Who Do We Think We Are?   /   Spring 2021   /    Notes & Comments

The Great Simplifier

If John Brown failed at anything, he failed at saving us from ourselves.

Mark Dunbar

Tragic Prelude (detail), 1940, mural of John Brown by John Steuart Curry (1897–1946); Kansas State Capitol, Topeka, Kansas.

Before emancipation, slavery was constitutional. That much was settled. But what, it was debated, were the founders’ intentions? Was the Constitution written in order for slavery to thrive or to wither? And what about the Declaration of Independence, with its promise that all were created equal before God? And even if slavery was constitutional, was it moral? Or, more precisely, was it biblically sanctioned? And what of free states and slave states? What were the obligations of the former when it came to the laws of the latter? Such was the legal and theological wrangling that consumed many American minds in the United States’ antebellum years. The mood of the country was for confrontation. But its mechanisms were for compromise—compromise that always left both sides even angrier and more disgusted than before. The country was simultaneously paranoid, apathetic, and confused. That is, until John Brown launched his crusade against slavery.

Brown was, if nothing else, a great simplifier. He was, as W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, “exasperatingly simple.” For Brown, slavery was evil and evil things should perish. No legal hairsplitting. No biblical exegesis. No political compromise. The Old Man was, as Russell Banks put it in his novel Cloudsplitter, “wonderfully clarifying.”

Recently, Brown has returned to the spotlight. Last fall, an adaptation of James McBride’s 2013 novel about him, The Good Lord Bird, aired on Showtime. And popular historian H.W. Brands’s latest book, The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American Freedom, juxtaposes Brown’s radicalism with Abraham Lincoln’s moderation on the matters of slavery and abolition.

Why this resurgent interest? Partly, I think, because we find ourselves in a similar condition to that of Brown’s contemporaries. The country’s mood is for confrontation, but our mechanisms are for compromise. We know there is a great divide. We know there is something to overcome. But what, exactly? We yearn for someone like John Brown, whose actions will define where the line is and which side we stand on.

Interestingly, it is with Brown’s clarifying simplicity that Brands seems to take particular issue. In The Zealot and the Emancipator, Brown is the radical heel; Lincoln, the moderate babyface. The question Brands asks in his book is, “What does a good man do when his country commits a great evil?” According to Brands, “Brown chose the path of violence. Lincoln of politics.” “But that isn’t true. Brown didn’t choose the path of violence. That was the path the country was already on. Nor is it true that Lincoln’s path of politics was somehow free of violence. There was a war, after all. As Howard Zinn wrote about the tragic continuity between Brown and Lincoln, “John Brown was hanged with federal complicity for attempting to do by small-scale violence what Lincoln would do by large-scale violence years later.” But for Brands, Brown and his followers were nothing but a “death squad”—a pejorative term intended to analogize Brown’s army to, say, the US–backed death squads in Latin America that raped women and murdered children.

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