John Brown, Abolitionist : The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights
An authoritative new examination of John Brown and his deep impact on American history.
Bancroft Prize-winning cultural historian David S. Reynolds presents an informative and richly considered new exploration of the paradox of a man steeped in the Bible but more than willing to kill for his abolitionist cause. Reynolds locates Brown within the currents of nineteenth-century life and compares him to modern terrorists, civil-rights activists, and freedom fighters. Ultimately, he finds neither a wild-eyed fanatic nor a Christ-like martyr, but a passionate opponent of racism so dedicated to eradicating slavery that he realized only blood could scour it from the country he loved. By stiffening the backbone of Northerners and showing Southerners there were those who would fight for their cause, he hastened the coming of the Civil War. This is a vivid and startling story of a man and an age on the verge of calamity.
In the very first paragraphs of this biography, Bancroft Prize-winner Reynolds (Walt Whitman's America) steps back a bit from the grandiose claims of his subtitle. Nevertheless, his book as a whole paints a positive portrait of the Calvinist terrorist Brown (1800-1859)--contrary to virtually all recent scholarship (by Stephen B. Oates and Robert Boyer, among others), which tends to depict Brown as a bloodthirsty zealot and madman who briefly stepped into history but did little to influence it. Reynolds's approach harks back to the hero-worship apparent in earlier books by W.E.B. Du Bois and Brown's surviving associates. John Brown waged a campaign so bloody during the Kansas Civil War--in 1856 he chased men and elder sons from their beds in cabins along the Pottawatomie Creek, and then lopped off their heads with broadswords as sobbing wives and younger children looked on--that fellow Kansas antislavery settlers rebuked him. Even the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison condemned Brown and his methods. After taking the federal armory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry in October 1859, Brown intended (had he not been swatted like a fly within hours) to raise and arm a large force of blacks capable of wreaking a terrible vengeance across Virginia. Yet Reynolds insists that "it is misleading to identify Brown with modern terrorists." Really? 25 b&w illus. (Apr. 21)
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November 13, 2006
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Excerpt from John Brown, Abolitionist by David S Reynolds
The Party One of the most symbolic events of the Civil War occurred in a mansion. The event was the reception held on January 1, 1863, at the Medford, Massachusetts, estate of the businessman George L. Stearns to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation, which had been issued that afternoon by President Lincoln. Stearns called the affair "the John Brown Party." The highlight of the evening was the unveiling of a marble bust of John Brown, the antislavery martyr who had died on a scaffold three years earlier after his doomed, heroic effort to free the slaves by leading a twenty-two-man raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Brown's presence was felt elsewhere in America that day. The Union general Robert H. Milroy, stationed near Harpers Ferry, read Lincoln's proclamation aloud to his regiment, which spontaneously thundered forth the war song "John Brown's Body," with its heady chorus about Brown "mouldering in the grave" while "his soul keeps marching on." The Emancipation Proclamation made General Milroy feel as though John Brown's spirit had merged with his. "That hand-bill order," he said, "gave Freedom to the slaves through and around the region where Old John Brown was hung. I felt then that I was on duty, in the most righteous cause that man ever drew sword in." In Boston, a tense wait had ended in midafternoon when the news came over the wires that the proclamation had been put into effect. At a Jubilee Concert in Music Hall, Ralph Waldo Emerson read his Abolitionist poem "Boston Hymn" and was followed by performances of Handel's Hallelujah Chorus, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, and Mendelssohn's "Hymn of Praise." That evening at Tremont Temple a huge crowd cheered as the proclamation was read aloud and exploded into song when Frederick Douglass led in singing "Blow Ye the Trumpet, Blow!" the joyous hymn that had been Brown's favorite and had been sung at his funeral. A number of people missed the Boston celebration because they had gone to George Stearns's twenty-six-acre estate in nearby Medford for the John Brown Party. The party was, in its own way, as meaningful as Lincoln's proclamation. It celebrated the man who had sparked the war that led to this historic day. Lincoln's proclamation, freeing millions of enslaved blacks, sped the process that led eventually to civil rights. John Brown's personal war against slavery had set this process in motion. Gathered in Stearns's elegant home was a motley group. Stearns himself, long-bearded and earnest, had made a fortune manufacturing lead pipes. His guests included the bald, spectacled William Lloyd Garrison and the volatile Wendell Phillips, pioneers of Abolitionism; the stately, reserved philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, magus of Transcendentalism; his idealistic cohort Amos Bronson Alcott, who was there with his daughter, Louisa May, soon to captivate young readers with Little Women; Franklin Sanborn, the Concord schoolteacher whose students included children of Emerson, John Brown, and Henry James, Sr.; and the red-haired, vivacious Julia Ward Howe, writer of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." They represented cultural threads that had once been aimed in various directions but were now unified in their devotion to the memory of John Brown. Garrison and Phillips had since the 1830s called for immediate emancipation of the slaves or, barring that, separation of the North and the South. Garrison, long committed to pacifism, had advocated moral argument as the sole means of fighting slavery until John Brown's self-sacrificing terrorism inspired him to espouse a more militant stance. Phillips, long driven by his disgust with slavery to curse the Constitution and the American Union, had come to espouse Brown's vision of a unified nation based on rights for people of all eth