Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz

Midnight RisingBefore the start of the Civil War, a man named John Brown, strong in his religious convictions and a fervent abolitionist, wreaked havoc across the nation. Brown’s presence was spread throughout the east, from New York to Virginia, and west to Kansas. He frequently found himself in the middle of the frantic social battles that were so violent they became dubbed “Bleeding Kansas.” There, with a team of followers in 1856, he led a massacre at Pottawatomie Creek, killing five settlers in violent reaction to severe anti-abolitionist sentiment in the area. Three years later, in October of 1859, Brown led the infamous raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, trying to form a slave rebellion and awaken the nation to the horrors and inhumanity of slavery. Because of his tactics, history has been understandably unkind to Brown, labeling the man as a religious lunatic or imbalanced madman. William Lloyd Garrison, the famous newspaper editor, abolitionist, and contemporary of Brown, even called him “misguided, wild and apparently insane.” But, was he truly insane?

In Midnight Rising, Tony Horwitz dedicates 365 pages to the narrative of John Brown’s life. In his famous investigative and journalistic tone, Horwitz details Brown’s upbringing, his days before the massacre, during his time spent building safe havens in New York farmland, and up to the raid on Harpers Ferry. He produces family letters, legal documents, newspaper stories, and more as evidence to try to get to the heart of the question: Was John Brown insane, or did he have any other choice in the society in which he lived? Can a person still do good for the world while doing so in a wicked manner?

We are all familiar with the shock and horror that grips the nation after such horrific tragedies as shootings and bombings, and it is difficult not to draw comparisons while reading. We collectively find ourselves wondering what makes people capable of such violence. At least in this case, Horwitz offers enough information on Brown’s life and society to help us understand a little more about why and how these things could happen in such a violent manner.

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