John Brown's body: Elites, heroic embodiment, and the legitimation of political violence

Gary Alan Fine*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Scopus citations


While violence against a legally constituted government is condemned when defined as such, some violent political acts are considered socially proper. I explore how political violence can be legitimated or even venerated by reference to John Brown's raid on the Federal Arsenal at Harpers Ferry in October 1859. Such claims are particularly likely when the violent act has cultural resonance, the actor is supported by cultural and political elites who serve, in effect, as "fellow travelers" for the movement, and when opponents of the violence do not participate in the creation of meaning. Because of Brown's links to cultural elites in Boston and to political elites in the emerging Republican Party, many Americans came to see Brown as a hero or martyr, embodying in his personal actions a committed moral figure. Like most effective narratives, collective memory requires a hero with which audiences identify. By virtue of his physical embodiment of radical abolition, John Brown served as a mnemonic for his cause. The label "John Brown's Body" refers to more than a song title, but to the process of recalling a complex concern through the images of individual action and persona. Images of Brown the man were facilitated by the secession of Southern states, leaving the reputational field open for Brown's supporters to establish his reputation after his death without rival narratives.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)225-249
Number of pages25
JournalSocial Problems
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 1999

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science

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