Who Can Rightly Claim John Brown–the Left or the Right?
Besides being the chairman and founder of the John Brown Society, my friend Larry Lawrence is a brilliant exponent of the Leftist tradition and often expresses the conviction that the Left can absolutely claim John Brown as one of their own. I never argue with Larry because I am primarily a student of religion, and he is far more versed in politics and can certainly make an excellent case for the Left’s claim that the abolitionist is one of their own. However the late Edwin Cotter did not agree with Larry’s political views and for many years the two associates clashed over the idea that the Left could claim John Brown. A researcher and supervisor of the John Brown Farm in Lake Placid for many years, the late Mister Cotter was the undoubted authority on Brown’s life in the Adirondacks. He was also a Republican and a political conservative. Happily, by the time that Cotter died in 2001, he and Larry–both men of goodwill–had mended the fences of their relationship, although they never came to agreement with respect to politics and Old Brown.
John Brown has always been attractive across a spectrum of political and social views and has long enjoyed the admiration of liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, and Bible-wielding theists as well as agnostics and atheists. In this respect he reminds me of Malcolm X, since both men seem to transcend human boundaries, drawing admirers from across the spectrum of "race," religion, and ideology. Even today, were one to travel across the country and speak with people with an expressed interest in Brown, one would find that some of his biggest fans are conservative Republicans and others are revolutionary Leftists. So who can rightly claim John Brown, the Left or the Right?
John Brown the Leftist?
If contemporary Leftists are the heirs to the radical abolitionists of the 19th century as my friend Larry claims, then perhaps the Left can claim Brown as one of their own. Certainly the Left has made great contributions toward opposing segregation and injustice, and Leftist scholars have been on the vanguard of supporting Brown when status quo writers skewed and slandered his image in history texts. W. E. B. DuBois, the renowned scholar and intellectual who wrote an elegant biography of Brown in 1909 ultimately moved toward the Left. When his great biography was republished by International Publishers, a Leftist press, in 1962 (commemorating the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation), he affirmed his work with a pronounced Marxist perspective. "One could wish that John Brown could see today the results of the great revolution in Russia," DuBois wrote in addition to his 1909 text. "[T]hat he could see the new world of Socialism and Communism expanding . . . ." Indeed an array of Leftist intellectuals and scholars have uplifted and identified with Brown in oratory and scholarship, ranging from Christian socialists to atheistic Marxists.
On the other hand, if revolutionary commitment is judged to be inseparable from Leftist thought, then it may be that John Brown is not as close to the Left as these intellectuals and activists have assumed.
In the most literal sense, revolution pertains to the overturning of a system, and in this sense Brown might be considered revolutionary in his intention of overturning the economy of chattel slavery. But if revolutionary ideology necessitates the overturning of the capitalist system, then perhaps Brown is not revolutionary at all. In fact there is no evidence that he opposed capitalism, or at least that he assumed that capitalism necessarily required injustice in order to thrive.
John Brown the Capitalist?
In my forthcoming book, John Brown–the Cost of Freedom,1 I have made perhaps the most extensive study of Brown’s early life as a businessman, examining him in the context of mid-19th century developments and showing his efforts to support settlers in western Pennsylvania in the 1820s and his daring attempt to defeat the powerful New England manufacturers as the operator of a wool commission house on behalf of western wool growers in the 1840s. Yet in every case, Brown focused on inequity and injustice while never questioning the fundamental premise of capitalism, and even made a last ditch effort to build an alliance with European capitalists in order to undermine his opponents in New England. Indeed, if there was ever a genuine "compassionate conservative," it seems to be John Brown the businessman, who hoped to emulate men like Harm Jan Huidekoper of Pennsylvania and Gerrit Smith of New York, both of whom were abolitionist tycoons.
Revolutionist or Reformer?
In the political context, Brown was thus unique in his approach. Recall that the pacifist abolition leader, William Lloyd Garrison, renounced the Constitution of the United States because it provided for slavery. The nation had no reason to fear that Garrison would attempt to overthrow the government given his non-violent commitment. Yet in this sense he was far more a revolutionist in outlook than John Brown, who merely believed that radically excising slavery from the body politic would save the nation from civil war and restore health to the capitalist republic.
Despite his wish to destabilize and destroy slavery, John Brown had no intention of overthrowing any established state or local government, North or South, and certainly not the federal government. "The old flag was good enough for him," recalled one of his black associates. Indeed Brown insisted that just as "freedom had been won from the tyrants of the Old World for white men . . . he intended it to do duty for black men. He declared emphatically that he would not give up the Stars and Stripes." The same associate recalled his strident reaction when someone recommended delaying the raid until the United States was engaged in a war with another country. "I am no traitor," Brown responded. "I would be the last man to take advantage of my country in the face of a foreign foe." Brown was "intensely American; he never for a moment thought of fighting the United States as such, but simply the defenders of human slavery in the States. Only the ulcer, slavery, he would cut from the body politic."2
Reformers seek to amend, repair, and revise a system by making fundamental changes. Even if those changes require radical measures, they are never intended to undermine or overthrow the entire system, but rather to align the practical workings of the system with its best political ideals. Brown did not live to see the Constitutional amendments that abolished slavery and empowered blacks as citizens, but undoubtedly he would have approved. Even his plan, which failed in its inauguration at Harper’s Ferry in October 1859, was fundamentally the intention of radical reform, not militant revolution. Every measure Brown attempted, including his intended "Provisional Government of the United States," was only a measure of reform with the ultimate goal of repairing and sustaining the government according to its foundational structure–minus slavery. Had Brown’s plans materialized, slavery would have collapsed, but the structure of the U.S. system would have been preserved. Otherwise he was neither a socialist nor communist, and would look upon their revolutionary ideals as highly problematic given their philosophical presuppositions.
Against the Grain
Another problem with the claim of the contemporary Left upon Brown is that one can be absolutely certain that he would look upon other modern ideals of the movement, generally speaking, as unacceptable. Certainly Brown, given his firm evangelical Christian reading of the Bible, would look negatively upon the presuppositions of the Pro-Choice movement and the gay rights movement. Leftists and liberals who admire Brown, conveniently set aside this aspect of his life, much as they do with Malcolm X, whose Islamic beliefs would likewise put him at odds with these secular rights movements. Of course, when it comes to claiming heroes, people see what they want to see. For example, in discussing "sexual justice" for gays, Morris Kaplan writes: "Brown in his individuality exemplifies the paradoxical aspiration of the American democracy to nourish citizens strong enough to say ‘no’ to their country in its errancy [sic] and to found a community of conscience."3 This may be so, but John Brown the biblical Calvinist would hardly be pleased at being cited within a political study relating to gay rights. With respect to abortion, I am not convinced that Brown would support any murderous attack on medical professionals and clinic staff, although he would most certainly oppose the "Pro-Choice" agenda despite his 19th century commitment to women’s rights. To what length Brown would go today in opposing abortion is a matter of speculation, although he would identify with a theistic conservative approach.
No Right-Winger Either
Yet none of this militates against the fact that Brown would be uncomfortable with other aspects of the Republican and conservative agenda, particularly where it involves indifference to the poor and oppressed and policies in violation of what he understood as justice. He would likely be opposed to the current Republican administration’s opportunistic invasion of Iraq just as he opposed the invasion of Mexico in his day. In this regard, flag-waving Republicans certainly err in thinking that John Brown represents their overall perspective as well. Interestingly, the granddaddy of Brown scholars, Boyd Blynn Stutler (d. 1970), was a firm Republican and political conservative. Editor of the American Legion Magazine and advocate of "old school" Republican ideas, Stutler despised liberals and Leftists and privately criticized black intellectual W. E. B. DuBois for his political ideas. Writing in 1963 after DuBois died an expatriate in Ghana, Stutler wrote: "I shed no tears when I read of the passing of DuBois--I think he did the cause of the colored people more harm than good."4 Ever the gentleman, Stutler was not argumentative toward left-oriented scholars like Louis Ruchames, to whom he rendered assistance in the production of A John Brown Reader (1959). But Stutler clearly held to the old Lincoln-Brown Republican romance, a view that was likewise expressed by Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon. In such a scenario, Brown is seen as a hero for opposing slavery although the fundamental racism of the country, including the inherent presumptions of white superiority, are never challenged. Instead Brown is perceived as representing the supposed self-purifying virtue of the United States and thus is prized as an agent of historical beautification.
A "New Sort of Man"
Scholars and activists will continue to interpret and appropriate Brown according to their own agendas, but it may be that Mary Stearns summed him up best when she said he was a "new sort of man." Long before he appeared on the national scene, it was clear that no single category was sufficient to hold him. Brown was sui generis, a man after his own kind. Leftists may look to him for good reason. But conservatives may also claim that a holistic appreciation of Brown would position him closer to their side of the American political contest and "culture wars" of the 21st century.
The point is that you have your political views and I have mine, but the role of the student of history is to allow our Subject to be who he was, in the time that he lived, and thus appreciate and criticize him accordingly. Speaking for myself, I am much more concerned with knowing about John Brown the man who lived than I am about forcing him into one or another political category. The truth is that Brown does not comfortably or absolutely fit into either political camp. He never really fit into a political camp in his own day, and there is no reason to demand that he do so now.
Once when a reporter asked Malcolm X if he considered himself militant, he answered, "I consider myself Malcolm." His smile and gentle tone notwithstanding, Malcolm’s point was to resist the simplistic labeling of a media that was more interested in sensationalism than truth. We should demand the same for our Subject, since he never identified himself with any political party or ideology. Our greatest work as students of history is not to place him on a contemporary political map. Rather it is to inquire, to the best of our ability, who John Brown considered himself to have been.