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Terrorist or Martyr?

Kansas State House, Topeka
John Steuart Curry: Tragic Prelude, a mural showing John Brown and the clash of pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces in 1850s Kansas, 1937–1942


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 relieved:

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 blacks.”

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.

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