, Wise responded to Brown’s raid not with moderation, but by militiarizing his state, sending notices to the governors of Ohio, Maryland, and Pennsylvania that his troops would invade their states in pursuit of future raiders. This outraged even the pliant and worthless James Buchanan, not that our worst president did much about it.
Wise and his henchmen wanted to ensure Brown and his followers were executed as quickly as possible. They skirted legal procedures to speed through Brown’s trial, then oddly allowed him to hold court with all comers until his death. Rather than turn Brown over to the federal government where he would have likely been dealt with slowly and according to proper procedures, Wise and his supporters turned Brown into a martyr.
Few northerners supported Brown’s raid immediately upon its conclusions. Even most of his fundraisers recoiled in horror, some finding reasons to get out of the country. There were exceptions. Henry David Thoreau spoke out for him. So eventually did Frederick Douglass, who Brown had met years before and immediately before the raid, a meeting in fact that led to one of Douglass’ protégés joining Brown’s forces.
Brown even impressed southerners like Wise with his manly bearing and courage. Expecting a coward, they met a man they both loathed and expected. Horwitz doesn’t talk in these terms, but I was struck at how well Brown fit the culture of antebellum heroic masculinity. The emphasis on bravery, honor, and violence was more powerful in the South and among the working classes in northern cities than among the evangelical Whigs and the new middle class. Brown may have believed in northern reform movements but his actions and bearing impressed those who believed that manhood needed to be fought in the streets, in the duels that were so common among southern politicians before the Civil War and even in the brutal beating Preston Brooks placed upon Charles Sumner on the Senate floor after Sumner insulted not only the South generally but Brooks’ relative, South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler.
In the short term, Brown became a hero to abolitionists and African-Americans. And this leads to why I think Brown continues to fascinate us. We respect his stand for equal rights. Unlike even most abolitionists Brown was an anti-racist, thinking of African-Americans as absolute equals to whites. Slavery is our national sin. It needed to end by any means necessary.
On the other hand, I’ve been reticent to support Brown in the past because his example is held up by anti-abortion fanatics as a model of how to fight against an immoral system. This idea has had real consequences, including the assassination of Dr. George Tiller. How can we judge slavery so wrong that murder is acceptable to fight it (and say what you will about Harpers Ferry, but Pottawatomie Creek was definitely murder) and tell anti-abortion activists that it is totally different? Of course, it is completely different in my moral universe, but given that, unfortunately, I can’t apply my moral values to the world, the question comes down to the proper use of violence. Do we embrace Martin Luther King’s notions of nonviolence? Even King would not overstate the concept’s limits; certainly, he would not have spoken against Nat Turner’s violent rebellion in 1831 that put southern slaveholders on edge against a northern invasion. And if this rebellion were led by another Nat Turner rather than a northern white man with a death wish and a hope to bring the slavery question to a violent resolution, could any of us feel anything but support? There are no clear answers to these questions except a blanket denunciation of violence that can’t survive the real world. The only way I can accept Brown’s violence and not that of anti-abortion fanatics is relativism. It depends on the cause and one cause is right and one cause is wrong. I’m OK with my relativism on this issue. But it certainly means that Brown will remain a contested figure for generations to come.