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  • John Brown, James Redpath, and the Idea of Revolution
  • Albert J. von Frank (bio)

He knew that he was being called "a madman, a fanatic, a disturber of the peace, a promoter of rebellion," and yet in 1831 William Lloyd Garrison accepted such taunts as the price of being an abolitionist, a voluntary outsider who had rejected normative American notions of racial hierarchy and privilege. Thus to put oneself into empathetic identification with the oppressed Other is at the same time to create and adopt a threatening, even revolutionary alternative self—in effect a new persona, always more or less dramatic, for the new world to come. Such a radical and profoundly imaginative personal transformation, it has been argued, lies at the "black heart" of the abolitionist movement. As John Stauffer has brilliantly shown, the most effective of the abolitionists had each undergone a personal revolution that put them deeply and energetically at odds with their society. "As they transformed themselves and overcame existing social barriers, they re-imagined their country as a pluralist society in which the standard of excellence depended on righteousness and benevolence rather than on skin color, sex, or material wealth." Paul Goodman has likewise argued that immediate abolitionism emerged out of despair over the spiritual sterility of the marketplace revolution and its secular values, prompting numbers of evangelicals to search for ways "to sacralize everyday life" and, as they did so, to become convinced that racial inequality was the main bar to the realization of the millennial kingdom of God in America. Robert H. Abzug has productively suggested that radical reform depended essentially on the ability of individual men and women to suppose that "the very architecture of the cosmos" was [End Page 142] open to revision. Thus, in various closely related ways has recent abolitionist historiography emphasized the causal significance of private, revolutionary acts of imagination.1

But this compelling line of analysis is not, perhaps, as helpful as it might be in distinguishing among abolitionist careers. The private, conceptual revolution that freed William Lloyd Garrison positionally and rhetorically in the two years before the founding of the Liberator does not make him a revolutionary figure in anything like the sense that John Brown would become. While it may be useful to refer to the acts and influence of both men as "revolutionary" in a very general sense, it is more useful still to insist that the word means something different as allowably applied to each. One has to know, for example, what is meant when, at the end of Stauffer's Black Hearts, we are informed that of Gerrit Smith, Frederick Douglass, James McCune Smith, and John Brown, only the last two were, finally, "true revolutionaries." The great desideratum in confronting the enduringly enigmatic figure of John Brown is a theory of his exceptional standing as a revolutionary.2

One very distinctive and largely overlooked feature of Brown's career concerns the influence upon him of the antislavery style adopted by refugees from the English and Continental revolutions of 1848. No other native-born American abolitionist had such consequential contact with these young, displaced revolutionists, among whom the most significant were James Redpath, Richard J. Hinton, Richard Realf, August M. Bondi, and Hugh Forbes.

Although Brown had traveled to England in 1849 in the wake of the Chartist [End Page 143] agitation, and on the same trip had visited Paris and made a brief tour of the northern parts of Germany, it was not the revolutions of Europe that were uppermost in his mind at the time; he was instead trying desperately to arrange the sale of a shipment of wool that he had brought with him as partner in the Springfield, Massachusetts, firm of Perkins & Brown. This effort to open a transatlantic market failed, and with it, in due course, the company itself. There is nothing to indicate, given the demands of this commercial mission, that he was more than notationally aware of the state of European politics. Before returning home, however, he did indulge a long-standing curiosity about military history and toured the old battleground of Waterloo. His abiding interest in the Napoleonic Wars prompted him eight years later to...


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pp. 142-160
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