“The Legend of John Brown” by Jacob Lawrence

Editor’s note: Caleb McDaniel, who many of you (at least those of you familiar with internet traditions) may remember from modeforcaleb, joins us today for a guest post. Thanks, Caleb, for taking the time to do this. We really appreciate it.

One-hundred-and-forty-nine years ago today, the state of Virginia hung the militant abolitionist and Kansas Free State warrior, John Brown.

A month and a half earlier, Brown had led a band of twenty-two men, including three of his sons, in a daring–and disastrous–raid on the federal armory in Harpers Ferry in western Virginia, a raid intended as a direct strike on the institution of slavery within the South itself. Captured on October 18 and quickly tried by the state, a wounded Brown spent November in a jail cell in Charlestown, Virginia. Then, on December 2, he was escorted from his jail cell to the gallows. As he left the prison, he handed a note to his jailor predicting that more lives–many more–would be lost before slavery died: “I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood.” Barely one year later, South Carolina seceded from the Union, initiating a sequence of events that led to the American Civil War.

It is hard now to see Brown’s prediction on December 2, 1859, as anything other than remarkably prescient. Perhaps for that reason, too, many historians–including, most recently, David Reynolds–have seen Brown’s raid and subsequent execution as the final “spark” that lit the fuse that led to Civil War. Brown’s execution, on this view, opened the fault line that lay between the North and the South, revealing how wide was the social and political chasm that yawned between them. On the one hand, in the North, black abolitionists publicly proclaimed Brown a martyr and declared December 2 a “Day of Mourning,” while white intellectuals like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau compared Brown to Christ, to the applause of respectable Northern audiences. Brown, declared Emerson, made the “gallows as glorious as the cross.” Meanwhile, Southerners declared Brown a traitor and a demon, who intended to ignite a slave uprising that would terrorize the South. “Old ossawatomie Brown to be hanged at Charlestown for murder and insurrection,” wrote Virginia planter William Gwathmey in his diary on December 2, 1859: “wicked beast[ly] man.” Messiah or beast: these were the choices confronting Americans who tried to understand Brown’s death. It was a dilemma, as Brown apparently foresaw, that seemed to mean war.

Yet the causal connection between Brown’s execution and South Carolina’s secession is less straightforward than it might seem. True, Southerners tended to see Brown’s raid as representative of the murderous designs of abolitionists on their lives and livelihoods. But Southerners believed that about abolitionists long before the fall of 1859. True, Northerners who sympathized with Brown saw slavery–and, increasingly, the section that sustained it–as anathema to Christianity and American republicanism. But by 1858, after the Supreme Court had implied in the Dred Scott case that black men could not be recognized as citizens under the Constitution, there was already a growing belief, voiced by some of the leading politicians of the growing Republican Party, that the Union was a “house divided,” and that it could not forever remain divided into slave states and free states. Yet South Carolina did not secede in 1858, or in 1859, or in any of the previous moments after 1850 when Southern fire-eaters had threatened to leave the Union, but in December 1860–only after the election to the presidency of the man who had proclaimed the Union a divided house.

Brown’s execution did not immediately trigger secession and Civil War because, despite the large groups of people in both sections who embraced or denounced Brown as a martyr or a traitor, reactions to Brown’s execution did not always settle into predictable sectional patterns. True, Emerson compared Brown to Christ, but Emerson was never a “representative man” except, perhaps, in the very unrepresentative sense in which he used that phrase. Abraham Lincoln, who was more representative than Emerson of left-of-center Northern opinion in 1859, thought the best likeness of Brown was not Christ, but Felice Orsini, the Italian revolutionary who tried to assassinate the Emperor of France in 1858. “Orsini’s attempt on Louis Napoleon, and John Brown’s attempt at Harper’s Ferry were, in their philosophy, precisely the same,” Lincoln told an audience of Republicans at Cooper Union, about two months after Brown’s hanging: “An enthusiast broods over the oppression of a people till he fancies himself commissioned by Heaven to liberate them. He ventures the attempt, which ends in little else than his own execution.”

Lincoln at least agreed with Brown that slavery was wrong, but other Northerners–particularly in the Democratic Party–were even less charitable in their assessments of Brown and the meaning of his execution. “We rejoice that old BROWN has been hung,” declared a Democratic newspaper in Cincinnati the morning after his execution. “He was not only a murderer of innocent persons, but he attempted one of the greatest crimes against society — the stirring up of a servile and civil war. He has paid the penalty for his crimes, and we hope his fate may be a warning to all who might have felt inclined to imitate his aggressive conduct.” A Democratic newspaper in the land of Lincoln, Springfield, Illinois, agreed: “a scoundrel and traitor has paid the just penalty of the laws.” Many Northerners, even after Brown’s raid, clung to the hope that the Union and its present laws could be preserved, and their still very vocal presence helped stay the hand of fellow partisans in the South. It was not until 1860, when the Democratic Party splintered into sectional wings, assuring the victory of the Republicans in November, that such hopes were proven futile. Even then, it took months of war before the bulk of Northerners who rallied in defense of the Union would come to believe that in making war on the South they were also making war on slavery, completing the task for which “John Brown’s Body” had been laid down.

Brown’s execution, despite the confident prediction of his final written words, was thus an imperfect bellwether of Northern opinion on the whole. While a crucial link in the chain of events that led to secession and war, Brown’s execution also drew a brighter line between the Democratic and Republican parties than it did between the South and the North, and even then the line was blurred by the desire of Republican leaders like Lincoln to dissociate themselves from Brown the brooding “enthusiast.”

Brown’s execution on December 2 did, however, mark a deep and in some ways unbridgeable divide between the life of Brown and the legend of Brown. For after December 2, the polarizing images of Brown as either a Christlike savior or a devilish bandit rapidly came to loom larger than the man himself in the American memory. Since December 2, 1859, disentangling the life of Brown from the larger-than-life symbol he became has become an incredibly difficult–yet perpetually renewing and rewarding–task for his historians. (The difficulty is compounded by the fact that even before the sun set on December 2, 1859, apocryphal stories about Brown were already proliferating and insinuating themselves into the narrative about him, including the story–now known to be false–that Brown stooped to kiss a black child on his way to the gallows, a story immortalized in an 1859 poem, an 1863 painting and lithograph, another painting in 1867, another lithograph in 1870, and an engraving in 1885. This particular story, and others like it, quickly became enshrined as fact in hagiographic biographies of Brown, published soon after his execution, that modern scholars still often rely on to reconstruct Brown’s life.) Even on December 2, 2008, as a result, separating biography from commentary, evidence from eulogy, fact from interpretation, remains a tricky task. John Brown’s body lies a’moldering in the grave, but the symbolism surrounding him is still marching on.