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.


Following violent attacks on antislavery leaders in Kansas during the spring of 1856, and the nearly fatal caning of the anti-slavery Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner on the Senate floor by a congressman from South Carolina, Brown determined that something must be done:


Granger Collection

John Brown, circa 1856

Brown decided to make a retaliatory strike against proslavery settlers. On the night of May 24, he and seven men, including four sons and a son-in-law, entered the proslavery settlement along Pottawatomie Creek. They approached three cabins along the creek, woke up the settlers, dragged a total of five men out into the dark night, and hacked them to death one by one with broadswords. As graphically reported in the New York Herald, one victim was decapitated and another’s windpipe “entirely cut out.”

This hideous crime is presented in mitigating language by Stauffer and Trodd. The strike was “retaliatory,” and the victims were “proslavery settlers” in a “proslavery settlement” engaged, as they put it, in “a state of civil war.”

Never mind that none of the proslavery settlers Brown’s men slaughtered actually owned slaves. Mahala Doyle, widowed in the attack, wrote a scalding letter to Brown, in prison after the Harpers Ferry raid, mentioning pointedly that he, too, had now lost two sons:

You can now appreciated [sic] my distress in Kansas, when you then and there entered my house at midnight, and arrested my husband and two boys, and took them out of the yard, and in cold blood shot them dead in my hearing. You can’t say you done it to free our slaves; we had none, and never expected to have; but it has only made me a poor disconsolate widow with helpless children.

A couple of years later, Brown orchestrated a more admirable raid across the Kansas border into Vernon County, Missouri. With eighteen men, he managed to free eleven slaves at gunpoint from three farmhouses and then led them on a thousand-mile journey to freedom in Canada. The raiders were heavily armed with weapons that, for the most part, they did not fire. One of the slave owners resisted and was killed. A fugitive in Canada, Brown wrote triumphantly to the New York Tribune: “Eleven persons are forcibly restored to their ‘natural and inalienable rights,’ with but one man killed, and all ‘Hell is stirred from beneath.’”


The slaughter at Pottawatomie Creek had been done on the sly, a stealthy crime in the cover of night for which Brown never acknowledged responsibility. The raid at Harpers Ferry, by contrast, was calculatedly theatrical, as onlookers with a taste for dramatic flair noted. John Wilkes Booth, playing a bit part at the Marshall Theatre in Richmond, took the day off to watch Brown’s hanging, and was so moved by his demeanor that he felt dizzy and asked a soldier for a restorative drink. Booth later told his sister Asia that the “half-breed” Lincoln, with his “appearance, his pedigree, his coarse low jokes and anecdotes, his vulgar smiles, and his frivolity,” was no match for Brown’s heroic grandeur. “He is walking in the footprints of old John Brown,” he said of Lincoln, “but no more fit to stand with that rugged old hero—Great God! no. John Brown was a man inspired, the grandest character of the century!”

Thoreau thought that Brown’s captors had committed three blunders, all of which had contributed to the dramatic effect: Brown was not hanged immediately; he was allowed to preach and write letters (and, according to erroneous reports, to have a slave woman and her child placed near the gallows); and he was hung alone. “No theatrical manager could have arranged things so wisely to give effect to his behavior and words,” Thoreau remarked. “And who, think you, was the manager? Who placed the slave woman and her child, whom he stooped to kiss for a symbol, between his prison and the gallows?”

It remains unclear what precisely Brown hoped to accomplish by the attack. His plan seems to have “evolved,” as Stauffer and Trodd observe. Among his “secret six” financial backers, Thomas Wentworth Higginson (who later led a black regiment and was Emily Dickinson’s literary adviser) was disappointed to learn that the envisioned guerrilla forays from mountain fastnesses to liberate slaves he had heard about (and that reminded him of Sir Walter Scott) had somehow turned into a suicidal mission against “the whole power of the United States government.” Did Brown, who alerted none of the slaves in the region of his intentions, really hope to spark a slave rebellion across the South? If so, as Hawthorne remarked, he was guilty of a “preposterous miscalculation of possibilities.” But perhaps he was aiming all along for something else entirely, a grandly theatrical conflagration of blood and violence, a further stirring of Hell from beneath, that would shake the nation from its torpor, and polarize North and South around the burning historical issue of the era.


“Vindicated causes are easy to endorse,” Andrew Delbanco writes in The Abolitionist Imagination, a lecture published last year with rejoinders by John Stauffer and others.1 Like Stauffer and Trodd, Delbanco is in search of an impartial, or at least less partial, understanding of the period immediately preceding the Civil War. The time is right for such an assessment, he suggests, “now that a certain exhaustion with the culture wars”—the tendency to judge writers and historical figures according to our contemporary political norms—“has set in.” He detects a concomitant “change in tone” and “a more muted assessment” of the Civil War “as a vastly tragic, perhaps even avertable, event” in recent books like Drew Faust’s The Republic of Suffering and David Goldfield’s America Aflame, where “full-throated Unionism” has been replaced by “a vivid awareness of the devastating consequences that followed when compromise failed.”

Delbanco attributes much of this shift to the experience of “living through two American-led wars that were justified, in large part, as acts of liberation on behalf of innocents living in conditions akin to slavery.” He asks us to imagine ourselves in the antebellum world in which abolitionists demanded a change “not tomorrow, not next year, but now.” “If we could have known in advance the scale of the ensuing carnage,” he wonders, “would we have sided with those who considered any price worth paying to bring an end to slavery?” (As he points out in reply to a critic, John Brown had “led, or at least countenanced, a slaughter in Kansas.”) Delbanco invites us to sympathize with such “moderates” as Hawthorne, whom he calls, admiringly, “a politically unclassifiable writer,” and Melville, who were “sensitive to the crime of slavery but squeamish about the abolitionist response.”

For Delbanco, those like Brown who called for the immediate and, if necessary, violent emancipation of all slaves represent a recurring type in American society, since there is always something that strikes a sizable part of the population as worthy of abolition, including alcohol, abortion, fossil fuels, guns, slaughterhouses, and so on. Against such imperious demands, those who call for political process or votes or compromise or gradual solutions will always seem, to the abolitionists, spineless temporizers. Delbanco notes that Hawthorne had signed a petition against the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which preserved the property rights of slaveholders in the Northern states, thus, in effect, making slavery a national institution.

Delbanco’s measured reflections received a notably caustic response from Stauffer, who argued that certain evils, including slavery as practiced in the South, are so extreme that “they foreclose compromise and preclude the possibility of a middle way. In such circumstances,” he adds alarmingly, “one needs to fight violent fanatics with a more humane fanaticism.” Stauffer notes that Hawthorne wrote a presidential campaign biography for Franklin Pierce, his Bowdoin classmate and an apologist for slavery. As though to clinch the case for “Hawthorne’s Southern sympathies,” Stauffer writes that during the war “he requested an autograph of Jefferson Davis but not one of Abraham Lincoln”—a request that could have many motives (Davis had served as Pierce’s Secretary of War), and by itself tells us nothing.


“Assuredly, if insurrection is ever a sacred duty,” Victor Hugo wrote of John Brown, “it must be when it is directed against Slavery.” And yet it was, arguably, not sufficient (as Spielberg and Kushner’s Lincoln sought to make clear) to emancipate every slave if the institution of slavery were not abolished. Lincoln made plain his fear that a Union victory might leave the institution of slavery intact and allow for the reenslavement of freedmen.

To prevent such a fate, Lincoln and his associates in the Republican Party took the position, articulated in Sumner’s first speech in Congress, that freedom was “national” whereas slavery was merely a “local” institution preserved, contrary to the broad affirmation of freedom for all in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, only by local laws and statutes. For Lincoln, Sumner, Seward, and the rest, slaves were treated as “persons” rather than “property” in the Constitution, which did not explicitly mention slaves. In his excellent new book Freedom National, James Oakes demonstrates how widespread such views were in the Republican Party and how assiduously Lincoln and his associates turned them into policy, in their adoption of a series of measures that led, eventually and seemingly ineluctably, to the Thirteenth Amendment.2

If, as Lincoln claimed in his second inaugural address, “all knew” that the slavery interest “was somehow the cause of the war,” the war on slavery was not just a military campaign but a legislative battle as well. The Civil War was an immensely complicated historical crisis with multiple interrelated origins, among which was what Oakes (who mentions John Brown only once in his book, in a remark attributed to Lincoln regarding the insufficiency of emancipation alone) calls its “antislavery origins.” A “full accounting of the war’s origins” would have to include, according to Oakes,

not least an account of the political economy of slavery, the development of a free labor society in the North, the evolution of party politics, the schisms within Protestant churches, and more attention to the international context within which both slavery and antislavery developed.


The English abolitionist Harriet Martineau felt that there remained something fundamentally mysterious about the case of John Brown. “The only clear thing to us about the Harper’s Ferry business,” she wrote in late December 1859, “is the moral greatness of John Brown,” displayed in “the heroic moderation of his demeanor” after his arrest. And yet, she felt, there was something profoundly disturbing about his chosen means. “His act is, to us, a mystery,” she concluded, “and a painful one. If he had no intention beyond running off slaves, why the collection of arms?”

Particularly poignant is what Brown is reported to have said as he approached the scaffold. “This is a beautiful country,” he told his executioners. “I never had the pleasure of seeing it before.” It is a disarming remark, suggesting nothing more, perhaps, than a response to unfamiliar scenery, and a sigh at the prospect of seeing it no more. Stauffer and Trodd suggest, wishfully, that “with these words, he perhaps offered one final, prophetic vision of a slave-free country, never before seen, that would emerge from the bloodshed.” But the remark also has the uncanny feel of someone awakening from a dream, from some form of enchantment or enthrallment or mania, as Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown wakes up from his unsettling midnight errand, of violence and transgression, and returns to his placid village and his rattled wife, a changed man forevermore.