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John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights Hardcover – April 19, 2005

4 out of 5 stars 63 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In the very first paragraphs of this biography, Bancroft Prize-winner Reynolds (Walt Whitman's America) steps back a bit from the grandiose claims of his subtitle. Nevertheless, his book as a whole paints a positive portrait of the Calvinist terrorist Brown (1800-1859)--contrary to virtually all recent scholarship (by Stephen B. Oates and Robert Boyer, among others), which tends to depict Brown as a bloodthirsty zealot and madman who briefly stepped into history but did little to influence it. Reynolds's approach harks back to the hero-worship apparent in earlier books by W.E.B. Du Bois and Brown's surviving associates. John Brown waged a campaign so bloody during the Kansas Civil War--in 1856 he chased men and elder sons from their beds in cabins along the Pottawatomie Creek, and then lopped off their heads with broadswords as sobbing wives and younger children looked on--that fellow Kansas antislavery settlers rebuked him. Even the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison condemned Brown and his methods. After taking the federal armory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry in October 1859, Brown intended (had he not been swatted like a fly within hours) to raise and arm a large force of blacks capable of wreaking a terrible vengeance across Virginia. Yet Reynolds insists that "it is misleading to identify Brown with modern terrorists." Really? 25 b&w illus. (Apr. 21)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

The claims of Reynolds’s subtitle strike many as inflated; while John Brown certainly grew into a towering folkloric figure after his death, the historians who review the book note that his actions were less a direct cause than an important symbolic precursor to the Civil War. Some critics believe Reynolds, winner of the Bancroft Prize for Walt Whitman’s America, is overly sympathetic to Brown’s use of violence. Though other reviewers counter that the author never turns full-scale apologist, the question of whether violence is an acceptable response to injustice—even one as grave as slavery—hangs over the text, especially as Reynolds examines the parallels between Brown’s actions and our current understanding of terrorism. One thing is certain: John Brown’s legacy is as unstable a part of our national history as ever.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.


Product Details

  • Hardcover: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1 edition (April 19, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375411887
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375411885
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.8 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (63 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #703,714 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
John Brown is an American enigma. His life presents a serious challenge to a simple black and white interpretation of ethics, history, and by extrapolation, even current events. He was a man a hundred years ahead of his time in racial ethics - not only opposed to slavery, but unlike almost all other abolitionist of his time, actually a believer in the equality of the races. He was praised honestly by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote of him that he "believed in two articles - the golden rule and the Declaration of Independence." Another contemporary, the black reformer Charles H. Langston praised him saying, "he was a lover of mankind - not of any particular class or color, but of all men...he fully, really and actively believed in the equality and brotherhood of man. ...He is the only American citizen who has lived fully up to the Declaration of Independence." Yet this man who was so dedicated to racial justice was able to direct the cold blooded murders of five pro-slavery men in Kansas who he had ripped from their families in the middle of the night and hacked to death with broadswords without any qualms or regrets. He chillingly stated that "it is better that a whole generation of men, women, and children should be swept away than that this crime of slavery should exist one day longer." Brown's life presents an open question on what if any limits should stand in the way of those attempting to right great societal wrongs and bring about justice. David Reynolds biography may not fully answer that question, but it goes a long way toward putting it into a proper perspective.

Reynolds' biography of Brown is both detailed and fascinating, and is sympathetic without attempting to hide the dark and troubling aspects of Brown's actions.
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Format: Hardcover
In his book, David S. Reynolds addresses the historical problem of why John Brown had an impact on the course of national events in America even well after his death. Reynolds weaves an intricate analysis of his historical problem by incorporating cultural, social, political and economic history of antebellum America. Reynolds makes a strong case for his argument, and instructs the reader how the social and cultural climate of antebellum America offered the prime conditions under which Brown became infamous.

Reynolds' work is set apart from his contemporaries in that he presents a positive portrait of Brown in contrast to other scholarship that tends to depict Brown as an insane madman who briefly stepped into history but did little to influence it. Reynolds' positive representation of Brown may seem contradictory considering his position that Brown was a terrorist. However, as Reynolds states, Brown was not a terrorist by the same definition that we use today. Reynolds defines terrorism as "violence that avoids combat, is used against the defenseless (often civilians), and is intended to shock and horrify, with the aim of bringing about social change." Brown committed what Reynolds classifies as "good terrorism" by carefully selecting his victims (pro-slavery white males) which sets Brown apart from modern day terrorists whose violent activity is intended to kill anyone. Reynolds' interpretation of Brown is presented in such a way that the ends justify the means; and while Brown's tactics were horrific and brutal, it was for the common good of society and to uphold divine law.

Reynolds offers a very in depth analysis of the life and events surrounding John Brown.
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Format: Hardcover
When I was a child the name of John Brown was a grotesquerie. We sang about his body a moulderin' in the grave, but it was generally understood that he was some kind of crazy man who killed some people over slavery, had something to do with the Civil War, and we just shouldn't talk about it. And I am from Michigan rather than the South so this avoidance wasn't based on region.

In the sixties I was about as removed in time from the Civil War as today's young people are from the First World War. That is, the people who were alive during the war were all but past and the children born to those who had lived through the war were now old. Still, some of the received knowledge of the war came from tradition of those who had life experience rather than from books and scholarship. However, with the Great War in our Grandparent's lives, the Second World War in our parent's lives and the echoes of Korea all around us and Vietnam getting under its bloody way, the Civil War just seemed too long ago to worry about in real life.

I took extra time with this book because I wanted to wrestle with the idea of when a cause is important enough to justify personally initiated violence. In our present state of affairs, it is hard to conceive a wrong so great that righting it would involve action outside the political and judicial processes. At bottom, no matter how certain of the rightness and goodness of our cause, there is still some possibility that there is more to the issue than we understand and that those whom we would kill or murder might actually, in the cosmic view of things, not merit the death we would inflict on them.
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