John Brown: Hero? Villain?

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Anthony Trabucco
Coming of the Civil War
Paper #2
Prof. Cimbala
November 29, 2012

John Brown and Spider-Man:
Hero? Villain? America Can’t Decide

Students of history and those merely interested in casual inquiry will often explore a topic, find a legitimate opinion, accept it at face value, and move on. Too often with young or inexperienced historians this is the case. It does, in a way, make sense. Many topics an individual will study have been researched and written on countless times. It is easy to accept an opinion as is and forget about it. John Brown is one of these subjects. Merrill D. Peterson’s John Brown explores the complicated nature of the legacy of this militant abolitionist. Brown has been, in the time since his departure, construed as a hero, a villain, an antihero, a well-meaning lunatic, and so on. The nature of his actions and the divisive context they are found in gives way to many different opinions. Peterson’s book explores these many definitions of John Brown. The opinions of historians, students, politicians, and the like are weighed against the validity of their status as historical interpreters, their knowledge of the subject, their biases, and Peterson’s own interpretations. John Brown’s legacy is an ambiguous and complicated one and Peterson’s book explores the warring opinions of observers on whether John Brown is hero, villain, or both.

In the opening chapter, titled “The John Brown Epoch”, Peterson presents the story of John Brown’s life and his raid on Harper’s Ferry. He explores the circumstances by which John Brown came to devote his life to the cause of ending slavery. Peterson traces Brown’s different residences from his birth in Connecticut, to his time in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kansas, and Virginia, among other places. John Brown’s belief in racial equality seems to have been a theme throughout his life. Peterson writes: “He truly believed that black people were the equals of whites, and he conducted himself accordingly.” Peterson makes efforts to point out the connections Brown accumulated within the abolitionist community during his early years, from his association with Frederick Douglass to his formation of the League of Gileadites, a militant organization dedicated to preparing black people to defend themselves. Brown moved to Kansas in August 1855 and immediately began making a name for himself as “the terror of the prairie…” as he made an effort to “scurry up bands of fugitive blacks…to fight for their freedom…” Peterson explores the reactions to Brown’s October 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry. Initially, the American people disapproved of Brown’s actions. In the South, this disapproval would turn to fear and would stay that way. However, as Brown’s trial and execution played out and were written on, individuals in the North began change their tone to “respect, admiration, and praise.” The opening of Peterson’s book gives way to two main themes. One is that John Brown was not simply an abolitionist; he was a militant abolitionist. Brown was a man of action. He believed militancy was the only way to change the tide of slavery. The second main point is that the reaction to John Brown’s actions was different in different parts of the nation and would change as facts came out and individuals expressed their own personal opinions. This foreshadows the ways in which John Brown would become a complicated and contentious ideal.

Chapter two, “Faces and Places of the Hero”, moves away from a simple telling of the story to Peterson’s main purpose, the way people have remembered John Brown. Brown’s story gave way to musical composition. The songs “John Brown’s Body” and “the Battle Hymn of the Republic” both find their inspiration in Brown’s legacy. Peterson discusses Brown’s first appearances in literature, including the first Brown biography, The Public Life of Capt. John Brown by James Redpath. Peterson describes the book as a valiant effort that failed nonetheless. Brown’s...
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