Before emancipation, slavety was constitutional. That much was settled. But what, it was debated, were the founders' intentions? Was the Constitution written in order for slavery to thrive or to wither? And what about the Declaration of Independence, with its promise that all were created equal before God? And even if slavery was constitutional, was it moral? Or, more precisely, was it biblically sanctioned? And what of free states and slave states? What were the obligations of the former when it came to the laws of the latter? Such was the legal and theological wrangling that consumed many American minds in the United States' antebellum years. The mood of the country was for confrontation. But its mechanisms were for compromise--compromise that always left both sides even angrier and more disgusted than before. The country was simultaneously paranoid, apathetic, and confused. That is, until John Brown launched his crusade against slavery.
Brown was, if nothing else, a great simplifier. He was, as W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, "exas-peratingly simple." For Brown, slavery was evil and evil things should perish. No legal hairsplitting. No biblical exegesis. No political compromise. The Old Man was, as Russell Banks put it in his novel Cloudsplitter, "wonderfully clarifying."
Recently, Brown has returned to the spotlight. Last fall, an adaptation of James McBride's 2013 novel about him, The Good Lord Bird, aired on Showtime. And popular historian H.W. Brands's latest book, The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American Freedom, juxtaposes Brown's radicalism with Abraham Lincoln's moderation on the matters of slavery and abolition.
Why this resurgent interest? Partly, I think, because we find ourselves in a similar condition to that of Brown's contemporaries. The country's mood is for confrontation, but our mechanisms are for compromise. We know there is a great divide. We know there is something to overcome. But what, exactly?...