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The Old Man at Harpers Ferry

Truman Nelson.  The Old Man: John Brown at Harper’s Ferry.  Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009.

One hundred and fifty years ago, the state of Virginia executed John Brown for treason, murder in the first degree, and conspiracy to incite a slave rebellion.  The execution did not proceed quickly: for nearly ten minutes federal troops paraded and shuffled into formation while Brown stood bound and hooded on the scaffold.  He grumbled about the delay.  When the trap door finally swung open, he dangled at the end of the rope for thirty-five minutes before he was dead.  A small group of doctors stood by, pressing their stethoscopes against his chest until they were certain that the Old Man had expired.  After waiting some time they cut down his body and carried it back to the jail to sign the death certificate.  But then, they hesitated.  The body displayed none of the usual signs of a hanging victim: no blackened face, no protruding eyes, no discharge from the nose and mouth.

None of the doctors wanted to sign.  One suggested they make sure of his death by amputating his head, another by administering a massive dose of strychnine.  They decided to come back after lunch.  At 3:30, the document of Brown’s death was signed, after much muttering that it was not inconceivable that his partisans in the North could revive him with a galvanic battery.  The doctors could not believe he was dead. . . . (280)

In the hour of his death John Brown had become something of a supernatural fiend to supporters of the slave regime in the U.S. South — a sort of Yankee vampire or abolitionist Frankenstein’s monster.  But as absurd as their fears seem now, the doctors were right to be skeptical.  The power of Brown’s example — his audacious raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry — was such that it could not be extinguished by simply disposing of the man responsible.  Indeed, what made Brown so dangerous was that his actions forcibly and irreversibly reoriented the abolitionist struggle to new coordinates — the direct action logic of the slave rebellion — regardless of whether he was alive to see the struggle develop.  Northern militancy, Southern paranoia: everything intensified after Harpers Ferry, and in this political escalation Brown could effectively reach from beyond the grave.

The impact of Brown’s execution was felt quickly enough: that very day, the “slaves on Colonel Turner’s plantation, in nearby Halltown, set their master’s mansion and barns on fire” (279).  Reaction in the North was mixed, but some abolitionists, like Henry David Thoreau, immediately held Brown up as a martyr for their cause; more would come to share this conclusion in time.  Soon after, the U.S. Congress became embroiled in debate over Republican Party complicity in the raid — a debate that increasingly was dominated by rhetoric alternately defending and denouncing Brown.  Legislative sessions became so acrimonious that at least one Republican representative armed himself on the House floor, and representatives from the South began to make open threats of secession.  War seemed inevitable, and, after Harpers Ferry, most probably was.

Truman Nelson traces Brown’s posthumous influence from the aftermath of the raid to the outbreak of war, and to one particularly powerfully scene three years later — in fact, it is here that he closes his excellent book The Old Man: John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, reissued this year by Haymarket Books.1  The 54th Volunteer Infantry Regiment of Massachusetts — an official Black regiment which included some former slaves — is marching through the streets of Boston amid cheering crowds.  From a balcony watch abolitionists Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison, the latter with his hand resting on a marble bust of the Old Man.  At this sight the 54th begins to sing what is swiftly becoming an unofficial anthem of the Union Army, “John Brown’s Body,” as they go forward to meet the slave power in battle.  It seems the galvanic battery imagined by the doctors wasn’t necessary: Brown was revived nonetheless.

Haymarket Books has done us a great service by reissuing this classic on the sesquicentennial of Brown’s raid (it was first published in 1973).  Nelson draws heavily from contemporary accounts, favorable and unfavorable — journals, testimonies from those involved, letters, newspapers, government reports, legal transcripts — to create a narrative that is firmly anchored in the primary documents.  But he takes free dramatic license with his material, applying his creative powers to produce a text that occasionally resembles the novel, a form perhaps better suited to convey the almost classically tragic nature of Harpers Ferry and the deeply human characteristics of those who ensured its name a place in history.

Nelson is clearly a partisan of Brown’s cause — here we might invoke Ralph Waldo Emerson‘s assertion that “all people, in proportion to their sensibility and self-respect, sympathize with John Brown” (252).  And the book is of course better for it, as Nelson sets out to demolish the myth that Brown was insane or some kind of religious fanatic.  This doesn’t require much effort: from the earliest planning stages to the raid itself, to his interrogation after the raid (lying wounded and grieving the loss of two sons and many comrades), to his trial (which was all but decided before he entered the courtroom), Brown was remarkable in his consistency, conviction, and coherence.  He somehow managed to be unfailingly respectful to his captors even while denouncing them for what he regarded as the greatest sin imaginable: reducing human beings to ownable property.  During the trial, Brown’s hostages testified that they were treated fairly and that Brown and his men took every effort to minimize the amount of casualties.  This cannot be said of the Virginia militiamen, who killed Brown’s son under a flag of truce, mutilated the bodies of the dead guerillas, summarily executed the wounded, and risked the lives of the hostages with wild, drunken volleys of indiscriminate fire.

One could argue that Brown’s (perhaps) naïve hope to incite a slave rebellion was proof of his insanity, but to characterize his plan in such a way is, as Nelson demonstrates, not quite accurate.  The raid was intended to be but a first step toward Brown’s larger, more revolutionary, goal: to create a provisional state in the Appalachian mountains from which to launch more raids on the slave regime.  With the participation of a number of Black leaders he had even composed a constitution for this provisional state, a strikingly progressive document for its time that included Black legislators; he asked Frederick Douglass to serve as the first president (Douglass declined, convinced the plan would end in tragedy).  Brown believed that, by establishing a center of abolitionist power in the Appalachians, his movement would inspire similar resistance among slaves throughout the South, provide material support and arms to that resistance, and encourage Northern abolitionists to escalate their pressure on the government.  It was not so much a matter of inciting a widespread, bloody uprising, but of making slavery unworkable and forcing the federal government into a position where it would be required to abolish the institution to “restore tranquility” — a hypothetical situation alluded to in Congressional debates by John Quincy Adams (56).

But Brown never made it past that first step.  Somewhat amazingly, he allowed his hostages to be escorted to their homes to reassure their families and, in some cases, stick around for breakfast, before gathering them in the armory’s engine house.  And there was the famous Baltimore & Ohio train that pulled into Harpers Ferry in the first moments of the raid.  In the initial confusion a baggage handler was shot and fatally wounded — a free Black man, unbeknownst to Brown’s guerillas.  After holding the train for a few hours, Brown ensured the safety of the passengers and escorted it across the bridge out of town.  He made the conductor swear not to report the insurrection, but it was not long before the train reached the first working telegraph station and the message went out to all corners of the republic.  If Brown was in any way naïve, perhaps it was in the way he expected his opponents to be as respectful and principled as he.

The back cover copy of The Old Man calls it a “historical biography,” but this is not entirely true.  Although spare references to the first half-century of Brown’s life give us some sense of background, the bulk of the book focuses on the raid itself, beginning with the night of October 16th, 1859, as Brown and his multiracial band of supporters prepare on a farm outside of Harpers Ferry.  The narrative carries us through the next few days, the trial, and the aftermath, with occasional flashbacks to earlier planning stages and, importantly, the internecine plains of Kansas, where Brown earned his fearsome reputation in guerilla warfare against pro-slavery “border ruffians” — a series of events that climaxed in the controversial execution of five pro-slavery partisans, which Nelson examines and contextualizes deftly.

The raid and the trial are the book’s center of gravity, and the events in Brown’s life preceding and in the nation’s history following are tied back to this one critical moment.  So rather than being a typical biographical account, the book sets up a sort of temporal reference point through which we can interpret related events.  In this sense, the book’s very structure suggests a way of understanding the raid itself: as what Walter Benjamin might call a moment charged to the bursting point with time.

Charged: the essential socio-economic contradictions of the 19th century United States, contradictions that had been deepening throughout the entire course of the nation’s development up to that point, found expression in the raid on Harpers Ferry.  We should not crudely understand this as “North versus South,” but as a conflict between the growing power of industrial and merchant capital with its attendant army of wage labor and the historically anachronistic, semi-feudal slave regime of the South; between the overt and systematized racial oppression of Black people in the South and the super-exploitation of Black workers in the North subsumed within the “normal” processes of capital accumulation; and between the containment of political struggle within the existing state structure and violent disunion through secession.

To the bursting point:all this, the irrepressible past, fired by the betrayed promise of the bourgeois democratic revolution (“liberty, equality, fraternity”), met its future expression in John Brown’s raid — a strangely prophetic return of the repressed.  The impending war had announced itself.

So it is perhaps a significant coincidence that we find a few familiar figures among the ranks at Brown’s execution.  There are two, perhaps the most famous, future Confederate generals: Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.  (Lee, in fact, led the Marines who charged the Harpers Ferry armory and captured Brown and his men.)  And somewhere in the crowd, leering up at the hated Old Man, is the soon-to-be assassin of Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, watching with satisfaction as a white man who challenged not only slavery but white supremacy was bound, hooded, and torturously flung into oblivion.  Unlike many Northern abolitionists, as Terry Bisson put it in the October issue of Monthly Review, Brown “regarded the humanity of Africans as a given; it was the humanity of the white race that was in question.”  On an ideological level, this inversion was surely what made Brown so dangerous.

A great deal of ink has been spilled over John Brown in the one hundred and fifty years since his death; some celebratory, some meant to crush his historical example and wipe it from our consciousness.  But Brown’s raid continues to raise important questions, questions that remain important in the so-called “post-racial” age of Obama: about direct action, about racial solidarity, about the limits of liberalism and the demands of a truly emancipatory politics.  Despite assertions of “multiculturalism” and “color-blindness” we still yet face the contradictions of Brown’s time — the legacy of slavery and the failed efforts of Reconstruction accumulate like so much historical wreckage in our present moment, marked by profound racial inequality and a global capitalism that, at its core, is no less exploitative, no less racist, no less ruthless.

What to do?  For starters, we must — again following Benjamin — reach into this wreckage of the past and seize on Brown’s example, among so many other acts of resistance, because as historical materialists we know that even the dead are not safe from our enemy.  The doctors in the shadow of Brown’s scaffold knew this, for their own reasons.  Truman Nelson knew it too, and his book, The Old Man, takes the spark that Brown and twenty one others lit at Harpers Ferry one hundred and fifty years ago — perhaps desperately, perhaps foolishly, but certainly courageously — and fans it, in the hope that it might illuminate the creeping darkness of our times.


1  As is the case with Nelson’s title, the town in question is sometimes spelled with an apostrophe (“Harper’s”) although this is not the official spelling.

Scott Borchert works for Monthly Review Press.  He may be contacted at <>.

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