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John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War
By Tony Horwitz
pp 365, Picador
Reviewed by Sue Ellis
A Photoshopped likeness of John Brown stares from the cover of Midnight Rising. He appears stern, determined, and weary. After reading Tony Horwitz's biography on the man, I think the only thing the photo doesn't reveal is a touch of lunacy.
John Brown was driven to a purpose from an early age by the mentoring of his father, who taught him that it's wrong for a person to own another human being. That credo firmed up in his mind as he aged, coming to fruition when he was an old man—a man who was deemed a failure by the standards of the day. He was a dreamer and risk-taker who fathered a large brood whom he then had trouble supporting, and he was the probable cause of his second wife's fragile mental state, neglecting her as he did for the cause of abolition.
At nearly sixty, maybe he figured he'd go all out and try to do one thing right in his life, to fight for the thing most dear to his heart. But he didn't limit his ambition to himself; he recruited three sons and a daughter to the cause. In his usual grand, impractical style, he set upon a plan to lay siege to the nation's armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. And he didn't let the fact that he was only able to recruit twenty-one followers discourage him.
Ten men were killed in action, including two of Brown's sons. Brown and six of his followers were later tried and hanged, and five of his followers escaped, including one son, Owen. .
There's no question that the old man was brave. There's no question that his motivation was pure, but the fact is, he martyred himself, his young followers and his family, was responsible for several murders along the way, and instigated a war between the states whose terrible toll still resonates in the American psyche, regardless of the fact that it set the wheel of racial equality in motion. As Horwitz points out, his actions pretty well fit our current definition of terrorism.
As with any martyr, Brown gained more fame after his death. The court trial and subsequent news stories paid tribute to his clearly spoken, unwavering statement that he was willing to die for his cause. And then he did, without complaint.
After having read Midnight Rising, I'm not sure I perceive Brown the same way the author does, but maybe that's the best thing about biographies that are as well written as Midnight Rising—that we are left to draw our own conclusions. Brown's daring attack on the slave holding south was so ill-planned as to be considered daft. That it succeeded, at least in the broadest terms, speaks to the idea that, for a few of us, our destiny is preordained.
In the end, I admire the man and his vision for a constitution unmarred by the blight of slavery. Not all heroes are successful businessmen, or born with a pedigree. Brown was an ordinary man who lived his beliefs, treating blacks as equals and welcoming them into his home. It didn't matter that he arrived to meet destiny threadbare, a loser whose military strategy was laughable--he had nonetheless arrived.
From now on, when I run across mention of John Brown in another venue, I'll remember who he was. Not long after reading Midnight Rising, I read Rick Bragg's excellent memoir, All Over but the Shoutin', where he utilized Brown to describe himself and his wild brothers as children:
To say we were rotten little children would be like saying John Brown was a little on the impetuous side.
I liked that sentence a lot, and thanks to Tony Horowitz, I understood exactly what it meant.