- Historic Sites
The Father of American Terrorism
Two hundred years after his birth, Americans still revere him as a martyr and loathe him as a fanatical murderer. What was he?
February/March 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 1
For the next month the Charlestown jail cell was John Brown’s pulpit. All over the North, Brown knew, people were reading his words. He wrote, “You know that Christ once armed Peter. So also in my case I think he put a sword into my hand, and there continued it so long as he saw best, and then kindly took it from me.”
The author of the Pottawatomie Massacre was now comparing himself to Jesus Christ. And he was not alone. Even the temperate Ralph Waldo Emerson called him “the new Saint whose fate yet hangs in suspense but whose martyrdom if it shall be perfected, will make the gallows as glorious as the cross.” There were rescue plans, but John Brown did not want to escape. “I am worth inconceivably more to hang than for any other purpose,” he wrote.
He got that wish on December 2, and the mythologizing of the man began in earnest. Thoreau, Emerson, Victor Hugo, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman all wrote essays or poems immortalizing him. James Redpath eagerly waited for the moment when “Old B was in heaven”; just a month after the execution, he published the first biography. Forty thousand copies of the book sold in a single month.
Less than a year and a half later, the guns began firing on Fort Sumter. If the country had been a tinder box, it seemed to many that John Brown had been the spark. “Did John Brown fail?” Frederick Douglass wrote. “...John Brown began the war that ended American slavery and made this a free Republic.”
His reputation seemed secure, impermeable. The first biographies of the man James Redpath called the “warrior saint” all glorified him. But then, in 1910, Oswald Garrison Villard, grandson of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, wrote a massive and carefully researched book that pictured Brown as a muddled, pugnacious, bumbling, and homicidal madman. Nineteen years later Robert Penn Warren issued a similar (and derivative) study. Perhaps the most influential image of John Brown came, not surprisingly, from Hollywood: In Santa Fe Trail Raymond Massey portrayed him as a lunatic, pure and simple.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that John Brown the hero re-emerged. Two excellent studies by Stephen B. Oates and Richard Owen Boyer captured the core of the conundrum: Brown was stubborn, monomaniacal, egotistical, self-righteous, and sometimes deceitful; yet he was, at certain times, a great man. Boyer, in particular, clearly admired him: At bottom Brown “was an American who gave his life that millions of other Americans might be free.”
Among African-Americans, Brown’s heroism has never been in doubt. Frederick Douglass praised him in print; W. E. B. Du Bois published a four-hundred-page celebration of him in 1909; Malcolm X said he wouldn’t mind being with white people if they were like John Brown; and Alice Walker, in a poem, even wondered if in an earlier incarnation she herself hadn’t once been John Brown.
But, as Russell Banks points out, Brown’s “acts mean completely different things to Americans depending upon their skin color.” And the image that most white people today have of John Brown is still of the wild-eyed, bloodthirsty madman. After all, he believed that God spoke to him; he killed people at Pottawatomie in cold blood; he launched an attack on the U.S. government at Harpers Ferry with not even two dozen men. How sane could he have been?
Let’s look at those charges one by one. First: He conversed with God. Brown’s religious principles, everyone agrees, were absolutely central to the man. As a child he learned virtually the entire Bible by heart. At sixteen he traveled to New England to study for the ministry. He gave up after a few months but remained deeply serious about his Calvinist beliefs. Brown had a great yearning for justice for all men, yet a rage for bloody revenge. These qualities may seem paradoxical to us, but they were ones that John Brown had in common with his deity. The angry God of the Old Testament punished evil: An eye cost exactly an eye.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that John Brown the hero re-emerged, in two excellent studies.
If God spoke directly to John Brown, He also spoke to William Lloyd Garrison and to the slave revolutionary Nat Turner. To converse with God, in Brown’s day, did not mean that you were eccentric. In fact, God was on everyone’s side. John Brown saw the story of Moses setting the Israelites free as a mandate for emancipation, but at the same time, others used the Bible to justify slavery (Noah did, after all, set an everlasting curse on all the dark descendants of Ham). It was all in the Bible, and Americans on both sides went to war certain that they were doing God’s bidding. So it is that John Brown believed that God had appointed him “a special agent of death,” “an instrument raised up by Providence to break the jaws of the wicked.”