"In the past 30 years, more than 30 adult books and 18 children's books have been written about John Brown, the 19th-century abolitionist who...

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“John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights”

by David S. Reynolds

Knopf, 578 pp., $35

In the past 30 years, more than 30 adult books and 18 children’s books have been written about John Brown, the 19th-century abolitionist who repeatedly raided Kansas in the 1850s to liberate slaves.

In “John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights,” David Reynolds, professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, emphasizes that his book, unlike previous works on Brown, is a “cultural biography” exploring and explaining how Brown reflected, impacted and transcended his era.

Reynolds persuasively argues that Brown, as an exemplar of the Calvinist Puritan ethnic — dating back to the English religious reformer Oliver Cromwell, on whom he patterned his life and to whom he often was compared — deeply believed in the biblical Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Slavery to him was inherently immoral and evil.

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As a child, Brown had observed a slave boy his own age being beaten and severely abused. He decided, even then, that he would become “a most determined Abolitionist,” swearing “Eternal war with Slavery.” Like a true Puritan, he was willing to die to rid the nation of slavery.

Brown hoped to incite a slave rebellion or a war between the North and South to liberate the slaves. In May 1856, during one of his many raids in Kansas, Brown and his band killed five pro-slavery men. Southerners were outraged. Brown’s abolitionist supporters deplored the killings but saw them as a regretful development, given the larger cause.

Buoyed by his escape from prosecution for murder and the cautious support of abolitionists, Brown decided to strike a bold blow to end slavery, raiding the Federal Armory at Harpers Ferry, Va., in October 1859. He thought he then would have all the guns and men he needed to fight, as he expected slaves to join his band like “bees swarm[ing] to the hive.”

The raid succeeded, but slaves never joined Brown, thinking he was just another white man who would free them and sell them once again. Brown and a few of his men were captured, tried and sentenced to die. John Brown was hanged Dec. 2, 1859.

In death, Brown achieved greater goals than in life, and Reynolds brilliantly shows why. In 1858, for example, Brown wrote a new constitution for the United States, prefiguring the amended 1870 Constitution.

To many, this seemed an egotistic exercise. But Reynolds argues that, “considered against the background of the American 1850s the document makes sense.” The U.S. Constitution was a highly contested document, characterized by some as a “covenant with death and an agreement with hell” because it condoned slavery.

Brown’s constitution called for the immediate end to slavery and access to all rights and privileges enjoyed by white people that had been legally denied blacks by the Dred Scott decision of 1857.

By 1860, Brown had become a Christ-like martyr who, indeed, went on to spark the Civil War and vanquish slavery. French novelist Victor Hugo celebrated Brown in his 1862 novel “Les Miserables,” calling him greater than George Washington.

Slavery apologists called Brown insane, with a heart “gangrened,” while Northern soldiers, black and white, marched to war singing “John Brown’s Body,” ending with “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah! His truth is marching on!” Blacks and whites sang the song at all kinds of gatherings, well past the first half of the 20th century.

After Reconstruction and the U.S. Supreme Court’s regressive 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, blacks again found a true exemplar in Brown. Later, the black historian Lerone Bennett, echoing African-American leaders of the civil-rights era, declared: “John Brown was a Negro, and it was in this aspect that he suffered.”

Reynolds ends his book with this forthright challenge: What would have happened if Brown had not violently disrupted the racist juggernaut that was America? As we have seen, even emancipation and manhood suffrage did not ensure the security of African Americans. It took nine decades of struggle for America to approach John Brown’s goal of civil rights for all ethnic minorities. Even today the goal is not fully realized.

John C. Walter is professor of history

in the Department of American Ethnic Studies

at the University of Washington.