Civil War History 52.2 (2006) 161-169
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"His Truth Is Marching On":
John Brown and the Fight for Racial Justice
Few figures in American history have been the subject of so much historiographical controversy as John Brown. Like the scholarly debates over the causes of the Civil War and its significance, the early literature on John Brown is suffused with the passions of the participants in the sectional conflict over slavery and the prejudices of their historical heirs. Only in the post–Civil Rights era has John Brown received consistently favorable treatment at the hands of historians and writers, whose admiration for his unequivocal commitment to racial equality more than counterbalances their reservations about his violent personal warfare against slavery. Of course, African American historians and writers, starting with W. E. B. Du Bois,1 had long before consistently lauded the actions of the Puritan martyr to their cause. Today their view of Brown as a great white abolitionist who was willing to kill their oppressors and die for black liberation is ascendant.
David S. Reynold's magnum opus, John Brown Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights (2005), caps [End Page 161] this trend in John Brown scholarship. Its publication sounds the death knell of a once-influential school of Southern writers and Brown detractors such as Robert Penn Warren and James C. Malin, who had variously dismissed the New England abolitionist as a horse thief, a madman, and a self-serving and dishonest lay-a-about, who used the antislavery cause to disguise his personal and business failures. This view of Brown permeated many Civil War histories, including David M. Potter's magisterial The Impending Crisis, the single best account to date of the coming of the Civil War.2 Reynolds's exhaustively researched, comprehensive, and detailed work on the life and times of John Brown, decisively puts this view to rest. We are treated in this book to little-known aspects of John Brown's personal life and his growing and principled conviction in an abolition war against slavery. Few historians will be able to write about the role of Brown and the Harpers Ferry raid in Civil War causation without taking this book into account.
In this sense, Reynolds's book reflects the moving spirit behind some of the best John Brown biographies, such as Oswald Garrison Villard's pioneering historical work, John Brown: A Biography Fifty Years Later, and the most judicious modern biography of Brown, Stephen B. Oates's To Purge This Land With Blood: A Biography of John Brown. Both books, which are sympathetic in their overall treatment of Brown, are also rich in historical scholarship and generally fair and accurate in their descriptions of Brown's role in the Kansas Wars and his motivations for the Harpers Ferry raid. Reynolds expands on this scholarship and perhaps does an even better job in explaining Brown's Puritan antecedents, the violent context for his actions in Kansas, and his simple yet momentous conviction in the Lockean maxim that since slavery itself is a state of war, it can be combated only through warfare. Reynolds's work is clearly geared toward a general audience and therefore does not acknowledge explicitly his debt to previous authors. However, his claim that Brown's abolitionism grew out of his strong Calvinist faith owes much to Oates and many of his arguments seem to be inspired by Russell Bank's brilliant [End Page 162] work of historical fiction, Cloudsplitter. The overall tone of his book, which is unapologetically pro-Brown, evokes that of early abolitionist writings on Brown. Like James Redpath's first biography of Brown, Reynolds concludes that Brown was inspired by the Bible and the Declaration of Independence. And his careful excavation and explication of all of Brown's extant writings and words is reminiscent of Brown confidant...