More than a rural eccentric, although he was also that, this was the man in whom public concern mounted during the three years beginning in 1856 until his name was a curse or a prayer in the mouth of every American who could read or hear his fellows talk or had any degree of mental sentience. By 1859, John Brown was not only universally known but a national agony dividing the country and it is within this division that his memory, his reputation, and his historic role have always been judged.
Virtually all of the testimony concerning him - save that which precedes his fame and the controversy it aroused - lies within this great national division. In general that testimony, despite many variations, was passionately for John Brown when offered by those who believed that slavery was killing the nation and that any sacrifice or any violence was justified in destroying it. It was equally passionate but vehemently against him when uttered by those favoring slavery, or who felt that civil war was too high a price to pay for its destruction, or that black freedom was not quite worth white men's blood, or that violence against slaves did not excuse John Brown's violence against slaveholders. Judgment usually had more to do with political conviction and political necessity, with sectional sympathy and party affiliation, than it did with the character of John Brown.