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John Brown's Spy tells the nearly unknown story of John E. Cook, the person John Brown trusted most with the details of his plans to capture the Harper's Ferry armory in 1859. Cook was a poet, a marksman, a boaster, a dandy, a fighter, and a womanizer—as well as a spy. In a life of only thirty years, he studied law in Connecticut, fought border ruffians in Kansas, served as an abolitionist mole in Virginia, took white hostages during the Harper's Ferry raid, and almost escaped to freedom. For ten days after the ...
John Brown's Spy tells the nearly unknown story of John E. Cook, the person John Brown trusted most with the details of his plans to capture the Harper's Ferry armory in 1859. Cook was a poet, a marksman, a boaster, a dandy, a fighter, and a womanizer—as well as a spy. In a life of only thirty years, he studied law in Connecticut, fought border ruffians in Kansas, served as an abolitionist mole in Virginia, took white hostages during the Harper's Ferry raid, and almost escaped to freedom. For ten days after the infamous raid, he was the most hunted man in America with a staggering $1,000 bounty on his head.
Tracking down the unexplored circumstances of John Cook's life and disastrous end, Steven Lubet is the first to uncover the full extent of Cook's contributions to Brown's scheme. Without Cook's participation, the author contends, Brown might never have been able to launch the insurrection that sparked the Civil War. Had Cook remained true to the cause, history would have remembered him as a hero. Instead, when Cook was captured and brought to trial, he betrayed John Brown and named fellow abolitionists in a full confession that earned him a place in history's tragic pantheon of disgraced turncoats.
John E. Cook was born in 1829 to a prosperous New England family of old Puritan stock. His parents, Nathaniel and Mary, lived in a sturdy frame house in Haddam, Connecticut, where they held interests in a quarry and several tracts of land, placing them among the small town's more affluent and stable citizens. Although John always had an impetuous side, there was little in his early upbringing that seemed to presage his later exploits with John Brown. As devout Congregationalists, the elder Cooks probably found slavery distasteful, but they were never known to express any abolitionist sentiments.
Nathaniel and Mary Cook had seven children—five daughters and two sons—among whom John was the youngest. Unusually for married women of that era, Mary Cook owned agricultural property in her own name, which provided her with considerable independence and no doubt contributed to her self-sufficient character. Five years older than her husband, Mary was forty-two when John was born, and she quite reasonably turned his care over to her daughters, who doted on the baby and made him the center of attention in a household dominated by strong women. Nathaniel Cook was a hard worker and a good provider, but he was chronically disorganized and given to telling imaginative tales. One neighbor called him the Baron Munchhausen of Haddam and another joked that a "verbal long bow" was the source of his constant exaggerations. In one of his stories, Nathaniel boasted of taking an entire flock of wild pigeons with "only one charge of shot," which made a strong impression on his youngest son.
John followed his father's example in many ways. He began telling fanciful tales of his own—amusing his sisters with jokes and stories, and developing a talent for delighting female company that he would carry into adulthood. At some point he also took up shooting, having been inspired by Nathaniel's account of preternatural pigeon hunting. Soon enough, John became a first-rate marksman, practicing his aim in the expanses of the family quarry.
In his teen years, John did his best to fulfill family responsibilities, working in a neighbor's fields for thirty cents a day, according to Nathaniel's ledger. He also took guests on tours of his father's quarry, once escorting two travelers from Prussia on a "mineral excursion" for an enhanced fee of eighty cents. Young John no doubt entertained his visitors with geological anecdotes learned from his voluble father. He might even have offered to give the curious Europeans a shooting exhibition, although that would not have been recorded in Nathaniel's account book. In one way, however, John improved on his father's example. Nathaniel's accounts were a mess. His books were filled with criss-crossed and undated entries, and his handwriting and notations were sometimes indecipherable. John, however, diligently practiced his penmanship, signing his name over and over in the margins of his father's ledger. John's twin sisters Caroline and Catherine—only two years his senior—practiced writing along with him, thus contributing to the development of his elegant cursive technique.
Along with his sisters, John attended private school at the Brainerd Academy, where his father paid tuition ranging from $5.50 to $6.50 per term. He also attended the Haddam Congregational Church, and he sometimes taught Sunday school classes. As Nathaniel later put it, John had a thorough education "in the principles of religious morality."
Nonetheless, John E. Cook had another side, in which he showed himself to be impulsive and reckless. One Haddam neighbor called him "a raskel," who was "always in some scrape." Another thought that John was a boaster and a coward who narrowly evaded punishment but was surely destined to come to a bad end. Whatever his juvenile misdeeds in Haddam, John Cook retained the love and devotion of his older sisters, who would later stand by him in his darkest days. Nathaniel and Mary also thought well enough of John's prospects to finance his education far beyond the limits of the Brainerd Academy.
* * *
John Cook's shameless storytelling and general audacity apparently led his parents to believe that he had a future as an attorney. He was sent to study law at Yale when he was about twenty, but he left school—without explanation—before graduating. Given his capricious ways, it is certainly possible that John was dismissed either for misconduct or poor performance, or he might simply have wearied of study and discipline.
A college degree was not required for admission to the bar in those days, and Cook soon obtained a position reading law in the Williamsburg, New York, office of a young attorney named John N. Stearns. He got the job with the help of his brother-in-law Robert Crowley, who had married Frances Cook several years earlier, and who operated a thriving needle business in Williamsburg (now part of Brooklyn). Frances—or Fanny, as she was called—was eight years older than John, and she would never stop treating him as her beloved baby brother. She repeatedly called upon her wealthy husband to extend himself whenever John was in need.
Beginning work for Stearns in early 1854, Cook was a competent clerk, so long as his duties were limited to copying (then an important skill) and other simple tasks. His elegant penmanship and "correct orthography" pleased his employer, but otherwise Cook turned out to have little talent for law and even less interest "in its science, its facts and its principles." Rather than study how to draw a complaint or a promissory note, Cook's "poetical infatuations" led him to spend his time writing sentimental verse for his many lady friends. Perhaps also as a means of impressing young women, and certainly to the annoyance of his boss, Cook somehow managed to practice shooting when he should have been working on conveyances or deeds of trust. "The use of guns and pistols was with him a kindred passion to his poetry; as a marksman he was a dead shot." It turned out that Cook was willing to do "anything and everything ... except to learn law," and his clerkship ended well before he was qualified for admission to the bar.
Fanny came to the rescue, convincing her husband to employ John as the Philadelphia representative of his business. Cook showed somewhat more promise as a merchant than he had as a lawyer. His affability made him an effective salesman, and he successfully expanded Crowley's sales to local shop owners. Cook also enjoyed a rich social life. While boarding at the Union Hotel, he made the acquaintance of many women, young and old, whom he charmed with his usual rounds of poetry and stories. It would not be surprising if he gave shooting demonstrations, and he definitely organized numerous games and parties. But even with a surfeit of off-hours female companionship, the mundane work of selling needles could not hold Cook's attention for long. He returned to Brooklyn and worked briefly in another law office, but to no better result.
By the mid-1850s—spurred by idealism and eager for adventure—Cook had become committed to a militant brand of abolitionism that would consume the rest of his life. There is no precise record of Cook's conversion to the antislavery cause. His Williamsburg boss, John Stearns, was a staunch temperance man, and Cook also embraced "anti-whisky" principles during his clerkship, but he does not seem ever to have had an abolitionist mentor. According to Stearns, Cook never displayed any "special interest in Abolitionism, nor any special sympathy for the colored race." As far as his employer knew, Cook's vivid "poetic imagination" took him only into a "land of dreams." In fact, the restless young clerk was dreaming of something much greater than law practice, and certainly much grander than selling needles to Philadelphia shopkeepers.
Cook was no doubt inspired by the lectures of Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, who was then the minister at the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn Heights, which has rightly been called the leading Protestant church of the era. Beecher was an ardent abolitionist and a spellbinding orator, whose weekly sermons touched on a wide range of political, cultural, and literary topics. Beecher's speaking style was characterized by "originality, logic, pathos, and humor," and his charismatic personality attracted thousands of congregants and guests. Although Cook often accompanied his sister and brother-in-law to the nearby Reformed Dutch Church of Williamsburg—where Robert Crowley was a member of the consistory—John certainly would have been drawn to the charismatic Beecher who, like Cook, was a Connecticut native and a Congregationalist. Cook would later show evidence of Beecher's influence on matters as diverse as abolitionism, temperance, and even a fascination with the novels of Sir Walter Scott.
Beecher's celebrity status was unmatched in antebellum America, and given the opportunity, virtually nobody passed up the chance to hear him preach against slavery. His services were attended at one time or another by Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln, Clara Barton, Horace Greeley, Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, and almost every other literary or political figure who happened to be passing through New York. Some were motivated by the hope of meeting Beecher's older sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose momentous novel Uncle Tom's Cabin had been published in 1851, and who was a member of her brother's church. Others were attracted by the many famous guest lecturers, who included William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, Sojourner Truth, and Charles Sumner. Most of the attendees, however, came to hear Rev. Beecher's own antislavery message, which was militant and unequivocal.
John Cook was surely also attracted by the social opportunities at Plymouth Church. Beecher did not preach free love (although it turned out that he may have practiced it in private), but his congregation was the best place in New York to meet liberal-minded young women. A common interest in the heady subject of abolitionism would have provided Cook with the perfect opening gambit for a more intimate conversation.
* * *
Henry Ward Beecher came naturally to abolitionism, having inherited the antislavery sentiments of his father, the famous evangelist Rev. Lyman Beecher. In a pattern that was repeated throughout the antebellum period, the younger Beecher expanded upon and radicalized his father's theology—which stressed holiness and benevolence—eventually calling for active resistance to the slave power in the name of "higher law."
The problem of slavery had always vexed American political, social, and religious life. In the first years following the Revolution of 1776, it was optimistically thought that the spirit of the Declaration of Independence would gradually lead to the voluntary abandonment of slavery. But that naïve expectation was soundly dashed at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, when the southern delegates argued vehemently that recognition of slavery was essential to their acceptance of the new Union. While some northern delegates were personally opposed to slavery, not one had come to the convention "intending to grapple with the social and moral issues of slavery," and most were eager to compromise with southerners for the sake of unity and commerce. At the time, enslaved human beings constituted the second most valuable form of private property in the nation—in the aggregate, only real estate was worth more—and the prosperous men who wrote the Constitution were keenly aware that their own fortunes, in all regions, were closely tied to the fruits of slave labor.
When it came to slavery, the Constitution was a product of southern intransigence and northern concessions. It included numerous protections for slavery, including the three-fifths clause, which gave the slave states disproportionate representation in the House of Representatives and Electoral College, and the fugitive slave clause, which would later be interpreted to deny the ability of free states to protect their own black citizens. Charles Pinckney, a leading delegate from South Carolina, was well satisfied with the result, bragging that the southerners had "made the best terms for the security of this species of property it was in our power to make." Nonetheless, the question of slavery would continue to trouble the new nation. As James Madison observed, the states would continue to be divided "principally from the effects of their having or not having slaves."
Opposition to slavery slowly continued to build in the North, and the peculiar institution became ever more entrenched in the South. The issue occasionally flared—as during the Missouri crisis of 1820—but most national leaders agreed that compromise remained in the nation's best interest, and nobody dared to challenge the existence of slavery where it was already well established. For over forty years, antislavery groups were dominated by "elite white ministers, lawyers, and businessmen" who adhered to a philosophy of gradualism and promoted the re-colonization of freed slaves to Africa.
All of that began to change on July 4, 1829, when a young journalist named William Lloyd Garrison stepped to the pulpit of Boston's Park Street Congregational Church. The Fourth of July had long been an occasion for well-to-do Bostonians to express their sympathy for the downtrodden slaves of the South, and Garrison had been invited by the American Colonization Society to make an afternoon address at the annual meeting. It was expected that Garrison, then only twenty-four years old, would invoke piety and charity, while requesting donations for the relief of "a long divided and suffering people." Instead, Garrison used the occasion to make a radical statement "on the necessity of abolishing slavery in the name of equal rights."
Dressed in a black suit with a fashionably broad, Byronic collar spread over the jacket, Garrison's knees were knocking together in apprehension as he approached the lectern. It was his first major public appearance, and he intended to discomfit the self-satisfied citizens in the pews. He began by denouncing Independence Day as "the worst and most disastrous day in the whole three hundred and sixty five," because it commemorated the "glaring contradiction" between the ideals of the Revolution and the reality of slavery. Garrison declared that slavery was "a gangrene preying upon our vitals—an earthquake rumbling under our feet—a mine accumulating materials for a national catastrophe," and he called for "the liberation of two millions of wretched, degraded beings, who are pining in hopeless bondage." Slavery, he said, was a crime for which even the free states bore the stain of constitutional guilt. Abolition would require "a struggle with the worst passions of human nature [and] a collision, full of sharp asperities and bitterness." Garrison concluded with the prescient observation that it would some day be necessary to contend "with millions of armed and desperate men ... if slavery does not cease."
Within eighteen months Garrison would launch The Liberator, which was the first publication in the United States dedicated to the immediate abolition of slavery. In the first issue, which appeared on January 1, 1831, Garrison announced that he would "strenuously contend for the immediate enfranchisement of our slave population," and he repudiated "the popular but pernicious doctrine of gradual abolition." At that moment, in the words of historian Don Fehrenbacher, opposition to slavery began the transition from a sentiment to "a professionalized movement." The difference was important. A movement could recruit activists—men and women who would make the war on slavery the central purpose in their lives—rather than simply inspire sympathizers.
As Garrison's biographer Henry Mayer put it, the doctrine of immediatism placed the abolitionist movement squarely within the ideal of western Romanticism, animating "the moral landscape as the Romantic poets had spiritualized the natural world." That transition had many consequences as it developed an ever more militant edge, one of which would eventually make abolitionism attractive to men like John Cook. Gradualist abolitionism, with its emphasis on patience and pragmatism, could not hold much allure for young men who were searching for adventure rather than toil. Immediatism, however, held out the promise of excitement and even danger, making it a natural home of thrill seekers as well as do-gooders. If gradualism was the calling of earnest altruists, immediatism would also speak to those who saw themselves as swashbucklers, heroes, risk-takers. Garrison himself was a pacifist, but the logic of the movement he started would eventually lead to calls for active resistance and almost inevitably, though almost thirty years later, to the violent embellishments of John Brown.
Excerpted from JOHN BROWN'S SPY by Steven Lubet Copyright © 2012 by Steven Lubet. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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