[Marxism] Assessing John Brown

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Apr 19 06:32:45 MDT 2013

There's an interesting exchange on this review in the latest NY Review 
of Books: 

Terrorist or Martyr?
March 7, 2013
Christopher Benfey

The Tribunal: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid
edited by John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 570 pp., $39.95 


On a train from Washington in March 1862, Nathaniel Hawthorne looked 
toward the Virginia shore of the Potomac River, occupied by Union 
troops, and “beheld the little town of Harper’s Ferry, gathered about 
the base of a round hill and climbing up its steep acclivity.” Hawthorne 
had returned two years earlier from diplomatic postings in Europe—he was 
in London at the time of John Brown’s midnight raid on Harpers Ferry on 
October 16, 1859—and he detected an unexpected resemblance between the 
picturesque town perched on the Virginia hillside and “the Etruscan 
cities which I have seen among the Apennines.”

Hawthorne glanced at the ruins of the federal armory, where Brown—who 
had hoped to inspire a slave uprising across the South—had barricaded 
himself with eighteen armed followers, almost all of them in their 
twenties, including five African-Americans and two of his own sons, 
before US Marines under the command of Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart 
stormed the premises. Brown was wounded in that fray and both of his 
sons were killed, along with eight other raiders. Brown’s band killed 
four civilians and one soldier; the first casualty was a free black 
baggage handler, shot in the back by one of Brown’s skittish men as they 
took control of the town. Brown and four of his followers were hanged in 
December, and two others in March 1860.

“He won his martyrdom fairly, and took it firmly,” Hawthorne remarked, 
as he contemplated the scene of a violent and chaotic affair that some, 
including his friend Herman Melville, considered the primary “portent” 
of the Civil War, which broke out just over a year later. As though 
working up the setting for one of his Gothic tales, Hawthorne amused 
himself with a fantasy of how the desolation at Harpers Ferry might be 

     The brightest sunshine could not have made the scene cheerful, nor 
have taken away the gloom from the dilapidated town; for, besides the 
natural shabbiness, and decayed, unthrifty look of a Virginian village, 
it has an inexpressible forlornness resulting from the devastations of 
war and its occupation by both armies alternately. Yet there would be a 
less striking contrast between Southern and New-England villages, if the 
former were as much in the habit of using white paint as we are. It is 
prodigiously efficacious in putting a bright face upon a bad matter.

Although he had been commissioned to write an article about his journey 
south for the Atlantic Monthly, a magazine known for its abolitionist 
leanings, Hawthorne signed his anonymous musings “a Peaceable Man,” and 
allowed as how he could not “pretend to be an admirer of old John Brown, 
any farther than sympathy with Whittier’s excellent ballad about him may 
go.” A Quaker and a pacifist, John Greenleaf Whittier had drawn a 
distinction between Brown’s “bloody hand” and “loving heart,” and 
rejected any argument about ends justifying means:

     Perish with him the folly that seeks through evil good!
     Long live the generous purpose unstained with human blood!
     Not the raid of midnight terror, but the thought which underlies;
     Not the borderer’s pride of daring, but the Christian’s sacrifice.

Others in Hawthorne’s circle in Concord were less finicky. For Emerson 
and Thoreau, who had supported Brown’s cause and invited him into their 
homes, he seemed heroic in his dedication to an idea and dignified in 
his final address to the Virginia court, in which he claimed, “had I so 
interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the 
so-called great…every man in this court would have deemed it an act 
worthy of reward rather than punishment.” Hawthorne was appalled by 
Emerson’s much-quoted remark about Brown’s martyrdom:

     Nor did I expect ever to shrink so unutterably from any apophthegm 
of a sage, whose happy lips have uttered a hundred golden sentences, as 
from that saying (perhaps falsely attributed to so honored a source), 
that the death of this blood-stained fanatic has “made the Gallows as 
venerable as the Cross!” Nobody was ever more justly hanged.

Actually, Emerson had climbed another rung up the laudatory ladder, 
describing the gallows as “glorious.”


Was John Brown a terrorist justly hung or a martyr to the central 
humanitarian cause of the nineteenth century? On December 2, 2009, the 
150th anniversary of his execution, two Op-Ed pieces appeared in The New 
York Times. Under the title “The 9/11 of 1859,” Tony Horwitz drew a 
parallel between Brown’s undertaking and the al-Qaeda operatives who 
attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. “Brown was a bearded 
fundamentalist who believed himself chosen by God to destroy the 
institution of slavery,” Horwitz wrote. For David Reynolds, by contrast, 
Brown was “Freedom’s Martyr,” a towering national figure who deserved a 
presidential pardon for his “heroic effort to free four million enslaved 

The hope for a more balanced assessment of what Brown did would appear 
to undergird The Tribunal, the comprehensive volume edited by the 
Harvard literary scholar John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd, a professor of 
American literature at the University of Nottingham. Their book takes 
its title from Brown’s remark, in a letter written four days before his 
execution: “I leave it to an impartial tribunal to decide whether the 
world has been the worse or the better of my living and dying in it.” 
The voices assembled in The Tribunal include Northern abolitionists and 
Southern slaveholders, a Union spy and a Confederate assassin, Frederick 
Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, influential international figures like 
Karl Marx and Victor Hugo, journalists, poets, soldiers, and widows, 
along with Hawthorne, Whittier, Emerson, and Thoreau. These varied 
opinions fill five hundred pages, and yet they come from only the first 
three decades following the raid, when controversy was at its strongest.

Stauffer and Trodd leave little doubt of their own assessment of Brown 
as a national hero whom, they believe, scholars “continue to dismiss or 
sideline.” Their admiration occasionally verges on sentimentality, as 
when they claim that “Brown is a testament to ordinary individuals’ 
potential to transform themselves and their world.” Despite his family 
history of mental illness and the testimony of his own men regarding his 
“monomania,” Stauffer and Trodd stave off suggestions that Brown might 
have been mentally unstable with the bullying assertion that they arise 
from “the power of racism in America.”

But it is what they call “history’s tribunal” that they are primarily 
after in their valuable compilation. They rehearse familiar arguments 
regarding the ways in which Brown’s raid galvanized the South while 
dividing the Democratic Party along sectional lines, thus contributing 
to Lincoln’s electoral victory. The diarist Mary Chesnut expressed 
Southern outrage at armchair warriors like Stowe, Thoreau, and Emerson, 
living “in nice New England homes…writing books which ease their hearts 
of their bitterness against us. What self-denial they do practice is to 
tell John Brown to come down here and cut our throats in Christ’s name.”

Stauffer and Trodd show how difficult it was for nonviolent 
abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Lydia Maria Child to 
endorse what Brown had done. (“In firing his gun,” Garrison generously 
wrote, “he has merely told us what time of day it is. It is high noon, 
thank God.”) They also give a sense of why Brown has inspired 
generations of African-Americans, from Frederick Douglass to the artist 
Jacob Lawrence (whose series of paintings of 1941 remains one of the 
most moving tributes to Brown’s legacy), in the audacity of his 
self-sacrificing commitment to the emancipation of slaves.


In an earlier book called The Black Hearts of Men, Stauffer argued that 
some abolitionists, including Brown, so thoroughly embraced the cause of 
slaves that they could be said to have acquired a biracial, 
“black-hearted” identity. The account of Brown’s life in the 
introduction to The Tribunal adopts this theme. Born in Connecticut in 
1800, he was the son of a farmer and tanner, and was raised in the harsh 
tenets of New England Calvinism—infant damnation, predestination, and 
the rest—which he never abandoned. He was descended from both a settler 
from the Mayflower and a Colonial officer in the Revolutionary War, but 
his own life was marked by conspicuous failure. For Stauffer and Trodd, 
“It is almost impossible to comprehend Brown’s crusade against slavery 
outside the context of his business failures.”

Brown trained for the ministry in Connecticut, started a family in Ohio, 
and worked as a tanner, postmaster, and librarian in Pennsylvania, near 
the Ohio border. He lost one wife, who had given him seven children, and 
married another, who had thirteen more. During the 1830s, as his 
commercial endeavors collapsed, he speculated rashly in land back in 
Ohio, and lost everything in the Panic of 1837. Toward the end of that 
year, an abolitionist printer named Elijah Lovejoy was killed by an 
angry mob in Alton, Illinois. Incensed by Lovejoy’s killers and perhaps 
aggrieved at his own failures, Brown was moved to do something dramatic. 
“Here before God, in the presence of these witnesses,” he told an 
abolitionist gathering, “from this time, I consecrate my life to the 
destruction of slavery.”

For Stauffer and Trodd, Brown’s personal troubles made him uniquely 
sympathetic to the plight of African-American slaves. “More than any 
other white man in the historical record,” they maintain, “he devoted 
his life to their cause and saw in their sufferings his own.” In 1846, 
Brown compounded his financial losses with an ill-advised venture in 
marketing wool, in Springfield, Massachusetts, and failed, yet again, 
“on a grand scale.” A few months later, one of his children dropped a 
pot of boiling water and scalded his one-year-old daughter to death. “I 
felt for a number of years,” Brown later confessed, “a steady, strong 
desire: to die.” According to Stauffer and Trodd, “He had entered a 
world of American desperation best understood by African Americans.”

A year later, Brown assumed the identity of a free African-American in 
an article he published in an abolitionist paper edited by a friend of 
Frederick Douglass. “Though a white gentleman,” Douglass wrote after an 
encounter in late 1847, Brown “is in sympathy a black man, and as deeply 
interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with 
the iron of slavery.” Many slaves, according to Stauffer and Trodd, 
assumed that Brown was black. “Such racial blurring,” they conclude, 
“reflected Brown’s understanding that the nation’s ideals of freedom and 
equality meant sharing a common and equal humanity with all people.”

Of course, it is one thing to fail in business and lose a child in a 
terrible accident; it is quite another to be a slave—barred from voting, 
owning property, learning to read, and marrying freely, and having one’s 
children sold like cattle to the highest bidder. This is a point made in 
Russell Banks’s affecting novel Cloudsplitter, in which one of Brown’s 
sons worries that his father “could be accused, after all, of 
appropriating another man’s rewards for having endured great pain 
without having first been obliged to experience that pain himself.” 
Conspicuous failure, in any case, seems not to have endeared many 
hard-bitten white people, in the North or South, to the cause of the 
suffering slaves.


Following violent attacks on antislavery leaders in Kansas during the 
spring of 1856, and the nearly fatal caning of the anti-slavery 
Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner on the Senate floor by a 
congressman from South Carolina, Brown determined that something must be 

     Brown decided to make a retaliatory strike against proslavery 
settlers. On the night of May 24, he and seven men, including four sons 
and a son-in-law, entered the proslavery settlement along Pottawatomie 
Creek. They approached three cabins along the creek, woke up the 
settlers, dragged a total of five men out into the dark night, and 
hacked them to death one by one with broadswords. As graphically 
reported in the New York Herald, one victim was decapitated and 
another’s windpipe “entirely cut out.”

This hideous crime is presented in mitigating language by Stauffer and 
Trodd. The strike was “retaliatory,” and the victims were “proslavery 
settlers” in a “proslavery settlement” engaged, as they put it, in “a 
state of civil war.”

Never mind that none of the proslavery settlers Brown’s men slaughtered 
actually owned slaves. Mahala Doyle, widowed in the attack, wrote a 
scalding letter to Brown, in prison after the Harpers Ferry raid, 
mentioning pointedly that he, too, had now lost two sons:

     You can now appreciated [sic] my distress in Kansas, when you then 
and there entered my house at midnight, and arrested my husband and two 
boys, and took them out of the yard, and in cold blood shot them dead in 
my hearing. You can’t say you done it to free our slaves; we had none, 
and never expected to have; but it has only made me a poor disconsolate 
widow with helpless children.

A couple of years later, Brown orchestrated a more admirable raid across 
the Kansas border into Vernon County, Missouri. With eighteen men, he 
managed to free eleven slaves at gunpoint from three farmhouses and then 
led them on a thousand-mile journey to freedom in Canada. The raiders 
were heavily armed with weapons that, for the most part, they did not 
fire. One of the slave owners resisted and was killed. A fugitive in 
Canada, Brown wrote triumphantly to the New York Tribune: “Eleven 
persons are forcibly restored to their ‘natural and inalienable rights,’ 
with but one man killed, and all ‘Hell is stirred from beneath.’”


The slaughter at Pottawatomie Creek had been done on the sly, a stealthy 
crime in the cover of night for which Brown never acknowledged 
responsibility. The raid at Harpers Ferry, by contrast, was calculatedly 
theatrical, as onlookers with a taste for dramatic flair noted. John 
Wilkes Booth, playing a bit part at the Marshall Theatre in Richmond, 
took the day off to watch Brown’s hanging, and was so moved by his 
demeanor that he felt dizzy and asked a soldier for a restorative drink. 
Booth later told his sister Asia that the “half-breed” Lincoln, with his 
“appearance, his pedigree, his coarse low jokes and anecdotes, his 
vulgar smiles, and his frivolity,” was no match for Brown’s heroic 
grandeur. “He is walking in the footprints of old John Brown,” he said 
of Lincoln, “but no more fit to stand with that rugged old hero—Great 
God! no. John Brown was a man inspired, the grandest character of the 

Thoreau thought that Brown’s captors had committed three blunders, all 
of which had contributed to the dramatic effect: Brown was not hanged 
immediately; he was allowed to preach and write letters (and, according 
to erroneous reports, to have a slave woman and her child placed near 
the gallows); and he was hung alone. “No theatrical manager could have 
arranged things so wisely to give effect to his behavior and words,” 
Thoreau remarked. “And who, think you, was the manager? Who placed the 
slave woman and her child, whom he stooped to kiss for a symbol, between 
his prison and the gallows?”

It remains unclear what precisely Brown hoped to accomplish by the 
attack. His plan seems to have “evolved,” as Stauffer and Trodd observe. 
Among his “secret six” financial backers, Thomas Wentworth Higginson 
(who later led a black regiment and was Emily Dickinson’s literary 
adviser) was disappointed to learn that the envisioned guerrilla forays 
from mountain fastnesses to liberate slaves he had heard about (and that 
reminded him of Sir Walter Scott) had somehow turned into a suicidal 
mission against “the whole power of the United States government.” Did 
Brown, who alerted none of the slaves in the region of his intentions, 
really hope to spark a slave rebellion across the South? If so, as 
Hawthorne remarked, he was guilty of a “preposterous miscalculation of 
possibilities.” But perhaps he was aiming all along for something else 
entirely, a grandly theatrical conflagration of blood and violence, a 
further stirring of Hell from beneath, that would shake the nation from 
its torpor, and polarize North and South around the burning historical 
issue of the era.


“Vindicated causes are easy to endorse,” Andrew Delbanco writes in The 
Abolitionist Imagination, a lecture published last year with rejoinders 
by John Stauffer and others.1 Like Stauffer and Trodd, Delbanco is in 
search of an impartial, or at least less partial, understanding of the 
period immediately preceding the Civil War. The time is right for such 
an assessment, he suggests, “now that a certain exhaustion with the 
culture wars”—the tendency to judge writers and historical figures 
according to our contemporary political norms—“has set in.” He detects a 
concomitant “change in tone” and “a more muted assessment” of the Civil 
War “as a vastly tragic, perhaps even avertable, event” in recent books 
like Drew Faust’s The Republic of Suffering and David Goldfield’s 
America Aflame, where “full-throated Unionism” has been replaced by “a 
vivid awareness of the devastating consequences that followed when 
compromise failed.”

Delbanco attributes much of this shift to the experience of “living 
through two American-led wars that were justified, in large part, as 
acts of liberation on behalf of innocents living in conditions akin to 
slavery.” He asks us to imagine ourselves in the antebellum world in 
which abolitionists demanded a change “not tomorrow, not next year, but 
now.” “If we could have known in advance the scale of the ensuing 
carnage,” he wonders, “would we have sided with those who considered any 
price worth paying to bring an end to slavery?” (As he points out in 
reply to a critic, John Brown had “led, or at least countenanced, a 
slaughter in Kansas.”) Delbanco invites us to sympathize with such 
“moderates” as Hawthorne, whom he calls, admiringly, “a politically 
unclassifiable writer,” and Melville, who were “sensitive to the crime 
of slavery but squeamish about the abolitionist response.”

For Delbanco, those like Brown who called for the immediate and, if 
necessary, violent emancipation of all slaves represent a recurring type 
in American society, since there is always something that strikes a 
sizable part of the population as worthy of abolition, including 
alcohol, abortion, fossil fuels, guns, slaughterhouses, and so on. 
Against such imperious demands, those who call for political process or 
votes or compromise or gradual solutions will always seem, to the 
abolitionists, spineless temporizers. Delbanco notes that Hawthorne had 
signed a petition against the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which 
preserved the property rights of slaveholders in the Northern states, 
thus, in effect, making slavery a national institution.

Delbanco’s measured reflections received a notably caustic response from 
Stauffer, who argued that certain evils, including slavery as practiced 
in the South, are so extreme that “they foreclose compromise and 
preclude the possibility of a middle way. In such circumstances,” he 
adds alarmingly, “one needs to fight violent fanatics with a more humane 
fanaticism.” Stauffer notes that Hawthorne wrote a presidential campaign 
biography for Franklin Pierce, his Bowdoin classmate and an apologist 
for slavery. As though to clinch the case for “Hawthorne’s Southern 
sympathies,” Stauffer writes that during the war “he requested an 
autograph of Jefferson Davis but not one of Abraham Lincoln”—a request 
that could have many motives (Davis had served as Pierce’s Secretary of 
War), and by itself tells us nothing.


“Assuredly, if insurrection is ever a sacred duty,” Victor Hugo wrote of 
John Brown, “it must be when it is directed against Slavery.” And yet it 
was, arguably, not sufficient (as Spielberg and Kushner’s Lincoln sought 
to make clear) to emancipate every slave if the institution of slavery 
were not abolished. Lincoln made plain his fear that a Union victory 
might leave the institution of slavery intact and allow for the 
reenslavement of freedmen.

To prevent such a fate, Lincoln and his associates in the Republican 
Party took the position, articulated in Sumner’s first speech in 
Congress, that freedom was “national” whereas slavery was merely a 
“local” institution preserved, contrary to the broad affirmation of 
freedom for all in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, 
only by local laws and statutes. For Lincoln, Sumner, Seward, and the 
rest, slaves were treated as “persons” rather than “property” in the 
Constitution, which did not explicitly mention slaves. In his excellent 
new book Freedom National, James Oakes demonstrates how widespread such 
views were in the Republican Party and how assiduously Lincoln and his 
associates turned them into policy, in their adoption of a series of 
measures that led, eventually and seemingly ineluctably, to the 
Thirteenth Amendment.2

If, as Lincoln claimed in his second inaugural address, “all knew” that 
the slavery interest “was somehow the cause of the war,” the war on 
slavery was not just a military campaign but a legislative battle as 
well. The Civil War was an immensely complicated historical crisis with 
multiple interrelated origins, among which was what Oakes (who mentions 
John Brown only once in his book, in a remark attributed to Lincoln 
regarding the insufficiency of emancipation alone) calls its 
“antislavery origins.” A “full accounting of the war’s origins” would 
have to include, according to Oakes,

     not least an account of the political economy of slavery, the 
development of a free labor society in the North, the evolution of party 
politics, the schisms within Protestant churches, and more attention to 
the international context within which both slavery and antislavery 


The English abolitionist Harriet Martineau felt that there remained 
something fundamentally mysterious about the case of John Brown. “The 
only clear thing to us about the Harper’s Ferry business,” she wrote in 
late December 1859, “is the moral greatness of John Brown,” displayed in 
“the heroic moderation of his demeanor” after his arrest. And yet, she 
felt, there was something profoundly disturbing about his chosen means. 
“His act is, to us, a mystery,” she concluded, “and a painful one. If he 
had no intention beyond running off slaves, why the collection of arms?”

Particularly poignant is what Brown is reported to have said as he 
approached the scaffold. “This is a beautiful country,” he told his 
executioners. “I never had the pleasure of seeing it before.” It is a 
disarming remark, suggesting nothing more, perhaps, than a response to 
unfamiliar scenery, and a sigh at the prospect of seeing it no more. 
Stauffer and Trodd suggest, wishfully, that “with these words, he 
perhaps offered one final, prophetic vision of a slave-free country, 
never before seen, that would emerge from the bloodshed.” But the remark 
also has the uncanny feel of someone awakening from a dream, from some 
form of enchantment or enthrallment or mania, as Hawthorne’s Young 
Goodman Brown wakes up from his unsettling midnight errand, of violence 
and transgression, and returns to his placid village and his rattled 
wife, a changed man forevermore.

     1 Andrew Delbanco, The Abolitionist Imagination, with commentaries 
by John Stauffer, Manisha Sinha, Darryl Pinckney, and Wilfred M. McClay 
(Harvard University Press, 2012), reviewed in these pages by David Brion 
Davis, “Should You Have Been an Abolitionist?,” June 21, 2012. ↩
     2 Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United 
States, 1861–1865 (Norton, 2012). ↩

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