Graham portrays his subject as an individual profoundly dedicated to the welfare of humankind, particularly regarding the status of the slaves in the United States. Brown is portrayed as a hero despite the fact that the author doubts that the master plan, as conceived, could have succeeded even if Brown had not advanced the day of the assault from October 24 to October 16, a move that limited the number of followers who could join him and the number of weapons at his disposal. Graham also wonders why Brown, after capturing the arsenal, stayed there and did not escape to the mountains and valleys of Virginia and Maryland. It should have been clear to him, as Douglass warned Brown, that federal troops would not let him occupy the town for long.
Taking a position that is contrary to what some of Brown’s critics have said, Graham convincingly makes the case that the abolitionist was of sound mind even at the time of Harpers Ferry. Brown was genuinely convinced that his was a just cause, and he knew perfectly well that he was endangering his life by taking the actions that he had been contemplating for years, especially the assault on Harpers Ferry. Graham also believes that the Civil War was precipitated by the Harpers Ferry incident, as the South became more fearful that the institution of slavery, so crucial to that part of the country, was in jeopardy.
Through the story of Brown, the young adult learns of the institution of slavery; the meaning and applications of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States; the political and economic differences between the North and the South; the abolitionist movement, spearheaded by both African-American and white philanthropists such as Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison; the Underground Railroad; and the expansion of the United States into the West, as part of its Manifest Destiny. One can accurately say that John Brown is a portrait of the abolitionist’s times as well as a narrative of his life.