"Were I asked to say, in the fewest and plainest words, what Brown was, my answer would be that he was a religious man. He had ever a deep sense of the claims of God and man upon him, and his whole life was a prompt, practical recognition of them."
Gerrit Smith, "John Brown" [a broadleaf], Peterboro, N.Y., 15 August 1867

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Advance Notice--
New Book to be Published on Harper's Ferry Raider John Anthony Copeland

The John Brown bookshelf has been greatly enhanced in recent years by new works by legal scholars, especially Brian McGinty's John Brown's Trial, and Steven Lubet's John Brown's Spy.  This contribution is now amplified by another related work by Lubet, who is the Williams Memorial Professor of Law and Director of the Bartlit Center for Trial Strategy Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago, Ill.  Indeed, Lubet has yet another "Harper's Ferry raider book" forthcoming, a substantially researched and well-written book about one of the African American raiders who joined John Brown and his men, and one of those hanged after the execution of their leader in December 1859.

Steven Lubet
I am confident that "The Colored Hero" of Harper's Ferry: John Anthony Copeland and the War Against Slavery is going to prove to be a definitive contribution to the much neglected literature on Brown's men, especially his black raiders.  Lubet provides important background on the story of the the African American men who came from Ohio to support Brown's effort, and likewise brings clarity and correction to the record.  He presents a poignant, insightful, and instructive work of scholarship, one that has taken one hundred and fifty years to manifest.  It will be a "must have" for everyone interested in the John Brown story.
Frontispiece and cover page, courtesy of Cambridge University Press

The Colored Hero" of Harper's Ferry: John Anthony Copeland and the War Against Slavery is produced by Cambridge University Press and will be published in the fall of 2015.  The frontispiece image, which is published here by permission of Cambridge University Press, features an original sketch of Copeland from life, made by Harper's Weekly illustrator, David H. Strother.  Like this important work on Copeland's life, this is the first time the image is published.

Of course, congratulations go to Dr. Lubet.

Monday, January 12, 2015

An Update from Jean Libby on the Updated JB Photo Chronology: You Can Help Too

Dear friends,

The journey of identification and classification of the photo portraits of John Brown the abolitionist is moving to completion in the year 2015.  

The lifetime process continues collaboration with new parameters.  Rick Moss, Chief Curator at the African American Museum and Library at Oakland (California) is publishing the entire collection of reproductions online.  Response to his requests for permissions from archives is immediate and gratifying.  The archivists who have worked with me in creating the chronology are glad to see coming to a permanent and stable web presence that can be accessed without charge.  

Development and publication of the John Brown Photo Chronology has always been collaborative.  The Harpers Ferry Historical Association was there from the beginning with support and representation.  The physical exhibition remains at the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, where it was installed in 2009.  One of the purposes of the FotoFund grant is to create four new panels printed in fine-art manner and mounted with revised descriptive legends.   

There is regular collaboration with John Brown scholars since the first conference at Pennsylvania State University in Montalto in 1994.  It is so fine to participate with so many who are writing and publishing about John Brown.  In particular I would mention Louis A. DeCaro, Jr., who was a new John Brown scholar at that conference.  His 'Fire From the Midst of You', a religious life of John Brown (NYU Press 2002) was the first historically documented and published biography since Stephen Oates and Richard Boyer in the 1970s.  He has two books forthcoming with Rowman and Littlefield, one on the Harpers Ferry raid and Brown's prison experiences and exaltering execution, the second a companion volume of letters and documents.  Lou has contributed essays to Allies for Freedom publications in 2006 and 2009 as well as a frequent correspondent.

Like it or not we cannot write about John Brown without learning and interpreting his Kansas activities and adventures.  The most thorough collection of reproductions of the original daguerreotype sittings of John Brown is at the Kansas Historical Society archives.  Many are available on Kansas Memory in a general catalog.  My photo research at the KHS archives began in 1978 with archivist Pat Michaelis, who is now the Director.  Through the years I have collaborated with Kirke Mechem, the composer and son of Kirke Mechem the KHS Secretary in the 1920s-1950s, who is now writing his autobiography with Scarecrow Press.  Since 1998 collaboration has grown with Douglas County author/historian Judy Sweets.  At the present revision of the chronology her research contributions about the artists and photographers of John Brown are essential. 

Anyone who has researched daguerreotypes is familiar with the work of  John S. Craig and his Daguerreian Registry.   When I published the John Brown Photo Chronology in 2009 Craig corresponded with me about the last photograph of John Brown that was taken before he grew his famous beard.  I am correcting that description in the revised chronology.  Sadly, John Craig passed away in February 2011.  It is my honor to let you know that Jill Krutick Craig, his wife and a retired Administrative Law Court Judge, is continuing Craig's Camera business and website.  She remembers well conversations about John Brown through the years.  It was of special interest because their home is in Torrington, Connecticut, the birthplace of John Brown.

All of you on the Allies for Freedom email list of events and publications about John Brown and his African American supporters that I began in 2000 at a conference in Harpers Ferry are collaborators with the chronology.  I seek your support for published revisions to the catalog and the production of new panels to be completed in Spring 2015.  

With gratitude and cooperation,

Jean Libby
author and curator
John Brown Photo Chronology

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Ad Nauseam--
Another "Terrorist" Shrieker and the Guelzo Connection

Tracy Moran thinks JB is
"America's Favorite Terrorist"
This morning I was disappointed to read another "John Brown Terrorist" piece on a website called OZY, in a well-intended piece by author Tracy Moran.  The article, "America's Favorite Terrorist," is short and skewed, but largely because Moran is clearly drawing from the poisoned well of Allen C. Guelzo, one of the foremost and prolific Lincoln scholars of our day.

In this case, I  would not primarily blame Moran, who probably just read something by Guelzo and got a bright idea for a blog piece.  She seems to lack the historical grounding to make any knowledgeable assessment, except that a gun in the hand of child is no less dangerous.  Her treatment of Brown as this nation's "favorite terrorist" is still an ignorance that cannot be overlooked.

The link for her little article is here (or here: http://www.ozy.com/flashback/americas-favorite-terrorist/38373).  You can also read my response, which I will not republish here.  In summary, let me just say that her piece is one of those typically skewed rants--you know, "Brown was a failure in everything, he was a terrorist, and  extremism is never good."  Her piece apparently makes sense inside the bubble in which she selectively understand Brown, but otherwise lacks no sense of the history, context, or political realities that Brown and the abolitionist movement faced--and more so, the reality that black people faced.  The bigger problem is that Moran uses Guelzo has her historical compass, which is always a mistake when it regards Brown.   Guelzo is not just unqualified in speaking of Brown; I believe he's actually prejudiced against him.

Before I continue, I should say that I personally regard Dr. Guelzo and do not want to be unduly harsh toward one who merits both professional respect and (in my case) the regard inherent in Christian relationships.  He is doubtless a man of notable accomplishments and abilities.  Guelzo is a leading scholar, prolific author, and one who shares a similar orientation with mine--that is (based upon Wikipedia), he is a man with a background in biblical and theological training, and he brings this into his reading of 19th century history.  This is important, especially since so many historians of the Civil War era today either reduce the study to military history, or speak from the predominant secularism of academy, and thus tend to view the era of Brown and Lincoln in only political and social terms.
Dr. Allen C. Guelzo

Notwithstanding this commonality, I have "ought against" Dr. Guelzo, who seems to loathe John Brown.  I have not attended closely to his work, but every time I catch even a snippet of something he's written about the Old Man, it has been of the most questionable and prejudiced sort.  In this sense, he seems to be of the old 20th century stripe of Civil War scholars, the kind that JB aficionado Boyd Stutler mocked as "scientific historians."

The question is, why does Guelzo so disdain John Brown?  I can only conclude that his politics and view of history--especially his view of Lincoln--must be inherently hostile to Brown.  I'm not sure what is first in the man, his politics or his devotion to Lincoln, but regardless, he understands that in order to elevate Lincoln, John Brown must be suppressed.

In this case, he is correct.  Despite the old school Republican and "Nixonian" tendency to see Lincoln as Jesus, and Brown as John the Baptist, the reality is the two men represent different positions--Lincoln, a benign form of white supremacy, and Lincoln, a radical and evangelical egalitarianism.

The facts of history are clear: in order to elevate the Lincoln "religion" that has predominated in this nation for over a century, John Brown's historical presence must be depreciated, diminished, and even denigrated.  Why?  Because Lincoln was NEVER as devoted to black freedom and equality as the "American myth" has made him out to have been.  Douglass said it in the 19th century, DuBois affirmed it in the early 20th century, and in more recent years, Lerone Bennett Jr. laid bare the real Lincoln in his despised tour-de-force, Forced into Glory.   The real Abraham Lincoln cannot fill the shoes of mythical "Great Emancipator."  So if the latter is going to be protected and preserved in the civil religion of our culture, John Brown must be banished to the margins of history.   And this is the role that Guelzo in no small part has played as a historian.

Let me reiterate: The record of Lincoln as the hero of emancipation and equality is a well tailored myth, and the fabric that has been cut away in shaping this myth involves the truth of Lincoln's racism, his failure to prioritize black freedom, and the meaning of John Brown according to the real facts of history.

So Dr. Guelzo, whether with malice aforethought or simply by instinct of his nature as a Lincoln idealist, knows that to appreciate Brown is to threaten Lincoln's apotheosis.   If Lincoln is to remain the "Great Emancipator" in the gospel of "American" civil religion, then Brown must be the fanatic, the terrorist, the dangerous extremist.

. . . if John Brown is seen in the light of history as the man he was in fact, Lincoln shrinks--he is a politician more concerned with white priorities, preservation of the Union, and only a moderate commitment to black people's concerns at best.  
But if John Brown is seen in the light of history as the man he was in fact, Lincoln shrinks--he is a politician more concerned with white priorities, preservation of the Union, and only a moderate commitment to black people's concerns at best.

If you think I'm overdoing it, this April is the sesquicentennial of the end of the Civil War and the assassination of Lincoln.  This is the time for men like Guelzo to put on their high priestly robes and light up the incense.

Of course, this is but another reminder that to be a student and admirer of John Brown means we are constantly engaged in a conflict that others do not have to deal with.  The worst opponents of the John Brown community are not the neo-Confederates and other right-wing racists who make a pretense at doing history.

Our worst opponents are the Lincoln worshipers, who despise John Brown because he represents the radical nature of the antislavery struggle, the real sensibility of the oppressed, and a willingness to question even the prerogatives of white supremacy in the quest for justice.

Friday, December 26, 2014

John Brown’s Writing Case: Lost, Found, then Lost to History

Students of the Old Man are acquainted with his famous liberation effort that began in December 1858, when he and his men rescued eleven enslaved people from Missouri.  After evading marshals for weeks, Brown left the Kansas Territory with the liberated people, passing through Nebraska, Iowa, and finally reaching Chicago by March 11, 1859.  Brown escorted the liberated people to Detroit the following day by rail, and saw them off to Canadian freedom.  He remained in Detroit for a couple of days, and then spent a week in Cleveland and the Western Reserve in northeast Ohio, which was his home area.  

Brown returned to Cleveland at the end of the month (Mar. 28), and spent a couple of more weeks moving about Ohio before heading farther east, finally reaching New York State by mid-April.  At some point during this itinerary, Brown lost his writing case—a point of no small concern, since it was not only a valuable piece of property, but because it may also have contained correspondence he did not wish to have exposed.

Writing Cases, or Boxes

John Brown traveled with a "writing
case" similar to this one
Before chasing down this rabbit hole any farther, we might pause to inquire of the term, “writing case.”  This is how Brown referred to the item, which would have been a familiar thing in his time.  I did not make any extensive effort to research “writing cases,” but it is apparent that they were prominent among literate people in Europe and North America in the 18th and 19th centuries.   One English website I located online refers to them as “writing boxes,” and I’ve also seen them referred to as “writing slopes,” which speaks of the fold-out writing plane that was part of the typical writing case.  Evidently, they varied in size and quality, but were all essentially an extension of the home writing desk—perhaps in way parallel to how the desktop computer relates to the development of so-called laptop and then notebook computers, not to mention tablets and iPads.  Like our computers, the writing case could be used to store correspondence while the writer was traveling, and and they also had compartments for storing pen and ink.   I have no idea what kind of writing case that Brown owned, as it seems not to have survived.  Given that it accompanied him on a fairly rigorous and even daring trek, perhaps it was truly more of a case than a box.  It is significant, though, that Brown carried a writing case, as he undoubtedly needed a facility for drafting and storing communiqu├ęs in this most critical period leading up to the Harper’s Ferry raid in the fall of 1859.

From John Brown's Memorandum Book, noting he had written to
his sons to inquire of his lost writing case
On April 5, 1859, writing in the environs of northeast Ohio, Brown dashed off a letter to his son Owen, whom he had left behind in Akron with his other son, Jason.  The Old Man’s letter to Owen is not extant, although it is referenced in Brown’s 1859 memorandum book in which Brown listed his correspondence.   In this brief memorandum entry, Brown jots: “about writing case.”1   His letter must have had an urgent tone, although it seems to have taken Owen a frustratingly long time to get back to his father.    Evidently, Brown was generally annoyed with Owen for being so slack in his correspondence, so it must have galled him a bit more that his son took so long to get back to him about his writing case.

On May 2, nearly a month after Brown had written, Owen finally answered: “Dear Father Yours dated April 5th was recd several weeks since. . . .  We have not seen your writing case, which you say was lost, either at Chicago, or somewhere this side.”  Owen’s belated response at least reveals that Brown initially was unsure about where he had lost his writing case, thinking that he might have left it behind during his last stopover in Chicago (Mar. 11), or as Owen put it, “somewhere this side”—meaning between Chicago and Ohio.   Evidence of the Old Man’s annoyance is preserved perhaps in the brief notation dashed on the corner of the verso side, which contains an accompanying letter from son Jason.  Brown thus wrote curtly: “ Jason & Owen Brown Requires no reply.”2

Excerpt from Brown's letter to John H. Kagi, 16 April 1859,
with directions about the return of his writing case
            Not having heard from Owen, Brown wrote to his more reliable lieutenant, John H. Kagi, on April 16, from Westport, New York.  Westport was the landing for those crossing Lake Champlain from Vergennes, Vermont--suggesting that Brown probably returned to his family in North Elba, New York, by way of Boston, then proceeded northward to Vermont.  Writing from Westport, Brown wrote to Kagi, stating that he was awaiting his “conveyance,” a wagon or carriage, to bring him up the mountain to his family in North Elba.  In his letter to Kagi, he writes: “If you have found my writing case, & papers; please forward them without delay, by Express, to Henry Thompson, North Elba, Essex Co, care of Jas A Allen, Westport New York.”4
Another entry from John Brown's Memorandum Book,
noting his letter to John H. Kagi on 16 April 1859
            By the time that Owen’s belated letter reached Brown in New York State, the Old Man had likely gone back down to Boston, where he remained for a couple of weeks.  In the meantime, we know that Kagi had located and recovered Brown’s writing case and a “package of papers” in Cleveland, Ohio.  As it turns out, the Old Man had left them at the City Hotel.  Following his directives, Kagi sent the writing case and papers by express to the attention of Brown’s faithful son-in-law, Henry Thompson, at North Elba on April 21, to the attention of James Allen, agent of the U.S. Express Company, in Westport.  On the same day, Kagi wrote a letter to Thompson, informing him that the writing case and papers were en route, and included the shipping receipt.5
            It took John Brown about one month to acknowledge Kagi’s good work in the recovery of the case, mainly because the Old Man was moving among Boston friends, where he had remained for a number of weeks in preparing for the Harper’s Ferry raid.  Furthermore, Brown was not well, having relapsed with another bout of “the Ague.”   He had suffered periodically over the years with this prairie infirmity, but I suspect he had other ailments—the theme of which merits a study in itself.  Brown had ongoing difficulties with inflammation in his eyes, as well as problems in his ears.  It is hard to determine whether these issues were simply the result of the malarial “Ague,” or if other health issues were nagging him at the time.  But on May 16, he wrote back to Kagi stating that he had been “badly down with the ague” to the point that he could get nothing accomplished, and was still quite weak.  He was pleased, however, to learn from Henry Thompson that the writing case and papers were “all safe, so far as I now see.”6
            Thus the history of John Brown’s lost and found writing case.  Unfortunately, it appears that it was finally lost again—since he probably brought it with him to Maryland, and may even have had it with him when he rode into Harper’s Ferry in October 1859.  Whether he carried it with him in anticipation of starting his grand expedition of freedom in the South or left it behind in his Maryland farmhouse is not known.  Either way, it would have fallen into the hands of some groping Virginian, this time lost to history forever.--LD


     1 Second memorandum book, approx. page 53.  Brown’s memorandum books are held in the collection of the Boston Public Library.
     2  Owen Brown, Akron, Ohio, to John Brown, 2 May 1859, and undated letter from Jason Brown, verso side with John Brown's note.  This document was sold by Heritage Auctions (Dallas, TX) in the 2009 March Grand Format Rare Manuscripts Auction #6019.  Document was sold under “Autograph Docket 1859,” Lot 35061.  A somewhat unreliable transcript of Owen’s letter is No. 11, in Documents relative to the Harpers Ferry Invasion appended to Governor Wise's Message (Richmond: William F. Ritchie, 1859).  The same letter is transcribed in the so-called Mason Report, the Senate Select Committee on the Harper’s Ferry Raid (Washington, D.C.: June 1859), 70-71.
      3 John Brown, 16 April 1859, to John H. Kagi, in Dreer Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.  See transcription in Sanborn, Life and Letters of John Brown, 522.
      4 John H. Kagi to Henry Thompson, 21 April 1859, GLC 7235, Gilder Lehrman Collection.

      5 John Brown, Boston, to John H. Kagi, 16 May 1859, in Dreer Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.  See transcription in Sanborn, Life and Letters of John Brown, 522-23.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014


Artist Kyle Hackett's Moving Homage to the Augustus Washington Daguerreotype

Kyle Hackett is a young artist (born in 1989), but evidently gifted beyond his years.  This past June, the Washington Post reported that he won the ten thousand dollar "Best in Show" prize in the Bethesda Painting Awards, outdoing seven other finalists.  Hackett is a 2013 graduate in the Masters of Fine Arts from the Hoffberger School of Painting, Maryland Institute of Art.  According to the school's alumni page, "Hackett sees art as a ‘powerful instrument of social transformation.’ By understanding its history, he says, he can inspire others to understand differences in social, racial, and economic identities through his work."  Readers can and should visit the Kyle Hackett Studio here, and also the artist's facebook page.

I learned about Hackett because of his painting, After John Brown, an oil on aluminum portrait that presents an homage to John Brown's familiar 1840s "vow" daguerreotype, made by African American photographer, Augustus Washington.  In a recent article by John Seed in the Huffington Post arts and culture section (22 Dec.), Hackett's After John Brown is featured as one of the ten most memorable paintings from 2014.  The article quotes Hackett's own commentary on his work:
"This is a self-referential portrait. I recall the image of insurgent abolitionist, John Brown and his declaration of war on slavery. I made After Brown when my brother faced trial in court and was labeled as a young black male, despite being of mixed race. He was incarcerated. 
The pressed hand represents hope or a passage back into time that would allow me to participate and give a testimony. Out of desperation to be authentically heard, I broke the illusion of painting/underpainting with my handprint. I satirically indicate a touch of criminal identity (fingerprints) prosecution, inner-rage and the doubt of overcoming or defending race when marked brown on trial."
Journalist Seed nicely concludes: "The mark of the artist's hand serves as a signature and an accusation, giving this work both tremendous immediacy and a lingering sense of moral challenge."    

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Auction note--

A John Brown Pike on Auction

Historical Auctions (Dallas, Tex.), on 12 Dec. 2014, Civil War & Militaria Signature Auction #6131, Lot 47690 

John Brown Pike with Haft Cut to 3 1/2", ...

2014 December 12 Civil War & Militaria Signature Auction - Dallas #6131