The beauty and hideousness of history is the ability to interpret and to reinterpret the past. One of Western history’s most controversial icons was John Brown, the abolitionist whose actions in the 1850s would cause him to become a legend for the cause of abolition. David Reynolds, renowned historian and expert on the 19th century of the USA is nuanced in his view, demystifying and de-vilifying John Brown to what he was, a product of the USA and treats his life with the utmost respect. Early accounts of Brown differed in interpretation due to where the source was coming from, the pro-slavery accounts state him as a rebel, whereas the North as a hero. Reynolds carefully shows how his upbringing made him anti-slavery, his Puritan convictions and belief in God allowed him to act according to what he deemed as providence.
America seems not to have come to grips with the man whose legend became so apparent, that the iconic ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’, so inspirational in the Civil War era, was a rewrite to a song about Brown. Though difficult to announce the man as a hero or a villain based on the complexity of his story, Reynolds meandering through the facts allows the reader to pick their own bias. The man who changed the perception of the North as pacifists to those willing to fight lives long in many memories and shows to us all, how education outside your comfort zone and what is taught to you can give insight. The man who admired George Washington as much as Nat Turner shows us that.
His faith in God was steadfast, a man who the Reformed tradition do not wish to contend with as and from my small knowledge on the man, the comparisons with Oliver Cromwell are justified. Brown has gone through reinterpretations since he was hung in 1859 for his failed raid on Harper’s Ferry, and he will continue to be looked upon again and again, as he was a man of America’s past who was also, a man ahead of his time who added an unforgettable addition to America’s race relations.