Kirkus Reviews QR Code


The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights

by David S. Reynolds

Pub Date: April 21st, 2005
ISBN: 0-375-41188-7
Publisher: Knopf

Cradle-to-moldering-grave biography of America’s homegrown abolitionist terrorist.

Was it John Brown’s audacity that put the spark to the tinderbox of slavery in mid-19th-century America? The prize-winning Reynolds (Walt Whitman, 2004, etc.; English and American Studies/CUNY) makes the case that the Civil War and emancipation might well have been slower in coming had Brown (1800–59) not inflamed paranoia in the South by his murderous raids in Pottawatomie, Kan., and his seizure of the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Va. The author argues that Brown was more of a Puritan pioneer than crazed fanatic, a patriarchal figure who “won the battle not with bullets but with words.” Although the violence of Brown’s anti-slavery raids was at first roundly denounced in the North, his calm and rational behavior after his capture, Reynolds emphasizes, eventually won admiration for his crusade, much thanks to Emerson, Thoreau and other transcendentalists who took up his banner. Though unabashedly hagiographic—the chapter on his execution is titled “The Passion”—the biography justifies its portrayal of Brown as an agent outside and above the norms of society. The author demonstrates that his nonracist behavior, for example, was startlingly original to Southerners and Northerners alike, albeit not anomalous vis-à-vis contemporary European attitudes. Reynolds takes great pains to cast a fair light on an exceptionally controversial figure who used brutally violent tactics to bring about the end of slavery and the beginning of racial equality. He states unequivocally that Brown’s tactics were terrorist (and an inspiration to John Wilkes Booth), but in President Lincoln’s own words, the Civil War itself was “a John Brown raid on a gigantic scale.” Reynolds’s conclusions are bold yet justified, and his analysis reflects a thorough understanding of the cultural environment of the time.

Engrossing and timely, offering astute, thorough coverage of America’s premier iconoclast and the cultural stage upon which he played his role.