Distinguished professor at the CUNYGraduateCenter, Reynolds is author of John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights.
He said today: “This is a year for Americans to remember not only Abraham Lincoln but also his great antislavery contemporary, John Brown. This bicentennial year of Lincoln‘s birth is also the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s heroic attack on Harpers Ferry, Virginia in an effort to topple slavery.
“Actually, Lincoln was not nearly as progressive on race and slavery as John Brown. Lincoln opposed slavery, but he thought there were racial differences between blacks and whites that would prevent them from living on equal terms in America. He believed that liberated blacks should be shipped out of the country. ‘What I would most desire,’ he said, ‘would be the separation of the black and white races.’ He thought it would take a very long time for slavery to disappear — perhaps 100 years, he said in 1858. He initially saw the Civil War as a struggle to save the American Union, not to free the slaves. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation as a war measure.
“John Brown, in contrast, wanted to stamp out slavery immediately. He had no racial prejudice. He called for the complete integration of blacks into society. As his contemporary Frederick Douglass remarked, Brown felt that the black person was ‘entitled to all the rights claimed by the whitest man on earth.’ Brown was a white man descended from the Mayflower, but he chose to live among fugitive slaves who had formed an African American colony in upstate New York.
“When in 1859 he led 21 devoted followers (five of them black) in an attack on Harpers Ferry and liberated slaves in the area, he planned to lead them into the mountains and trigger other slave rebellions that he believed would cause the downfall of slavery. In the short run, his effort failed; he was captured, brought to trial, convicted of treason, and hanged on December 2, 1859. But he soon came to be seen as a martyr for freedom. Emerson and Thoreau compared him to Jesus Christ. By the time of the Civil War, thousands of Northerners revered Brown’s memory, which the Union troops kept alive as they tramped south singing, ‘John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,/But his soul keeps marching on.’
“John Brown’s reputation suffered during the decades of Jim Crow and racism that followed the end of Reconstruction in 1876. His vision of racial togetherness was shrugged off, and he came to be seen as a violent fanatic. He has made a modest comeback since the civil rights agitation of the 60s, but even today most Americans tend to forget or ignore him.
“Now is the time to make his comeback complete. Let’s put John Brown back where he belongs: on the national pedestal, along with other freedom-fighters in our history.”
Reynolds’ latest book is Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson.
The Institute for Public Accuracy:
Sam Husseini, (202) 347-0020; or David Zupan, (541) 484-9167