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To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown

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One hundred thirty-five years after his epochal Harpers Ferry raid to free the slaves, John Brown is still one of the most controversial figures in American history. In 1970, Stephen B. Oates wrote what has come to be recognized as the definitive biography of Brown, a balanced assessment that captures the man in all his complexity. The book is now back in print in an updat One hundred thirty-five years after his epochal Harpers Ferry raid to free the slaves, John Brown is still one of the most controversial figures in American history. In 1970, Stephen B. Oates wrote what has come to be recognized as the definitive biography of Brown, a balanced assessment that captures the man in all his complexity. The book is now back in print in an updated edition with a new prologue by the author.


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One hundred thirty-five years after his epochal Harpers Ferry raid to free the slaves, John Brown is still one of the most controversial figures in American history. In 1970, Stephen B. Oates wrote what has come to be recognized as the definitive biography of Brown, a balanced assessment that captures the man in all his complexity. The book is now back in print in an updat One hundred thirty-five years after his epochal Harpers Ferry raid to free the slaves, John Brown is still one of the most controversial figures in American history. In 1970, Stephen B. Oates wrote what has come to be recognized as the definitive biography of Brown, a balanced assessment that captures the man in all his complexity. The book is now back in print in an updated edition with a new prologue by the author.

30 review for To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown

  1. 4 out of 5

    Joseph

    The best John Brown biography out there, this one does not disappoint. The author traces the subject's trajectory from growing up in northeast Ohio all the way to denouement at Harper's Ferry. Along the way, we learn that Brown was many things, but never a revolutionary, at least in his own eyes. I enjoyed the book, particularly since it dealt with local history and historical places close to my current location. A worthy effort. The best John Brown biography out there, this one does not disappoint. The author traces the subject's trajectory from growing up in northeast Ohio all the way to denouement at Harper's Ferry. Along the way, we learn that Brown was many things, but never a revolutionary, at least in his own eyes. I enjoyed the book, particularly since it dealt with local history and historical places close to my current location. A worthy effort.

  2. 4 out of 5

    KatzeKet

    To Purge This Land with Blood is a biography about the life and actions of John Brown, detailing from his upbringing to his death by hanging after the raid of Harper's Ferry. Stephen B. Oates attempts to handle his character and actions as balanced as he could, given how much of a controversial figure he was. I was going through some lectures of historian David Blight about the Civil War, and he summarized it quite well. The most important thing about John Brown, as I tried to say the other day — To Purge This Land with Blood is a biography about the life and actions of John Brown, detailing from his upbringing to his death by hanging after the raid of Harper's Ferry. Stephen B. Oates attempts to handle his character and actions as balanced as he could, given how much of a controversial figure he was. I was going through some lectures of historian David Blight about the Civil War, and he summarized it quite well. The most important thing about John Brown, as I tried to say the other day — and I want to conclude with several comments about that now — is in how he died and in the aftermath of his death. The United States was a Christian country. Europe was essentially a Christian civilization. John Brown would be filtered through a Christian imagination. Either way, whether people came to admire and sort of agonizingly love him, or agonizingly hate him. To elaborate on Oate's attempt as a balanced biography, it is important to mention that his historiography has been affected, from praise as a martyrdom to a crazed insane man (although he was not). From here we see both the megalomania and his failings as well as his unflinching character who thought that he was doing the right thing. The narration of his life is very engaging and is well researched.

  3. 4 out of 5

    John Seymour

    At a time when even most abolitionists were strident racists, wanting nothing so much as to send blacks "back" to Africa, John Brown took seriously the biblical injunction that all men are brothers, as well as the language of the Declaration that "all men are created equal." To Brown slavery was indefensible, not just because it denied the freedom which is the right of every man, each equally created an image of God, but also because the institution corrupted the soul of both the slave and the s At a time when even most abolitionists were strident racists, wanting nothing so much as to send blacks "back" to Africa, John Brown took seriously the biblical injunction that all men are brothers, as well as the language of the Declaration that "all men are created equal." To Brown slavery was indefensible, not just because it denied the freedom which is the right of every man, each equally created an image of God, but also because the institution corrupted the soul of both the slave and the slaveholder. Oates biography does not gloss over Brown's failings or his megalomania, but still conveys the powerful presence of a man who was able to convince twenty others to join him on a doomed assault to liberate slaves. After meeting Brown, the great Frederick Douglas said Brown, "though a white gentleman, was in sympathy, a black man, and as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery." As galvanizing as Brown's raid was in the South, his statements at his trial and letters while awaiting hanging had a similar effect in the North. Taken in total, Brown's role in the Pottawatomie Massacre, his raid to free slaves in Missouri, the raid at Harper's Ferry and his words (spoken and written) after his capture at Harper's Ferry probably did more than any other single person to bring about the Civil War and as a result, the emancipation of the slaves. Oates' biography is essential reading to understand that aspect of American history. "I see a book kissed, which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament, which teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do to them. It teaches me further that to remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them. I endeavor to act upon that instruction. I say I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to interfered as I have done with his despised poor, is no wrong, but right. Now if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel and unjust enactments, I say, let it be done." John Brown, at his sentencing hearing.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Timothy

    I recently became interested in John Brown, the man, after doing a section hike of the Appalachian trail, and passing through Harper's Ferry - site of his raid which helped to precipitate the Civil War. I wanted a thorough, yet balanced biography, one that does more than simply uphold commonly held caricatures. I desired to have a clear snapshot of the times in which he lived, how he thought, and something of what motivated his actions. This biography by historian, Stephen B. Oates, does all tha I recently became interested in John Brown, the man, after doing a section hike of the Appalachian trail, and passing through Harper's Ferry - site of his raid which helped to precipitate the Civil War. I wanted a thorough, yet balanced biography, one that does more than simply uphold commonly held caricatures. I desired to have a clear snapshot of the times in which he lived, how he thought, and something of what motivated his actions. This biography by historian, Stephen B. Oates, does all that and more. It is well-researched, thoroughly objective, and empathetic without being fawning. I highly recommend it to anyone who interested in is this period in American history, and/or the character of John Brown.

  5. 5 out of 5

    James Calvin

    U.S. Highway 75 runs from just south of Winnipeg all the way to Dallas, bisecting the continental United States at the eastern emerald edge of the Great Plains. In northwest Iowa, it runs right through little Sioux Center, just two blocks from the house where we lived for a quarter century. So we decided to take it once upon a time, avoid interstates and follow Highway 75 south to Tulsa, where our son had found a girl he would eventually marry. Easy enough, get on the highway two blocks from our U.S. Highway 75 runs from just south of Winnipeg all the way to Dallas, bisecting the continental United States at the eastern emerald edge of the Great Plains. In northwest Iowa, it runs right through little Sioux Center, just two blocks from the house where we lived for a quarter century. So we decided to take it once upon a time, avoid interstates and follow Highway 75 south to Tulsa, where our son had found a girl he would eventually marry. Easy enough, get on the highway two blocks from our garage, and don't get off for a whole day, all two-lane. I knew something about the story of John Brown before that trip, knew John Brown was an abolitionist whose personal history remained, 150 years later, something of a puzzle. But I knew little more. We weren't pressed for time, so I followed the signs when the highway let us know we were approaching some kind of historical marker. We got off 75, followed some country roads, and came to an overgrown spot in eastern Kansas--one of those places marked with a sign that seemed to have been alone in the wilderness for quite some time, well off the beaten track. What we'd happened upon was the backwater spot where John Brown and his sons and his men carried out cold-blooded murder. Five men, angry Southerners, "Border Ruffians" committed to the cause of slavery in these United States, men who were committed to violence themselves were hacked to death by abolitionists armed with machetes. History says Brown didn't do the killing, but that he was the instigator was indisputable. His commands were the ones that mattered in what became known as "the Pottawatomie murders." I knew nothing of that story and nothing of John Brown ever having been in Kansas, nothing of "Bleeding Kansas," a series of conflicts many mark as the real beginning of the War between the States. I knew that Marilyn Robinson's great novel, Gilead, alluded frequently and powerfully to the cause of abolition here in Iowa. What I also knew from talking with her is that she was herself greatly taken with the abolitionists, most of whom, like John Brown, were profoundly religious. Modernism once determined that religion was a vestige of barbarism that contemporary life was, thankfully, abandoning. What humanity had awakened to was the realization that we had no need for God. Where people worshiped some spiritual being, they did so out obligation to ritual to non-existent ancient mythologies. But the nature of the conflict in the heart and soul of the story of John Brown remains the heart and soul of the conflicts in this country today, a country, most say, as divided in spirit and temper and character as it has been any time since the Civil War. Religion not only continues to play a role in our lives, it often still determines behavior. A clerk of court chooses jail to freedom because of her religious views. Candidates for office need to parade their religious affiliations as if they were awards for bravery. Today, six years into his second term as President, 54% of Republicans still consider Barack Obama is Muslim. Religion is the base from which many of us--most of us--operate and by which we identify ourselves. A devout Christian presidential candidate says no Muslim should be President of these United States. Some condemn him. Others--many--run to his side in his support. How do we balance our own contrary commitments--our commitment to God with our commitment to America? How do we give unto Caesar that which his and etc.? How have we determined such questions in the past? Was John Brown hideously insane or, as he himself determined, someone identifiably chosen by God to destroy the sinful, hideous American institution of slavery? As I said just a few days ago, the man was strengthened by scripture: "in all thy ways acknowledge him and he shall direct they paths" is a verse he quoted often and even used as a testimony. I'm no historian, but I'm betting that To Purge This Land With Blood: A Biography of John Brown, by Stephen B. Oates, published way back in 1970, remains the gold standard on the life of the most famous American abolitionists. I found Oates's study utterly captivating and relentless in its determination not to leave the records unturned. Aligning sources and marching them out in an orderly fashion is an epic job all by itself in any retelling of the John Brown story, but Oates was working with one of this nation's most incredible narratives when he chose to follow the life of a man whose body, a'moulderin' in the grave, begat the music sung around a thousand Union Army campfires. The life and times of John Brown is a story I'm glad to know better--righteous anger creating bloody violence. Brown was a radical, a terrorist, a murderer, and a madman who did it all in the name of Jesus because what he was fighting for--an end to slavery--was right there on the paths of righteousness for His name sake. His death, which he deliberately shaped into national martyrdom, probably did more to begin the bloody surgery required to end slavery in these United States. His death mobilized both sides, making Civil War more even inevitable than it already was. There are no easy answers to the life of John Brown. Nothing is black and white, and that's what make the story so richly human. If you'd like to know more about John Brown, start with Stephen Oates' nearly fifty-year old abundantly researched biography. It's a story from heart of who we are.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Jerome

    A thorough, balanced and well-written biography of John Brown. Although called insane in his own time, Oates disputes this idea, instead emphasizing Brown’s belief that American slavery violated both Christian doctrine and what he saw as America’s founding principles (Oates also disputes the claim that Brown’s mother was insane) Oates also discusses how Brown came to doubt the value of non-violent abolitionism, especially when his own non-violent efforts failed, and how Brown was often able to po A thorough, balanced and well-written biography of John Brown. Although called insane in his own time, Oates disputes this idea, instead emphasizing Brown’s belief that American slavery violated both Christian doctrine and what he saw as America’s founding principles (Oates also disputes the claim that Brown’s mother was insane) Oates also discusses how Brown came to doubt the value of non-violent abolitionism, especially when his own non-violent efforts failed, and how Brown was often able to possess a curious mix of realism and irrationality. Oates also looks at the Harper’s Ferry raid, concluding that, while it was not the most immediate cause of the Civil War (which was Lincoln’s election) it did lead to widespread fears of slave uprisings in the South and to supposed northern efforts to stir them up. Oates does raise many of the problems surrounding the life of Brown and his era, but never really fully addresses them: such as Brown’s motives, for example. The narrative can also be a bit repetitive. Still, a comprehensive, engaging, well-researched and well-paced work.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Leighann

    I first read about John Brown in 5th grade. The subject was American history and as much as my teachers wanted me to believe the civil war began over "ecnomic issues." I knew that was a crock of crap. John Brown knew it too. Sure, slavery is an economic issue and the biggest known sin/hypocrisy/violation of human rights this country has ever committed and continues to commit nominally or otherwise. This is a technical, yet very readable biography of the man who felt he was called by God to lead I first read about John Brown in 5th grade. The subject was American history and as much as my teachers wanted me to believe the civil war began over "ecnomic issues." I knew that was a crock of crap. John Brown knew it too. Sure, slavery is an economic issue and the biggest known sin/hypocrisy/violation of human rights this country has ever committed and continues to commit nominally or otherwise. This is a technical, yet very readable biography of the man who felt he was called by God to lead a revolution. Crazy? Maybe. Committed to his cause, definitely. Could we use a smidgen--and I mean smidgen of John Brown today (at least the part that was willing to organize and demand change, his methods were a little questionable)? Most definitely.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Ronald House

    Recently I read James McBride The Good Lord Bird and watched the miniseries staring Ethan Hawke by the same name. Having enjoyed that artistic & fascinating view of John Brown I wanted to delve deeper into the man himself. Stephen Oats masterfully accomplishes this in his biography of John Brown. Mr Brown was the bellwether to the coming troubles of our Civil War, & best captured by the song Old John Brown's Body that Oates mentions in the final page of his book. Recently I read James McBride The Good Lord Bird and watched the miniseries staring Ethan Hawke by the same name. Having enjoyed that artistic & fascinating view of John Brown I wanted to delve deeper into the man himself. Stephen Oats masterfully accomplishes this in his biography of John Brown. Mr Brown was the bellwether to the coming troubles of our Civil War, & best captured by the song Old John Brown's Body that Oates mentions in the final page of his book.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Christopher Schmehl

    I took a college class about the History of the Civil War. That's when I learned of John Brown and the Harper's Ferry raid. Rohrbach Library had this amazing book that tells John Brown's life story. It's chock full of history and the connections between slavery, religion, and the American Civil War. To be continued.... I took a college class about the History of the Civil War. That's when I learned of John Brown and the Harper's Ferry raid. Rohrbach Library had this amazing book that tells John Brown's life story. It's chock full of history and the connections between slavery, religion, and the American Civil War. To be continued....

  10. 4 out of 5

    George Kasnic

    Detailed, factual, worthwhile read.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Deb

    Good read.

  12. 4 out of 5

    a vanp

    Read this if you want a gripping account of Bleeding Kansas and Harpers Ferry. The historical scholarship is good, with lots of direct quotes, but that can make it boring, depending on what you are looking for.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Glenn Robinson

    Interesting bio on John Brown, perhaps the igniter of the Civil War. This book goes into great depth about his network of supporters. He communicated, met with and received money from leaders all across the North with a big concentration in Boston and Cleveland. According to this take, he has been planning this raid for at least 10 years and many in leadership were aware of it. It is interesting that once it took place, politicians on both sides were being blamed and were blaming others. Those i Interesting bio on John Brown, perhaps the igniter of the Civil War. This book goes into great depth about his network of supporters. He communicated, met with and received money from leaders all across the North with a big concentration in Boston and Cleveland. According to this take, he has been planning this raid for at least 10 years and many in leadership were aware of it. It is interesting that once it took place, politicians on both sides were being blamed and were blaming others. Those in leadership scrambled to deny any knowledge while those in the arts were shouting out that this was a great thing and that Brown was a great leader. Brown sought out key leaders across the board in the North. Frederick Douglass and John Brown were very close and Douglass came down to Chambersburg before the raid to advise against proceeding. After the raid, Douglass went to Canada and Europe. Brown also consulted with Ms. Tubman for advice on transporting freed slaves and to get an idea of the landscape. It is clear he really did not listen as he went to a spot in Virginia were there were few plantations and chose a day were the field slaves and house servants were given their time off to leave and come back Monday morning (something he did not think was possible. Well written with insights into the national and local leaders, their views, their actions and their attempts to end slavery (or support) from the 1820's to 1860.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Fred R

    It's easy to forget that most famous people in history were people who tried really hard to be famous. John Brown's scheme was poorly executed, poorly planned, and, if successful, would have resulted in a great deal of unnecessary pain and suffering. As a matter of fact, it did result in a great deal of unnecessary pain and suffering. Oates manages a fair amount of objectivity on the subject, which is a difficult task these days. It's easy to forget that most famous people in history were people who tried really hard to be famous. John Brown's scheme was poorly executed, poorly planned, and, if successful, would have resulted in a great deal of unnecessary pain and suffering. As a matter of fact, it did result in a great deal of unnecessary pain and suffering. Oates manages a fair amount of objectivity on the subject, which is a difficult task these days.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Don

    John Brown - a dogmatically devoted, self-righteous charismatic monomaniac who recognized the realities on the ground, felt passionate commitment to a moral end, and pushed the levers leading to war, his own sacrifice, and a great leap forward in American civil rights. Oates has presented a wonderfully readable biography of this seminal figure in American History. The summary of his final days in prison and the political context of his trial and hanging are moving!

  16. 4 out of 5

    Pete

    All that live within a few hours drive of Harper's Ferry, West Virginia (in John Brown's day it was Virginia) should visit and learn of John Brown's raid on the town's arsenal. If your not so close, this is a great book to read and learn about one of the principle events leading to the American Civil War and the life of the abolitionist that lead the attack on one of the two primary armories in America at that time. All that live within a few hours drive of Harper's Ferry, West Virginia (in John Brown's day it was Virginia) should visit and learn of John Brown's raid on the town's arsenal. If your not so close, this is a great book to read and learn about one of the principle events leading to the American Civil War and the life of the abolitionist that lead the attack on one of the two primary armories in America at that time.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Drtaxsacto

    I had an interest in this book because of my name - John Brown is an odd figure in American history. He was a failure at most of the things he did. Yet he became a key figure in the events leading up to the Civil War - even before Harper's Ferry. Oates does a great job of making this figure and the period come alive. I had an interest in this book because of my name - John Brown is an odd figure in American history. He was a failure at most of the things he did. Yet he became a key figure in the events leading up to the Civil War - even before Harper's Ferry. Oates does a great job of making this figure and the period come alive.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Scott

    A great view of all sides of John Brown. He is taught so one-dimensionally in most high school history courses. This boom looks at the whole man, perhaps crazy, but committed to his core about the injustice that was slavery. His plan didn't work, but then again, it had a large impact. A great view of all sides of John Brown. He is taught so one-dimensionally in most high school history courses. This boom looks at the whole man, perhaps crazy, but committed to his core about the injustice that was slavery. His plan didn't work, but then again, it had a large impact.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Sue

    Fascinating. On another note, he's a shirttail relative of mine... Fascinating. On another note, he's a shirttail relative of mine...

  20. 4 out of 5

    Padraic

    For those who insist that humanity advances humanely, Oates' take is compelling and chilling. A madman, yes ... but he was our madman. For those who insist that humanity advances humanely, Oates' take is compelling and chilling. A madman, yes ... but he was our madman.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Ben

    Anything and everything about John Brown. Interesting story.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Jason Ryberg

  23. 4 out of 5

    Deedee

  24. 4 out of 5

    Jeffrey Shelton

  25. 4 out of 5

    Pam

  26. 5 out of 5

    Wayne Smith

  27. 5 out of 5

    Kyle Worlitz

    What a hero/psycho.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Heath

  29. 5 out of 5

    CS Maynard

  30. 5 out of 5

    Mark Paul

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