- John Brown in Thought and Action
He was the greatest American—greater than the Mayflower pilgrims, greater than Washington, Jefferson, or Franklin. He was on a par with the notables of world history: Socrates, Newton, even Moses and Jesus Christ.
That’s how some of the smartest people in the nineteenth century saw John Brown, the antislavery warrior who, in October 1859, raided Harpers Ferry, Virginia, with a force of twenty-one men in a bold but doomed attempt to incite a slave rebellion that he hoped would topple slavery. Brown was captured, tried, and executed; but for his admirers, he had achieved a ringing success. His selfless devotion to the cause of enslaved blacks, made known to the world when his prison letters were published in newspapers, won high praise from progressive Northerners, including Transcendentalists. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the nation’s leading philosopher, declared that Brown was a “saint” who would “make the gallows glorious like the cross” (The Tribunal, p. 139). Emerson’s friend Henry David Thoreau announced in a widely reprinted speech that Brown “could not have been tried by a jury of his peers, because his peers did not exist” (p. 132). Brown was “our noblest American hero,” according to ex-slave Frederick Douglass. “His zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine,” Douglass said. “I could live for the slave, but he could die for him” (pp. 608–9). Douglass predicted that Brown’s name would live forever as one of the cynosures of American history.
Brown’s opponents agreed that his name would endure, but for altogether different reasons. For them, he was a deranged fanatic whose violent actions disrupted the Union and presaged civil war. Proslavery Democrats insisted that Brown was a minion of the Republican Party, whose evil abolitionist doctrines he carried out. [End Page 659]
This charge about Brown’s party affiliation, although erroneous (actually, Brown considered politics ineffective against slavery), raised a caution flag for the rising Republican Abraham Lincoln, who admired Brown’s goals but carefully distanced himself from his raid. Brown displayed “great courage, rare unselfishness,” Lincoln said, but he had no links to the Republican Party. “John Brown!!” he exclaimed in his famous speech at Cooper Union during the 1860 presidential race. “John Brown was no Republican; and you have failed to implicate a single Republican in his Harper’s Ferry enterprise” (p. 252).
Such disclaimers did not satisfy Lincoln’s foes, for whom Brown and Lincoln were twin devils who destroyed America merely for the sake of aiding an allegedly inferior race. Just after the Civil War, the proslavery journalist C. Chauncey Burr, disgruntled over what he saw as the “negro-worshipping” spirit behind the Northern cause, generalized: “The administration of Abraham Lincoln was a John Brown raid on the grandest scale; and it was no more. That is the place it will occupy in history” (p. 570).
That is not the place it has occupied in history, of course. Lincoln has come down to us as the Great Emancipator, at the very core of America’s identity. John Brown, meanwhile, was relegated to the margins during the Jim Crow era, when historians had little appreciation of his progressive racial views. Brown was then regarded as a misled outlier who had only a small impact on the main course of events. But in recent decades, a number of historians have retrieved Brown from the historical dustbin, demonstrating that he influenced the political scene, accelerated the downfall of slavery, and helped pave the way for civil rights.
One way to dispel the myths surrounding John Brown is to see how he was perceived in his own time. The Tribunal: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid, skillfully edited by Harvard historian John...