It would have been as easy to drive a shadow into the centre of a block of granite as to force a pro-slavery falsehood into his brain or heart.

James Redpath

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Saturday, May 16, 2015

More from the North Country--
PBS Report by Derek Muirden--Your Editor Interviewed; the Bogus Claim of HF's Seized Weapons

Derek Muirden of the Mountain Lake (NY) affiliate of PBS was on the ground at the John Brown Farm on John Brown Day last week, and kindly included an interview with me in his report.  The video is posted below--just look for the guy referred to as "Louie."  I should add, for the sake of clarity, that while I appreciate Mr. Muirden's fine report, I do not agree that Brown intended to seize the guns from the Harper's Ferry armory.  I cannot blame him, because this is one of those hackneyed claims that has adhered to the raid narrative since 1859. I take up this false claim in my forthcoming Freedom's Dawn.  

To the contrary, guns were not taken from the arsenal, but it seems rather that they were guarded to prevent others from getting to them.  Brown afterward clearly stated that he did not want the arsenal weapons because he brought superior firearms with him to Harper's Ferry, the Sharp's repeating rifles were five-times as effective.  The seizing of the armory was purely a political demonstration (he said so) and the reason for it is likewise provided in my forthcoming book.  
If Brown were trying to seize the arsenal weapons, where were the wagons to load them?  Where is the evidence that he took these rifles when he had ample opportunity to do so? The answer is no evidence exists of the kind.
In reality, the notion that the arms were to be seized for the slaves comes from sensationalist, propagandistic claims made by proslavery reporters.  These false claims bolstered Sen. James Mason's mission to use his 1860 senatorial committee investigation to impugn Brown and exploit the raid in order to interrogate and ensnare antislavery leaders in the North.   It is a point of history that besides Brown's sheer denial that he was interested in the arsenal stores, none of the Harper's Ferry weapons were removed and loaded throughout the entire, extended occupation of the Ferry by Brown and his men.  One wagon was brought into the Ferry by Brown, but it was already loaded with Brown's supplies.  If he were trying to seize the arsenal weapons, where were the wagons to load them?  Where is the evidence that he took these rifles when he had ample opportunity to do so?  The answer is no evidence exists of the kind.  Indeed, the only valid testimony to be believed is that a couple of Brown's men opened a couple of cases and looked at the rifles--so did Brown invade Harper's Ferry to seize two cases of rifles?   The facts are plain enough if you can get beyond the hackneyed press reports from the proslavery side, which unfortunately many historians have not discerned.

You can also read more about the John Brown Lives! event in a report by my friend, Naj Wikoff, in Thursday's (14 May) Lake Placid News.   Naj also provides an excerpt from my succinct presentation, as follows:
Certainly John Brown, as the single-minded man on the right side of history, who has been dismissed time and time again, keeps coming back. Why? Because you can't bury the truth, because his life was not a life of reinvention, because if you study his life you see that he is really the same man throughout. He did not believe slavery would be uprooted simply by moral suasion. John Brown saw that every road to ending slavery was blocked by power. He felt it had become something that had to be resisted. 
The government was on the side of the slaveholder. There was no hope for peaceful emancipation. There was only one man in 1859 who took action, and that was John Brown. He is significant to us because he really represents the ideas and principles that we say we believe in, but often times we as a nation to this day continue to have a double standard and a mythology about what our country is. John Brown does not allow that mythology to exist. He demands that we revisit the history of our country and tell the truth.
Lastly, for the record, Mr. Muirden's closing quote of Bruce Olds fairly well illustrates the most extreme anti-Brown view in contemporary culture.   However, Olds is not to be taken seriously in and of himself as a narrator of Brown's life, not even in fictional terms. Like many novelists who tamper with historical figures, he screws up royally.  But unlike novelists such as Russell Banks, Olds lacks even a basic sense of fairness, rationalizes his putrid narrative in the name of postmodernism, and is really a character assassin.  Only the malignant fringe of Brown haters would take the work of Bruce Olds seriously, and despite its association with postmodernity, Olds' novel represents one of the last cries of the defeated view of Brown that reigned throughout most of the 20th century.


Thursday, May 14, 2015

A Gravestone Selfie
John Brown Day 2015--
A Visit to the North Country

Pan Shot--The John Brown Farm: to the left, the Joseph Pollia statue (1935) of John Brown; center, the tent for the program; to the right, the great rock, the grave site, and the Brown farm house
I haven't been able to visit the John Brown Farm and burial site in Lake Placid, NY for a good many years, mainly because my academic obligations generally have me seated at Nyack's all school graduation ceremony on the same day.  This year, thanks to the forthcoming publication of my two John Brown books, I was able to get some time off and join the annual observance of Brown's birthday, now made possible through John Brown Lives! a non-profit organization that supports human rights and social justice issues in honor of the abolitionist.  JBL's indefatigable leader, Martha Swan, the founder and guiding spirit of the organization, kindly included me as part of this year's program, which remembered Brown and the late Yusuf Abdul Wasi Burgess, an activist and environmentalist who died late last year.  Besides the moving program in remembrance of Burgess, the featured speakers were Dr. James Carter, who was among those who marched in Selma with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965, and yours truly.  You can find press accounts of the day on JBL's face book page.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

From the field--

H. Scott Wolfe

Last month, while returning from a sojourn at the old collective community of Amana, Iowa, I instinctively decided to pause in what I call “John Brown Land”...the little village of Springdale. I, of course, felt compelled to pay my respects at the site of the Maxson farm...that obscure locale (yet of such immense importance to the Old Man’s story) that I have so (too) frequently discoursed upon in these columns.
The Maxson monument with its new 
neighbor, 19 April 2015 (Wolf photo)
Normally, as one approaches the farm from the west, the summits of the numerous grain bins, barns and equipment sheds become visible long before one reaches the spot. So, as my consort and myself passed the “North Liberty” graveyard, (still a mile distant from our destination), I suddenly blurted: “Something is amiss out there!” “Uh-huh,” she yawned. “Seriously,” I shouted, “there is something different about those roofs at the farmsite!” “Uh-huh,” she sighed, as she continued to peruse a brochure on eastern Iowa antique shops.

All was tension (at least on MY part), as I pulled up astride the Maxson monument near the roadside. It was then that I let loose with: “Holy ************!,” and promptly received a brief lecture upon both my choice of nouns and their close relationship to the ultimate destination of my questionable soul.

There, a mere thirty yards distant, sat a freshly-minted, sprawling residence of the “McMansion” style of architecture...still unoccupied, the stickers still clinging to those brand-spanking-new Anderson windows. The garage, where soon the Nissan will find shelter, sat where the old, cast-iron windmill had stood. (This generated another ejaculation from yours truly, for that windmill had appeared in many of the Depression era photographs of the original Maxson house, then in shambles.)
The New "Maxson" Farmhouse--Yikes! (Wolf photo)

Alas, the site is no longer pristine. And those visions of drilling men in an open field are much more difficult to conjure. In my personal fantasies, I had always dreamed of someone procuring the property...building a replica of the Maxson farmhouse...and exposing the stone foundation of the original (which still lies beneath a machine shed) create a true historic site. “If I ever win the lottery,” I would say....(But chances of this were indeed slim, in that I have never purchased a lottery ticket in my life.)

But now we have what appears to be suburban Springdale. A latter-day family of Cleavers will occupy the site...and, hopefully, send Wally or the Beaver over to the granite monument to clear the obscuring weeds...and spare these old hands from those pesky blisters.

Progress.....Don’t ya love it?

H. Scott Wolfe is the Historical Librarian of the Galena, Illinois Public Library.  A veteran researcher of archives and historic sites, he has generously contributed a variety of informative and insightful pieces to this blog since 2011.  His seasoned, storied, and celebrated correspondence is published under the column, "From the Field," and is popular with the readers of this blog.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

"Hmmph" Department
Lecompton's Historic Hall of Shame Carries on the Tradition in a New Play

According to Hay's Post (18 Apr.), the Associated Press reports that Constitution Hall in Lecompton, Kansas, is going to feature a new play about John Brown on May 3, 2015.  According to the AP report, the play is entitled, "John Brown: Widow Maker," and will be performed by The Lecompton Re-enactors, an acting troupe that will bring to life the story of Mahala Doyle and Louisa Wilkinson. Doyle and Wilkinson were the unhappy widows of two of the notorious Pottawatomie five, slain by free state radicals under the leadership of John Brown on May 24, 1856   The killings are popularly referred to as a "massacre," although it was a preemptive strike in a politically charged civil conflict, in which the plan of proslavery conspirators to kill the Browns was thwarted by the strategic strike along the Pottawatomie creek.  Five men were killed, all of which were directly involved in an illegal proslavery conspiracy to aid invading "ruffians" and direct them against leading antislavery settlers--especially the abolitionist Brown family.
Proslavery Enthusiasm, Lecompton 1856
The AP report typically refers to the Pottawtomie killings in keeping with the hackneyed historical narrative, which claims the killings were a "retaliation" for the attack on Lawrence, Kansas, by proslavery thugs on May 21.  While the assault on Lawrence was the context for the Pottawatomie attack, Brown and his men struck with far more urgency, knowing that the fall of Lawrence to invading proslavery thugs would soon be followed by an attack on the free state settlement at Ossawatomie and its vicinity.  By strategically removing the Doyles (a father and his two young adult sons), Wilkinson, and Sherman, the strike by radical free state people at least detained the plot to invade Osawatomie, which was nevertheless accomplished later that year.  More importantly, those who had plotted and targeted the Browns were eliminated, with the net effect that hubris and presumption on the part of proslavery militants in that area was dramatically undercut to the advantage of free state settlers.  While white society's historical remembrance of the Pottawatomie incident tends to reflect a "White Proslavery Lives Matter" attitude, in reality the strike was a minimalist and strategic and exhibited none of the "collateral damage" of proslavery terrorism in the territory.

As to the story of Mahala Doyle and Louisa Wilkinson, we should be clear that making them sympathetic figures in a dramatic re-enactment is somewhere between "Mob Wives" and "The Real Gestapo Housewives of Berlin."  Mahala Doyle passively supported her husband and sons in their murderous plot, but when it backfired on them, she scolded her doomed husband and sons for their "devilment."  Barely literate, Doyle allowed herself to be used as a tool by proslavery activists in Missouri, who helped her prepare a sarcastic letter which was duplicated and sent to Brown in jail after his defeat at Harper's Ferry in 1859.   Brown seems never to have received Doyle's letter (see my forthcoming Freedom's Dawn), although he may have heard about it since proslavery people leaked it to the public, and it was known about Charlestown where the Old Man was incarcerated. Brown expressed no regret for the killings and always maintained they were necessary.   Later in life, Doyle added deception to her resentments by feeding into the animus of Brown's posthumous detractor, David Utter.  Essentially, Doyle never told the truth about her husband's criminal activities, and in later life fabricated his innocence and victimization.  Wilkinson similarly lied about her husband in official affidavits made in 1856 by proslavery politicians, portraying him as a peaceful settler.  But Wilkinson was a fervent proslavery activist and was heartily joined in the conspiracy to eliminate the Browns and drive out antislavery settlers in his neighborhood.  Their plight was naturally portrayed in the most sympathetic terms by the proslavery element, and unfortunately the mainstream of white society has bought that portrayal wholesale.
Lecompton Constitution Hall

The fact that a play branding Brown a "widow maker" being conducted in a miserable house of ill repute like the Lecompton Constitution Hall seems fitting.  The Lecompton hall was the political home of the proslavery Lecompton Constitution, a racist document in origin and revision, albeit thankfully never enforced as law thanks to the work of antislavery radicals in Kansas.  While one may appreciate the historical importance of preserving sites from Kansas history, Lecompton's Constitution Hall is a hall of shame to anyone who reads history right-side up.  That it should be used to present a play where Brown is portrayed as a "widow maker" suggests that the "apple doesn't fall far from the tree."  Rather than producing dramatic and educational material that shows that slavery and its minions were the real widow-makers, this F-Troop production wants to present sentimentality and sympathy for the hearth and home of racists and conspirators.  The unfortunate widows Doyle and Wilkinson had human reason to weep, but I wonder if they would have wept had the blood of Brown and his sons been spilled all over the Kansas soil?  I wonder if they would have wept if slavery had triumphed and imported more victims into the new territory?  I doubt it.

If you haven't gotten my point, then my comments on the Hays page will sum it up for you:
An interesting angle--a play about the wives of two proslavery terrorists, both women afterward lying in misrepresenting their late husbands as innocent victims. If one doesn't want his wife to end up a widow, it's probably not a good idea to go into proslavery terrorism as a family business.


See Jan Biles, "Lecompton Reenactors to state new play: Production focuses on widows associated with infamous [sic] abolitionist." Capital-Journal online [Topeka], 25 April 2015

Monday, April 06, 2015

Harper's Ferry and the Hinges of History

Montage sketch recalling Brown’s trial, Richmond Dispatch, 22 Dec. 1901
I went through his effects which were found at the old house in Maryland he occupied, and there I found a map of Virginia and the adjoining Maryland, giving the number of slaves and white men in each county and district.  If John Brown had got into the mountains there is no telling how extensive that raid might have been.  Unquestionably a certain proportion of the slaves would have run away. 
 Alexander Boteler, Virginia State Congressman (1859-62), from an 1882 interview 

Because of the vast amount of misinformation, propaganda, and bias in the popular narrative on John Brown's raid, few people actually appreciate how close the nation came to experiencing a south wide liberation movement in 1859. While counterfactual history writing is speculative, it is not speculative to point out that the facts of history show

(1) that Brown could have made a retreat into the mountains with a starting group of several hundred enslaved people;

(2) that the US army was too small to have launched any kind of counter strategy;

(3) that any kind of resistance, whether from militia or federal forces would not have been able to stop Brown's movement once it began to move in the mountains since it would not have involved conventional warfare;

(4) that Brown's movement likely and easily would have grown and spread, being added to daily by more and more runaways;

(5) that such a movement would have spread through the South in a matter of months, connecting to areas where there were already incidents of uprising and underground railroad activity, attracting many enslaved people, free blacks, and other disenfranchised people of color as it moved into the southwestern slave states;

(6) that antislavery whites militants and sympathetic Southerners would have been increasingly drawn to join or support the movement as it grew and expanded; and

(7) that slaveholders across the South would have been panicked and the normal operations of the demonic "institution" would have been destabilized,  and would not have been able to prevent such a movement since it was not intended primarily as an insurrectionary war as a "grand rescue."

In short, on the smallest of hinges--Brown's failure to get out of Harper's Ferry on time in the early morning of October 17, 1859--the history of the nation turned toward eventual civil war. Had he made his escape after several hours in Harper's Ferry, the outcome of history might have been quite different, and the US might have developed a far more revolutionary and egalitarian orientation, rather than a conservative and segregationist orientation. But history is made of such hinges, turning this way or that, and many a story might have easily gone in a different direction based upon one decision, action, or mistake of judgment.--LD

Monday, March 23, 2015

A NYC Minute--
A Brief JB Reunion on Broadway

Actor Ian Barford flanked by
the biographers 
Author, Author!  All Step Back and Give
Me a Photo Op with EC
Last week, Michele and I had the pleasure of seeing a performance of the smash hit, "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," a British play that is now doing quite well here in the States. I'm no theater critic, but the play was tremendous and really exceeded all that I had heard about it. 

What made the experience the more enjoyable was that my good friend and fellow JB enthusiast, Ian Barford, is one of the lead cast members of the Broadway production.  Ian and I strolled the streets of Harper's Ferry on the 150th anniversary of the raid, making film and talking into the night about the Old Man, his raiders, and the failure that became successful in its own way.  In a sense, that conversation has never really ended, although there was no time for such chatter following the play, when Ian welcomed us at the stage door to greet him.

Happily, we were shortly joined by Evan Carton, author of the masterful, Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America, who was also at the play with his family.  Recall that the film rights for Patriotic Treason have been purchased for a proposed movie starring Giancarlo Esposito as Fred Douglass and Ed Harris as the Old Man, and we hope that the screenplay writer will be as fair and thoughtful as Dr. Carton.  

Thursday, March 05, 2015

From the Field--

An Editor's (Ambivalent) Commentary On  John Brown

H. Scott Wolfe 

       Nearly thirty years ago, no doubt in a fit of questionable behavior, the local luminaries saw fit to install me as the Historical Librarian of the Galena, Illinois Public Library. For those of you who might be familiar with this metropolis, you may recall it as the home of a fellow by the name of Ulysses S. Grant. For true devotees of history, it may also be known as the scene of one the great mineral rushes of the 19th century (“Galena” is the Latin name for lead sulfide, the principle ore of that heavy metal); or as the once principal Mississippi River port between those villages of St. Louis and St. Paul. 
        Today, we are a community of 3,500 souls which, because of our heritage and state of preservation, draws nearly a million visitors per annum to stroll our picturesque streets and drop coins into the tills of our industrious capitalists. Some of these sojourners, at least those with a passing interest in history or genealogy, often stumble into my library sanctum sanctorum, where I am able to satisfy their research needs...or, at least, invent something that is so plausible that it passes for scholarly erudition.
        The heart of our archival resources consists of an extraordinary newspaper collection. In fact, we possess a complete file of Galena papers stretching back to the distant year of 1834. Needless to say, this collection is of supreme value to me...for, within seconds, I can illuminate our patrons on everything from the Courthouse speech of Frederick Douglass in 1854 (the first abolitionist speech ever delivered in this strongly Democratic town); to the details of how someone’s great-granddaddy managed to drown himself in a farmhouse cistern in 1877.
        On quiet days, I find myself constantly paging through these newspapers. I am frequently indexing them. . . noting incidents that may be of interest to future visitors. Or I might simply immerse myself in the atmosphere of times long past. Such was my situation during this past week. The wind chills were minus 20 degrees outside my office...and the only potential visitor was the ghost of Admiral Peary.  So I found myself perusing a Galena Daily Advertiser from late 1859.  And, on the second page, I happened upon an editorial entitled simply: “THE EXECUTION TO-DAY.”

* * * * *
        “An event is appointed to transpire to-day. . . that will engross largely the thought and conversation of the people of the whole country. A man named John Brown. . . is to be hung at Charlestown, Jefferson county, Virginia. . . .”

The Editor: H. H. Houghton
(Wolfe image)
        So began the paper’s editor, a man with the alliterative name of Horace Hoskins Houghton.  A native Yankee from Vermont, Houghton had spent his life as a printer, journalist and poet. Of a wandering bent, he had plied his trade in his native State, in New York, in Louisville, Kentucky (where he “did not like the atmosphere of slavery”) and St. Louis (where he shared a landlord with the martyr Elijah Lovejoy).

        Houghton, in an autobiographical account, commented on his residence in the slave State of Missouri: “One of the first subjects that came up at the table was to sound me as to my views of slavery. I expressed myself in the moderate Vermont style. The conversation soon grew into a heated discussion. Although I know I had the best of the argument, yet others had the might on their side, and this decided me in the belief that I was too sincere an opponent of slavery, in every feeling of my soul, to make it agreeable for me to live, or attempt to live, in a slave State.”
        So by the mid-1830s, Houghton removed to Galena, and began an association as newspaper editor and publisher that was to endure until 1863. A staunch Whig/Republican in his politics, he exhibited quite liberal propensities in what was essentially, due to its links with the Mississippi River, a Southern town in Northern Illinois. An example of his personal eccentricity was his employment of Henry Wagoner, a black man, as a printer in his Galena newspaper shop. Wagoner, who is a story in himself, was later (1857) to meet John Brown, serve as a correspondent for Fred Douglass’ Paper. . . and, when the Old Man conducted the liberated Missouri slaves through Chicago in March of 1859, was the man who sheltered the fugitives there.
        Following the Civil War, and particularly after the 1868 election of his friend and fellow Galenian Ulysses S. Grant to the presidency, Houghton was the beneficiary of political spoils. The President first appointed him to a consulship in the Sandwich Islands (i.e. Hawaii), and then the Postmastership in Galena itself. He died there in the spring of 1879, “poor but honest,” a motto “he maintained to the last.”

* * * * * 

        As I began to peruse Houghton’s editorial, I was immediately struck by its ambivalence in regard to John Brown. I had initially expected, due to the editor’s liberal, anti-slavery mindset, a hymn to the Old Man’s martyrdom. What I actually discovered was a heavy dose of his “moderate Vermont style.”
        He began by defending Brown’s actions in Kansas, in words reminiscent of frequent commentary by Blogmaster DeCaro:
The Editorial
(Wolfe image)
        “His name was known in connection with certain bold actions during the civil war in Kansas. He had there drawn the sword under circumstances which were justifiable, if defensive war is ever to be justified as we believe it sometimes is, and report says he wielded it effectively. The bold action of Brown, and a few like him, ended a civil war that had in effect been cherished by the Administration of the General Government of the United States. . . . As far as Brown and those who acted with him in Kansas were concerned, their action was simply exercised for the public defence. They were only defending their own homes and rights from bands of lawless marauders. His cause was just and benevolent, and one in the defence of which he had a right to risk his own life with a view to save the lives of others. If misfortune came to the invaders of Kansas, as at Ossawatomie, it simply followed as the reacting force of wrong. . . . The ruffians whom he repelled had no right whatever -- except the right of simple power -- to make war on the peaceable citizens of Kansas. The action of Brown was that of DEFENCE...”
        But then Houghton contemplated the issue of Harpers Ferry:
        “Can the same thing be said in application to his action, in conception and result, in the purpose that culminated in Harpers Ferry? On this point, we are sure, hangs the whole moral force and enduring effect of the action for which he this day pays the penalty of his life...”
        Houghton’s answer is not to justify Brown’s actions, as in Kansas, but to attack Brown’s motives at Harpers Ferry. Thus, his sentiments here are liable to provide Blogmaster DeCaro with recurring nightmares:
        “John Brown is a cool and deliberate man in time of danger. . . .We shall be surprised if he does not manifest equal coolness today in the last hour and moment of his life. This, of itself, will not give great moral force or effect to the character of the man, for the worst of men have sometimes died coolly, and just as coolly have they borne themselves in times of danger as he did. . . .        “He is sustained by religious enthusiasm. No one doubts that Brown thought he was doing right at Harpers Ferry. His thinking so did not make it so. Conscience  may be educated to embrace a wrong. He sees a warrant for it in the principle of Christianity , which makes us to regard our neighbor’s welfare as our own. Then, to reverse the order and apply the rule, we must regard ourselves as well as we do our neighbor, or we do ourselves injustice. Did not Brown violate the law of right in this last particular? He sacrificed the life of his own best friend, to wit: that of himself, in a manner and under circumstances which, if justified by the teachings of Christ, we do not see it plainly...”
        Then Houghton’s crucial point, a delineation of DEFENSIVE and AGGRESSIVE war:
The author displays the newspaper,
Houghton's Galena Daily Advertiser
(Wolfe image)
        “In Kansas he was acting on the defensive. He shot down those who were seeking his own life, perhaps, and the lives of others. At Harpers Ferry he was acting on the aggressive. He was molesting those who would not have molested him, had he not first commenced the war upon them. When we heard of a Free State man being shot down in Kansas because he was one, we felt something like a willingness to take his place; but on the contrary, we have a decided antipathy to being one to help fill the ranks of the company who fell with Brown. . . . Nor have we seen any one who craves such peculiar office, nor do we expect to find them plenty hereafter, while common sense is as common as we hope to see it. . . .        To-day, as remarked above, John Brown is to be executed. Had he not shed the blood of others at Harpers Ferry, or had he not deliberately armed for such a contingency; or had he not been the undoubted aggressor, his chance of being regarded as a martyr hereafter would have been much greater than it is now. . . .”
        The editor concludes:
        “This Harpers Ferry affair is a serious one. It was managed badly enough by Brown, but still worse by the authorities of Virginia. What another day will bring forth, will soon be known, but the anticipation of its probable events and their influences in the above regard, are not pleasant.”
* * * * * 

        Thus speaks the liberal as conservative. The Vermont moderate. Well, the “probable event” he mentions turned out to be the Civil War. And that was “not pleasant.”  But the consequences of sectional turmoil, at the time of his editorial, could not be known to Horace Hoskins Houghton, resident of Galena, Illinois.
H. Scott Wolfe is the Historical Librarian of the Galena, Illinois Public Library.  A veteran researcher of archives and historic sites, he has generously contributed a variety of informative and insightful pieces to this blog since 2011.  His seasoned, storied, and celebrated correspondence is published under the column, "From the Field," and is popular with the readers of this blog.