Monday, 2 September 2013

Midnight Rising, by Tony Horwitz

Why I chose it: Possibly this Wall Street Journal review. I need to keep better track of these things.

Podcasts: We The People Stories

Brow: Given the enduring fascination with the US Civil War, this one ranks as solidly middle-brow.

Summary: On witnessing a slave being beaten as a child, John Brown felt a calling from god to end the reprehensible practice by any means necessary. And he wasn't just an abolitionist, he believed that blacks and whites were fully equal. After several failed businesses and 21 children by 2 wives, he tried his hand at educating freed blacks. He also participated in the Underground Railroad and lived in a colony of ex-slaves. But things weren't moving quickly enough and, inspired by slave rebellions in Haiti and Jamaica, he decided the best way to end the institution was to raid slave farms, free the slaves, retreat into the mountains, and repeat. He thought this would terrify the slave owners and foment resistance amongst the slaves. His first target was Kansas, which at the time was locked in a fierce political struggle over whether to be a slave state or a free state. His men raided homes along the Pottawatomie Creek and killed a number of pro-slavery settlers. When that only entrenched the pro-slavery forces, he went to another state on the fence, Missouri, and liberated 11 slaves, who he then escorted to Canada. But still, that persnickety situation refused to change, so he came up with an even more daring plan: he and his band of freedom fighters would set up housekeeping in Maryland, then raid Harper's Ferry, Virginia, which had a federal armory. They'd steal the arms, give them to slaves, and gradually work their way south, creating a snowball effect of freed slaves and defeated owners. The plan worked right up to invading the armory. Brown and his men took a number of slave owners hostage, including a grand-nephew of George Washington, and held them in the armory. But then they stalled too long and a skirmish broke out. It went on long enough to allow federal marines led by Robert E. Lee to arrive and end the battle. He promptly tried Brown & Co. and hanged them. As a result of the raid, southern slave owners felt even more insecure and quickly seceded from the Union, starting the Civil War, which eventually ended slavery.

What I liked about it: As a non-American, I had barely heard of John Brown before reading this book, though I had heard of Harper's Ferry. I had no idea of his and its significance, and now I have new cocktail party chatter.

What I didn't like about it: Actually, there is nothing to dislike about this book.

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