76 of 85 people found the following review helpful
on July 20, 2005
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. He delves deeply into Brown's Puritan heritage and just what that meant to his life and actions. He makes clear what a unique individual Brown was. While most of the famous abolitionist who were his contemporaries never questioned the basic racism of their time despite their opposition to slavery, Brown believed firmly in racial equality. Black men and women dined with his family, and he worked intimately with them, giving them real positions of authority in the endeavors that he organized - actions unique for his time. Reynolds also explores the fact that Brown was in favor of equal rights for women and humane treatment of American Indians. He notes that while he was a fervently committed Calvinist Christian, he worked closely with others who did not share his faith, including Jews and agnostics. He shows us a man who was not a typical fanatic, but a man who believed fanatically in one basic principle - the literal interpretation of the Declaration of Independence and the Golden Rule. Reynolds also puts Brown's most troubling violence, the murders at Pottawatomie, Kansas, back into the historical context in which they happened. He writes, "Pottawatomie, gruesome and vile as it was, was John Brown's impulsive response to equally vile crimes committed by the proslavery side."
Beyond all of this, Reynolds explores in some depth the importance that the Transcendentalists had in securing John Brown's place in American history. He points out that had not Thoreau and afterwards Emerson come to Brown's public defense, Brown very well could have been forgotten by history - viewed as just one more aberrant crank with misguided and wild schemes. He spends more than one hundred pages exploring the effect Browns actions, capture, and death had on both his contemporaries and on posterity, showing the immediate impact Brown's life and death had on the country in helping to spark the Civil War, and the way it impacted future generations who have both lauded and reviled him.
John Brown's life is a testimony to one man's uncompromising commitment to his ideals, and to the ethical morass that can result from an unrelenting pursuit of those ideals. It makes us question how far one can justifiably go in an attempt to right societal wrongs, and if violence can ever be considered a righteous answer to entrenched evil. Reynolds' book may not answer all of these questions, but it most effectively poses them for our consideration. It is an outstanding biography of a crucially important figure in American history. I highly recommend it, both to those interested in American history, and for anyone who wishes to examine a practical study of the consequence of principled violent action against authority.
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on September 10, 2005
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. He offers detailed accounts of how the lives of well-known antebellum figures such as William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Ralph Waldo Emerson intersected with John Brown. However, I found this book to be challenging in places because Reynolds often digresses on other characters and events of the antebellum period. While informative and interesting, the digressions were a little overwhelming to the overall story of John Brown. What I appreciated most about Reynolds' book was that it made me question how far one can justifiably go in an attempt to right societal wrongs, and if violence can ever be considered a righteous solution to correct those wrongs. To take it one step further, can the use of violence be justifiable in upholding the Constitution. When one considers this question, it is easier to identify with Reynolds' portrayal of John Brown.
55 of 66 people found the following review helpful
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. We have doubts enough with the state rendering a judgment of death, how much more would we doubt the rightness of a private judgment that concluded in the death of a human being.
The author, David Reynolds, does a solid job in telling the story of John Brown. We see Brown as a human being within his time. We see his faith in God, his Puritan sense of destiny, and his fury at the injustice of slavery. As we follow him through his life we understand why he acted as he did and the enslavement and misery of four million souls makes his actions in Kansas and at Harpers Ferry make some sort of awful sense. The last two chapters make clear that this author agrees with W.E.B. DuBois that "Brown was right". Reynolds does take on the modern terrorism of the left and the right. He takes on abortion, the environment, the Islamofacists, and more. He argues that Brown was different and exceptional. He notes the power Brown's words and how his cause was taken on by so many leading into, during, and after the Civil War.
Yet, in my own mind, if I grant that Brown is an exception I have to ask what was he exceptional with? And I note it was his eloquence in words. I still cannot help but disqualify his violence as just. His cause in freeing the slaves was certainly just, but if we allow his violence under what premise do we make that allowance? Abortion has taken millions of lives, environmentalism claims they are saving the whole planet, animal rights claims they are sparing billions of animals, and on and on the fever goes until it reaches into insanity. Whose conscience do we grant the privileged position of spilling everyone's blood?
There is also a difference between the events in Kansas where the anti-slavery people were the victims of pro-slavery aggressors. Many of these murders were committed by Missourians and other non-Kansans to impose their agenda of Salvery Everywhere. While the Kansas events cannot be called self-defense per se, they were at least direct retaliation with self-preservation in mind. Harpers Ferry was an aggressive act by Brown as a complete outsider with the view of starting a national slave rebellion.
Brown had the passion, conscience, and eloquence that he could have used to make a powerful case against slavery as he did after his trial. He would have had, I believe, an even greater impact against slavery with his preaching than with his sword. Remember, every other country in the world abandoned slavery without the violence of our Civil War. And even if we grant that the War freed the slaves in 1865 while a nonviolent approach would have taken decades longer, we also have to admit it was another century of work and too often bloodshed before the descendants of those slaves got close to the civil rights promised them. And don't forget that the man who did the most to move society to accepting those rights was Martin Luther King, Jr. who preached nonviolence. Thurgood Marshall won Brown v. Board of Education with his mind and a briefcase rather than a gun.
Yes, there is more to do. Certainly, there is cruelty and injustice almost more than we can bear in the world. But bear it we must as we work towards a better world. Our methods in that work do matter and we must not become deluded that our personal sense of righteousness actually grants us a special position from which we can deal injustice in the name of a higher cause.
This is a thoughtful book and deserves to be read. You will gain a lot from it and wrestling with these awful events will help you clarify what exactly it is you do believe.
20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on February 24, 2007
David S. Reynolds background as a Professor of English Literature shows in this book: although focused on John Brown's life, you can see Professor Reynolds' interest in Mid 19th century literature on almost every page, with frequent and extensive discourses on John Browns' interactions-with and impact on many of the well known authors and orators of the day, such as Walt Whitman, Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Melville, and Emily Dickinson.
In general, Reynolds makes the argument that John Brown sparked the Civil War, and that he was a high minded, intensely religious man who was not as crazy, and not as violent, as history has led us to believe. He further argues that Brown was a man a century or more ahead of his time in terms of his attitudes towards racism, and foresaw where the war of words between the North and South over the future of slavery would inevitably lead.
Reynolds does a great job of helping us better understand Brown as a person; and brings to light many facets of his personality and life of which I'd been unaware, such as Brown's total acceptance of African Americans as equals in every respect - a stance that few, if any, whites had at the time (and is a viewpoint that is not as widely accepted as it should be, even today). The author demonstrates, quite rightly, that most other abolitionists of the time were not so much pro-African-American as they were against slavery and its impact upon America. Many were at best dismissive, and at worst rabidly against, accepting blacks as equals.
Reynolds comes across as an apologist for Brown, and seems to be attempting to justify some of Brown's bloodiest and most violent actions as merely being the unavoidable side effects of a man consumed with a passion against slavery. Those side effects included the deaths of several of his sons.
The book's pace is not the best, and hits some really slow spots here and there: especially when it reaches the aftermath of the Harper Ferry raid, where the author launches into a very extensive discourse on the impact of John Brown (and his execution) on American literature, thought, society and politics - again with a focus on the writers and orators of the day. These last chapters could have been reduced in length by half or more, with little loss in terms of content.
I question the author's repeated and strong emphasis on John Brown's strong Puritan faith as being a basis for his actions: this refrain starts to sound hollow after so many repetitions - as if he's hoping we'll get the message if he hits us with it enough times. As an inheritor of several centuries of that same Puritan tradition myself, many of his arguments concerning Brown's faith seem (at best) forced and overstated.
Reynolds' argument that John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry was the spark that started the Civil War is also overstated: While I think the raid certainly contributed to the paranoia of the time, particularly in the South, Reynolds' arguments that John Brown's attack and behavior following the raid destroyed the South's reputation for chilvalric military prowess and invincibility is not believable. The war was inevitable: Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry may have raised emotions, but the South was already diligently preparing for war by the time the raid occurred. The attack, at best, hurried things along a bit, but in my view, the country was almost certain to fall apart soon after the election of 1860, regardless of who won the Presidency.
In the end, though with some significant flaws in terms of pacing, facts, and the arguments presented; this book is informative: it does bring out the nature of the man, and it helped me better appreciate his impact on the country and History. Dr. Reynolds' work especially helps us to understand Brown's impact upon many of the thought-leaders of the day, and how regional attitudes and cultural traditions played into the unfolding of events at the time and their impact on John Brown's own career and reputation during the trial, and in the years following his execution.
To better understand how racism changed and evolved after the Civil War, I'd strongly recommend the book "Race and Reunion" by David W. Blight. For a better understanding of the four regional cultures in America at the time (Appalachian, Southern, New England and Mid Atlantic), which play a major role in Reynold's text, I'd recommend "Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America" by David Hackett Fischer.
"John Brown, Abolitionist" is a book that is worth the read, though its flaws limit the impact that it could have made, given the strong personality that is its subject. I give it a positive, but limited, recommendation.
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on June 8, 2005
John Brown has suffered too long from the orchestrated neglect that biased history has imposed on him. Little more than a detail in passing in most histories of the Civil War, zooming in on the facts, as here in this excellent account, brings out his great importance in changing, and polarizing, the public perceptions of slavery just prior to the onset of the Civil War. We don't need to hide his contradictions, such as his violence in Kansas, to appreciate the remarkable complexity and depth to the man, despite the vagaries of his life and career. As one of the first truly non-racist abolitionists he deserves a major place in the cultural histories of racism. But most of all is his significance in turning the tide of pacifism predominant among abolitionists of his time, facing up to the reality the proslavery position implied. We may demur, but the American system was diseased at this stage, and what Brown did created a turning point at the ugly moment when the great democratic republic was effectively paralyzed by useless politicians stuck in their compromises, as with the Fugitive slave law, Dred Scott, and the racist hooliganism in Kansas (which drove Brown over the edge). Clearly political leadership at the moment of crisis was bankrupt and we see the forces of change emerging from figures such as John Brown.
24 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on June 6, 2005
Read this book, and you will be converted to John Brown. You will also be entertained, since the book reads like a riveting novel. David Reynolds shows that Brown, a conscientious objector against military service in his young manhood, reluctantly turned to violence as a result of proslavery atrocities. Reynolds demonstrates that it was the institution of slavery--not John Brown--that began the violence. John Brown rightly saw that slavery itself was a state of war against an entire race. Could the freedom of nearly 4 million enslaved blacks have been delayed a moment longer? Should the emancipation of blacks have come a century later, as Abraham Lincoln said in 1858? No way. John Brown said that the "crimes" of his "guilty nation" could only be "purged away through blood." How prophetic. It took the death of more than 620,000 Americans to get rid of slavery. To quote W.E.B. DuBois, "John Brown was right" by forcing the issue of slavery. And David Reynolds is right in defending him. Reynolds points out that most other Abolitionists were racists. Lincoln several times said that since blacks and whites could not live on equal terms in America, blacks, once freed, should be shipped to Liberia or Central America. Jefferson felt that same way. The antislavery orator Cassius Clay said that the place for blacks was in the tropical sun eating bananas. The antislavery scientist Louis Agassiz argued that the typical black had the brain of a 7-month white fetus. And these were the ANTISLAVERY leaders! The South, meanwhile, believed that slavery was a noble, Christian institution, good for both blacks and whites. John Brown was different. He believed in a totally integrated America in which blacks, whites, and people of other ethnicities lived on equal terms. It's not Washington or Jefferson (both of them slaveholders) we should be remembering with veneration; it is John Brown.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on June 5, 2005
That is the background theme of this book. I think David Reynolds was mistaken in making it so prominent. You can pick dozens of quotes from the book either condemning or commending Old John. The issue is really pretty subtle. Slavery wasn't exactly like not having national health insurance, after all, and most historians agree with Reynolds it wasn't about to disappear soon. Anyhow, what's "soon" if you're tied to tree being whipped in the hot sun? Or your child is? Does a slave have a "natural right" to kill his master, as many argued at the time. Interesting question from a natural rights perspective (a perspective I take seriously) and one that could get its own book.
But, anyway, in returning over and over and over to these considerations and continually offering judgements on his main character, Reynolds distracts (or distracted me) from the story line. I think he also does himself a disservice in that this theme will serve in the future to make the book seem very dated. Yes, this, too, will pass. But the story line is very good and historically significant, so it wasn't hard to get back. I learned a lot about the times and the players from this book. Which is why I bought and read it.
There are several minor points I'd mention. Two that come to mind are the interpretation late on in the book of a Dickinson poem as about John Brown (seemed like a stretch) and the remark that Thaddeus Stevens (Speaker of the House and Reconstructionist par excellance) pushed universal sufferage in order to "punish" the South. In regard to the latter I must remark that though Stevens was, indeed, a vindictive man (and in this case, why not?) his committment to the equality of each and every human being, race, class and gender, was lifelong and deeply held. In that he was rare for his time, as Reynolds is constantly mentioning in favor of Old John. (I'm from Steven's hometown or I'd let it pass. Check out Trefousse's biography)
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on November 5, 2005
This book is one of the best biographies I have read on Brown, or anyone, for that matter. It is a subtle portrayal of a polarizing figure in American history, which does not condone Brown's behavior but tries to explain it based on the culture of the time and the life experience and beliefs of the man himself. Reynolds highlights particularly the religious beliefs that lay behind Brown's near-fanatical belief that slavery was an abomination. Reynolds also goes out of his way to focus on the fact that, unlike other Abolitionists of his time, Brown believed in equality - true equality - not just for slaves, but for women and other minorities. Brown, like Abraham Lincoln, believed in the words of the Declaration of Independence, that "all men are created equal." But Brown, unlike almost any other white man of his day, lived those words, as well.
Brown's violence is highly problematic, but Reynolds argues that Brown felt there was no other way to combat the pro-slavery forces (much as many people today feel that violence is the only way to combat international terrorism). Reynolds does not white wash John Brown, but he tries to understand the man and his actions, to paint a balanced portrait of a controversial figure. This is a well-written and thought-provoking book, and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in Civil War history or just looking for a good, if challenging, biography.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on October 18, 2010
Those of us in the 1949 second grade class of Merrill Elementary school (in Pine Bluff, Ark), learned from Mrs. Delany (wife of famed AM&N football coach, "Hank" Delany), not only about the black Radical Republicans who had been elected to high office during the brief flowering of "real democracy" in America during the fleeting decade of Reconstruction, but also about the venerable freedom fighter, John Brown. For many years, "John Brown's body," was the only non-religious song that I actually knew the words to "by heart." And for a long time, all the history that stuck to my brain was that John Brown, the Virginia quartet of (Washington, Madison, Jefferson and Mason), along with Abe Lincoln, were the only true American Patriots. In later years, I learned (and in relief this book confirms) that among these, only Brown actually had his human values correct.
What we learn here about Brown is much more than just that he was a "radical for real (rather than just white only) freedom. This author puts Brown's life and philosophy properly into the context of his times: when racism and superficial talk of (white only) freedom (in one of the last civilized cultures of confirmed slavery), lived uneasily side-by side. Brown believed deeply in his soul that slavery was an unforgivable moral sin that would take the nation down. He believed further (and was correct in his assessment) that slavery was in fact a "state of war" declared against a whole race of people. And thus, he believed as did many abolitionists, that America would burn in hell unless it ended slavery. He was committed "as a man of destiny" to ending it all, and by himself if necessary. Brown was prescient in foretelling the coming of the Civl War when, while on the gallows, he predicted that America was "a guilty nation that would be washed away in blood."
Brown was praised by people as famous as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Victor Hugo. Frederick Douglas was a close personal friend, who fled to Europe to avoid being implicated in the aftermath of the raid on Harper's Ferry. JB was also praised by those as infamous as Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy and John Wilkes Booth, a spectator at JB's hanging who had said of him that "John Brown had changed the world in a single stroke." Booth then proceeded to imitate Brown's act in another attempt to change the world in a single stroke when he assassinated Lincoln.
When a few years back now, a resolution was introduced in Congress to set aside a holiday for John Brown, the racist Senator from Mississippi, Trent Lott, said "over my dead body." Lott of course then went on to lose his job as Republican leader of the Senate for giving praise to the confirmed racist and Dixicrat for life, Strom Thurman, who it was discovered upon his death, that he was the father of an illegitimate black child with his maid.
Despite much meat about Brown's moral philosophy and family life, the author spends what seems to me like an inordinate amount of time trying to debunk the theory that Brown was insane, when clearly he was probably the only truly sane and moral person in the whole U.S. As the author makes crystal clear, that even most of his fellow Abolitionists (this included Abe Lincoln, Cassius Clay, and William Lloyd Garrison) were also confirmed racists and white supremacists. It seems that only a handful of Quakers were both abolitionists, non-white supremacists and anti-racists.
On the question of Brown's sanity, the author takes a middle of the road position, claiming him to have been, at the very worse clinically depressed but not completely crazy. Of course there is enough material in the book to argue either side. Those who hated him could garner enough evidence to build a thin case based on his decision to attack the federal government with only a small band of untrained recruits, as well as on what seemed like a long shot, that slaves would rally to his cause. Also it is true that Brown, always a wide-eyed idealist, did indeed march to a different drummer. Plus, during the period, he also lost four of his 21 kids to death in rapid succession. Most psychologists would argue that this alone was enough to send even a sane man over the cliff. Couple these with Brown's own general reputation for being cantankerous, and the tyrannical leadership of his own family, and those bent on doing so, could indeed find much common ground for judging him to be insane.
But those sharing the racist's sentiments of course built their case for him being insane solely on Brown's decision to incite insurrection by expecting blacks to rise up and support his actions. It must be said that even his close friend Frederick Douglas, whom he tried to recruit unsuccessfully for the insurrection, also shared this view. Harriet Tubman who was also a "no show" at the Harper Ferry party, must also have had the same kind of misgivings about the Harper's Ferry project.
However, on this very point the author makes a compelling case that Brown's calculations were not at all unreasonable given the rebellious slave revolt climate at the time. After all, he had Nat Turner's revolt, the victorious revolt in Haiti against Napoleon and several others to serve as a rich backdrop that could have led him to expect a robust slave uprising. The author makes clear that the difference between the two was that these other uprisings had been generated from within, while John Brown was trying to inspire a revolt from without. It is. I believe an important distinction.
His plan for insurrection was not unlike that of Osama bin Laden: He had hoped to pull off a "spectacular raid" that would serve to galvanize support and result in the successful recruitment of a modest number of blacks. Together they would then retreat to the caves of the Appalachian mountains along the Appalachian Trail, hiding and fighting it out to the last man, guerilla style. His biggest mistake, in addition to over-estimating slave support, was tarrying too long after the successful raid on Harper's Ferry. Already having a maximum lack of trust in whites, slaves did not have much of a problem thinking that Brown's proposal was a trap, slaves (as was true of Douglas and Tubman), either thought Brown's plan was unwise, or smelled a rat. Following Brown down the brink was a bridge just a bit too far for them all to go.
Unlike most history books that center on major personalities and major events, this one follows the Brown clan after the debacle at Harper's Ferry as well as JB's hanging. His wife, Mary Brown was cared for by black women and his kids scattered, with some ending up in California. There is much more here, facts and factoids, than can be adequately conveyed in a short review. Comfortably five stars.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on October 11, 2008
If you are looking for a highly detailed and informative documentary of the life of the famous John Brown and his exploits,look no further.The writer does not force his own opinion upon the reader,instead,he provides the contrasting veiwpoints held by both sides of the union in reference to John Brown and his actions.Was John Brown a fundamentalist driven by violence or a man whos desire for equality excuses his tactics? Read and decide for yourself.