John Brown
Copyright Michael D. Robbins 2005

Astro-Rayological Interpretation & Charts
Images and Physiognomic Interpretations

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John Brown—American Abolitionist: May 9, 1800, Torrington, Connecticut, 3:00 AM, LMT (Source: speculative. The Old File suggests 6:45 PM, LMT, yielding a Scorpio Ascendant) Died (by hanging), December 2, 1859.

(Speculative Ascendant, Aries with Mercury conjunct Venus in Aries; Speculative MC, Capricorn; Sun in Taurus; Moon and Neptune in Scorpio widely conjuncted; Mars conjunct Pluto in Pisces, H12; Jupiter in Cancer; Saturn in Leo; Uranus in Virgo)          

John Brown is perhaps the most famous (and most violent) of the American abolitionists. His numerous attempts to free the slaves cost a number of lives and was one of the factors contributing indirectly to the beginning of the Civil War. It was Brown’s intention to cause an uprising among the slaves, who would then overthrow their ‘masters’. It would be a full-scale “slave revolt”. These plans naturally alarmed whites in the Southern United States. In 1859 he was captured during his attack on Harper’s Ferry by General Lee, tried, convicted and hanged for insurrection (Aries) on December 2nd.         

Brown was a fanatic in the truest sense. Many believe he was not psychologically normal. His principal ray was the sixth with a strong first ray as well. Many are familiar with a song popular at the time of the Civil War—the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”. There are few pieces of music which more which more clearly express the militant, Martian side of the sixth ray. What few may know is that the melody of this song was used to celebrate the life of John Brown. “John Brown’s body lies a mold’rin in his grave,…” and “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord” are set to exactly the same tune. Probably, the tune was used first for John Brown. The words to the two songs are very different, but the spirit and the ray are the same.

Given the accuracy of a speculative Aries Ascendant, he would be easily inflamed, even though Mars is in a water sign, Pisces. The Mars/Pluto conjunction in H12 (with Mars as the orthodox ruler of the speculative Aries Ascendant) speaks of his deadly (Pluto) violence, related to an old karmic issue—slavery. Pluto and the Moon are also parallel. The 12th house placement in Pisces emphasizes the idea of “unfinished business”—both for society and probably for his own soul. This same Mars is only six minutes of arc away from a perfect parallel with the South Node, indicating a militant past and suggesting in yet another way, “unfinished business”.     

The Moon conjunct Neptune in deadly Scorpio (both in the eighth house of death) increases the idealism and his visionary tendencies, and made him willing to die for the cause. The Moon is even more closely conjuncted to Chiron, showing that he carrying a festering, psychological wound.  Jupiter in Cancer conjunct the IC renders him a protector—presumably of the slaves. Saturn in the fifth house, in this case, shows the burden of his twenty children, and also the dharma and karma related to them, for he enlisted a number of his sons in his para-military exploits. Perhaps, he was repressive (Saturn) towards them.         

The sixth ray enters the chart via Mars, the exoteric ruler of his Aries Ascendant, placed in the sixth ray sign, Pisces, conjunct Pluto, which is hypothesized, as well, to have sixth ray component related to the solar plexus. Aries plus a Mars/Pluto conjunction in self-sacrificial Pisces, with a ‘life-and-death’ Scorpio Moon—all spell intense idealism and fanaticism. Neptune, also expressing the sixth ray, is opposed to his aspiring Taurus Sun, strengthening his tendency to dream of a better, higher way—to achieve which, the use of violent means would be justified. Revolutionary Uranus is also placed in a sixth ray sign, and is trine the ‘values-laden’ Taurus Sun. As well, dedicated Vesta is conjunct to idealistic Neptune, adding to the strength of idealistic commitment and a willingness risk death for those ideals.      

First ray would enter the chart via the proposed insurrective, agitative Aries Ascendant and Aries planets, the Mar/Pluto conjunction, the Scorpio Moon, first ray Saturn in first ray Leo, and first ray Vulcan, esoteric ruler of Taurus necessarily found in Taurus.      

While it cannot be easily demonstrated, the very close conjunction of Venus and Mercury in Aries, suggest that he was easily inspired by music—probably militant music on the sixth ray, music very much like the song which celebrated his life and exploits.


From a letter by John Brown’s father to John’s half sister in Kansas, “he has something of a warlike spiret I think as much as necessary for defence I will hope nothing more.”

 In a letter to his wife, written from jail, John Brown wrote mainly of his children--especially the daughters--and his ideas about the proper education for them, in light of the fact that some of his Eastern supporters were offering to provide assistance in this area: "You my wife perfectly well know that I have always expressed a decided preference for a very plain but perfectly practical education for both Sons & Daughters."

In a note written just prior to his execution, Brown prophesied: "I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with Blood."


"Weird John Brown,” Melville called him, in a weirdly contemporary locution, and for a long time he was shuffled to the edges of American weirdness, among the staring-mad homicidal nuts and assassins. In the past several years, though, history, or at least some historians, has become kinder, and even reverent. Long before he led the botched and bloody anti-slavery raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859, Brown, we are taught, was a moral visionary and a man of uncanny courage and integrity. Every one of his central moral convictions and most of his peripheral ones, too, have been vindicated by history. He was a dedicated feminist, who had his sons do the housework on terms of equality with his daughters; he was a farmer who had gentle and respectful relations with neighboring Native Americans, so that, even before he became famous as the fighting fury of abolition, they liked and respected him. Above all, he was convinced, throughout the eighteen-forties and fifties—a time when even most abolitionists were prepared to wring their hands and tolerate slavery if it could be limited in scale—that the practice of holding men, women, and children as property was an absolute evil, that it had, at all costs, to end, and that the race who had been enslaved were not merely to be pitied but to be respected and armed, as citizens and fellow-soldiers. Far from being an incoherent fanatic, he was an eloquent speaker and writer, who composed an entire alternative Constitution, one reflecting egalitarian values that did not become commonplace until our own time.

inserted for possible use:

a very short historical note. The version of the story above is widely available, however John Brown claimed in his statement to the court, after being sentenced to death in his very brief show trial,that his intention was only to free a group of slaves and escort them north to Canada (not to create an uprising which could no succeed). This is something that he had actually done a number of times previously. He had the enthusiastic support of Emerson, Thoreau and many Quaker leaders; and Emerson considered Brown's statement to the court after being sentenced to death one of the great speeches of  American history. Malcolm Schosha

He was also, as even an admiring historian cannot deny, a man of violence and, by almost any definition, what we would now call a terrorist—a man who believed that the government of the United States should be met with violence because it supported and perpetuated oppression. He believed that there were no distinctions to be made between innocent and guilty in a society determined to perpetuate an evil. “It is better that a whole generation of men, women, and children should pass away by a violent death” than that slavery should live, he declared. He led his sons out into the fields of Kansas at night to massacre unarmed men while their families listened, and insisted afterward that he had been right to do it: that where legislation and compromise had failed only violence would succeed. He is the man who made Lincoln possible, and the acknowledged spiritual patron of Timothy McVeigh.

Russell Banks’s fine novel “Cloudsplitter” (1998) helped reimagine Brown for our time as a flawed hero, and it was followed by the Harvard scholar John Stauffer’s “The Black Hearts of Men” (2002), which reëstablished Brown as a serious political thinker, and, last year, by Franny Nudelman’s “John Brown’s Body,” which explained the enormous role of Brown’s martyrdom in the visual and literary rhetoric of the Civil War. In a different, sharper key, George MacDonald Fraser devoted his 1994 “Flashman” novel, “Flashman and the Angel of the Lord,” to an account of Harry’s involvement with Brown and Harpers Ferry, and produced what is, for the Flashman series, a surprisingly admiring portrait. Now we have a full-fledged five-hundred-page biography: “John Brown, Abolitionist,” by David S. Reynolds (Knopf; $35). Reynolds’s book is a defense of Brown, whom he, too, believes to have been slighted by a history written by the winners with an eye to consoling the losers. He sees Brown as a visionary prophet of American equality, whose sins and crimes, though real, have to be situated in the bloody context of the run-up to the Civil War.

Mainly, he wants to restore Brown’s centrality to the Civil War, and he does. By writing John Brown out as an oddity or sideshow, he insists, we miss the essential reality of the war: what was unthinkable and extremist in 1859—the armed descent of the North on the South to end slavery—had by 1864 become a mass movement, so that the war could be understood as what Lincoln called “a John Brown raid, on a gigantic scale.” Brown is the first mover in the American tragedy, the man who struck the bell and struck it hard. Reynolds’s book isn’t beautifully written, and his defense of Brown can be uncomfortably apologetic, but almost every page forces you to think hard, and in new ways, about American violence, American history, and what used to be called the American character.

John Brown was born with his century, in Torrington, Connecticut. His father, Owen Brown, was a Yankee tanner, and a hard, cold Calvinist of the very old American school. William T. Vollmann, in his dense study of the types of violence, “Rising Up and Rising Down,” tries to place Brown within a general practice of personal violence and expiation through discipline. Brown’s father, a man of rectitude, beat him regularly, and Brown, in turn, beat his children, making them strike their father as often as their father struck them, but surely this kind of punishment was common in the brutal domestic life of the time. Nor is young Brown’s subsequent history of failed careers, in tanning and farming and real-estate speculation, quite as unusual for the pre-Civil War period as some have tried to make it, in an effort to create an aura of embittered resentment around the man. A figure as different as John James Audubon went up the same Calvary of failed minor capitalisms before he found himself.

Brown was unusual, perhaps, in his fecundity—he eventually had twenty children by two wives, the first of whom died, predictably, of childbed fever—and in his passionate devotion to his family; he seems to have been so ideal a father that three of his sons followed him to their deaths in his crusades. (Perhaps even more extraordinary, the sons who didn’t want to join him he treated tenderly.) In his own time, he gave off a sense of being a man of some other, a throwback. With a classic American Puritan’s addiction to Scripture, he was more a man of the Old Testament than the New, a prophet and avenger, a Joshua rather than a Jesus. He had a particularly bad case of the old New England identification of the Puritans with the Jews, as the armed and chosen people. (Brown was, in his broad-mindedness, philo-Semitic.) But he was also a resolute roundhead, an admirer of Oliver Cromwell, and one of Reynolds’s accomplishments is to help us see how the figure of Cromwell—the common man who read his Bible, and who killed a king—haunted the period and Brown’s actions.

What’s still difficult to explain about Brown is just why he turned so hard against slavery. His father was an anti-slavery zealot, though not an activist, but the son absorbed the creed of abolition with an intensity and a sense of personal wrong that were unequalled among the white men of his time. The legend has Brown, at the age of twelve, seeing a slave boy being beaten, and swearing, then and there, to “declare, or Swear: Eternal War with Slavery.” True or not, the story has two elements that are typical of Brown’s passionate form of abolition: it was intensely personal, and it involved an empathy, rather than patronizing sympathy, with the sufferings of black people.

Brown turned to radical abolitionism, and to violence, only in the eighteen-thirties. In retrospect, it is the great dividing decade, as crucial as the nineteen-sixties in the next century. As the essayist John Jay Chapman observed in 1913, “Between 1830 and 1835, the element of passion was rising past the danger point, and running into something like insanity in the Southern mind.” The decade began with Nat Turner’s slave revolt, and its brutal suppression, and so it also marked the moment when the generally benevolent Jeffersonian view of slavery—an evil that would pass with the development of the region—became replaced in the South by various nascent forms of ideological racism: blacks were not an unlucky race, not yet quite ready for emancipation, but a subhuman one, whose only hope for salvation lay in being kept in slave labor; the evil would never pass, because it wasn’t an evil. The new, openly racist ideology produced an uncompromising form of abolitionism in the North, under the leadership of William Lloyd Garrison, the white Martin Luther King, Jr., whose great words of 1829 opened the decade: “Before God I must say that such a glaring contradiction as exists between our creed and practice, the annals of six thousand years cannot parallel. In view of it, I am ashamed of my country.”

But Garrison, like Dr. King, was a pacifist, and, right up to the moment when the war broke out, he had no really practical plan for ending slavery, aside from “separation” (i.e., the decoupling of the North from the South) and moral suasion. John Brown’s insight, from the beginning, was that slavery would end only if someone ended it. Sometime in the eighteen-forties, he had conceived a plan to create an army of emancipation in the South, which would hide in the mountains and grow by leaps and defections until the institution of slavery ultimately collapsed. Apart from the grandiosity of his long-range scheme, Brown differed from the mainstream of Northern abolitionism in his peculiar affinity with the South—both with the blacks he wanted to help liberate and with the slaveholders he wanted to destroy. Where Garrison, though utterly passionate and courageous in his denunciations, was a thorough man of the North, with lawyerly-journalistic gifts of argument and irony, Brown was a man of romantic feeling. Stauffer’s book documents Brown’s deep sense of identification with and admiration for black culture. In a way that did not recur in American life until the radicals of the nineteen-sixties stood in awe of H. Rap Brown, he wanted to be black—to look black and think black and act black. (He may even have had his skin darkened in photographs to try to pass, in the opposite direction.)

At the same time, Brown—along with certain radical characters of the black abolitionist movement—shared with the slaveowners a romantic ideology of personal honor through violence. “Our white brethren cannot understand us unless we speak to them in their own language; they recognize only force,” Brown’s friend the black radical James McCune Smith wrote, using words that no Garrisonian abolitionist would have trusted but which Brown grasped and admired. “They will never recognize our manhood until we knock them down a time or two; they will then hug us as men and brethren.”

One need only compare Brown’s attitudes with those of the other key voices of the decade to see how important this difference was. Abraham Lincoln, in the eighteen-thirties, was grappling with the same realities—the explosions of violence centered on the anti-slavery disputes—but, in his first important speech, to the Springfield Young Men’s Lyceum in 1838, he took a radical position against the Southern cult of honor and redemption through violence. Lincoln insisted that salvation for America lay only in extreme proceduralism: “Passion has helped us, but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defense.”

It is hard now to grasp the cultural authority that the code of passionate honor—with its elaborate rituals of feuds and duels—seemed to give the South in that period. Not merely the political edge but the poetic priority seemed to lie with the feudal and honorable South against the commercial and mouthy North. (It was a cultural advantage that persisted right up through, and perhaps beyond, the Atlanta première of “Gone with the Wind.”) Brown, though, understood it because he felt it. He set out, in effect, not to convert the South to Northern values but to convert the Northern abolitionists to the Southern codes of honorable violence. He was a virus that was to prove deadly to the Old South, because at some deep level he shared its DNA: its assumptions, its literature, and even some of its values—particularly the value of dying heroically for a cause over living honorably for one, and the companion value of forcing other people to die heroically for their cause, whether they quite wanted to or not.

Brown’s acceptance of this feudal ethic forms the general background to his murderous night in Kansas on May 24, 1856. Brown was brought to Kansas by his sons, who had learned their father’s creed by heart. “We must show by actual work that there are two sides to this thing and that they can not go on with this impunity,” Brown declared, after watching his fellow-abolitionists quake and tremble in the face of violent pro-slave mobs. He assembled a party of activists, including four of his sons and a son-in-law, armed them with swords, and marched them toward the little settlement of Pottawatomie Creek. Brown had his men bang on the doors of pro-slavery households, pretending to be lost travellers in order to get the men outside. There he ordered them cut to pieces, watching impassively as his sons and other followers did the work. (He seems to have executed one man, James Doyle, himself.) Five men were murdered in this manner.

Reynolds, without wanting to excuse it, goes to great lengths to set the Pottawatomie massacre in its context—pro-slavery thugs had been routinely beating and intimidating and killing anti-slavery activists, and, until then, the anti-slavery side had seemed too timid or frightened to defend itself. Yet Brown’s motives for this act remain murky. The psychiatrist James Gilligan has argued that acts of violence are always rooted in feelings of shame and humiliation that can be expiated only by the destruction of someone who was a witness, in some sense, to one’s shame. Brown in Kansas at first might seem to be without this cue to action—he was neither implicated nor particularly humiliated by the vigilantes—until one realizes that the real trigger was something that had happened two days before in Washington. There, as Reynolds reminds us, a South Carolina congressman had beaten Senator Charles Sumner, of Massachusetts, nearly to death with the gold head of his cane for daring to speak out against the pro-slavery forces in Kansas and, in a feudal manner, for criticizing a kinsman of his. Sumner, though no pacifist, had been unable to defend himself. (His feet seem to have got caught under his little desk.)

This assault was put forward, instantly, as crowning proof of the difference between the Southern honor culture and the Northern procedural one; a Northerner could talk trash, but he couldn’t stand up for himself. Brown, one of his sons said, “went crazy—crazy. It seemed to be the finishing, decisive touch.” It was not a cool evaluation of the potential uses of violence in Kansas but the transferred sense of humiliation that he felt on behalf of Sumner that drove Brown crazy and into the massacre.

Brown emerged from the massacre not bloodstained but magnified in the eyes of his enemies. Before, the anti-slavery forces had had only contempt for the abolitionists. Now they were scared to death of John Brown. He was able to win a minor skirmish with government forces who were out to get him simply through the fear his name invoked.

Brown did not claim particular glory for the Pottawatomie massacre but he did not cover it up, either. What makes him a typically American idealist is not his lust for killing—he was eager to avoid murder if he could—but his indifference to human life lost on the way toward his ideal. Like our current idealists in power, he didn’t want to kill, but he didn’t want to count the dead he did kill, either. He shrugged off the dead men in the dirt, even as one of his sons went mad at the memory.

Brown was never arrested or tried for the Kansas killings, and when he came back East he found himself a hero—though not with the members of Garrison’s abolitionist “establishment,” who were firmly pacifist and consumed by their own sectarian squabbling. Instead, it was the high Transcendentalists, Thoreau and Emerson and Alcott first among them, who became Brown’s fervent admirers and propagandists. Some of Reynolds’s most illuminating pages are devoted to Brown’s relationship to the Transcendentalists. The historical cliché has been that the Transcendentalists had their heads too far up in the clouds to see what was happening on the bloody earth below. Reynolds, however, following Stauffer, establishes that they were Brown’s most important intellectual allies.

In a way, it was an early instance of radical chic: the Transcendentalists preferred a real man to a squabbling set of Mrs. Jellybys. But there was more to it. They shared a disdain for materialist Northern society—which Brown had bankrupted himself out of, and which the Transcendentalists viewed largely with baffled dismay. Whatever else Brown might be, he was not a trivial man, or a worldly one: he was not a merchant with a Sunday cause. He was a free man already in a state of liberty. In a way that recalls the idealization of Jean Genet by the French existentialists, it was his own freedom from constraints, as much as his urge to break the shackles of others, that drew the Transcendentalists to him.

He received the backing of a group of wealthy abolitionists who called themselves the Secret Six, though a less secret secret group is hard to imagine. They included Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the man who was later Emily Dickinson’s patron. (Reynolds has some fascinating speculative pages on traces of Brown’s life in Dickinson’s poetry, one essentially fanatic American imagination speaking to another.) From that time on, Brown was devoted to fund-raising and recruiting for his Southern invasion plan, which soon centered on the Federal Arsenal at Harpers Ferry. The plan was hardly well concealed; at some point, it was placed in the hands, through an anonymous letter, of the Secretary of War, John B. Floyd, who, in the great tradition of American counter-terrorism, shrugged and threw it aside.

Brown brought in the black abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, who took a look at the plan and refused to have anything to do with it, since it was obviously a blueprint for failure and the mass executions of blacks. The plan was, to say the least, quixotic: Brown would descend with a handpicked raiding party, take weapons from the arsenal, arm the slaves of Harpers Ferry—with pikes, in a deliberately archaic and Cromwellian touch—and then take to the Appalachian Mountains to begin a permanent guerrilla insurrection, fed by regular recruitments of escaped slaves.

At one level, it was not nearly so crazy as it looked: a slave insurrection had succeeded in Haiti almost within living memory, and Brown’s plan remained a successful model for Latin-American guerrillas into our own time, right down to the mélange of outside agitators and local agrarian rebels. At another level, though, it was even crazier than it sounded: Brown, as Douglass recognized, had done no serious advance work with the local slaves, and the blacks of Northern Virginia (what we would now call West Virginia) were, generally, not the kind of plantation slaves who were likely to rebel but house and field servants, who could not be expected to bond with an unknown white man with a flowing beard who handed them a pike and told them to kill somebody and run for the hills.

For two years, Brown went on planning, buying guns and pikes, feuding with a proposed second-in-command, and travelling to Canada to form a provisional government, with a black President and Vice-President. He drew up a multiracial Constitution made for a post-Harpers Ferry America—a Constitution meant for “the proscribed and oppressed races of the United States . . . together with all minor children of such persons.” (It included an article against “filthy conversation.”) Reading through accounts of life on the Brown farm, in upstate New York, where all this was centered, you think, They weren’t serious. But they were. On October 16, 1859, Brown, two of his sons, and eighteen colleagues, white and black, descended on Harpers Ferry and took hostage about thirty-five people who happened to be near the arsenal (and all of whom he treated with great consideration). They shot a couple of bystanders—including a freed black and the generally well-liked mayor of the town. The slaves were armed and then, for the most part, looked around wondering what to do.

There was a moment when the operation might have been salvaged, if Brown had moved quickly and headed for the mountains with the few slaves who had joined him. Instead, petulantly disappointed that the great slave uprising hadn’t begun instantly upon his arrival, he sent out for breakfast for his hostages and barricaded himself inside. By the following night, the arsenal had been surrounded by federal troops—led, with almost unbelievable serendipity, by Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee, then of the U.S. Army, and his lieutenant, J.E.B. Stuart—and several of Brown’s men had been killed, including his son Oliver. Brown still refused to surrender, the federals rushed the arsenal, and Brown was stabbed in the side and slashed around the head.

It was what happened immediately afterward that made Brown’s reputation as a martyr and prophet. Transported to the arsenal guardhouse, Brown, bleeding from his head wound, calmly faced down his captors through the next twenty-four hours, arguing his case and, on the whole, shaming what remained of their moral conscience. With the insouciant openness that was until quite recently a feature of American life—Oswald, let’s recall, gave a press conference on the night of the Kennedy assassination—dignitaries and reporters and even artists for publications, North and South, rushed in to interview him. The governor of Virginia, Henry A. Wise, sat in, as did Lee and Stuart.

Horribly wounded, expected to die, his son dead alongside him, Brown kept his cool and his words. He observed that he could have fled but didn’t out of concern for his hostages. (“I had thirty odd prisoners, whose wives and daughters were in tears for their safety, and I felt for them.”) Pressed on the great question, he said, simply, “I think, my friend, you are guilty of a great wrong to God and against humanity—I say it without wishing to be offensive—and I believe it would be perfectly right to interfere with you, so far as to free those you wickedly and willfully hold in bondage.” When Jeb Stuart warned, sententiously, “The wages of sin is death,” Brown turned on him: “I would not have said that if you had been a prisoner and wounded in my hands.” And then he spoke plain truth: “You had better—all of you people of the South—prepare yourselves for a settlement of this question. You may dispose of me very easily—I am nearly disposed of now. But this question is still to be settled.”

And they listened, recognizing the dignity and courage of the old man who was speaking. Governor Wise went back to Richmond and called him “a bundle of the best nerves I ever saw, cut and thrust and bleeding and in bonds. He is a man of clear head, of courage, fortitude, and simple ingenuousness. He is cool, collected, and indomitable . . . fanatic, vain, and garrulous, but firm, truthful, and intelligent.” Another pro-slavery politician called him “as brave and resolute a man as ever headed an insurrection, and, in a good cause, and with a sufficient force, would have been a consummate partisan commander.” It was, as Reynolds says, praise for a Southern gentleman, coming from others.

Brown triumphed rhetorically and, in the end, effectively at Harpers Ferry, because the slaveholder’s code of honor, though in many ways a scandal, was not entirely a sham. His enemies were not demons, though they served a cause in many ways demonic. They did not treat him as subhuman; they did not torture him to death instantly, or lynch him, as they might well have done had he been black. They were impressed by his grasp of the code of honor, of courage in combat, and of fearlessness in the face of death and one’s enemies, and they honored him accordingly. Even his trial, though “fixed” at some level, was open and offered at least the formalities of fairness.

Mark Twain understood how this worked better than anyone. He never tired of attacking the Sir Walter Scott-inspired honor cult of the South, and in the feud of the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons in “Huckleberry Finn” he gave memorable form to its nihilistic absurdity. But he also understood the moral force that the code gave to individuals: in the same novel, the moment when the solitary, aristocratic Colonel Sherburn faces down a lynch mob alone is, as Twain imagines it, a distinctly Southern scene. Even Garrison, a man of unexampled courage, could not face down a mob in Boston but had to be saved by the police.

And, in a last irony, it was the language that the slaveowners of the South used about John Brown that provided a template for the way the North, five years later, would talk about the defeated Stuart and Lee: brave and resolute insurrectionists, they should only have been leaders in a better cause. Brown’s first night in captivity established the rhetorical terms on which those fighting the war would try to deal with the humanity of their enemies. Even the courage with which Brown went to his execution, on December 2nd, reinforced the code. The man who made the Northern cause an armed cause, he was, in a certain sense, the first casualty of the South.

Terrorism is an autoimmune disease; its purpose is to cause harm by provoking an overreaction. This is exactly what happened after Brown’s failure. A rational Southern observer would have seen that the raid was a sign of the fundamental weakness of abolitionism as an armed cause and, with a bit of wisdom, would have seized the chance to do something before it became a stronger one. Of course, just the opposite happened: panic about slave revolts and further abolitionist raids set in throughout the South. Even in distant Mississippi and far-off Georgia, the paranoia became rampant, and, Reynolds shows, it was this atmosphere of panic and paranoia, along with the election of the still ostensibly anti-abolitionist Lincoln, that produced secession and, with it, the arming of the North and the war.

Was there any other way to “settle the question”? Absent a credible plan originating anywhere in the South for black emancipation on any terms at all—even on a delayed basis that admitted the obscene right of property—there probably wasn’t. One anti-Brown argument, repeated even today, was that slavery was on its way out and would have ended in any case, under the sheer historical inexorability of commercial change, industrialization, the impossibility of maintaining a slave system in a fully capitalist economy, and so on. But nothing in history is less inexorable than the inexorable forces of history. Systems inherently rotten and unsustainable can go on for millennia (witness the last few hundred years of the Ottoman Empire). The reassurance that in the long run slavery would have ended by itself puts one in mind of the famous voice-over in Stanley Kubrick’s “Spartacus,” where, despite the crucifixion of Kirk Douglas and his followers, we are told that Spartacus’ revolt signalled the beginning of the end of slavery—with only an aside to remind us that it would take another two thousand years. In the very long run, even the best moral arguments get their force from the readiness of men to kill and die for them. That the very long run can sometimes become much shorter than anyone had ever imagined is one more message from John Brown’s ghost. 



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