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In John Brown, Abolitionist, David S. Reynolds points out that "Normally, Puritanism does not factor in histories of the Civil War. A widely held view is that Puritanism, far from stirring up warlike emotions, had by the nineteenth century softened into a benign faith in America's millennial promise. Supposedly, it buttressed mainstream cultural values, fostering consensus and conformity." In fact, he demonstrates that the opposite is the case, since for many on both sides "in the Civil War era, . . . Puritanism meant radical individualism and subversive social agitation. In 1863, the Democratic congressman Samuel Cox typically blamed the Civil War on disruptive New England reform movements that he said were rooted in Puritanism. He insisted that fanatical Abolitionism caused the war, and, in his words, "Abolition is the offspring of Puritanism" (16), and many abolitionists agreed:

Northerners, like Southerners, associated these movements with radical Puritanism, but often from a positive perspective. In his 1844 lecture "New England Reformers," Emerson declared that the "fertile forms of antinomianism among the elder puritans seemed to have their match in the plenty of the new harvest of reform. . . . A Northern journalist went so far as to say: "Puritanism and nothing else can save this nation. . . . The Puritan element, which demands religious freedom, as the birth-right of Heaven, in matters spiritual, is the nourisher of that civil liberty which releases the body from secular despotism in matters temporal." [17]

One of the principal — probably the principal — direct influences of Puritanism on the coming of the Civil War came in the person of John Brown.

If the South saw Brown as an arrogant lawbreaker, the North, once it overcame its initial doubts about him, heralded him as a freedom-fighter in the Puritan tradition. His uniqueness among nineteenth-century Americans is captured in many contemporary accounts of him as a throwback to an earlier era. Franklin Sanborn remarked, "He was, in truth, a calvinistic Puritan, born a century or two after the fashion had changed; but as ready as those of Bradford's or Cromwell's time had been to engage in any work of the Lord to which he felt himself called." Another associate called him "a Puritan of the Puritans," and another commented: "In religion and character Brown was the last of the Puritans." The Abolitionist Richard J. Hinton, similarly, described him as "a puritan brought back from the days of Cromwell or a vision of the old Revolutionary times, to show the world that all the fearless energy and strong integrity that characterized these epochs, has not yet faded out."

Both enemies and friends of John Brown, then, considered him a deep-dyed Puritan. They were right. He was a Calvinist who admired the works of Jonathan Edwards. He was proud of his family roots in New England Puritanism. He patterned himself after the Puritan warrior Cromwell, to whom he was often compared. [19]

One crucial reason that both pro- and antislavery Americans readily accepted Brown as a nineteenth-century Oliver Cromwell, Reynolds explains, appears in the Southern reception of abolitionist non-violence: Rather than perceiving Northern advocates of emancipation as noble and morally uplifted by their pacifism, proslavery politicians, newspapers, and general citizens of slave states judged it to represent Northern cowardice and lack of manhood. The comparatively little violence Brown carried out stunned both the Missouri ruffians who murdered those who spoke out against slavery — generally by shooting them in the back or mob attacks on unarmed men — stunned the South: For the first time an abolitionist struck back. In fact, as Reynolds demonstrates, panicked Southern politicians and newspapers enormously exagerrated the prowess and very deeds of Brown, thereby creating a mythological figure readily accepted by the North!

In addition, having been prepared by Carlyle to see a Cromwellian Brown, they accepted him as an active force for good in contrast to their own merely abstract or intellectual approaches. Examining the Transcendentalist response to Brown both before and after Harper's Ferry,

reveals that they regarded him as a Cromwellian warrior against corrupt political institutions in the name of a higher law. If they magnified him to supernatural proportions, it was because they believed he might succeed where they had failed. They had tried for years to supplant their culture's materialism, conformity, and shady politics with spiritual-minded individualism.. . . . They believed that John Brown was better equipped than they to win this battle. They recognized themselves to be philosophical observers, theorizing about principles. He was an actual soldier in the field, fighting for principle. [232]

Finally, when his attack on Harper's Ferry failed and he was severely wounded, captured, convicted of treason, and finally executed by hanging, his calmness and bravery, which so impressed his captors, made the North see him as an abolitionist martyr. It as no mere coincidence that the many versions of "John Brown's body lies a mouldering in the ground" sung by Union soldiers metamorphosed at last into Julia Ward Howe's biblical "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

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Reynolds, David S. John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights. New York: Vintage Books, 2005.

Political themes and contexts

Last modified 28 December 2009