Spotlights In Liberation History, Vol. 1 – John Brown

The Cost Of Freedom cover

John Brown: The Cost Of Freedom

Part Book Review, Part History Lesson

John Brown: The Cost Of Freedom, by Louis A. DeCaro Jr., is a short biography on the famous and controversial figure of John Brown: the man who launched a militant strike against slavery and injustice in the United States, who prepared a new society where all races could live equally, and who stood up with a persecuted people against a nation.

The Cost of Freedom starts off by explaining that the life of the well-known figure is almost nothing like the ones that our textbooks and society normally represent. So, let’s first start with what we traditionally hear about the man:

As is the general consensus amongst mainstream history, John Brown was a nut job – a fanatic man of strong religious convictions, so religious that he was mad and thought of himself as a prophet. A failed businessman, broke, and a lifelong abolitionist, Brown turned to the South and the institution of slavery to blame his failures on. Putting together a hatchet-job plan, Brown attacked the only U.S. armory in the South at Harpers Ferry in order to start a general uprising amongst the slaves that would sweep across the nation. The plan was ill-prepared and the mission was an impossible one: John Brown was insane and resorted to drastic, demented, and doomed actions to justify his failures in life, his anti-slavery views, and his religious delusion.

Or, at least, that’s how the story is told. In fact, that’s what I myself believed for a long time. What was different, however, was that I was sympathetic towards Brown – I felt his militant attack against slavery was justified and I had wished it had succeeded or had directly challenged and threatened the institution of slavery in the United States. It may have been this mindset that allowed me to be ready for a different history… you know, one supported by facts and historical evidence. The sorts of things high school textbooks seem to overlook.

John Brown: The Cost Of Freedom, however, begs to differ from this traditional story. I use the word “story” because that’s exactly what the aforementioned account is: a piece of fiction. Who does the book (and historical evidence) say the real man was, then? What sort of affect did he have on the nation?

The Real John Brown

Religion
I want to start off with John Brown’s religion and the influence it wielded over him and his actions, primarily because I am a person who lacks religious conviction (and sometimes can be hostile towards the idea of organized religion). Brown’s religion, Calvinist and conservative puritan, have often given rise to the notion that he believed himself a prophet like figure. That “God commanded” him to attack Harpers Ferry.

This is both true and untrue. John Brown was certainly a deeply religious man and his faith definitely guided his convictions against the institution of slavery. However, religion played a key role on both sides of the slavery argument – for slave-defenders and abolitionists. Slavery was often defended using biblical quotations and other justifications, while religious leaders and convictions also guided the abolitionist movement. Even Harriet Tubman, the “Moses” of her people, was directed by serious religious motivations. As The Cost of Freedom suggests, Brown believed that divine intervention had a part in everything: from the formation of the tiniest anthill to the fall of the largest empire. Brown’s faith was one that had a God seeking justice and righteousness; it was based on progressive revelations of the Scriptures, and was founded on human responsibility and love. John Brown saw no justice, love, or responsibility in the institution of slavery.

In fact, when it comes to religion and slavery, The Cost of Freedom suggests that we might think of the famous confederate general “Stonewall” Jackson as Brown’s counterpart. Both men were Calvinists, both men had deep religious roots in their convictions for or against slavery, and both men died fighting the war over slavery. No one, however, claims that Jackson was a lunatic that saw himself as a prophet-like-figure. In reality, John Brown’s Calvinist convictions and his lifelong exposure to abolitionist views helped formed his militant stance and actions against slavery. This was not because he viewed himself as some sort of prophet, but instead because he viewed slaves as God’s children – just like himself.

Equality & Other Differences From Abolitionists

John Brown lived one of the most racially integrated lives of any white person of his time. This is significant because most of the abolitionist movement, much to Brown’s disgust, was full of racism. Abolitionists disagreed with slave defenders that Africans should be enslaved (either for economic, religious, or social reasons – or a combination of these). However, a significant majority of these abolitionists agreed with slave-defenders that Africans were an “inferior race” when compared to Europeans. This point could be taken much more in depth, including the facts that many white abolitionists wanted to send all blacks back to Africa and many white abolitionists didn’t want any association with non-whites, but what is important here is the fact that this was universally rejected by Brown.

In short, but which The Cost of Freedom explores in much more detail, John Brown aimed his life so that he could have as much interaction with African Americans as possible. Brown often moved his family around to towns and parts of cities that had high free black populations – when most white people were directly avoiding this. In fact, Brown even fought segregation in the places he lived and the churches he attended. While living in Springfield, MA – Brown attended an African Methodist Church, preferring it to the Calvinist church he belonged to that did not allow people of color to attend. In fact, had Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry been successful, there was a plan to set up a new guerilla-society that would live in the Appalachian mountains – comprised of white allies, Native Americans, and freed slaves. This guerilla-society would have continued to attack the institution of slavery across the south: economically crippling it and making it a financially pointless institution. The constitution and details for this society had been put together by an interracial convention that supported Brown and his plans.

Brown not only dedicated his life to fighting slavery, but also to fighting the racism that persisted amongst the anti-slavery movement. Brown said that blacks were his “brothers and equals” – a statement that could get you in trouble during his time. In fact, these sorts of actions and beliefs did get Brown in trouble. He found himself loathed and disrespected by many in the abolitionist movement. Yet, Brown found himself a friend, associate, and partner with some of the most highly regard African Americans of his time – including Fredrick Douglas and Harriet Tubman.

Militancy

John Brown also opposed slavery so strongly that he took a militant stance against it. This was another thing that separated Brown from most other abolitionists. The abolitionist movement was mostly a peaceful movement, one that thought it could reason with slaveholders into politely ending the institution of slavery. John Brown balked at this notion, knowing that most slave-defenders would rather die than set their slaves free (as proven by the Civil War). John Brown knew that the only way to set slaves free would have to come through force.

Brown’s fight against slavery took on many faces and in many different arenas, but the two he is the most famous for are his involvement in “Bleeding Kansas” and the attack on Harpers Ferry. John Brown: The Cost of Freedom does an excellent job exploring the intricate roles he played in shaping the history of the United States in both Kansas and how his actions at Harpers Ferry may have helped secure the ending of slavery in the U.S.

I can’t hope to nearly do justice to the importance of John Brown’s impact on the United States here, for that you’ll need to read The Cost of Freedom. But Brown’s willingness to resort to militancy in both Kansas and at Harpers Ferry, even when the rest of the country was telling him it was wrong – both abolitionists and pro-slavery forces – can be an important example for us in today’s United States. John Brown is called a lot of things: a terrorist, a hack, insane, and crazy. Even Abraham Lincoln, who would eventually order Union troops to invade the South, said that Brown should suffer the “worst of punishments” for his willingness to resort to violence against the South in order to free the slaves. What he did, however, was stand up against a nation that would take years and even decades to catch up to his views on justice and equality.

Before his raid on Harpers Ferry, Brown formed a union with white allies, freedman, runaway slaves, underground railroad participants, slaves still on plantations, and others to wage a war on the institution of slavery and racism that the world had never seen before. Through the 1840’s and 50’s, Brown was planning his raid on Harpers Ferry – all while he was fighting pro-slavery gunmen in Kansas, conducting on the Underground Railroad, and trying to organize wool farmers. In fact, Brown’s plans were so well laid out, that he would have succeeded, if not for wanting to spare the lives of the slaveholders he caught at Harpers Ferry – and thus delaying his escape into the mountains with the hundreds of slaves that had joined him and his 18 men. Brown succeeded and failed in many intricate ways, and his eventual defeat at Harpers Ferry left his plans for a new and free society in ruins, but it also opened up a debate about how slavery could be justified and his actions left slave-defenders weakened and in a state of fear. Equally as important, however, after John Brown’s raid slave disobedience, rebellion, and runaways exploded to unprecedented levels.

John Brown: The Cost of Freedom, by Louis A. DeCaro Jr., is a short (about 100 pages of text, 10 pages of pictures, and 20 some pages of letters from John Brown) and important read. John Brown’s life and image would eventually be distorted in the world, but he is one of the most important figures in American history. Brown is one of those few individuals who was willing to stand up against a nation for a sense of what was right. He reigns as an important person to learn from in American history, right alongside others such as Harriet Tubman and Malcolm X.

EDIT: For more good reading on John Brown, see James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me. Also, the audio for this report will be available soon.

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6 responses to “Spotlights In Liberation History, Vol. 1 – John Brown

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful review. Please check out my blog at:
    http://abolitionist-john-brown.blogspot.com/
    There are links to John Brown sites, including links to see my first book on Brown, on NYU Press.

    Regards,
    Lou D.

  2. Congratulations on joining WordPress. Good people. Substantive comments.

    I appreciate the scholarship on John Brown represented in Lou DeCaro’s biographies. As a documentarian (aka nitpicker) his facts are checked and rechecked — and then presented with an advocacy point of view which holds up.

    We read so much indignation about the murders of five proslavery settlers on the Pottowatomie Creek in Kansas in May 1856. The Reverend DeCaro does not shrink from this. He asks: what would make religious and justice-seeking people like the Browns and their neighbors to fight violence with violence?

    Likewise, he does not shrink from presenting enslaved African Americans as seekers of liberty. Did John Brown really ask the local people to rise and take up arms with him? Outnumbered ten to one in the town and countryside? Did he ask them to massacre slaveholders? No. He did not ask for suicide — even though he took that risk himself and asked his own young sons to stand the storm which they did not survive.

    Lou DeCaro’s biographies of John Brown are food for thought, and for thinking.

  3. Thanks for the fine review! Book is
    available at above website, or Amazon.
    com. 978-0-7178-0742-0 $14.00

  4. Why did john Brown come all the way to canada to talk to Harriet Tubman? Why was she so important to him?

    • Diosmary,

      This is late in coming, but Brown sought Harriet Tubman in Canada in part because of her reputation and also because he was generally seeking black support in Canada. Of course, in 1858, Harriet was not the widely known legend that she is today, but she was known among antislavery people in the field and Brown admired her and knew she could be a key player in enlisting black support and assisting him in Virginia. So she was valuable both as a potential ally and as a means of reaching other blacks, who knew her first and best. Little is known about Brown’s brief but extensive foray in Canada West (Ontario) in 1858. I have a chapter about it coming out in a book called The Fluid Frontier. Best wishes-Louis DeCaro Jr.

  5. With all the sites out there with content on them with a ton of junk it’s nice to find a blog whose admin takes the time to create good material. Appreciate for the good article.

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