The Avenging Angel

The Avenging Angel

For abolitionist John Brown, equality was not a theoretical stance but a daily practice.


Who, if anyone, has the “right” to kill? And from what source does the right derive? When does (or should) taking another life bring honor, and when disgrace? Is there such a thing as a “just” war that merits medals and heroes–the American Revolution? The fight against fascism?–or is slaughter always slaughter, and never worthy of praise? Do certain circumstances mitigate the crime of murder? Is “self-defense” the chief of these? On what grounds would one deny the right of Jews earmarked for Nazi extermination to resist violently? Or the right of black slaves, their lives stolen, their bodies brutalized, to slit the throats of their self-designated masters? Does the same exculpation extend to revolutionaries (American? Algerian? Cuban?) who take up arms to topple tyrannical laws and rulers? To a woman fighting off a rapist? A gay person being fag-bashed? A sex worker threatened and abused?

The ethical conundrums multiply even as their resolution resists consensus. Sometimes the issues at stake can be clarified through historical perspective, by investigating certain singular figures in the past whose lives seem to encapsulate those issues and whose reputations have shifted, in tandem with shifting cultural values, through time. In this regard few lives are more emblematic than John Brown’s. Though African-Americans have always and overwhelmingly regarded John Brown as a noble, heroic figure, few whites have. And while the civil rights movement produced a limited shift in attitude, very few white historians have written with any sympathy for the violent tactics John Brown employed during the mid-1850s war to make Kansas a free state, or for his subsequent attempt in 1859 to lead a slave insurrection at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

Though Nat Turner has also been dismissed by some white historians as a sort of crazed religious fanatic, too addled to tote up the overwhelming odds against the success of his rebellion, his somewhat more favorable press derives from the fact that he and those who joined his uprising were blacks, direct victims of the system they hoped to overthrow. Fighting on behalf of one’s own liberation has been treated as more legitimate than fighting, as did John Brown (or the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, or the white freedom fighters during the civil rights era) for the liberation of somebody else. According to this canon of judgment, itself derived from capitalist ethics, morality is defined as devotion to one’s self-interest.

Historians for many generations have derided John Brown, a white man and a Northerner, as a meddling outsider, a self-appointed emancipator whose motives must be suspect because, unlike Nat Turner’s cohorts, he himself did not suffer from slavery’s barbarism and could therefore have no “real” interest in encouraging its overthrow. The historical profession long made much the same sort of indictment against the nonviolent abolitionist movement as a whole, essentially agreeing with Daniel Webster’s notorious charge during the debates in Congress over the Compromise of 1850 that the “outside agitators” of the antislavery movement did nothing for the slave but secure his bonds more firmly than ever before; according to this perspective, the white South responded to moral condemnation not by inaugurating some long-term process of gradual emancipation but rather by tightening up its system of surveillance and by honing its ideological defense of slavery as a “positive good,” as an institution that brought the blessings of Christianity to a savage, benighted people.

But though Daniel Webster’s moral compass was far off course, his incidental point was accurate: Until a bloody civil war–until violence–produced emancipation, there was little if any evidence that the institution of slavery was weakening, let alone moving toward extinction. On the contrary, those white Southerners who at the beginning of the nineteenth century had qualms about an institution so at odds with their own ringing declaration of independence from Britain had, by mid-century, and even in the border states, been silenced or converted to a proslavery ideology.

The antislavery movement had long managed to convince itself that over time, through patient agitation, the slave system would waste away. To hasten that end, it had relied on varied, presumably promising tactics: “moral suasion,” compensation coupled with deportation, “non-extension” and political separation. Even these nonviolent strategies failed to find favor with several generations of white historians; William Lloyd Garrison and other like-minded antislavery leaders were long denounced as misguided fanatics who, under the guise of caring about the plight of the slaves, were actually motivated by their “displaced status” as political leaders in the North and their wish to reclaim their position of authority through the display of superior moral virtue. Alternately, the white (not the black) historical fraternity simply dismissed the abolitionists as deeply delusional, as disturbed busybodies, would-be martyrs, tortured neurotics.

The nonviolent antislavery movement has, over the past several decades, been considerably rehabilitated. Not so John Brown, purveyor and defender of violence as a necessary instrument for dislodging the deeply embedded, unyielding, unreformable institution of human slavery. Brown has continued to be denounced as everything from an incompetent businessman to a tyrannical father and husband to a dangerous sociopath. The distinguished historian C. Vann Woodward portrayed him as a “monomaniac,” a man whose family history was riddled with insanity (it wasn’t, in fact), thus presumably proving Brown’s own. Part of the ongoing discomfort with Brown is due not solely to his advocacy of violence to free the slaves but also to his remarkable lack of racism–exceedingly rare in his own day, in the North as well as the South, and hardly commonplace in ours.

One of the outstanding achievements of David Reynolds’s new biography, John Brown, Abolitionist, is to provide what is by far the fullest documentation to date of Brown’s endorsement of full equality in every area of life for black people (he further demanded, incidentally, that girls be educated in the same way and in the same subjects as boys, and he was a compassionate sympathizer with the problems of working-class people and the elderly, as well as with the suffering of animals). For John Brown equality was not a theoretical stance but a daily practice. He forbade his family from ever discriminating in any way against people of color, had close friendships with many black people, deeply admired their culture and insisted on racial integration at every level. While living in Springfield, Massachusetts, in the late 1840s, he wrote a column for a black newspaper, tried to establish an “African high school” and in 1851 founded a black cadre called the League of Gileadites to combat the recent Fugitive Slave Act, which required white citizens to cooperate with authorities in recapturing escaped runaways. When the Brown family moved to North Elba, New York, they lived and worked in a colony of black people who cooperated in maintaining a subsistence economy.

Reynolds helps us to see how extraordinary John Brown’s racial views were by placing them within the context of his day, a context where white people everywhere assumed that blacks were intrinsically inferior and their natural state one of subordination. He quotes from both the popular press and the scientific journals of the day to demonstrate how pervasive such views were. The respected so-called science of phrenology, for example, “conclusively” demonstrated in its charts and arguments that Caucasians were properly associated with the ability to reason logically and to cultivate the arts, and Africans were rightly linked to unbridled passion, indolence and stupidity. Even some of those active in the antislavery movement could nonetheless be venomously racist; Reynolds cites the claim of the antislavery orator Cassius Clay that “I have studied the Negro character. They lack self-reliance–we can make nothing out of them. God has made them for the sun and the banana!”

Reynolds’s biography is not the first to show some sympathy for John Brown; in recent years several professional historians have published books that at least partially defend his character and his actions (the most notable is probably Stephen Oates’s To Purge This Land With Blood). Nor is Reynolds’s biography itself an unguarded, unqualified vindication of Brown. Some of the author’s ambivalence about aspects of Brown’s career, particularly the events at Pottawatomie, Kansas, in 1856, seems warranted, though now and then merely indecisive.

As a work of historical writing, John Brown, Abolitionist is not without flaws. The book’s first hundred pages are slow going indeed; as one plows through them, an impression may take root that Reynolds has limited stylistic flair and less narrative drive. But the impression is wrong, and I urge the reader to persevere; the bulk of the book proves to be absorbing, well written and beautifully documented. The only other place where I longed for a stronger editorial hand was during the attenuated discussion much later in the book of Brown’s influence on American writers; the unduly long excursion seems more the product of an English professor’s own specialty than any intrinsic necessity.

Interpretively, my only serious quarrel with Reynolds is over his treatment of Abraham Lincoln. Throughout the book I think he overestimates Lincoln’s desire in the years immediately preceding the Civil War to hold the Union together and underestimates his antislavery convictions. Reynolds never once mentions either the Crittenden Compromise or Lincoln’s decision to reprovision Charleston Harbor’s Fort Sumter–a decision that precipitated war. The Crittenden Compromise in all likelihood would have passed the Congress and succeeded in holding the Union together–but at the expense of further extending slavery; Lincoln intervened directly with several Congressmen to help defeat the measure, an action strongly suggesting (as does his decision at Sumter) that in his actual, if unannounced, hierarchy of values preventing the spread of slavery came first and the Union second.

But not all historians would agree with me; and even if they did, my complaints, taken together, amount to little when compared with the many strengths of Reynolds’s book. Perhaps these are best seen by focusing on how he treats the most controversial episode in Brown’s career: the killings at Pottawatomie during the height of the mini civil war there between those struggling to bring the territory into the Union as a free or slave state. Reynolds, first of all, does a superb job of contextualizing the episode, of making it clear that during the struggle over statehood violence was everywhere employed. Thousands of Missourians (the so-called “border ruffians”) had poured into Kansas in a determined effort to swing the area, when it came time to elect a territorial legislature, into the proslavery column.

The border ruffians showed no hesitation in terrorizing polling officials, employing massive electoral fraud, using outright violence to silence antislavery settlers (one free-state leader was hacked to death in front of his wife) and, once finally in control of the legislature, passing “black laws” that mandated sentences of years of hard labor for anyone who dared to write, or even had in their possession, antislavery literature. President Franklin Pierce and his Administration overlooked such proslavery atrocities and publicly announced that nothing either illegal or immoral had taken place in Kansas; Pierce even declared the fraudulently elected proslavery legislature to be unquestionably legitimate and denounced the opposition to it as treasonable.

As if to emphasize the point that the federal government was determined to defend the institution of slavery, it was at just this time that South Carolina Senator Preston Brooks approached the desk of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, the outspoken antislavery orator, on the floor of the Senate and caned him so viciously that he broke his hard gutta-percha walking stick into splinters and left a seriously injured Sumner unconscious. Brooks’s violent act made him an instant hero throughout the South, where the culture of vigilante justice, including the slow burning of offending slaves over a banked fire, had long been associated with “chivalric” manliness. The South’s leading newspaper, the Richmond Enquirer, in hailing Brooks’s murderous assault, declared that “impudent” antislavery senators were “a pack of curs” who “must be lashed into submission.”

It was at this point, and in this climate, that an outraged John Brown decided to go on the offensive. As a contemporary journalist quoted by Reynolds put it, he “brought Southern tactics to the Northern side.” Brown hadn’t gone to Kansas (as a host of hostile white historians have insisted) with the specific intent of waging war. But now, with the murder of antislavery men continuing in the territory and with the federal government overtly siding with those determined to spread the barbaric institution, John Brown decided that the time for retaliation had come. He led a small band of supporters, including several of his sons, who singled out five men active in terrorizing antislavery settlers, dragged them from their homes and killed them. Brown claimed–and Reynolds persuades us that “by the best evidence” his claim is true–that he himself did not participate in the killings. But he did direct them.

Retaliatory violence is violence nonetheless. There can be no prettifying the fact that John Brown, deliberately and proactively, saw to it that five people were slaughtered at Pottawatomie. To the principled pacifist, for whom the taking of human life is never acceptable, that must remain the bottom line and disapproval must remain unqualified. I feel closer to that position than to any other. But then, I’ve never been a brutalized slave, a Jew in a concentration camp, an abused prisoner of war or a hunted Native American. But neither was John Brown. The chief indignity he’d suffered had been to his Calvinist conscience and to his compassion for the suffering of the op pressed. Reynolds concludes that “the Pottawatomie affair was indeed a crime, but it was a war crime committed against proslavery settlers by a man who saw slavery itself as an unprovoked war of one race against another.”

I can’t do better than that, though I wish Reynolds had taken the argument to another level and posed some of the difficult questions that are intrinsic to any discussion of the utility and morality of violence as a tool for producing social change. Most of the populace seems content most of the time to let the state decide when the taking of life is justified; state-sponsored wars produce “heroes,” not “criminals.” But by what authority, human or divine, does the state decide what countries are to be invaded, what villages bombed, which individuals tortured or executed? And why do so many of us, with a mix of relief and indifference, leave such decisions in the hands of those who rarely suffer any personal consequences from them?

In line with this, I can’t help but wonder whether Reynolds, who calls Brown’s action at Pottawatomie a “crime,” would apply the same label to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising? Or the fight against Franco in Spain? Or, during the colonial period, to the actions of anyone who joined Toussaint L’Ouverture in fighting the French in Haiti? The questions, to be sure, are in a sense unfair: Reynolds is not a professional philosopher or an ethicist. Still, we all, inescapably, spin theories and pass judgments. This is especially true of historians claiming to “objectively” re-create the past; when we select evidence and decide which portions of it to emphasize, we are inevitably engaged in crafting narratives–though most historians prefer to ignore the fact–that are crowded with implicit, if usually unconscious and unexamined, value judgments.

When it comes to John Brown’s more celebrated attack on Harpers Ferry, Rey nolds has little trouble issuing judgments, and he does so brilliantly. I found his intricate argument that John Brown’s raid was neither poorly conceived nor quixotic entirely persuasive, even though Brown’s hesitation at a critical moment to escape into the mountains does continue to seem mystifying (to Reynolds, too). Where Brown went astray was in his optimistic expectation that local blacks would quickly join his band and, their ranks thus enlarged, turn the insurrection into a swelling tide. Brown had perhaps overstudied the successful slave rebellions in the West Indies (the uprising in Jamaica, L’Ouverture’s liberation of Haiti) and underplayed the peculiar conditions of the heavily fortified South. Blacks were indeed as shrewd and as fiercely desirous of freedom as John Brown thought–but that meant shrewd enough to realize that the chances for success were slight and that their subsequent punishment would be ferociously brutal.

David Reynolds, to his enormous credit, has restored to us a man “too honest to succeed as a capitalist,” too attuned to the sufferings of others to tend closely to his own, too principled to be easily recognized as an American hero. At the close of his biography, Reynolds, in a profoundly moving way, recounts Brown’s nobility of behavior in jail, on trial and awaiting the gallows. No madman or fraud could conceivably have matched his astonishing eloquence and spiritual grandeur. This was a special man indeed, made so by the utter sincerity of his egalitarian convictions and his willingness to sacrifice all in their name. Reynolds has managed–long after someone else should have–to restore to us a flawed but deeply impressive humanitarian figure who makes the moral midgets currently dominating our national discourse appear, by contrast, the ignoble specks they actually are.

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