On a rainy Sunday night, October 16, 1859, seventeen men led by the violently religious abolitionist John Brown, who thought slavery a greater sin than murder and regarded himself as “an instrument in God’s hands” for extirpating it, took over the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. There the Potomac and Shenandoah meet.
“In the moment of their junction,” Jefferson wrote in Notes on Virginia (1785), “they rush together against the mountain, render it asunder, and pass off to the sea.” He called the passage of the Potomac through the Blue Ridge “one of the most stupendous scenes in nature,” and was confident that “this scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.”
What excited Jefferson was Nature charging about on land so near his own, erupting and breaking through the expected. John Brown, the subject of Russell Banks’s new novel, had not chosen Harpers Ferry for the “spectacle” it presented, but he certainly regarded himself as a force of nature answerable only to God. He believed that his attack on Federal authority would in an instant throw the slave South into convulsions; he planned to pass out the captured arms to the many runaway slaves who would join him. After John Brown’s raid, the final outrage to the South would be Abraham Lincoln’s election the next year, which led to secession and the Civil War.
War, in the name of the immediate total abolition of slavery, was Brown’s ultimate purpose. This alone explains why, after losing two of his sons and most of his fellow raiders, black and white, in the attack on Harpers Ferry, and aware that the few survivors would be hanged after him, he went to his execution in December with seeming alacrity. Killing had become as natural to him as prayer. When Kansas was opened to “squatter sovereignty,” the territory became a battlefield between Free-Soilers and advocates of slavery fighting to determine its future character as a state. John Brown, a failed businessman in several states, legally a bankrupt, had enthusiastically thrown himself, with his sons, into the fight over “bleeding Kansas.” He was so dominating that he became “Captain” John Brown, then “Osawatomie” John Brown, after the river in Kansas near which he and his sons had, in 1856, taken five pro-slavery settlers out of their homes and hacked them to death.
He was sure that in the national disturbance over slavery he alone knew how to bring slavery to an end. Impatiently dismissing all peaceful abolitionists except his six financial backers in New England, Brown was confident that after he took over the arsenal at Harpers Ferry the great mass of armed slaves ready to join him would tear the South apart and free all the other slaves. Shelby Foote in his three-volume history of the Civil War quotes Brown as boasting, “One man and God can overturn the universe.” His farm at North Elba, New York, in the vast empty …