Oates, Stephen B. To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown.
Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1970.

In 1970 Stephen B. Oates published a full-scale biography, To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown. In this work the author fleshes out John Brown’s life pre-Kansas, and how his many trials and misfortunes molded him into the maniacal, anti-slavery extremist that he became. Oates does not attempt to paint Brown in any one light, whether a fanatic, a horse thief, a murderer, or a dedicated abolitionist, but tries only to understand where he came from, who he really was, and by doing this, assures Brown’s continued place in history.

Stephen B. Oates was born in Texas in 1936 and became a leading expert in 19th-century United States history. He received his B.A., M.A., and his Ph.D. degrees from the University of Texas. Oates was a professor at the University of Massachusetts and the author of sixteen books, all on 19th century American history and historical figures. His many biographies include Abraham Lincoln, Clara Barton, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nat Turner’s slave rebellion. In 1993 Oates received the Nevins-Freeman Award of the Chicago Civil War Round Table for all of his work on the American Civil War. His book Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King Jr. received the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights book award in 1983. His many books and essays are continually studied in high schools and colleges. He has also appeared in the Ken Burns PBS documentary on the Civil War.

Oates was accused of plagiarism for his biography of Lincoln but was later cleared of these charges by the University of Massachusetts and the American Historical Association. Unfortunately for the author, plagiarism is still very much attached to his name and shadows some of his works.

Oates divides this book into three parts; Trial, Pilgrimage, and Prophecy. John Brown, the third of six children to Owen and Ruth Brown, was brought up in a strict Calvinist household. John’s father taught his children to fear God and to keep His commandments and to not hate African Americans and oppose slavery. Owen was a zealous man and started his own church based off the teachings of men like Jonathan Edwards who wrote, “The Eternity of Hell Torments,” “The Evil of the Wicked Contemplated by the Righteous,” and “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” John was never spared the rod from a very early age and Oates explains that his school and bible studies were preached throughout the day in a merciless fashion.

After the loss of a son and his wife Dianthe, whom John had seven children with, he remarried sixteen-year-old Mary and had thirteen more children with her. Having suffered great financial losses, Brown got a loan from Zenas Kent and moved to Ohio where he opened a tannery. Eventually, financial ruin struck again forcing Brown to bankruptcy. During this Ohio period, the abolitionist movement was strongly moving and a newspaperman from Mississippi was killed by a proslavery mob. Brown declared in a meeting not long after, that he vowed his life to see the end of slavery.

Now in 1850 the fugitive slave law, a part of the Compromise, fueled antislavery groups across the Northeast. Oates writes that “Brown’s mind was full of the Book of Judges when he talked with his Negro friends about the fugitive slave law,” and Brown declared that they must, “…organize yourselves into guerrilla bands and fight this wicked law with the sword.” (p. 73)

Having moved to Kansas, the Browns were present for the Topeka convention that further spurred the free-state and proslavery parties against one another. Brown’s feelings on the subject of the Negro Exclusion clause is not known. Oates continues the Brown’s story, which inevitably exploded by Pottawatomie Creek in Franklin County, Kansas. After the sacking of Lawrence by proslavery forces John Brown led a group of men that led to the death of James Doyle, William Doyle, Drury Doyle, Allen Wilkinson, and William Sherman. They took these proslavery men from their cabins, and with broadswords, hacked them to death. This act of violence preceded the next three months of bloody raids in Kansas or the time of “Bleeding Kansas.”

Brown spent several months traveling between Ohio, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts to enlist support for the cause. “Harpers Ferry, the first target in Brown’s war for slave liberation, was situated on a narrow neck of land at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers in the Blue Ridge Mountains of northern Virginia.” (p. 274) What should have been a plan easily carried out, considering the amount of planning involved, went awry from the beginning. Brown did not receive the number of men he had anticipated. Undeterred, Brown easily took the armory at Harpers Ferry with the plan to gather weapons and slaves while moving southward.

He believed himself to be unstoppable and pictured thousands of slaves flocking to his side. Oates writes that his own sons, especially his son Oliver, was virulently opposed to this plan. They argued that the terrain could easily lead them to be trapped and gunned down. Brown would not listen to reason. Here is where Oates could have suggested that John Brown was perhaps losing his grasp of reality in his quest for the abolishment of slavery, but he does not. He continues with the same unbiased accounting of facts. The reader’s thoughts of Brown’s state of mind will, of course, come up, but thankfully the author does not sway one way or the other.

Harpers Ferry was a disaster, like so many things in John Brown’s life. He and several men were captured and eventually sentenced to hanging. Only four men were killed and nine wounded. The proslavery Southerners, having realized the scope of what Brown’s plan had been, were shaken and with good cause. Had it worked, that type of large-scale revolt would have been financially devastating.

John Brown’s activities in Kansas are well known to most so the detail of his early life, his trials and tribulations of a man trying to provide for his family, were indeed a wonderful addition to this crusading abolitionist. Like most people, family, and environment play a large role in shaping the person that eventually faces the world. It is interesting, to this reviewer, that the section of the book that is most remarkable and grabs your attention, is the account of Harpers Ferry. Here the author lets the blueprint of Brown’s plan of insurrection come alive. At times he uses the participants own words, and it feels as though the reader can visually see each scene play by play.

Oates does not take sides in this monograph. The reader will never know if he feels disapproval for the Brown’s or if he stands behind their abolitionist views. He does not try to prove that John Brown was insane. Oates does write about Brown’s fanatical tendencies, and with good cause, John Brown was a fanatic. There was no grey in the Brown household, only extremes. Though their cause was a noble one, they were not the only people in history to be ridiculed for their beliefs, or in how they chose to wage war in the name of those beliefs. Oates really fleshes out not only John Brown but that of his family and his father’s family. One gets a much more broadly painted picture of this important historical figure because of it.

Perhaps the most compelling chapter of To Purge This Land with Blood is the final chapter, “Beyond the Gallows.” Here Oates supports his claim that John Brown’s death and his subsequent martyrdom, are what finally started the Civil War. “But the abolitionists, and moderate and liberal Northerners who had never liked slavery anyway had been so moved by Brown’s courage, by his inspired speeches and eloquent prison letters and interviews, that they were profoundly disturbed when the old man was executed.” (p. 354) Oates takes you around the country at the very hour of Brown’s death. He tells of town officials in Albany, New York firing a 100-gun salute, “church bells were tolling in commemoration from New England to Kansas,” (p. 354) and hundreds of people from all overcrowded churches to hear speeches given in memory of John Brown and to remember what he died for.

Whether the reader believes that the death of John Brown actually caused the Civil War is certainly debatable, but what is established here, is that he absolutely played a role in igniting the match. Oates’ analysis of Brown is thorough and was researched and written using both manuscript and printed sources. This is an excellent work that should remain a standard study for both historian and laymen alike. The author ends the biography with this thought, perhaps his only fanciful edition, “And ‘John Brown’s Body’ became a Northern legend, a symbol of noble idealism and self-sacrifice, in the aura of which the man himself was all but forgotten.” (p. 361)

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