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“So perish all such enemies of Virginia! All such enemies of the Union! All such foes of the human race!” – Colonel Preston of the Virginia militia said these words to the crowd that had gathered to see John Brown hang.

John Brown, abolitionist : the man who killed slavery, sparked the Civil War, and seeded civil rights    New York : Alfred A. Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 2005 David S. Reynolds Antislavery movements United States History 19th century Hardcover. 1st. ed., later printing. x, 578 p. : ill. ; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

Few historical figures are as intriguing as John Brown, the controversial Abolitionist who used terrorist tactics against slavery and changed forever the tactics of violent civil disobedience in American history. This  biography of Brown by Reynolds brings to life the sociopath turned warrior who pounced on slavery as a vehicle – in much the same way as Lincoln did – and helped cause the Civil War and all of the misery that flowed from it..

When does principled resistance become anarchic brutality? How can a murderer be viewed as a heroic freedom fighter? The case of John Brown opens windows on these timely issues. Was Brown an insane criminal or a Christ-like martyr? A forerunner of Osama bin Laden or of Martin Luther King, Jr.? David Reynolds sorts through the tangled evidence and delivers  some surprising findings that not only run contrary to the best evidence but which seem to justify the most egregious of acts so long as the author agrees with the goals.

Reynolds demonstrates that Brown’s most violent acts – his slaughter of unarmed citizens in Kansas, his liberation of slaves in Missouri, and his dramatic raid, in October 1859, on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia – were inspired by the slave revolts, guerilla warfare, and revolutionary “Christianity” of the day. He shows us how Brown seized the nation’s attention, creating sudden unity in the North, where the Transcendentalists led the way in sanctifying Brown, and infuriating the South, where pro-slavery fire-eaters exploited the Harpers Ferry raid to whip up a secessionist frenzy.

Of course Reynolds could not possibly be more wrong since there was nothing remotely Christian in Brown’s acts and the crime for which he was finally hanged was treason – against the State of Virginia. That the Transcendentalists labeled him as “Christian” and “martyr” says far more about their understanding – more specifically their lack thereof – of what constituted either. Edmund Burke, in his  Speech on the Conciliation of America had said, “The religion most prevalent in our northern colonies is a refinement on the principles of resistance: it is the dissidence of dissent, and the protestantism of the Protestant religion.” The Transcendentalists had ventured beyond even the pale of the tub thumpers into an orgiastic frenzy of pantheism and nihilism – like the revolutionary Christians of today – all in the name of freedom but with no basis in the objective standards of conduct actually insisted upon in Scripture.

As for the pro-slavery fire-eaters these are in fact two different groups – just as the anti-slavery fire-eaters were two different groups. It is entirely possible to make a coherent and reasoned argument against the growing encroachment of  “nationalism” eroding the power of sovereign states as it is to make a coherent and reasoned argument against people being born and held in servitude against their wills. Unfortunately then, as now, newspapers were not sold by reporting the cats that were not lost and the sensationalism of editors like William Lloyd Garrison could create the impression of wide-spread public opinion that had no basis in fact.

A more intelligent author would deal with the problem of slavery from the perspective of Justice Roger B. Taney. He had emancipated his own slaves [not waiting to do so posthumously like so many (including Washington)] and gave pensions to those who were too old to work. In 1819, he defended a minister who had been indicted for inciting slave insurrections by denouncing slavery when, in his opening argument, Taney condemned slavery as “a blot on our national character.” However as Chief Justice [demonstrating a level of judicial restraint that has not been seen since] Taney ruled that blacks, free or slave, had not been considered part of the original community of people covered by the Constitution and because they were originally excluded neither the Court nor Congress could now extend rights of citizens to them. Ironically the ONE way of extending rights to them – by Constitutional amendment – was never supported by the abolitionists and the original 13th Amendment, which Lincoln supported and actively advocated for, would have permanently institutionalised slavery in those states that allowed it.

In selecting only the most purple prose from the abolitionist press, Reynolds projects a Brown who permeated politics and popular culture during the Civil War and beyond in a way that is with absolute variance with the facts. He bestows a depth on Brown’s achievement claiming that not only did Brown spark the war that ended slavery, but he planted the seeds of the civil rights movement by making a pioneering demand for complete social and political equality for America’s ethnic minorities.  This is a genuine problem because while the pioneering demands for all American ethnic minorities is just so much moonshine the fact that Brown’s terror tactics were adopted by the lunatic fringe of the black power movement and the communist agitators who permeated the civil rights movement – both here and abroad – are all too true.

Part of the new phenomena of  cultural biography – that is two-thirds novel with a sprinkling of selected facts – the book is nonetheless  a revelation of John Brown and what his meaning for America has become without being an accurate study of the man, his actions or their true consequences for the nation.

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