“Had Brown been an escaped slave or a free northern black man who acted and spoke exactly as the historical John Brown did, professional historians …would not have labeled him mad.”
John Brown occupies a unique place in world history as a member of the white race who sought to free black slaves by his own initiative and for no personal gain. Driven by deep moral conviction, fired by the rhetoric both of the Bible and the Abolitionist movement, Brown, who had behind him a history of strong Christian belief and a determined honesty in business dealings, led a small army, many his own sons, to try by violence to overthrow “that sum of all villainies, slavery,” as he referred to it in a last letter to his wife.
The raid on Harper’s Ferry and Brown’s subsequent hanging are the best-known incidents in what was a long, tortured route from a simple life to martyrdom. Brown, according to author/historian Evan Carton, never wavered in his belief that all persons were equal. He kept a strict religious practice in all aspects of his life, once lengthily chastising and personally devising a stringent punishment for a man who had stolen from him. Complex, brooding, perhaps to some a
messianic figure, Brown had faith that, like the needle of a compass, a human being’s moral resolve might wobble but would ultimately point true.
Brown fell in with some of the great African American abolitionists of the day, including Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. He felt sure that once whites saw that Negroes were strong and resolute in standing up for themselves, instead of passive and cowardly as they were generally portrayed, a groundswell of support would arise for their emancipation. “As usual,” Carton states, “Brown ignored the likelihood that most Americans would be outraged and terrified, rather than charmed, by black violence against whites.”
When captured and questioned, Brown quietly accused his interrogators of sinfulness and calmly asserted that if, as one asked, he “had every nigger in the United States” and could do what he wished, he would set them all free.
Brown prophetically declared hours before his death: “You may dispose of me very easily; I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is still to be settled – this Negro question I mean – the end of that is not yet.”
Strangely, John Brown has not emerged from the back pages of history as a hero to anyone but has been branded as mad or even, it has been proposed, a black man himself rather than a turncoat white. Perhaps Carton’s book will redress this deficiency in our thinking. It's written in a novelistic way, allowing the author to project what Brown and his cohorts might have been thinking, and to fill in unknown bits of the timeline of his remarkable life. While this style may annoy pure historians, it enhances the well-researched factual detail and paints a stark and believable picture. Carton reminds us that one significant result of the raid on Harper’s Ferry was to reinvigorate the notion of secessionism in the south, while making
Northern whites think more deeply about their own moral hypocrisy.
Brown, as depicted by Carton, was a man whose determination to act on his convictions made other men feel uncomfortable. He wrote to a sympathizer, from prison, “Christ told me to remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them, to do towards them as I would wish them to do towards me…”