Review: The Insurrectionist


The InsurrectionistHerb Karl. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, forthcoming, February 2017.

Summary: A fictionalized biography of the last three and a half years of John Brown’s life from the Pottawotamie massacre in “Bloody Kansas” to his raid of the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, ending in his execution in 1859.

John Brown, along with Harriet Beecher Stowe, were two northern abolitionists who probably did as much as any, one by the sword, the other by the pen to precipitate the Civil War. Yet Brown remains something of an enigma, considered by many to be a fanatic. He chose violent, vigilante methods when it was necessary to resist the slaveholder element in Kansas and believed that his fight against slavery was God-ordained. Yet he was motivated, according to the pages of this novel, by a Golden Rule ethic of doing to others as you would have them do to you and particularly a concern for the oppressed in bondage.

This new novel tells the story of Brown’s last three and a half years. It begins with the caning of Senator Charles Sumner by Preston Brooks on the floor of the Senate, which moved Brown to action. He had heard from his sons in Kansas of the efforts of slaveholders from Missouri to resist Kansas from entering the Union as a free state. After attacks upon “free” settlers, Brown responded with an attack on the Pottawatomie Creek settlement where he killed five pro-slavery men, leading to the bloodiest period of raids and counter raids that left 29 dead in what became known as “Bleeding Kansas.”

The novel then traces Brown’s movements back and forth between Kansas, his farm in North Elba, New York, and trips into Canada to fugitive slave settlements, to his sons and pro-abolitionists in Ohio, where Brown lived for part of his youth (in present day Hudson, Ohio). It recounts various meetings and solicitations with wealthy East Coast abolitionists, and his relationship with Frederick Douglass. It also describes his efforts to gather an “army” to fight slavery, setting up training camps in Iowa, his North Elba farm, and eventually in Maryland, five miles from Harpers Ferry.

The story culminates in the raid of Harpers Ferry with a mere eighteen men. Frederick Douglass had strongly cautioned Brown against this, saying he could get in but that the town was surrounded by hills on all sides, a kind of “steel trap.” On October 16, 1859, he moved into action and seized the three buildings of the arsenal, took hostages and freed slaves and waited, hoping others would join them. He waited too long and word got out to local militia and Federal forces under Colonel Robert E. Lee, who first attacked and succeeded in killing or wounding all but a handful of Brown’s men, including the two sons who had joined him. Eventually Marines assaulted the arsenal, killing or capturing the remainder and freeing the hostages.

The book concludes with Brown’s trial, the guilty verdict, his final visit with his wife, and his execution. It also concludes with the growing realization by Brown that the power of the press to turn him into a martyr and catalyst for the abolitionist cause was even more significant than anything he could do of a para-military nature and his last month was devoted to interviews and letter writing.

Karl gives us a fast-moving account based on the actual history. Brown’s utterances seem consistent his written and recorded utterances. Karl also explores the mind and motivations and influence of Brown–his strong sense of the injustice of slavery, his belief in his call by God to fight slaveholders and to take this fight into the south, coupled by the deep loyalties he engendered in his sons, three of whom died in his efforts, as well as the support he enjoyed from abolitionists who helped by the weapons with which he fought. There was also his disturbing consciousness that words would not be enough to overcome the slaveholder. Only conflict and bloodshed could do this, and to conviction, he joined action. On the morning of his execution, December 2, 1859, he wrote:

“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”

Beyond simple civil disobedience, Brown’s life, and this account of it raises the question of can violent resistance to unjust authority ever be warranted? Karl doesn’t answer this, but it is a question that arises with other figures including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who joined a plot to kill Hitler. It is particularly troubling when God is invoked, which Brown did from what seemed the purest of motives.

As I noted in the beginning, Brown’s act contributed to inflaming abolitionist efforts in the North, and stirred slaveholders’ fears in the South. The South formed militias. The North elected Lincoln. And less than two years later, the “very much bloodshed” Brown hesitated to prophesy came. By war’s end, approximately 620,000 combatants died, the costliest war in terms of human life in our history.

Brown seemed a “fringe element” that never attracted very many dedicated followers. But he connected into establishment business men, and with the leaders of abolitionism. We might ask what this means for the present, and our present discords as well. What potential exists for those on the fringes (of left and right) to draw support from and to inflame and embroil others? And what could this mean for us if we do not learn from the lessons of the past and instances from other parts of the world when civil order deteriorates into civil war? This narrative left me pondering all these possibilities.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via a pre-publication e-galley through Edelweiss. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


One thought on “Review: The Insurrectionist

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: November 2016 | Bob on Books

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