ISBN: 9780375726156 | BUY HERE
David S. Reynolds’ study of the heroic abolitionist John Brown is more than a biography of one man; it’s an account of an entire era. The author helps us understand the forces that shaped Brown and made him such a fierce opponent of slavery. It also conveys a vivid picture of life — especially cultural life –in the United States before the Civil War, the decades when an intense debate raged over slavery.
With great verve, Reynolds recounts how Brown and his compatriots planned and carried out their bold but ultimately doomed raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in October 1859. While this portion of the book has a narrative pace worthy of a novel, Reynolds is actually at his best in describing what happened after the raiders’ noble attempt to strike a blow against slavery failed. (Failed, that is, at least in the strictly military sense of the term.) Reynolds puts his detailed knowledge of 19th century American cultural life to work in the last third of the book, showing how every major writer and political leader and religious figure was forced to take a position on whether what John Brown and his compatriots did was right or wrong. The Harpers Ferry raid shocked and outraged the supporters of slavery. It forced Northern intellectuals like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson to speak out wholeheartedly in defense of Brown. The raid even inspired comment from distinguished European intellectuals like Victor Hugo.
Harpers Ferry helped push slave-holding states out of the Union and hastened the outbreak of the Civil War. The raid’s effects are still being felt. Reynolds’ book does history a great service by helping us grapple with the difficult issues raised by John Brown’s life and death.