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Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America

Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America

by Evan Carton

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John Brown is a lightning rod of history. Yet he is poorly understood and most commonly described in stereotypes -- as a madman, martyr, or enigma. Not until Patriotic Treason has a biography or history brought him so fully to life, in scintillating prose and moving detail, making his life and legacy -- and the staggering sacrifices he made for his


John Brown is a lightning rod of history. Yet he is poorly understood and most commonly described in stereotypes -- as a madman, martyr, or enigma. Not until Patriotic Treason has a biography or history brought him so fully to life, in scintillating prose and moving detail, making his life and legacy -- and the staggering sacrifices he made for his ideals-fascinatingly relevant to today's issues of social justice and to defining the line between activism and terrorism.

Vividly re-creating the world in which Brown and his compatriots lived with a combination of scrupulous original research, new perspectives, and a sensitive historical imagination, Patriotic Treason narrates the dramatic life of the first U.S. citizen committed to absolute racial equality. Here are his friendships (Brown lived, worked, ate, and fought alongside African Americans, in defiance of the culture around him), his family (he turned his twenty children by two wives into a dedicated militia), and his ideals (inspired by the Declaration of Independence and the Golden Rule, he collaborated with black leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Martin Delany, and Harriet Tubman to overthrow slavery).

Evan Carton captures the complex, tragic, and provocative story of Brown the committed abolitionist, Brown the tender yet demanding and often absent father and husband, and Brown the radical American patriot who attacked the American state in the name of American principles. Through new research into archives, attention to overlooked family letters, and reinterpretation of documents and events, Carton essentially reveals a missing link in American history.

A wrenching family saga, Patriotic Treason positions John Brown at the heart of our most profound and enduring national debates. As definitions of patriotism and treason are fiercely contested, as some criticize religious extremism while others mourn religion's decline, and as race relations in America remain unresolved, John Brown's story speaks to us as never before, reminding us that one courageous individual can change the course of history.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Carton has written an absorbing and inspiring, though not wholly innovative, biography of abolitionist firebrand John Brown. A historian of American culture, Carton (The Marble Faun: Hawthorne's Transformations) centers this portrait on Brown's ceaseless efforts to end slavery. From the earliest days, Brown's abolitionism was grounded in Christianity: for him, the biblical call to love thy neighbor trumped any argument a proslavery theologian could make. As for what Brown accomplished in the climactic 1859 raid at Harpers Ferry, Carton quotes, and seems to share, the assessment of Brown's contemporary Wendell Phillips that Brown "loosened the roots of the slave system" and can be credited with ending slavery in Virginia. Carton usefully sets Brown's abolitionism against the backdrop of a larger American story-the increased radicalism of black abolitionists beginning in the 1840s; the Compromise of 1850 (which admitted California to the union as a free state while passing the Fugitive Slave Act); and ongoing debates about whether slavery should be legal in western territories. Like Brown's other recent biographer, David Reynolds (John Brown, Abolitionist), Carton writes with great admiration for his subject. His Brown is a hero who set the nation on a road to justice that we are traveling still. B&w photos. (Sept. 6) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
John Brown's historic raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, VA, in 1859 liberated no slaves, but it sparked dramatic emotions that hastened the coming of the Civil War. Carton (American literature & culture, Univ. of Texas, Austin; The Marble Faun: Hawthorne's Transformations) offers a sympathetic portrait of this significant figure, a white man with a true empathy for the plight of African Americans, who was compelled to take violent action to enable those held in chains to free themselves. Drawing on an impressive collection of archival sources and secondary studies, he highlights Brown's dramatic rhetoric, focuses on his deep religious convictions and his relationship with family members, and links his actions with those of modern-day activists. Similar in content to such recent biographies as David S. Reynolds's John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights, this is a compelling biography. While it offers little that is new, it will be greatly enjoyed by the casual reader. Although perhaps not a high-priority purchase for academic libraries, it is recommended for larger public libraries.-Theresa McDevitt, Indiana Univ. of Pennsylvania Lib. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
"For drama, controversy, and historical impact, the life of John Brown exceeds that of any other private citizen of the United States." Thus begins a bold account of the mastermind behind the raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry. By book's end, readers will be fully persuaded that the author's provocative opening salvo has the added virtue of being true. Where David Reynolds's remarkable John Brown, Abolitionist (2005) highlighted the cultural currents that helped shape the steadfast ideologue whose armed resistance to the southern slave power helped ignite the Civil War, Carton (English/Univ. of Texas, Austin) focuses on what it must have been like to have been Brown. No easy task, and in less sure hands may have been a half-baked historical novel or a bloodless clinical analysis. Instead, we get a rare humanizing of an icon. The grandson of a Revolutionary War veteran and son of a strict Calvinist, the deeply religious Brown appears to have pledged early on to oppose slavery adamantly. He sublimated this vow throughout his varied career as a failed scholar, farmer, breeder, shepherd, tanner, trader and land speculator, but as the national debate grew increasingly convulsive throughout the 1840s and '50s, Brown sharpened his involvement in the abolitionist movement. He became especially notorious as Captain Brown, leader of militia forces that murdered pro-slavery citizens in Pottawatomie, Kan. Utterly devoid of racial prejudice, he appears to have deeply impressed all who actually met him, even bitter opponents. Although his poor business savvy constantly kept his family near poverty, Brown's unwavering rectitude and tender solicitude bound each of his two wivesand 20 children firmly to all his enterprises, including the failed attempt to incite a slave rebellion that resulted in the death of two sons and his own hanging. Though Carton addresses the "meaning" of John Brown's life and death, he truly excels at portraying the man himself. A dramatic, expertly paced biography of American history's most problematic figure.

“Carton has penned an intriguing portrait of abolitionist Brown. He grounds this biography firmly in historical context by providing a digestible overview of the politically tumultuous mid-nineteenth century, and his admiration for the courage of Brown's convictions in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds shines through the compelling narrative.”—Booklist
The Historian

"This work presents a well-written and thoughtful account that will help readers better understand what drove a unique and significant figure." —Jonathan M. Atkins, The Historian

From the Publisher
"A dramatic, expertly paced biography of American history's most problematic figure." ---Kirkus Starred Review
The Historian - Jonathan M. Atkins

"This work presents a well-written and thoughtful account that will help readers better understand what drove a unique and significant figure." —Jonathan M. Atkins, The Historian

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Read an Excerpt


The Dawn's Early Light

"Was John Brown simply an episode, or was he an eternal truth?"

-- W. E. B. DuBois

Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart of the First United States Cavalry crossed the yard of the Harpers Ferry armory and approached the thick oak door of the engine house under a flag of truce. He felt eyes on his back. In the gray first light of the raw morning of October 18, 1859, Stuart could make out the muzzles of two rifles protruding from gun holes that appeared to have been hastily chiseled through the engine house wall. He doubted that he had much to fear from the incompetent band of northerners and negroes trapped in the small building in front of him, fanatical haters of the southern system of labor that was protected by the country's laws and enshrined in its traditions. He was at greater risk, he thought wryly, from the unsteady hands and judgment of his fellow Virginians who perched on the railroad trestle and the water tower and in every window of the hotel to his rear.

Drawn by the chilling news that white men in league with blacks had overrun the armory at Harpers Ferry and taken possession of its hundred thousand rifles and muskets, local militia companies and curious citizens from across the region had rushed to the snug commercial town throughout the preceding day and night. Harpers Ferry, Virginia, nestled at the tip of the peninsula bounded by the converging Shenandoah and Potomac rivers. Their churning waters formed a gateway to the Shenandoah Valley, which unfolded to the south. From its main street, lined with shops and government offices, the town ascended into the lush foothills of the Blue Ridge, finally reaching the Bolivar Heights plateau. Tidy and scenic as a Swiss mountain village, Harpers Ferry seemed an idyll of quiet and peace, but it was not -- at least, not this morning. Stuart estimated that two thousand citizens -- frenzied, sleepless, intoxicated, and armed -- thronged doorways, windows, and rooftops and lined both riverbanks, surrounding the armory complex. The wall and the high arched doors of the engine house were already pocked and splintered by their buckshot and pistol balls. It was not the watery sun struggling to crest the soaring Maryland Heights that warmed his cheek and neck as he advanced but those grim stares, hot with outrage, heavy with fear.

Only the appraisal of one pair of eyes, however, mattered to the twenty-six-year-old Stuart. Those belonged to Colonel Robert E. Lee, the superintendent of West Point during Stuart's term there as a cadet five years before and, by sheer good fortune, his commanding officer again today in the business of suppressing these traitors.

Lee surveyed his messenger's progress from a patch of raised ground thirty yards away. He wore civilian clothes, but his bearing and his calm, steady gaze were sufficient signs of his authority. On leave from his Texas command, Lee had been summoned less than twenty hours ago to an emergency meeting at the White House and dispatched by President Buchanan to put down an astonishing traitorous attack on one of the United States military's principal installations.

The institution of slavery had been a matter of contention between representatives of the northern and southern states since the nation's founding. But in the 1850s the bitterness and violence reached unprecedented levels. The reasons were many. The founding fathers, devoted to the immediate task of securing the young country's economic and political viability and protecting it against threats from outside, had taken steps to defuse and defer the internal debate over slavery. Most had assumed that slavery was a temporary feature of the American social and economic landscape, a necessary evil that would gradually diminish. In 1808, Congress did outlaw the transatlantic slave trade, limiting the slave population to natural increase alone. Yet the population of enslaved blacks continued to grow, as did the reliance of the southern economy upon slavery. In 1820, Congress passed the Missouri Compromise, which -- excepting the new slave state of Missouri -- limited the institution's future spread to territories below that state's southern border. But in the 1830s and 1840s, economic instability and waves of job-seeking European immigrants led to heightened concern that slavery was depressing wages and limiting opportunity for whites.

During these same decades, the southern cotton economy expanded in scope and profitability, producing a new generation of political leaders, whose unapologetic commitment to slavery and growing power in Washington prompted some northern politicians to take a more active antislavery stance. Industrialization in the north ushered in an era of religious revival and social reform movements, which increased moral opposition to slavery among churchgoers and intellectuals. Most significant, however, was the opening of vast new western territories, which brought slaveholding and antislavery interests and populations into direct competition for land recently cleared of Indians or won from Mexico by the U.S. military. This situation was made more explosive by the passage in the early 1850s of a series of acts that repealed the Missouri Compromise and allowed western settlers to decide the legality or illegality of slavery in their territories by direct popular vote. The most dramatic and violent such contest, the battle for "bleeding Kansas" between 1855 and 1858, had at first promised a victory for proslavery forces but now seemed likely to be resolved in favor of the free state settler majority, though Kansas would not officially gain statehood for another two years.

For southerners, the loss of Kansas as a field for slavery's expansion was bitter. Yet they had made recent gains as well. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 confirmed the principle that slaves remained property even if they escaped to free states and forbade any citizen, on pain of criminal prosecution, to obstruct their capture. Even more decisively, the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision of 1857 proclaimed that slaves could be taken and resettled by their masters anywhere in the country without gaining standing to petition for freedom under any state law. Slaves remained slaves, no matter what the laws of the state in which they resided said. Moreover, the decision stipulated that all blacks were barred from American citizenship and any rights that might pertain to citizens. As Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote, expressing the majority opinion of a court that was packed with southerners and included five justices from slaveholding families, the Constitution held blacks to be "unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect." In 1859, passions remained high. On both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, prophets of doom and advocates of disunion were plentiful, as they had been for years. Yet many expected the old sectional strife to find a new equilibrium or at least to enter into another phase of compromise and uneasy truce.

A calculated attack on the venerable state of Virginia and on a U.S. government facility just fifty-five miles from Washington itself would change all that.

Copyright © 2005 by Evan Carton

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"A dramatic, expertly paced biography of American history's most problematic figure." —-Kirkus Starred Review

Meet the Author

Evan Carton is a professor of English and the director of the Humanities Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, where he has taught for the last twenty-seven years. The author of several books and numerous journal and magazine articles on American literature, culture, and politics, he lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife and two daughters.

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