Thursday, November 5, 2009

Patriotic Treason

Evan Carton. Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America. New York: Free Press, 2006.

Reviewed by Joe Hewitt
(Missouri State University)

Today, Americans know John Brown as the man who ignited the U.S. Civil War with his failed attempt to start a slave revolt with weapons from the Harpers Ferry armory in Virginia. Shortly after his capture, a Virginia court charged him with treason against the commonwealth of Virginia, conspiring with slaves to commit treason, and murder. After a four-day show trial, the jury’s inevitable guilty verdict took only forty-five minutes. Brown discouraged any talk of a rescue attempt by antislavery allies saying “I am worth more to hang than for any other purpose.” During the month’s wait before his execution, he read the Biblical passages affirming the righteousness of human equality, wrote many letters to family and friends, and received a steady stream of visitors from the North.

Evan Carton’s Patriotic Treason examines the life of John Brown, his abolitionist activities, his friends in the antislavery movement, the role of religion in his motivation for freeing slaves, his military exploits and terrorist acts in Kansas, his personal and public life, the role of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in creating Bleeding Kansas, the role of the Fugitive Slave Act in criminalizing abolitionists who refused to return escaping slaves as required, and his final desperate act. An unconventional historian, Carton describes John Brown’s inner conflicts much like a novelist would write about a major character giving the entire narrative an exciting, page-turner quality, but the history is thorough and detailed with its story of a man of action and faith losing faith in the political process to correct a systemic wrong.

In his epilogue, Evan Carton notes that the American historical establishment demonized John Brown as a dangerous fanatic. “Private citizens agitating on single issues were not the preferred engines of history.” Carton argues that the story of the Civil War needed a villain and John Brown offended conventional mores enough to fit that role.

This book helped me understand why Kansas, where John Brown emboldened the Free Staters to drive proslavery hooligans from the state, has done so little to recognize this founding father. Although his image reigns over the Kansas State Capitol’s rotunda in John Steuart Curry’s famous mural, his homestead near my boyhood home in eastern Kansas is not marked. One hundred and fifty years after Harpers Ferry, John Brown’s vision of a democracy for all, regardless of race, is still misunderstood.

On order for Burling Library

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