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

James Redpath

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Monday, February 23, 2015

Take Note--
The Press and Misinformation on John Brown

According to an Associated Press (AP) report dated Feb. 23, the city of Charles Town and the Eastern Panhandle Transit Authority are negotiating a deal to provide transportation for the city's John Brown history tour.   If the agreement is struck, the agency will also take participants from Charles Town to Harpers Ferry. Charles Town, where John Brown was jailed, tried, and hanged in 1859, has been providing a historic tour of sites related to Brown since 2014.

The AP report concludes with the following sentences: Brown attacked a federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859. He had planned to seize weapons and start a revolution to end slavery. The uprising was quashed within 48 hours. He was tried and executed in Charles Town for treason.

While this brief AP report is of passing interest, it is worth noting how the concluding three sentences function to extend the errors of John Brown authors (I won't call them scholars) who in turn have functioned to yield confusion, misinformation, and error in their narratives about John Brown's raid. For but three sentences, this AP summary contains a number of errors and something of a slight that is totally misplaced.

First, John Brown did not seize the armory in order to take the armory weapons.  

This has become a virtual mantra among John Brown "experts," tour guides, historians, journalists, and anyone else with an opportunity to publish an opinion about the Harper's Ferry raid.  The trouble is, it's wrong.

As the record shows, only one or two cases of rifles were even examined throughout the whole time of Brown's occupation of the armory and town of Harper's Ferry.  None of the testimonies of Brown's captives, especially the armory employees, shows that he had an interest in the rifles.  Indeed, he posted guards at the arsenal.   For as long as he stayed (too long) in Harper's Ferry, he did not take the arms.  I address this more extensively in my forthcoming Freedom's Dawn, along with his real intention for seizing the armory, and the most plausible explanation based upon evidence.   The notion of Brown seizing the arsenal to get the weapons is based upon slave holders and Virginia politicians like Senator James Mason, who portrayed Brown as an insurrectionist and inflamed fears of an uprising allegedly attempted by Brown.  This was propaganda and fiction.   To those who insist that Brown meant to take the weapons, my challenge is clear: prove it by fact.  He did not bring wagons to load them, made no attempt to load them, and explicitly stated (repeatedly) that he did not want the Harper's Ferry weapons.

Second, Brown did not intend to start a "revolution."  

He nowhere employed such language, and was quite aware of the political significance of "revolution" as well as "insurrection."  The best language--based on interviews with him--to describe his intention is "rescue."  His strategy was to lead as many enslaved people away as possible and support them in their movement to evade capture and swell the numbers of those who would join them across the South.  Brown hoped to collapse the operations of slavery without igniting a full blown revolution or uprising; he understood what was at stake, and hoped to make his movement as fluid, defensive, and evasive as possible.

Third, as there was no "uprising," it was not "quashed within 48 hours."

The phrasing of the AP remark suggests Brown's effort was so feeble that it was crushed "within 48 hours."  This is hardly the case.  In fact, Brown afterward pointed out to Governor Henry Wise that despite having inferior numbers and being accused of taking on an impossible venture, he had held Harper's Ferry for nearly two days before the forces of Virginia had been able to stop him.  The incredible thing about the story of the raid is not that it was "quashed" so easily, but rather that Brown was able to embarrass Virginia and hold a town with only a handful of men.  This point is made notwithstanding the fact that Brown violated his own plans and tactically failed by remaining in town.  The defense of Harper's Ferry was not a battle that Brown should have engaged; but the fact that he did, it is still interesting that it took both local militia and the marines to finally "quash" his actions.   This is in part due to the fact that Brown and his men had a superior weapons, another reason why he had no interest in seizing the arsenal contents of inferior rifles.

Finally, he was tried and executed in Charles Town for treason.

Brown was found guilty of murder, insurrection, and treason by a jury of slave holders in a court presided over and overseen by the proslavery interests.  The facts show that the charge of murder is weak, that Brown neither authorized nor knew of any act of murder.  Further, in reaction to the raid, the people at Harper's Ferry were far more guilty of committing acts of murder.  A number of the raiders were killed in cold blood out of malice, including an execution style killing by the son of the Prosecutor Andrew Hunter.   The younger Hunter's act of homicide was revealed during testimony although he was never brought to trial.

Brown consistently denied his role as an insurrectionist and the facts bear this up.  However, slave holders made no distinctions insofar as he was endeavoring to free their enslaved "property."  Any act of armed effort to liberate enslaved people was deemed "insurrection," although the nature of insurrectionary violence is distinct, and Brown clearly wanted to avoid insurrectionary violence--that is, the categorical killing of slaveholders and their families, whether in armed conflict or not.  Brown was no Spartacus, not withstanding the famous allusion made by Victor Hugo.

Finally, the idea that Brown was guilty of treason was a device of Brown's prosecutors.  His defense sought to overturn the charge, but Hunter and the State of Virginia pushed the idea that because Brown had received legal protection, technically, as a guest of the state, then any act of subterfuge against Virginia could be called "treason."  The authority on the trial, Brian McGinty, says the point was arguably true, and conservatives in the North supported the treason conviction.  However, in the most logical sense, the charge of treason was self-serving for Virginia to kill Brown.  It signified how the State of Virginia had already endeavored to supersede the federal power, and such a charge reflects the hubris of the slaveholders that ultimately led to secession.  Indeed, Brown had broken the law to liberate men, while they would commit insurrection and treason against the government in 1861 for the most ignoble reason of keeping men and women in slavery and profiting from their labor and stolen bodies.

It is a point worth noting, that even an unidentified AP writer can continue to miseducate the public with only a few short, ill-informed and prejudiced lines.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Unsung Correspondent Who Covered John Brown's Last Days in Virginia

Over the last couple of years I have paid close attention to the reportage on John Brown's last days for my forthcoming book, Freedom's Dawn (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers).  In examining press reports and narratives, I was happy to discover a young journalist named Edward H. House, who was the sole antislavery journalist to cover Brown's trial, incarceration, and last hours as an undercover correspondent of Horace Greeley's New York Tribune.  House, known as "Ned," was one of the memorable "Bohemians" of the antebellum era, who came to New York City from Boston about 1854 to assume the position of drama and music critic for Greeley's paper.  A talented, self-taught writer and artist, Ned House was a strong antislavery man although he had been affiliated with the Democratic party while in Boston, and even held interests in a Democratic paper back in Beantown.  This proved extremely fortuitous in serving the Republican Tribune, since no antislavery journalist was admitted to Charlestown after the Harper's Ferry raid and throughout Brown's final days.
"Ned" House

House's fascinating story already has been wonderfully documented by the fine scholar, James Huffman, in A Yankee in Meiji Japan: The Crusading Journalist Edward H. House (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003). However, Professor Huffman's focus is largely upon House's his later years as a journalist living in Asia, and thus his treatment of Ned House during the antebellum era is relatively brief.  Huffman has been most supportive and encouraging of my work, which has been singularly concerned with House's role as the unknown Tribune correspondent.  This is a story in itself, since the leadership and people of Charlestown and Virginia in general were disgusted by House's regular correspondence, which he smuggled to New York using various methods.  No wonder: House's coverage presents an honest and detailed account, not only of Brown in jail, but also of Brown's impact upon Virginians and their enslaved victims.  In one case, a Virginia officer was so enraged that he tore the Tribune with his teeth, not knowing that House was happily observing his outrage.  Of course, House promptly reported the episode, providing a virtual laugh track for Brown's antislavery friends in the North.

Indeed, House's writing is fun--witty and stinging in his observations.  But it is also insightful: House alone observes and understands the behavior of local blacks, noting their intense interest in the imprisoned Brown, as well as the subterfuge of local blacks in setting fires.  Rather than underestimate them as simple, childlike creatures, House knows they are organized, communicative, and capable of "mischief"--something that slaveholders were intent upon overlooking or denying.

During the weeks of his challenging assignment, Ned House sent page after page of detailed and sometimes revelatory reportage to the Tribune, providing information that never would have made it into the pages of history had historians had only the right-wing and proslavery New York Herald  and other proslavery reportage.  Sad to say, most writing about the raid and its aftermath has used newspaper reportage uncritically, which explains why so many fallacies have persisted in the popular narrative.

Most notable is the failure of historians to discern the long-term damage caused by depending upon the Herald, whose racist editor, James G. Bennett almost exclusively depended upon local proslavery Virginia affiliates to provide his reportage.  While it is true that the Herald is in many respects is a kind of almanac of stories and details regarding the Harper's Ferry episode, the slant of its reportage prohibited fair coverage of Brown's last days.  For instance, one of the greatest frauds that came via the Herald's Virginia reports was the unfounded claim that Brown was disappointed by the lack of response from enslaved blacks.  This is particularly true of the single, fraudulent report about Brown's final interrogation of raider John Cook on the morning of December 2.  According to this untrustworthy report, the old man complained that Cook had misinformed him about black support.   I found this dubious account in one single report, undoubtedly written by a local affiliate, with no other attesting reportage.  Indeed, this report contains a number of baseless and fraudulent details which I believe were planted in the Herald by the Virginia affiliate.
The Charlestown Jail, where Brown
spent his final days, is no longer standing

In this light, Ned House was the perfect antidote to the predominant proslavery and ultra-conservative reportage that was largely fed to the North (and to history) as a result.  Ned House, protected by an aura of Democratic and friendly profile, went almost perfectly undetected from Brown's trial in October until his hasty departure from Charlestown after Brown's execution on December 2.  Greeley had other journalists "undercover" in Virginia, including Henry Steele Olcott, but to my knowledge, Olcott only arrived in Charlestown but a couple of days prior to Brown's hanging.  House was the single source of information coming, as it were, from the very belly of the beast.  His detailed observations thus inform the narrative of Freedom's Dawn.  Taken as a whole, House's reportage has proven invaluable toward discerning the drama of Brown's actual record in Virginia.  While Freedom's Dawn is about John Brown, it is also a story about the journalists--the good, the bad, and the ugly, who figure into the story of the old man's "forty days in chains."  One of the lessons that emerge is the necessity of journalistic freedom being respected and protected, if nothing else, for the sake of history.

It has been observed that the occasion of Brown's defeat in Virginia gave birth to the first modern journalistic interview, particularly the Herald's interview with the abolitionist Gerrit Smith of Peterboro, N.Y.  This may be true, although it is also the case that John Brown himself is probably the first "modern" figure to be covered so thoroughly by the press.   On the other hand, Brown's story, skewed and dominated by proslavery journalism and censored by proslavery authorities, makes Ned House the other hero of Freedom's Dawn.  One young man, risking literal life and wellbeing, interposed himself as a source of truthful reporting, and left the free record of John Brown's last days for history, for us.

Freedom's Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia will be published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers this spring.  It will shortly be followed by its companion volume, John Brown Speaks: Letters and Statements from Charlestown, also published by Rowman & Littlefield.

Friday, February 06, 2015

From the Field--
Weed Whacking For The Old Man, or Attached to a Stick in Springdale

H. Scott Wolfe

Winter is upon us, and this morning brought a fresh snowfall. . .with its associated opportunities for wielding a shovel and strengthening my aging biceps. During this frigid season, my mind (at least in regard to researching Old John Brown) becomes rather quiescent. My sole intellectual activity is devoted to devising ways to discourage the local squirrel population from absconding with my bird feeder’s supply of suet and sunflower seeds. But with a chill in the air, thoughts often meander back to the more balmy days of the summer past . . . when I conduct my regular journeys to Springdale, Iowa and the site of the farm of William Maxson.
Those readers with impeccable memories might recall a past offering to this blog, a piece entitled “Farmer Maxson’s Newel Post” [2 Jun. 2011], in which I sought to tell the story of how John Brown’s nascent Provisional Army spent the winter of 1857 - 1858, boarding at the Maxson farmhouse and receiving the rudiments of military training.
The site of the farm is today remote, accessible only by gravel roads. A drive there kicks up enough dust to remind one of Henry Fonda in the “Grapes of Wrath.” And the only marker to inform the uninitiated visitor is a bronze plaque, securely attached to a small, red granite boulder. This monument has been present since the year 1924, when a number of rather stout, totally humorless members of the Daughters of the American Revolution placed it there with solemn incantations.
Being so remote, visitation of the marker is rather infrequent. Some who do pause to read the inscription leave small offerings of respect. I have seen odd bits of pottery or china . . . a handful of coins . . . or, as someone has more recently contributed, a cluster of small American flags.
During some of my very early sojourns at the site, I believe during the late Pleistocene Period, the Maxson monument sat within the confines of the well-manicured lawn of a substantial frame farmhouse. But now, conditions are quite different. The farmhouse is gone, replaced by whispering corn stalks. And the monument reposes at the lonely roadside, nearly obscured by prairie grasses intent upon reclaiming the home of their pioneer ancestors. In a word, the monument is neglected. The present-day land owners are more concerned with agricultural chemicals than abolitionism. And the local historical society, an admirable one, concentrates upon its museum in the distant county seat of Tipton. So I feel a personal obligation to tend to the monument, and thus is my mission.

During one of my visits this past summer, the Maxson farmhouse marker was virtually invisible, surrounded by rank and sundry regiments of the family Gramineae. The roadside vista seemed to be far more attractive to a wayward heifer than to a wandering antebellum historian. And it was then that I set to work . . . for in the rear hatch of my Hyundai lay what most sane people call a weed whacker (or, for the more ribald, an idiot stick). I prefer to call this particular tool my “instrument of historical remembrance.”
The obscured Maxson monument 
(Wolfe image)
As one of the attached photographs graphically shows, this elderly disciple of John Brown scholarship still possesses admirable skill in annihilating weed patches. An occasional tractor may rumble by . . . a bemused farmer no doubt wondering whether to inform the authorities or contact the regional asylum. But I see the job through to its conclusion . . . both revealing the monument to the sun’s rays and making significant adjustments to my golf swing.
Of particular interest in the aforementioned photograph is my black t-shirt . . . an item of apparel which is now, no doubt, an exceedingly valuable collectors’ item.  It originated at the “Secret Six Tavern,” an institution on High Street in Harpers Ferry, at which I would often indulge in acts of pious libation. But alas! During my last visit to the Ferry, I found the Secret Six was no more!  It had been replaced by the rather pedestrian “Potomac Grille.” I’m sure that the food is just as filling . . . and the beer is just as cold . . . but I will sincerely miss having images of George Luther Stearns or Thomas Wentworth Higginson eying my plate of French fries. I fully intend to hold onto the shirt, and cart it to a future Antiques Roadshow.
Our hero hard at work (Wolfe image)
My task at the Maxson farmsite completed, I often continue through the microscopic community of Springdale to the Friends Cemetery, where numerous characters of the John Brown story are interred. This cemetery is normally well kept, but I will often trim about the stones of those to whom I remain historically attached. These include folks such as Ann Raley, whose insignificant marble monument is inscribed: “Mother of the Coppoc Boys.”  And Moses Varney, friend of the Old Man and privy to some of his secrets (to the extent that he was suspected as being the author of the famous “Floyd Letter”). And then there is Elza Maxson.
Elza, son of William Maxson, was eighteen years old when John Brown brought his recruits to board at the family farmhouse northeast of Springdale. He was able to witness all of the stirring events of that fateful winter . . . and, in April of 1858, saw the departure of several of his local friends, (the Coppocs, Edwin and Barclay; Stewart Taylor; and George Gill), all intent on glorious deeds with the Old Man. All evidence seems to indicate that he was a potential recruit himself:
On August 2, 1859, J. Henrie (John Kagi) wrote to Whip (Aaron Stevens): “Have also written to Elza Maxson to come here and I would give him a birth (sic) to come, even if he had to sell your mare for passage money. . . .”  The prior day, Kagi had written to Isaac Smith (John Brown himself): “They say that Elza Maxson wished to get employment and I have written him to come on.”
The lovely result of my labors
(Wolfe image)
But Elza Maxson, like several other of the Iowa recruits, did not “come on.” He remained in Springdale, only to be later involved in guarding his childhood companion, Barclay Coppoc, a fugitive of the Harpers Ferry raid. He became Coppoc’s “constant companion,” vigilant toward all who might be carrying extradition papers from the Governor of Virginia . . . and assisted him on the winter sleigh  ride to Mechanicsville to catch a train to Chicago, Canada and freedom.

An especially poignant story involves Elza and Barclay’s brother Edwin, captured at the Ferry and later hanged at Charles Town. When Edwin left Springdale, he took with him an ambrotype photograph of his friend Elza Maxson. Just prior to his execution, Edwin removed the image from its case . . . and on its back, wrote: “Dear Elza, Farewell. Edwin Coppock.” The picture was replaced and, when his personal effects were sent back to Iowa, was forgotten in an obscure corner of the Coppoc home. Twenty-six years later, the same Elza Maxson, “under some peculiar spell . . . opened the case to find the message after so many years.”
Communing with Elza
(Wolfe image)
So another of the accompanying images shows me pulling the grass blades from about the tiny stone of Elza Maxson . . . another of the little known recruits of John Brown’s Provisional Army. Please excuse my exposed legs. Numerous individuals have independently told me that they (my legs) bear a striking resemblance to those found on certain 19th century square grand pianos . . . but I will defer my personal opinion.

So I shall return to the present, where two more inches of snow have fallen and I must trade the “instrument of historical remembrance” for the standard plastic snow shovel. But come spring, when the grass begins to extend up the sides of the Maxson monument and the humble gravestone of one Elza Maxson, I, (in the words of a certain General), shall return.

* H. Scott Wolfe is the Historical Librarian of the Galena, Illinois, Public Library District. We are pleased to introduce him as a correspondent and contributor, noting his many years of grassroots research on John Brown, the Harper's Ferry raiders, and related themes. 

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 Professor Lubet, as does our appreciation for his noteworthy contributions to the John Brown bookshelf.

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:  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.