"He is of imposing appearance . . . tall, with square shoulders . . . eyes of deep gray, and couchant, as if ready to spring at the least rustling. . . ." So John Brown struck Bronson Alcott, mystical transcendentalist and father of Louisa May, author of Little Women. In his epic John Brown's Body, poet Stephen Vincent Benét was a bit cooler of eye. For him John Brown was:
A stone eroded to a cutting edge
By obstinacy, failure and cold prayers. . . .
And with a certain minor-prophet air
That fooled the world to thinking him half-great
When all he did consistently was fail.
Now, for those who want to judge for themselves, or compare the way he really looked with artist John Steuart Curry's stagy portrait, or with Raymond Massey's depiction in the 1940 film, a four-inch-high daguerreotype of him, lately acquired by the Smithsonian, is on view at the National Portrait Gallery. In the picture, John Brown stands tall, square, stony and half-great. The portrait is the earliest likeness known of America's most famous and controversial abolitionist. It was made by a talented daguerreotypist, Augustus Washington, probably in 1847 when Brown was 47 years old and working as a wool broker in Springfield, Massachusetts. Every button on his waistcoat, every stern wrinkle in his brow, even the life line on his upraised palm, is precisely shown.
The original daguerreotype only recently came to light in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where the Smithsonian snapped it up with the help of funds given by Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd G. Schermer. Mrs. Schermer's great-grandfather was with John Brown in Kansas in the 1850s.
John Brown spent his earliest years in northwestern Connecticut. When the boy was 5, his father, scrabbling for a living as a tanner, moved the family to Ohio. During the War of 1812, the elder Brown entrusted his 12-year-old son with driving cattle more than 100 miles to Detroit to sell to American troops. While on that trip he watched a black slave boy his age being beaten with an iron fire shovel; he was so shocked by the sight that he vowed to become slavery's "most determined foe."
Brown was largely self-taught, a humorless young man with a knack for judging wool by its feel. He was certain he could command top prices from the mills then sprouting in the Northeast, but his wool brokerage turned out to be just one of Brown's 15 business failures.
By the time of this portrait, America's "peculiar institution" was becoming an embarrassment to Northeastern manufacturers who dealt with disapproving Europeans. Brown's obsessive hatred of slavery intrigued many wealthy Northern abolitionists who had various ideas about how to break slavery's grip. The American Colonization Society wanted to take freed slaves, give them schooling and send them to Africa. The Underground Railroad hid runaways by day, hurrying them north by night to freedom in Canada.
Abolishing slavery by federal law was hopeless: Southerners were too strong in Congress, and until the 1850s most Northerners didn't really care. Abolitionists were regarded as crazy radicals. Frederick Douglass, former slave and eminent antislavery spokesman, wanted to convince slave owners that they must end slavery in part because it was against God's will. John Brown as well feared God but was dead sure the deity had recruited him as avenging angel to end the national evil with sword rather than persuasion.
In 1850, as part of a compromise that declared California would join the Union as a free state, Congress beefed up the old fugitive slave law; slaveholders could nab runaways anywhere in the nation and return them to their owners. In New England, Emerson, Thoreau and Wendell Phillips preached outrage and defiance in essays and oratory, Whittier in poems, and Congregational minister Theodore Parker in his pulpit. For his part, John Brown saw the fugitive slave law as a divine testing. Had not Gideon and his army suffered trials before God persuaded him to face the Midianites and "set every man's sword against his fellow"?