Monday, November 12, 2012

John Brown’s Spy

Andrew Koppelman

There is a large scholarly literature that tries to associate political beliefs with types of character:  Democrats tend to be this kind of people, Republicans tend to be like that, etc.  In a country with a two-party system, in which very different people are forced to permanently inhabit the same political coalitions, this kind of argument was always dubious.  A new disconfirmation comes from Steven Lubet’s wonderful new book, John Brown’s Spy.

The book tells the story of John E. Cook, whom Brown trusted more than anyone else with the plans to capture the armory at Harper’s Ferry in 1859.  The two men were, for a time, the closest of political allies.  Yet the book makes clear the dramatic difference in their political imaginations.  Brown was an abstemious idealist who cared only for whatever was necessary to end slavery. In the moral realm, he was a prude.  Cook, on the other hand, was a boaster hungry for heroic adventures, who had drifted around the country leaving a trail of pregnant women behind him until he met Brown.  His storybook-hero attitude toward politics proved disastrous when he told Brown that he was sure that there would be a slave uprising to support them.  In his reconnaissance of the places and people around the armory, he had in fact found no evidence that that was the case, but it made a better story and he somehow persuaded himself, and then Brown, to believe it.

The difference between them became clear after both were captured, following the failed raid – Cook initially escaped, and for ten days, he was the most wanted man in American history. Brown went to the gallows cheerfully, confident that his death would serve the abolitionist cause.     Cook, however, betrayed his companions with a full confession that implicated fellow abolitionists, forcing Frederick Douglass, among others, to flee to Canada.  Brown rejoiced in his martyrdom.  Cook nearly managed a spectacular prison escape just before his execution.  They were politically united at the extreme, violent end of the abolitionist spectrum.  Yet they inhabited different moral and imaginative universes.

If you know someone’s politics, you really don’t know that much about them.

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