John Brown
John Brown; drawing by David Levine

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.”

There were no slaveholders among Brown’s victims, two of the men were hardly men at all, being twenty-two and twenty respectively, and there would have been a fourteen-year-old boy among the dead if his mother had not interceded for his life. The one thing the adults had in common was an association with a court that was shortly to hear a case in which Brown would be a defendant. So great is the investment of presumably “liberal” scholars in the legendary Brown that they often stoop to intellectual blackmail of other scholars who explore the pre-Harper’s Ferry Brown carefully. Ruchames, for instance, in his Introduction to the Brown letters, singles out James Malin’s older work, where for the first time Brown’s Kansas career was fully described, and refers to the author as one

…who seems unable to forgive the North for having used force against Southern secession, or the Abolitionists for having taught that the abolition of slavery would be a step forward for American society, or the Negro for having believed that his welfare would be furthered by a forceful elimination of slavery.

Whatever Mr. Malin’s failures in scholarship or objectivity may have been, Mr. Ruchames does not answer any of the charges Malin brought against Brown. Nor will his charges against Malin be convincing so long as Ruchames identifies Brown with that group of antislavery men and women who were “devoted to the highest ideals of equality and democracy, influenced by the best in the Judaeo-Christian tradition and all that was good and noble in the thoughts and actions of the Founding Fathers.”

Presumably Ruchames feels that Brown was justified at Pottawatomie Creek by the “historical context.” In support of that view he cites expressions made some twenty years after the event by Brown’s neighbors, who by that time had a considerable moral investment in the legend. Oates, however, makes it clear enough that, although many acts of violence had been perpetrated upon the Free State settlers, and certainly many threats had been uttered, nothing that preceded Pottawatomie justified Brown’s cold-blooded act, and that the event marked the beginning of the most vicious period of an undeclared guerrilla war. John Brown’s own neighbors were unanimous and unequivocal in their condemnation of the massacre at the time it tock place.

One by one Oates strips away the excuses Brown’s contemporaries and later historians have used to shield Brown’s memory from the responsibility for his act, even to an exposure of that most unbecoming trait in martyrs, mendacity. To those who knew his guilt, Brown declared, “God is my judge,” and to those who did not, he simply denied it. Sometimes this denial was accomplished with stunning craftiness. Mr. Ruchames’s volume includes a letter that Brown wrote to his wife shortly after the killings. He reported that he had left the main body of armed Free Staters with his “little company” and

…encountered quite a number of pro-slavery men, and took quite a number prisoners. Our prisoners we let go; but we kept some four or five horses. We were immediately after this accused of murdering five men at Pottawatomie, and great efforts have since been made to capture us.

He asked his wife to send a copy of this letter to Gerrit Smith, the rich philanthropist of Petersboro, New York, who was Brown’s chief financial supporter, because he knew “of no other way to get these facts…before the world….” Such an elliptical and technical view of the truth, advanced with glittering sincerity, goes far to explain the influence of Brown upon the Eastern antislavery intellectuals who subsequently joined the conspiracy that led to Harper’s Ferry, and supplied the money for the insurrection Brown planned. C. Vann Woodward pointed out nearly twenty years ago that John Brown understood these sophisticates very well and that he “could have told them much that they did not know about the psychology of fellow travelers.” But their gullibility is still hard to explain.

Unlike Ruchames, Oates sees clearly in the crime at Pottawatomie certain unheroic elements that sit poorly with the saint of Harper’s Ferry and the Charlestown jail. In the shadow of the gallows Brown engineered his legend as he wanted it to endure, and made the fullest use of the platform afforded by his trial. His words in those last weeks were patient, brave, forgiving, and entirely convincing. But he did not stick to the truth. He denied having planned an insurrection, and insisted that he had merely planned to provide a haven for refugees in the mountains. Frederick Douglass knew better, for that had been the substance of their dispute at Chambersburg. Apparently it was never subsequently in Douglass’s interest to expose the “inaccuracies and falsehoods”—to use Oates’s phrase—of Brown’s testimony at his trial.

Making a sensible connection between the John Brown of Kansas and the John Brown of Harper’s Ferry has been the great challenge for Brown’s biographers. James Malin and the other anti-Brown writers do so by interpreting Brown as a wicked person of completely ruthless expediency who welcomed the opportunity to carry on a life of brigandage; others have taken at face value the nineteen affidavits of insanity in Brown’s immediate family offered at the time of his trial. Oates accepts neither pattern of explanation. He is not convinced by the affidavits, and he points to Brown’s brilliant exploitation of his position at his trial to obtain the maximum benefit for the antislavery cause as a sign of complete sanity.

Both Ruchames and Oates point out that calling a man insane for hating slavery enough to make a war on it is misguided, to say the least. In such times those who hate slavery less may also be called a little mad. It is only fair to point out, however, that it is not his hatred of slavery that has caused historians to call Brown mad; it is also right to say that there is nothing in either book that will resolve the question of John Brown’s mental health. One’s mode of behavior delineates madness, not one’s convictions. At this point, of course, no clinical proof or conclusive answer is possible, because aside from Brown’s acts, about which one may believe what one will, the main evidence rests with the affidavits, which were gathered for the purpose of saving Brown’s life.

Both Ruchames and Oates avoid the explanation of insanity, but beyond that point the similarity in interpretation ends abruptly. Ruchames manages some forty pages of introduction without mentioning the religious aspects of Brown’s nonconforming abolitionism, or the man’s curious identification with the bloody heroes of the Old Testament who served Jehovah with the sword. For Oates, Brown’s Calvinist view of the world, and of man’s time of trial in that world, is central to understanding him. He sees this as the essential matter that set Brown apart from the other abolitionists of his time, Douglass included.

Brown’s was the sword of Gideon, which did not discriminate or make fine distinctions among its victims in the service of the Lord. For Ruchames, Brown is explained, even justified, by his pure hatred of slavery and slaveholders. Brown’s concentration on their extirpation, though “intense and unusual for his day,” was, in Ruchames’s opinion, “not unusual” when compared to that of William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Theodore Parker, and the other great abolitionists. Of course it was unusual. Brown was ready to employ violence, even to murder, and none of the rest was ready to do so. Theodore Parker did enter Brown’s conspiracy and supported him with money, but he asked to be kept in ignorance about the specific plans.

It is likely that this distinction between word and deed was exactly what prevented Douglass from going farther with John Brown than Theodore Parker did. But Brown seems to have held the black man more responsible. It appears that in his last days John Brown reserved his only bitter words for Frederick Douglass. A visitor in the Charlestown jail recalled that Brown told her husband of a “great opportunity lost” that was owing “to the famous Mr. Frederick Douglass.” Brown’s family also in later years was under the illusion that Douglass had somehow let John Brown down, and Douglass himself often felt compelled to explain his curious relations with the old man who had become a martyr to that freedom Douglass had himself struggled so hard for.

What Douglass had done was exactly what other close associates and financial supporters, with a solitary exception, had done. He had placed himself beyond the reach of federal authority and, after the hanging, had joined other intellectuals in the canonization of a man who may have been a saint, but who was also, by any definition accepted by civilized nations in peace or war, a cold-blooded killer.

It is clear that Douglass’s supposed defection had nothing to do with the fate of John Brown, which would have been the same either way. But there are many questions as yet unanswered concerning the relations of the two men. Did Douglass know about Pottawatomie before Harper’s Ferry? Did he ever know? A Congressional report of July 11, 1856, had directly connected Brown with the slaying, and there had been widespread publicity about the troubles in Kansas; but then Brown had always denied responsibility for the killings. Did Douglass and Brown’s other supporters believe him innocent as he claimed to be? Or did they simply condone his acts on the basis of their “historical context” as some historians have since done?

From Douglass’s final Life and Times comes the line that Brown was “then [at Chambersburg] under the ban of government and heavy rewards were offered for his arrest, for offenses said to have been committed in Kansas.” Said to have been committed? Did Douglass then, so near the end of his own life, believe that there was no truth in the charges? It is doubtful. In his eulogy of Brown at Storer College in 1881, it is amazing how much more closely Douglass’s verbal imagery applies to what happened out on the Kansas prairies on that May night in 1856 than to what happened in Virginia. The people were “roused from their slumbers” and they “felt the keen-edged sword of war at their throats,” and then Douglass added that “the knife is to feeling always an offense.”

Douglass believed that Harper’s Ferry could not be “viewed apart and alone,” where it would “rank with the most cold-blooded and atrocious wrongs ever perpetrated…,” but had to be seen as a “nemesis,” as “the judgment of God” or “retributive justice” for the evils of slavery and the horrors of the slave trade. John Brown would have accepted that interpretation of his role in history.

Neither Foner nor Quarles has asked whether Douglass knew about the Pottawatomie slayings. The question may not be answerable. We do know that the two men were “confidential” with each other, and that Brown spent much time in Douglass’s home. We can therefore only guess that the sight of the 950 Bowie knives Brown had welded to the tips of iron pikes and brought to Chambersburg roused in Douglass insurmountable conflict. He was not emotionally prepared even then for that kind of fighting. For the intellectual the resort to violence is a confession of the failure of words, his chosen instruments.

Although Douglass’s final confrontation with the idea of armed insurrection is not fully explored for all its implications in his two major biographies, the road toward Chambersburg necessarily constitutes an important theme for each book. Foner’s biography was originally written in sections to introduce the writings of Douglass, and it therefore has a more public character than Quarles’s volume, which examines personal motivation with more care. However there is plainly evident in each treatment a stress on Douglass’s intensely pragmatic approach to emancipation. It was Douglass’s sense of what was most likely to bring about abolition that led him from pacifism, through a commitment to political action, to militancy, and back again to political action.

It was largely a matter of chance that brought Douglass so soon after his escape from slavery to the attention of the Garrisonian abolitionists of New England. His commanding presence, evident in his earliest appearances on the antislavery platform, describing his experiences as a slave in Maryland, was living testimony to the false claims of black inferiority spread by the proslavery apologists. As an antislavery lecturer Douglass developed rapidly, and soon an astonishing fact emerged: he was too good to be true. Audiences doubted that so good an orator could ever have been a slave, and the doubts multiplied as Douglass departed more and more from the simple recital of wrongs to a more philosophical denunciation of slavery itself. In vain did his sponsors urge him to put a little more of the plantation manner into his discourse. Douglass was simply outgrowing the role for which he seemed so perfectly cast, and it was then merely a matter of time before he would cut the leading strings.

In 1847 Douglass left Massachusetts for Rochester, New York, to begin publication of The North Star, a black newspaper that would illustrate clearly the views and capabilities of black abolitionists. It was a cherished project that admirably suited Douglass’s literary gifts, and it was made possible by the support of English contributions. But it meant that Douglass moved into an entirely different realm of abolitionist thought, and that he was open to new influences. He began to question the basic tenets of the Garrisonian faith. His pragmatism was undoubtedly important in the change in Douglass’s view of the Constitution, which was to Garrisonians a proslavery document, “a compact with hell.” It logically followed from this view that abolitionists should not participate in conventional political action, hoping to influence legislatures and elections, but should rather hope and work for disunion from the slaveholding states.

The abolitionists Douglass met in the western New York region however had maintained faith in party politics, and they reasoned that the Constitution, properly construed, was an antislavery document. Douglass began to accept these views as his own, but his defection from the faith of the Garrisonians brought him into a bitter conflict that was marked by ugly charges that hurt him deeply. Unable to see that Douglass was thinking for himself, the Garrisonians assumed that he had changed his views because he stood to gain financial support for his paper from Gerrit Smith, and worse yet, that he had come too much under the influence of Julia Griffiths, an Englishwoman who assisted Douglass in his editorial duties and in the financial management of the newspaper. In My Bondage and My Freedom Douglass explained his position as it stood after this break with simplicity and restraint.

Although he would return to a belief in the political system in time, during the 1850s Douglass’s faith came under increasing pressure. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was especially threatening to Northern blacks. Frightening also were the shrill demands of the slaveholding states for protection of slavery in the territories, and Presidents in seeming collusion with Southern leadership. With the cause of the slave apparently more hopeless than ever, Douglass became increasingly despondent about the prospects of successful political organization against slavery.

From their first meeting in 1847 Douglass began to adopt one of Brown’s justifications of armed revolt: slavery was in itself a warfare of the slaveholders against the enslaved. By 1856 Douglass was ready to say of slavery that “its peaceful annihilation is almost hopeless….” Although he did not expand his views on violence in My Bondage and My Freedom, he had by that time begun to make speeches recommending the violent overthrow of the slave oligarchy. This explains Douglass’s readiness to pass over Pottawatomie in silence, if he knew about it, but it does not explain his last flinching from the random shedding of blood that the 950 iron pikes symbolized. That was written in his character.

In comparing his own career to Brown’s, Douglass once wrote that “I could live for the slave, but he could die for him.” Douglass’s future vindicated his choice at Chambersburg, for half a useful life lay ahead of Harper’s Ferry. When the long fuse lighted in Kansas exploded into civil war, Douglass regained his faith in politics. He agitated until black troops were recruited and emancipation became a part of the Civil War effort; he agitated for the suffrage amendments and the Civil Rights Act until these legal advantages were secured during the Reconstruction; then he agitated to see that these should come to have more than abstract meaning for his black fellow citizens. He was a consistent and continual foe of segregation in all forms, and the breadth of his interests was matched by few of his contemporary reformers. His last speech was delivered in 1895, on the day of his death, in behalf of woman’s suffrage.

In his fine chapter in Black Abolitionists, “Shock Therapy and Crisis,” Quarles shows how Douglass and other black leaders who had been unwilling to stand with John Brown at Harper’s Ferry were ready when war broke out to join battle for freedom. “Our national sin has found us out,” wrote Douglass in 1861, and in many respects the Civil War became the expiation of that sin, certainly in historical imagery, if not in fact. Lacking Marx, most thoughtful men of the nineteenth century fell back on God to explain the role of violence in history.

By 1865 there was another martyr to rank with John Brown in the symbolism of the age. In 1861, however, Abraham Lincoln had not been possessed of John Brown’s conviction that God commanded him to raise the sword. Rather God’s peace came like a blessing after three years of struggle. Thus he was able to say, in the great Second Inaugural, that if it was God’s will that the war should continue “until every drop of blood, drawn by the lash, shall be paid by another drawn by the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’ ” John Brown received his authorization from Jehovah at the moment he acted; Lincoln received an indemnity from God for past actions. The difference in timing was important.

This Issue

December 3, 1970