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The Prophet John Brown

David Reynolds

     ... biographer. John Brown, Abolitionist is the work of the Distinguished Professor of English and American Studies at the Graduate Center and Baruch College of the City University of New York, David S. Reynolds. He also wrote Walt Whitman's America, winner of the Bancroft Prize, the Ambassador Book award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Beneath the American Renaissance, which won Phi Beta Kappa's Christian Gauss Award.


Who is the greatest American, ever? John Brown, abolitionist, according to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Victor Hugo, greatly admired also by Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois. Why John Brown? Because he not only fervently believed the words in the Declaration of Independence and the Golden Rule. He lived them. Died for them. Yes, killed for them. And after having been all but sainted (or demonized, depending) was banished, scorned or reduced to ridicule for most of a century.

But he murdered 5 people in Kansas, you say? Look again at the killings at Pottawatomie Creek, David Reynolds advises. He is John Brown's biographer. Slavery to John Brown was war against an entire people. Therefore, to him, those killings were part of carefully planned and executed war against known pro-slavery settlers who had threatened him and his family. As a contemporary journalist shrewdly pointed out and Dr. Reynolds reports, John Brown had brought Southern tactics to the Northern side.

Dr. Reynolds thinks John Brown's assessment was right that in the late 1850s, the time for action had come. The reason? The previous generation (America's Founding Fathers) considered slavery evil, expected it to die on the vine. But by John Brown's time, Dr. Reynolds says, the South had come to think of slavery as a definite good -- both "Christian" and highly beneficial to blacks held in bondage.

John Brown is as a lot more than a controversial figure in American history, says Dr. Reynolds, who believes John Brown offers two lessons vital for today's Americans.

First, Dr. Reynolds urges, be as open as John Brown was to people different from you. His contemporary white abolitionists were practically all as racist as their era. Not John Brown. He intentionally moved to upstate New York to live among freed slaves, violated every racist custom of the time, broke bread as equals with his black neighbors, treated them with respect and admiration. Perhaps even more revolutionary, John Brown extended his belief in democracy to women. And to children. While the vast majority of anti-slavery settlers eager for a Free Kansas also demanded the exclusion of blacks, John Brown and his family were special targets because they demanded a genuinely free state of Kansas, open to all. And the list goes on.

Secondly, Dr. Reynolds says, John Brown sets an appropriately high standard as a non-conformist in a conformist time. In the face of today's corporatized, institution-bound American culture, follow John Brown's example and trust yourself. Think for yourself instead of falling back on a political party, a religious group or anyone else insisting you accept what they are dishing out. Consider living by a higher law as John Brown did when the law of the land codified, endorsed and enforced a complete violation of humanity.

Whatever one concludes about John Brown, the revolutionary messages of America's Declaration of Independence and the Golden Rule continue to call to the world's people. Or you could say, "His truths go marching on."


[This Program was recorded May 16, 2005, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]

Conversation 1

David Reynolds explains abolitionist John Brown's view of slavery as a state of war to Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. The concept of a "higher law" is explored.

Conversation 1 RealAudio8:11

Conversation 2

John Brown's influence stretches from 1856 to "Brown v. Board of Education," Dr. Reynolds reports and explains why he believes John Brown, with his radical openness to all people, should be at the very center of our consciousness of American history. John Brown's intense Calvinism had significant consequences, Dr. Reynolds says, then elaborates on John Brown's two sources of inspiration, America's Declaration of Independence and the Golden Rule.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:10

Conversation 3

Slavery was a state of war against an entire race, according to John Brown, who insisted his actions at Pottawatomie Creek in Kansas were part of that war. Dr. Reynolds reviews the larger history of "Bleeding Kansas" and events that leading to John Brown's carefully targeted murder of pro-slavery settlers. Noting the South’s culture of violence, a John Brown contemporary is quoted as having observed that John Brown brought Southern tactics to the Northern side. Except for John Brown and his family, anti-slavery whites in Kansas wanted to exclude both slavery and blacks, Dr. Reynolds says, linking John Brown and Nat Turner's 1831 slave revolt.

Conversation 1 RealAudio9:38

Conversation 4

Dr. Reynolds shows John Brown's relevance, both as an independent thinker and as a person driven to right monumental wrongs. Both Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson were pivotal in assuring John Brown his rightful place in history, Dr. Reynolds says. Noting the general abolitionists preference for non-violent ways to end slavery, Dr. Reynolds explains why he believes John Brown was correct in his assessment that the time for action had come.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:47

 Conversation 5

John Brown and his actions created a kind of unity in both the North and the South that had not been there previously, Dr. Reynolds says, and amplifies on how that happened. He recalls the true origin of the famous "John Brown's Body" song which later morphed into Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Following speculation about Seward rather than Lincoln as President, John Brown is seen as having moved democracy from an idea to a reality.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:32

Conversation 6

In today's corporate, institutionalized America, individualism matters more than ever and John Brown has much to offer as a role model of non-conformity, Dr. Reynolds says, urging people to trust themselves, not institutions or parties. African-Americans have protected John Brown's memory for us all, Dr. Reynolds says, and joins Thoreau in canonizing John Brown's speech to the Virginia court.

Conversation 1 RealAudio6:18


It is a source of wonder when someone brings authenticity and life to a history that has been twisted to suit unworthy ends. We thank David Reynolds for restoring John Brown to his rightful place among those who know -- only when extended to all are freedom or democracy, liberty or justice available to any.

Additional Links:

John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War and Seeded Civil Rights is published by Knopf.

Joseph Ellis, David McCullough and Susan Jacoby have each written books which enrich our understanding of the ongoing development of the American experiment in democracy.

Gail Buckley documents the military contributions made by Blacks in every American war starting with the Revolutionary War.
Kevin Phillips says that the American Civil War was the continuation of the English Civil War and the American Revolutionary War, fought by and against the same political groups.

David Reynolds suggests that Abraham Lincoln's presidential aspirations were a prime beneficiary of the raid on Harper's Ferry.  Doris Kearn Goodwin's Team of Rivals clarifies Lincoln's motivations and his political skills.

Civil Rights:
Taylor Branch has documented the modern American struggle for Black civil rights in three masterful volumes.
Iris Chang tells the much less familiar story of Chinese-American's struggle for equal treatment by society and by the law.
Don Keenan tells of the case he took to the U.S. Supreme Court to get children rights equivalent to those mandated for prisoners.
Mark Curriden and Leroy Phillips show how a lynching in Tennessee during the Jim Crow era eventually led to the protections provided to citizens by the Bill of Rights being applied to state laws.
Cornel West shows how central racism and race consciousness has been to the American experience.
Randall Kennedy looks at how neighbors and families have been affected by race.
Growing up in a family which had been in South Carolina since the late 1700's, Edward Ball was told that as slaveholders his family had always been "kind and gentle" masters and there had been no exploitive sex. In his National Book Award winning Slaves in the Family, he shows otherwise.

To understand how Abraham Lincoln became “the great emmancipator;” historian Richard Slotkin wrote Abe, a fictionalized account of Lincoln’s early life.
Pulitzer Prize winner Edward P. Jones created a fictional world in The Known World in which blacks owned slaves.

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