John Brown Bio Brings Crusader Into Sharp Relief

When I spoke to Martha's Vineyard author Tony Horwitz on a recent evening, he was in Kansas as part of his book tour, and he expected the evening to be lively. After all, the subject of his new book, "Midnight Rising," is John Brown, and Brown stirred up plenty of trouble in Kansas in the 1850s, raiding the not-yet-state and killing pro-slavery residents.

Horwitz says he's encountered vociferous supporters and detractors of Brown, better known for his Oct. 17, 1859, raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Va.

One hundred and fifty years after the start of the Civil War, you'd think people would have cooled off.

That's not necessarily the case.

Horwitz is a historian by nature and training, but his past works -- "Confederates in the Attic," "A Voyage Long and Strange" "Baghdad Without a Map" -- have been as much travelogue and culture as history.

This time, although Horwitz tramped around Harper's Ferry and many other sites attached to John Brown, his purpose is to tell the story of the raid.

And that he does very well, with deep detail and graphic descriptions of the places and events. Photos of many involved lend an immediacy to the reading experience.

For most Americans, Brown is a ghostly figure associated vaguely with the Civil War. He and his raid appear for a short piece in American history books, then Brown is captured and hung and he and his dream disappear from view. He's "a-mouldering in the grave," as the poem goes.

Then the war begins with the firing on Fort Sumter.

But Horwitz says Brown is much more than a footnote to that conflagration.

Horwitz says "old John Brown," as he's become known in American culture, is a "wild, compelling, confounding" character, "a throwback to Puritan times" who not only "takes a stand" but "stands up" on the subject of slavery.

Brown's raid, which left 10 of the raiders killed in action -- including two of Brown's own sons -- and seven including Brown executed over the next five months, was a "thrilling story," Horwitz says, but many histories of the period downplay the backgrounds and personalities of the men with Brown, not to mention the women who were part of the group -- Brown's wife and daughters, the wives and sweethearts of his compatriots -- who are often ignored.

Horwitz's is a full picture of the Brown family and the motivations that drove John Brown to live an uncompromising, slave-hating existence from his youth to his decision to make a slavery-driven break from the Freemasons to the "difficult but consistent" actions at Harper's Ferry at the age of 59.

Horwitz says it is "hard for us in the 21st century to get inside the mind of (Brown's) religiosity" and that makes him seem like some kind of "17th-century Puritan warrior." But Horwitz believes Brown was simply part of new modes of religious thought that rose up in America in the early decades of the 19th century, i.e., a man of his times, albeit an uncompromising one.

While Brown followed the anti-slavery thinking of many other progressives, Horwitz says, he is set apart by the radical way he lives his life, leaving his wife and children to a hardscrabble existence while he rode around the countryside with a band of followers stirring up trouble on purpose to raise the consciousness of Americans about slavery and incite them and the slaves to fight to end it. While many are writing and speaking the words of the abolition movement, Brown is dead-set on violent action.

Horwitz's work was aided by voluminous and detailed paperwork about Brown's life, the raid, the trial and the executions. Brown wrote regularly to family, friends and supporters, as did his men, says Horwitz, and the raiders' "papers were captured by the Virginians and people who received letters kept them," so there was no lack of sources.

Regarding the other players in Brown's grand Harper's Ferry drama, Horwitz finds Brown's followers and many of his family members "passionate and living their young lives" despite the events going on around them. They "humanize the story," Horwitz says, "risking their lives for a cause they believe in."

Regarding Brown's financial supporters, the so-called "Secret Six," powerful abolitionists, many based in Boston, were not "profiles in courage," Horwitz says. "They ran for the hills" when the raid collapsed in failure, being "prominent men who had a lot to lose and who hadn't expected to put themselves on the line."

Putting himself on the line was exactly what Brown expected and although he and his men were reviled throughout the South, many respected the code of honor Brown followed. Southerners "hated what he stood for," says Horwitz, "but felt he was a man of his word" and they admired his steadfastness even as the rope was put around his neck.

Despite his failure at Harper's Ferry, many of the time did not underestimate what he had achieved.

John Brown, Horwitz says, was "almost an Ahab, and his white whale was slavery." His story is divisive even today, with some "die-hard defenders of Brown" still seeing him as a "heroic freedom fighter."

Horwitz says he thinks we're living "in a not dissimilar era -- a troubled time" and "we're seeing that in the left and right at the moment -- although not John Brown style."

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