A Conversation with David S. Reynolds
Q: How did you come to John Brown as a subject?
A: I’ve always been interested in American rebels, dissidents–those who advance the cause of justice and equality by exposing hypocrisy and corruption. Having published a book on the rebellious poet Walt Whitman in 1995, I was looking for a new book topic when, during a chat with my brother-in-law, Haig Nalbantian, John Brown’s name came up. Instantly I knew I had my subject. Here was the ultimate dissident, the militant Abolitionist who murdered in the name of human equality. Whereas Whitman fashioned all-embracing poetry to heal a nation fractured over the slavery issue, John Brown deepened the fracture by attacking slavery in an attempt to dislodge it. John Brown has long pricked the American mind like a buried nettle, always there, always irritating, and exasperatingly hidden from view. I found that no biography of Brown had appeared since the early 1970s, and never had this controversial figure been placed fully in his times. I was also curious about the fact that so many 19th-century authors–Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Whitman, Whittier, Victor Hugo, and others–featured Brown in their writings. And so I decided to write a cultural biography of Brown, one that explained the contexts that shaped him and the impact he had on America.
Q: You have said that Brown was “the least racist white person” of his time? What was so unusual about his attitude towards blacks–especially as compared to other prominent abolitionists of his day?
A: John Brown did not accept the racism that pervaded his era. Ironically, most other antislavery figures of his day were tinged with racism, which was buttressed by pseudoscientific “proof” of the alleged inferiority of blacks. Lincoln thought that blacks and whites could not live on equal terms in America because of essential differences between the races; until the second year of the Civil War, he advocated colonization, or shipping emancipated blacks abroad to places like Liberia or Central America. A similar view was held by Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose best-seller Uncle Tom’s Cabin dramatized the horrors of slavery and yet advocated colonization and perpetuated some of the era’s racial stereotypes. Another antislavery figure, the scientist Louis Agassiz, claimed that a typical black person had the brain of an undeveloped white fetus, while the antislavery politician Cassius Clay declared that the natural place for blacks was in the tropical sun eating bananas. True, there were a few–particularly William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips–who manifested little racism. But to mention Garrison and Phillips is to recognize John Brown’s specialness in this regard. The son of an alcoholic drifter, Garrison was a latecomer to Abolition, and he aroused resentment among some blacks who felt they were discriminated against in the American Anti-Slavery Society, which he headed. As for Phillips, he was a wealthy, Harvard-educated Brahmin who would fraternize with blacks but then retreat to his Boston mansion. For John Brown, in contrast, Abolitionism was not something learned or arrived at; rather, it was in his blood, as was his openness to people of different ethnicities. His father, Owen Brown, had opposed slavery since the 1780s, and Brown recalled becoming a confirmed Abolitionist as a boy when he witnessed a black youth being beaten with a shovel. At an early age Brown became active in the Underground Railroad. Brown’s family stood out for its openness to the cultures of Native Americans and African Americans. Enduring near-poverty for much of his life, Brown had a sympathy for the marginalized and oppressed that grew from first-hand experience.
Q: You write, “few successful people in history have failed so miserably in so many different pursuits as John Brown.” Clearly a genius in his own right, why did Brown fail so miserably and so often when it came to business?
A: John Brown lived in an era when America was leaving behind the subsistence economy of the past and was moving toward industrialism and capitalism. Raised in the Ohio wilderness, Brown was devoted to the bygone subsistence economy, by which people lived off the land and produced their own goods. But he had to earn money to support his growing family (he sired twenty children by two wives). He tried mightily–and unsuccessfully–to succeed as a capitalist. He had neither the will nor the flexibility to succeed as a businessman. He was also the victim of circumstance, for the year he entered business full time, 1837, marked the beginning of an economic downturn that lasted five years. He fumbled several land-development ventures and then plunged into a variety of wool-distribution enterprises that he managed recklessly. Falling deep into debt, he was sued by numerous creditors and once declared bankruptcy. No one saw him as willfully corrupt, but his honesty and bullheadedness hindered him in a capitalist world that demanded tact, ingenuity, and, often, slickness. After failing in several businesses, he retreated to a subsistence lifestyle when in 1849 he took his family to live on an isolated farm in the upstate New York village of North Elba.
Q: In the end, why do you think Brown failed at Harper’s Ferry? Did he overestimate his own military skill or the willingness of slaves to follow him? Was his great plan doomed from the start?
A: Many have questioned the wisdom of Brown’s attempt to uproot the slave system by attacking the South with only 21 men. Recent events, however, suggest that his plan was more feasible than was long thought. His plan was to make a quick strike in a slave state, rally hundreds of emancipated blacks to his side, and then flee with them to the Appalachian Mountains, which run deep into the South. He aimed to scatter small groups (somewhat like today’s terrorist cells) of blacks and whites along the Appalachian chain, using the mountainous terrain as a defense against pursuing forces. These groups would make periodic raids on plantations throughout the South, liberating slaves and creating an atmosphere of terror that eventually would induce the South to want to do away with slavery. A student of guerrilla warfare, Brown thought he could evade vastly superior forces by using caves and other natural defenses in the mountains. The success of such a strategy by the Afghan guerrillas against the Soviet army and by Osama Bin Laden against the U. S. military suggests that this was no crack-brained scheme. Brown miscalculated, however, by expecting an immediate, massive response on the part of liberated blacks. He anticipated, as he put it, that “the bees would hive” as soon as he struck Harpers Ferry. But the evidence suggests that the slaves’ response was lukewarm at best. This should not surprise us. No one remotely like John Brown–a white man who arrived at night with a force of blacks and whites promising immediate liberation–had ever appeared before. Most of the slaves responded with confusion or fear. Brown, disappointed by the lackluster response of the unprepared blacks, stalled fatally at Harpers Ferry instead of quickly escaping to the mountains as he had planned. This delay is what doomed his effort, since it gave time to the Virginia militia and the U.S. marines under Robert E. Lee to organize and capture Brown and his men.
Q: Brown was such a forceful prominent figure in his day. His impact on historical events immense. Why do you think he is not more of household name today?
A: In light of the fact that Brown sparked the war that ended slavery and opened the way to civil rights, one would think that he would be a ubiquitous presence in American culture. But his face does not appear on our bills or coins. Statues, pictures, or other images of him are rare. The main reason for this is that Brown’s reputation, after peaking during the Civil War and Reconstruction, collapsed thereafter. In the period of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan, America manifested little reverence for this Puritan warrior who had killed and died in the cause of black freedom. Biographers and historians whose conservative views reflected the post-Reconstruction temper cared little for Brown’s progressive racial agenda and stressed instead his violent, fanatical side. A string of biographers portrayed him as a lunatic, horse thief, and murderer. The revisionist historians of the 1930s and 40s pictured him as an extreme example of misled disunionists who brought about an unnecessary war. The civil rights movement and sixties’ radicalism brought about a partial recuperation of Brown’s reputation in some quarters, but he remains today a fringe figure whom it is more comfortable to forget than to revere.
Q: The incredible violence of Brown’s most infamous actions has led many historians to excuse him as insane. How do you explain his violence and murderous behavior at a time when many who shared his view of slavery did not resort to such means?
A: In his day and ours Brown was often called insane. During Brown’s trial for treason, his lawyer wanted to use an insanity defense to get him off. Brown rejected the ploy, insisting he was not insane. I agree with him. He was a flawed but deeply devout man driven by a worthy cause: the liberation of nearly 4 million blacks held in bondage. Brown resorted to violence because the main tactics of other Abolitionists, nonresistance and persuasion, had failed. For Brown slavery itself was an ongoing war against enslaved blacks. From this standpoint, his violent acts–particularly his midnight slaughter of five proslavery settlers in Pottawatomie, Kansas in May 1856–may be viewed as war crimes. Brown was retaliating against decades of unavenged violence committed by Southern whites against slaves, free blacks, and visiting Northerners suspected of Abolitionism. Recent studies have shown that over four-fifths of acts of vigilante violence by Southern whites went unpunished. The code of the chivalric Southern gentleman was laced with machismo and aggression. Dueling, bowie knives, and deadly feuds like the one parodied in Mark Twain’s portrait of the Shepherdsons and Grangerfords Huckleberry Finn were fixtures in Southern culture. It was in response to several such acts of wanton proslavery violence–the burning of Lawrence, Kansas; several murders committed by Missouri Border Ruffians; and the pummeling of Charles Sumner by Preston Brooks on the floor of the U.S. Senate–that John Brown committed his retaliatory crime at Pottawatomie. As a contemporary journalist noted, John Brown brought violent Southern tactics to the Northern side.
Q: How would you apply the word “terrorist” to Brown as opposed to how we use it today?
A: Brown was in some ways like today’s terrorists and in other ways unlike them. The notion that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter applies to Brown as it does today. A number of modern terrorists, including the abortion-doctor killer Paul Hill and the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, have called themselves heirs of John Brown. Also, Brown has been compared to Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber) and to Osama Bin Laden. Brown resembled these and other terrorists in that he killed unarmed civilians to make a political point. Brown’s stated goal for the Harpers Ferry raid was to create a state of terror throughout the South in order to bring about social change. But I would argue that Brown, unlike the others, was what Doris Lessing would call a “good terrorist”–one who used violence to rectify particularly egregious social injustice. There were many things wrong with John Brown’s America: not just slavery but also poverty, political corruption, the disenfranchisement of women, cruelty toward Native Americans, to name a few. Brown was aware of all these social wrongs, but he took up arms only against one: slavery, the most self-evidently evil social institution in American history, one that in Brown’s day seemed cemented in place by law and custom. Also, Brown was an American terrorist to a degree the others were not, with real breadth of vision. A devout Calvinist–as dedicated to his faith as Bin Laden is to Islam–he nonetheless counted Jews, agnostics, and spiritualists among his most faithful followers. He wanted to create an America free of religious rancor, racial prejudice, and gender discrimination.
Q: In writing this book what were some of the most surprising things you learned about John Brown?
A: I was surprised by the early age at which Brown became an Abolitionist, by his utter lack of racism in an era when racial prejudice was rampant, by his verbal eloquence, and, most basically, by the large impact Brown had on American history. The final two points–Brown’s eloquence and his impact–are interrelated. Before I wrote this book, I assumed that Brown was merely a man of violence, a kind of trigger-happy messiah. I was surprised to find that he used language forcefully and that, indeed, it was mainly through his words and his demeanor that he influenced history. Thoreau noted that words, not rifles, were Brown’s most effective weapons. Had Brown been killed during the raid on Harpers Ferry (as he almost was), his attack would have been recognized for what it was: an isolated act of violence by an anomalous militant who had few supporters in the North. Because he lived, he was able to speak and write, and his words were universally disseminated in the press. Emerson declared that Brown’s speech to the Virginia court was comparable to the Gettysburg Address. Thoreau insisted that Brown’s letters from Charles Town prison, powerful despite their shoddy grammar, defined standard English. James Russell Lowell and others claimed that Brown’s brief autobiography was a contribution to literature. Unlike many modern terrorists, who tend to be faceless tools of a cause, John Brown was an original interpreter of one.
Q: How would history have been different if there had been no John Brown? Did he really bring about the civil war and the end of slavery sooner than they would have ended?
A: John Brown did not cause the Civil War. But more than any other single person he sparked the war. It’s possible that if he had not been in the picture, the Civil War would have been delayed. Still, I believe that a collision between the North and the South on the slavery issue was inevitable, and had it been delayed it would have been even bloodier than it was, because of an increase in population and more sophisticated weapons technology. And who can say what would have happened had such a later war been won by the South? In that case, slavery would have continued, the nation would have remained divided, and America would not have become a superpower as soon as it did. As it happened, John Brown helped to trigger the Civil War–not so much by what he did as by how he acted and expressed himself after his capture, and how he was perceived by others. Southern leaders used Brown’s raid as a means of whipping up secessionist frenzy and tarring Lincoln and his fellow Republicans (wrongly) with responsibility for Harpers Ferry. The North rejected Brown vigorously until a small but influential group, the Transcendentalists, rescued Brown from oblivion and infamy by comparing him to Jesus Christ and other worthies. Soon the Transcendentalist view of Brown swept the North. Brown became a polarizing figure, the subject of hyperbolic misreadings on both sides of the slavery divide. He crystallized vast differences between hostile attitudes toward slavery and thus drove a wedge between the North and the South, greatly exacerbating the tensions between them.
Q: You write that Brown, in North Elba, “established a model for racial togetherness that even today is rarely achieved in America.” Why do you think, so many years after his time, we have failed to achieve some of his ideals of equality?
A: Brown claimed that he followed the spirit of the Golden Rule and the Declaration of Independence. He was the first white American to apply fully the notions of equality and brotherhood to the issue of race. He lived among blacks, worked with them, sought their advice, and admitted them to his home and his dinner table. His military plans stemmed largely from black culture, particularly slave revolts in the American South and the rebellions by the mountain-based maroons of the West Indies. Outraged by proslavery government acts such as the Kansas Nebraska Act, which opened up the western territories to slavery, and the Dred Scott decision, which denied citizenship to blacks, he penned new versions of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. In these visionary documents, he extended full social rights to all Americans, irrespective of ethnicity or gender. No white person in American history is so widely revered by blacks as is John Brown. Thanks to Brown and other forward-looking activists, we are far closer today to achieving racial togetherness than was true in Brown’s day. Still, few would deny that we still have a way to go before Brown’s goals of complete racial integration and full rights for all are realized.
Q: Do you think a re-examination, and really a re-discovery of Brown’s life is especially relevant at this particular moment in history?
A: Today we demonize terrorism, which, our leaders say, is opposed to everything America stands for. Re-examining John Brown, the home-grown terrorist and eloquent dissident, forces us to contemplate the idea that principled resistance to social injustice can be a patriotic, intensely American act. What would have happened had John Brown and a few other forceful rebels not interfered with the racist juggernaut that America had become? Even the Civil War, which ended slavery at the cost of some 620,000 American lives, did not produce the racially harmonious nation Brown had dreamed of. Civil rights and social justice are still works in progress. Americans all too often find refuge in patriotic bromides and complacent materialism. Rediscovering John Brown suggests the importance of questioning ourselves as a nation, of noting the distance between our democratic ideals and our not-so-democratic practices.