John Brown: Abolitionist

Learn all about John Brown, the abolitionist who rose to fame during the Bleeding Kansas years in the mid- to late-1850s, was executed for his raid on the armory at Harpers Ferry, and elevated to legend in the years that followed.

Books | Documentaries

Related event:
Meet the Past: John Brown, September 1, 2009


John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights
By David S. Reynolds
This biography by the prize-winning cultural historian brings to life the controversial anti-slavery martyr who used terrorist tactics against slavery and single-handedly changed the course of American history.

Patriotic Treason book jacket

Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America
By Evan Carton
This masterful rendering of one of the most extreme, often misunderstood activists in American history paints a timely portrait of the notorious abolitionist John Brown and examines the fine line between terrorism and the fight for freedom.

Fire from the Midst of You: A Religious Life of John Brown
By Louis A. DeCaro, Jr.
Fire from the Midst of You situates Brown within the religious and social context of a nation steeped in racism, showing his roots in Puritan abolitionism. DeCaro explores Brown's unusual family heritage as well as his business and personal losses, retracing his path to the Southern gallows. In contrast to the popular image of Brown as a violent fanatic, DeCaro contextualizes Brown's actions, emphasizing the intensely religious nature of the antebellum U.S. in which he lived.

John Brown: The Legend Revisited
By Merrill D. Peterson
Peterson gives readers John Brown in his own day, but he also shows how the flaming abolitionist warrior's image – celebrated in art, literature, and journalism – has helped him shed some of his infamy to become a symbol of American idealism and fervor.

John Brown: A Biography
By W.E.B. Du Bois
First published in 1909, W.E.B. Du Bois' biography of abolitionist John Brown is a literary and historical classic. With a rare combination of scholarship and passion, Du Bois defends Brown against all detractors who saw him as a fanatic, fiend, or traitor. Brown emerges as a rich personality, fully understandable as an unusual leader with a deeply religious outlook and a devotion to the cause of freedom for the slave.

John Brown: The Making of a Martyr
By Robert Penn Warren
Originally published in 1929, America’s first poet laureate paints a portrait of the tormented liberator John Brown.

John Brown and the Legend of Fifty-Six
By James C. Malin
This extensive examination of the history of Kansas in 1856 rejects the legends that have been built up about Brown's motives for going to Kansas and the part he played in antislavery struggles there. It is notable for its methodology and discussion of the work of other students of Brown. (Distributed by Syndetic Solutions, Inc.) Malin was a professor of history at the University of Kansas from 1921 to 1963.

Reading the Old Man: John Brown in American Culture
By Bruce A. Ronda
In this book, Bruce Ronda examines the representations of Brown chronologically, ranging from Thoreau's Plea for Captain John Brown – with its ardent defense of Brown as a patriot, Transcendentalist, and true New Englander – through treatments by anonymous southern writers and well-known authors such as John Greenleaf Whittier, Herman Melville, Richard Henry Dana, Frederick Douglass, William Dean Howells, and Edwin Arlington Robinson. Ronda then considers the major treatments of Brown in the early to mid-twentieth century by W. E. B. DuBois, Stephen Vincent Benet, and Robert Penn Warren. Of particular interest are discussions of a 1930s poem by Muriel Rukeyser, Truman Nelson's 1960 novel The Surveyor, and artwork by Jacob Lawrence. He concludes with studies of novels by three contemporary authors: Russell Banks, Michelle Cliff, and Bruce Olds.

John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry: A Brief History with Documents
By Jonathan Earle
John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, failed to inspire a slave revolt and establish a free Appalachian state but became a crucial turning point in the fight against slavery and a catalyst for the violence that ignited the Civil War. Jonathan Earle's volume presents Brown as neither villain nor martyr, but rather as a man who’s deeply held abolitionist beliefs gradually evolved to a point where he saw violence as inevitable. Earle's introduction and his collection of documents demonstrate the evolution of Brown's abolitionist strategies and the symbolism his actions took on in the press, the government, and the wider culture. The featured documents include Brown's own writings, eyewitness accounts, government reports, and articles from the popular press and from leading intellectuals. Jonathan Earle is an associate professor of history at the University of Kansas.

The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race
By John Stauffer
At a time when slavery was spreading and the country was steeped in racism, two white men and two black men – John Brown, Gerrit Smith, Frederick Douglass, and James McCune Smith – overcame social barriers and mistrust to form a unique alliance that sought nothing less than the end of all evil. Drawing on the largest extant bi-racial correspondence in the Civil War era, John Stauffer braids together these men's struggles to reconcile ideals of justice with the reality of slavery and oppression.


John Brown's Holy War (2000)
This PBS documentary depicts the life of John Brown. Considered the father of American terrorism, he was also an inspiration to the Civil Rights movement. He was a farmer, a warrior, a family man and an avenging angel. 150 years after his execution, questions swirl around John Brown: was he a madman or a martyr? A bloodthirsty fanatic or a great American hero? Dramatic reenactments trace John Brown's obsessive battle against human bondage.

Touched by Fire: Bleeding Kansas (2005)
This documentary depicts the events of Kansas from 1854 to 1861. It includes dramatic re-enactments of incidents in Bleeding Kansas history as it examines Kansans with two belief systems – freedom and slavery – and Kansas' significance in U.S. history of the time.

Most descriptions provided by Bookletters.