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John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed…
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John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil…

by David S. Reynolds

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    Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks (sipthereader)
    sipthereader: An historical fiction account of John Brown's life told from the perspective of his son.
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Being born and raised in Kansas, it is perhaps no surprise that I've always thought the struggle for Kansas's status as a free or slave state was a significant part of what brought about the Civil War. But in an era when Confederate flag enthusiasts are suddenly insisting that the Civil War wasn't fought over slavery, it was high time I finally read this book my father had lent me about Brown, and the events sparking the Civil War.

(Spoiler alert: My dad isn't getting this book back.)

I loved this book. And it quickly became a refuge for me in a year of partisan election year bickering and mass shootings and too frequent news of black people being shot by the police. It was odd to me how intensely fond I became of Brown, even though I've never been a fan of Calvinism, and what religious feelings I do have urge me towards pacifism. Reynolds makes a strong case here for Brown as the first non-racist white American. To oppose slavery not just because it is happening to some poor creature, but because it was happening to your brother -- is it any wonder he ended up taking up arms?

While racism against black people is certainly the cause we most associate with Brown, his radicalism went much further. In planning for the possibility that his assault on southern slave-holding states could lead to the dissolution of the government, Brown and a council of his carefully gathered community wrote a new constitution that established the full equality of all people -- blacks, Indians, women.

I also appreciated this style of "cultural biography," which examined the cultures that shaped Brown, and then how he transcended and transformed those cultures. Like any excellent book, I am left wanting to know much more -- about the Transcendentalists, about Whitman, about Lincoln, etc., etc. ( )
  greeniezona | Dec 6, 2017 |
Being born and raised in Kansas, it is perhaps no surprise that I've always thought the struggle for Kansas's status as a free or slave state was a significant part of what brought about the Civil War. But in an era when Confederate flag enthusiasts are suddenly insisting that the Civil War wasn't fought over slavery, it was high time I finally read this book my father had lent me about Brown, and the events sparking the Civil War.

(Spoiler alert: My dad isn't getting this book back.)

I loved this book. And it quickly became a refuge for me in a year of partisan election year bickering and mass shootings and too frequent news of black people being shot by the police. It was odd to me how intensely fond I became of Brown, even though I've never been a fan of Calvinism, and what religious feelings I do have urge me towards pacifism. Reynolds makes a strong case here for Brown as the first non-racist white American. To oppose slavery not just because it is happening to some poor creature, but because it was happening to your brother -- is it any wonder he ended up taking up arms?

While racism against black people is certainly the cause we most associate with Brown, his radicalism went much further. In planning for the possibility that his assault on southern slave-holding states could lead to the dissolution of the government, Brown and a council of his carefully gathered community wrote a new constitution that established the full equality of all people -- blacks, Indians, women.

I also appreciated this style of "cultural biography," which examined the cultures that shaped Brown, and then how he transcended and transformed those cultures. Like any excellent book, I am left wanting to know much more -- about the Transcendentalists, about Whitman, about Lincoln, etc., etc. ( )
  greeniezona | Dec 1, 2017 |
I read this very fine book written by David Reynolds. I won't repeat what others have said in an effort to tell the story. Instead, I prefer to share my reactions.
About John Brown, the author penned these words" When I was in high school, in the mid-1960s, my senior-year history book devoted only a dismissive paragraph to Brown. Back then, he wasn't so much a speed bump as road kill—a stinking skunk on history's highway. Brown was widely viewed as a homicidal maniac with a delusional plan for ending slavery.
In recent decades, Brown's reputation has improved, as historians have learned to value his dedication to eradicating slavery, his progressive attitudes on race and his perception that violence alone could uproot the South's peculiar institution."
I believe my school history lessons were very similar. John Brown did not register for me then, but I clearly have him firmly ensconced in memory today. I chose him because of another book authored by Reynolds, "Mightier Than The Sword" . Initially I began on Brown with a reading of "Midnight Rising," by Tony Horwitz. I rated that book highly, but wanted more. So I turned to this "older" book by Reynolds. I was not disappointed.
Reynolds book was far superior to the one by Tony Horwitz. There was so much more background and historical information to grasp, and that just made the story of Brown such a compelling read.
What simply amazes me is how John Brown was such a significant figure in events leading up to the Civil War in particular, and yet all my history teachings were practically devoid of his mention. If you do not know the massive role Brown played in our history, like me, you will by the time you read this book.
I find it frightening to now learn what I should have learned so many years ago. And truly, I wonder how much history I missed because of choices made by our educational system in deciding what was worthy and what could be just touched upon.
John Brown, like Abraham Lincoln was far more significant in death than in life. Unlike Lincoln, Brown was nearly forgotten.
Yet in 1860, John Brown was known far and wide, and a major topic of discussion by presidential candidates, Congress, literary leaders such as Emerson, Thoreau , and Whitman, and he was widely loved and widely hated, depending on your political views. His career led to widespread fear and violence in the South, and he was a major factor that strengthened the succession movement by the South. It was soon after his death in 1859 that the South did leave the Union and began the Civil War.
When you speak of John Brown, you speak about the Abolitionist movement. Brown was in the company of many who spoke the pretty words opposing slavery. Brown concluded, and I think rightfully so, that it was all words, no action. Congress proved to be wimpy on the issue, passing the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Fugitive Slave Act, both of which endorsed continuation of slavery.
John Brown decided that he would do something to end slavery. And though he failed, he gave his life in doing so. He became a martyr to the cause.Brown said the problem of slavery could only be resolved by blood. And like it or not, he was totally right. It cost us 600,000 + lives to settle the slavery issue, and another 100+ years to end the equal but separate slavery.
I cannot say enough good things about this book. It truly has made a lasting impact my life. I salute the author for his tremendous contribution.
  Journey21 | Feb 20, 2012 |
David S. Reynolds, a professor of English and American Studies at Baruch College of the City University of New York and an expert on the cultural scene in 19th century U.S., published a 2005 account of John Brown’s life and role in U.S. history. This is important with Obama claiming the mantle of Lincoln as a champion of civil rights and seeking to contain the aspirations of the oppressed within the framework of this capitalist system.

Born in 1800, John Brown was a devout follower of the Puritan Calvinist tradition who made friends with native Americans and escaped slaves during his youth. By the 1830s the anti-slavery cause had become Brown’s burning passion. He was active in the underground railroad and in fighting discrimination against Blacks in Ohio. By 1856, he had became convinced that the newly formed “anti-slavery” Republican Party and other politicians and church officials would not stand firmly to fight slavery and he began to recruit people of all persuasions willing to fight slavery. Reynolds contrasts Brown with other prominent abolitionists of the day as being the only one committed to thoroughly unleashing and arming the slaves to fight for their own liberation. He says that Brown’s program for emancipating the slaves may have been influenced by utopian socialist views that were prevalent in 1850s U.S. society.

Brown got his main financial and logistical support from people associated with the Transcendentalists including Thoreau and Emerson, who were at the time the most prominent intellectuals in the U.S. One from this group, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, would later lead a Black regiment in the war as dramatized in the movie “Glory”. How many people know that Thoreau and Higginson were the only prominent people in the U.S. to defend the Harpers Ferry Raid in its immediate aftermath? Reynolds describes how developments in the political sphere, including the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, greatly radicalized progressive intellectuals. “Between 1846, when President James Polk launched the Mexican War, and 1855, after various proslavery laws had been passed, the Transcendentalists’ animus against the government, strong from the start, intensified into revolutionary anarchism” (page 224). By 1859, the Secret Six, Massachusetts intellectuals closely associated with the Transcendentalist movement, were ready to provide Brown with the financial and logistical support he needed to pull off his Harpers Ferry raid, in which 22 men including 2 Blacks attacked and seized a federal arsenal with several people on both sides of the battle getting killed. By the time the Civil War broke out a year and a half later, John Brown had become a cultural icon galvanizing the troops as they marched into battle singing the John Brown battle hymn. These radical shifts in the orientation of people like Thoreau regarding a war to end slavery offer a good lesson in how the development of a constitutional crisis can open up revolutionary opportunities, with the ruling class seeking to utilize such a crisis to perfect its state apparatus which is what happened in this case.

Reynolds argues that the Civil War would probably have been delayed for about 20 years if it had not been for the role that John Brown played. “Not only was the slave trade coming back, but slavery had become more profitable... The South’s ever stronger faith in slavery would have inevitably come into conflict with the North’s effort to stop its spread.”(page 441) But Brown and his followers and supporters opposed slavery on moral grounds and were not great admirers of the capitalist system in the North, so they were not paralyzed by fear of a war’s destructiveness to profitability, unlike both capitalists and slaveholders in the 1850s. Reynolds points out that prior to Brown’s raid on pro-slavery settlers in Osawatomie, Kansas, most Southerners considered the Northerners to be cowardly and not much of a threat, afterwards a dynamic of paranoia and war preparations started to set in.

Brown’s plan was to raid the federal armory at Harpers Ferry and simultaneously raid the nearby farm of a grandson of George Washington, freeing his slaves and recruiting freed slaves into the band of guerrilla warriors who would then retreat into the Appalachian mountains, continuing to raid farms and trying to spark a slave insurrection. Probably in part because most of Lewis Washington’s slaves were not inclined to join the insurrection, Brown decided to dally at Harpers Ferry, where he and his band of warriors fought off a siege until all were killed, captured or escaped. His letters and interviews from jail, his trial and execution by hanging were at the center of controversy swirling around the issue of slavery in the fall of 1859 and into 1860 after his execution.

In 1860 the Republican Party and the northern capitalists generally were still in favor of soothing Southern fears of an abolitionist invasion. And the majority of southern slaveholders and politicians were not in favor of secession. But Virginia politician Edmund Ruffin led a campaign to whip up secessionist sentiments playing on Southern fears of an abolitionist invasion, citing John Brown’s Harper’s Ferry raid and his earlier Oswatomie raid in Kansas as evidence of the imminence of such an invasion. These facts indicate that John Brown played a decisive role in sparking the war.

Reynolds examines John Brown’s legacy, in particular his influence on Black intellectuals such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Malcolm X. After the period of reconstruction, Brown was again relegated to the status of the criminal or insane by mainstream politicians and historians, as he had been before the war broke out. Only Black nationalist intellectuals and more progressive, socialist or anarchist inclined individuals continued to uphold his role in sparking the civil war and bringing an end to slavery.

The outbreak and conduct of the Civil War was greatly influenced by cultural issues of the day concentrated in John Brown and his supporters. In early 1864 the war was not going well, leading to divisions in the ruling class in the North. A change in strategy was called for. “In all three areas - emancipation, black enlistment, and Sherman-like fighting - John Brown had influence. A group of Brown’s supporters were the earliest and strongest advocates of emancipation early in the war... Followers of Brown led the way in raising Black troops.”(page 472) “David Hunter was the first of Lincoln’s generals who resembled Brown in his approach to war. Appointed the head of the Department of the South in 1862, Hunter said that Brown was ‘well known to me in Kansas.’ With Hunter, as with Brown, the aim of war was to liberate blacks, through extreme violence if necessary.”(page 475) In campaigns later in the war, including Sherman’s march to the sea and up the coast, the Union army aimed to destroy much civilian property in its path as well, and in guerrilla warfare waged by both sides in some border states “both Union and confederate troops committed atrocities against civilians that made Pottawatomie seem tame.” Reynolds argues that involving liberated slaves in guerrilla warfare as Brown had envisioned might have helped the Union army win faster. Northern capitalists obviously preferred to break the back of the slave owners’ resistance without unleashing fully the revolutionary potential of the slaves. If, as Reynolds argues, the war broke out when it did and not 20 years later and the Northern troops drew inspiration to fight and win due to the role of John Brown, this book is worth learning from.

-reviewed 7-30-10 by Nick, submitted 9-30-10 by Nick upon Phred's request, edited 11-12-10 by Phred Greenpea
  RevolutionBooks | Nov 12, 2010 |
This is the first "Cultural History" that I have read. And I liked it a lot.

This book is more than a biography, or history, of John Brown. This book places Brown in the cultrual context of his times. It is more than his life's story, or what he did and when. This book is about what John Brown meant, and why what he did meant what it did, and to whom.

Absolutely fascinating book. I really enjoyed the cultural aspects of this man's life, both while he was alive, and after his death. It will make you think. Hard.

I give this book the highest praise possible. ( )
  Bill_Masom | May 21, 2010 |
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To Suzanne and Haig, for their encouragement and support.
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One of the most symbolic events of the Civil War occurred in a mansion.
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John Brown, the controversial Abolitionist who used terrorist tactics against slavery, single-handedly changed the course of American history. This biography by critic and cultural biographer Reynolds brings to life the Puritan warrior who gripped slavery by the throat and triggered the Civil War. When does principled resistance become anarchic brutality? How can a murderer be viewed as a heroic freedom fighter? The case of John Brown opens windows on these timely issues. Reynolds demonstrates that Brown's most violent acts--his slaughter of unarmed citizens in Kansas, his liberation of slaves in Missouri, and his dramatic raid, in October 1859, on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia--were inspired by the slave revolts, guerrilla warfare, and revolutionary Christianity of the day. He shows us how Brown seized the nation's attention, creating sudden unity in the North and infuriating the South. He reveals the true depth of Brown's achievement: not only did Brown spark the war that ended slavery, but he planted the seeds of the civil rights movement by making a pioneering demand for complete social and political equality for America's ethnic minorities.… (more)

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