One Man's Crusade Against Slavery, Seen From Two Angles

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RICHMOND, Va. — His body may lie a-moldering in the grave, but in what form exactly does his soul go marching on? We may think we know something about John Brown, the abolitionist and stern Calvinist who 150 years ago this month led 21 followers to take over the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va., expecting to gather weapons to fuel a widespread slave rebellion. His self-proclaimed Provisional Army of the United States took hostages (including a great-grandnephew of George Washington) and killed four innocent citizens. Finally, after being captured by a detachment of Marines led by Robert E. Lee, and tried, Brown and six other insurgents were hanged for treason, though their cause ultimately triumphed.

But in two small-scale but heavily laden exhibitions — one at the New-York Historical Society, drawing on the extraordinary Gilder Lehrman Collection, the other at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond (the first show devoted to Brown in a city that was the capital of the Confederacy) — it becomes clear that Brown’s legacy is nearly as riven now as it was on the eve of the Civil War. His actions still raise unresolved issues about the limits of dissent, the nature of terrorism and the effects of revolutionary violence.

The two exhibitions are also subtly different, reflecting in some respects contrasts that have their origins in the controversies of that earlier era. In New York “John Brown: The Abolitionist and His Legacy,” developed by James G. Basker, president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute, and others, states its goal from the start: to examine “John Brown’s beliefs and actions in the context of growing national divisions over slavery in the 1850s.” We read in the wall text how, in that crucial decade, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act four years later, as well as the Dred Scott decision of 1857, “precipitated a firestorm between slaveholding Southerners and free-labor Northerners.”

Violence even broke out on the Senate floor in May 1856, when Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina assaulted an antislavery colleague, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, beating him so badly that it was three years before Sumner returned to the Senate.

Out of that atmosphere, Brown’s violence also took shape. We see his fierce intelligence in letters to followers, and read reminiscences of his hanging and its aftermath. There are shadows here, but his legacy is given few ambiguities. It is displayed in documents representing the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, which ended institutional slavery and its legal culture. Brown’s legacy, the show suggests, finally found fruition in the 1960s civil rights movement (evoked here by a placard carried in a march that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. joined the day he was murdered).

Ultimately, the assessment of Brown that remains is that of Frederick Douglass, who disagreed with Brown’s tactics but is quoted here in 1881: “If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did at least begin the war that ended slavery.”

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