I confess that, prior to reading this book, I had the popular image of John Brown in my mind of a half-crazed religious zealot who had the right cause (the abolition of slavery) and the wrong technique (half-cocked schemes of violent revolution starting with a raid on Harper's Ferry's federal armory to arm the thousands of non-existent converts to his cause). This book takes a mildly sympathetic look at Brown with more than a little contemporary revisionist intent on its mind, in particular the whole issue about what constitutes patriotism or treason. The abstract philosophical issue -- which Brown clearly would've loved to debate today, since he sponsored home debates among his friends and family on a nearly nightly basis for much of his adult life -- centers on whether it's treason or patriotism to defy one's government in order to live up to the actual ideals it espouses.
In Brown's particular case, it is an act of uncivil disobedience, if you will, that stands out. While Thoreau, for instance, might've been willing to spend a night in jail because he wasn't willing to pay a poll tax to support the Mexican War, you didn't see Henry David out there smacking down the saber-rattlers directly. Brown had few compunctions about engaging in armed uprising against the national government because it wasn't living up to the 'all men are created equal' proposition in its founding document.
I remain unconvinced that Brown's actions were a cassus belli that helped radicalize the Southern reaction towards secession that wouldn't've happened otherwise. He may have been a bolus around which separatist factions, North and South, rallied their talking points, but there's nothing compelling in either his biography or the penumbra of events around the 1859 raid that suggests the civil war was avoidable. The irreconciliable difference was one of political power, in that the minority population, the Southern states, felt the nature of federalism required the Northern states to respect their own laws about slaves. This effectively, after Dred Scott, meant that no black person, anywhere in the United States, was effectively outside of the bounds of slavery. Slave catchers could go anywhere they wanted, and without habeas corpus being extended to free blacks in the North, it effectively meant everyone was at risk merely due to the color of their skin. Northern States actually had the 'States Rights' issue on their side, when it came down to it, in that they did not want to extradite or aid in the re-enslavement of blacks within their borders. (Imagine if you will that Georgia decides to make homosexuality illegal, and starts extraditing sodomites from New York City and San Francisco. The governments of New York State and California would be put in a difficult position.) The precipitating causes were the events in the 1850s where a minority of Americans managed to take control of the Senate, and the Presidency for the most part, in order to keep the possibility of reconciliation of these laws in the favor of manumission off the table. It was, in short, a conservative and reactionary revolution that created the Confederacy, one where a minority wasn't willing to recognize an election that conformed to the Constitution and laws of the United States because it did not want to lose the instruments of power. Brown was a violent man, in the end, in a decade of violence, but his only uniqueness was that he was a Northern Liberal. Southern Conservatives had engaged in violence repeatedly, starting with slavery itself, extending to the bleeding Kansas mini-civil war of the mid 1850s, and to the infamous affair when a southern congressman, Preston Brooks, nearly beat a Massachussets Senator, Charles Sumner, to death on the floor of the Senate -- with impunity. In an era of violence of this sort, with Southern culture deeply tied to a martial tradition, war was the inevitable result of the inherent conflict over slavery.
Brown's symbolic value to the north, in the end, is he was the Christian who wouldn't turn the other cheek. While the William Lloyd Garrisons argued for a path of non-violent political engagement, not unlike the methods of Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., Brown acted directly. He acted directly personally, in that, rather remarkably for the time even among Northern liberals, he mixed freely with African-Americans and seemed to genuinely regard them as equals (something 99% of the rest of the white population did not, whether or not they believed in slavery) and did so without condescension (something the remaining 1% did not do). But here was a guy who was willing to fight back. His fatal flaw, very ironically, was that he wasn't really familiar enough with the nature of slavery to understand that merely being called to revolt wasn't enough for most enslaved persons to be able to revolt. When slaves revolt, failure is always fatal. People are willing to give their lives for principles of freedom, but they're unwilling to flush them away if achieving those principles is impossible.
In the end, Brown as a symbol of a person willing to die for the principle may have been the more important rallying cry to the North once hostilities opened up in 1861. Having a model, a martyr, however misguided, can provide courage in odd ways.
What I find interesting about Brown, though, is the way he came to be a revolutionary. Revolutionary he was: prior to launching the Harper's Ferry raid he drafted a detailed "provisional" constitution, albeit one that forbade rebellion against the existing governments, except where they allowed slavery. It was an oxymoron to be sure, but one that was premised on adherence to the 'founding principles'. That he used terrorist tactics -- outright murder of political opponents among the civilian population -- in the case of the Kansas war, makes him no different from most other revolutionaries, successful or unsuccessful. What he was after was a toppling of the regime that allowed slavery, and to him the shortest path was to have the slaves themselves, like Toussaint L'Overture did in Haiti, lead the way.
The path to this moment, as I say, is the really interesting thing, and one in which this book sheds no additional light. It does rather extensively cover the entire long span of Brown's life, which was largely peaceful if increasingly radical. His own family, fanatically loyal to his anti-slavery vision, mostly drifted away from the old time religion, so the religious fanatic explanation of Brown's conversion to violence holds little water. Brown runs slaves through the underground railroad early on in his adult life, but seems easily distracted into worldly affairs, particularly when his business ventures falter. He continues to see his life as having a calling to the anti-slavery cause, but his methods seem to him increasingly beside the point. He's unafraid of confrontation, but also a utopian, which is what brings him and his family to Kansas in the first place, to stand with the free soilers from New England who were attempting to out-colonize the place prior to self-determination on the subject of slavery. But without violence against him personally, what motivated Brown to orchestrate the infamous Pottawottamie Massacure, a mass-killing of five pro-slavery neighbors (who had, not incidentally, threatened to kill Brown and his family repeatedly) in a pre-meditated, cold-blooded, and particularly gruesome manner? Brown's pre-emptive strike there almost certainly forced fencesitters to choose up sides in the Kansas dispute, which may have been his intention. And once bloodied, he became a part-time but mildly effective guerilla leader on a quite tiny scale by comparison to any other revolutionary struggle or the civil war itself. He crossed his own rubicon to embrace violence as a means to an end, perhaps helping others to that same conclusion, but the moment at which he went from being an advocate to a violent revolutionary remains a strange one. He was not a man given to dueling, fistfights, or even unfriendly argumentation. He was not this crazy guy that history tends to portray him as in the one-paragraph summaries in high school textbooks (the reasons for that could fill a volume unto itself). He was a rational person who, finally confronting an abominablly irrational institution, let slip the dogs of war from within himself.
If you side with John Brown's tactics, you may also side with the people who kill abortion doctors. That's the problem of the logic that preventing a greater violence justifies a lesser violence. (That is also the problem with the logic of the death penalty, of course.) One is left floundering at what just causes are, and the degree to which they merit violent reaction.
But I also cautiously am reminded that when violence is used, and the political process subverted -- as was the case in Kansas, as was the general case with slavery becoming reinstitutionalized in the 1850s in a way that threatened to grow it, make it permanent, and transform the country politically -- the Brown reaction is almost certainly inevitable. The cycle of violence in Iraq is certainly an example. Most revolutionary movements have some kind of celebrated massacre of the innocents on their calendar: the casbah killings in Algeria, the Odessa steps in Russia, the Boston Massacre in the US, to name but a few. I'm sadly ignorant of Iraqi internal history to know if there's a single incident of similar import in the current civil war, but once the revenge killings start, it's almost immaterial.
What really is treason, of course, is stifling peaceful political debate -- done so much in recent years by calling that treason. It's the peaceful debate, engagement, and inclusive negotiation that prevents treason from ever taking place. Brown, the master debater, was wasted on political violence. As are we all. But let the discussion continue.