Creating the John Brown Legend
By Janet Kemper Beck
(October 2009 Civil War News)
Illustrated, notes, bibliography 214 pp., 2009. McFarland, www.mcfarlandpub.com, $35 plus shipping.
The initial public reaction in the North to the John Brown raid on Harpers Ferry on Oct. 15, 1859 was negative — even hostile. Most people thought that the raid was irresponsible and wrong, and that Brown was nothing but a common criminal.
The matter might have rested there. But Brown had a group of passionate abolitionist supporters who were unusually literate and media-savvy. This group grasped the fact that Brown the dead martyr would help the abolitionist cause far more than Brown the acquitted raider ever could.
This book is the story of the “spin doctoring” that within a matter of weeks would turn Brown from law-breaker into a legendary hero.
Three prominent men were the key players in this public relations game: Henry David Thoreau, the writer; Ralph Waldo Emerson, the respected scholar and poet; and Frederick Douglass, the ex-slave.
Two lesser-known actors were children’s author Lydia Maria Child (composer of the lines, “Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go”); and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Unitarian minister, editor and future Union soldier.
Thoreau fired the first verbal shot in a speech in Concord, Mass. Brown was not a criminal, he said, but a martyr for a just cause, a veritable American Jesus.
Emerson chimed in nine days later, giving a speech in which he praised Brown as a “new saint, than whom more purer or more brave was ever led by love of man into conflict and death; a new saint, waiting yet his martyrdom; and who, if he shall suffer, will make the gallows glorious life the cross.”
The other three literary celebrities joined in and for weeks waged a campaign calculated at reshaping public opinion. Their message was simple, targeted and consistent: Brown was a moral man, a Christ-like figure whose only sin was to try to free the oppressed human slaves.
By the time of Brown’s execution in December, the tide of Northern public opinion had shifted.
The efforts of Lydia Maria Child were typical. While disapproving of Brown’s method, she wrote to Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise and asked permission to come to Charles Town to nurse Brown’s injuries. Wise sent a polite reply in the affirmative, but made the error of blaming Child and her abolitionist friends for Brown’s dastardly raid.
Child sent an articulate reply, defending the abolitionist position and denying complicity in the raid.
Wise’s second mistake was to attempt to embarrass Child by leaking their correspondence to the press. As a result of the publication of the letters, Child was inundated with letters — pro from the North and Canada; con from the South. Child, realizing that Wise had inadvertently delivered a huge audience to her, proceeded to take advantage of the opportunity.
When Margaretta Mason, the wife of U.S. Senator James M. Mason of Virginia, wrote a scathing letter to Child, accusing her of hypocrisy for claiming to be a pacifist and then supporting a slave revolt, Child saw her opening.
In an exquisitely worded reply, Child demolished Mason’s letter point by point. One example of her technique: Mrs. Mason had charged that Northern women were callous and were unfamiliar with helping other women in child birth, while white Southern women frequently assisted slave women in labor.
Child’s reply: “I have never known an instance where the ‘pangs of maternity’ did not meet with requisite assistance; and here at the North after we have helped the mothers, we do not sell the babies.”
Later, Child’s correspondence with both Wise and Mason was reprinted in a pamphlet that sold an astonishing 300,000 copies at a time when a typical best seller might produce 8,000.
This book is well-researched and increases our understanding of how the John Brown legend was created. The writing, while not stylish, is logical, coherent and solid. It may not be a page turner, but the information is good.
Reviewer: Walt Albro
Walt Albro is a magazine writer and editor who lives in Rockville, Md.