John Brown: Triumphant Failure

"John Brown taught us that the cheapest price to pay for liberty is its cost today."

--W.E.B. Du Bois

In his 1928 epic poem John Brown's Body, Stephen Vincent Benét named the problem of John Brown in America's historical memory:

The law's our hardstick, and it measures well, Or well enough when there are yards to measure. Measure a wave with it, measure a fire, Cut sorrow up in inches, weigh content. You can weigh John Brown's body well enough, But how and in what balance weigh John Brown?

He had no gift for life, no gift to bring Life but his body and a cutting edge, But he knew how to die.

In so many artistic probings of Brown's memory, the central metaphor is his martyrdom--his crucifixion--for the remission of a nation's sins. How indeed weigh John Brown's body at the turn of the twenty-first century, a time when our notions of violence in a righteous cause are troubled by a litany of terrorism committed by individuals, religious groups, and governments? Can John Brown remain an authentic American hero in an age of Timothy McVeigh, Usama Bin Laden, and the bombers of abortion clinics?

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John Brown's Holy War, a documentary directed by Robert Kenner and written by Ken Chowder that will air on the public television series The American Experience on February 28, leaves us pondering these questions while also conveying a good historical tale of tragedy and redemption.

Born in Connecticut in 1800, John Brown grew up largely on the Western Reserve of Ohio. He was raised by staunchly Calvinist and antislavery parents. His mother died when he was eight, the beginning of a lifetime of personal losses that came to define much of Brown's character. He married his first wife Dianth Lusk in 1820 and had seven children with her before she died young. With his second wife Mary, he had 13 children. In all, nine of the 20 Brown children died of disease or accident in infancy. His was a family defined by tragedy, frustration, and survival. Between 1820 and 1855, Brown and his brood entered into some 20 farming and business ventures, including disastrous land speculation in the 1830s, virtually all of which ended in failure and poverty, and some of which led to lawsuits, bankruptcy, and a brief imprisonment. In their documentary, Kenner and Chowder portray very well the despair of a household barely held together by a combination of frontier subsistence and the American dream of the next enterprise over the next hill.

The film makers are also careful to demonstrate the deeply religious faith that sustained the patriarch who ruled this family. Both an orthodox, latter-day Calvinist and a thorough nonconformist, Brown believed in innate depravity, providential signs, special divine messengers, and the total human dependence on a sovereign and arbitrary God. The Bible was his only moral and legal compass. He had an obsession with the wickedness and wrongs of others and never functioned well in any formal antislavery organization. "He gave orders," remembered Brown's younger brother, "like a king against whom there is no rising up." Brown came to see slavery as an unjustifiable state of war by one portion of people against another. Slavery, in his view, had become an evil so entrenched in America that it required revolutionary ideology and means to eradicate it. If some of the wicked died in the necessary purging of national sins, such was God's own historical logic.

After hearing of the murder of abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy in Alton, Illinois, in 1837, Brown stood at the rear of a church in Hudson, Ohio, and declared: "I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery." Litigation and business failures interrupted his crusade for long periods, but by the time the Kansas-Nebraska territory was opened to settlement in 1854-55, Brown and several of his sons were ready to make war on slavery.

John Brown's Holy War does not equivocate about Brown's responsibility for the massacre of five proslavery settlers on Pottawatomie Creek in Kansas in 1856 (his men hacked their victims to death with broadswords). The program also nicely shows how Brown rose to sudden fame leading antislavery guerrilla forces during the frontier wars known as "Bleeding Kansas" in 1856-57. And the story of the failed raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859 is very well told--including a particularly compelling portrait of one of the five black men in Brown's band of 21 raiders, Dangerfield Newby, a former slave from Virginia whose motivation was to return and liberate his wife and six children.

On the other hand, the program surprisingly neglects several important events that could have thrown light on Brown's character--for example, an episode in which Brown's deeds did match the promise of his words, during the period when Brown was raising money and organizing his plot to attack Harpers Ferry. In December 1858, Brown and a small band of men crossed from Kansas into Missouri and seized 11 slaves from three farms, killing one slaveholder. They hid out with the liberated slaves back in Kansas for one month, then embarked on an 82-day mid-winter trek of 1,000 miles through Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois to Chicago. From there they traveled by train to Detroit and finally ushered 12 black folk to the wharf and their crossing to freedom in Ontario, Canada (the 12th was a baby born on the journey and named John Brown Daniels by his grateful parents).

The documentary also says nothing of the "convention" Brown assembled in Chatham, Ontario, in 1858 in an attempt to recruit an army for his invasion of Virginia. It was attended by 46 delegates, mostly black, and Kenner and Chowder miss an opportunity here to explore Brown's complex relationship to black abolitionists as well as ordinary former slaves living in Canada and the northern states. Why more blacks did not flock to this would-be liberator's standard goes unexamined in this program, as do his interesting relationships with such fellow liberators as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. (Brown lived for one month in Douglass's home in Rochester, New York, while planning the raid.)

Still, many of the scholars on camera are effective in conveying Brown's determined, religious nature, especially James Stewart, James Horton, Paul Finkelman, and Charles Joyner. The commentators also put to rest the dead-end question of whether Brown was crazy. Zealot, yes; lunatic, no, they conclude. And writer Russell Banks, whose recent novel Cloudsplitter tells old man Brown's story in the voice of a surviving son, speaks memorably about Brown's "emotional intensity and moral ferocity." Brown "didn't just walk through his days," says Banks. "He boiled through his days."

Banks and other commentators also help viewers understand that it is Brown's legacy--the use to which the Civil War generation, as well as we today, put him--that matters most about this slice of American history.

I wish the program had more carefully structured its argument about Brown's legacy. It would have been good to see the different strands separated out and examined. Brown provokes us to think about the meaning and uses of martyrdom. His story is a template for our understanding of revolutionary violence in any age. He is also a white man who killed other whites to free blacks and thus raises issues about interracial commitment that every generation confronts anew. And he represents some of our deepest political ambivalences, standing as he does for high ideals and ruthless deeds. Brown is one of the avengers of history who does the work the rest of us won't, can't, or shouldn't. This was already his legacy in 1860, when Frederick Douglass poignantly observed, "Men consented to his death and then went home and taught their children to honor his memory."

Yet if these themes are not developed, they are forcefully suggested in the program's opening and closing scene--a stunning, slow-motion depiction of Brown silhouetted against a sun-rise, being hanged on the gallows in Charles-town, Virginia, on December 2, 1859. As the hangman cuts the rope and Brown dangles in death we see the most enduring image of this warrior-abolitionist. In death, Brown's failed life achieved meaning.

This opening and closing echoes the painter Jacob Lawrence in his 22-piece series The Legend of John Brown, first exhibited in 1941. Each of Lawrence's paintings represents a stage in Brown's journey from obscurity through poverty to fame by death. But the first panel depicts Brown as Christ nailed to a cross, blood streaming down from his feet to the ground, and the last shows Brown fully clothed, partially hooded, hanging from a thin rope. (In between, nearly every other painting in the series has some version of a twisted cross or a crucifixion symbol.) The young Lawrence, living in Harlem in the 1930s and 1940s, saw to the core of Brown's place in our national narrative: the abolitionist's death as the necessary catalyst to the horrible war that followed. The makers of John Brown's Holy War have attempted to do the same. Hence, the imagery of the crucifixion, which is above all a necessary event. There is no Christianity without the death and resurrection of Christ.

In a speech at Harpers Ferry in 1932, W.E.B. Du Bois captured for all time this unsettling meaning of Brown's legacy:

Some people have the idea that crucifixion consists in the punishment of an innocent man. The essence of crucifixion is that men are killing a criminal, that men have got to kill him ... and yet that the act of crucifying him is the salvation of the world. John Brown broke the law; he killed human beings... . Those people who defended slavery had to execute John Brown although they knew that in killing him they were committing the greater crime. It is out of that human paradox that there comes crucifixion.

In classrooms and living rooms, John Brown's Holy War will stimulate confrontations with this paradox. ¤