Tuesday, January 10, 2012

"Midnight Rising" by Tony Horwitz

The best way to begin a review of this book is to quote, as the author has at the beginning of Chapter 3, from Henry David Thoreau, who, in remarks contained in his "A Plea for Captain Brown", said that "He (John Brown) could not have been tried by a jury of his peers, because his peers did not exist." After reading this account of John Brown and his remarkable life, I could not agree more.

Most of us were taught a very simplistic version of the John Brown saga, almost all of what many of us know is contained in the lyrics of that famous song, "John Brown's Body". But there is so much more to the life of this man. He was, at times, what we would today call a manic-depressive. Indeed, some of his family members had been confined to asylums, and some had even committed suicide. Many people, even after a visit to Harper's Ferry, come away with the impression that John Brown was killed that day in October of 1859 when he stormed the Federal Armory there. He was wounded, and lived to face trial for treason, murder and inciting rebellion. He was found guilty within 2 weeks of the crimes for which he was accused. In that time he had 5 different lawyers.

Although mental problems ran in his family, John Brown was considered to be merely a fanatic, with views of grandiosity. In that sense, he was not legally insane. He had none of the hallucinations, or other problems which met the criteria for Virginia to judge him "non compos, or deranged", thus enabling him to avoid a trial for his crimes. He was found guilty and promptly hung.

This book gives the reader a fascinating look at the final year and a half leading to the Civil War. With such characters as Robert E. Lee, then a Union Colonel in charge of putting down the insurrection at Harper's Ferry, and Governor Wise, the author is able to paint a clear and unvarnished picture of one of the most compelling adventures to come out of the Abolitionist Movement.

In the aftermath of the attack, while he lay bleeding, and possibly dying from wounds received during the brief skirmish, John Brown, in great pain, parried with his interrogators, sparring with them, most times to a draw. Governor Wise proclaimed him "the gamest man I have ever met." Senator Mason, who was also present in the immediate aftermath of the fight, had the following exchange with the wounded man;

"How do you justify your actions?" queried the Senator. Brown replied, "I think, my friend you are guilty of a great wrong against God and Humanity. I say that without wishing to be offensive. It would be perfectly right for anyone to interfere with you, so far as to free those you willfully and wickedly hold in bondage. I do not say this insultingly."

Realizing that he would surely be hung for his crimes, he said, "You may dispose of me very easily; I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is to be settled - this Negro question I mean - the end of that is not yet."

In addition to exploring all the details of John Brown's early life, and his plans for the attack on Harper's Ferry, the author delves into the history of the "insanity" plea, which was just coming into its own in American criminal justice. Only months before John Brown's trial began, New York Congressman Daniel Sickles shot his wife’s lover in Washington, DC. He argued, successfully, that he was deranged at the moment of the shooting. He was found not guilty.

This is not the story we were all fed in grammar school. It is, at once, an account of the incident, and attendant crime, as well as a look into ourselves as a people, and our history as a nation. In his essay "Civil Disobedience", Henry David Thoreau pondered these questions; "Is it possible that an individual may be right and a government wrong? .....Are laws to be enforced simply because they are made?" These are pertinent questions, even today.

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