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  • John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights
  • Nikhil Bilwakesh
John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil RightsDavid S. ReynoldsNew York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. 578pp., ISBN 0375411887,$16.95.

While hiding out at Frederick Douglass's Rochester home in February 1858, John Brown drafted a "Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the People of the United States." In the opening sentence he defined slavery as "none other than the most barbarous, unprovoked, and unjustifiable war of one portion of its citizens upon another portion."1 In the subtitle to his cultural biography of John Brown, David S. Reynolds claims that John Brown "sparked" the Civil War, a term he distinguishes from "caused." But perhaps what Brown really did, in deed and word, was announce that a slaveholding nation was already at war, and attempts at evasive inaction did not exempt one from embattlement. When Henry David Thoreau refused to pay his tax and spent a night in jail in 1846, believing he might withdraw his participation from "the slave's government," he suggested that such was "the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible."2 Such was not possible. War was unavoidable because war was in progress, and by 1860, John Brown had clarified this fact to the continent. A spark cools to an innocuous ember in the absence of explosive environs, and through a presentation of responses to Brown's campaigns in Kansas and Virginia, Reynolds illustrates how Brown's urgency, situated in the intellectual and cultural conditions of the 1850s, set in motion the mobilization of an armed and unified secessionist movement and a unified Abolitionist movement prepared to embrace militant action.

Reynolds is a professor of English and American Studies at Baruch College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. In his 1988 book, Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville, Reynolds contextualized canonical nineteenth-century American writers in the milieu of raw, neglected, popular works, showing the ways in which these minor texts shaped the major ones. Throughout this and [End Page 141] other works, Reynolds closely observes the crude popular basis from which nineteenth-century American literature emerges. Although much of the factual material regarding the incidents of Brown's life comes from previous biographers, John Brown, Abolitionist is unprecedented in the breadth and depth of its coverage of the cultural and literary responses to John Brown. Reynolds sets forth John Brown as a seriously subversive literary figure on a number of levels.

First, John Brown was eloquent; Emerson and Thoreau certainly recognized him as such. Emerson coupled Brown's speech in court with the Gettysburg Address as the two greatest American speeches.3 Although Brown claimed to "know no more of grammar than one of your calves,"4 his speeches, writings, and letters are compelling, and Reynolds's recovery and reconsideration of them show how Brown found himself in a unique literary tradition, making use of sources that included Jonathan Edwards, the Declaration of Independence, and accounts of the Haitian revolution. Where Brown's "Constitution" historically has been received as evidence of his insanity, Reynolds notes the progressiveness of the democratic sensibility in the document and its definition of slavery as war. While fighting border ruffians in Kansas in 1856, Brown wrote in a letter, "their foot shall slide in due time," taking the Deuteronomy text Jonathan Edwards used to describe the precarious state of sinful souls in his 1741 sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," and applying it to the proslavery settlers of Kansas.5 In "Sambo's Mistake," an 1847 didactic column published in the black-run newspaper, The Ram's Horn, Brown assumes the persona of a free black, detailing errors of his behavior that prevent him from self-improvement. Among his resolves are to shirk his current submissiveness, stop reading "silly novels & other miserable trash" and read such books that will give him practical ideas from "the experience of others of all ages."6

Second, John Brown acted...


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