Review: Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America

Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America (Paperback)
by Evan Carton (Author)

Product Details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Bison Books (April 1, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0803219466
  • ISBN-13: 978-0803219465

Inconsistencies and excesses

In the Civil War’s Emancipation Tradition John Brown is one of the major players, the doomed idealist, martyred by the evil slave-holding empire.  With his full beard and wild eyes, Brown is an Old Testament prophet passing judgment and calling down the plague of civil war on America.  This view makes it almost impossible to find an objective book about the man.  He seems either bathed in a white light blinded by his vision or a cloven hove monster with bloody claws.  Neither view is accurate, historical or likely to help us understand the man, his actions or the era.  John Brown is a complex man full of inconsistencies and excesses.  He loves his children but puts them in harm’s way, resulting in their death.  A deeply religious man, he is capable of cold-blooded murder without remorse.  In an age where race dominated society, he is one of the few whites who truly felt blacks are equal.  Doing a book on him is full of dangers and can easily incite rage from his supporters or detractors.

Evan Carton gives the reader both John Brown, a history of Abolitionist thought, race relations and America from 1830 to 1860.  This is a large amount of information for a book that reads like a novel not a history.  The author uses endnotes with chapter and page numbers without footnoting.  We are told “to convey their living drama, I sometimes visualize the undescribed sensory and emotional particulars and imagine the unpreserved words, thoughts and motives”, reading that statement worried me! Was this would be historical fact or Emancipation Tradition fiction?  Whatever the author did, they did well producing an excellent read that was enjoyable and informative.  I liked this book much more than expected.  It is an excellent read, balanced and fair to all parties.  These people have serious differences in a society very different from ours.  The author never judges them by today’s standards.  While clearly anti-slavery, the treatment of slave-owners never falls into unwarranted condemnation.

John Brown emerges from this book a full figured man with a self-defined mission.  The author has problems with some of the presentation but pulls no punches.  While Brown’s story may always lean toward “half full”, all the failures, bankruptcies and the embezzlements are here.  Bleeding Kansas, for the most part is accurate and well written.  Brown could enflame the problems and that is not fully developed.  Neither is the reaction of many “Free-soil” residents toward his actions.  However, his military exploits and his use of them to raise funds are.  This is Brown at the peak of his fame and ability to captivate an audience.  From here to Harpers Ferry is a slippery slope of disappointments.  As the Republican Party rises to power, America’s views on slavery start to change and Brown’s view cannot.  The Secret Six, Brown’s New England intellectuals that provide most of his funds, do not get full coverage.  This is proper in a book on Brown but I would like to see the author do that book some day.

John Brown is a little mad.  Perhaps driven to madness by his sense of injustice, nonetheless he is guilty of murder and treason.  Perhaps the difference between John Brown and William Quantrill is more the side they chose then the men.  Both allowed events pull them outside of the law and into murder.  Both felt they were right and had no choice but to act as they did.  I often think that except for the slavery issue, these two charismatic men would have had much in common.

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