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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. This illuminating biography brings him to life in scintillating prose and moving detail, making his life and legacy fascinating relevant to today's issues of social justice and to defining the line between activism and terrorism. Unabridged. 2 MP3 CDs.
"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
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
Author's Note ix
Prologue The Dawn's Early Light 1
1 Founding Fathers 13
2 A Firm Foothold at Home 33
3 The Great and Foul Stain 53
4 Going Down to Tarshish 71
5 Crossing the Line 89
6 The Slave Law of the Land 113
7 To Answer the End of My Being 139
8 Blood and Remission 167
9 Marked Men 195
10 Bringing Forth a New Nation 221
11 An Extended Family 249
12 Abolishing Slavery in Virginia 277
13 A Settlement of the Question 315
Epilogue The Unfinished American Revolution 341
Source Notes 347
Posted March 2, 2009
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