Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War

Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War

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by Tony Horwitz

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A New York Times Notable Book for 2011
A Library Journal Top Ten Best Books of 2011
A Boston Globe Best Nonfiction Book of 2011
Late on the night of October 16, 1859, John Brown launched a surprise raid on the slaveholding South. Leading a biracial band of militant idealists, he seized the massive

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A New York Times Notable Book for 2011
A Library Journal Top Ten Best Books of 2011
A Boston Globe Best Nonfiction Book of 2011
Late on the night of October 16, 1859, John Brown launched a surprise raid on the slaveholding South. Leading a biracial band of militant idealists, he seized the massive armory at Harpers Ferry, freed and armed slaves, and vowed to liberate every bondsman in America.
Brown's daring strike sparked a savage street fight and a counterattack by U.S. Marines under Robert E. Lee. The bloodshed and court drama that followed also shocked a divided nation and propelled it toward civil war. Tony Horwitz's Midnight Rising brings Brown and his uprising vividly to life and charts America's descent into explosive conflict. The result is a taut and indispensable history of a man and a time that still resonate in our own.

Editorial Reviews

Kevin Boyle

A hard-driving narrative of one of America's most troubling figures… Horwitz describes the disaster in riveting terms… It's impossible to read this fine book without thinking about modern-day Browns.
The Boston Globe

Horwitz's skills are a good match for this enormously compelling character, and his well-paced narrative incorporates masterful sketches of Brown's family, foot soldiers, financial backers, admirers and prosecutors… The result is both page-turning and heartbreaking--a book to engage mind and soul.
Notable Work of Nonfiction) The Washington Post(Best of 2011

Horwitz, an exceptionally skilled and accomplished journalist, here turns his hand to pure history with admirable results. Midnight Rising is smoothly written, thoroughly researched, places Brown within the context of his time and place, and treats him sensitively but scarcely adoringly.
The San Francisco Chronicle

Midnight Rising is a richly detailed and engaging history… Horwitz's moment-by-moment account of the doomed raid unfolds with such immediacy that he reintroduces suspense to a story we all know from textbooks.
The Washington Times

Horwitz describes guerrilla action and the run-up to war with a deadline writer's immediacy… A brilliant researcher, he integrates diverse sources into a cogent adventure.
Seattle Times

What do you call John Brown? Is he a terrorist or a freedom fighter? ... Tony Horwitz settles upon the word insurgent -- and the label seems just right, as does Horwitz's book as a whole… Midnight Rising rolls through a series of indelible scenes… The book becomes a graceful narrative, ever engaging, with the reader allowed to connect Brown and his contemporaries to conflicts that continue to our day.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer

In captivating detail, Horwitz animates the wild-eyed, long-bearded crusader . . . Make no mistake, the infamous October 1859 raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry by John Brown and his 18 men was the stone that began the avalanche that became the Civil Wars.
Buffalo News

A brave and highly successful attempt to revive the legend of Brown's martyrdom for the 21st century reader…. Horwitz's vivid writing style… makes for a superb historical narrative.
The Florida Courier

A beautifully crafted, richly detailed, and riveting narrative of a pivotal episode in American history . . . Midnight Rising is at its best reconstructing the lives (and deaths) of the relatively anonymous conspirators - especially the African-Americans.

Horwitz's potent prose delivers the facts of this bellwether incident in riveting fashion… It is an absorbing portrait of the often frustrated but passionately driven firebrand who successfully convinced a country of the shame of slavery and, to the South's great regret, earned martyr status in the aftermath of his execution. Brown qualifies as America's first important post-revolution terrorist… Horwitz brings events to life with almost cinematic clarity, and for American history and Civil War aficionados, Midnight Rising is required reading.
Christian Science Monitor (one of the 15 Best Nonfiction Books of 2011)

Horwitz's description of the little band of idealists and adventurers who signed on for Brown's offensive - including five black men and two of Brown's own sons - is both fascinating and touching. His careful recreation of the bloody events of October 16, 1859, the day of Brown's disastrous raid on Harpers Ferry, is both suspenseful and heartwrenching.
St. Petersburg Times

In Midnight Rising, [Horwitz] not only gives us an action-packed adventure story, but also provides detailed historical background and vivid character portraits of the principals involved… Assiduously researched using archival sources, Horwitz's riveting tale is on sound factual footing. And he does a wonderful job of bringing to life the fascinating, messianic leader who, on the way to the gallows, would incite a nation toward civil war.
Wichita Eagle

Compelling reading.
San Jose Mercury News

The lively narrative focuses on the 1859 attack on an armory in Harpers Ferry, W.Va, by Brown and his ragtag followers -- the event credited with lighting the fuse on the deadliest conflict in U.S. history.

A groundbreaking study of the Harper's Ferry raid that makes a number of fascinating points: Brown was not a madman or a fanatic, he knew his death would serve as a moral lightning rod, and the fallout from his actions has echoed for generations.
American Scholar

Superb and amply researched… [Horwitz] renders with empathy and insight the lives of the individuals Brown touched, whether they were family members, victims, or the idealistic raiders who followed him to Harpers Ferry… Brown's raiders thus appear more human, poignant, and fallible and the whole venture more noble, futile, benighted, heroic, and sadder than heretofore.
author of The Devil in the White City and In the G Erik Larson

There's a brilliance to this book that put me in mind of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, only Horwitz's Midnight Rising is set deeper in America's dark past. With stunning, vivid detail, he has captured the sheer drama and tragedy of John Brown and that bloody raid at Harpers Ferry that helped propel America toward civil war.
author of Battle Cry of Freedom James M. McPherson

Tony Horwitz's gifts as a vivid narrator of dramatic events are on full display in this story of John Brown's wars in Kansas and his climactic Harpers Ferry raid in 1859. Brown's family and the men who joined him in these fights against slavery receive a more fully rounded treatment than in any other account. Of special note is the discussion of Brown's self-conscious emulation of Samson by pulling down the temple of bondage and dying a martyr in its ruins.
author of The Hemingses of Monticello Annette Gordon-Reed

Midnight Rising is a deeply compelling work, richly researched and elegantly written. The events surrounding the raid on Harpers Ferry--and the complex character of John Brown himself--come vividly to life in Tony Horwitz's irresistibly readable account.
author of American Oracle: The Civil War in th David W. Blight

With his customary blend of rich archival research, on-location color, and lyrical prose, Tony Horwitz has delivered a John Brown book for our time. Part biography, part historical narrative, Midnight Rising is a riveting re-creation of the Harpers Ferry raid, told with an unblinking sense of Brown's tragic place in American history. Writing with enveloping detail and a storyteller's verve, Horwitz shows why Brown was--and still is--so troubling and important to our culture.
author of Founding Brothers and First Family Joseph J. Ellis

Tony Horwitz knows how to tell a story, and here his considerable gifts as a writer bring John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry alive in a style that is just as electric as its subject.
author of Manhunt and Bloody Crimes James L. Swanson

Beautifully written and sparkling with fresh insights, Midnight Rising resurrects the multiple faces of John Brown: avenging angel or murderous terrorist; slavery's nemesis or deluded fanatic; abolitionist hero or subversive insurrectionist. In this thrilling, magnificent and essential book, Tony Horwitz shows how one man and a single event set the nation on a doomed course where the crimes of a guilty land could only be purged by blood.
Jonathan Yardley
Horwitz, an exceptionally skilled and accomplished journalist…here turns his hand to pure history with admirable results. Midnight Rising is smoothly written, thoroughly researched, places Brown within the context of his time and place, and treats him sensitively but scarcely adoringly…Without sentimentalizing him, Tony Horwitz has given [Brown] his due.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
In this engrossing history of John Brown’s 1859 slave-liberation raid on the Harper’s Ferry, Va., arsenal, bestselling author Horwitz (Confederates in the Attic) concentrates on action set against deftly sketched historical background and compelling characters rendered without overdone psychologizing. His vivid biographical portrait of Brown gives us an American original: a failed businessman and harsh Calvinist with a soft spot for the oppressed and a murderous animus against oppressors (even if sometimes, as at Pottawatomie Creek in Kansas, his victims were unarmed). Brown’s raiders—a motley crew of his sons and various idealists, adventurers, freedmen, and fugitive slaves—come alive as a romantic, appealing bunch; their agonizing deaths give Horwitz’s excellent narrative of the raid and shootout a deep pathos. The author’s shrewd interpretation of Brown (similar to that of other scholars) makes him America’s great propagandist of his deed; after the raid ended in fiasco, he used his eloquent trial statements to transform himself in the public eye from madman and desperado to martyr and prophet—and a symbol who hardened both Northern and Southern militancy. But Horwitz smartly gives priority to the deeds themselves in this dramatic saga of an American white man who acted, rather than just talked, as if ending slavery mattered. 35 illus.; 2 maps. (Oct.)
Library Journal
Horwitz (Confederates in the Attic), Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and best-selling author, presents a gripping narrative of Brown and the raid on Harpers Ferry that in many ways set the stage for Southern secession and civil war. Horwitz brings all his gifts of character building and storytelling to Brown's rise and self-promotion as an instrument of a supposed God-ordained command to purge with blood the land of the sin of slavery. Horwitz also speculates on motivations, especially his unproven suggestion that Brown did not care whether his raid failed because his real purpose was sowing terror and dying nobly. In his martyrdom, Brown sought to steel Northerners to stand up against the Southern slavers' power and make Southerners fear for their lives. In that, Brown succeeded brilliantly. Other recent biographies, especially David S. Reynolds's fine John Brown, Abolitionist, provide ample details on Brown and his time, but Horwitz surpasses all in his sensitive probing of Brown's mind and soul and in his attention to those who supported Brown. VERDICT Horwitz's Brown did not die in vain. By recalling the drama that fired the imagination and fears of Brown's time, Midnight Rising calls readers to account for complacency about social injustices today. This is a book for our time. [See Prepub Alert, 4/11/11.]—Randall M. Miller, Saint Joseph's Univ., Philadelphia
Kirkus Reviews

A crisply written but not entirely original retelling of John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry.

Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and historian Horwitz returns to the Civil War era (A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World, 2008, etc.) and John Brown's infamous raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry in what is now West Virginia. The author depicts a morally upright abolitionist deeply committed to his cause but also well known for his "fixedness," a rigid stubbornness that could be a source of strength but was equally a source of weakness. Brown rose to notoriety on the basis of his violent abolitionist crusades in Bloody Kansas, but he had larger plans in mind; he imagined his raid would set in motion slave uprisings that would allow him to command a righteous army of liberation. Grand dreams gave way to grim reality soon after he set his scheme in motion in October 1859 with a small but loyal band of white and black followers. Soon Brown's men were overrun, and those who were not killed or who did not manage to escape faced the gallows. Among this group was Brown himself, whose hanging represented just retribution in the minds of many detractors, especially whites in the South, but served as equally apt martyrdom in the eyes of his supporters. Though the author's archival sleuthing pays off with a rich narrative, the book is one of many on the subject to appear in recent years, most notably David S. Reynolds'John Brown, Abolitionist(2005). Horwitz is a fine writer, but the narrative lacks deep historical analysis.

Lucid and compelling but hardly groundbreaking.

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October 16, 1859

"Men, get on your arms," the Captain said. "We will proceed to the Ferry."

It was eight at night, an autumn Sunday, silent and dark in the Maryland hills. A horse-drawn wagon pulled up to the log house and the men loaded it with pikes, tools, torches, and gunpowder. The Captain put on the battered cap he'd worn in Bleeding Kansas. Then he climbed on the wagon and the men marched behind, down a dirt lane, past a snake-rail fence, onto the road to Harpers Ferry.

There were eighteen men, not counting the Captain. Almost all were in their twenties and had written farewell letters to family and lovers. Five of them were black, including a fugitive slave and a freedman whose wife and children were still in bondage. Two others were the Captain's sons. All had been formally inducted at the secluded log house as soldiers in the Provisional Army of the United States.

Their commander was fifty-nine, a sinewy man with gunmetal eyes and a white beard he'd grown to conceal his identity. He was wanted by state and federal authorities; President Buchanan had put a price on his head. While living underground, the Captain had drafted a constitution and a "Declaration of Liberty" for the revolutionary government that tonight's action would found.

" ‘When in the course of Human events, it becomes necessary' for an oppressed People to Rise, and assert their Natural Rights," the declaration began. If the opening sounded familiar, the close was not. "We will obtain these rights or die in the struggle," the document stated, before concluding: "Hung be the Heavens in Scarlet."

The road ran below a mountain ridge, through woods and rolling farmland. The mid-October night was cool and drizzly and dark, perfect weather for a surprise attack. There was no one else abroad and no sound, just the creak of the wagon's wooden wheels and the clop of hooves. Steam rose from the horse's flanks; behind the Captain's wagon the men marched in pairs, solemn and speechless, as if in a funeral cortège. Their orders were to make no noise and to conceal their rifles beneath gray shawls. Anyone they encountered was to be detained.

After three miles, the road descended steeply to the wide, swift Potomac River. On the far bank glowed the gas lamps of Harpers Ferry, Virginia, a factory town and the gateway to the largest slave state in the country. Two of the men crept ahead; soon they would cut the telegraph lines linking Harpers Ferry to the outside world. Two other men, hard veterans of Kansas, slipped onto the covered bridge over the Potomac and seized the night watchman who trolled back and forth with a lantern.

The Captain followed in his wagon, leading the others across the bridge. It was an hour before midnight when they emerged on the Virginia shore and entered the business district of Harpers Ferry. The wagon clattered across pavement, past a rail depot, a hotel, saloons, and shops, and up to the front gate of the U.S. armory. Behind its high wrought-iron fence stretched a massive industrial complex where the nation's newest weapons were manufactured.

"Open the gate!" one of the men shouted at a night guard within the armory fence. The watchman refused. Two of the men grabbed hold of him through the fence and pressed guns to his chest. Another man forced the gate's lock with a crowbar. Then the Captain rode into the armory yard and took the watchman prisoner.

"I came here from Kansas," he announced to his captive. "This is a slave state. I want to free all the Negroes in this state. I have possession now of the United States armory, and if the citizens interfere with me, I must only burn the town and have blood."

On october 16, 2009, I retraced the Captain's march with other pilgrims who had gathered for the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of John Brown's famous raid on Harpers Ferry. The night was appropriately cold and wet, and we followed a horse-drawn wagon through a landscape that has changed remarkably little since 1859. Brown's log hideout in Maryland still stands, as does the armory building in Harpers Ferry that became his headquarters and "fort." Though we didn't carry guns or wear nineteenth-century attire, I experienced a little of the time-travel high that Civil War reenactors call a "period rush."

But walking in the footsteps of history isn't the same as being there. I could tread where Brown's men did, glimpse some of what they saw, but the place I wanted to be was inside their heads. What led them to launch a brazen assault on their own government and countrymen? Why were millions of other Americans willing to kill and die in the civil war that followed? How did one event connect to the other?

My son's ninth-grade American history textbook offers little more insight than mine did in the 1970s. Harpers Ferry merits six paragraphs—a speed bump for students racing ahead to Fort Sumter and the Gettysburg Address. Recent history also provides a simplistic guide at best. Viewed through the lens of 9/11, Harpers Ferry seems an al-Qaeda prequel: a long-bearded fundamentalist, consumed by hatred of the U.S. government, launches nineteen men in a suicidal strike on a symbol of American power. A shocked nation plunges into war. We are still grappling with the consequences.

But John Brown wasn't a charismatic foreigner crusading from half a world away. He descended from Puritans and Revolutionary soldiers and believed he was fulfilling their struggle for freedom. Nor was he an alienated loner in the mold of recent homegrown terrorists such as Ted Kaczynski and Timothy McVeigh. Brown plotted while raising an enormous family; he also drew support from leading thinkers and activists of his day, including Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Henry David Thoreau. The covert group that funneled him money and guns, the so-called Secret Six, was composed of northern magnates and prominent Harvard men, two of them ministers.

Those who followed Brown into battle represented a cross section of mid-nineteenth-century America. In Kansas and, later, Virginia, he was joined by farm laborers, factory workers, tradesmen, teachers, an immigrant Jewish shopkeeper, a free black schooled at Oberlin, and two young women who acted as lookouts and camouflage at his hideout near Harpers Ferry. These foot soldiers often bristled at his leadership and rejected his orthodox Calvinism. Most who went with him to Harpers Ferry regarded themselves as nonbelieving "infidels."

Yet follow him they did, swearing allegiance to his revolutionary government and marching into Virginia to found a new order. Within two years, entire armies would cross the Potomac, and this obscured the magnitude of what happened in 1859. The street violence at Harpers Ferry came to seem almost quaint by comparison with the industrial-scale slaughter at Antietam and Gettysburg. In time, the uprising became known as John Brown's Raid, a minor-sounding affair, like one man's act of banditry.

But no one saw it that way at the time. A month after the attack, under the headline "HOW WOULD IT FIGURE IN HISTORY," a Baltimore newspaper listed the many labels given to the recent violence in Virginia. The most common were "Insurrection," "Rebellion," "Uprising," and "Invasion." Further down the list appeared "War," "Treason," and "Crusade." There were twenty-six terms in all. "Raid" was not among them.

The united states in the late 1850s was a divided but peaceful country, with a standing army of only fifteen thousand men and a booming cotton trade that fed northern mills and accounted for three-quarters of the country's exports. Acts of political violence were rare. No president had yet been assassinated; the hundred thousand guns at Harpers Ferry were virtually unguarded. And the long-simmering conflict over slavery played out principally in Washington, where Southerners had held sway for most of the nation's history.

Though many Americans hated slavery, very few sought its abolition, or expected the institution to disappear anytime soon. "I do not suppose that in the most peaceful way ultimate extinction would occur in less than a hundred years at the least," Abraham Lincoln said in 1858. He advocated resettling free blacks in Africa and pledged to leave slavery alone in the states where it existed.

Harpers Ferry helped propel Lincoln into the White House, where he would ultimately fulfill Brown's mission. The midnight rising in Virginia also embroiled a host of future Confederates. Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart led troops against Brown; Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson guarded the abolitionist. So did John Wilkes Booth, who loathed Brown but took inspiration from his daring act of violence. Meanwhile, in Congress, Jefferson Davis cited the attack as grounds for Southerners to leave the Union, "even if it rushes us into a sea of blood." Harpers Ferry wasn't simply a prelude to secession and civil war. In many respects, it was a dress rehearsal.

This was true not only for participants but for the millions of Americans who followed the events from afar, through telegraphic dispatches that made Harpers Ferry one of the first breaking news stories in the nation. The debate and division stirred by the crisis unsettled decades of compromise and prevarication. On the subject of John Brown, there was no middle ground. North and South, citizens picked sides and braced for conflict that now seemed inevitable.

William Lloyd Garrison, America's leading abolitionist in the decades before the Civil War, had for thirty years waged an often lonely crusade to mobilize the moral force of the nation against slavery. As an ardent pacifist, he condemned Brown's violent act. But the passions and ruptures laid bare by Harpers Ferry compelled him to reconsider.

"In firing his gun, he has merely told us what time of day it is," Garrison said of Brown. "It is high noon, thank God!"


The Road to Harpers Ferry

He was a stone, A stone eroded to a cutting edge By obstinacy, failure and cold prayers.
"John Brown's Body"


School of Adversity

John Brown was born with the nineteenth century and didn't launch his attack on Virginia until he was nearly sixty. But almost from birth, he was marked in ways that would set him on the road to rebellion at Harpers Ferry.

Brown was named for his grandfather, a Connecticut farmer and Revolutionary War officer who marched off to fight the British in 1776. Captain John Brown died of dysentery a few weeks later, in a New York barn, leaving behind a pregnant widow and ten children. One of them was five-year-old Owen, who later wrote: "for want of help we lost our Crops and then our Cattle and so became poor."

Owen was forced "to live abroad" with neighbors and nearby relations, and went to work young, farming in summer and making shoes in winter. As a teenager he found religion and met a minister's daughter, Ruth Mills, pious and frugal like himself. Soon after their marriage, Ruth gave birth to "a very thrifty forward Child," a son who died before turning two. The Browns moved to a clapboard saltbox in the stony hills of Torrington, Connecticut, and had another son. "In 1800, May 9th John was born," Owen wrote, "nothing very uncommon."

A portrait of Owen Brown in later years depicts a thin-lipped, hawk-beaked man with penetrating eyes: an antique version of his famous son. Owen also bestowed on John his austere Calvinism, a faith ever vigilant against sin and undue attachment to the things of this world. In his late seventies, after rising from childhood penury to become a prosperous landowner and respected civic leader known as Squire Brown, Owen wrote a brief autobiography for his family. It began: "my life has been of but little worth mostly fild up with vanity."

John Brown also wrote a short autobiography, in his case for a young admirer. Two years before the uprising at Harpers Ferry, while seeking money and guns for his campaign, he dined at the home of George Luther Stearns, a wealthy Massachusetts industrialist. Stearns's twelve-year-old son, Henry, was inspired by Brown's antislavery fervor and donated his pocket money (thirty cents) to the cause. In return--and after some prodding from Stearns senior--Brown wrote Henry a long letter describing his own youth in the early 1800s.

The letter was didactic in tone, doubtless intended to impress Henry's wealthy father as much as the boy himself. But it was nonetheless a telling account, delivered in the direct, emphatic, and grammatically irregular voice that distinguished so much of Brown's speech and writing.

"I cannot tell you of anything in the first Four years of John's life worth mentioning," Brown wrote, narrating his story in the third person, "save that at that early age he was tempted by Three large Brass Pins belonging to a girl who lived in the family & stole them. In this he was detected by his Mother; & after having a full day to think of the wrong; received from her a thorough whipping."

If Brown's earliest memory was of sin and chastisement, his next was of dislocation. When he was five, his family moved by oxcart to northeast Ohio. This territory, Connecticut's "Western Reserve," was pioneered by New Englanders seeking to extend their godly settlement. "I came with the determination," Brown's father wrote, "to build up and be a help in the seport of religion and civil order." He and his neighbors formed communities centered on Congregational churches and village greens, much like the world they left behind.

Young John's experience of Ohio was very different. When he was a boy, he wrote, the Western Reserve seemed a wondrously untamed place, "a wilderness filled with wild beasts, & Indians." He rambled in the woods, wore buckskins, learned to live rough (a skill that would serve him well in later years), and dressed the hides of deer, raccoons, and wolves. Those first few years in Ohio were the happiest and freest of his life.

"But about this period he was placed in the School of adversity," Brown wrote of himself, "the beginning of a severe but much needed course of dicipline." First, an Indian boy gave him a yellow marble, which he treasured but lost. Then he nursed and tamed a bobtail squirrel and grew to dote on his pet. "This too he lost," and "for a year or two John was in mourning." At the age of eight, he suffered a much greater trauma: the death of his mother in childbirth.

This loss "was complete & permanent," Brown wrote. Though his father quickly remarried "a very estimable woman," John "never adopted her in feeling; but continued to pine after his own Mother for years." The early loss of his mother made him shy and awkward around women. It also magnified the influence of his formidable father, who would marry a third time in his sixties and sire sixteen children.

From an early age, John hewed closely to his father's example of hard work and strict piety. He was prone to fibbing and "excessively fond of the hardest & roughest kind of plays," such as wrestling and snowball fights, but gave no sign of rebelliousness. A tall, strong boy, he was educated at a log school and went to work young, "ambitious to perform the full labour of a man." At twelve, he drove his father's cattle a hundred miles, on his own, and soon took up Owen's trade of leather tanning. He also became "a firm believer in the divine authenticity of the Bible," and briefly studied for the ministry. John "never attempted to dance," he wrote, never learned any card games, and "grew to a dislike of vain & frivolous conversation & persons."

John followed Owen in family matters, too. At twenty, "led by his own inclination & prompted also by his Father," Brown wrote, "he married a remarkably plain; but industrious & economical girl; of excellent character; earnest piety; & good practical common sense." Dianthe Lusk was nineteen, the daughter of Brown's housekeeper. A son was born a year after their marriage--the first of a brood that would grow, like Owen's, to almost biblical proportions.

Brown also raised animals, displaying a particular skill and tenderness with sheep. "As soon as circumstances would enable him he began to be a practical Shepherd," Brown wrote, "it being a calling for which in early life he had a kind of enthusiastic longing." But here, too, loss haunted him. One of the first creatures he tended, apart from his pet squirrel, was "a little Ewe Lamb which did finely till it was about Two Thirds grown; & then sickened and died. This brought another protracted mourning season."

Brown ended his brief autobiography with his entrance into manhood. At twenty-one, he was already a tannery owner, a family man, and, as some of his peers saw it, a bit of a prig. He quickly fell out with Dianthe's brother, who was only able to visit on Sundays. Brown disapproved of this. His church reserved the Sabbath for religious observance; even "worldly" conversation, visiting friends, and making cheese on Sunday were violations of Christian duty. (The church also excommunicated a deacon who "did open his house for the reception of a puppet show.") Brown required his tannery workers to attend church and a daily family worship. One apprentice later described his employer as sociable, so long as "the conversation did not turn on anything profane or vulgar." Scripture, the apprentice added, was "at his tongues end from one end to the other."

While demanding of others, Brown was hardest on himself. In his autobiographical letter, he wrote of young John's "haughty obstinate temper" and inability to endure reproach. He "habitually expected to succeed in his undertakings" and felt sure his plans were "right in themselves." This drive and confidence impressed elders he esteemed, which in turn fed his vanity. "He came forward to manhood quite full of self-conceit." Brown wrote that his younger brother often called him "a King against whom there is no rising up."

These traits--arrogance, self-certitude, a domineering manner--would bedevil Brown as he navigated the turbulent economy of the early nineteenth century. But they would also enable his late-life reincarnation as Captain John Brown, a revolutionary who took up arms in the cause of freedom, as his namesake had done two generations before him.

In 1800, the year of Brown's birth in the thin-soiled hills of Connecticut, the United States was just entering its adolescence. The Constitution turned thirteen that year. For the first time, a president took up residence in the newly built White House, and Congress convened on Capitol Hill. The young nation barely extended beyond the Appalachians; its largest city, New York, had sixty thousand people, equal to present-day Bismarck, North Dakota.

In many respects, daily existence at the time of Brown's birth was closer to life in medieval Europe than modern-day America. Most people worked on farms and used wooden plows. Land travel moved at horse or foot speed on roads so awful that the carriage bringing First Lady Abigail Adams to Washington got lost in the woods near Baltimore. Crossing the ocean was a weeks-long ordeal. News wasn't new by the time it arrived.

In this preindustrial society of five million people, almost 900,000 were enslaved, and not only in the South. Though northern states had taken steps toward ending the institution, most of these measures provided for only gradual emancipation. Brown's home state had almost a thousand slaves at the time of his birth, and New York twenty times that number.

Slavery was also safeguarded by the Constitution, albeit in convoluted language. The Revolution had raised an awkward question: how to square human bondage with the self-evident truth that all men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights? The Framers answered this, in part, by employing a semantic dodge. They produced a forty-four-hundred-word document that did not once use the term "slave" or "slavery," even though the subject arose right at the start.

Article I of the Constitution mandated that each state's delegation to the House of Representatives would be based on the number of free people added to "three fifths of all other Persons"--meaning slaves. In other words, every fifty slaves would be counted as thirty people, even though these "other Persons" couldn't vote and would magnify the representation of white men who owned them.

The Constitution also protected, for twenty years, the "importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper." "Such Persons," of course, were African slaves. Furthermore, any "Person held to Service or Labour" who escaped to a free state--that is, any slave who ran away--had to be "delivered up" to his or her master.

These measures reflected the horse-trading needed to forge a nation from fractious states. Another deal, struck in 1790, led to the nation's capital being located on the Potomac River, between the slave states of Virginia and Maryland. In all, slaveholders had deftly entrenched their "species of property," as one South Carolina delegate euphemistically put it.

Even so, as the turn of the century approached, there were signs that slavery might wane. The exhaustion of the Chesapeake region's soil by tobacco weakened the economic basis for slavery in Maryland and Virginia, home to half of all southern slaves. A growing number of owners in these states were freeing their slaves, driven in part by evangelical fervor and the Revolution's emphasis on personal liberty. Other slave owners, such as Thomas Jefferson, acknowledged the "moral and political depravity" of the institution and expressed hope for its gradual end.

But all this would change markedly in the early decades of the nineteenth century, as John Brown came of age. The cotton gin, the steamboat, and the rapid growth of textile mills made it possible and hugely profitable to grow and ship millions of bales of what had previously been a minor crop. Andrew Jackson, himself a cotton planter, championed the policy of Indian "removal," dislodging southern tribes and opening vast tracts of new land for cultivation. This expansion, in turn, created a vibrant market for the Chesapeake's surplus slaves, who were sold by the thousands to gang-labor plantations in the Deep South.

Southerners also dominated government, largely because the three-fifths clause padded the representation of slave states in Congress and the electoral college, throughout the antebellum period. Southerners won thirteen of the first sixteen presidential contests, ruled the Supreme Court for all but eight years before the Civil War, and held similar sway over leadership posts in Congress.

But this clout--economic as well as political--depended on continual expansion. The South needed new lands to plant and new states to boost representation, to keep pace with the industrializing and more populous North. This inevitably sowed conflict as the nation spread west. With the settling of each new territory a contentious question arose: would it be slave or free?

The first serious strife flared in 1819, when Missouri sought statehood. Missouri had been settled mainly by Southerners; its admission to the Union would carry slavery well north and west of its existing boundaries and upset the numerical balance between slave and free states. After lengthy debate, Congress finessed the crisis by admitting Maine along with Missouri and by drawing a line across the continent, forbidding any further slavery north of the 36 30' parallel. This deal--the Missouri Compromise of 1820--formed the basis for a three-decade dtente over slavery's spread.

But Thomas Jefferson, then in his late seventies, immediately sensed the danger inherent in the agreement. In demarcating a border between slave and free, the compromise underscored the country's fault line and fixed the nation into two camps. "This momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror," Jefferson wrote of the debate over Missouri and slavery. "I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment, but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence."

In his autobiographical letter to young Henry Stearns, John Brown said he felt the first stirrings of his "Eternal war with Slavery" at age twelve, when he saw a slave boy beaten with iron shovels. "This brought John to reflect on the wretched, hopeless condition, of Fatherless & Motherless slave children," he wrote. Brown, who was also motherless and subject to childhood beatings, may have identified with the slave boy. But his burning hatred of racial oppression had another source. Like so much else in his life, it reflected the influence of his father.

In most respects, Owen Brown's religious faith harked back to his Puritan forebears, who believed they had a covenant with God to make America a moral beacon to the world. In the eighteenth century, Calvinist ministers began speaking of slavery as a threat to this special relationship--a breach of divine law that would bring down God's wrath upon the land. Owen was strongly affected by this preaching, and like many other New England emigrants, he carried his antislavery convictions to the Western Reserve.

He also displayed an unusual tolerance toward the native inhabitants of Ohio. "Some Persons seamed disposed to quarel with the Indians but I never was," he wrote. Nor did he proselytize, or damn natives as heathens, as Puritans of old would have done. Instead, he traded meal for fish and game; he also built a log shelter to protect local Indians from an enemy tribe. Young John "used to hang about" Indians as much as he could--the beginnings of a lifelong sympathy for natives that stood in stark contrast to the prevailing hostility of white Americans.

As Owen Brown established himself in Ohio, he and his neighbors helped fugitive slaves, making the town of Hudson a well-traveled stop on the Underground Railroad. John followed suit, aiding runaways who came to the log cabin he shared with a brother while he was still a bachelor. He continued to aid fugitive slaves after his marriage, but he had a great deal else to occupy him.

During the first four years of their union, Brown and his wife had three sons. Like his father before him, Brown pioneered new territory, taking his wife and toddlers to a sparsely settled section of northwestern Pennsylvania. He cleared land, built a tannery, raised stock, and, like Owen, became a civic leader, founding a school and church and serving as the area's first postmaster. "An inspired paternal ruler" was how one of his neighbors described him, "controlling and providing for the circle of which he was the head."

This circle quickly grew to include three more children. Brown, raised by disciplinarians, became one himself, hewing to the Calvinist belief in the depravity of human nature. His firstborn, John junior, was required to keep a ledger listing his sins and detailing the punishment due each: "unfaithfulness at work" earned three lashes; "disobeying mother" brought eight. The second born, Jason, had a vivid dream about petting a baby raccoon that was "as kind as a kitten," and described the encounter as if it had really happened. He was three or four at the time, and his father thrashed him for telling a "wicked lie." Five-year-old Ruth muddied her shoes while gathering pussy willows and then fibbed about how she'd gotten wet. Her father "switched me with the willow that had caused my sin," she recalled.

Corporal punishment was common at the time, but Brown dispensed the rod with especial vigor. He was determined to root out sin, not only in his offspring but also in himself and others. When he was a young man, this compulsion to punish wrongs was primarily manifest in small acts of moral policing. Brown apprehended two men he encountered on the road who were stealing apples, and smashed a neighbor's whiskey jug after taking a few sips and deciding the liquor had dangerous powers.

Despite his severity, Brown was beloved by his children, who also recalled his many acts of tenderness. He sang hymns to them at bedtime, recited maxims from Aesop and Benjamin Franklin ("Diligence is the mother of good luck"), cared for his "little folks" when they were ill, and was gentle with animals: he warmed frozen lambs in the family washtub.

Brown nursed his wife as well. Dianthe came from a family with a history of mental illness, and not long after her marriage she began to exhibit signs of what relatives called "strangeness." She also faltered physically, suffering from "a difficulty about her heart," Brown wrote.

Though the nature of her affliction isn't clear, it probably wasn't helped by bearing six children in nine years, one of whom, a son, died at the age of four. A year after his death, Dianthe went into labor a seventh time; the child, another boy, was stillborn and had to be extracted "with instruments," Brown wrote. After three days of "great bodily pain & distress," Dianthe also died, at the age of thirty-one. Brown buried her beside their unnamed son, beneath a tombstone bearing Dianthe's final words: "Farewell Earth."

This loss which echoed his mother's death in childbirth, appears to have sent Brown into shock. "I have been growing numb for a good while," he wrote a business partner. He also complained of vague physical symptoms. "Getting more & more unfit for any thing."

Brown and his five children--the youngest was not yet two--briefly moved in with another family. Upon returning to his own home, he hired a housekeeper, whose sixteen-year-old sister, Mary Day, often came along to help. Several months later, Brown proposed to Mary by letter. They married in July 1833, less than a year after Dianthe's death.

A tall, sturdy teenager of modest education, Mary was half her husband's age and only four years older than his eldest child. She would bear him thirteen more children and endure great economic hardship. Brown was a tireless worker and skilled at diverse trades: tanning, surveying, farming, cattle breeding, sheepherding. He won prizes for his fine wool, published articles about livestock ("Remedy for Bots or Grubs, in the heads of Sheep"), and filled a pocket diary with practical tips, such as rules for measuring hay in a barn and a farm lady's advice on making butter. ("In summer add plenty of cold water to the milk before churning. The slower the churning the better.")

But Brown's diligence and work ethic were repeatedly undone by his inability to manage money. This was a leitmotif of his earliest surviving letters, mostly to a partner in his tanning and cattle business. "I am running low for cash again," Brown wrote Seth Thompson in 1828. "I was unable to raise any cash towards the bank debt," he wrote in 1832. Then, later that year: "Unable to send you money as I intended." And in 1834, again: "I have been uterly unable to raise any money for you as yet." In these and many other letters, Brown expressed regret for his financial straits--and blamed them on forces beyond his control: the weather, ill health, the monetary policies of President Andrew Jackson.

Brown may also have been distracted by his budding concern for affairs other than business. It was in the early 1830s that he first wrote of his determination to help slaves. He also showed signs of a truculent and nonconformist spirit. Brown joined the Freemasons but quickly fell out with the secret society amid accusations that Masons had murdered one of their critics in New York. Far from being cowed by the controversy, Brown openly proclaimed his opposition to the group and circulated the published statement of a Mason who claimed that he'd been selected to cut the throat of a "brother" who revealed the order's secrets.

"I have aroused such a feeling towards me," Brown wrote his father in 1830, "as leads me for the present to avoid going about the streets at evening & alone." Brown knew his father would approve of his defiance, if not of the other measure he took. Owen was a committed pacifist; his son, a warrior at heart, acquired his first gun.

Copyright 2011 by Tony Horwitz All rights reserved.

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