I read this book for the Nonfiction Reading Challenge 2014 reading challenge 2014.
Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War – Tony Horwitz
In his memoirs, U. S. Grant mentions that his father often spoke of John Brown, especially after the radical abolitionist’s raid at Harper's Ferry. His father knew Brown when they were boys and, Grant says, “regarded him as a man of great purity of character, of high moral and physical courage, but a fanatic and extremist in whatever he advocated.“
To end the paragraph, Grant says, “It was certainly the act of an insane man to attempt the invasion of the South, and the overthrow of slavery, with less than twenty men.” And the verdict “He must have been crazy” still stands today. Horwitz’ goal was to study this incident in detail and come up with more than summary judgments.
The opening chapters sketch a quick overview of US in the 1850s. The pre-Civil War South was not a quaint feudal place. The aura of the underdog and the lost cause, fostered by Gone with the Wind, starks in stark contrast to the brutality of slavery and the reality of the economic and political clout that the antebellum South wielded. Most Americans accepted or looked away from race-based chattel slavery and accepted pro-slavery legislation and expansion into new territories. This weakness – this pacifism, this failure -- in the face of evil enraged John Brown and he vowed to punch back. Moral suasion against slavery, the main tactic of the Abolitionists, was not Brown’s forte.
The opening chapters also focus on a biography of Brown. Raised a strict Calvinist and a conformist seeker of success, Brown endured many personal and financial trials till his forties. He and his wives lost nine kids (of 20) before they were ten years old. He went through bankruptcies in a day when that spelled “total failure.” Most people would be destroyed by these trials. But Brown believed in liberty and equality and that the ideals of the founders could only be achieved through the destruction of slavery, the institution that betrayed our American essence. In his fifties he took on the great moral issue of his day and went on a mission from God, dedicating himself to what he truly believed.
In the 1850s in Kansas, Brown used guerilla tactics against slavery. In a terrorist attack in Pottawatomie he and his men hacked five men to death with swords. In Missouri he freed slaves at gunpoint and transported them to Canada. He also worked on his plan to take the war against slavery to Virginia, seize arms at the armory at Harper’s Ferry, and lead a slave insurrection.
These next couple of chapters cover the planning, recruiting, and fundraising for the raid and the raid itself. We don’t know whether Brown predicted that the raid would fail. We can’t know if Brown thought the raid would be the great catalyst that would start a war that would end slavery. Brown took many missteps once the raid started. He didn’t alert slaves in the nearby area that an insurrection was going to take place. He didn’t bring wagons to carry guns and pikes. Militarily speaking, the raid was an amateurish fiasco, despite all the reading and thinking Brown had done about the topic of uprisings.
After the two raid chapters, Horwitz details the trial and execution of the insurrectionists. The raid failed but at the trial and waiting for execution, John Brown triumphed as a man of ideas and words. At his trial, his speech against slavery was lauded even by Emerson. After his conviction, calling the whole nation to account for the abomination of slavery, he wrote letters from prison that expressed his willingness to lay down his life for his beliefs. He went to the execution ground with a dignity that even his enemies had to admit they admired.
Brown struck terror into the hearts of the slave owners. They assumed that if the North lionized Brown and a lot of abolitionists worked for the formation of the Republican Party, then the Republican platform would lead to abolition, the North would seek to enforce abolition by arms, and so the South had better set up its own country. Horwitz says without the raid, Lincoln would not have been elected. Lincoln asserted on the stump that the Republican Party was not about beliefs and tactics like those of John Brown. Lincoln used Brown as a foil, claiming that Lincoln was the moderate choice and deserving of the nomination. Lincoln’s mind was not an extremist mind like John Brown’s. So Lincoln was able to move from not interfering with slavery and ethnic cleansing of blacks through deportation all the way to a position on emancipation similar to Brown’s.
For all his eschewing of non-violence, in his opposition to slavery Brown was on the right side of history. He fought not only for emancipation but racial equality. We have only caught up with him in our own lifetimes, finally coming to see the Abolitionists more tolerantly too and getting over the gauzy Gone with the Wind bunkum. We start to wonder, “How did those 19th century Americans handle slavery.” This book makes us wonder how the future will see us. How, they may think, did those early 21st century assholes not get climate change? How did those losers in 2014 tolerate that there were 10 times as many mentally ill people in American prisons and jails than in state hospitals?
For John Brown, a higher law trumped human law, making him an inspiration for figures ranging from H. Rap Brown to Timothy McVeigh. “John Brown is the stone in the shoe of American history,” historical novelist Truman Nelson, making us ponder this polarizing figure, the terrorist mindset, and the uses of violence in history.