The Man who Haunts America

John Brown, the abolitionist firebrand, remains a potent figure in the United States’ febrile politics of race.

John Brown, c.1856 © Getty Images.

David Blight, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, once wrote that as ‘long as we have a politics of race in America, we will have a politics of Civil War memory’. He could just as easily have written that, as long as the United States has a politics of race, its politics will continue to be haunted by the ghost of John Brown. 

Tall, gaunt and with piercing eyes, John Brown launched his raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia on the night of 16 October 1859. The plan was for Brown and his gang of anti slavery guerrillas to storm the town, seize its federal arsenal, distribute weapons to the enslaved and lead what Brown hoped would become the largest slave insurrection in American history. A spectacularly stupid and poorly designed plan, the raid failed almost as soon as it started. Not only did Brown fail to free a single slave, but most of his men died in a shootout at the arsenal, where he was taken alive and charged with inciting a rebellion against the state. Brown was hanged a little more than two months later. 

For many Americans of the time Brown was already something of a minor celebrity. Before he was John Brown of Harper’s Ferry, he was Osawatomie John Brown of Kansas. From 1855, during a year-long conflict known as ‘Bleeding Kansas’, Brown led a band of free-state vigilantes that roamed the territory attacking pro-slavery squatters. In what is now known as the Pottawattamie Creek Massacre, he and his men, who included several of his sons and members of a group known as the ‘Pottawatomie Rifles’, struck down five pro-slavery settlers with broadswords in response to the sacking of Lawrence by slave state ruffians. The attack raised his national profile and made him, in effect, a fugitive. 

Yet his exploits in Kansas and the raid on Harper’s Ferry notwithstanding, it was his subsequent trial and execution that gave us the John Brown of history. Remembered for his wild, thunderous eyes and his fierce, Old Testament zeal, Brown embraced his own martyrdom. He asked to be spared the mockery of a trial, saying he was ready for his fate. He wrote hundreds of letters defending his actions, in which he claimed that he was only trying to free slaves, which he believed was the work of the Lord. Brown continued to receive guests while in jail, which allowed him to talk with reporters and spread his militant anti-slavery message from behind bars. He even once reportedly refused a rescue attempt on the grounds that he was too old and was ready to die. His last words, scribbled on a note and handed to his executioner, were: ‘I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.’

Consequently, John Brown became an American sensation, a source of both fear and enchantment. Slaveholders reviled him; abolitionists wept for him, tolled bells in his honour and came to see him as a kind of sacrificial saint, a man who gave his life for the movement. Most, abolitionist or not, seemed to know that Brown would be of more significance dead than alive. Ralph Waldo Emerson, not necessarily an abolitionist, compared Brown’s hanging to Christ’s Crucifixion; Herman Melville described him as a portent, a ‘meteor of the war’. Just over a year after his disastrous raid, thousands of soldiers marched off to battle singing John Brown’s Body, the unofficial anthem of the Union army, which featured the refrain: ‘John Brown’s Body lay a-mouldering in the grave. His truth is marching on!’

March on it did. In the years following the Civil War, Brown stalked America’s cultural memory. Poets memorialised him, historians researched his life and ex-Confederates did their best to discredit him. Like most martyrs, he has never been laid to rest. Americans always seem to resuscitate him in response to the politics of the present. 

To W.E.B. Dubois, the African American intellectual and founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, whose biography of Brown appeared in 1909, his body represented the unfinished work of the war. Writing in the shadow of Jim Crow regimes and against the tide of ‘lost cause’ mythology, Dubois’ Brown was written as a counter-narrative, reminding Americans that the kind of interracial radicalism Brown fought and died for had been sacrificed in the nation’s long retreat from Reconstruction. His Brown was a martyr on whose memory the country had turned its back. 

In the 1960s and 1970s a different Brown emerges. Civil rights activists such as Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael traded John Brown the martyr for John Brown the militant. His body was less an example of America’s failed promise than it was a living, breathing embodiment of the nation’s long history of revolutionary violence in the face of white oppression. The Weather Underground, a radical anti-racist, anti-imperialist militant group formed out of America’s New Left, even titled its short-lived quarterly magazine Osawatomie in homage to both Brown and his mission.

The myth continues to evolve. Last year the US broadcaster Showtime released its adaptation of novelist James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, which chronicles Brown’s raid through the eyes of a young African American boy named Little Onion. Satirical and deeply irreverent, the Brown of The Good Lord Bird lampoons the white saviour of mythology by turning the abolitionist firebrand into a parody of himself. It is not Brown but the enslaved who have the most to say and the most to lose in the fight against slavery – a veiled word of warning perhaps to the white wokeness of our current moment? 

John Brown never dies because he holds the country accountable for its history, its politics and its evolving relationship with race and white supremacy. His memory is a reckoning as much as an anthem. In 2021, as America – and the world – grapple with slavery’s long afterlife, one thing is clear: his ‘truth’ keeps marching on. 

 

Bennett Parten is a PhD candidate at Yale University.