By Jeremy Mahr
John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in October, 1859 shocked and transformed a nation. Following his capture by General Robert E. Lee after attempting to take over the Harpers Ferry federal arsenal in Virginia and incite a slave rebellion, Brown was seen by his fellow Americans as a pariah and an extremist. Few outside his ideological circle defended his actions, and he was soon to be found guilty of treason and hanged by the end of the year. Yet, just a few years later, Brown’s memory had morphed from that of an unhinged terrorist to a martyr for the abolitionist cause, and finally to a symbol of Union solidarity. This final phase of his public memory is perhaps best reflected by the popular song sung by Union soldiers during Civil War campaigns: “John Brown’s Body.” Although his shift in public perception from a violent actor against the state to a Union martyr may seem strange, it could be explained by the interplay of several cultural and historical phenomena: namely, the political tensions brought about by slavery, the work of cultural and societal elites to redeem Brown’s image, and Brown’s ideas on shared pain becoming transferred from those of slaves to those of Union soldiers, creating a sense of communal identification with the American nation in wartime.
John Brown’s assault on Harpers Ferry provoked strong reactions from all spectra of American society. While White Southern separatists used the attack as evidence of Northern treachery and urged the South to secede to protect its slave-holding interests, Northern abolitionists threw their support behind Brown through meetings, fundraising, and political organizing; most people simply thought that Brown was insane (Fine 234-235; Nudelman 650-651). However, the partisan-charged atmosphere caused by Brown’s violent direct action was a fertile atmosphere in which cultural elites within the abolitionist movement could manage Brown’s reputation and paint him, not as a violent criminal, but as a freedom fighter standing for justice.
Energized by Brown’s actions, and politically experienced with advocating for causes such as Free Soil, Liberian colonization, and resistance to Fugitive Slave Act enforcement, Brown’s allies in the abolitionist movement were instrumental in helping craft a different image for him. These included not only prominent activists such as William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Henry David Thoreau, but also his secret committee of supporters, the Secret Six: comprised of the wealthiest and most learned men of the era, they helped provide the financial backing and networking to help rehabilitate his image (Fine 236-237). Because political violence against established institutions are generally looked down upon without a convincing justification, his supporters appealed to notions such as higher law, social consensus, and historic justification to extol his actions, including the Motto of the state of Virginia itself (“So Be It Ever to Tyrants!”) (Fine 233). Furthermore, because Brown’s Southern critics made treasonous statements themselves in support of secession, they limited their rhetorical options and left the field wide open for pro-Brown narratives to emerge. Thus, Brown’s attack was no longer about attacking the federal government, but a struggle against the South and the institution of slavery (Fine 243). In this way, historical circumstances and Brown’s connections to the American elite allowed John Brown to have, if not a wholly positive public image, at least an opportunity to break free from the label of terrorism that would have plagued most violent actors.
Although Brown’s defense by elites helped contribute to the rehabilitation of his reputation, Brown himself actively contributed to his status as a martyr through his dialogues on suffering and empathy for enslaved blacks. Throughout his trial and sentencing, Brown theatrically cultivated his image with the knowledge that he was worth more to the abolitionist cause dead than alive. Speaking from his cell, the courtroom, and finally the scaffold, Brown used the symbol of blood to represent not only his shared humanity with enslaved persons and his willingness to do whatever it took to liberate the oppressed, but also to represent the nation’s collective guilt and the societal price to rid the institution of slavery (Nudelman 643, 659). By way of his rhetoric and growing status as an anti-slavery fighter, John Brown tactically used the power of compassion to form a bridge in which free, white Americans could feel the suffering of enslaved blacks, transforming individual experiences into collective visions. In doing so, he laid the emotional groundwork for future developments during the Civil War, in which shared experiences of loss and suffering would provide the basis for nationalist unity (Nudelman 660). Thus, “John Brown’s Body” took Brown’s best components– his outspokenness, commitment to “higher law,” and strong sense of justice– while ignoring his more problematic aspects, and then incorporated them into a Union Army song that allowed soldiers to negotiate their own mortality and remind them that they were dying for a higher cause (Nudelman 640).
Through historical circumstances and robust support by fellow abolitionists and John Brown himself, Brown ironically became a martyr figure for the same government forces that he died opposing. Despite this, the life, death, and legacy of John Brown reveals not only the society and culture of the United States before and during the Civil War, but also the psychology of its everyday citizens.
Fine, G. A. (1999). John Brown’s body: elites, heroic embodiment, and the legitimation of political violence. Social Problems, 46(2), 225-249.
Nudelman, F. (2001). “The Blood of Millions”: John Brown’s Body, Public Violence, and Political Community. American Literary History, 13(4), 639-670.
[Gloria Jane]. (Sep 29,2009). John Brown’s Body [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bSSn3NddwFQ