"Posterity will owe everlasting thanks to John Brown for lifting up once more to the gaze of a nation grown fat and flabby on the garbage of lust and oppression, a true standard of heroic philanthropy, and each coming generation will pay its installment of the debt. . . . John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed." Frederick Douglass

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Thursday, January 11, 2018

On Sleeping in and Blowing Off Steam in 1849

It is a matter of discussion among historians that not everything that has happened in the past is worthy of being considered “historical.”  That Alexander the Great may have spilled his wine on a given day is not itself a point of real historical value, unless by spilling wine, for instance, he ruined a valuable map, the lack thereof afterward having impacted his military success in a given campaign.  Not all that is past is history in this sense.  However, the seeming insignificant details of a life remain a point of interest for the biographer, who is always somewhat other than a historian notwithstanding s/he is nothing other than a historian. 
Brown as he looked
in the late 1840s
First, those insignificant details may reveal aspects of the subject of interest, aspects that otherwise are valuable in reflecting the subject in more weighty contexts, historically speaking.  Second, the details simply speak to that palate of colors, shapes, and textures that make biography one of the more appetizing aspects of “history.”  After all, steak on a plate may be the meal, but who would not prefer steak on a plate garnished with small, tasty additions?

A Letter of No Great Value

Such is the case with a letter from John Brown, written 169 years ago this month, and sent to an inn keeper in eastern Pennsylvania.  This letter that has nothing to do with the abolitionist’s historic antebellum role, nor even of the less interesting aspects of his career as a wool merchant in the mid-19th century.  The letter, written on January 25, 1849, is charged with frustration and a desire for justice, yet has only to do with the most mundane of matters—sleeping in at a 19th century version of a motel because the manager failed to give him a wake-up call. 

Owen Brown, who died
in 1856
Nevertheless, the letter is interesting because it provides insight into the unscrupulous manner in which John Brown pursued justice as he perceived it, regardless of the matter—and how, for John Brown, justice-delayed was not only justice-denied, but a thorn in his flesh that sooner or later demanded action.   Yes, slavery was the supreme thorn in the flesh of John Brown’s moral and spiritual being; in a lesser sense, so was the exploitation of wool growers by wealthy manufacturers in the 1840s, or the abuse of humble settlers by elites and bureaucrats in the 1820s.  But there were other thorns in his life, miscellaneous episodes of disadvantage and disgust, just as there are in our lives—from that unfairly given parking ticket, the overcharged bill at dinner, or the failure “to get what I paid for.”

The Letter as Document

Interestingly, the only reason this letter has survived is that it was sent by Brown as a business letter, although it most certainly was a personal complaint.  At the time, he was in partnership with the wealthy Ohio tycoon, Simon Perkins Jr., and was operating a wool commission house in Springfield, Massachusetts.  However, neither the original letter nor a response from the addressee have survived for history.  We know about this letter only because a handwritten copy of it exists in the letter book of the firm of Perkins & Brown, now held in the Boyd B. Stutler Collection in West Virginia.  The handwritten copy exists in Brown’s own hand.1

To no surprise, the late Boyd Stutler was the only one who knew about this letter, and likewise it was of no apparent interest to anyone else, other than perhaps his friend and correspondent, the Reverend Clarence Gee.   In 1954, Stutler wrote a two-part article about this minor incident for a newspaper published in the town where Brown had overslept, Bedford, Pennsylvania.2 In contextualizing the story behind the letter, Stutler sought to find greater significance in the episode by observing that John Brown subsequently made stops in Bedford while preparing for the Harper’s Ferry raid in the following decade. This made interesting reading for the Bedford Gazette in 1954, but has hardly been a point of interest since that time.

Bedford, Pa., in the 1840s

The Incident

In September 1848, John Brown and his father Owen, aged seventy-eight, were traveling together from the east to Ohio, probably after the elder had visited his son and family in the town of Springfield, Massachusetts.  The two had likely traveled by train from Springfield down to New York City, and then purchased tickets for a long ride, first from New York to Philadelphia by train, and then by stage coach from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. From there, they could pass up through the rest of western Pennsylvania and reach home in Ohio’s Western Reserve in the northeastern section of the state. 

The trip westward from Philadelphia by stage continued into the evening, so Brown purchased tickets that allowed for a layover in the town of Bedford, Pennsylvania, about two hundred miles west of Philadelphia.  In the 1848, Bedford was a small but active town (based on an 1850 description3) with a sheriff, inns, school teachers, doctors, a printer, and two clergymen.  There were about one hundred and forty seated lots, and a few hundred taxable inhabitants including over sixty free black residents. 

Upon arrival in Bedford, the Browns found their way to an inn owned by John [Johan?] Ottinger, who is listed in the same 1850 record as a “gentleman,” which seems to mean he was a property owner in town. Given the hour and his father’s weariness, Brown obtained a room from Ottinger, apparently on the basis that he also “personally” agreed to awaken them in the night so they could board the first stage to Pittsburgh, which was scheduled to arrive in Bedford before daylight.   

The Offense

Unfortunately, the travelers were left to their slumbers while two stage coaches passed in the night.  Although he did not awaken in time, John Brown was an early riser and awoke before Ottinger.  By the time the proprietor was up and about, Brown had already spoken to his night staff, who had informed him that they knew nothing of Ottinger’s promise to awaken them. Much to his disgust, Brown also learned of the two stage coaches that had passed through town, and that there was sufficient seating had they boarded.  For Brown, this offense was compounded when Ottinger—perhaps out of embarrassment—tried to cover his failure with a lie, telling Brown that he had let them sleep through because the night coaches were full.  But Brown had already had already conducted his own inquiry and more than suspected that Ottinger was lying to him.

Obviously, Brown must have been quite outraged, but his immediate concern was to escort his father back to Ohio and attend to pressing business matters.  Now, he could not leave Bedford for another day, and to make matters worse, he had to choose between an uncertain place on the next west-bound stage coach, or pay for a different conveyance. Brown apparently chose the latter, which carried him and his father along some route through the town of New Cumberland4 toward their destination.  These unforeseen expenses cost Brown an additional $20, which really became a festering issue over the next several months.  While $20 might not seem like a reason to get steamed, one may think differently when considering the value of this amount with an inflation calculator.  According to one online inflation calculator that allowed me to compare the U.S. dollar in 1848 with the same in 2018, it seems these additional costs amounted to around $600 for Brown.  No wonder he was still brooding over it in the new year of 1849!

The Letter

It is interesting that Brown did not write this letter until four months after the incident—as he put it in the letter, “the thing” had “lain up to this time.”  Why Brown waited so long to contact Ottinger is not known, nor does the letter suggest previous efforts were made to reach the inn keeper with his complaint.  Perhaps Brown had told Ottinger at the time that he expected some form of remuneration, and waited to hear from him in vain.  Or it may be that Brown initially decided to let it go, but it had increasingly bothered him until he could not remain silent any longer.  I suspect there is some unrecorded back story that we will never know, and admittedly we do not have Ottinger’s side of the episode either.   But given that Brown was typically honest to a fault in matters of money and business, I am inclined to believe his account. 

A Little Intimidation?

Whatever the case, the other interesting aspect of this episode is that Brown addressed Ottinger with a letter from the firm, not personally from himself.  Writing on behalf of the firm in regard to Brown, he signed the letter as “Perkins & Brown,” and sent it to Ottinger through some of his clients named Patterson and Ewing, who happened to live in the offender’s vicinity.   In the body of the letter, Brown refers to himself in the third person, as “John Brown of this firm,” and otherwise uses terms like “this firm” and “us.”  Since we have only his handwritten copy in the firm’s letter book, we have no idea if he also wrote the actual letter with his own hand, or if he had an employee do so.  Regardless, the letter sent to Ottinger was as corporate as it was intentional.  

The reason for this method is obvious enough: John Brown hoped that Ottinger would be more likely to refund his money if intimidated by a firm rather than challenged by an individual.  Now sir,” Brown wrote in the name of Perkins & Brown, “it happens that this firm is extensively known in P[ennsylvania] & in other States [and] unless you immediately refund to us the Twenty Dollars you may expect such measures will be taken with you, & such exposure made of your character as will possibly give you a little trouble” [my emphasis].

It appears that we will never know the outcome of the Brown-Ottinger episode.  We have neither Brown’s original letter nor any reply from Ottinger as far as the documents are concerned.  Furthermore, the episode seems not to have been discussed or recalled by any of his family members, probably because they were not involved, or because there proved no memorable outcome.  As noted, we have only Brown’s side of the story, so we can only reconstruct Ottinger’s side based on what Brown said—that he probably forgot and then tried to cover over his error by misrepresentation.   However, in the “moral vineyard,” as Stutler liked to say, it does appear Ottinger’s row was shorter than Brown’s, and this may be why there is no known response from the offender.  

A Parallel

There is a parallel in this regard, with another “threatening” letter that Brown wrote to a dishonest neighbor in 1841, and for which there is no surviving response.  At that time, Brown was up to his eyes in money troubles and wrote an outraged letter to Amos Chamberlain, whom we remember only because the abolitionist’s letter somehow survived.  In simple terms, Brown was holding the deed of a farm and wanted to protect it from being seized in court by a man whom he deemed wicked and unprincipled in his lawsuit.   When Brown emerged from that legal battle, he wanted the property returned by Chamberlain in order to satisfy other debts and creditors breathing down his neck.  He was shocked, however, when he realized that Chamberlain had decided to keep the property for himself—something that Brown felt was an infuriating betrayal.  Like the letter to Ottinger, it took months before Brown chose to write to Chamberlain, months after the incident.  In writing to Chamberlain, Brown crafted a four-page letter, comprised partially of appeals to friendship and partially of threats of legal “war,” along with references involving the judgments of their mutual neighbors.5   In the end, it does not appear that Chamberlain ever responded to Brown, although his children spoke harshly of Brown in later years.  At least from Brown’s side of these stories, both men had taken advantage of him by breaking trust, albeit not the law.  In both cases, neither is there any reason to think that Brown’s demand for justice was ever satisfied, or even answered for that matter.

A Small Window

Like the Chamberlain letter of 1841, the letter to Ottinger in 1849 provides a small window into Brown’s life, one with a view that fully complements what we know of the man from other narrative details.  The first is that whether in regard to matters of business and industry or human rights, Brown was heavy-handed in his quest for justice.  Generally speaking, John Brown neither cheated nor lied, nor did he have moral patience with men who did. 

Second, he could be longsuffering, or at least he could be overly ponderous and reflective to a fault in dealing with opponents.  In this case, as in the 1841 incident with Amos Chamberlain, Brown waited months to address the issue on “final” terms.  Although it would seem that he lost in both cases, he did not do so without a fight.  As Stutler concluded of the incident, “it is highly probable that” John Brown “got only the satisfaction of letting off steam,” although he may have “caused the landlord some uneasiness” at best.6

Finally, Brown believed in the power—both morally and legally—of the written word.  In his youth and business years, he naturally engaged in the practice of writing contracts, certificates, and other documents.  As his antislavery views evolved from passive to militant abolition, he documented covenants, declarations, constitutions and organizational documents, always invoking a moral foundation.  Even at Harper’s Ferry, witnesses attested that he endeavored to secure agreement and signatures with slaveholders as part of his efforts to exchange prisoners for enslaved people—a fixation that may in part have cost him his tactical advantage and led to his defeat and demise.

John Brown believed that words were the first recourse in battling injustice.  He was never a writer, properly speaking, nor did he leave a legacy of literary political discourse.  Yet even the most mundane record of his life reveals his belief in the power of words in the pursuit of truth and equity.


            1 See Perkins & Brown to J. Ottinger,  Jan. 25, 1849, MS03-0152, in Boyd B. Stutler John Brown Collection, West Virginia State Archives.
            2 See Boyd B. Stutler.  “Old John Brown,” The Bedford [Pa.] Gazette, September 13 & 17, 1954.

            3 Excerpt from Ch. XXIV, “Borough of Bedford,” in History off Bedford, Somerset And Fulton Counties, Pennsylvania (Chicago: Waterman, Watkins & Co., 1884).

            4 Brown wrote “Cumberland,” but I assume he was referring to the town of New Cumberland, which was settled in the early 1830s.  If any Pennsylvania reader happens to know more details about this point, I’d be pleased to hear from you.

            5 Stutler, “Old Brown.”

            6 Brown’s letter to Amos Chamberlain is found in the John Brown – Oswald Garrison Villard Papers, Columbia University, Rare Book and Manuscript Collection, New York, N.Y.

Friday, December 08, 2017

A Rediscovered, Peculiar Account of John Brown in Jail

Despite the extensive, protracted research that went into the production of my book, Freedom’s Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia, an unknown vignette of the Old Man in jail has emerged that I never came upon before.  I suspect the same will be said for other Brown scholars and researchers at present.  What is most interesting about this account is how it reflects Brown’s humanity—particularly the struggle he surely felt as a prisoner in Virginia, being both the most notable antislavery figure in the nation and a Christian who felt a moral and spiritual obligation to respect his enemies, especially the slaveholding Christians whom he disdained.  

A Man of Measured Words

To be sure, Brown’s visceral contempt for the self-assured, self-righteous evangelical slaveholders of the South made itself known, as did also his famous restraint and courtesy, the latter reflective of his strong Christian belief that even his enemies merited respect.  To be sure, John Brown temperamentally was a man of few words, and this characteristic surely reinforced his profound religious avoidance of reckless, ungodly speech. 

It was not simply that Brown would never use a four-letter word, a curse word, or a minced oath.  Rather, he was intentionally measured and deliberately gracious in speaking to antagonists, even when he was cursed and verbally abused as he was, for instance, by J.E.B. Stuart after his defeat at Harper’s Ferry.  To my knowledge, Brown always exercised a great deal of restraint at the most tense moments whether in personal argument or formal debate.  He often employed a conciliatory tone in communicating with critics and opponents, and even at his sharpest, Brown never allowed his speech to degenerate into insult and vulgarity, believing as he did that he stood accountable to Christ for even his spoken words.  However, I suspect it would have been easier for John Brown to confront a cursing Border Ruffian than a self-righteous proslavery preacher, and I’d suggest that this vignette bears this out precisely.

An 1860 Account

It is very likely that I am referring to this account for the first time since it was published in the fall of 1860, less than a year after the Harper’s Ferry raid and Brown’s execution.   The vignette was included in an installment of series in The Spirit of Jefferson, one of a few small newspapers published in Jefferson County, where the Harper’s Ferry raid took place.  Unfortunately, there seems to be no complete run of this paper from the fall of 1860, so only two installments of the series—entitled “The John Brown Conspiracy”—have survived.  (Certainly, if the reader is aware of others, I would be most grateful to be informed.)  The two installments that survive are numbers three and four (called "Chapters") in the series, published on September 15 and 22, respectively.  The vignette of Brown in jail is found in number four and published under the subtitle, “A Recital by a Visitor to John Brown, in His Cell.”

The Editor and His Series

In the fall of 1860, the owner and editor of The Spirit of Jefferson was Benjamin F. Beall, a resident of Jefferson County.  Beall appears in the Slave Schedule for Jefferson County as having held one 35-year-old woman as a slave in his home.  Local historians may provide more information about Beall, although it appears that he was a sincere believer in the slaveholders’ brand of Christianity.  That form of Christianity upheld a perverse kind of orthodoxy—the kind of orthodoxy that sustained a precise confessional integrity while maligning abolitionists and infidels for their impiety and heresy, while also daily exploiting the bodies of enslaved people in the name of Christian paternal responsibility. 

The purpose of Editor Beall’s “John Brown Conspiracy” series apparently was to provide a political, social, and religious framework for local Virginians to understand the recent Harper’s Ferry raid.  Since there is an incomplete run of the paper for 1860, it is unclear how many installments were included in the series.  It appears that Chapter I and Chapter II are lost, as are the installments that followed Chapter IV. 

In the third installment or Chapter III (Sept. 15), Beall’s words suggest that he was a proslavery unionist.  He thus writes that both abolition and secession were born of “an infernal spirit.”  As to the Harper’s Ferry raiders, fallen and fled, he makes a biblical allusion, noting that the Virginians had “put to flight the devil and all his imps.”  Chapter III thus ends with an admonishment that readers should “learn patience from the old Commonwealth and heed the lesson, ‘Never Tire.’”

Prisoner Brown and His Pious Guest

In Chapter IV, Beall introduces the vignette of Brown, an account written by an unnamed writer --the writer claiming to have made a number of visits to the Charlestown jail at the end of November, only days before Brown was hanged.  He also claims to have interviewed all of Brown’s men in captivity during his visits to the jailhouse.

While the writer does not identify himself, there is internal evidence that he was a local resident, a pious Christian, a slaveholder, and one acquainted with Governor Henry Wise.  Indeed, it was Wise who had made an “eminent voucher” of Brown’s character to him.  In other words, Wise was impressed with his prisoner and recommended that the writer visit him in jail.  He adds also that he was introduced to Brown by another “gentleman of distinction,” whom he does not identify, but describes as having been “at least the equal” of Governor Wise “by position and character.” An educated guess is that this was Andrew Hunter, who had successfully prosecuted John Brown’s trial, and who continued to have communication with the abolitionist until his execution.

The Reverend, Perhaps

One of the frequent themes of Brown’s last days in jail was that he was sought out by clergymen, almost all of them proslavery ministers who hoped to win his penitence.  These proslavery clergymen found no such success, and at least one was shown to the door by the Old Man, whose patience had worn thin.  On principle alone, of course, Brown would grant no such satisfaction to the slaveholding clergy, whom he considered the greatest hypocrites.  It is this kind of contempt that is revealed in this vignette; for this reason my sense is that he was a clergyman who had flattered himself with the idea that he might win Brown’s friendship and penitence to the satisfaction of the Christian South.  

The writer thus came with two gifts in his initial meeting with Brown, a bouquet of freshly picked garden flowers, and a “neat little book” entitled, The Two Prisoners.  As he described it, the book was a religious devotional based upon the biblical episode of the incarceration of Saints Paul and Silas in the Philippian jail.  Thus far, I have failed to find The Two Prisoners online, but it may be that it actually was a published sermon, which was a common practice in the 19th century.  As to the flowers, the writer says that a “label” was included with a verse of poetry.  Imagine Brown reading them:
Bring flowers to the captive’s lonely cell, 
They have tales of the joyous woods to tell; 
Of the free blue streams and the glowing sky,   
And the bright world shut from his languid eye.
Although it is impossible to determine the identity of the writer, my best guess is that he was the Reverend Jacob H. Waugh, the local pastor of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Charlestown.  Waugh is one of the local clergy mentioned in newspaper reports for his visits to Brown and his men in jail at Charlestown (I refer the reader to Freedom's Dawn).

A Prompt Protest

According to the writer’s account, he thus made every effort to approach John Brown in a warm, conciliatory manner by giving him the book and the flowers.  However, while he hoped to finesse his way into Brown’s good graces, he made quite a different impact by making an inscription in the book that clearly offended the old man.  When Brown man examined the text, he found that his visitor had thus inscribed it, “From a servant of Christ, even a slaveholder.”  In response, as the writer recalled, 
[Brown] responded with the utmost courtesy—but promptly protested, in a firm yet polite manner, against the profession claimed in the title I had prefixed to my signature—declaring that he could not hold communion with any one, as a Christian, who apologized, in any way, for the institution of domestic slavery.
Of course, this is classic John Brown, who similarly wrote while in jail: “These ministers who profess to be Christian, and hold slaves or advocate slavery, I cannot abide them.  My knees will not bend in prayer with them while their hands are stained with the blood of souls.”1 When he wrote these words, undoubtedly he was thinking of men like this visitor, whether or not it was the Reverend Waugh.

Incidentally, another reason that Waugh might fit the profile of the writer is that he was a slaveholder, and kept a sixty-four-year-old female and a fourteen-year-old female enslaved in his home.2   The writer’s response to Brown may also indicate that he was a pastor, since he seemed quite specific about asking of the abolitionist if he was a church communicant. When Brown answered in the affirmative, he then asked Brown to which denomination he was affiliated.  The answer, as recorded, is true enough—Brown saying that he was affiliated with the Congregational church, and that his last membership was in Summit County (most likely the First Congregational Church of Richfield, Ohio, which he joined in 1842).3

A Rejoinder, Then an Apology

The author of the vignette writes that on another occasion when he visited Brown, he had given him some kind of “tract,” which most likely was another religious booklet.  When he returned for yet another visit, Brown “jumped from his couch” and rushed across the room to a shelf, and picked up the same tract and handed it back to him.  As he did so, Brown told him that he had “made some marks on it, for his eye.”  When his guest turned to the opening blank page, he found that Brown had scrawled on it, “To the slaveholding [name of the writer]—man, woman, and baby thief!

Surprised by Brown’s polemical response, his pious visitor reproached him: “Captain Brown, you profess to be guided by the same Spirit that inspired the Apostles.  One of those Apostles wrote, for you and for me, these words: ‘Be courteous.’  Now, sir, appealing to the same Spirit, I ask you, is this courteous?”  Although one may believe that Brown was completely correct in his polemical inscription, the old man reacted immediately by acknowledging his fault, “stating that he had forgotten that those words were in the Testament, and that his was not courteous language.”  

The writer says during another visit he dared, “with all delicacy,” to tell Brown that he thought him “not in his right mind.”  The basis of his presumption was that Brown had used a pseudonym (Isaac Smith) when preparing for his invasion in the summer of 1859.  “How could you change the name of John Brown, as given you in baptism. . . deceiving multitudes for many months under a false name?” According to the writer, Brown responded to this charge with meekness, even sorrow.  The old man explained that actually he had found “great difficulty in changing his name—that he hesitated about it for two weeks; and added, that perhaps that was the cause of his scheme’s failing.”

Audacity and Meekness

There is no reason to doubt the basic truthfulness of this vignette, and despite its peculiarity, it seems to ring true.  John Brown was fearless, brave, and often time resolute and determined to follow out his own plans, even if it meant hurting others’ feelings.  As one of his siblings described him in younger days, he could be quite “imperious.” 

On the other hand, the John Brown that often is forgotten is the man who displayed a kind of overly sensitive (if not worrisome) piety.   As a parent, he was capable of hard discipline and yet also a self-sacrificing, motherly compassion and care that his sons and daughters always remembered.  As a neighbor, he could be stringent about the observation of the law, and could go out of his way to enforce it; but then he would go doubly out of his way to bring consolation, help, and kindness to the same neighbor who had suffered penalty because of his stringent manner.  

Even as a militant and a soldier, Brown could both lay down steel and show extravagant mercy, bravely battling his enemies and bringing kind succor to his prisoners.  It is probably the case that his debacle at Harper’s Ferry was largely due to this characteristic--resulting in hesitance in pushing the dagger of his plan to the hilt, and instead becoming enthralled and distracted by the tears and apprehensions of his slaveholding captives.

Final Reflections

Brown was no mystic, but it is understandable that he would ponder over his failure at Harper’s Ferry with respect to the divine purpose, notwithstanding that the mainstay of his regret was his own tactical failure.  He said as much more than once while in the Charlestown jail, that he was defeated by not staying to his own plan.  Yet despite the practicality of this perspective, John Brown saw the sovereign hand of God in his defeat.  “[E]ven all the follies that led to this disaster,” he told Thomas Russell in a jail interview, “were decreed to happen ages before the world was made.”4 Still, a consistent Calvinist never discounts human responsibility while also uplifting divine sovereignty, and so Brown was left to reflect upon his own responsibility.  Was it to be found in the disingenuousness of a pseudonym?  

I have nowhere seen the slightest suggestion that Brown considered his use of a “nom de guerre” in Virginia or elsewhere as a sin, let alone as an offense that might prompt the Almighty’s chastisement.  Indeed, I’ve never considered it an ethical problem myself, although many years ago the late, beloved Marjory Blubaugh of the Kittochinny Historical Society shared her disdain of Brown’s ploy in correspondence with me.  However, as this peculiar account suggests, it could be that Brown did after all have some reservations about using a false name while preparing for the raid.   Nor do I think the writer had any reason to fabricate this episode; rather, I tend to think that the visitor’s criticism may have found a tender mark in Brown’s vulnerable conscience, even as he faced imminent death.   

Finally, we should not think that Brown took his failure at Harper’s Ferry lightly, particularly since it resulted in the deaths of his sons and his men, just as it also derailed his entire plan for a mountain-based campaign in the South.  It is my hope that before he died, John Brown had dismissed the scruples of his slaveholding visitor, who was acting the role of the proverbial Pharisee, finding fault with the speck in John Brown's eye while overlooking the beam in his own.  Certainly, whatever issues troubled his mind and soul, I am sure that Brown made peace with his God and Savior well before the hour of the noose.  Like any Christian martyr worth his salt, John Brown's legacy is not premised on his perfection, but upon his witness.--LD  


1  John Brown to Rev. James W. McFarland, Nov. 23, 1859, in New York Tribune, Dec. 21, 1859, p. 7.  
2 According the Slave Schedule of 1860 for Jefferson County, Virginia.
3  According to the research of the Rev. Clarence S. Gee.

4  See “Interviews with Old Brown; A Visit to Charlestown,” New York Times, Nov. 7, 1859, 4.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Eulogy, December 2

On December 2, 1859, the Christian abolitionist John Brown was hanged in Charlestown, Virginia (now West Virginia) after being convicted in what certainly was a slave holders court.  After a failed attempt to initiate a liberation movement at Harper’s Ferry on October 16, 1859, Brown was tried and found guilty on November 1, spending the last month of his life in a little jail cell receiving curious visitors and scrawling letters to family, associates, and admiring strangers.  Henry Wise, the Governor of Virginia, lamented that Brown was not summarily executed upon capture—perhaps prescient of the problems he would pose as a prisoner of the state.    
Indeed, in the several weeks of his captivity, the old Calvinist excited the nation—the South now pushed to outrage, and the North awakened to a growing admiration for Brown as reports of his words and conduct reached the press.  In fact, John Brown shortly became the “celebrity of the day,” perhaps even the most famous figure of the antebellum era.  While he sat in his jail cell as serenely as a monk, major dailies published wired reports covering even the slightest incidents taking place in quaint little Charlestown, including the reports about John Brown that were smuggled out by a brave reporter working clandestinely for the antislavery New York Tribune.  Otherwise, the only reporters permitted in town either were Southerners or Northern journalists from proslavery papers like The New York Herald.  Across the North, Sunday sermons often included discourses on the old man—either in praise or condemnation of his audacious attempt to undermine black enslavement in the South.
Brown himself was sufficiently aware of the impact that his imprisonment and impending execution were having upon the nation, and he was pleased—sometimes quoting from Psalm 71, “Now also when I am old and gray-headed, O God, forsake me not; until I have shewed thy strength unto this generation, and thy power to everyone that is to come.”  Although he regretted delaying so long in Harper’s Ferry that he was captured, he wrote, nevertheless he greeted his coming execution as his greatest opportunity to witness for Christ.  As a willing martyr for the antislavery cause, Brown’s reported testimony in court and his jailhouse letters—a good many of which appeared almost immediately in newspapers across the North—revealed him as a man of great religious conviction, one whose devotion was an expression of Christian necessity and evangelical duty.  He renounced even friendly efforts to have his sentence commuted in the name of insanity, although most of them declared him a “monomaniac,” which by today’s standards means he was distastefully extreme in his antislavery devotion as far as white people were concerned.  Even his jailer could not deny him a certain admiration—and it was not unusual for him to bring his little son into the jail cell to play and frolic at the old man’s feet—Brown sometimes pausing as he played with the child to tell reporters that children just naturally took to him.

As a Christian historian and biographer who has studied John Brown for nearly twenty years, often I find that the man whom I have come to know in my research is starkly different from the figure that is popularly represented either as a terrorist or as mentally unstable.  However, it is not simply that Brown’s story is frequently skewed and biased by agenda-driven biographers and writers, but that his profile as a deeply religious man either is overlooked in the history of Christianity in the United States, or he is characterized by secular writers as a dangerous religious fanatic—“a bearded fundamentalist,” as one journalist referred to him in a New York Times piece that compared “9/11” with the Harper’s Ferry raid of 1859.
It is true that John Brown was extreme both in his antislavery convictions as well as his belief in human equality—although historians are beginning to appreciate that such extremism is quite virtuous compared to the pervasive, blatant racism of that era.  It almost goes without saying, too, that Brown may seem far more appealing considering that we have a President in the White House who soft-pedals white supremacists and greets Native American veterans quite condescendingly in front of a portrait of the white supremacist President Andrew Jackson.  Indeed, the more that white Christians develop an anti-racist consciousness, the more they may yet need to find inspiration and instruction in a white believer who exemplified an absolute commitment to racial justice and equality.
It is also true that in 1856, Brown resorted to violence amidst crisis, although typically the backstory of “Bleeding Kansas” is skewed to his disadvantage by a selective reading of the record. As a devout Christian, nevertheless he was a soldier who adopted wartime measures when his family faced an imminent threat from proslavery terrorists.  Without recourse to protection either by federal or local law enforcement, John Brown took up the sword to eliminate the threat.  But when one of his sons was later murdered, he refused an opportunity for revenge, telling his associate, “People mistake my objects.  I would not hurt one hair of his head.  I would not go one inch to take his life; I do not harbor the feeling of revenge.  I act from a principle.  My aim and object is to restore human rights.”
On December 2, 1859, John Brown was driven in a wagon to an open field, seated on the wooden crate that held his coffin.  With proslavery dignitaries and journalists watching amidst ample militia, he stood on the gallows—a small cannon fixed on him just in case of an attempted escape or rescue.  Despite his limbs being tied, he guided the sheriff to a pin in his lapel, with which to fasten the hood over his head because of the strong breeze swirling around them.  Journalists watched closely, hoping to see the old man tremble as he stood on the trapdoor of eternity.  Instead, John Brown stood firm on the gallows until falling, his body turning in the wind as he slowly strangled to death to satisfy the wounded honor of Virginia: 
John Brown’s body lies a moldering in the grave.
Over the years I have quietly pondered the parallel of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Brown.  Both men were devoted Christians committed to Scripture; both men chose to set aside their own privilege to oppose terrible injustice; both saw the necessity of measured violence in opposing oppression; both failed and were hanged; and both left a witness that has been notable in history.  Yet whereas Dietrich Bonhoeffer is beloved and celebrated by many Christians in the United States, John Brown is either despised or contemptuously marginalized in both the history of his country and the history of the Christian church.  This is no wonder, however, since obviously it is much easier for Christians in the United States to renounce Nazis than their own slaveholding forefathers. 
I do not expect things to change in regard to the old man.  It is unlikely that John Brown will ever be celebrated let alone appreciated by Christians in any significant manner.  The old man himself called the United States a “slave nation,” and we have yet to come to terms with the depth of his words.  Still, I am content:

His soul goes marching on.