The Tribunal: Responses To John Brown And The Harper’s Ferry Raid, edited by John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd
This book, at a little more than 500 pages of main material, is a sight to behold, a rare example of the syntoptical approach to history. While most historical presentations of a historical theme weave various primary source documentation together with the worldview and perspective of the author. This particular book differs in that it takes a well-known incident, the unsuccessful raid on Harper’s Ferry by John Brown, and provides a well-edited and organized collection of works from a wide array of authors, some of whom contribute several different accounts, organized by type of chronology. The result is that it takes John Brown’s own desire to place his life and actions before the heavenly tribunal as an invitation to place the raid before the human tribunal of people from different backgrounds and perspectives, so as to demonstrate the human biases that color our own judgments of the behavior of others, in a manner similar to Ayn Rand’s play Night Of January 16th. As a result, one reads the fascinating contrast between accounts which praise John Brown’s antislavery sentiment but condemn his violence with those who write with an eye towards hindsight in looking at the Civil War that was the result of Brown’s efforts and its nearly uniform condemnation in the slave states, and those whose identity or lack of religious belief system leads to changes in the way that they interpret John Brown and his brave death and his complicated life whose latter part was filled with a great deal of antislavery violence in Kansas and Virginia.
In terms of its contents, the book is divided into five section. The first section consists of the writings of John Brown himself, in his pre-raid declarations and resolutions against slavery and in his post-raid letters that attempted to frame his actions and speak of himself in the third person, seeking to justify his life and behavior despite his knowledge of and acceptance of his death. The second section then turns to the contemporary views of Northerners towards John Brown and his raid, ranging from obscure partisan newspapers to people as famous as Abraham Lincoln and William Seward. The third section looks at contemporary views of Southerners towards the Harper’s Ferry raid, many of which are immensely hysterical in light of the widespread insecurity based on the presence of slavery. The fourth section looks at contemporary and later views of John Brown and his raid from Europe, which include the perspectives of some American exiles as well as such noted European liberals as Victor Hugo, and a particularly bold statement from Italy’s famous patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi, among many others. The fifth and final section looks at perspectives of the raid during and after the Civil War in the United States, as the raid became considered as part of the larger history of the American Civil War and as his memory became part of a larger struggle over the role of whites in freeing the blacks and the question of the legitimacy of violence in light of the massive death and destruction brought by four years of brutal war. The sum total of this impressive compendium of information is a perspective that is complicated, nuanced, and indecisive, as is to be expected of any controversial character such as John Brown, even if there appear to be a fairly limited set of judgments made that depend on political worldviews and identity commitments.
Given the size and scope of this book, it is not surprising that there are few books written with this approach. Nevertheless, the even-handedness of the editors, along with their understated and pervasive sense of irony, make this a very worthwhile book, and make it a model for other books that deserve to be written about similarly contentious events where a lot of people have something to say and where understanding the larger context of conversation about a topic allows one to make sense of the fault lines that divide the judgment of a person or of a particular historical event. We all come to such subjects with a bias, and even if our own particular judgment is not changed by reading a wide variety of opinions, it is still worthwhile to note how different aspects of a life or of an event receive attention and critique based on where others are coming from. The most noteworthy flaw, of course, that is found in this book is the fact that the editors of this work themselves have a given perspective that causes them to seek to substitute the indecisive and flawed tribunal of human retrospective judgments for the just judgment of our Heavenly Father above. Even though the editors include the widespread record of religious content, including a couple of fiercely hostile cartoons by the German immigrant artist Adalbert Volck and a scurrilous poem about John Brown’s supposed entrance into hell, the editors themselves have no conception in their own worldview of the sort of heavenly tribunal that John Brown expected to judge his own life and deeds. Perhaps the best that can be said, from the sources provided, is the reminder by an obscure postwar Northerner that the effects of the good and evil that we do lives on after we die, and continues to influence the world in which we lived. For surely both good and evil came from John Brown’s raid, which prompted the South to their own rebellion, which was put down in a similar fashion to the way John Brown’s revolt was put down, as was prophesied at Cooper Union by no less than Abraham Lincoln himself, instrumental in the course of the Civil War that followed. That said, even if John Brown’s raid was the precipitating event in turning the rhetorical conflict between North and South into a bloody war that ended slavery, the racism against blacks that can be found in great supply in the primary source materials of this book made justice and equity a much more elusive goal on all sides, and made the reconciliation of the divided people of the United States of America a matter of difficulty even now. This book is eloquent testimony to that difficulty, both in fairly judging a man and his actions, and the society in which he lived and acted.