Saturday, November 26, 2011

John Brown's raid

Midnight Rising, Tony Horwitz

The subtitle of this book is "John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War."  When I saw it announced, I wanted to read it because I enjoy Tony Horwitz's writing, and because of the importance of Brown's raid in American history.  On October 16, 1859, he led eighteen men, including two of his sons and five African Americans, on a raid of the Federal armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia.  One of his stated objectives was to spark an uprising of Southern slaves, to overthrow the slave system.  Brown had taken no steps to alert the slaves in the area, however, and he inexplicably waited in the town while enraged white Virginians armed themselves and federal troops, under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee, moved in.  Brown was captured with four of his men; ten others were killed in fighting or trying to escape. His two sons were among the dead, as were four townspeople and one of the soldiers. 

Within a week, Brown was on trial for treason and conspiring to incite a slave revolt, and by November 2nd he had been condemned to hang.  After his sentance had been pronounced, he told the court,
"Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the end of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country, whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel and unjust enactments, I submit. So let it be done!"
Though the trial was rushed, authorities in Virginia delayed his execution for a month, time that Brown spent writing letters and giving interviews to the press, expanding on his words in the courtroom and explaining what had led him to Harper's Ferry.  In that month, Northerners who had originally seen him as a deluded and dangerous fanatic came to see him as a martyr, dying in the cause of abolition of slavery.  Abolition wasn't popular in the North.  While many northerners shared Abraham Lincoln's view that slavery was wrong, like him they also held racist views of African Americans and didn't want freed slaves moving north, competing for jobs or living next door to them.  At the same time, tensions were rising as America expanded westward.  With each new territory and state added, the same question came up: would it be slave or free?  While many northerners, again like Lincoln, believed that the Constitution protected slavery where it already existed, they did not want it expanded into new territory.  There were various tense compromises worked out over the years, admitting slave and free states in exact balance. But the tension exploded in the 1850s over Kansas, as pro- and anti-slavery forces fought for control of the new territory.  There were armed battles, and even murder.  John Brown and his large family had been at the center of this fight, implicated in the murder of at least four settlers in 1856, one a sixteen year old boy (one of Brown's many sons was in turn murdered by pro-slavery forces).

John Brown's execution galvanized anti-slavery feeling in the north.  New York diarist George Templeton Strong, unsympathetic to abolitionists and African Americans, wrote,
"Slavery has received no such blow in my time as his strangulation. There must be a revolution in feeling, even in the terrified State of Virginia. . . So did the first Christian martyrs wake up senators and landed gentlemen and patrician ladies, tempore Nero and Diocletian, and so on. One's faith in anything is terribly shaken by anybody who is ready to go to the gallows condemning and denouncing it."
At the same time, Southerners were outraged by Northern support of Brown. Just days after his execution, Jefferson Davis in a speech on the Senate floor threatened secession.  Less than a year later, the election of Abraham Lincoln as President made that threat a reality.

I was a little reluctant to read this book, though, just because it is about John Brown.  I first came across his name in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, where Reverend Brown, the Little Town on the Prairie's Congregational minister, is said to be a cousin of "old John Brown of Kansas." Laura doesn't like him, and neither do Ma and Pa. "What he said did not make sense to [Laura], but he looked like that picture of John Brown in her history book, come alive. His eyes glared, his white mustache and his whiskers bobbed, and his big hands waved and clawed and clenched into fists pounding the pulpit and shaking in air."  I didn't know who John Brown of Kansas was then, but I was left with an image of a fanatic Old Testament figure.  What I learned about him later made him seem a 19th century domestic terrorist.

Tony Horwitz addresses this in his Prologue:
     "Viewed through the lends of 9/11, Harpers Ferry seems an al-Queda prequel: a long-bearded fundamentalist, consumed by hatred of the U.S. government, launches nineteen men in a suicidal strike on a symbol of American power. A shocked nation plunges into war. We are still grappling with the consequences.
     "But John Brown wasn't a charismatic foreigner crusading from half a world away. He descended from Puritan and Revolutionary soldiers and believed he was fulfilling their struggle for freedom. Nor was he an alienated loner in the mold of recent homegrown terrorists such as Ted Kaczynski and Timothy McVeigh. Brown plotted while raising an enormous family; he also drew support from leading thinkers and activists of his day, including Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Henry David Thoreau. The covert group that funneled him money and guns, the so-called Secret Six, was composed of northern magnates and prominent Harvard men, two of them ministers.
     "Those who followed Brown into battle represented a cross section of mid-nineteenth-century America."
In this book, he traces John Brown's life, before Kansas and before Harper's Ferry, to explain his extraordinary commitment not just to abolition of slavery, but to equality for African Americans, and to place those events in context of his life and of the larger American story.  Brown's character and his beliefs were strongly influenced by the stern Calvinism of his parents, and he was inspired by Old Testament heroes like Gideon and Samson.  Horwitz argues that despite what Brown told his supporters and followers about his plans for the raid, he may have seen himself as a Samson, who in failing would bring down the institution of slavery.  In this, he succeeded.

Thanks to Tony Horwitz, I now have a better understanding of John Brown himself, of his motives and his mind, and of the role he played in American history.  As a popular Civil War song had it, "John Brown's body is a-mouldering in his grave, but his soul is marching on."  Yet he is still a disturbing figure, and understanding his motives still leaves me uncomfortable with the means he chose.


  1. I hadn't heard of Midnight Rising until I saw it on a couple of 'Best of 2011' lists recently. I very much want to read it, but there is a waiting list at my library. John Brown has always seemed like a mysterious figure, so finding out about his life and motives is something I am interested in.

  2. I was lucky to get it so soon, I think I was first in line for it. It's really a compelling story, and Tony Horwitz writes it so well. I wouldn't be surprised to see it on prize lists next year.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!