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Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America

by Evan Carton, The Free Press, 2006, 400 pages, $30.

The abolitionist John Brown, whose famous raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859 was a prelude to the Civil War, has long been a polarizing figure. For decades, historians have either scorned him as a violent madman fueled by religious fanaticism or praised him as an avenging angel striking a necessary blow against slavery. Recently, as in David Reynolds’ outstanding John Brown and now in Evan Carton’s impressively researched and skillfully written Patriotic Treason (the book’s title highlights Brown’s paradoxical legacy), historians have been trying to understand Brown’s complex motivations rather than condemning him and his actions.

In old portraits, Brown looks something like an Old Testament prophet with his flowing white beard and steely gaze. He was indeed something of a prophet, believing that his nation had sinned against the Almighty by holding 4 million African Americans in bondage. He believed that this national sin could only be purged by blood. It was an idea that President Abraham Lincoln himself would echo in his second Inaugural Address. But at the time of Brown’s hanging, he was widely considered to be a lunatic.

Brown took his strict brand of Calvinism and fanatical abolitionism from his father Owen. Young John left home at 17 to begin studying to be a Calvinist minister, but the family’s money ran out and he had to return. Brown continued to study the Bible and to speak against the “mortal sin” of slavery.

Brown’s life was beset by tribulation. His first wife died young, and 12 of his 20 children would die before he did, some because of disease and some as a result of fighting with proslavery men. Brown viewed all this misfortune as a test from God. He’d view his own hanging as a kind of martyrdom that he freely accepted.

Brown’s first public condemnation of slavery came after he’d read about the 1837 murder of abolitionist newspaper editor Elijah Lovejoy, killed by a proslavery mob in Alton, Ill. Carton does an outstanding job describing the growing sectional strife in the two decades after the Lovejoy murder, and how this strife served to radicalize Brown’s abolitionist views.

Brown’s violent abolitionism showed itself clearly in “Bleeding Kansas,” where proslavery advocates from Missouri were engaged in a civil war against Free Soil advocates such as Brown. In May 1856, proslavery forces sacked the Free Soil stronghold of Lawrence, Kan. Shortly thereafter, Brown and seven of his followers hacked to death five defenseless proslavery men, including a father and two of his sons. This massacre at Pottawatomie shocked Kansas and the rest of the nation.

In 1857 a now infamous Brown journeyed to Boston to obtain financing for his planned attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Brown hoped to seize weapons, distribute them to slaves and trigger a large-scale uprising. Carton shows us exactly how Brown planned the raid and how he traveled extensively to recruit his troops. Brown’s followers, Carton tells us, were motivated by strong religious and political principles. Brown himself always justified his actions by referring to the Declaration of Independence and the Bible. Brown was also charismatic, possessing an Ahablike sense of purpose that convinced followers to sacrifice themselves.

“As a military mission,” writes Carton, “the [Harpers Ferry] raid had been a fiasco.” The nearby slaves who Brown hoped would rise up to support him did not materialize. Brown and his 18 followers marched into town and took the arsenal, but were surrounded the next day. Colonel Robert E. Lee demanded that Brown surrender unconditionally. He refused. Brown’s position was charged and overrun, and he was badly wounded.

It was as a captive that Brown made his reputation. He played the martyr role brilliantly, telling politicians and reporters that his actions were justified by God and the nation’s highest ideals. His letters, interviews and courtroom speeches transformed him into an antislavery legend, and served to further polarize the sectional conflict over slavery. To intellectuals in the North, men like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Brown was a Christlike figure. To Southerners, Brown was evil incarnate. These divisions would not die with Brown on December 2, 1859—hundreds of thousands of young men would perish after him in bloody civil war.


Originally published in the September 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here