This Day in History: John Brown’s Body

December 2, 1859 – John Brown is hanged

1846 Portrait of John Brown
Daguerrotype of John Brown (ca. 1846) – Wikimedia

I tend to sympathize with the many those historians who dislike slavery and John Brown, in that order. [I’m going to backtrack a bit here — I’m quickly realizing that I’m just an amateur when it comes to this aspect of US history; I ought not to make such grandiose historiographical claims, since plenty of recent scholars think Brown has been misunderstood, or are actually sympathetic to him] However awful the institution he sought to destroy by force of arms, however just the cause of abolition, it’s hard for me to embrace a self-proclaimed prophet who chose to “regulate matters” in “Bleeding Kansas” by abducting five pro-slavery settlers in May 1856 and, in James McPherson’s terse description, “coolly split open their skulls with broadswords. An eye for an eye” (Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 153). I suppose you could aver that atrocities were committed on both sides, that this was simply the nature of Kansas’s proto-Civil War, except that several of Brown’s own soldiers refused to take part once they learned his murderous intentions.

As for his October 1859 attempt to take Harper’s Ferry… If Abraham Lincoln was a good judge of character, we ought not to valorize Brown. Here’s a telling section from Lincoln’s famous speech at Cooper Union, given four months after the Harper’s Ferry raid:

John Brown’s effort was peculiar. It was not a slave insurrection. It was an attempt by white men to get up a revolt among slaves, in which the slaves refused to participate. In fact, it was so absurd that the slaves, with all their ignorance, saw plainly enough that it could not succeed. That affair, in its philosophy, corresponds with the many attempts, related in history, at the assassination of kings and emperors. An enthusiast broods over the oppression of a people till he fancies himself commissioned by Heaven to liberate them. He ventures the attempt, which ends in little else than his own execution. (emphasis mine)

Of course, however much candidate Lincoln, in a speech designed primarily to elucidate his views on slavery, tried to distance himself and the Republican Party from the events of Harper’s Ferry, he eventually won election in part because John Brown’s arrest and execution had provoked such strong feelings in the North, where Brown was lionized by abolitionists like Samuel Gridley Howe and his more famous wife, Julia Ward Howe.

In a recent post at the New York Times‘ excellent Disunion blog, R. Blakeslee Gilpin considered the striking parallels between the lyrics of the song “John Brown’s Body” and Julia Ward Howe’s enduring “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which borrowed the tune of the former. Gilpin points out that the Howes had known Brown since the 1850s, and Samuel helped to bankroll the Harper’s Ferry attack. Indeed, Gilpin notes that Julia

likened Brown to “Christ [for] willingly offer[ing] his life for the salvation of mankind.” On one of Brown’s visits to her home in Boston, Howe “beheld a middle-aged, middle-sized man, with hair and beard of amber color, streaked with gray. He looked a Puritan of the Puritans, forceful concentrated, and self-contained.”

1859 Portrait of John Brown
Another 1859 daguerrotype of John Brown – Library of Congress

In this sense, Brown did not merely mirror Christ’s sacrifices; to Howe and others, he came to resemble Jesus physically. Before the raid, Brown’s Boston supporters excitedly circulated a photographic print by J.B. Heywood in which Brown appears as a white-bearded and regal patriarch. Reprinted in cartes-de-visites, frontispieces and lithographs, this three-quarters portrait was widely distributed throughout the late 1850s.

Captured in Virginia as the violent instigator of an invasion to destroy slavery, behind bars, Brown became a saint, a man of words and principle, not bayonets and violence. When news of Brown’s raid made the papers in October 1859, this martyrdom became even more explicit. In her autobiography, Howe invoked Victor Hugo’s assessment of Brown. “The death of John Brown would thenceforth hallow the scaffold,” she wrote, “even as the death of Christ had hallowed the cross.”

For his own part, Brown compared himself frequently to Christ and sought out the chance at martyrdom, telling his brother that “I am worth inconceivably more to hang than for any other purpose.” Yet his Christ was certainly not the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount. As McPherson writes (and he, like many, draws heavily on Stephen Oates’ 1970 biography), Brown “had never shared the commitment of most abolitionists to nonviolence. Not for him was the Christ-like martyrdom of Uncle Tom. Brown’s God was the Jehovah who drowned Pharaoh’s mercenaries in the Red Sea; his Jesus was the angry man who drove money-changers from the temple” (Battle Cry of Freedom, pp. 202-203).

And maybe that’s what bothers me so much about John Brown. I’m not a Christian pacifist; I believe that violence can (rarely) be justified as a necessary evil, and I’m pretty close to certain that the Civil War was one of those evils. But I can appreciate the peace witness far more than one that so lustily celebrates violence. (McPherson points out that Brown’s favorite Bible verse was Hebrews 9:22 — “Without shedding of blood there is no remission of sin.”)

Still, however little his bloodlust enthuses me, I can understand that Brown tapped into an understanding of the relationship between violence and justice that resonated strongly with freed slaves like Brown’s colleague Frederick Douglass.

1856 Portrait of Frederick Douglass
Portrait of Frederick Douglass from 1856 – National Portrait Gallery

Writing on the theme of killing in the Civil War, Drew Gilpin Faust observes how “Vengeance and retribution played a prominent place in blacks’ understanding of the rationale for the war’s destructiveness, as well as for the violent acts of individual men.” The best representative of “this notion of fitting retribution” was Douglass, who claimed to have discouraged Brown from his ill-fated attempt to start an uprising in 1859 (here’s the relevant chapter in Douglass’ postwar memoir), but who nonetheless

understood the centrality of violence to slavery from his own experience in bondage. He had been beaten, he had fought back, and he had fled; he retained few illusions about the likelihood of white southerners giving up their peculiar institution without a desperate struggle. Douglass believed he had reclaimed his own “manly independence” by fighting and overcoming the brutal white overseer Covey. In Douglass’s view, slaves had the absolute right to rise up and kill their masters, and his sympathy for John Brown had arisen from this premise. Douglass embraced a redemptive as well as an instrumental view of bloodshed; violence was not simply effective but instructive and liberating. The war’s brutality, he wrote, served as a “blazing illustration” of the fundamental truth that “there is no more exemption for nations than for individuals from the just retribution due to flagrant and persistent transgression.” But the Civil War’s “tears and blood,” he believed, “may at last bring us to our senses.” (This Republic of Suffering, pp. 52-53, emphasis mine)

What do you think? Can violence have a redemptive purpose? Was John Brown a prophetic (or messianic) figure?


3 thoughts on “This Day in History: John Brown’s Body

    1. Not entirely sure, Michial. There’s probably enormous cognitive dissonance there that I don’t fully recognize because I know so little about Turner. (For one, whether he conceived of himself in a prophetic or messianic way. To me, that’s what’s at the heart of my instinctive dislike for Brown. About whom, it’s probably clear, I also know just enough to be dangerous.) Like I wrote in the closing section, I find the embrace of “redemptive violence” by someone who had directly suffered the violence of slavery easier to understand, though still disturbing.

  1. Well, Jesus our Redeemer was violently crucified. However, no other man (including John Brown) is capable of being a redeemer as Christ was. Even Peter recognized his unworthiness to be crucified in like manner as his Redeemer and thus was martyred upside down.

    You mentioned Uncle Tom, but not his creator — Harriet Beecher Stowe or the Beecher family. Not only did northern abolitionists lionize Brown, they helped him. Henry Ward Beecher (Harriet’s brother and famous pastor of Brooklyn) sent Sharp’s rifles to Kansas to aid in the bloodshed. He felt it was his Christian duty. There were a few Bibles laid on top of the cargo (perhaps to hide what was really inside) but the bulk of the shipments were rifles which as you probably know came to be called “Beecher’s Bibles.” There is still a church in Wabaunsee, KS called Beecher Bible and Rifle Church and nearby is a monument to their efforts.

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