Writer and illustrator John Hendrix relates the life of controversial abolitionist John Brown via a picture-book biography for middle graders. He begins in 1840, when John and his family lived in Hudson, Ohio – “a great center of the abolitionist cause.” John made a point of treating blacks as equals and with respect, a radical choice for the time.
His father also believed in the equality of all human beings, and both attributed these beliefs to their devotion to Christian ideals. John was inspired by Ecclesiastes 4:1: “Behold the tears of such as were oppressed and they had no comforter, and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter.” Could he make a difference?
He began to come up with a plan: “I will raise a storm in this country that will not be stayed so long as there is a slave on its soil.” (Hendrix incorporates many direct quotes into the text, rendered artistically in period-fashion fonts accenting the main narration.)
In 1854 the U.S. Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which stipulated that each state could vote on whether to enter the Union as a slave state or a free state. Supporters of each position flocked to the new states to influence the vote. John and his sons made up some of them, helping create “Bleeding Kansas” when they murdered some pro-slavery settlers. This act got John branded as a crazed madman to some, and a folk hero to others, and made John a wanted man. Hendrix writes:
“John did not believe bloodshed was the answer, but he knew the key to his plan was to capture the country’s attention with a big bang.”
To that end, he planned to raid the large federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia and capture arms to equip his growing army of abolitionists. Brown wanted an authoritative black leader to stand by his side, but Harry Tubman was ill, and Frederick Douglass was wary of Brown’s plan.
He went ahead with it nevertheless, and staged the raid on October 17, 1859. It didn’t take long for things to go wrong. The first man killed by the raiders was a free black man. Townsmen started to shoot at them, soon joined by well-organized militia from the area. Several raiders were killed and the rest were cornered in a small brick engine house next to the armory. That night, a force of U.S. Marines arrived, led by Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stewart, who, though now defending the United States, only a few years later would become leaders of the Confederate Army.
By the next day, the raid was over and the raiders were captured. As John told his interrogators after his arrest:
“I want you to understand, gentlemen, that I respect the rights of the poorest and weakest of colored people, oppressed by the slave system, just as much as I do those of the most wealthy and powerful.”
John was put on trial in Charlestown, Virginia for insurrection, conspiracy, and high treason. He was sentenced to death.
On November 2, 1859, in his last speech, given in court, he averred:
“This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to ‘remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.’ I endeavored to act up to that instruction. . . . Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!”
On December 2, 1869, John was taken to the gallows, and he was executed. [John Wilkes Booth hated John Brown passionately; he came up to Harper’s Ferry in 1859 to witness the execution and help ensure there would be no attempts to rescue him by supporters.]
“For the forty-five days between his capture and his death, John wrote many letters that were published in newspapers all around the country. The publicity surrounding his execution strengthened the abolitionist cause and rallied thousands to call for an end to slavery.”
If you are familiar with Lincoln’s speeches, you may have noticed the similarities between Brown’s last speech and Lincoln’s second inaugural address, when Lincoln declaimed:
“If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
The ingenious mixed media illustrations by Hendrix provide a wealth of colorful and historically-appropriate details. His inspired visual interpretations that reflect John Brown’s strong identification with the Bible will have you shaking your head in awed appreciation.
Discussion: Too often, what children learn in school is a black-and-white account stressing that John Brown was “crazy.” But Hendrix argues Brown was misunderstood and mischaracterized. Indeed, many recent historians have revised assessments of Brown because so much of what has been written about him fulfilled a specific political agenda, rather than serving truth. That is, it was considered dangerous to valorize insurrection against the government, even for a cause that many found to be just.
In his Author’s Note, Hendrix writes:
“As I continued to study the life of John Brown, I began to admire him because he would not make a truce with injustice. . . . though the United States hanged him as a traitor, I feel we must not dismiss him as a madman. Terrorists crave destruction and turmoil, and the seed of John’s rebellion was compassion.”
Evaluation: This book provides so much for children, parents, and teachers to discuss. Not only does Hendrix give a perspective of a historical figure different from that offered in many textbooks. He also teaches that there is often an agenda to culturally mediated memories that can misrepresent the past, and it is important to consider what it might be. Readers will have much to ponder as they become aware of how and why facts can be twisted to suit the moment, not only in the past, but even in the present time.
Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2009