The Good Terrorist

Reviewed by David W. Blight
Sunday, April 24, 2005

John Brown, Abolistionist

The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights

By David S. Reynolds. Knopf. 578 pp. $35

John Brown did not make it easy for people to love him -- until he died on the gallows. Perhaps no other figure in American experience straddles the blurred line between myth and history, legend and reality, quite like the domineering, violent, Calvinist abolitionist who attacked the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859 and provided, in a way, the Pearl Harbor of the Civil War. With 22 well-armed men, Brown's famous assault aimed to seize weapons and use them to foment a whirlwind of slave insurrection and flight. Through faulty strategy and timing, as well as a decided lack of slave support in the region, the raid failed, resulting in the death or ultimate execution of most of Brown's men. With great sensitivity, thorough research and some marvelous narrative, David S. Reynolds, a professor of English and American studies at the City University of New York Graduate Center, has ultimately decided to love John Brown. The result is a splendid if overwrought book.

As Henry Ward Beecher remarked of Brown: "His soul was noble; his work was miserable. But a cord and gibbet would redeem all of that." Or as Ralph Waldo Emerson even more famously put it, Brown threw the slavery issue into moral relief and made "the gallows glorious like the cross." The image of John Brown, a 59-year-old selfless hero, dying to free black people from slavery, hanging from the slaveholders' scaffold in Virginia on a December morning, demands our attention and provides a grand pivot for the whole of American history. According to Reynolds, Brown was a homegrown "American terrorist," driven by religious certainty, but one who killed to create a democratic society. In our age of the war on terror, Reynolds's work, the first major biography of Brown in a generation, is timely indeed.

Reynolds captures with arresting prose Brown's early life of poverty, his huge, tragic, rolling-stone family of 20 children with two wives, the business failures and bankruptcies in several states, the lasting influence of his staunchly Calvinist father and his genuine devotion to the human rights of African Americans. He also takes us deeper than any previous historian into Brown's exploits in the 1856-58 guerrilla war known as "Bleeding Kansas." In the murderous frontier struggle between pro-slavery and free-state advocates, Brown led a personal band of abolitionist warriors who fought pitched battles and executed some settlers. Moreover, the narratives of Brown's fascinating fund-raising tours of Eastern reform communities, the Harpers Ferry raid itself, his epic letter-writing from a jail cell while awaiting execution, and the hanging (with the whole world watching) are all beautifully executed.

Reynolds practices "cultural biography," a mode of scholarship that places the great individual within the broadest possible contexts. Hence, this book contains long, sometimes extraneous asides on Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Abraham Lincoln, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson and others. Above all, Reynolds is determined to demonstrate Brown's originality in his century as a man "free of racism," as a prophet of a "multicultural" America, and as a warrior for justice whose terrible deeds of violence were "ultimately noble" and transcended his era as they defined it. Admirably, Reynolds takes a three-part stand on the meaning of John Brown. The abolitionist, he declares, was "not insane" but a "deeply religious, flawed" reformer. The murders Brown plotted and committed at Pottawatomie, Kan., in 1856 were a "war crime committed against proslavery settlers by a man who saw slavery itself as an unprovoked war of one race against another," and hence "explainable" if not justified. And his Harpers Ferry raid was not a "wild-eyed, erratic scheme," but a plan to establish a mountain community or independent sanctuary of escaped slaves that would threaten and topple the slave system; its failure was due to Brown's "overconfidence in whites' ability to rise above racism and in blacks' willingness to rise up in insurrection."

But when does flawed revolution fall into folly, and when is it noble heroism? This question forever haunts all who write about Brown. Reynolds is so determined to dig a moat of protection around Brown's legacy, and so devoted to the Transcendentalists' romantic defense of the old warrior as an antislavery Christian hero, that his analysis at times misfires. Puzzlingly, Reynolds never employs the term "revolutionary violence" -- killing rooted in the doctrine of the right of revolution against an oppressive state (one of the four principles in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence) -- to characterize Brown's actions. Instead, he prefers the more current and resonant "terrorism." Borrowing the term "good terrorist" from Doris Lessing, he argues that, as in the case of Brown's own hero, Oliver Cromwell, if the "choice of victims" is appropriate and the ends serve freedom and justice, then killing in the right cause can be a net "good." At Pottawatomie, Brown selected five pro-slavery settlers, dragged them unarmed from their homes in the dark of night and ordered his men to slash them to death with broadswords. Reynolds argues that such murders, which he admits were crimes, must be understood in the broader context of guerrilla war and "make sense" because of the "racial factor" in Brown's motives. They were intended as retribution for pro-slavery killings of a similar nature. But Reynolds leaves the anguished concept of a "good terrorist" -- fraught with too much modern meaning to fit Kansas in 1856 -- dangling in his readers' imaginations. The term mystifies more than it explains. Even if Brown was modeling his campaign on previous insurrections by slave rebels, this defense of a Kansas massacre seems tortured.

Other matters of language will puzzle some readers. While Reynolds writes movingly about how Brown raised an entire family to be aggressively anti-racist, he awkwardly explains much of Brown's inspiration as his exposure to an ill-defined "black culture." Brown developed numerous friendships of equality, so rare for his time, with African Americans (famous and ordinary), but what black "culture" is he referring to here -- musical, spiritual, political, psychological? And to call Brown's unique racial egalitarianism a vision of a "multicultural" society seems a little too academic in a book that seeks a broad readership.

Reynolds succeeds in humanizing Brown and especially the struggles of two of his sons, John Jr. and Owen, to cope with and follow their warrior father. That some of those sons rebelled and almost abandoned the old man's private war comes to light in these pages in riveting detail. Reynolds also skillfully discusses the ways in which the Brown "mystique" as a warrior and his "legend" as an abolitionist martyr took hold in American culture in the wake of his hanging. And in the final chapters he provides a sparkling analysis of the origins of the enduring song "John Brown's Body" and Brown's powerful hold on the literary and poetic imagination over time.

But sometimes when Reynolds compares Brown to other major figures, such as Lincoln or Frederick Douglass, the cultural biographer stumbles. Is it really accurate to say that Lincoln, the "antislavery warrior" of the Second Inaugural in 1865, is a "heightened version" of Brown, the "God-directed fighter" on the gallows in 1859? Moreover, Reynolds's contention that Brown almost single-handedly turned Douglass away from pacifism to violence through the course of the 1850s traces far too much complexity and biography to a single cause. To declare Douglass "not as brave as his words" for not joining Brown at Harpers Ferry is to deny the former fugitive slave the wisdom and discretion that kept him alive .

For those willing to see history itself through Reynolds's somewhat arcane Emersonian vision, in which "institutions and eras are the lengthened shadows of a few individuals . . . [and] if these people had not lived, the events they set in motion would not have occurred," this book will be a moving and convincing read. Perhaps the boldest, if oddest, feature of Reynolds's biography is his use of counterfactuals -- a historical practice that considers how things might have been rather than how they were -- to enhance Brown's historical significance. If he had lived in another era, Reynolds posits, Harpers Ferry would not have happened, the Civil War would have been delayed, and slavery would have endured longer. More specifically, he claims that secessionist arguments "would have carried little weight" in 1860-61 were it not for Brown's raid. Without question, Harpers Ferry influenced the election of 1860 and the secession crisis. But so did four decades of agitation and political conflict over the expansion of slavery. Southern secessionists were amply threatened by the Republican Party's determination to halt the spread of slavery long before Brown's men fired a gun. His raid tapped into a deep well of racial fear as much as it filled it. Brown was a great man, and specific events really did contribute to the coming of the Civil War. But playing out an alternative time line for the 19th century is not necessary to understand the old Puritan's importance.

Reynolds convincingly shows, though, that it was more in death, not life, and in words, not deeds, that Brown achieved lasting significance. His extraordinary eloquence at his sentencing, reported all across the country, and his note handed to the jailer as he walked in chains to his death -- "the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood" -- are language and drama for the ages. It is Brown the authentically mythic figure of vengeance in the name of human freedom who still speaks to our own bloodied and distracted world. It is Brown on his own cross who still lives and dies for us in our history lessons. In nearly every one of the 22 paintings in Jacob Lawrence's magnificent series on John Brown, some image of a crucifix appears -- vividly in the elongated hanging body or obliquely in twisted crosses, rifles or knives. The artist seemed to know that Brown was somehow the nation on the gallows. Not easy to love, except by a necessary death. ?

David W. Blight is a professor of American history at Yale University, author of "Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory" and director of Yale's Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company