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.

McBride’s handling of Brown is better than Brands’s, although not always much better. Like Brands, McBride seems to take issue with Brown’s most endearing quality (i.e., his clarifying simplicity). Some of this stems from the tension between McBride’s style and his subject. The Good Lord Bird is meant to be fun and cynical, inspired equally by Mark Twain’s slapstick Huckleberry Finn and the racial pessimism of today. But Brown was neither comical nor pessimistic. He was a serious and earnest man—with both social conviction and a tragic sense of life. Therefore, in order to make Brown fit into his novel, McBride has to make him something he wasn’t. The real John Brown knew the Bible better than anyone; McBride’s Brown is always shouting made-up or misquoted verses.

As others have noted, either in praise or criticism, a strain of racial pessimism runs through The Good Lord Bird. In the book, Little Onion—the narrator and a former slave—says of an abolitionist rally, “It was like a big, long lynching. Everybody got to make a speech about the Negro but the Negro.” The Showtime series cuts the first sentence—the definitive cruelty of a lynching, after all, wasn’t that only white people got to speak—but keeps the second. And there are multiple moments that insinuate that abolitionists and slavers had more in common than we would like to imagine. McBride’s Brown at one point says of himself that he’s no better than Little Onion’s former master: Both Onion’s former master and Brown dictated the terms of Onion’s existence. The master said Onion was a slave. Brown said he was free. But neither let Onion decide. (And Onion spends the first hundred or so pages of the book—and the first few episodes of the series—trying to escape Brown’s ostensible freedom and get back to the safe harbor of slavery.) For Brands, Brown’s simplicity was a vice. For McBride, it was a façade.

McBride is right to point out that there were ambiguities to slavery. But emphasizing the ambiguities is worthwhile only if doing so is part of a bolder and more sweeping message, one that shows the master-slave relationship as just another manifestation of what Lincoln called “the eternal struggle” between “the common right of humanity” and “the divine right of kings.” But that isn’t what McBride does. His ambiguity is ambiguity for its own sake—or, even worse, an expression of racial pessimism that, in the context of Brown’s time, comes across as objectively proslavery. In other words, as a wall rather than a bridge.

Where The Good Lord Bird and The Zealot and the Emancipator most significantly diverge is on whether Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry was a success or a failure. For Brands, following the Lost Cause–C. Vann Woodward school of thought, it was a failure. “The great cause of [Brown’s] life,” Brands writes, “had been a dismal failure. It hadn’t freed a single slave.” But for McBride, following the Frederick Douglass–Wendell Phillips school of thought, it was a success. As Phillips said shortly after Brown’s raid, “History will date Virginia emancipation from Harpers Ferry. True, the slave is still there. So when the tempest uproots a pine on your hills, it looks green for months, a year or two. Still, it is timber, not a tree. John Brown has loosened the roots of the slave system. It only breathes, it doesn’t live, hereafter.”

If Brown failed at anything, he failed at saving us from ourselves. In The Good Lord Bird, a former slave says to his former master, “He ain’t gonna save us. He’s trying to save you.” Brown thought slavery could be ended with much less violence than Lincoln used to end it. Brown thought abolition would require just a few slavers’ heads, a few runaways. He was, in purpose and outlook, the optimist and moderate. Not Lincoln.

Did that make Brown insane? Maybe. But he was not nearly as insane as those who thought a compromise on slavery was either good or possible. Brown might have had the soul of a madman, but the compromiser had the mind of one. Brown saw clearly and pragmatically that a compromise peace was nothing but a continuation of war on behalf of the master against the slave. That ambiguity might have seemed like an antidote to hysteria, but it was actually what let the disease fester. That it was, in fact, a kind of hysteria itself.