The thoroughly American soul of John Brown

His use of violence at Harpers Ferry may have been abhorrent -- but it wasn't necessarily aberrant

Published June 12, 2011 10:01PM (EDT)

With the official government killing of Osama bin Laden last month, the issue of using violence in a good cause has once again surfaced. "Justice has been done," said President Obama as he announced bin Laden's death by a team of Navy SEAL operatives. Americans reacted, American-style, with bibulous celebrations in Times Square and, more quietly, with feelings of relief and contemplation. Some of that contemplation included the question: Did the United States have the moral authority to assassinate bin Laden, no matter how much evil he had committed?

Personally, I don't have a straightforward answer to that question, but I can tell you as a historian that the connections between violence and terrorism and our country's long history of responding to violence with violence always leads me to think about John Brown and his raid on Harpers Ferry, Va. (now West Virginia), in 1859, an event that historians believe intensified the sectional controversy between North and South that eventually led to the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861. And when I think about John Brown, a radical abolitionist who believed that violence could -- and should -- be used to end slavery in America, I can't help also thinking about the place he raided, Harpers Ferry -- one of the most peaceful, scenic spots in the entire United States.

There is a great incongruity between John Brown's use and advocacy of violence and the bucolic tranquillity of the place he attacked. Harpers Ferry is a beautiful place where some terrible history took place. But unlike other historic sites, like, say, Lexington and Concord (note to Michele Bachmann: These towns are in Massachusetts; note to Sarah Palin: Paul Revere rode from Boston to warn the Minute Men in Lexington and Concord that the redcoats were coming to confiscate the colonists' muskets and powder), Harpers Ferry has never gained the stature of sacred American soil. In part, I think that's because the now-restored village suffers from the legacy of John Brown's morally twisted and befuddling attempt to use violence in the name of ending slavery, as good a cause as existed in the middle of the 19th century. We like our history simple. At Harpers Ferry, one must confront a moral dilemma: Is violence ever justified in removing evil from the world?

Even if Harpers Ferry cannot qualify as a hallowed historic site per se, it has much to say about the American experience. Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and the surviving modern town adjacent to it are nestled in the deep shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains on a sharp point of land that juts out between the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. History flows through Harpers Ferry, just as it does along the mighty currents of the two famous rivers that come together just below the town.

There is no denying its physical beauty, which is as breathtaking today as it was in Thomas Jefferson's day. Jefferson called it "one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature." Resting at the foot of the surrounding blue hills and massive stone cliffs, which create stunning contrasts of shade and light across the face of the town, Harpers Ferry is an absolute wonder to behold. But there is also something quite unsettling about the place. The brooding ruins of old factories and the empty stone shells of dilapidated buildings (the town was burned during the Civil War), the endless force of the rivers as they flow mightily or gently (depending on the season) by the town, the abundant signs of devastation caused by repeated floods over the years, the now-silent landmarks associated with John Brown and his abortive raid on the armory and arsenal in 1859, and the tragic reminders of a town caught between contending armies in the Civil War -- all of these things create an ominous tone, an atmosphere of gloom, that the scenic splendor of Harpers Ferry cannot be entirely offset.

Perhaps it is because the town is so vulnerable to destruction, even today. In 1996, two floods -- one in January and the other in September -- inundated the lower town, where most of the park's property is located, with more than 29 feet of water each time. Since the town's founding, freshets have disturbed its tranquillity and productivity. In the years before John Brown's raid, floods routinely interrupted work at the U.S. armory, arsenal and rifle works. After the Civil War, high water continued to disrupt the town and the lives of its residents. An autumn flood in 1870 claimed 42 lives and caused incalculable damage. Nowadays, when the floods come and the waters finally recede, the National Park Service must close down the park and, in the aftermath of the rushing waters, take up the job once more of reconstructing buildings and exhibits that had previously been refurbished to perfection. Even with flood control upriver, there is no stopping the power of nature at Harpers Ferry.

But the menacing feeling that always seems to be below the surface at Harpers Ferry goes beyond a human wariness of nature's unrelenting wrath. Underneath the natural beauty and fury, there is the more disturbing fact that this small town, this otherwise quiet hamlet resting in the soft cradle of the Blue Ridge Mountains, has had a very violent history. It was John Brown who brought violence to Harpers Ferry nearly 150 years ago, and in so doing he changed the character and the significance of the place forever.

My first impression of John Brown came in my youth, when I first saw a startling painting of him in the pages of American Heritage magazine. The original portrait, part of a huge mural painted by John Steuart Curry in the Kansas Capitol, shows a wild, crazed man, wide-eyed and wind-blown, with arms outstretched. (It's the image at the top of this story.) Behind him a dark tornado sweeps across the Kansas plains. Brown's mouth is open, and he is howling something -- heaven knows what. I found the picture unnerving and downright frightening, which no doubt was Curry's intention. At the age of 10, I decided that Brown would not be included in my private pantheon of American heroes.

Later I began to struggle with that decision. In another issue of American Heritage, I came upon yet another painting of Brown, this one showing an entirely different fellow. The illustration is a famous one, painted by Thomas Hovenden, depicting Brown as he leaves the jailhouse in Charlestown, Va., on Dec. 2, 1859, on his way to the gallows:


As he descends some stairs, an African-American mother lifts her baby up to him, and he, in response, leans over to kiss the child. This scene never actually happened. A New York Tribune reporter, taking a great deal of journalistic license, included the fictional baby-kissing story in a dispatch, and the story became quickly embedded in the John Brown legend.

The contrasting pictures graphically demonstrate that two different John Browns have come down to us since the time of his famous raid on Harpers Ferry and his execution by the Commonwealth of Virginia for treason in December 1859. During his own lifetime, some Americans, especially Southerners and proslavery sympathizers, called him crazy, a madman who had hoped to incite slave rebellions throughout the South. In our own day, Brown still stirs up controversy and sets people -- especially historians -- at odds with one another. Yet among one group of Americans -- African-Americans -- there seems to be a consensus about John Brown that exists among no other segment of the society. For black Americans, John Brown is a hero, and ever since his death they have sustained their high opinion of him and have elevated him to a place occupied by few whites. "When John Brown stretched forth his arm the sky was cleared," wrote Frederick Douglass, a former slave who became an indefatigable advocate for black civil rights during and after the Civil War. "He was," said Douglass, "a just man and true." A century later, Malcolm X proclaimed to his fellow blacks:

John Brown ... was a white man who went to war against white people to help free slaves. And any white man who is ready and willing to shed blood for your freedom -- in the sight of other whites, he's nuts.

John Brown has become the stuff of legend as well as history, and it is the legend more than anything else that captures our imagination and furnishes us with the two John Browns, one violent and villainous, one benevolent and heroic. There is, however, more to it than that. Legend or not, something deep down in our American soul truly shocks us about the man, like the way that the mural portrait of him as an avenging angel made my hair stand on end as a kid. John Brown disturbs us so much, so powerfully, that we want to explain him away -- as quickly as possible. A more famous photograph of him, taken in the spring of 1859, just a few months before the Harpers Ferry raid, suggests why we feel so much uneasiness about him:


Take one look into his eyes. There's fire in them, more than in the discomforting Curry painting, and his riveting eyes are something you can neither avoid nor ever forget. In that disquieting stare something much clearer than his mental state is immediately evident. You can see this is a man of deadly purpose.

D.H. Lawrence once wrote that "the essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer." Indeed, a deep river of violence runs throughout the American experience, and it cannot be ignored or avoided. Not every American, to be sure, fits Lawrence's brutal description, but there is a strain in us that lets us denounce the violence that besets our society while we passively tolerate it. To a great extent, our own ambivalence is a lot like what one sees and senses in modern Harpers Ferry: To the naked eye, all is serene and resplendent; beneath it is that disquieting feeling of doom. The reality of nature's violence lives in Harpers Ferry, and so does the legacy of human violence. With the zeal of a true believer, for he was convinced that God ordered and condoned his actions, John Brown took up the sword and used it ruthlessly and bloodily -- and, it must be said, without giving much contemplation to what he was doing or to the malevolence he was spreading. His violence seemed almost instinctive and reflexive, like the violence that leads troubled souls to shoot random victims in a shopping mall or on a college campus. John Brown was convinced that his righteous cause justified his violent means, just as religious terrorists down through time and now, in our own uneasy age, have shed blood in the name of their gods and prophets.

Perhaps that is why many Americans, in the wake of the Harpers Ferry raid, believed Brown was insane. A good number of historians have also argued that Brown must have been crazy -- or, at the very least, chronically depressed or a manic depressive. But in doing so they miss a vital point beyond Malcolm X's discerning comment about why whites think Brown was nuts. Brown's use of violence in the sectional controversy over slavery may have been abhorrent, but it was not necessarily aberrant. Like H. Rap Brown, another African-American militant of the 1960s, John Brown knew that violence was as American as cherry pie.

But we would prefer to think that Brown was insane or bipolar or maybe emotionally challenged because it is far too horrifying to acknowledge that Brown sprang from a long tradition of American violence and that he was, in so many respects, a product of the American soul. Americans tend to deny that violence is in our soul, for though we understand that much of our past has been filled with violence, and that much of our present is torn apart by violence, we find it very difficult to face up to the fact that we are, in the end, a very violent people and that aggression may be found at the very core of our experience as a people and a nation. We think of ourselves as an eminently peaceful people. We deny that D.H. Lawrence looked with any kind of clarity into our soul.

John Brown attracts us and repels us at the same time, but what we are most reluctant to admit is that his actions, and particularly his violent deeds, were -- and are -- quintessentially American. In that sense, then, what we cannot face is that John Brown is not an aberration. What we truly cannot face is that John Brown is us.

By Glenn W. LaFantasie

Glenn W. LaFantasie is the Richard Frockt Family Professor of Civil War History at Western Kentucky University. He is working on a book about Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant.

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