Horwitz does a good job of marching quickly but clearly through the escalating tensions over slavery in the United States of Brown’s adult years. Brown was hardly the only anti-slavery activist horrified by events like the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. And he was only one of thousands of Americans who moved to Kansas in the 1850s with the express purpose of influencing that state’s vote to become either “free” or “slave.”
But Brown was one of only a tiny minority of Kansans ready to back his beliefs with violence. He launched several violent raids either to free slaves or simply to frighten (or kill) those who expressed pro-slavery attitudes. He grew his beard long and at least one observer remarked on his “glittering gray-blue eyes” with “a little touch of insanity.”
But Horwitz does a good job of painting a more three-dimensional portrait of his subject. Brown was also a loving husband and father who, in many ways, genuinely lived his Christian principles. One black activist of the era wrote that Brown – different from some other white crusaders – showed “no offensive contempt for the Negro while working in his cause.” He noted that Brown treated people of all kinds and classes, black and white, as equals and maintained a home “wherein no hateful prejudice dared intrude its ugly self.”
Brown’s eventual plan to march into Virginia with fewer than 20 men, raid a federal armory, and liberate all the state’s slaves horrified even most of his closest allies. But to Brown’s way of thinking, true patriotism required nothing less. Slavery was a violation of the principles of both Brown's God and his country – and only a second revolution could reinstate justice.