To Purge This Land With Blood: A Biography of John Brown
John Brown: The Making of a Revolutionary
The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass
My Bondage and My Freedom
Biographers of men who lived in violent times have the special problem of dealing with the abstractions about means and ends that clutter the rhetoric of political systems in a state of polarization. When do men mean what they say? How a biographer’s subject responds to a call to action may come as near as anything else to exposing the inner quality of the man, the elusive combination of impulse, emotion practicality, and reason that we call character. The recent publication in paperback of the two standard biographies of Frederick Douglass, the first written in 1948 by Benjamin Quarles, and the second in 1950 by Philip Foner, who edited Douglass’s writings at the same time, invites a reconsideration of this dynamic editor and orator, America’s most important black abolitionist, who lived in violent times.
Two of Douglass’s three autobiographical works have also been reissued recently. The first of these is My Bondage and My Freedom, written in 1855, and the second is an illustrated edition of Douglass’s final autobiography, written shortly before his death in 1895. It appears now in a much edited and reduced version by Genevieve S. Gray, intended for young readers. The handsome drawings by Scott Duncan add much to the charm of the volume, although they have in some instances a very tenuous relation to the text. Benjamin Quarles’s Black Abolitionists, the first general study, contributes much to our understanding of Douglass by considering him in the company of his fellow black militants as they grappled with the question of means and ends in the antislavery cause.
A few years before the Civil War, Douglass faced the choice between the rhetorical justification of force in the emancipation of slaves, and the use of physical violence to that end. Stephen Oates’s exciting new biography of John Brown, together with a new edition of Louis Ruchames’s collected letters and eulogies of Brown, The Making of a Revolutionary, provide a fresh view of the man who brought Douglass to that choice.
The only book among the seven under review failing to mention the last meeting of those two famous abolitionists is the only one that was written before the meeting took place. When Douglass wrote My Bondage and My Freedom, he was thirty-eight years old, and had been well acquainted with John Brown for approximately seven years. John Brown had already caused Douglass to rethink his earler commitment to the pacifism of the Garrisonian abolitionists, but the relationship between the two men had not reached its dramatic culmination. This took place on August 19, 1858, two months before Brown’s attack on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, when Douglass met Brown secretly in an abandoned stone quarry near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. For three days the old guerrilla captain discussed with the young orator the uses of violence in the pursuit of justice.
The question was specific. Would Douglass join John Brown and his small band of raiders in their attack on the arsenal, and provide, as Brown planned that they would, a signal for a mass rising of the slaves? Only Douglass, who had enormous influence among all blacks, free as well as slave, would perfectly serve Brown’s purpose. “When I strike,” he urged, “the bees will begin to swarm, and I shall need you to help hive them.”
Douglass would not. He saw that Brown’s plan, since they last discussed it together, had undergone a fatal expansion of purpose. Opening a front of guerrilla activity in the Virginia mountains, offering slaves an escape route to the North and ultimately to Canada, would have been risky, but it was conceivable. To a raid on a United States arsenal in a slave state, with the purpose of inciting servile insurrection, there could be only one outcome. To argue with John Brown was always futile, as his old friend surely knew, and Douglass left him at last to his own disastrous vision of justice and glory. Douglass next had positive news of Brown after the assault had failed and Brown’s men were scattered or killed. The survivors awaited trial for treason in the jail at Charlestown, in company of their wounded captain.
Douglass’s biographers have tended to accept Douglass’s own explanation that his refusal to join John Brown was based on expediency, an unwillingness to undertake a hopeless cause. Douglass said at the time, and never altered his story, that in the Harper’s Ferry test, he was “most miserably deficient in courage,” and that he had been smarter than to promise John Brown his presence in the action. Nevertheless one wonders if in fact Douglass was not deterred by a fundamental aversion to real violence. The haunting question that the biographers of all Brown’s allies and coconspirators somehow miss asking is how well did Brown’s Eastern men know the man whom they supported with every encouragement that money could buy until he was captured, and whom they joined ranks to canonize after the execution?
Although Douglass was not one of the famous “Secret Six” who joined the Brown conspiracy, he probably knew more about John Brown than any of them. No more than they, however, was he in a position to tell all he knew. To ask that he sacrifice the legendary John Brown, whom he had helped to create, to the historical John Brown was asking too much.
America’s national saint, her martyr on the altar of freedom, was a man of blood and violence, who died at the wrong time, in the wrong place, for the wrong crime, if crime it was. The main facts of the life and death of John Brown have long been available to anyone interested in gaining access to them, but unfortunately for the credibility of history, few historians, not to speak of the dramatists and propagandists, have had the courage to assemble those facts and consider them dispassionately for their historical meaning.
This is a pity, because the lessons to be learned from such an exercise ought not to be lost on an age much in need of instruction on the relationship of intellectuals to revolutionaries, and of rhetoric to violence. Most of the unresolved questions about John Brown concern those who accepted him at his own evaluation of himself, for the simple reason that in their opinion he found the best cause in the world to die for.
On December 2, 1859, Brown, a grizzled man of fifty-nine, old beyond those years, died on the gallows for having organized an attack on a federal arsenal. He made the gallows glorious as the cross, Emerson and Thoreau said, and there were hundreds of other favorable comparisons made to the Holy Founder of Christianity, comparisons that appeared at the time to be at least partially authenticated by the dignity with which the martyr met his death. The praise of John Brown has been continuous from that time to this, but never has it been unanimous.
On only one point are the John Brown writers in reasonable agreement: the governor of Virginia made a primary mistake in allowing the execution. For those who looked only upon Brown’s last year, upon his revolutionary attempt to expand the liberty promised by this republic to its people, Brown had paid the supreme price exacted by a slaveholding state which, by its very existence, denied that promise. For other writers, the governor’s mistake was tactical. He missed the opportunity to excuse Brown on grounds of insanity, which would have had the contemporary effect of avoiding Brown’s own wish (in which most of his erstwhile supporters concurred) to make himself a symbolic martyr to the cause of freedom, and the historical effect of obliging scholars to ask whether John Brown was in fact mentally responsible for his acts. It would also have had the effect of forcing scholars undertaking this question to explore the whole of John Brown’s life as carefully and thoroughly as the end of it.
Stephen Oates has done this, and has given us the most objective and absorbing biography of John Brown ever written. Its title, To Purge This Land With Blood, captures perfectly Brown’s own conception of his role in the antislavery crusade. Oates describes with subtlety and detail John Brown’s early career, his struggles with poverty, illness, and death, the desperate straits the man was put to in support of his large family of twenty children. He tells us that Brown came to the armed phase of his abolitionist career at the end of many business ventures and as many failures, unsuccessful speculations, lawsuits, and bankruptcies, even misappropriation of funds. Brown dealt with his family as a stern Calvinist, fearful that his neglect in punishment of even the smallest faults would advance the work of the devil. Only rarely did his tenderness find expression, but Oates shows that it was there.
In John Brown’s career in the Kansas territory, as leader of a small guerrilla band of Free State men, Oates finds the occasion to explain the Messianic streak that compelled Brown to become first a criminal and then a saint. To Oates’s credit he describes John Brown’s crime as unflinchingly as he describes his hardships, endured under what Brown took to be the chastisement of God.
Lawrence, the main town of the Free State government in the territory, had been attacked and burned by proslavery forces bent on driving the Free State men out of Kansas. Brown undertook to become God’s instrument of vengeance. On a moonless night in May, 1856, he took four of his sons, a son-in-law, and two other followers and separated himself from the main body of armed settlers. This band descended upon the sleeping community of Pottawatomie Creek, where Brown called forth from their homes five men and had his band hack them to death with swords he had sharpened especially for the purpose. After washing the murder weapons in the waters of the creek, Brown went into hiding with his men, and began the career of outlawry in the cause of freedom that certain newspapers at the time, and many historians since, have found heroic.
Oates shows plainly that these murders, which Brown’s defenders have preferred to call “reprisals,” instead of helping the cause of freedom in Kansas, began the worst phase of the undeclared war on the frontier. What Brown had to contribute after Pottawatomie as a guerrilla captain was insignificant, for he could take orders from no one, nor could he cooperate with other leaders to any common purpose.
The astonishing thing about Brown’s contemporaries and historians since, who have built and protected the legendary Brown, is the indifference they have shown to Brown’s victims. Who has asked the names and ages of the slain men, or whether they were guilty of anything, or if they were in fact a threat to other settlers in the region? Louis Ruchames, for example, describes them simply with the opprobrious word “proslavery.”