Civil War Book Review: John Brown’s War Against Slavery
The excellent Civil War Book Review of LSU recently posted Grady Atwater’s review of Robert McGlone’s John Brown’s War Against Slavery. With the 150th anniversary of Harper’s Ferry just passed, Atwater reports that McGlone’s analysis avoids the pitfalls of many Brown historians.
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John Brown’s militant abolitionist crusade changed American history. His actions during the guerilla war in Kansas Territory from 1855 to 1858 sparked both violence in Kansas Territory and Missouri and philosophical debate across the nation. Brown escalated the debate over slavery to the point that it sparked the Civil War via his raid on Harpers Ferry on October 16, 1859. Brown’s contemporaries and historians have been debating his motivations to take up arms against proslavery forces since he unsheathed his sword against slavery in Kansas Territory.
Robert McGlone joins the battle over John Brown’s motivations to utilize violence to end slavery in John Brown’s War against Slavery, in which he asserts that John Brown was motivated by a combination of secular philosophical influences and his religious beliefs to engage in his peaceful abolitionist crusade until he moved to Kansas Territory in 1855. In addition, he argues that John Brown worked within the framework of his family to combat slavery. Furthermore, McGlone argues that John Brown was turned to violence by the guerilla war in Kansas Territory, and became a militant abolitionist.
Robert McGlone’s work is well-researched and he writes in a stimulating academic style that reflects an effective understanding of the historiography of John Brown scholarship. Readers will have to do prerequisite reading of a chronological biography about John Brown to be able to appreciate McGlone’s work. His study is almost pure analysis, which requires preliminary knowledge in order to comprehend McGlone’s in-depth analysis of John Brown’s motivations.
The traditional assessment of John Brown’s motives is that he was moved by his Calvinist Christian religious beliefs to begin his abolitionist crusade. His violence was a product of the belief that he was God’s agent on earth, and he was called by God to fight slavery. He did so largely on his own, eschewing family, friends, and supporters’ advice to moderate his abolitionist campaign, and thus committed violence in the prosecution of his militant efforts to combat proslavery forces. Virtually every contemporary and historian interprets Brown’s motives in this religious light, from Richard Hinton’s John Brown and His Men (1894) to Evan Carton’s Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America (2006). Brown scholars typically utilize the same body of evidence, a collection of observations by Brown’s contemporaries and letters from John Brown’s era to prove their arguments. Brown’s contemporaries and historians utilize these sources to the point that most works about John Brown are so predictable that it is possible that the reader can successfully prognosticate where the author is going from the first chapter of each work.
McGlone breaks new ground in this work, for he utilizes sources that John Brown scholars typically brush aside, John Brown’s family and John Brown’s own letters and writings. John Brown scholars have normally dismissed these sources as suspect, but McGlone rejects that assessment. For in searching out John Brown’s personal motivations, John Brown’s own words offer shades of meaning not found in observations and reminisces of John Brown’s supporters, written later in life. McGlone successfully proves that John Brown’s own writings are effective evidence concerning his motivations, and uses Brown’s own words to paint a picture of a man who was motivated by both secular philosophies and his religious beliefs.