As with Jesse James, one's first thought was, "Does the world really need another book about that old mad-dog?" (as Vernon Countians knew him).
The answer, for better or worse, is, yes. On most serious subjects, there's always something new to be learned about something old.
"Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America" is the work of Evan Carton, a professor of English and director of the Humanities Institute at the University of Texas. It was published by Simon and Schuster in 2006.
One was inclined to be wary of a Brown biography issuing out of academia. The usual academic approach to such a subject is idealistic and left-wing. Today's "intellectuals" are likely to react much as did their counterparts in Brown's own day, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said of Brown's hanging, "The gallows is made glorious like the cross!"
But Carton's work turns out to be a well-balanced retelling of the Brown story in meticulous detail, bringing the subject to life better than any work in our recollection, at least since Stephen Oates's "To Purge This Land With Blood," and perhaps surpassing it.
Though Carton obviously entertains a sneaking sympathy for Brown and his objectives, he's unsparing in presenting the man with all his faults and failings.
One Brown admirer, the radical attorney Clarence Darrow, devoted an essay to depicting Brown as a successful businessman. Nothing could be further from the truth, as Carton makes clear. Brown floundered through the first two-thirds of his life veering from one business disaster to another. If he actually happened to achieve a success, he'd throw it all away, turning to some new all-new line, or losing himself in his obsession with slavery.
At mid-life he seemed to give up all thought of making his way and supporting his family like other men. From then on all his energies and his family's welfare were sacrificed to impractical schemes for freeing the slaves. He scorned other abolitionists who believed that objective could be achieved by peaceful means and moral suasion. Only violence would do. With a small change of faith, Brown would be right at home with al Qaida and the Taliban.
Brown's overriding idea from early on was to spark a slave revolt by leading a raid into the heart of the South through the Appalachian Mountains. Associates were unable to convince him the scheme was hopelessly impractical, that the slaves wouldn't rise up as he expected, and the Southern states and the Federal government would easily overcome him (all of which indeed happened in the end).
He'd talked to so many that word leaked to authorities. His moneyed backers developed cold feet and urged him to go back to Kansas and lie low for a while.
Thus, in 1858 Brown was back in Kansas, not to lie low but to pull off some small scale version of his raid to prove it could be done. When (as he told it) a Vernon County slave sought him out with a woeful tale of suffering and a plea for rescue, Brown seized this opportunity to convince his backers and "wreak a sensation in the national press."
Carton's account of the Vernon County raid of Dec. 20, 1858, disappoints with its series of small inaccuracies, rather detracting from the convincingness of the book as a whole. He repeats many erroneous statements of earlier writers, for instance that the state of Missouri offered a $3,000 reward for Brown's apprehension. The distinguished Missouri historian Floyd C. Shoemaker proved decades ago that no reward was ever offered. And he accepts the story supposedly told by the slave that he and the others were about to be sold, though the will of James Lawrence stipulated that they were not to be sold until his youngest child came of age, a matter of years. Pro-Union historian Allan Nevins confirms: "The sale was a fiction."
Carton also misspells the name of Harvey Hicklin, and misidentifies him as the owner of the five Lawrence slaves, whom he mistakenly calls a family (one was no relation). His account of the raiders' descent on David Cruise's house is badly skewed, tallying with neither, the account of Cruise's son Rufus nor that of neighbors. Finally, he claims the Cruise slave Jane and the Lawrence slave Sam were already husband and wife, whereas the evidence indicates that they became intimate only during their flight to Canada with Brown, and that Jane's child (born the first night in Kansas, not months later as Carton puts it) was not Sam's.
These small flaws are cumulatively disturbing; still, the book remains well worth reading and being given general credence.
Carton's overall conclusions, too, are a matter on which each reader must make up his own mind. In this one's opinion he gives Brown's actions too much weight, claiming that they actually precipitated the end of slavery in Virginia. The much-argued causes of the Civil War were many and various, and John Brown figures among them as only a small component. The war would have come on much as it did if Brown had never lived. At best, Brown contributed to the war's bitterness. His admirers seem to think this was a good thing.
Was it a good thing that more than 600,000 Americans killed each other in a war, one of the results of which was the end of slavery? It needs to be remembered that slavery ended in other places without such violence and bloodshed. The institution was abolished in British colonies before the American war, and in Brazil much later, in both cases without violence. It's reasonable to believe such might have been achieved in the United States if hotheads on both sides (such as John Brown) had not kept hatreds and intransigence at a fever pitch.