The deed was done. The next day the world knew and the world sat in puzzled amazement. It was ever so and ever will be. When a prophet like John brown appears, how must we of the world receive him? Must we follow out the drear, dread logic of surrounding facts, as did the South, even if they crucify a clean and pure soul, simply because consistent allegiance to our cherished, chosen ideal demands it? If we do, the shame will brand our latest history. Shall we hesitate and waver before his clear white logic, now helping, now fearing to help, now believing, now doubting? Yes, this we must do so long as the doubt and hesitation are genuine; but we must not lie. If we are human, we must thus hesitate until we know the right. How shall we know it? That is the Riddle of the Sphinx. We are but darkened groping souls, that know not light often because of its very blinding radiance. Only in time is truth revealed. To-day at last we know: John Brown was right. (172)
This is the first paragraph of the 12th chapter of W.E.B. Du Bois’ biography of John Brown. The previous chapters narrative briefly Brown’s life and character, at more length his actions in Kansas, and finally, in some evaluative detail, the planning for and execution of the raid on Harper’s Ferry. Du Bois goes quite lightly and quickly over how it is that John Brown decided to devote his and his family’s life to breaking slavery, the main fact is that he did so. Du Bois says, “he was the sword on which struggling Kansas and its leaders could depend, the untarnished doer of its darker deeds, when they that knew them necessary cowered and held their hands” (174). That phrase, “untarnished doer of…dark deeds” is I think the crucial one.
The book is constructed entirely from secondary sources—in this it is something like, although on a very different scale, Black Reconstruction. Also like that work, it is a fine example of committed interpretive historiography. We hear about John Brown’s life, we get a theory of the Alleghenies as the ‘central fact’ of his geographic imagination, we learn that he read up on the Haitian Revolution to learn about guerilla warfare and also, somewhat surprisingly, that his troop read Tom Paine’s The Age of Reason to pass the time (151). Du Bois rejects with some heat the idea that Brown’s plan was from the beginning silly or amateur and destined to pitiful failure. Brown had experience fighting, he knew the terrain, and it was indeed plausible that a well financed guerilla could operate in the Alleghenies striking into the “great black way” of the Shenandoah. That the raid on Harper’s Ferry failed is not itself evidence that it was stupidly or naively conceived.
Although it is not exactly ever said, we understand clearly that the author agrees with Frederick Douglass that Brown’s plan was not likely to succeed. Douglass, Du Bois clearly thinks, was correct that in the end, “only national force could dislodge national slavery” (175). Still, Du Bois emphasizes the final meeting between Douglass and Brown, in which Shields Green, a recent runaway, chooses Brown over Douglass. He cites at length from Douglass’ later recounting of the moment,
“Captain Brown urged us both to go with him, but I could not do so, and could but feel that he was about to rivet the fetters more firmly than ever on the limbs of the enslaved…my discretion or my cowardice made me proof against the dear old man’s eloquence—perhaps it was something of both which determined my course. When about to leave, I asked Green what he had decided to do, and was surprised by his coolly saying, in his broken way, ‘I b’lieve I’ll go wid de old man.’ Here we separated” (149).
Du Bois returns to this later on, in his evaluative chapter. He says, “As it was with Douglass, so it was practically with the Negro race. They believed in John Brown but not in his plan” (175). For all that this book might be called hagiography, Du Bois is perfectly willing to go further than this. The black people who had made it to Canada, with whom Brown was in communication, who he tried to enlist in his band—they knew what slavery was, and what the plantation was, in a way that John Brown, for all his moral firmness, simply could not. And, then, as Du Bois says, “was not their whole life already a sacrifice?” (176). These are hard questions, and it seems to me that Du Bois says what he can, and leaves a great deal up to historical contingency. What if the plan had gone off earlier, as it would have without the interference of Hugh Forbes? It would have had a wider support base among anti-slavery circles, there would have been more on-the-ground support. What if Brown had avoided being trapped in Harper’s Ferry, had made it up into the mountains to start his guerilla war? As it was—and this was important for Du Bois to emphasize in 1909—a number of free blacks did join, and a number of enslaved people did help in the heat of the moment. It mattered, after all, to Du Bois that black men and women (principally, in this narrative, Harriet Tubman) could be the agents of their own emancipation—this is one of the big interventions of Black Reconstruction.
Certainly I am not a historian of the US in the 19th century, so there is much that I’m unable to judge in this book. But I have at least some interest in revolutionary radicals, and it seems to me that Brown and his cohort should be included in any survey of international 19th century revolutionists. He studied Toussaint, he sought advice (although apparently he shouldn’t have) from a man who marched with Mazzini. He was part of the 19th century Revolutionary tradition. One might cite as evidence of this the somewhat bizarre, at least to me, convention called in order to draft a constitutional framework for “the government of a band of isolated people fighting for liberty” (131). Interesting, also, from a more contemporary point of view, is Du Bois’ reproduction of debate over the flag to be flown by this group. Despite some objections, especially from former slaves, Brown insisted that the guerilla should fly the Stars and Stripes (127-133). More difficult to square, I think, with the European Revolutionary tradition with which I’m more familiar is Brown’s religious fundamentalism. He was an anti-slavery egalitarian, indeed—but from his own point of view, he was absolutely engaged in a religious war.
And here is what, in the end, I find so compelling, what I so much want to worry over, about Brown today. It would be difficult today to deny the values, from a certain point of view, for which he fought. Human equality and freedom are so much the definitive words of our political idiom that they are in real danger of being totally voided of meaning. So we can only applaud a struggle in their name. Yet, I think, we cannot avoid the fact that Brown was essentially a militant fundamentalist terrorist. The violence in Kansas seemed to be settling the question in favor of the slave-holders. Indeed, it seemed that peace and at least formal, although absolutely not real, democracy was about to be established. It was at this juncture, if I understand correctly, that in order to push the situation in the better direction, Brown took a group of men out to a settlement that was a hotbed of pro-slavery activity, and began knocking on doors. He had the man of the house dragged outside, taken a little ways away into the woods, and cut down with broadswords. This was repeated at several houses. There is a ritualistic aspect to this violence. It was, in a real sense, blood expiation for the crime of slavery.
Du Bois repeats in several places the somewhat ungainly catchphrase, “the cost of liberty is less than the price of repression” (195), and calls this Brown’s great lesson for ‘our time.’ Really, though, it is only on the very last page of the book that Du Bois gets to the moral and historical claim at the heart of John Brown’s life, at least as he’d written it. Finally he says, “John Brown taught us that the cheapest price to pay for liberty is its cost to-day” (201). This is the temporal fix, this is the anti-liberal claim of the revolutionary at its purest: not tomorrow, today. Without action it will be worse tomorrow, not better.
Edward Said, I think, wrote one of his very last books on the ‘late work,’ that is, works of art made not long before the artist died. Here are John Brown’s last written words, set down the day the state of Virginia hung him: “I, John brown, am quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think vainly, flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done” (186).
I am reading from the 1997 edition under the care of John David Smith in the ‘American History Though Literature’ series. I wish very much that I had the newer edition made for the ongoing Du Bois complete works project. For one thing, the Smith edition—and I blame the publisher not Smith—has a terribly large number of typos. ‘John brown’ is an especially common and egregious one. If I had time, I would look at the Sanborn letters, the more recent Oates biography and/or the much more recent Reynolds one. But I haven’t looked into this much at all yet.