God’s trumpet waking him to military action


The cultural stock of John Brown and the Redeemers has fluctuated across time. After inspiring Yankees during the Civil War, Brown passed through the end of the century as an ambiguous figure in American letters. In 1909, W. E. B. Du Bois resurrected him in a sympathetic biography. At the same time, Thomas Dixon finished a trilogy of novels, adapted by D. W. Griffith into his film The Birth of a Nation in 1915. In Dixon’s and Griffith’s revisionist histories, the Redeemers fought for glory, while abolitionists and carpetbaggers sullied feminine virtue and stole the South’s honour. More recently, activists in the civil-rights movement reversed the trend, elevating Brown and vilifying the Redeemers.

Today, things are more complicated. The politics of the present have muddied our perspective on the past. We know all too well that faith, unfettered by doubt, can be deadly. So when Reynolds writes of Brown, “he was willing to die for his utter belief in the word of the bible”, it is hard not to ask: but what of his willingness to kill? The Redeemers, beloved by neo-Confederates and white supremacists, are seemingly more easily cast into history’s dustbin. But, as Nicholas Lemann insists, they won. And in the ongoing debate over limited voting rights (whether through faulty technology or the inadequate provision of polling stations), we see their legacy. So in a world in which pro-life terrorists invoke John Brown’s example, and Senate candidates wrap themselves in the Confederate flag, it may be that Adelbert Ames is the best model for the present US condition. Ames, bumbling and naive, lived in complex times and was swamped by uncertainty. He tried to find the righteous path. But he kept tripping along the way.

more from the TLS here.