(Alfred A. Knopf Publisher) by David S. Reynolds
At the onset of the 20th century, several new books appeared about the militant abolitionist John Brown, particularly two significant biographies by W.E.B. DuBois (1909) and Oswald Garrison Villard (1910). Although they were colleagues in early civil rights efforts, they produced distinctly different interpretations, not only based on their differing views of Brown’s use of force, but upon contrasting paradigms of thought rooted in their racial perspectives. Drawing upon what Malcolm X would later call “the black secret soul,” DuBois told Brown’s story from a sympathetic African American perspective that resonated with prophetic strains. In contrast, Villard, a wealthy white liberal, wrote ambivalently about Brown. The grandson of abolitionist orator and publisher, William Lloyd Garrison, Villard upheld Brown as a noble figure in the antislavery struggle; but as a strident pacifist, he also held him in contempt for his use of force against proslavery terrorists. Indeed, Villard so thoroughly rejected any notion of violence, that he even urged his black contemporaries not to defend themselves against racist assaults.
Villard’s well-disguised resentment toward Brown was so strong that it seemingly overcame his sense of propriety in one case. When DuBois beat him to publication in 1909, the scion of the Garrison legacy employed his controlling influence in the press to undermine his black colleague’s work. DuBois had used some older, unreliable sources in his research, and the resulting errors gave Villard the opportunity to harangue the book, effectively writing it off. His mean-spirited and condescending attack, if not driven by actual jealousy, was at least motivated by Garrisonian pride and prejudice. When his own biography of Brown was released the following year, it was widely acclaimed as the definitive scholarly effort, and remained so for more than a half century, until author Stephen Oates published his preeminent biography of John Brown, To Purge This Land with Blood (1970). While Villard reveled in the unchallenged success of his book for many years (even though he had actually paid someone else to do the lion’s share of the research), DuBois’s John Brown has enjoyed greater popularity in the long run, and is still reprinted for students in the 21st century. Despite its nagging factual errors, DuBois’s biography is not only better written, but it speaks to the truth about John Brown’s meaning to the United States in a manner that has either been skewed or overlooked by white historians for generations.
Now, at the onset of the 21st century, David S. Reynolds, a professor at the City University of New York and a distinguished scholar and biographer of Walt Whitman, has seemingly drawn together the disparate paradigms of DuBois and Villard in the publication of his masterfully written biography, John Brown, Abolitionist. Reynolds promises his readers a cultural study, and delivers on that promise with elegant prose and a finely honed effort that sets Old Brown within the social, political, and literary context of his day. Indeed, Abolitionist, though a cultural study, is more specifically a literary study, being replete with references to Whitman and other contemporary writers. More importantly, the author provides a necessary challenge to the distorted view of Brown that has long prevailed in academia and the media. Most notably, Reynolds debunks the stubborn, baseless gossip of John Brown’s insanity, and shows that rather than being a racial fanatic, he was one of the few antebellum whites who rose above the thought style of 19th century white supremacy, a mind set that even plagued many liberal white abolitionists. Reynolds goes further still, arguing quite convincingly that while Brown did not end slavery, he managed to “kill” it in his role as a political and cultural figure. Similarly, Reynolds declares that Brown “sparked” the Civil War, although not having caused it, and likewise “seeded” civil rights, even though he had no direct connection to the movement that would subsequently come forth in opposition to lynching and segregation. In these assertions, Reynolds is obviously informed by DuBois and the black tradition, reflected in an array of writers, from the 19th century scholar, George Washington Williams, to Lerone Bennett, Benjamin Quarles, and others in the 20th century, all of whom sustained the black community’s historic appreciation of Brown, even when their white counterparts were becoming increasingly hostile toward him.
Besides providing an interesting account of the abolitionist’s life and public career, Reynolds goes beyond conventional biographies in showing, in more detail than any previous writer, how Brown’s anti-slavery activities, culminating in his assault on Harper’s Ferry, [West] Virginia, and his subsequent hanging in 1859, prevailed over the Civil War era, and thereafter remained an important influence upon the struggle for black liberation. Central to this legacy, Reynolds argues, was the brave influence of the New England Transcendentalists, especially Thoreau and Emerson, who upheld Brown as a Christ figure from the time of his hanging in 1859, and throughout the stormy years of the Civil War. While John Brown was widely appreciated by the black community, Reynolds would have us realize that white America would hardly have embraced him as a heroic figure were it not for the propaganda of his friends among the New England literati. However, as DuBois undoubtedly recognized, once white society moved beyond the sympathies of the Civil War era, their appreciation of Brown faded even as they were abandoning Reconstruction.
Notwithstanding his appreciation for Brown as a forerunner of the Civil Rights movement, Reynolds’ biographical paradigm is that of Villard, not DuBois. Despite his sincere salutation of Brown, including his brave opposition to the anti-Brown prejudice that still permeates both the academy and popular culture in the United States, his view is essentially an adjusted, updated form of Villard’s insistence that John Brown was a kind of noble murderer. To Villard the pacifist, of course, any act of violence was unacceptable. As the protector of Grandpa Garrison’s legacy, he saw Brown as being key to the loss of virtue in the anti-slavery movement, particularly when its adherents in Kansas began to fight in self-defense against proslavery thugs and terrorists. Villard specifically took Brown to task over the infamous Pottawatomie killings of 1856, in which he led a small band of men (including four of his sons and a son-in-law) in a night time attack upon five pro-slavery activists in their Kansas neighborhood. These opponents, having been led out of their homes at gun point, were hacked to death with broad swords--the mode of killing having been chosen for its quietness, though its horrific side effect could not have been overlooked by the killers.
John Brown himself wielded no sword (he did fire one final shot into the head of a dead man, probably as a signal to gather his men), but there is no doubt that he directed the killings. Pottawatomie has long been a point of debate, and while it is clear that Brown and his men committed these gruesome killings, his defenders insist that they were necessary as a preemptive strike, particularly in a political context where proslavery terrorism was dominant, and free state settlers had no governmental or police protection. This was especially true for the controversial Browns, who even stood out among their peers as despised advocates of black equality, a notion that even free state settlers found disturbing. Many white writers subsequently appropriated Villard’s 1910 expose, using his premise of unwarranted murder at Pottawatomie to form flagrantly hostile treatments of John Brown. Though usually considered a friend of Brown’s legacy, Villard’s claim that the Kansas killings were unwarranted, unjustifiable, and unforgivable, proved to be lethal friendly fire. If Brown “deserves to live in history,” Villard concluded, “it is not because of his cruel, gruesome, reprehensible acts on the Pottawatomie, but despite them.”
Professor Reynolds is not so harsh. Like Villard, he recognizes that pro-slavery terrorists had done as much, if not worse, in their attempts to force slavery upon the Kansas territory. While he does not excuse Brown for the Pottawatomie killings, he uses every effort to show sympathy for him. Nevertheless, he makes Brown into a kind of “good” war criminal, an All-American bad guy, not unlike a Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson character, who commits murder and gets away with it. While he recognizes the threatening circumstances faced by Kansas free state settlers in the spring of 1856, Reynolds overlooks the fact that Brown and his sons were in immediate danger from conspiring proslavery neighbors. Instead of seeing the Pottawatomie incident as counter-terrorist action, he puts forth Villard’s thesis that the killings were essentially criminal.
Even though Reynolds offers nothing new with respect to the Pottawatomie killings, his explanation of the incident in the context of the 9/11 era is what makes his story so interesting. While Reynolds and his publishers have indirectly portrayed his work as the first post-9/11 biography of Brown, it is actually the third biography to be published since the terror attacks of 2001, and it likewise follows on the heels of other John Brown efforts, most notably Merrill Peterson’s formidable cultural study, John Brown: The Legend Revisited (2002). The first post-9/11 biography to actually raise the issue of terrorism was The Hanging of Old Brown (2002), a notable first effort by independent scholar Gregory Toledo. A thorough researcher, Toledo speculates that Brown’s personal regrets over the Pottawatomie killings led to self-defeating decisions at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, where he tried–and failed–to initiate a liberation movement in the South. My own religious biography of Brown, Fire from the Midst of You (2002), is not only a cultural study in its own right, but provides an extensive discussion about Brown’s deep-rooted relationship with African Americans dating from the 1840s. However, these biographies, written by independent scholars and published on the academic press, are curiously overlooked in John Brown, Abolitionist. This is awkward, especially since some of the themes put forth by Reynolds have already been “seeded” (to use his term) by his 21st century predecessors.
Nevertheless, with respect to the idea of John Brown being a terrorist (a notion that has now become fashionable among white academics), Reynolds deserves credit for making thoughtful distinctions that many other writers have carelessly overlooked in their unstudied judgments of Brown. Reynolds says that while Brown might be rightly charged as a murderer and terrorist, he was not the true prototype of the Unabomber, Timothy McVeigh, or Osama bin Laden, as many have suggested. “Brown had a breadth of vision that modern terrorists lack,” Reynolds concludes. “He was an American terrorist in the amplest sense of the word.” Unlike bin Laden, Brown’s followers were religiously mixed, and despite his own evangelical faith, he was quite open to diverse religious, social, and political opinions among his followers. Brown employed conventional means to protest other injustices, Reynolds observes, and he never advocated terrorism as a general remedy to social inequities. To Brown, slavery was the exception, not the rule, a “uniquely immoral institution” that was so bound up with society that only violence could destroy it. Unlike Osama bin Laden, “Brown’s goal was a democratic society that assigned full rights to all, irrespective of religion, race, or gender.” Brown thus realized his greatest impact on society through the pen, not the sword. Probably Oswald Garrison Villard would have agreed with Reynolds, and would likely have been appalled by the association of Brown and the terrorism of this era.
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All biographers of John Brown face the monumental task of explaining his raid on Harper’s Ferry in October 1859, when he led an interracial band of twenty-one men in seizing the small town and the government armory located there. Brown had long pondered and planned some kind of invasion into the South, and Reynolds effectively reconstructs the developments that culminated in his assault upon the small town of Harper’s Ferry, which he recognized as being strategically situated at the doorstep of the South. Many scholars have dismissed the raid as a quixotic effort, doomed to failure, and foolish from its inception. In contrast, Reynolds pushes the academic envelope once more, instead arguing that Brown’s plans were credible if not feasible, and that history might have been different had the Old Man simply not delayed so long in town. In fact, had Brown moved in and out of Harper’s Ferry with speed and decisiveness, he might very well have succeeded in some measure, gathering and arming the enslaved, and then retreating into the nearby Allegheny Mountains, where the real campaign in the South would have begun. Many writers have thus concluded that Brown’s plans failed, when in reality, as Reynolds shows, the actual operation never really began. Bogged down in Harper’s Ferry by his own delay and hesitation, Brown’s little army was soon surrounded by various militia companies, and were prevented from escaping the town before a final assault by U.S. marines. Captured, tried, and sentenced to death, John Brown then turned from the “sword of steel” to the “sword of the spirit,” as he put it, and ultimately won the war despite having lost the battle.
While Reynolds appreciates Brown far more than many of his academic colleagues, he nevertheless extends the thesis of Villard, not DuBois, by concluding that Brown failed at Harper’s Ferry because he did not attract the support of the relatively small number of enslaved blacks in the vicinity. It is not that the enslaved community was cowardly, Reynolds asserts, but rather that they were neither briefed of Brown’s plans nor willing to entrust themselves to the leadership of a white man. According to Reynolds, Brown threw a liberation party and nobody came, mainly because enslaved blacks could only see whites as oppressors, not liberators. Indeed, Reynolds speculates that Brown’s ill-fated delay at Harper’s Ferry reflected his perplexity at their lack of response, supposedly leaving him a victim of his own overestimations and assumptions.
Unfortunately, Reynolds follows Villard far afield in this regard, and despite his appreciation of DuBois and the vital link between Brown and the black community, his real paradigm becomes clear in the easy acceptance that he shows toward the “official” interpretation of the Harper’s Ferry raid. To be sure, many scholars have so exaggerated and skewed Brown’s intentions, that Reynolds’ approach is a welcome change in many respects. Yet he commits the same error as Villard, by discounting the only written witness of one of Brown’s surviving men, the black raider Osborne Anderson. He also buys into the claims of local slave masters, who had a vested interest in minimizing the involvement of “their” blacks in the record of the raid. In presenting the conventional version of the raid, Reynolds quotes Virginia newspapers and pro-slavery people and then, incredibly, presumes to dismiss any notion of prejudice by introducing the testimony of local slave holders. Throughout, Reynolds shows no concern to consider the claims of Osborne Anderson and others, who maintained that a significant number of the local enslaved community were quite responsive to Brown.
In her research on the raid over the past twenty-five years, Jean Libby, an independent scholar based on the west coast, has not only demonstrated that there was a healthy response from slaves in the immediate vicinity of the raid, but that Brown’s influence upon Jefferson County and its vicinity was dramatic and frightening to the slave holding establishment. In her work, John Brown Mysteries, Libby points out that census records for the region show that Brown’s movement, even in failure, spurred a significant exodus of disappointed blacks. The jurors in Brown’s trial experienced mysterious fires on their properties, just as some of the livestock of slavemasters were poisoned, all of which indicated that Brown was supported within the black community. Prisoner Brown naturally played down the post-raid activities, undoubtedly fearful that the white community might respond in bloody retaliation (as they did after the Nat Turner rebellion in 1831) if they perceived the viable support that existed among local blacks. For all intents and purposes, the enslaved community was both informed and inflamed by John Brown. But rather than questioning how their behaviors were refracted through the self-interested and racially phobic lens of local whites, Reynolds simply assumes the objectivity of what whites said about the actions of their slaves. “It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that most of the blacks responded with indifference or fear,” he concludes, seemingly clueless with respect to the dynamics of revolt, denial, and uncertainty, all of which are manifested in the full range of evidence pertaining to the Harper’s Ferry raid.
Reynolds has not only failed to evaluate and criticize the witness of the “bad guys,” but has also swallowed whole the interestingly deceptive account of John Brown’s self-proclaimed Canadian ally, Alexander Milton Ross (1832-1897), a distinguished physician and a specialist in the study who faked his way into the history books as a supposed friend of John Brown (see this blog, Dec. 31, 2005). Reynolds goes quite at length in reiterating details from the Ross autobiography, but is unfortunately clueless even though he made great use of the on-line archives of the late Boyd Stutler, who debunked the claims of Ross years ago. Had Reynolds followed Villard, Stutler, Oates, and me in ignoring Ross, he might have been spared the embarrassment of including this fraudulent story in his work.
John Brown, Abolitionist is not without other embarrassments, and they would go unmentioned were they not so prominent within the work. This is especially true with respect to the book’s illustrations, some of which are quite incorrect. For instance, a portrait of Brown “in Kansas, 1856,” was actually taken in Ohio. In another case, the famous bearded John Brown daguerreotype portrait by J. W. Black is mistakenly labeled as a derivative portrait, and the name of that artist is skewed from Nahum B. Onthank to “Nathan B. Outbank,” which would have made Villard both chuckle and cringe, since he used the Onthank portrait for the frontispiece of his work. Most unfortunate, and perhaps ironic, is the caption under the famous daguerreotype of John Brown in 1846, in which he poses with an abolitionist flag in one hand, and the other hand upraised as if making a vow. The caption reads that the daguerreotype was taken by an “unknown” black photographer, which is perhaps the worst embarrassment, since a major premise of the book pertains to the abolitionist’s intimate familiarity with the black community. In fact, the daguerreotype artist, Augustus Washington, is quite well known to us, especially since the original daguerreotype was only recently recovered, with great publicity, and is now part of the collection of the Smithsonian Institute.
As biographers, all of us must own up to errors in detail. But some errors are worse than others, and sometimes they even signify a greater meaning, either by accident or Providence (as Old Brown would prefer). Racially-defined assumptions, however subtle, have always led writers in very different directions with respect to interpreting John Brown’s life and actions, not to mention his myth and meaning to the nation. The differing perceptions of DuBois and Villard are not only indicators of how their respective communities have long understood John Brown, but are also representative paradigms by which scholars engage in research and interpretation. Like Villard, Reynolds may well be considered a friend of Brown by his less sympathetic white colleagues. In many respects, John Brown, Abolitionist must be seen as a startling challenge to the decidedly negative assumptions that prevail among white intellectuals, many of whom remain insistent on speaking of John Brown only in terms of terrorism or psychosis. At worst, these scholarly assumptions have allowed writers to make some of the most ridiculous, irresponsible, and insulting statements about Brown in a manner they would never presume to make in the case of other historical figures. At best, as in the case of Villard, or now in John Brown, Abolitionist, even Brown’s ostensible friends will continue to enable his enemies to hold him in an essentially negative light. Calling John Brown a unique non-racist and a forerunner of the Civil Rights movement may be a dramatic concession for the ivory tower. But labeling him a “good” terrorist is nevertheless antithetical to the record and witness of the black community. To be sure, Reynolds manages to transcend much of this in his well-meaning and valuable cultural study. “To see John Brown as the main link between African American culture and the Civil War is to recognize that blacks were prime movers in American history,” he concludes quite rightly. John Brown, Abolitionist is an eloquently written compromise, and despite the fact that the trade press has portrayed it as something of a cultural revelation, it is only a retooling of a 20th century paradigm. In this case, that paradigm assumes that a cultural history of John Brown must be centered on the writings of Whitman, Thoreau, and Emerson, rather than the eyewitness and record of John Brown in African American history.