150 years after his death, abolitionist still a hero to some, lunatic to others

Historians in the News

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. -- John Brown has spent 150 years locked in our national attic, the mad uncle no one wanted to acknowledge but over whose corpse soldiers would sing praises during the war he triggered.

The bearded messiah of the antislavery movement was hanged for his futile raid on the federal armory here. After 15 decades of neglect, historians are now praising, damning and pondering Brown's legacy on the sesquicentennial of the Harpers Ferry raid.

In an era in which the term "domestic terrorist" now defines many of the actions for which Brown is lauded and loathed, historians want to sort out the meaning of the man. Some now call the Harpers Ferry raid the first shots of the Civil War; still others, a lesson in the complexities of history.

"Normal people don't produce social change," said Steven Mintz, a historian at Columbia University and an expert on pre-Civil War reformers. "Well-adjusted people who see trade-offs in life, they don't make social change happen. It's often people like Brown."...

... Brown's hanging served his own purposes as much as it did the South's. A martyr, his name was invoked throughout the war. A squad of Massachusetts volunteers, to tease a fellow soldier who shared his name, sang of John Brown's body. The ditty was picked up by other soldiers who imagined they were singing about the hero of Harpers Ferry.

By war's end, the song was a campfire standard. It became the title of a long poem by Stephen Vincent Benet.

Yet, in the ensuing years, singing John Brown's praises became less and less fashionable. His raid, his uniquely close friendships with freed slaves, the hacking violence of the Pottawatomie raid and the seeming madness of his behavior in Harpers Ferry, made him more a curiosity of the era than the pivotal figure Mr. Oates later found him to be.

The debate never quite settled.

At the Jefferson County Courthouse in nearby Charles Town, Carmen Creamer, president of the county historical society, was putting up photographs last week for the anniversary. It took a jury of 12 men, seven of them slave owners, almost no time to convict Brown there. Today, it takes locals much longer to assess the man their forebears hanged.

"It depends on who you ask," she said of Brown's legacy here. "He did take the law into his own hands. There were innocent people killed. Ironically, one of the first people to die in the raid was a black man."

Others say his purpose justified his actions.

"If you want to believe that he was mad, I'm not going to change your mind," said Mrs. Coburn, who now tends the old Brown homestead in Pennsylvania. "I personally believe that he was chosen to do this great work. He did exactly what he was instructed by a much higher power than you or I."

Read entire article at Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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