Monday, November 2, 2009

Just finished reading - John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War and Seeded Civil Rights by David S. Reynolds

Much of the material in my recent posts on John Brown have come from thoughts that I had while reading this 500 page cultural biography. Author David S. Reynolds, an English and American Studies professor at New York University has produced a very solid look at Brown's life and his lasting impact on America's history and culture.

John Brown failed at nearly everything he did career- wise in life; as a farmer, tanner, and wool salesman he hemorrhaged money, lived in debt, and had a constant bad luck streak that fortunately few other men could claim. His one success was where his true passion resided; his antislavery work. Brown's hatred of slavery was inherited from his father and was spurred by an experience when he was a boy, when he saw a young black man beaten for no other reason than being of darker complexion.

That deep hatred would eventually drive Brown to drastic measures to stop slavery. Reynolds discusses in-depth Brown's fundamental Calvinistic and puritanical religiosity and how that abiding faith led him to a wage a holy war against slavery and those that practiced it. On the surface Brown's ties with the liberal Transcendentalist movement seem strange, but they become clearer as Reynolds explains the common connection between Brown and Emerson, Thoreau and others. Brown and the Transcendentalists both believed in a sense of "higher law." Man's laws were not to necessarily be obeyed if they conflicted with what they believed was God's laws. Brown believe above all others that human equality was God's all supreme law.

In the aftermath of the Harpers Ferry raid many Northerners changed their opinion of John Brown. He was often lauded as martyr, they wrote songs about hims, and even those that condemned his actions, held him personally in high esteem for his unwavering commitment. On the other side Southerners hated him and the trouble he stirred up. He helped create a fear of slave insurrections that wouldn't end until slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment; six years after Brown's death. African Americans from Frederick Douglass to W.E.B DuBois to Malcolm X all held Brown up as the model that all whites should emulate. Brown would always hold a special place in hearts of black Americans.

One aspect that Reynolds missed was the centennial observation of Brown's raid. In 1959 racial tensions were on edge as the Civil Rights Movement was beginning to evolve. There are some very interesting stories that relate to the Brown Centennial and race issues that would have made this "cultural biography" even more revealing. Another issue that I found was that Reynolds named the free black Baltimore and Ohio Railroad worker that was the first casualty in the raid as Shepherd Hayward. From what I have found in research is that he has it backward; it is Hayward Shepherd. This is certainly a small point but one that should have been caught by an editor or peer reader and corrected.

Undoubtedly the controversy will continue over whether Brown was a freedom fighter or terrorist; madman or martyr; committed servant of God or condemned anarchist. I recommend you read this book and others about Brown and make the decision for yourself.

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