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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Friday, January 31, 2020

Shields Green: Film, Fiction, and History

Dayo Okneniyi as Emperor, with James Cromwell as John Brown
(Briarcliff Entertainment)
The year 2020 promises to be notable for films about John Brown--and Shields Green, a.k.a. Emperor, one of the unsung Harper's Ferry raiders.  As published here, in 2018, it was announced that Sobini Films had undertaken the story of Shields Green for the feature film, "Emperor"(also see my article, "Out of the Blue: "Emperor," a Shields Green/John Brown in Production Now! July 13, 2018). A year ago (see "Shields Green: The Movie That Made It and the Movie That Didn't," Jan. 3, 2019), I followed up this news with a piece about the new film "Emperor" that features Dayo Okeniyi as Shields Green and James Cromwell as John Brown.  Initial reports said the film would be released in November 2019, but the film's release was delayed, perhaps so it would not conflict with the release of the Harriet Tubman movie.  

This month (Jan. 15), DEADLINE announced that "Emperor" had been picked up by Briarcliff Entertainment and had a new release date for March 27, 2020.  While "Emperor" promises to be an entertaining and positive with respect to John Brown's legacy, the screenplay will likely rely more on the writers' imaginations than upon the record, since there is scant information about this Harper's Ferry raider.

Meanwhile, we are anticipating the SHOWTIME series based upon James McBride's novel, The Good Lord Bird, which tells the story of a young black man who follows John Brown from Kansas to Virginia.  Readers of this blog know that I'm no fan of The Good Lord Bird, nor am I particularly trusting of any fictional accounts of Brown's story (with the possible exception of Terry Bisson's Fire on the Mountain and, more recently, Robert Wells' Passing Through to the Territory).  However, some estimable friends have offered the consolation that McBride at least has done the Old Man no harm.  At any rate, it is worth mentioning that McBride's story includes a fictional version of other characters in the John Brown story, including Shields Green.  Of course, in the SHOWTIME television series, Brown is played by Ethan Hawke (preview images of him as Brown are unpersuasive), and Emperor is played by Quentin Plair.  One report states the SHOWTIME "Good Lord Bird" series will be broadcast in February, but I'm told that there is not yet a definite date for its premiere despite the report.

David H. Strother (Porte Crayon), sketch of Brown and raiders in court
(Harper's Weekly, Nov. 12, 1859)
Of course, with cinematic portrayals, it's always "wait and see" as far as the biographer is concerned.  It is arguably good for the study of John Brown when novelists and screenplay writers take on his story--if they are not fundamentally dedicated to denigrating him, as was the case with Bruce Olds back in the late 20th century.

I should update my readers on my own Shields Green project.  I have just returned an edited draft to the publisher with my own corrections and minor changes, and hope to have galleys in my hands by the end of February or early March.  Unfortunately, the book will not be out until the fall of 2020, much to my disappointment.  I really had hoped for a spring 2020 release, but in the words of Old Brown, I see now that I had only "vainly flattered myself."  

Stay tuned.  Old Brown and Emperor are coming your way on the big screen and television this spring, and last but not least, my book, The Untold Story of Shields Green: The Life and Death of a Harper's Ferry Raider, later this year.--LD

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Rich Smyth's Where Are They Now? Pottawatomie Creek, Part 1

   In response to the sacking of Lawrence, Kansas and beating of Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the United States Senate, John Brown and other Abolitionist settlers including some of Brown’s sons raided the cabins of pro-slavery men. Five of the men were taken from their homes and killed near the Pottawatomie Creek in what has become known as the “Pottawatomie Massacre.”

   For many years it was unknown whether John Brown actively participated in the attack with detractors saying he planned it and shot James Doyle in the head. Some Abolitionists argued that he was not present. Brown himself was quiet on the topic.

    In 1879, a newspaper sent a representative to Lane, Kansas, to make inquires in the matter. John Hutchings located James Townsley who was one of the party that night having drove the wagon with Brown and four of his son’s and Brown’s son-in-law riding with him (Frederick Brown, Owen Brown, Watson Brown, Oliver Brown, Henry Thompson). Theodore (Thomas) Weiner, the seventh in the group, rode alongside on a pony.1

On December 6, 1879, Townsley stated that Brown told him of the plan the night before the attack. When they had arrived at the Pottawatomie River “Old John Brown drew his revolver and shot the old man Doyle in the forehead, and the two youngest sons immediately fell upon the younger Doyles with their short two-edged swords.”2

Townsley went on to describe the attack: “I desire to say here that it was not true that there was any intentional mutilation of the bodies after they were killed. They were slain as quickly as possible and left, and whatever gashes they received were inflicted in the process of cutting them down with swords. I understood that the killing was done with these swords, so as to avoid alarming the neighborhood by the discharge of firearms.”  Townsley concluded: “That night and the acts then perpetrated, are vividly fixed in my memory, and I have thought of them many times since.”3

The raiding party then went to the house of Allen Wilkinson who was killed. From there, they crossed the Pottawatomie, and forced their way into the cabin of James Harris. There were three other men staying at the house with Harris: John S. Wightman, Jerome Glanville, and William Sherman, the brother of Henry Sherman ("Dutch Henry"), a militant pro-slavery activist for whom Brown was searching. After interrogating all the men, William Sherman was led to the edge of the creek and hacked to death.

James Pleasant Doyle (father), and sons William (age 22) and Drury (age 20)--Different sources give general directions to the Doyle’s burial location. The first direction is given by a Civil War researcher who states: “The Doyles were buried just about a half mile up the hill to the northwest,” of Douglas Terrace off of Virginia Road in Lane, Kansas.4

The second set of directions states “Return to Virginia Road; climb the hill.  To the north on Vermont Terrace (minimum maintenance road–impassable if wet) is the burial site of the Doyles.”5

A third set of directions is from Kansas, a Guide to the Sunflower State (Tour 12B, p. 493), first published in 1939. The printed guide states: "On the dirt road, in a timbered pasture about 20 rods (right) from the road are the graves of James P. Doyle and his sons, William and Drury who, with William Sherman and Allen Wilkinson, were the victims of the Pottawatomie Massacre by John Brown on the night of May 24th 1856.  The graves marked with flat engraved limestone slabs are covered with the tangled masses of brush and the fallen limbs of trees. The site of the Doyle house is about 400 yards northeast of the graves on the north side of Mosquito Creek at Flat Rocks, a solid rock bottom ford.”6

The directions listed in the guide printed seventy-seven years ago, which may no longer be valid, are as follows:
• Junction with US 59 – Osawatomie Rd. - This route branches east from its junction with US 59 at a point 8.5 miles south of Ottawa.
• At 9 Miles is the junction with a graveled road.
• Right on this road is the junction with a dirt road, 3.5 miles, Right 0.8 miles on the dirt road, in a timbered pasture about 20 rods (right) from the road are the graves.
The Franklin County Historical Society in Ottawa, Kansas had additional information in their archives:
1. Deceased Lane County historian Homer White said the burials were in the NE quarter of section 21 of 18-21, then the southwest quarter of that and then the northeast quarter of that (NE ¼, SW ¼, NE ¼).
2. The 1885 property owner atlas of Franklin County marks a large area there and marks it “Cemetery by John Brown.”
3. Former Franklin County Historical Society Director, John Mark Lambertson said it was on the south side of Mosquito Creek about ½ mile south of Finney Road.
4. Finally, Franklin County Historical Society Archivist Susan Geiss located a map of Franklin County that showed a cross at about the location where Vermont Terrace dead ends in section 21 near the creek.
A letter written in 1909 gives some further details:
The Doyles were burried aboute [sic] one mile north of the Dutch Henry crossing on the south sid [sic] of the mound and I think Wilkinson was burred [sic] on the plase [sic] that he lived on aboute [sic] one half mile north of the crossing - and I am not shure [sic] where Sherman was burred [sic]. but I think he was burred [sic] aboute [sic] three miles East of the crossing where his Brother Peter was burried [sic] but I am not Shore [sic].7
Two researchers, Bob Marsh and Cameron Mott have done extensive work in attempting to locate the burial sites of the Doyles, William Sherman, and Allen Wilkinson. The approximate Coordinates are 38.47036 -95.08621.

1885 Atlas, Franklin County, Kansas, showing "Cem by John Brown"
in upper center (image courtesy of Bob Marsh)

Google Earth image of the approximate site
(Courtesy of Bob Marsh)

Possible locations of the Doyle graves based upon available information
compiled by Bob Marsh and Cameron Mott.  All these sites are now
located on private property

Possible location of the Allen Wilkinson burial site (above).

As relayed by historian James Malin, the only evidence regarding the burial location of Allen Wilkinson was a "witness stating that he was buried, and an 1857 newspaper article saying when his widow, Louisa Jane Wilkinson returned to Kansas the year after the massacre to try and settle their land claim she walked on to the property to visit her husband's grave (and was run off by the current squatter).”8

Louisa and Allen Wilkinson had two children;,Harvey and Archey. In her affidavit she stated: “I have two small children, one about eight and the other about five years old.”  After her husband’s death she went to live with her father in Tennessee with the children.9

“According to the Tract Books of the General Land Office, John Stroup filed claim to the Wilkinson land on May 12th 1857, citing February 14th 1857, as his date of settlement.”  Allen Wilkinson had been murdered on May 24th 1856. John Stroup may have been the landowner at the time of Mrs. Wilkinson’s visit to her husband’s grave.10

James W. Townsley, who accompanied Brown and his men to the Pottawatomie Creek, was born on August 29, 1815 in Maryland. In August 1839 he enlisted in the United States Dragoons, and saw action against the Seminole and Creek Indians in Florida. He was discharged in August,1844, at Fort Washita, Indian Territory.  Townsley married Letitia Kenly on July 26, 1845, and they had four children: Henry N. (1848-?), Mary Eliza (1850-died before 1920), George Washington (1854-1895), and Hannah Rebecca (1855-1937).

Townsley was a painter by trade, and returned to Maryland where he worked until October 20, 1855, when the family emigrated to Kansas and settled in Anderson County on the Pottawatomie Creek. It was here that he met John Brown. During the Civil War he served in the 19th Regiment, Kansas Volunteer Cavalry. Townsley was a corporal at the time of his discharge.

Burial site of Letitia Kenly Townsley,
Wesleyan Chapel Cemetery, Aberdeen, Md.
(Thom Painter, Find A Grave contributor)

Letitia and James may have divorced since she was still alive when he married “Anna” in Kansas in 1877. James was 62 and Anna 36. Anna and James had one child, John Lewis (b. September 23, 1877 in Kansas).  It seems that Anna was pregnant at the time of their marriage.

Burial site of James Townsley, Spring Grove
Quaker Cemetery, Lane, Kan.
(Thomas & Darlene, Find A Grave contributors)
Letitia died July 25, 1888 in Maryland and is buried in Wesleyan Chapel Cemetery in Aberdeen, Maryland. Townsley died on December 3, 1890 and is buried in Spring Grove Quaker Cemetery, Lane, Kansas [Plot location: row G, Lot 10.] The cemetery, also known as Spring Grove Friends Church Cemetery, is located in Miami County off of West 379th Street, west of US 169 and east of Edgerton Road.

John Hutchings worked as a lawyer, member of the School Board of the city of Lawrence, Kansas and a prosecuting attorney. He married Josephine E. Hoyt August 7,1861. They had four children: infant son (?-1880), John B. (1872-1874, died at 19 months), Josephine E. Hutchings Crane (1865-1955) and Helen M. Hutchings De Mers (dates unknown).11 John died on April 2, 1892, in Kansas City, Kansas ,and was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Lawrence, Kansas (Interred in Section 8 S).

Hutchings burial site, Oak Hill Cemetery,
Lawrence, Kan. (Find A Grave contributor,
Mr. Peepers
Josephine died on October 10, 1922 in Litchfield, Connecticut and was buried next to her husband along with both sons and daughter Josephine.

The cemetery is located at the end of Oak Hill Road in the town of Lawrence.-Rich Smyth

End of Part 1 (See Notes Below)


As always, I'm appreciative of Rich Smyth's invaluable contributions to this blog.  His "Where Are They Now?" column is a great resource and represents a passionate grassroots researcher's labor.  

Furthermore, I'm sure that Rich will not mind my finding occasion to address some of the framing historical narrative material offered in this installment on the Pottawatomie Creek episode.

It is important to point out that many narratives on this so-called massacre (to his credit, Rich does not employ this overused term in his title) begin with the notion that Brown's violent assault was based upon rage and revenge.  Rich's narrative somewhat relies on this notion, and for the sake of clarity, I would like to make it clear that I do not hold that the Pottawatomie strike was made either out from rage or revenge.   

First, it would be well for readers to revisit a fine contribution by this blog's other renowned friend, H. Scott Wolfe, "Raising Cane: John Brown, Charles Sumner and the Perpetuation of False History" (Aug. 6, 2011).  Here, Wolfe quite thoroughly puts the Sumner caning vendetta notion to bed for good, although it probably will take some time before this apocryphal motivation for the killings will finally vanish from narratives about Brown in Kansas.  Suffice it to say that the Pottawatomie killings had nothing whatsoever to due with the outrage in Washington D.C. that involved that near fatal beating of Sumner in 1856.

John Brown in Kansas
Source: Holloway, History of Kansas (1868)
Second, as Rich points out, Brown certainly made no public comments on his role in the killings.  As I have argued elsewhere, while Brown's sons and allies largely contributed to the false notion that he was not involved in the killings, "the most reasonable conclusion" based upon the evidence "is that the old man had deliberately misrepresented his involvement in the killings" (p. 219).  To be sure, Brown privately admitted to his role in a rare case or two, but it is clear that he handled the matter largely by making no comment, or by stating that he approved of the killings.  That he took this position is quite understandable.  Free state people in the east, who were passive and unschooled in the realities of the civil war that actually was taking place in the Kansas territory, would never have understood Brown's desperate actions.  Many of them doubtless would have jumped to condemnatory conclusions without considering the real crisis that the Browns had to resolve on their own, facing the likelihood that they would be overrun by violent terrorists led by their own pro-slavery neighbors.  More importantly, Brown camouflaged his admissions or misrepresented his involvement in the Pottawatomie killings probably because he wanted to shield his sons and associates from prosecution, acts of revenge, and public excoriation.  "The rush to pronounce the Pottawatomie killings as sheer homicide or terrorism is commonplace, although neither conclusion fits the fullest consideration of the evidence" (Freedom's Dawn, p. 220).

Finally, some consideration is needed when using James Townsley as a witness to the Pottawatomie affair because actually he made two or three different statements over time, as William E. Connelley put it, "no two alike--all different" (Connelley, John Brown, pp. 191-92).  As far as the notion that Brown shot and killed the elder Doyle, this is logically and evidentially incorrect despite one of Townsley's statements. Connelley, who is still the best scholar on John Brown's Kansas story, pointed out in 1900 that this claim had "always been denied by the other members of the company."  At his most clear, Brown admitted to seeing and guiding the whole attack, but never admitted to personally striking a blow.  Given that Brown both perceived himself and acted as a military commander in this strike, he had no need to do so.  As Connelley also concludes, Townsley was left to stand guard during the attack, and could not have been present to see who did the killing (pp. 200-01).  

Following Connelley's book, Katherine Mayo's priceless field research and interviews done for Villard's 1910 biography further show that Townsley was incorrect in this claim.  Mayo interviewed Brown's sons Salmon, and son-in-law Henry Thompson, both of which were part of the Pottawatomie strike.  Not only did they deny that Brown shot Doyle dead, but they clearly stated that Doyle already was dead when Brown fired the shot into his body.  Reading the evidence, even Oswald Villard, who was intent on finding Brown a cold-blooded murderer, had to conclude that Brown "killed none of [the five proslavery men at Pottawatomie] with his own hand" (Villard, John Brown, p. 159).  The only real question is why Brown shot Doyle's corpse, and there is only speculation in this regard.  My own sense is that as Brown briefly surveyed Doyle's body, he may have had a momentary sense that the man was still alive and shot him in the head to make sure he was not lingering.  Otherwise, the shot was a personal statement from one father to another, as if to put a fine point on the matter.  Doyle had literally threatened to kill and terrorize his family, and Brown had made certain that no such thing would happen.  But if Brown's sons were not certain, neither can we be certain.

Notwithstanding these points, I am appreciative that Rich's labors here are both fascinating and useful for our work.  The Pottawatomie killings remain a point of controversy and reflection, even for Brown's warmest admirers.  But in our haste to argue about the incident and its significance, we have almost never bothered to consider where the bodies are buried.  We are grateful for the insights offered here, which are the primary purpose of our valued contributor's labor.  Certainly, we look forward to Part 2.--LD

Rich Smyth's Notes for "Pottawatomie Creek, Part 1"

1 James Townsley, “The Pottawatomie Killings; It is Established Beyond Controversy That John Brown Was the Leader. Statement of James Townsley," Republican Citizen [Paola, Kan.], Dec. 20, 1879, 5, col. 5.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 “The Pottawatomie Massacre,” The Civil War Muse (http://bit.ly/3aoKk2L).

  6 Catherine Jane Richards and Deborah Barker, "Southeast Franklin County," Kansas Historical Portal (http://bit.ly/361Q8Mg).

  7 This information was kindly provided by Dick Titterington of The Civil War Muse (http://www.thecivilwarmuse.com/).

  8 J. N. Baker, Greeley, Kan., to William E. Connelley, Topeka, Kan., Jan. 14, 1909, MS06-0007, in John Brown/Boyd Stutler Collection, West Virginia Division of Culture and History (http://bit.ly/379Vjv0).

9 Leavenworth Herald, reprinted in the Doniphan Constitutionalist, Oct. 10, 1857, p. 160.  Quoted in James Malin, John Brown and the Legend of Fifty Six. According to this article, Alan Wilkinson is described as being buried on his claim.  Information courtesy of Cameron Mott.

  10 "Affidavits Regarding the Pottawatomie Massacre; Affidavit of Mrs. Louisa Jane Wilkinson," in Report of the Special Committee Appointed to Investigate the Troubles in Kansas; with the Views of the Minority of Said Committee, House Report No. 200, 34th Cong., 1st Sess. (Washington: Cornelius Wendell, 1856), reproduced in West Virginia Archives and History (http://bit.ly/2RrPDG0).

11 Robert W. Johannsen, "A Footnote to the Pottawatomie Massacre, 1856,"  Kansas Historical Quarterly 22:3 (Fall 1956).  Transcribed by B. Hutchins and L. Nelson on the website of The Kansas Historical Society (http://bit.ly/2NCVbwc).

12 "Frank Day Hutchings," History of Wyandotte County Kansas and Its People (Chicago: Lewis Publishing Co., 1911), transcribed on KSGenWeb (http://bit.ly/2toqsfF). Note that burial information on Helen M. De Mers could not be found, although there is a Helen Kinney Hutchings (1875 – 1958) buried in the Hutchings family plot in Oak Hill Cemetery, Lawrence, Kansas.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

"The War of Races"? Patrick Breen Gets John Brown All Wrong

The December 27 issue of The Washington Post featured an interesting article entitled by Michael E. Miller entitled, "'The War of Races': How a Hateful Ideology Echoes Through American History."  Miller discusses the idea of race war, which has tended to resurface throughout U.S. history.  Quoting Ibram X Kendi, a professor at American University, the idea of race war surfaces “during moments of intense activism against white racism.”  Miller points to parallels in history, such as between the Reconstruction period and the more recent Black Lives Matter movement.  As Kendi concludes, by portraying themselves as the victims, “defenders of white racism have been able to galvanize large numbers of white people into their organizations.”
Michael E. Miller

While Miller's point is certainly valid in historical terms, his article takes an unfortunate and problematic turn--apparently because he depends upon Patrick H. Breen, Associate Professor of History at Providence College in Rhode Island.  Breen misdirects Miller to John Brown the abolitionist, forcing him to fit--against the shape of history itself--into this unfortunate theme of race war.  "The idea [of race war] flared up again in the lead up to the Civil War," Miller writes, "as John Brown launched abolitionist raids in Kansas and then Virginia."  Apparently, however, Miller is entirely dependent upon Breen in drawing this problematic conclusion.

Breen is the author of The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt (Oxford, 2015), which is the most updated and thorough treatment of this epic slave revolt to my knowledge.  I reviewed The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood for the American Historical Review (June 2017, pp. 837-38) and concluded that "no scholar has so deepened the research or so sagaciously and meticulously examined the available sources" on the Turner episode as we find in Breen's work.  On his school's website, Breen expresses hope that his book "will be considered the authoritative account of America's most famous revolt," and observes that a number of notable publications have already recognized him as "the authority on the revolt."  He certainly is to be saluted for his accomplishment.  I am not a Turner scholar although I've read the standard works, and I think that Breen did a thorough job in consideration of the evidence as well as the historiography.  

Patrick Breen
My only objection to his work, however, was his somewhat strange conclusion that various black responses to Turner reflected W.E.B. DuBois's model of "double consciousness," and that some enslaved people felt ambiguity toward slavery based on their mixed response (pp. 166-67).  I am dissatisfied with this conclusion, and believe that the only ambiguity might be felt by free blacks living in the South, given they were privileged.  That some enslaved people did not respond willingly to Turner when given, as it were, a moment's notice, had more to do with their own sense of certainty, apprehension, and fear.  But to suggest that enslaved people really had mixed feelings about being enslaved people strikes me as grossly incorrect and probably offensive.

Breen wrong imagines Brown as inciting race war
(Jacob Lawrence series)
Does Breen's inclination to think of enslaved black people as feeling ambiguous toward their bondage hint at a questionable view of race in historical terms?  Certainly, Breen's assertion that Brown be classified as a white "race war" instigator is ridiculous--especially because Miller's article is about how white racists have used race war as an ideological means.  What does Breen's insistence in this regard suggest about his own views of race and racial conflict?

It is Breen, not Miller, who thus declares: “John Brown is basically saying, ‘We can launch a race war.'" Was John Brown "basically" suggesting race-war to black people?  Of course not. (I have already written to Mr. Miller, at the Washington Post, calling his attention to this gross distortion of the historical record.) Verily, Breen may be an expert on Turner, but he is no John Brown scholar, and it really does seem that he has something against him.

Clearly, Breen buys into the conventional narrative of John Brown.  One evidence of this is that he feeds the notion that Brown's "race war" had "little appeal to African Americans."  But he is wrong on two counts.  First, Brown never peddled or presented "race war" to blacks; second, while his efforts had little appeal to free blacks in the North, Brown and his men, including Osborne Anderson (who wrote a narrative of the raid) found that enslaved people in Virginia greeted him with enthusiasm.  Of course, Breen disbelieves this, although, again, I would stress, his cynicism toward Brown is probably based more on bias than evidence, or else he would not make such a baseless assertion. 

“Race war is an idea that emerges at certain points in American history and fades at others,” Breen says further in Miller's article.  “What has made it such a powerful idea, however, is not some real danger of a race war itself, but the politically useful nature of these charges. Politicians have used racially inflammatory rhetoric like this to help them attain power, whether by mobilizing one’s base or suppressing their opponents, but long after the last ballots have been counted, the legacy of the racial demagoguery remains.”  Certainly, Breen has a point. But inserting Brown into this theme is just, well, wrong.

Certainly, Breen has a point.  But inserting Brown into this theme is just, well, wrong.

If Breen would like to present himself as the go-to guy on Nat Turner, then I will at least suggest that I am among the most familiar with Brown in contemporary scholarship.  I have studied the abolitionist for more than twenty years, collected his letters, and published a number of biographical efforts.  My forthcoming book on Shields Green (NYU Press, 2020) further explores Brown's ideas about fighting slavery, particularly his Declaration of Liberty (1859), where Brown writes, as it were, on behalf of enslaved black people.  No where have I ever found even the slightest inclination on John Brown's part to invoke "race war," not even for the sake of black liberation.  In fact, Brown was far more sympathetic toward white southerners than many realize, believing that many of them were simply unfortunate products of an oppressive slaveholding society.  He was not hell-bent on killing whites and his conduct--and his failures at Harper's Ferry too--show that he was no insurrectionist.  If Brown wanted a "race war" in Virginia, he could have easily accomplished it.  So why does Breen inject Brown into Miller's piece, except that he has some bias against him?

John Brown raison d'être was the defeat and destruction of slavery, not whipping up a race war.  If he had had his way, blacks and whites together would have labored throughout the south to liberate the oppressed. As he said as a prisoner in Virginia, he made no plans for insurrection--race war--and wanted to undermine slavery with a minimum of bloodshed.  He never expressed this goal in terms of race war or the destruction of whites, and for Breen to suggest otherwise is nonsense.  Along with this, his thesis that enslaved blacks had ambiguous feelings about slavery should also cause a red flag to go up.  

Breen is not only wrong in the letter of John Brown's story, but apparently he is also wrong in the spirit of his story as well.  Readers should mark his work accordingly.--LD

Thursday, December 12, 2019

"Ideology and Cant": How Mary Grabar’s Anti-Zinn Screed Misrepresents John Brown

In August of this year, Professor Mary Grabar, who is a resident fellow at The Alexander Hamilton Institute in Clinton, N.Y. (henceforth, AHI), published her attempt at a tour-de-force attack upon the late Howard Zinn’s popular narrative, A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present.  According to Grabar’s own website, she was born in Slovenia “when it was still part of the Communist Yugoslavia,” but was reared in Rochester, New York.  Grabar has an earned Ph.D. in English from the University of Georgia (2002) and followed an academic career as a college and university professor until 2013.  Her website says during her academic years that Grabar “wrote widely on political, cultural, and educational topics, and founded the Dissident Professor Education Project, a nonprofit reform initiative.”1  In 2014, Grabar relocated to Clinton, New York, where she became a resident fellow of AHI.  Five years afterward, she published her vitriolic conservative rejoinder, Debunking Howard Zinn: Exposing the Fake History That Turned a Generation against America. 

Prof. Mary Grabar
(from her website)
It is worth noting that Grabar’s book is published by Regnery History, a conservative publishing house based in Washington, D.C.  Regnery History and other subsidiary Regnery labels are owned by Salem Media Group, a conservative Christian organization.  A glance at the Regnery catalogue suggests that it features works that follow a conventionally rightwing and pedestrian fascination with the Civil War, especially its military history, and other military and social themes that please the conservative palate.  Notably, the Regnery label features the works of Samuel Mitcham Jr., author of the dubious treatise, It Wasn’t About Slavery: Exposing the Great Lie of the Civil War and Bust Hell Wide Open: The Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest.2   Perhaps Grabar’s book has found the right niche.

Apparently, so has Grabar.  According to its website, her stomping grounds, AHI, presents capitalism as its first “central concern.”  According to AHI’s website, their goal is to promote the “meaning and implications of capitalism, its genesis and impact; the role of markets, money, and banks in economic growth; the importance of the rule of law and property rights in wealth creation.” To be sure, AHI is also concerned with the role of religion in society, the role of private associations, “realism and idealism in the practice of United States foreign policy, the role of the United States in world affairs,” and civil liberty too.  AHI’s website further declares that it “aspires to create an educational environment of the highest standards in which evidence and argument prevail over ideology and cant.”3

The late Howard Zinn
So, does Grabar’s work conform to AHI's credo?  Obviously, the point of interest here is quite particular, leading to the simple question: How does Grabar’s anti-Zinn polemic treat of John Brown the abolitionist?  Furthermore, between the two authors, Zinn or Grabar, which one presents John Brown and his context more correctly according to “evidence and argument”?  Conversely, which author actually is more laden with “ideology and cant”?  The short answer is that it is Grabar who is the propagandist, and her reactionary treatment of Brown vis-à-vis at attack on Zinn is poorly rendered and lacking in substance.

First, A Note of Regret

Before going any further, I should probably express a sense of regret for Professor Grabar.  Frankly, she seems to be of that stripe of immigrant whose early life and family history has been deeply colored by the harsh realities of life under totalitarian communism in other parts of the world.  Indeed, it is not surprising to find that the children of refugees from Eastern Europe, Cuba, or Vietnam, for instance, might stand as adamant proponents of conservative and capitalist ideology in the United States of America.  In their own thinking, they know the truth about socialism in contrast to naïve, left-leaning “Americans” who have been brainwashed and seduced by men like Howard Zinn. The most talented of these grateful refugees are sometimes unfortunately taken up as tools, and enabled in their capacity as apologists and attack dogs for the rightwing. 

This may be true of Grabar, who has been eating her heart out for years over the heightening influence of A People’s History of the United States, and thus the reason for her Trumpian quest to “debunk” Zinn as a “fake” historian.  Unfortunately, Professor Grabar’s work is too reactionary and biased to actually present a challenge to Zinn’s popular history.  It is not simply a matter of her diatribe being “too little, too late,” given the expansive influence that Zinn's work has achieved.  But also Grabar’s polemic probably will only convince rightwing, ultra-conservatives who already believe they are correct, confirming for them that anyone who questions their narrative of the United States as "the last, best hope" is a dangerous radical and an enemy of the nation.

Pod-Casting Out the Demons of Communism

Recently, Grabar was the guest on the podcast of First Things, a religious publication with a conservative and rightwing slant.4  In an interview conducted by Mark Bauerlein, Grabar held forth her rationale for attacking Howard Zinn.  Almost from the onset, she affirmed her host’s suggestion that were it not for A People's History, Zinn would probably not even be remembered today. Yet she contradicted herself later when she admitted that Zinn actually was already a popular "radical" at the time of his book's publication.  However, the main thrust of her argument, both in this podcast interview and in her book, is that Zinn was no more or no less than a leftist who wanted to tear down the United States by means of revolution and replace it with socialism or communism.

As far as Zinn’s popular text, Grabar points out that A People's History lacks footnotes, presenting only a bibliography, although this is not unusual as a textbook format. (I’m not crazy about this format either.  I use Justo Gonzalez’s Story of Christianity for my seminary course on Christian history and believe this notable text would serve students better if it included citations.)  But what really bothers Grabar is the tremendous success that A People's History has enjoyed since it was first published in 1980.  According to Grabar, it was not immediately successful, but gradually became a "publishing phenomenon,” steadily gaining attention and readership on a yearly basis. Grabar says that as of 2018, over 2.6 million copies of A People's History have been sold and that many of these sales have been for textbook usage.  During the podcast, Grabar also lamented the boost that Zinn’s book got from Hollywood icon Matt Damon, who introduced it as a great history text in his popular breakthrough film, “Good Will Hunting.” 

During the interview, Bauerlein pointed out that A People’s History has not been without its critics on both the right and the left, noting that even though the book is allegedly distorted in its presentation, nevertheless it “sticks.” Grabar agreed, stating that Zinn's book often is the only book being used by teachers being trained to teach history.  Consequently, Grabar observed that Zinn’s approach has proven to be "seductive," portraying himself as a "heroic" figure although in reality he is peddling the "awful" picture of the United States that one can only expect from a communist. 

For Christopher Columbus, Against John Brown

Perhaps to no surprise, Grabar seems desperate in the interview to protect the legacy of Christopher Columbus and condemn Zinn, ostensibly for plagiarizing anti-Columbus material from a leftwing novelist's pamphlet.  In an awkward defense of the Italian mercenary explorer, Grabar says Zinn also skews a quote from Columbus' log by leaving out critical information.  The material Zinn omitted, Grabar says, is where Columbus wrote that the indigenous Arawak people could be converted "more by love than by force." This proves, Grabar concludes, that Columbus had "good intentions."  But this is a suspicious claim.  Even using Grabar’s argument, Columbus clearly considered that the use of force was an option to convert the Arawak natives that he had first encountered after “discovering America.”  As another source shows, in his log under date of October 13, 1492, Columbus wrote about his initial encounter with the Arawak: “I kept my eyes open and tried to find out if there was any gold,” and afterward tried to persuade these natives unsuccessfully to led him to a king who they said possessed much gold.  The following day, Columbus wrote further that if it were the crown’s wishes, fifty Spanish soldiers could keep the whole population in subjection “and make them do whatever one wanted.”5  Are these "good intentions," Professor Grabar?

Toward the end of the interview, Bauerlein and Grabar reflected dismally upon the fact that a whole generation had been raised on "American guilt," and that Zinn's book was really designed to demoralize the United States. In portraying the United States as a failed nation, Grabar concluded, this left the way open to revolution, which is what Zinn really wanted to instigate.  Grabar added that it is not clear what plan Zinn actually had for the United States following a revolution, except that he entertained the doubtable vision of capitalism being replaced by a harmonious society that was based upon sharing.  Zinn certainly had profited from the book, Grabar concluded, and "very clearly points to socialism or communism" in order to bring justice to the wrongs of the United States. Indeed, Grabar opined that Zinn "loves it when there's blood flowing in the streets; he celebrates rioting, he celebrates the abolitionist John Brown [laughing], you know. . . ."6

Whose John Brown?

To be frank, I am not concerned with defending Howard Zinn’s political views.  Although I have benefited from the work of scholars on the left and published one of my John Brown books on a leftist press, I am not formally or ideologically bound to it, and certainly I have my own sense of aversion to atheistic Marxism.  Conversely, I am appreciative of how the left generally has both admired and defended John Brown over the years, quite in contrast to conservatives, who have typically slandered and despised him. Still, I have neither the capacity nor the commitment to defend Zinn’s ideological groundings, and I will leave it to others to answer Grabar’s screed in defense of Zinn’s ideological position. 

However, knowing that Grabar thinks Christopher Columbus is a redemptive figure certainly suggests that she lacks historical grounding, and further underscores that she has attempted political propaganda more than historical corrective.  Indeed, when it comes to Grabar’s presentation of John Brown, I would say that she has crossed the line from being pitiable to being inimical.  However, the best way to highlight this is simply by contrasting what Zinn has written about Brown with what Grabar has written in the process of attacking Zinn's book.

Zinn on Brown

In chapter nine, which is entitled, “Slavery without Submission, Emancipation without Freedom,” Zinn points out that the support of slavery by the United States was “an overpowering practicality,” and as the enslaved population grew from the eighteenth century into the nineteenth century, a series of slave revolts and rebellions resulted in the development of “a network of controls in the southern states, hacked by the laws, courts, armed forces, and race prejudice of the nation's political leaders.” I find no communist propaganda here.

Zinn is also correct in writing that it “would take either a full-scale slave rebellion or a full-scale war to end such a deeply entrenched system” as chattel slavery.  He is also correct in his contention that by the latter approach, those who made war would have the prerogative to “organize its consequences.” This does appear to be what happened with Abraham Lincoln, who was able to end slavery without disrupting the economic or racial structures that reigned in his day. This also explains why, in only a short amount of time after the ending of the war, that whites in the South were able to recover power over their former slaves.   To be sure, Zinn seems to have believed that Brown’s effort was hopeless from the onset, something with which I do not agree.  Nevertheless, he was correct in concluding that “Brown was hanged, with federal complicity, for attempting to do by small-scale violence what Lincoln would do by large-scale violence several years later--end slavery.” Again, I find no communist propaganda here.

Zinn notes the association of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass with Brown, the latter having argued against his plan “from the standpoint of its chances of success” albeit admiring “the ailing man of sixty, tall, gaunt, white-haired” (actually Brown was fifty-nine years old at the time of his hanging).  After briefly describing Brown’s defeat at Harper’s Ferry in 1859, Zinn quotes at length from W.E.B. DuBois’ poignant John Brown (1909), noting the abolitionist’s brave resolve before his Virginia captors, and the inconsistency of the extreme response of Virginia’s leaders toward someone whom they purported had not even won the support of the slaves themselves. 

After quoting John Brown's last written statement before he was hanged ("I, John Brown, am quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood”), Zinn concludes:

[Brown] was executed by the state of Virginia with the approval of the national government. It was the national government which, while weakly enforcing the law ending the slave trade, sternly enforced the laws providing for the return of fugitives to slavery. It was the national government that, in Andrew Jackson's administration, collaborated with the South to keep abolitionist literature out of the mails in the southern states. It was the Supreme Court of the United States that declared in 1857 that the slave Dred Scott could not sue for his freedom because he was not a person, but property. Once more, I find nothing here that is questionable according to the historical record, and certainly nothing that is "fake" history.

Finally, Zinn writes that the federal government would never have accepted an end to slavery by rebellion. 
“It would end slavery only under conditions controlled by whites, and only when required by the political and economic needs of the business elite of the North. It was Abraham Lincoln who combined perfectly the needs of business, the political ambition of the new Republican party, and the rhetoric of humanitarianism. He would keep the abolition of slavery not at the top of his list of priorities, but close enough to the top so it could be pushed there temporarily by abolitionist pressures and by practical political advantage.”7  
To reiterate: there is nothing here that cannot be argued quite successfully from the historical record, and which cannot be supported by anyone with a commitment to telling the truth about the political and social history of the United States. That Zinn’s approach is considered hostile to the United States says much more about Grabar’s rightwing and reactionary mentality than anything else.

Grabar on Brown

It is apparent from her chuckle during the podcast that Grabar must think John Brown a most contemptible figure beyond question ("you know?"), as if by invoking his name she was proving her point. Clearly Grabar is clueless as to Brown’s place in the history of the United States, and this is born out in her book, particularly in the section where she discusses Zinn’s favorable comments about Brown in chapter nine of A People’s History.

In her polemic, Grabar says that “Zinn ignores Douglass’s relationship with Lincoln so that he can portray the president as a cowardly racist politician beholden to powerful money interests.”  Apparently, Grabar has not read the very frank but merciful manner in which Douglass criticizes Lincoln posthumously as having been a racially prejudiced white man who always put white people's interests above black people.  She also has failed to note how critical Douglass was of Lincoln’s half-hearted support of black Union soldiers, and that he considered the Emancipation Proclamation to be a half-loaf measure when it was issued in 1863, as did so many other abolitionists at the time.  Instead, Grabar creates the illusion that Zinn is intentionally misleading in his use of an early Lincoln quote—even though Lincoln’s views on race and slavery were fairly conservative until the very end of his life.  Even then, of course, Lincoln was no racial egalitarian. (I would refer Grabar to Frederick Douglass’ (third) autobiography, and also Lerone Bennett’s, Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream.) 

Along with her impotent defense of Lincoln, Grabar turns bitterly on John Brown in the fashion of many other conservatives.  “The only kind of abolitionist Zinn approves of is a violent abolitionist like John Brown,” Grabar continues, whose “last written statement, in prison, before he was hanged” for the raid on Harper’s Ferry, declared that “the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”  Grabar is clearly desperate here.  Any historian worth her salt would know that John Brown’s last statement about the coming blood-purge of the nation was not a call to revolution, but rather a predictive conclusion that slavery would not end without great bloodshed—a forecast that proved more than prescient on Brown’s part.  That Grabar sees John Brown as some kind of bloodthirsty revolutionary fit for the use of communists is the kind of malign stupidity fit for a MAGA head.

To no surprise, she also defaults to the familiar but misleading reiteration of the Pottawatomie killings of 1856. With no evident knowledge of the incident herself, Grabar describes the killings incorrectly, stating that Brown and his men killed five “victims” whose only crime was believing that slavery be promoted in the Kansas territory. Of course, she is wrong.  The five men killed along the Pottawatomie Creek in May 1856 by Brown’s men were abetting terrorism and had targeted the Brown family for attack.  Their killings were a preemptive strike amidst a civil conflict in which antislavery people like the Browns had no actual appeal for protection by either federal or territorial law enforcement.  Incredibly, Grabar concludes that “Brown succeeded only in sowing fear and mistrust in the South, in the opinion of Thomas Woods.”

Twisted, Sister

It is important to point out that Grabar’s reading of Brown is twisted—the roots of her claim actually go down into the muck of some of the worst writing about Brown in our era.
As a reference, for example, Grabar cites “the opinion” of Thomas E. Woods Jr., the author of a quaintly bigoted handbook entitled, The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History—which to no surprise is published by Regnery, Grabar’s own rightwing publishing house.  It is interesting, too, that while Grabar scores Zinn for not having footnotes, in this case she has leaned completely a book by Woods Jr.—and one also without footnotes! Her source is Woods Jr.'s chapter, “Lunatic on the loose: Murderer John Brown returns to the scene.”  To no surprise, however, Woods’s Politically Incorrect is also historically untrustworthy, the inferior antithesis of the great work of James Loewen, who has also had a positive impact by teaching this generation about the lies we have all been taught in school about "American" history.

But the twisted roots of Grabar’s claims go down even deeper than this untrustworthy piece of rightwing propaganda, since Woods himself bases his malignant view of John Brown on the dreadfully bigoted work of the late Otto Scott.  I have recently republished my extensive critique of this racist tool (see "The Fool as Biographer,"on this blog, Sept. 18, 2019), and so I need not revisit how Scott bequeathed his expertly perverse Secret Six to rightwing haters of Brown, especially the hapless lovers of the Confederacy.  

In other words, Grabar’s treatment of John Brown is derived from a propaganda work published by a conservative press, that is in turn entirely dependent upon a journalistic effort by a rightwing writer who served the interests of ultra-right demagogues and neo-Confederates.  This is the basis of Grabar’s treatment of John Brown.

Propaganda, Not History

While I have not concerned myself with the greater part of Grabar’s work, it is clear that her book was not born out of the necessities of real historical labor, nor out of a desire to do justice to the historical record.  Rather, Professor Grabar’s work is essentially a vehicle for rightwing propaganda intended to supplant Zinn’s considerable influence, and to incriminate him and his narrative as having been a sordid revolutionary plotting to destroy the United States.  “A People’s History of the United States is intended to inspire anger of such magnitude that its readers want to overthrow the American Republic,” Grabar writes in chapter nine of her book.  “That’s why John Brown and H. Rap Brown were Zinn’s heroes.” 

Apparently, Grabar is deceived, although she may be traumatized to the point where she cannot distinguish the sound work of a scholar on the left from “anti-American” and communist subversion.  By her own admission, Grabar finds it amazing to think that Zinn’s book has become a respected and revered source for “the teaching of American history in our schools, even a kind of sacred cow.”  Yet her own book seems more than an attempt to play the “commie” card and destroy Zinn’s reputation.  It also indicates that conservatives are afraid—fearful that their self-serving narrative of “American history” has rapidly lost its authority, even as the United States is changing in demographic and cultural outlook.  Fearful for the wellbeing of their beloved capitalism and white privilege, the rightwing needs writers like Mary Grabar, who serve as valuable tools for their publishing houses and conservative think-tanks.

As for John Brown, Howard Zinn was far closer to the truth of history.  Despite her intentions, it is Grabar’s work that has proven to be easily debunked, and it is her treatment of Brown that is more clearly “fake.”  Grabar may appeal to historical truth, but by slandering John Brown, she has only proven, at least to me, that her work is anything but truthful, and certainly it is unreliable as to history.--LD


            1 See Mary Grabar’s website at Marygrabar.com.
            2 See Regnery Publishing website at https://www.regnery.com.
            3 See the charter of The Alexander Hamilton Institute at http://bit.ly/2rFFRar.
            4 “Who Was Howard Zinn? Conversations with Mark Bauerlein, with Mary Grabar."Retrieved from https://soundcloud.com/firstthings/who-was-howard-zinn-conversations-with-mark-bauerlein-12619
            5 “Arawak Tribe of the Bahamas (The first tribe encountered by Christopher Columbus in the Americas,” Nov. 15, 2012.  Retrieved from Originalpeople.org.
            6 “Who Was Howard Zinn? Conversations with Mark Bauerlein.”
            7 Zinn, A People’s History, Chapter 9.