NPR Story
12:00 pm
Tue December 27, 2011

John Brown: The Man Who 'Sparked' The Civil War

Originally published on Thu December 29, 2011 11:25 am

On an October night in 1859, 21 men staged a takeover of a national armory in tiny Harpers Ferry, Va. Though unsuccessful, the raid drew the nation's attention to its electrifying leader, a man named John Brown — and helped set the nation on the path to war.

Brown went on to become perhaps one of the most polarizing figures in American history. The devout Calvinist and abolitionist is remembered as a traitor and terrorist by some, and a hero by others.

Historian Tony Horwitz joins NPR's Neal Conan to discuss his book Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War.


Interview Highlights

On Brown's preoccupation with sin and punishment

"He believed strongly in corporal punishment. This was not unusual for the early 19th century. But I would say he dispensed the rod with a special fervor, going on the basis of his children's accounts of being whipped for sins — not even sins, you know, childhood fibbing, the sorts of things that we would barely blink at. But he's really possessed with this sense of being a witness to sin and doing something about it. ...

"He's really quite self-lacerating about his own faults. He's a very ambitious, self-confident man who often falls short of his own vision for himself. He wants to be a successful businessman. Instead, he goes bankrupt. He has a troubled family life, many deaths in his family.

"He's filled with his sense of, really, life as a moral test, and he's not always living up to it himself. But he's also alert to the ways in which others and the nation as a whole are not living up to their ideals."

On Brown's rejection of pacifism

"John Brown believes slavery is a state of war and must be met in kind. Most abolitionists are pacifists. They believe in opposing slavery with words and education. John Brown derides that as milk-and-water abolitionism.

"And in Kansas, he leads a raid — after much provocation by the other side — on a pro-slavery settlement, drags five men from their beds in the night, and slaughters them with broadswords. As one of his sons later put it, the enemy needed shock treatment, death for death. ...

"John Brown in a sense is too hot for us to handle. What do you do with this man? Here's a man who commits violence in the cause of racial justice. I think most of us today would recognize that he was on the right side of history in opposing slavery, yet he did it through violent means. We tend to want our figures from our history to be sort of black hats and white hats, heroes and villains."

On how Brown should be remembered: hero or terrorist?

"If we define terrorism as an illegal act of political violence that's intended to have a psychological impact, I think Brown fits the bill. He seeks to strike terror into the hearts of white Southerners, first in Kansas and later at Harper's Ferry. ...

"Fear is his greatest weapon, but I think it's a mistake to think of him as a terrorist in the way that we think of terrorism today, which has come to connote Islamic extremists or domestic bombers like Timothy McVeigh, who kill thousands of innocents, often towards rather murky ends.

"Brown does not target innocents. He does not kill indiscriminately. In fact, he treats his hostages at Harper's Ferry very well. And he has a clear target: the institution of slavery. So absolutely he uses fear. He sheds blood in the cause, in his cause. But I don't think we should sort of lump him with terrorists as that word has come to be understood today."

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Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. You can't escape the eyes in the photographic portraits of John Brown. The strong, craggy, weatherworn face is striking, yes, but the eyes burn. Earlier this year, historian and journalist Tony Horwitz came out with a new biography of perhaps the most polarizing individual in American history: a traitor, terrorist and murderer, a martyr to his God and conscience and the greater cause of human rights.

Each December, we try to catch up with a few of the more important books we missed earlier in the year, today "Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War." We hope you'll join the conversation. John Brown: terrorist or hero? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join in on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, we'll talk about the Arab monitors who have just arrived in Syria and whether the monitors of the Arab League and Syria itself can survive this credibility test. Rami Khouri will join us. But first Tony Horwitz joins us from our bureau in New York, and thanks very much for coming in today.

TONY HORWITZ: Thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And as we look at John Brown, it - there's something you said about him early in the book. You're really describing him as a parent, in a lot of ways, but you said he had a compulsion to punish wrongs.

HORWITZ: Yeah. He's raised in a staunch, Calvinist household, which has a very vivid sense of sin, both personal and collective. And he senses it in himself, but he also seeks to root out sin wherever he sees it, whether it's alcohol, in his view, or the collective sin in the nation, which in that day is slavery.

CONAN: You say brought up a Calvinist and strict Calvinist, yes, but his father was a pacifist.

HORWITZ: Yup, a pacifist and also an early abolitionist, really strongly anti-slavery, originally from Connecticut, moves to Ohio when John Brown is a little boy. And so he's really marinated in both this rather Puritan tradition, but also this strongly anti-slavery one, as well.

CONAN: But that compulsion to punish wrongs, his children, as they grew up, were required both to record their sins and the punishments that were meted out.

HORWITZ: Yeah, he believed strongly in corporal punishment. This was not unusual for the early 19th century. But I would say he dispensed the rod with a special fervor, going on the basis of his children's accounts of being whipped for sins, not even sins, you know, childhood fibbing, the sorts of things that we would barely blink at.

But he's really possessed with this sense of being a witness to sin and doing something about it.

CONAN: And nobody harder on John Brown than John Brown.

HORWITZ: Exactly. He's really quite self-lacerating about his own faults. He's a very ambitious, self-confident man who often falls short of his own vision for himself. He wants to be a successful businessman. Instead, he goes bankrupt. He has a troubled family life, many deaths in his family.

He's filled with his sense of, really, life as a moral test, and he's not always living up to it himself. But he's also alert to the ways in which others and the nation as a whole are not living up to their ideals.

CONAN: And you then set this against the backdrop of the building tensions over slavery, the tensions inherent in the Constitution, indeed in the founding to the colonies that became the United States of America. These were not going to go away as the nation continued to expand West, the various battles, the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, the various decisions by the Supreme Court, none more dramatic than the Dred Scott decision, all of which prompted not just John Brown, but certainly John Brown to say, wait a minute. We must do something.

HORWITZ: John Brown is really radicalized by his times. I think we forget how much slavery was built into the fabric of this country from the very beginning and this terrible contradiction in our founding documents about freedom and equality, except when it comes to black people.

And the South is, you know, by no means an underdog in the pre-Civil War period. It's really driving the nation, in many ways. It's the economic powerhouse. Cotton is really the oil of its day. And politically, the South really holds sway over the White House, the Supreme Court and much of Congress for almost the entire period between the nation's founding and the Civil War. And that's really largely what John Brown and some others are reacting against.

CONAN: It comes to - push comes to shove for him in Kansas, the territory. There was going to be a plebiscite as to whether Kansas would be free or slave. And, well, both sides pushed, but nobody pushed harder than John Brown.

HORWITZ: Yeah, in the mid-1850s, Kansas is really the front-line in the struggle over whether slavery will expand beyond the South, into new Western territories. And when John Brown arrives there, characteristically with 60 cents in his pocket - he's a failed businessman - the South really has the upper hand.

They're intimidating, bullying, sometimes killing Northern settlers who want Kansas to enter the Union as a free state. And Brown is the rare Northerner who punches back hard. He really wants to give the South some of its own medicine, and he first does that in Kansas.

CONAN: We should not mistake him, though, for someone who carried signs around the statehouse or protested in any conventional way. The details of the Potawatomi Massacre remain murky. Reading your book, I come away with the feeling that you have very little doubt that John Brown was responsible, principally, for the murder of several people dragged out of their beds in the middle of the night and mauled.

HORWITZ: Yeah. It's a chilling incident. John Brown believes slavery is a state of war, and must be met in kind. Most abolitionists are pacifists. They believe in opposing slavery with words and education. John Brown derides that as milk-and-water abolitionism.

And in Kansas, he leads a raid - after much provocation by the other side - on a pro-slavery settlement, drags five men from their beds in the night and slaughters them with broadswords. As one of his sons later put it, the enemy needed shock treatment, death for death.

CONAN: Death for death. He obscured his role in that, as much as he could, and became known as John Brown, not of Potawatomi, but of Osawatomie, a different circumstance.

HORWITZ: Well, interestingly, President Obama spoke in Osawatomie, Kansas a couple of weeks ago, and he was trying to conjure Theodore Roosevelt, who gave a famous speech there in 1910. What went unmentioned is that Roosevelt was there because they were dedicating a park to John Brown's memory.

This is where John Brown had one of his great early victories. Actually, it wasn't a victory, but he made a heroic stand with a small force against a much larger contingent of pro-slavery forces with cannon and musket, and he held them off. And because of this, he became known as Osawatomie Brown.

CONAN: Then went on a fundraising tour through the salons of New England, including some of the most famous intellectuals and writers of the day: Emerson, Thoreau.

Yeah. It's really quite like the 1960s, when you had wealthy Manhattanites hosting Black Panthers and other radicals. These rather effete armchair abolitionists of New England are really wowed by this Cromwellian warrior arriving from the frontier. One transcendentalist, Bronson Alcott, calls him the manliest man I've ever met, and he's feted in the lecture halls and salons of New England.

HORWITZ: He dines with Thoreau and Emerson. You know, he's really a big hit. He really intoxicates this quite - up to that point, quite gentile abolitionist movement.

CONAN: We're talking with Tony Horwitz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writer, author most recently of "Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War." 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. And Chris is on the line, calling us from Nashville.

CHRIS: Yeah. How are you?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

CHRIS: Hey, I grew up in Michigan. I now live in Nashville. And I was wondering, I just wondered if the author had any thoughts about why more - you know, I had a pretty broad liberal arts education, and why more kids aren't taught about this in history. Is it the implications of the kind of the, you know, terrorist sort of implications of it all? Or why is it not more taught - as important as his life and his actions were, why is not taught more in schools?

CONAN: Tony Horwitz, is John Brown still the stone in the shoe of American history?

HORWITZ: Yeah. That's how one writer, Truman Nelson, put it 50 years ago, and I think that's accurate. I think one reason is - I wouldn't really blame it on the schools. John Brown's raid is quickly overshadowed by what happens during the Civil War, which begins 18 months after his raid, and I think that's one reason students are rushing ahead to Fort Sumter and Gettysburg and Appomattox and the rest of it.

But I think also, John Brown in a sense is too hot for us to handle. What do you do with this man? Here's a man who commits violence in the cause of racial justice. I think most of us today would recognize that he was on the right side of history in opposing slavery, yet he did it through violent means. We tend to want our figures from our history to be sort of black hats and white hats, heroes and villains.

CONAN: And attacked not plantations, but individuals and indeed the U.S. government, which would, of course, in the end, be the engine of his goal.

HORWITZ: Yeah. I mean, there are many ironies to this story. One is he attacks a - really, a symbol of American power, a U.S. armory, one of only two armories in the country, 100,000 guns just 60 miles from the capital in Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

And two of the men leading U.S. Marines against him are Robert E. Lee and Jeb Stuart, who, at that point, are loyal U.S. officers, soon to be rebels themselves. It's an interesting - almost a dress rehearsal for the Civil War at Harpers Ferry.

CONAN: Indeed. One of the witnesses at his hanging turns out to be John Wilkes Booth, providing the other bookend to the United States Civil War. We're talking with Tony Horwitz about his book, "Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War." We'd like to hear from you. John Brown: terrorist or hero? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. A couple of years before the raid at Harper's Ferry, the abolitionist John Brown wrote his own autobiography in the form of a letter to a young admirer whose wealthy father Brown hoped to impress.

He took a hard look at himself, and the traits he highlighted, writes author Tony Horwitz: arrogance, self-certitude, a domineering manner, the deviled Brown. But they also enabled his late-life reincarnation as Captain John Brown, a revolutionary who took up arms in the cause of freedom.

You can read more about Brown's early life in an excerpt from Horwitz' "Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War" at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

So what do you think? Was John Brown a hero or a terrorist? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Tony Horwitz joins us from our bureau in New York. And let's go to Calvin, Calvin on the line with us from Minneapolis.

CALVIN: Hello?

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, Calvin.

CALVIN: I would just - I think that he had the right cause, but the right cause doesn't automatically make you the right person. It's important to consider one's methods in advancing even the most of noble of causes as we recognize slavery was deplorable.

But I don't think he was all bad. I think that even committing violence and in the right cause is - I mean, it's negative, it's extremely negative, but it doesn't necessarily mean that the person himself is bad. It doesn't make him a terrorist. But, you know, it's touchy. It's very touchy, I suppose, but it's - I mean, it's important to consider, of course, that sometimes people go too far in, you know, even the best of circumstances - or not circumstances but the best of - for the best of causes.

So it's very touchy to sort of determine whether or not he was in the right, but I think he had the right idea, although I believe that in - at that time, the sort of pacifist abolitionist had the right idea, you know, as we can take a lesson as we all should from the late Martin Luther King, Jr., that is non-violence probably - you know, it was the most effective way to get rid of segregation. I think non-violence was the most effective way to get rid of slavery at that time.

But I can easily understand how someone would be driven to acts of violence by a sort of - you know, being frustrated with the lack of progress, especially someone who sees that as a intolerable, intolerable sin.

CONAN: Not merely lack of progress, Calvin, but as John Brown put it, and as Tony Horwitz mentioned, he considered slavery a form of warfare against the people who were enslaved, and it is not simply status quo. There are people whose lives are being ruined every single day.

CALVIN: I understand...

CONAN: Yeah, Tony, go ahead?

HORWITZ: Well, I mean, I think the caller really hits it on the nail. It's troubling. There isn't an easy way to answer this question. You know, we're more comfortable in this country with civil, nonviolent disobedience, whether it's Thoreau or Martin Luther King.

But slavery itself was a really - a regime built on violence and fear, and the country was entirely complicit in it. This wasn't simply a southern issue. The whole country was feeding off of cotton. The Supreme Court in the Dred Scott decision rules that essentially, as the chief justice put it, blacks have no rights that white people are bound to respect. Blacks are not even citizens.

It's perhaps improper to even call them African-Americans because they're not Americans in any sense. In writing the book, I tried to just tell the story as accurately and vividly as I could and really leave it to the reader to decide how they feel. But I was struck by something a Brown scholar said to me, which is imagine it's 1938, and somebody could do a suicide bombing that would kill Hitler but also kill 50 or 100 innocent bystanders. Would we regard that person as a hero or a terrorist?

CONAN: Unanswerable questions. Calvin, thanks very much for the call.

CALVIN: Oh, thanks for having me on.

CONAN: Interesting email from Hobart(ph): Something I did not know until I just looked up his photo: John Brown was a white man.

HORWITZ: Yeah, this interesting, a common misconception. Brown has always been revered in the African-American community. He worked closely with black abolitionists, such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, many other black leaders through our history have invoked John Brown.

But yes, he was a white man. I'll also mention that he didn't have that famous scary beard of his until the last 18 months of his life, when he had a price on his head and went underground and needed to disguise his identity. For really the first really 57 years of his life, he's a clean-shaven, rather well-groomed conventional American striver who wore dark suits and starched white shirts.

So I think in many ways our image of John Brown is distorted.

CONAN: Email from R.L. Brown, identifies him as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, retired, says: The ends do not justify the means. He was a terrorist. This email from Jim: Both, just like Washington, depending on your point of view. So - well, the English might have considered George Washington treasonous; not a terrorist, I don't think.

HORWITZ: Right. I mean, if we define terrorism as an illegal act of political violence that's intended to have a psychological impact, I think Brown fits the bill. He seeks to strike terror into the hearts of white Southerners, first in Kansas and later at Harper's Ferry.

You know, fear is his greatest weapon, but I think it's a mistake to think of him as a terrorist in the way that we think of terrorism today, which has come to connote Islamic extremists or domestic bombers like Timothy McVeigh, who kill thousands of innocents, often towards rather murky ends.

Brown does not target innocents. He does kill indiscriminately. In fact, he treats his hostages at Harper's Ferry very well. And he has a clear target: the institution of slavery. So absolutely he uses fear. He sheds blood in the cause, in his cause. But I don't think we should sort of lump him with terrorists as that word has come to be understood today.

CONAN: Let's go next to Mark(ph) and Mark with us from Wichita.

MARK: Hey, Neal, thanks for taking my call. Tony, great book. I really appreciate the detail that gives so much more to this topic. I grew up here in Kansas, you know, went to the capital many times to see what's going on there. John Steuart Curry's great work with John Brown, 12 feet tall, the enraged look on his face with a rifle in one hand and the Bible in the other. And it really - I can't say that I have the answer either. Is he a terrorist, or is he fighting for the great cause.

But really my question came - I read your book, and my daughter came home from eighth grade American history, fascinated by the story that John Brown had severed the trigger fingers of the folks, I guess it - was at Pottawatomie, the raid there. And that seemed to be her takeaway, as opposed to, you know, this broader question of what was he? What did he do, and how did that affect us all? It's really fascinating.

HORWITZ: Right. I mean, well, Pottawatomie is a very brutal attack, and because they're using broadswords, you know, there is mutilation, and what's not clear is whether that was intentional or whether the people they were slaying raised their arms and hands and therefore, you know, were cut up, you know, badly because of that.

But I think your point about the John Steuart Curry, the famous Depression-era mural with him with the Bible in one hand and the rifle in the other, that's the quintessential representation of Brown as this, you know, sort of possessed religious fanatic.

On the other hand, I think it's an example of how strongly he fits into great currents of American history. Violence runs through all of our history, as does religious fundamentalism and race. This - he's really a quintessential American in many ways.

MARK: Right. I think the time here in Kansas when he was alive and the other raids and the whole issue of bleeding Kansas - the Kansas-Missouri Act or Compromise, whatever that was - with so many other things going on at the same time and the way life is, you know, out here on the plains, it was a rough existence for him for many years, I think, too, leading up to his ability to do what he ended up doing at the end of his life.

HORWITZ: Well, I think the Kansas story is very neglected. Here, really five years before the first battle of Manassas in the Civil War, you have organized units of Northerners and Southerners killing each other over slavery, sometimes in open-field combat with musket and canon.

I think it's also forgotten that the Kansas-Nebraska Act and all the political ferment around that is what created the Republican Party. It's... originally known as the Anti-Nebraska Party. So this is really a crucial event in our political history as well, but I think outside of Kansas, most Americans - and I know I was myself - are fairly ignorant about what happened there.

MARK: Yeah. Fascinating also to know that he was kind of an insider with Thoreau and (unintelligible) on the other side of the country.

CONAN: Mark, thanks very much for the call.

MARK: You bet.

CONAN: Tony Horwitz, why did you decide to tell this story?

HORWITZ: I've been a Civil War nerd since boyhood, but I think like most Civil War buffs, I've tended to focus quite narrowly on the 1861 to 1865 period, the great leaders and battles. And I don't think we explore enough really how and why it is that Americans, who shared a common language, for the most part, a common religion and culture and history came to slaughter each other by the hundreds of thousands in the 1860s. And I think John Brown's raid is a window into that. But really, more than that, it's just a thrilling story.

Brown, we've been talking about him, but he was not a lone gunman. This was a full-blown conspiracy, with all the suspense and sweaty terror that's involved in that. And I really got caught up in the story of his followers, his fellow soldiers, how this all happened and unfolded.

CONAN: They include his financial backers, the so-called Secret Six, and, as you point out, five African-Americans who went along with him on the raid.

HORWITZ: Exactly. This was an exceptional occurrence. Abolitionists tended to love black people in the abstract but were quite condescending. They thought blacks were too docile and even inferior to fight for their own freedom. Brown really rejected that. He really lived his beliefs, and he felt it was a moral and military necessity that blacks and whites fight together to overthrow this system. And he has five black men in his band, and as we mentioned earlier, Frederick Douglass and others helping him behind the scenes. So this is really quite an unusual bi-racial guerilla movement in its day.

CONAN: We're talking with Tony Horwitz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writer, author of "Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News. And let's go next to Ryan, Ryan with us from Minneapolis.

RYAN: All right. Good afternoon, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

RYAN: I'm interested in the role that John Brown might have played as a frontier abolitionist in creating a pathway for Abraham Lincoln for the Republican nomination. Did this idea of a frontier Free-Soiler help make Eastern Republicans more open to Lincoln candidacy?

HORWITZ: It's a good question, though, I would reframe it. I think Brown has a huge impact. In fact, I would argue that Abraham Lincoln would not have been elected without John Brown, but it's not because of Kansas. It's because of Harpers Ferry, which happens in October 1859, Brown's raid, which is in the early days of the campaign for the Republican nomination. Not unlike today, although their campaigns were very different. And at that stage, Lincoln was really a second tier candidate. I wouldn't quite call him a Rick Santorum, but he was certainly not the front-runner.

He would probably have ranked fourth in the Republican field, but he very deftly uses John Brown's raid to position himself as the safely-moderate choice in the Republican field. People are very alarmed by this raid. They're terrified that the nation is plunging towards division and war, and Lincoln says - he really condemns Brown. He says this is not what the Republican Party is about. We're not about violence. We're not about opposing slavery in the states where it exists. We're about opposing the expansion of slavery.

So he really uses Brown as a foil, and, one, it helps him get the Republican nomination, but it also divides the Democratic Party in a way that really paves Lincoln's way to the White House. The irony to this story, of course, is that it's Lincoln who ends up fulfilling Brown's dream with the emancipation proclamation.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Ryan.

RYAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Twitter from WDT44: John Brown was a visionary hero for a nation that lost his way. An opposing view from Lynn in Eureka Springs, Arkansas: a comment. We are a nation of laws. We do not murder people with whom we disagree politically. Please consider those who murder doctors who provide safe, legal abortions.

HORWITZ: It's an interesting example to cite because Brown has a very complicated legacy. I can't think of anyone else in American history who's been embraced by such extremes. He's cited by late 19th century anarchists, by Black Panthers and Weathermen in the 1960s and '70s, and then by anti-abortion bombers as well as Timothy McVeigh. An anti-abortion - one of them anti-abortion bomber gets up in court and essentially rephrases Brown's speech against slavery in court in Virginia and substitutes the unborn for slaves.

So he sets really a very troubling example. If you say that God and your individual conscience override society and law, you really kind of open the door to all kinds of individuals who may feel it's their God-given mission to take action in that way. So I think it's a very good point.

CONAN: You cite a quote toward the end of your book, the last days of John Brown, Henry David Thoreau, who wrote, "They all called him crazy then. Who calls him crazy now?"

HORWITZ: Right. Right at the time of Brown's trial in Virginia, he survives the raid and is put on trial. The issue of his sanity comes up right away. In fact, his defense tries to get him off within an insanity defense, and he wants no part of it. I think then and now, the question of John Brown's sanity is a way of really marginalizing him, of saying he's - this is the product of one man's fevered imagination, and therefore we don't really have to be that troubled by it or take it that seriously. But I don't think he was insane.

He was an obsessive character. Herman Melville wrote a wonderful poem in which he calls him weird John Brown. I think he saw an Ahab in this man. His white whale was the destruction of slavery, and he would take everyone down with him if he had to. But that didn't make him insane.

CONAN: We're going to take a couple of more calls on John Brown with Tony Horwitz about his new book "Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War." We're also going to talk with Rami Khouri about the arrival of Syrian monitors from the Arab League in that country today. Is this a credibility test? How can either side pass? Stay with us. This is NPR News.

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CONAN: In a moment, to Syria and the arrival of Arab League monitors. But first, we're going to continue our conversation with Tony Horwitz about his new book, "Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War." We ask: John Brown, terrorist or hero? Here are some interesting emails. Leonard in Ames, Iowa: "As things stood at that point in history, John Brown was a terrorist, but as a Northerner, he was our terrorist."

This from Manuel in Sacramento: I'm confused as to why Brown is labeled a terrorist. What should someone so opposed to something do? Write letters, pass out fliers at the supermarket, wag fingers at people? No. Bold actions are required. A statement needs to be made, because if we sit back and do nothing, we condone it through our silence. This from Eric: I think he was a terrorist that I happen to agree with on this issue. And this, from John in Ithaca, New York: What Brown's extralegal violence showed was that violence against people of African descent was perfectly legal. Also, please discuss the link between the song "John Brown's Body" and the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Julia Ward Howe, the author of the latter song, the lyrics, of course, among those some on abolitionists.

HORWITZ: Yeah. Julia Ward's - Julia Ward Howe's husband, Samuel Gridley Howe, is a member of the Secret Six, this covert cell of prominent Northerners who are funneling guns and money to Brown. And spoiler alert, he's hanged. And after he's hanged and the Civil War breaks out, Union troops sing "John Brown's Body" as they march into battle. And Julia Ward Howe, who's a poet, hears this and recasts it. She gives it new lyrics, which become the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," which is really the anthem of the Union cause. So Brown's memory lives on very strongly right through the Civil War and beyond.

CONAN: Let's get one last caller. Now, this is Kieran. Kieran with us from St Louis.

KIERAN: Hi. I was - I'd like to kind of follow up on that. Public perception of Brown has really seesawed between his capture and today. And as you mentioned, great American thinkers sang Brown's praises, and soldiers marched into battle singing "John Brown's Body," and those soldiers won the Civil War yet Brown seems to have lost, perception-wise. So who or perhaps what has really been behind this overall change in opinion?

HORWITZ: Well, I think as you said, he's gone through a seesaw. He's - every era has had to reinterpret this man. And he's gone through phases where he seen as a homicidal maniac. And I would say in the 1960s to many and then again today, he's come back as a bit of a freedom fighter and really a visionary of racial justice. So I think it's just that he's such a complex figure, I don't think we'll ever provide that clean answer about John Brown. And I think he will always be with us.

As Neal said earlier, he's the stone in the shoe of American history. We can't shake him out. He's always there bothering us. And I think in a sense that's his best role, almost, as an irritant. He forces us to keep asking these difficult questions about ourselves.

CONAN: Tony Horwitz, near the end of your book, you cite the speech that Frederick Douglass, who of course knew John Brown, gave in Harpers Ferry in 1881.

HORWITZ: Yeah. It's quite remarkable. Douglass, in the end, does not go with John Brown. He feels his plan is doomed. As he puts it, Harpers Ferry is a steel trap and Brown and his men will be trapped inside. But afterwards, he becomes one of Brown's most eloquent defenders. And he gives the speech in 1881 in Harpers Ferry that really is the most magnificent speech ever given about Brown. And I would argue one of the best in American history. And he says that, you know, if John Brown didn't end slavery, he began the war that ended slavery.

And he expressed his discomfort with the violence, but said it was really necessary payback for the violence against African villagers hundreds of years ago, dragging people to America and all the brutalities of plantation slavery. So he sort of regretfully saw it as a necessary step in American history.

CONAN: Kieran, thanks very much for the call.

KIERAN: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Tony Horwitz, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

HORWITZ: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: The book again, "Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War." Tony Horwitz joined us from our bureau in New York. Syria, in just a moment. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.