‘Midnight Rising’ Takes a New Look at Life, Legend of John Brown

November 15, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Author Tony Horwitz tells the story of John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry in his new book, "Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War." Jeffrey Brown and Horwitz discuss the life and evolving legend of Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, coming to terms with the life and legend of John Brown.

Harpers Ferry, W.Va., it was here at the confluence of two rivers, the Potomac and Shenandoah, that George Washington first decided to build a federal armory in 1794 in what was then Virginia, the largest slaveholding state in the young country.

And it was here on Oct. 16, 1859, that John Brown made his famous raid, seeking to end slavery forever.

The story is told in a new book, “Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War.”

Author Tony Horwitz joined me at Harpers Ferry recently to talk about a man and event that continued to resonate, fascinate and confound down to our own time.

TONY HORWITZ, “Midnight Rising”: Religious fundamentalism? The right of the individual to oppose their government? All these issues are still troubling and relevant. And that’s why I think Brown is still with us. He — he worries us. What do we do with this homegrown American terrorist?

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JEFFREY BROWN: Where did his fervor, his hatred of slavery come from, and his sort of maniacal sense that he was right?

TONY HORWITZ: He comes from a very old-school Calvinist upbringing, obsessed with sin, both personal and collective. And slavery is the great sin of the nation in this period.

And he feels this conviction that America’s founding destiny of equality and freedom can only be fulfilled through the destruction of this institution. He parts ways with most abolitionists who in this era are staunch pacifists. They believe in education and moral uplift as the way to defeat slavery.

Brown derides this as milk-and-water abolitionism, weak and ineffectual. To him, slavery is a state of war and has to be met in kind. And he’s ready to fight for freedom.

JEFFREY BROWN: The fight began in what became known as Bleeding Kansas, the main battleground in the struggle over whether slavery would extend to new territories.

And for Brown, it continued in the salons and mansions of the North, where he sought support and funding.

TONY HORWITZ: Brown is not a lone gunman. He, after his Kansas exploits, goes east in full freedom fighter persona and really touches the nerve in the North. He’s — he’s got this charisma, this moral magnetism that gets people to give money and guns to his cause.

JEFFREY BROWN: He dines at the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson and other major figures of the time.

TONY HORWITZ: And Thoreau.

He’s feted in the lecture halls and parlors of New England. It’s a little like the 1960s, when you had wealthy Manhattanites hosting Black Panthers and other radicals. This sort of rough-hewn frontier warrior has this intoxicating effect on the genteel parlor radicals of the North.

JEFFREY BROWN: The culmination was the raid on Harpers Ferry, planned for months at the nearby Kennedy Farm in Maryland and carried out by a guerrilla band of just 18 men.

TONY HORWITZ: I think he also thought that, whatever happened here, he would shock the nation. He thinks that he’s striking a symbol of American power in the largest slave state in the country. And he’s going to stir the nation, whether he dies or not here, into confronting this great evil. And I think that’s what he’s really after.

JEFFREY BROWN: The town was shocked and surprised, all right. But, within hours, Brown, some of his men and several hostages were trapped by a detachment of U.S. Marines under the leadership of then Colonel Robert E. Lee in the small engine house, which became known as John Brown’s Fort.

TONY HORWITZ: It’s like a bank heist gone bad.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this is a small place.


JEFFREY BROWN: But there were a lot of people crowded in here.

TONY HORWITZ: There were about 25 people crowded in, by the end of it, a few of them dead and dying. They have got no food and water. They haven’t been out for hours. And there’s a sort of howling mob outside.

JEFFREY BROWN: All surrounded.

TONY HORWITZ: Surrounding them and firing potshots.


TONY HORWITZ: And Robert E. Lee and the Marines are preparing to batter down the door. And this is John Brown’s last stand.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this is where — I mean, he was taken from here. Right?

TONY HORWITZ: Right. They — Marines come and succeed in breaking in. There’s a firefight. And two of the raiders are bayonetted to death. And Brown is wounded and captured.

And that’s really where the military part of the story ends.

JEFFREY BROWN: Brown was arrested and taken to nearby Charles Town courthouse for trial. He refused to consider an insanity defense.

Was he crazy? Was he a madman?

TONY HORWITZ: He’s often depicted as this sort of wild-eyed, wild-haired fanatic, probably insane.

Brown is certainly an obsessive. He has this Ahab quality about him. He’s also very grandiose in his dreams, to the point at times where I wonder whether he was delusional. But he certainly wasn’t insane in a clinical or legal sense. He knew exactly what he was doing here. And in the end, he achieved it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, in the end, he achieved it. I mean, what’s interesting, of course, he failed at the raid.


JEFFREY BROWN: But as you write about, he succeeded in the aftermath, before his execution.

TONY HORWITZ: This is one of many great ironies in this story, that John Brown, who is the man of action, who thinks words will never end slavery, comes here to attack, and actually he fails as a man of action. This raid is a debacle in military terms.

But he triumphs through the power of his words after the raid and his courage in facing death. And that’s what really has made him a legend.

JEFFREY BROWN: At the trial, says Horwitz, Brown turned the case around and put his accusers on trial.

“If it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice,” Brown said, “and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel and unjust enactments, I submit. So let it be done.”

Terrorist, freedom fighter. Earlier, we talked about whether he was crazy or a madman. Have you, after spending this time with him, come to define him in your own head?

TONY HORWITZ: Not really. And I guess I shouldn’t say that.

As a writer, you know, I tie it all up in a neat bow.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re supposed to figure it out for us.

TONY HORWITZ: But I hope part of the suspense of reading this book is for readers themselves to figure out how they feel about this complicated and confounding man.

I think we still struggle to understand how it is that Americans who shared a common language and culture and for the most part religion came to slaughter each other by the hundreds of thousands in the 1860s. And I think John Brown and his raid on Harpers Ferry give us a window into that story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, Brown himself saw what was to come. As he was taken from jail to the gallows, he handed one of his guards a note that read in part, “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

Eighteen months later, the Civil War began.