<b>John Brown's civil disobedience</b>In a hearing before a special committee of the U.S. Senate in 1860, George Luther Stearns said he believed John Brown to be the representative man of this century, as Washington was of the last. Stearns, a Massachusetts millionaire, had been the principal source of funds and arms for Brown's failed raid on the U.S. armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, several months before, the avowed purpose of which was to rally slaves to freedom and also to bring about a radical change in the way Americans thought and acted about slavery. In a public lecture shortly after the seriously flawed mission, Henry David Thoreau declared the raid the best news that America has yet heard, because, among other things, it was an idealistic act of civil disobedience that focused attention on an evil American citizens might now be prodded to actively oppose.
The debate about John Brown's state of mind continues to this day. In historian Evan Carton's engrossing <b>Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America</b>, we follow the life of a man who took his Christian faith and his hatred of slavers seriously enough that he was willing to give up his own life and the lives of others to advance the abolitionist cause. For the Calvinist John Brown, Carton writes, the Old Testament stories were living guides to understanding and conduct in the present. . . . As it was for many black but few white Americans in the 1840s, Christianity for Brown was a liberation theology. Brown believed in both the Golden Rule and the Declaration of Independence; for him they were the same thing.
Carton demonstrates how Brown, virtually alone among nineteenth-century white Americans, was able to develop personal relationships with black people that were sustained, intimate, trusting, and egalitarian. Of particular interest is Brown's long friendship with Frederick Douglass. Despite the latter's refusal to be part of Brown's Harpers Ferry raid, and his advice against it, six months after Brown was hanged, Douglass said, To have been acquainted with John Brown, shared his counsels, enjoyed his confidence, sympathized with the great objects of his life and death, I esteem as among the highest privileges of my life. The John Brown that emerges from these pages is a religious and patriotic revolutionary, a flawed individual, who sees no other way for God's will to be done than the path he takes. Carton gives us a rich portrait of a man of vision. <i>Roger Bishop is a retired Nashville bookseller and a frequent contributor to BookPage.</i>