D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (D) joins Kojo, Tom Sherwood and Mike DeBonis in the studio.
In the early morning darkness of October 16, 1859, abolitionist John Brown and 18 others launched a bloody raid on the armory in Harpers Ferry, WV. Angry locals, and U.S. Marines led by Robert E. Lee, thwarted Brown’s plans, and the most of the insurrectionists not killed in the fighting were ultimately executed. But the uprising was “the 9/11 of 1859,” says author Tony Horwitz –it exposed the deep rift between North and South and served as a brutal warning for war that would start 16 months later. We take a fresh look at the legacy of John Brown.
- Tony Horwitz author, 'Midnight Rising:John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War' (Henry Holt)
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from “Midnight Rising” by Tony Horwitz. Copyright 2011 by Tony Horwitz.Published in 2011 by Henry Holt and Company. All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher:
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. President Lincoln is known as the Great Emancipator. But long before Lincoln took office, another man believed ending slavery in America was his calling and he was willing to go to extremes to do it. A hundred and fifty-two years ago, John Brown led a guerilla raid on Harper's Ferry that helps set the stage for the Civil War and may have helped Lincoln win the presidency. But the legend of John Brown is not as familiar to many Americans as those of fellow abolitionists Frederick Douglas and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWhen the story of Harper's Ferry is told, Brown is often cast as either a hero or a terrorist, either cunning or insane. And as with so many things, the reality of his legacy is much more complicated and a nuance shade of gray. Joining us in studio to talk about this is Tony Horwitz. He is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author. His most recent book is "Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War." Tony Horwitz, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. TONY HORWITZThanks for having me.
NNAMDICivil War sesquicentennial observances are underway at significant sights across the country. But you say an argument can be made that the war began not 150 years ago, but in 1859 with the raid on Harper's Ferry. Why?
HORWITZWell, I think it's Civil War buffs of which I've always been one, we tend to always focus on that 1861 to '65 period, the big battles and Lee and Grant and Lincoln, and we don't give enough attention to how it was that Americans who, after all, spoke a common language, for the most part had a common religion came to slaughter each other by the hundreds of thousands in the first place. And that story, I think, really begins in the 1850s with John Brown in Kansas and later at Harper's Ferry.
NNAMDICould you talk a little bit for listeners who aren't familiar -- well, let's play something that listeners are probably more familiar with about the history of John Brown before we have Tony Horwitz describe for us exactly what that history is all about because a lot of people, when they think of John Brown, they think of some piece of music that they may have been associated with. Last year, we had the group Magpie on this show and Magpie has organized music around John Brown. But here's something that others might be more familiar with.
MR. PETE SEEGER(Singing) He captured Harper's Ferry with his 19 men so true. He frightened Old Virginia 'til she trembled through and through. They hanged him for a traitor, they themselves were traitor crew, the soul goes marching on. Glory, glory, hallelujah. Glory, glory, hallelujah. Glory, glory, hallelujah.
NNAMDIPete Seeger, everybody's heard that.
NNAMDIEverybody's familiar with it. What they might not be as familiar with is the story about the raid. So, briefly, can you synopsize that story?
HORWITZRight. I think as that song connotes, really the lore has overshadowed the history. We have a physical image of John Brown as this long-bearded old man and then the songs.
HORWITZAnd we forget the events, and also that he wasn't the only person there. He has 19 men with him, black and white, farmers, factory workers, a cross-section of northern society. And in October 1859, launches this guerilla strike on a federal armory at Harper's Ferry, one of only two federal armories in the whole country and just 60 miles from the capital. It has 100,000 guns. And his mission is he begins freeing slaves and his mission is to free every slave in Virginia and ultimately the South.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join this conversation with Tony Horwitz. Did you learn the story of John Brown in school? What do you remember about it? Or are you learning about the Harper's Ferry story today for the first time? What questions do you have about it? You can call us at 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet @kojoshow, email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org and ask a question or make a comment there. One of the things that's often lost in shorter surface accounts of the raid is how much planning went into it. How long did Brown work toward this?
HORWITZFor decades, really. He began plotting the overthrow of slavery probably in the 1830s, and slowly nurtures his plan. He first gives indications of it to Frederick Douglas in the late 1840s, but he's not able to pull it off until 1859. And also, he's working with many others. This is a full-blown conspiracy. He has behind-the-scene support from very prominent northerners, some of the wealthiest men of their day, noted transcendentalist. He's not a lone gunman sort of, you know, doing this at the last minute as some kind harebrain scheme. He's working on it for decades.
NNAMDIOne of the things that your research in this book, "Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War," certainly taught me that I had never thought of before is how the Haitian Revolution may have influenced the tactics that John Brown used.
HORWITZYeah. Haiti loomed very large, particularly in Southern imagination in the 19th century. Before it became independent, it was a brutal sugar plantation colony known as Saint-Domingue and slaves there in the 1790s begin an uprising that ultimately results in the first black republic in the world, Haiti. And in the process, more than half the whites there are killed and the rest forced to flee. And this really spoke to the greatest fear of Southern whites.
HORWITZThey often write about Saint-Domingue, which is how they usually refer to it, this fear that at any moment blacks might rise up and slaughter them in their beds. And Nat Turner then, his rebellion in 1831, deepens this fear. And Brown is very consciously plotting on these fears, his greatest weapon. And he's also, I think, influenced by the tactics, the maroons, or runaways in Haiti who made guerilla strikes from the woods on plantations.
NNAMDIThose unfamiliar with its history may think of Harper's Ferry as a quaint, tranquil place to spend the weekend afternoon hiking or shopping for antiques. What made it an attractive target in the late 1850s?
HORWITZRight. Harper's Ferry was an unusual place in that it was really more like a northern mill town than a stereotypical southern city of that day. It was a thriving industrial hub, mostly related to gun production, had about 10 times the population it has today. And it was really the gateway to the largest slave state in the country, just across the Potomac. So Brown actually launches his attack from Maryland into Virginia. It's now West Virginia. It became West Virginia during the Civil War.
HORWITZOne it's a symbolic strike, hitting, really, a symbol of American power, 60 miles from the Capitol. But it also has 100,000 guns, not inconsiderable. So, it had both a practical and symbolic value to Brown.
NNAMDIHis 21-man army of liberation seized the armory and several strategic points. Thirty-six hours after the raid begun, with most of his men killed or wounded, he was captured in the armory fire engine house, now known as John Brown's Fort. I'd like you to read a little bit from the prologue of this book to talk about how it was when he was setting out, when John Brown was setting out.
HORWITZOkay. Yeah, I'll read a bit right from the start. Men get on your arms, the captain said. We will proceed to the ferry. It was eight at night, an autumn Sunday, silent and dark in the Maryland hills. A horse-drawn wagon pulled up to the log house and the men loaded it with pikes, tools, torches and gunpowder. The captain put on the battered cap he'd worn in Bleeding Kansas. The he climbed on the wagon and the men marched behind, down a dirt lane, past a snake-rail fence, onto the road to Harper's Ferry.
HORWITZThere were 18 men, not counting the captain. Five of them were black, including a fugitive slave and a freedman whose wife and children were still in bondage. The commander was 59, a sinewy man with gunmetal eyes and a white beard he'd grown to conceal his identity. While living underground, he had drafted a Declaration of Liberty for the revolutionary government that tonight's action would found.
HORWITZWhen in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for an oppressed people to rise and assert their natural rights, the declaration began. If the opening sounded familiar, the close was not. We will obtain these rights or die in the struggle, the document, before concluding, hung be the heavens in scarlet.
NNAMDITony Horowitz reading from his latest book, it's called "Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War." He joins us in studio. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. If you visit Harper's Ferry regularly, are you aware of its historic significance or do you go for some other reason? Call us at 800-433-8850. Tony Horowitz, how does the legacy of John Brown live on in Harper's Ferry and how did the town recover from the tumultuous and destructive Civil War years?
HORWITZMm-hmm. Harper's Ferry, even before I launched on this project, is really one of my favorite places. And if any of your listeners who haven't been there, it's an easy trip from here. We're lucky to be so close to it. It's just a fantastic blend of landscape and history. Very dramatic, essentially a river gorge where the Potomac and Shenandoah meet and cut through the mountains. But it's also really history haunted.
HORWITZIt never recovered from John Brown's raid, and then its destruction during the civil war. It changed hands about a dozen times and then floods after the war. So, really, it recovered slowly and only partially as a tourist trap initially. It was a tourist trap almost from the day of John Brown's raid. And when I was a kid, you know, really there wasn't much there.
NNAMDIYou grew up in this area.
HORWITZYeah, I grew up here in Washington.
NNAMDIWhat attracted you to Harper's Ferry when you were a kid?
HORWITZI think I was a history nerd from early childhood and my parents took me there. I remember the wax museum and that scary image of Brown, you know, with that long beard staring out. It's changed a lot since my childhood. The Park Service has done a phenomenal job of preserving and interpreting the history there, not just John Brown's raid, the industrial history, the black history, Lewis and Clark have a connection there. It's really a history lover's paradise, in my view.
NNAMDIYou grew up not far away from here?
HORWITZYeah, a mile from here. My parents still live in the house I grew up in.
NNAMDIGlad to welcome you back. Here is Steve in Washington, D.C. Steve, you're on the air, go ahead please.
STEVEHow are you doing? What I was -- I'm a school (unintelligible) by itself and I mean, it's a tremendous world which we have to deal with. But what I wanted to know, was John Brown of a ministerial abolitionist persuasion or was he like a minister, so to speak? And, you know, I mean, I don't understand the nature he's beginning to cause because I do believe he was right in one respect, as Frederick Douglas kind of believed he was, but I believe he was wrong in terms of the fact that we were not at war yet with the South before he launched his (unintelligible) . So he would be deemed as a moral criminal to, you know, that aspect.
NNAMDISo do you want to know whether or not he was a minister or do you want to know what his motivation was?
STEVEYes, I want to know both. He was of the ministerial persuasion and was he an abolitionist by that persuasion?
NNAMDIYes. Tony Horwitz?
HORWITZYes, he wasn't formally a minister, although he did study for the ministry as a teenager before giving it up. He was a tanner by trade initially, but his religion strongly influenced his abolitionist beliefs. He was really an old-school Calvinist, almost a throwback to the Puritans of the 17th century. And part of that faith was really vigilance against sin, both personal and collective. He wanted to witness and root out sin in himself and others and slavery was, of course, the great collective sin of the nation.
HORWITZSo in that sense, I think his religiosity runs through his abolitionism. He's constantly citing the golden rule as a reason for what he did. On the other hand, as you said, he also used violence and this is what makes him a very complicated figure to, on the one hand, sort of have the golden rule in one hand and a rifle in the other. In that sense, he's a quintessentially American figure.
NNAMDIBefore the raid, most of Brown's comrades wrote farewell letters to their loved ones knowing that they might not survive. You mentioned violence, how unusual was Brown's use of violence among abolitionists?
HORWITZBrown was very unusual in this regard. I think it's important to remember, first of all, that abolitionists, as a group, were a tiny minority in the country at this time and most of them were staunch pacifists following the lead of William Lloyd Garrison, who was really the founder of organized abolitionism in the U.S. And he believed that violence, even in the cause of freedom, really only recapitulated the sins of slave drivers and that the way to fight slavery was with education and moral uplift. Brown derided this as what he called milk and water abolitionism, weak and ineffectual. To him, slavery was a state of war and must be met in war in kind.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. Did you learn the story of John Brown in school? What do you remember about it or if there's anything else you'd like to know, call us, 800-433-8850. Here is Elizabeth in Lorton, Va. Elizabeth, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ELIZABETHYes, good afternoon. I grew up in the '60s and we really didn't study much about the Civil War. We studied more the Revolutionary War and I was grew up in Virginia and I was interested to hear you say that Virginia, when you were talking about why the raid took place at Harper's Ferry. But Virginia had the greatest number of slaves in the South and I wasn't aware of that. So I was wondering if you could expand on that a little bit and I'll take my answer off the air.
NNAMDIThank you, Elizabeth.
HORWITZYes, I don't the exact numbers in my head, but there were roughly 4 million slaves in this country at that time and Virginia had the largest number. And, I'm sorry, I can't tell you the exact figure. It was, by far, the oldest slave state in the country, well, along with Maryland. That being said, at this time, it was not the most dynamic part of the slave economy. That was in the Deep South and into Texas. And in this period, many slaves were being sold from Virginia from to the gang labor plantations of the Deep South. It was one of the interesting things reading the newspapers from the area at that time is all the advertisements of slave dealers seeking slaves in the Harper's Ferry area to sell South. But in raw numbers, yes, it was the largest slave state in the country.
NNAMDIElizabeth, thank you very much for your call. We move onto Karen in Alexandria, Va. Karen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KARENHi, Kojo. Hi, Tony. This is a really interesting show. I'm a history buff and I can't wait to read your book. I've read a lot about John Brown and one of the things that was really striking to me as I was reading about him is that -- really striking to me about other people, too, not just him, in his time was that even abolitionists and even Abraham Lincoln were still somewhat condescending towards black people and they didn't quite believe that black people were as capable and able to exhibit their humanity as well as white people.
KARENAnd this came mostly from ignorance, but John Brown wasn't like that. I saw him from his reading and from his relationships to other people that, and particularly with his black cohorts there at the raid, that he truly viewed black people as absolutely equal to white people and that there was no difference between them except for skin color. And that was unusual in his time, that most people still thought that black people were somewhat deficient and...
NNAMDIAnd you can -- Tony Horwitz underscores that point and he can underscore it now for you.
HORWITZYes, I think you've hit on a very important aspect of Brown. You see this was really an exceptional man. As you said, even abolitionists, many of them, were very condescending. They thought that blacks were just simply racially inferior. Lincoln felt that freed slaves should be resettled in Africa or Central American because they could never live as equals to whites in this country. And abolitionists, many of them felt blacks were simply too docile to fight for their own freedom and that, you know, leave it to us benevolent white folk to do this job.
HORWITZBrown, again, differed strongly from that. He felt it was both a moral and a practical imperative that blacks and whites fight together. He actively courted black support from Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman and others. He stayed for weeks at a time at Frederick Douglas' home. Black people lived with him and in his Maryland hideout before the raid you have about 20 men gathered there, five of whom are black. And one of them writes that under John Brown's roof there was never a whisper of condescension or prejudice. You know, I don't know if that was absolutely true. He wasn't perfect, but I think, for his day, he was truly remarkable in that regard.
NNAMDIKaren, thank you very much for your call. In response to the caller who called early about the number of slaves in Virginia, the 1860 U.S. census, it's my understanding, counted 65,720 adult male slaves in Virginia, the most in the Confederacy. Onto Bruce, in Takoma Park. Bruce, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BRUCEWell, I have a great fascination with John Brown and the entire era especially as it relates to music. I'm a performer of old time folk music and mountain music and so I have long known John Brown's body as it, you know, eventually became the Battle Hymn, et cetera. And I was doing a tour of schools up in the Adirondacks and that's when I learned that he's buried in Lake Placid.
NNAMDIAnd you'd like to know why?
BRUCEWell, no, I think I know why, but you can confirm this for me, if you will?
NNAMDIHere's Tony Horwitz.
HORWITZYes, it's another interesting chapter in Brown's career. Quite aside from his violent attack on slavery, he had other schemes along the way. He was a big dreamer. He wasn't always very good at executing his dreams and one of them was to move his family to the northern Adirondacks where a wealthy New Yorker, Garrett Smith, had granted land to freed blacks so that they could farm and also qualify for the vote. There was a property requirement in New York at that time.
HORWITZAnd Brown volunteered to go up there and live them and sort of school them as a shepherd and farmer. So you're right, he settled in a community called North Elba. He didn't end up spending much time there but he and the other men, most of the men who died at Harper's Ferry including several of his sons, are buried there and there's a park, a historic site.
NNAMDIBruce, thank you very much for your call. We're going to take a short break. If you have already called, stay on the line. The number, if you'd still like to call, is 800-433-8850 or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Tony Horwitz. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author. His most recent book is "Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War." And even though we are not technically in the membership drive right now, it is my understanding that you have an offer.
HORWITZSure. I'll pitch in 10 signed copies of "Midnight Rising" to give away here if someone makes a matching grant of $250, how about that, before the hour is out.
NNAMDIFor a matching contribution of $250, a signed copy of "Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War." There's clearly a great deal of interest in this topic. There a lot of people on the phones. We're getting a lot of emails and tweets. But before I move onto those, Tony you spent years as a journalist before becoming a full-time author. How does that background influence your historical research?
HORWITZOne, I think there is some overlap really between the skills you develop as a journalist and what's required for historical research. You're digging and digging and trying to find sources and weighing their reliability and truthfulness and also trying to weave it into a compelling narrative, history includes the word story and that's what both journalists and historians do. Also, I spent a lot of my journalistic career as a war correspondent overseas and I think that it did inform certainly the writing of this book as I thought about the street fighting in Harpers Ferry, and thinking back to my own experiences in the Middle East and former Yugoslavia and Romania and other places where I witnessed that kind of combat.
NNAMDII'd like to combine an email we got from Keith in Silver Spring and a phone call we're getting from Lori. I'll first read the email from Keith. "I agree that the raid on Harpers Ferry was certainly a spark for the civil war, but I also think the time Brown spent in Kansas in 1856 set a mood in the nation that war was unavoidable. Could Tony tell us more about that?" And here is Laurie in Washington D.C. Laurie, your turn. Go ahead, please.
LAURIEThank you very much, Kojo. May I also say that I absolutely love the way that you manage your show and the way that you facilitate the guests and the callers. But I also wanted to ask, I'm not sure if it's mentioned in the book, but could you talk about his history, because just the little bit that I know of, that's where pretty much he was labeled as a terrorist because apparently to prove his point he was -- he murdered a number of people. I just wonder if you could address that...
LAURIE...and talk about that incident.
HORWITZYeah. Brown really emerges as a militant abolitionist, at least in public in the mid 1850s in Kansas, which at that point is really the front line in the fight over whether slavery will expand to new western territories, and at the time Brown arrives there, really southerners and pro-slavery settlers have the upper hand, and Brown really in retaliation leads a night raid on a community on Pattawatomie Creek and drags five pro-slavery settlers from their bed and slaughters with broad swords. He then takes to the open field and fights pro-slavery forces, and this is really in another sense the beginning of the Civil War.
HORWITZYou have northerners and southerners killing each other over slavery in 1856, with musket and cannon, on a small scale, but this is five years before the first Battle of Annacis.
NNAMDILaurie, thank you very much for your call. Onto John in Greenbelt, Md. John, your turn. John, are you there?
JOHNYes. This is John Wesley, can you hear me?
NNAMDIYes, we can.
JOHNYes. I’m a former history major in college, and a history junkie, and I came across some interesting facts about John Brown's raid. Once he sees the fire engine house, he was immediately surrounded and was, as you've mentioned, Tony, he was -- all of the (unintelligible) that were there were either killed or wounded except four, and John Brown himself was one of the four. Two of his sons were killed or wounded, and the federal officer who accosted and arrested him was none other than Robert E. Lee. Isn't that interesting?
NNAMDIYes. That's also -- you can find in the book, "Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War." Here's Tony.
HORWITZYeah. I just wanted to -- parts of this story I love and wrote about quite a bit in the book. On the other side, the people Brown is opposing, it's almost a dress rehearsal for the confederacy. The U.S. Marines who come to essentially stage a counterattack are led by Robert E. Lee and Jeb Stuart. Stonewall Jackson later turns up, and most astonishingly, one of the guards at Brown's hanging in John Wilkes Booth who later writes about Brown, who he takes some inspiration from.
HORWITZThis man who through an act of violence changes the course of American history as Booth himself does six years later with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
NNAMDIJohn, thank you very much for your call. Thirty-two hours after Brown's raid began as John was pointing out, it was quashed by U.S. marines led by Robert E. Lee, but many historians believe that Brown's greatest triumph followed that defeat. How so?
HORWITZYeah. Sort of another wonderful irony to this story that Brown who thinks of himself as the consummate man of action and has really contempt for the talkers and writers. He wants to go and do. Well, he fails in his actions in Harpers Ferry. He's not a good military commander, but he ultimately triumphs through the power of his words. In prison and court he is so eloquent and so defiant, and really stirs the conscience of northerners and goes to the galas with such bravery that that's really where he ascends into legend. If he had died on the floor of the engine house in Harpers Ferry, this really would be a footnote to history.
NNAMDIWe got a tweet from Jane who said, "I love Tony's 'Confederates in the Ark,' referring to one of Tony Horwitz's earlier books. "How does he think Brown's legacy echoes into the present day?"
HORWITZIt's a interesting question, because Brown has one of the more complicated legacies of, I don't know, more complicated than anyone I can think of. Here's a man who, after his death and in the century and a half since has been embraced on the one hand by late-19th century anarchists, by weathermen in the '60s, by Black Panthers, and then in more recent decades by anti-abortion bombers and by Timothy McVeigh. So he sets in some ways a rather troubling example where he's saying essentially I must follow my conscience and, you know, my individual beliefs rather than those of the government, and he raises really difficult questions about whether violence is ever justified in the cause of justice.
NNAMDIWhen does an individual have the right to defy their government, and also about religious fundamentalism. So in all those respects, and obviously race, he really touches on, you know, some of the hottest buttons in our history and culture.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Tony Horwitz about his latest book, "Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War." Taking your calls at 800-433-8850. How do you know the story of John Brown? Did you learn it in school or simply are you a Civil War buff and you've been reading up on John Brown? What do you remember about it? 800-433-8850. Here is Daniel in Northeast D.C. Daniel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANIELThank you, Kojo. Growing up in New York, when we were taught John Brown took over the armory, you know, we thought that's where the antique show was.
DANIELAnd then when I later learned that he assaulted the United States armory in Harpers Ferry, I think he blew up a number of factories that were armament factories for the United States. I mean, he effectively disarmed the United States. Isn't that true? So when you're saying he was a failure militarily, I don't think so. The whole raid wasn't a failure, the blowing up of the armory, I mean, how many people can say they disarmed the United States? Maybe the plow shares eight, you know, pounding on a nuclear warhead.
DANIELThe other question I have is, the African Americans who were part of the raiding party, I know Dangerfield Newby was the first shot or killed. Could you talk about those individuals more?
HORWITZYeah. First, just a small correction on the first point. He actually does not blow up the armory. It is burned early in the Civil War, first by retreating union forces, government troops, and then by the Confederates. But Brown himself does not -- in fact, he doesn't even touch the 100,000 guns. But I'm glad you raised the five often forgotten black members of his band, including Dangerfield Newby who's a former slave, whose wife and children are still in bondage in Virginia, and he is desperate to free them.
HORWITZAnd so for him, this is really a personal mission and rather miraculously, we have the letters from his wife pleading with Dangerfield to come free her. And he is the first of Brown's Raiders gunned down in the street, 50 miles short of his goal of freeing his wife, Harriet, who is then sold to a plantation in Louisiana. So there's a tremendous amount at stake really individually and collectively for everyone involved in this raid.
NNAMDIAnd thank you for your call, Daniel. President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which was the beginning of the end of slavery in the U.S., but you say that without Brown, Lincoln may never have made it into office. How did Brown influence the campaign that led to Lincoln's election?
HORWITZRight. Well, this happens in October 1859 in the run up to the 1860 elections, and it wasn't like our campaigns today. But Lincoln at that point is really a second or third tier candidate in the Republican field. He's little known outside Illinois, but Harpers Ferry sort of tars his opponents, particularly the front runner William Seward, who comes to seem too radical, and in a sense too closely aligned with what Brown represents, and Lincoln quite deftly uses this to position himself as the safely moderate choice in the Republican field.
HORWITZHe's very critical of Brown. He really comes out at the conservative end of the anti-slavery spectrum, and partly as a result of that, there are many other factors, he's really the surprise choice as the Republican nominee. Harpers Ferry and its aftermath also help destroy or divide the Democratic party so that then in the general election, Lincoln is running in a very fractured field. There are four candidates out there, and he wins with less than 40 percent of the vote. So I really think without John Brown and his raid and the furor that goes on for months after it, Lincoln might well have not been nominated or elected.
NNAMDIOnto Mark in Reston, Va. Mark, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARKHi Kojo. I wanted to ask your guest, Tony, about some of the international influences for John Brown. I think I read in W.E.B. Du Bois biography that he had been influenced by Toussaint Louverture of Haiti, and also Imam Shamil of Dagestan who led the jihad against Russia. Does he have anything more about that?
HORWITZYeah. Brown wasn't a terribly well-educated man in a formal sense. He was educated in a log school, and then studies briefly for the ministry, but he's a keen reader. He's really an autodidact, and as part of his long preparation for this assault on slavery, he studies guerrilla warfare around the world. He also studies I think in particular the Napoleonic wars and he's interested in mountain-based guerrillas in Spain for instance, and his notes -- we have some of his notes on his reading.
HORWITZOn the other hand, he came up with some rather unusual military doctrines from his reading. For instance, he believed for some reason that ravines were more defendable than high ground, and if you look at Harpers Ferry, it's actually a giant ravine with Harpers Ferry at the bottom. And I'm not sure his reading really helped his military thinking, but he did read widely about international examples that he might use.
NNAMDIMark, thank you very much for your call. The earlier email that we read from Keith in Silver Spring also said, "and I do not think for one moment that Brown was insane. Extreme perhaps, but not insane." Some historians have characterized John Brown as a terrorist radical, even a lunatic. Who was John Brown really, and how has his image changed over time?
HORWITZWell, that's a big question. In art and lure, yeah, he's typically depicted as a sort of wild-eyed, wild-haired fanatic, probably insane. There's a painting at the Portrait Gallery here in Washington of John Brown that really captures that image. Actually for most of his life he was a well-groomed American striver and family man. He fathered 20 children. He was really classically American in many ways. The insanity came up first at his trial. His defenders wanted to get him off by claiming insanity. He wanted no part of that.
HORWITZI think he was an obsessive character. Herman Melville wrote a wonderful poem in which he calls him Weird John Brown. I think Melville sensed that there was an Ahab quality to this man who, you know, his white whale was slavery, and he would take everyone down with him if necessary to defeat it, but he wasn't insane, and I think it's a way really, then and now, of distancing Brown and dismissing him and saying, well, he's not a character we really have to think about too hard because what he did was really the product of a disturbed imagination.
NNAMDIRunning out of time, we only have about a minute left, but I want to read this email from Rob, along with a question. "I really enjoyed Mr. Horwitz's book 'Confederates in the Attic,' and wonder if there's any connection between that book and 'Midnight Rising.'" Your earlier books blend the historic and the contemporary, but "Midnight Rising" is firmly rooted in the 19th century. In talking about it though, you've drawn parallels between 9/11 and the raid on Harpers Ferry. What similarities do you see, and just as important, where do those similarities end?
HORWITZHard in the time we have left, but briefly, I think there are striking parallels. He has 19 men with him when he enters Harpers Ferry, the same number as the 9/11 bombers. This is in some ways a suicide strike on a symbol of American power that's meant to shock the nation and it propels it towards war as 9/11 did with us. However, I think it's a mistake to think of him as a terrorist in the way we've come to think of that. He's not killing indiscriminately, and he has a very clear mission, which is the end of slavery, and if I could add my own pitch at the end.
HORWITZPlease come argue with me. I'll be speaking at the Newseum on Sunday at 2:30 and at Ford's Theater at 4:30 on Monday, and I renew my pledge of 10 signed copies of "Midnight Rising" for WAMU to give away if someone gives a matching grant.
NNAMDIA reminder that's Sunday, February 19 at the Newseum in the Knight TV Studio at 2:30 P.M., and Monday, February 20 at the Ford's Theater Center for Education and Learning at 4:30 as part of the President's Day Open House. You can meet Tony Horwitz on either of those occasions. Thank you so much for joining us.
HORWITZThanks for having me.
NNAMDITony Horwitz is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and author. His most recent book is "Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War." Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Whether you like horror stories or cookbooks, poetry or works in translation, we consider a range of titles that will keep you turning pages. And we want to know what's on your reading list, so join the conversation on air or on our website to share the best book you've read this year.
With Burberry and Kate Spade stores now open at the new luxury-oriented CityCenterDC, we examine how mixed-use developments around our region choose and attract the retailers that are key to their success.
After five years in a Cuban jail, USAID contractor and Washington area resident Alan Gross is home. We explore the role the local Jewish community played in winning his release.