In his fascinating biography, John Brown, Abolitionist, David S. Reynolds shows convincingly that the often racist Carlyle contributed importantly to the American Civil War and the consequent abolition of slavery. The argument goes like this: John Brown, a Calvinist descendant of Puritans who, more than anyone else, preciptated the war, modelled himself after Oliver Cromwell, and both abolitionists and slaveholders also saw him as Cromwell reborn. According to Reynolds,

Although John Brown's contemporaries compared him to many historical figures — Moses, Samson, Washington, Garibaldi, and Kossuth, to name a few — Cromwell was mentioned most often. To Frank Sanborn, Brown was "a Puritan soldier, such as were common enough in Cromwell's day, but have not often been seen since"; to George Steams, he was "a Cromwellian Ironside introduced in the nineteenth century for a special purpose"; to Mary Steams, "some old Cromwellian hero suddenly dropped down"; to Wendell Phillips, "a regular Cromwellian, dug up from two centuries"; to Richard Hinton, "a Puritan brought back from the days of Cromwell"; to James Hanway, "the Oliver Cromwell of America"; and so on.

Thoreau made the connection most eloquently: "He died lately in the time of Cromwell, but he reappeared here." His hard words about slave-holders were, Thoreau said, "like the speeches of Cromwell compared with those of an ordinary king," and his band of soldiers in Kansas missed being "a perfect Cromwellian troop" only because there was no clergyman worthy of joining it.

It is hardly exaggerating to say that Brown's supporters venerated him because they had previously venerated Cromwell. They were prepared to support him by their initiation into the Cromwell cult.

And Thomas Carlyle created this Cromwell cult. The great Puritan leader, as Reynolds points out, "was not easy to admire. For over a century after his death he was reviled as a murderer and a harsh dictator" (230), but Carlyle "almost singlehandedly" turned him into "a self-reliant hero":

If John Brown could be favorably compared to Cromwell, it was because Carlyle had made Cromwell a figure worthy of emulation: not a heartless murderer or an intolerant fanatic but rather the embodiment of sturdy heroism and sincere religious devotion. The major blots on Cromwell's reputation — his massacre of innocent Irish during the civil wars or his abrupt dismissal of the Rump Parliament and his establishment of a military dictatorship — were shrugged off by the admiring Carlyle as excusable measures for stern times. Carlyle's version of Cromwell influenced the Transcendentalists and spread into American popular culture. If the Transcendentalists prized John Brown because he resembled Carlyle's Cromwell, it was because Brown had already shaped himself after Cromwell as he was described by the American writer Joel Tyier Headley, whose 1848 biography of Cromwell recycled Carlyle for the masses. [230-31]

Related Material


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

Last modified 29 January 2016