It was black soldiers who started singing about the executed abolitionist, according to David Reynolds’ biography of John Brown. There were many different versions but the same melody until Julia Ward Howe turned it into, basically, a white religious anthem. Stirring and beautiful as it is, it may have helped to bury the story of John Brown and the reverence in which he was held by African-Americans. Many portrayals of him in history books and textbooks in the century after his execution portray him as a fanatic, a self-absorbed maniac, and a misguided martyr.
To former slaves and freedmen, he was the only white person in whose sincerity they believed. Frederick Douglass met and worked with hundreds of white men and women, and yet he said that only with John Brown did he feel he had an authentic relationship of equals; Douglass called Brown “in sympathy a black man.”
In the introduction of W.E.B. Du Bois’s biography of John Brown, David Roediger writes: “In 1938, W.E.B. Du Bois remembered the years during which he wrote John Brown as a period of deep personal transformation. He specifically recalled 1906, when his growing political activism had led him to Harper’s Ferry, ‘the scene of John Brown’s raid.’ Members of the Niagara Movement, a recently formed African American group planning civil rights protests, had gathered there. According to Du Bois, they ‘made pilgrimage at dawn barefooted to the scene of Brown’s martyrdom [and] talked some of the plainest English that had been given voice by black men in America.”
Mr. Roediger goes on to cite Malcolm X and James Baldwin as 20th century admirers of the 19th century abolitionist. He relates the story that Baldwin was once asked which candidate he was going to vote for for President; Baldwin replied, “John Brown.” Baldwin also wrote of John Brown, “He attacked the bastions of the federal government – not to liberate black slaves but to liberate a whole country from a disastrous way of life.”
Many abolitionists of the Northeast, though no doubt sincere in their wish to see the end of slavery, could not help but treat African-Americans in a paternalistic way. While they wanted slavery to go away, having blacks on an equal footing was another story. Only Brown was able to live with blacks, and Native Americans, as a true equal.
A renewed interest in John Brown has seen the publication of new biographies of him, such as Reynolds’; a short overview of his activities in Kansas and Harper’s Ferry, Midnight Rising, by Tony Horwitz, and two novels about him: Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks is a fictionalized memoir by Owen Brown, who deserted his father’s cause at Harper’s Ferry; The Good Lord Bird by James McBride is a picaresque tale of a young black slave whom Brown plucked from his master and took with him on his adventures. Recalling Twain, the book delivers a deeper message under some high comedy and searing tragedy. It won the National Book Award in 2013.
Perhaps John Brown was a fanatic. It is sure that he was a deeply religious man of Calvinist persuasion. His belief in the equality of all people, including women, however, does not square what we think of when we say “Calvinism.” He did believe he had a God-given destiny to fulfill and that that destiny was to put an end to slavery or die trying. His master plan to do that by taking the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, gathering up slaves from surrounding communities, and establishing free-black communities in the mountains may have seemed doomed (Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman could not, in the end, support the plan), tragically naïve, and suicidal. Yet there were many who believed, as I do now, that slavery would not have ended when it did if not for his actions. Politicians who were not necessarily abolitionists but also not in favor of slavery believed that slavery would die out of its own accord by 1900. Brown’s few months in prison before his execution were even more propitious for an earlier end to the abominable institution. His death on the gallows indicted the American nation, and from that time on, the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation were foreordained.
In 1859, when Brown’s raid took place, Harper’s Ferry was part of the state of Virginia. During the Civil War, the southwest part of Virginia seceded from the secessionists and became the state of West Virginia. It is a beautiful little village with breathtaking views of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers coming together. The people are very friendly there, and much of the town is part of the National Parks Service. The railroad station that was an integral part of the Brown raid now serves commuters to Washington, DC.
North Elba, New York, today thought of as Lake Placid, is also a National Parks Service site of John Brown’s farm. A huge tract of land in the Adirondacks was given to free blacks and Brown by abolitionist Gerrit Smith to establish a free community. The farmstead still stands, and it is here that John Brown is buried. Most movingly, his family was able to gather the bodies of all who were executed with him or died at Harper’s Ferry, and in death as in life, Brown abides with black and white men. There are the sons who died in the firehouse, Watson and Oliver; and Brown’s “League of Gileadites”: William and Dauphin Thompson, Aaron Stevens, Albert Hazlett, Stewart Taylor, John Kagi, William Leeman, Dangerfield Newby, and Lewis Leary. Fifteen hundred people attended the interment when their remains were laid to rest.
The John Brown Museum in Harper’s Ferry is arranged as a series of tableaus from Brown’s life. It is in a narrow house and once you enter, you are in a sort of labyrinth. I went through it alone one morning in 2012, struck by the way each tableau of waxen figures and 19th century materials, told a whole story itself. Then I came to the last story, John Brown being led up the steps of the gallows. As I stared at the scene, his head suddenly moved upward and piercing blue eyes stared at me. The shock stunned me, and in disorientation I followed the maze back to ground level to check with the attendant that this was not a weird vision on my part. It wasn’t, but I can still picture that and recall John Brown’s last written words and prophecy:
“I, John Brown, am quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think vainly, flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”
Postscript: Apart from the importance of the story of John Brown, his story is full of historic trivia. Ulysses S. Grant’s father, as a young man, had lodged with Brown’s father’s family in Ohio. John Brown’s father was one of the first trustees of Oberlin College. In his work for the Underground Railroad, John Brown worked with Allan Pinkerton, the eponymous detective whose logo for his agency, a triangle with an eye in the middle of it, became the source of the term “private eye.” It was Pinkerton whose detective work found and foiled a conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln on his way to Washington, D.C., after his election. The commanding federal officer at Harper’s Ferry was Robert E. Lee, and a witness to Brown’s downfall there was John Wilkes Booth, who had thought it would be great fun to borrow a militia uniform and get in on the action.