- The Tie That Bound Us: The Women of John Brown’s Family and the Legacy of Radical Abolitionism by Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz
Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz’s The Tie That Bound Us traces the history of the women in John Brown’s family. Specifically, Laughlin-Schultz focuses on John’s wife Mary and on their daughter Annie, who kept house at the Kennedy farmhouse near Harpers Ferry, Virginia. The author studies the women in relation to their private, work-filled lives, their association with John Brown and his radical abolitionism, and their efforts to shape his legacy after his death. Using collective biography as her methodology, Laughlin-Schultz succeeds in expanding historical understanding of radical abolitionism.
The mother-daughter pair of Mary and Annie Brown shared many qualities: both raised large families; both struggled with absent, financially troubled spouses; both supported John Brown’s radical and violent abolitionism; and both worked to influence the national memory of Brown and his actions. Mary Brown was John Brown’s second wife, stepmother to the children his first wife bore, and mother to her own thirteen children. Over the course of her life, she fought against poverty and battled grief after losing her husband, several stepchildren, and nine of her own children, many at very young ages and in tragic circumstances. Mary’s support of her husband’s radicalism is evident in her correspondence with him, her care of their family in his absence, and her visit to Virginia after his arrest and before his execution. Mary’s commitment to her spouse continued after his death as she contributed her physical presence to events that considered John Brown’s role in ending slavery. The Mary Brown that emerges from Laughlin-Schultz’s study is both an intensely private and a very public woman—a woman overshadowed by her connection to John Brown, a woman overworked due to the financial and physical absence of her husband, and a woman besieged with the responsibilities of a blended and very large family.
Like her mother, Annie Brown displayed tremendous devotion to John Brown. As a young woman, she served the Harpers Ferry raiders as a [End Page 461] companion, cook, laundress, and, most significantly, lookout. Married to an unstable and alcoholic husband, she assumed primary responsibility for her large family. She fought to ensure that her father would be remembered as a man who battled to free slaves and that she would be acknowledged for her important contributions to radical abolitionism.
The author’s decision to employ collective biography was a wise choice. The reader comes to know the Brown women as a result of Laughlin-Schultz’s sympathetic and skillful narrative. She weaves the women’s stories into the larger history of radical abolitionism, showing the ways women participated in and contributed to it. One of the most intriguing points Laughlin-Schultz makes in relation to the Brown women and militant abolitionism is the idea of Annie Brown’s radical housekeeping. Laughlin-Schultz writes, “Annie’s coming of age came through her embrace of a much less conventional form of housekeeping, one designed to conceal a radical agenda. … Her very position as housekeeper clothed her involvement in violent antislavery” (51–52). Annie Brown’s domestic duties at the Kennedy farmhouse were essential to the raiders living there. Her companionship, cooking, and careful eye ensured their survival.
The book has many fine qualities; however, Laughlin-Schultz’s goal of offering “insight into nineteenth-century American women’s lives” is not realized fully (3). Like many women, Mary Brown faced poverty, widow-hood, and the deaths of her young sons and daughters. Her marriage and parenting also provide a window into the nineteenth-century history of blended families. Laughlin-Schultz does not contextualize or analyze the Brown family experience with historical scholarship about widowhood, childhood death and maternal mourning, and blended families. These oversights were missed opportunities.
Nevertheless, the book is outstanding and will appeal to various readers...