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

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

James McPherson on John Brown: "More a Freedom Fighter than a Terrorist"

Pulitzer Prize-winning author James M. McPherson has a new book out entitled This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War (Oxford University Press). According to Oxford's website, the book "is a collection of essays on topics as disparate as the average soldier's avid love of newspapers to the postwar creation of the mystique of a Lost Cause in the South." A brief author's interview is also featured, which includes a question and answer concerning our man Brown. This excerpt is of particular interest:

Q: You write in “Escape and Revolt in Black and White” that some historians consider John Brown a terrorist. What is your personal opinion?

McPherson: I tend to look upon John Brown more as a freedom fighter than as a terrorist, recognizing however, that there is sometimes a thin to non-existent line between them. John Brown's goals were noble, but his means were not always praiseworthy.

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Comment: It is a positive sign, hopefully, of things to come in the 21st century, that scholars--particularly leading white academics of the caliber of Prof. McPherson--are beginning to correct the stubborn prejudice that has prevailed in the Academy with respect to John Brown since the mid-20th century. There is a growing number of scholars (particularly since the publication of Prof. Reynolds' notable biography of 2005) who acknowledge Brown's role, at least in partial terms, as positive. Of course in my own forthcoming work I do not cast Brown at all as a terrorist, but rather as a counter-terrorist.

The alleged non-praiseworthy "means" of Brown are in themselves too often skewed and inflated to outrageous proportions by those who despise Brown. McPherson and others have been far kinder to Brown. They seem to recognize, finally, that most of the negative characterizations of Brown formerly were subjective if not biased and one-sided. Others, myself included, argue that apart from the Pottawatomie killings of 1856, there is really little else that can be raised as not being praiseworthy in Brown's "means." If anything, the degree to which Brown sought to avoid excessive violence, unwarranted bloodshed, vendetta, and vengeance are a high tribute to the sterling character of the man. The truth be told, Brown's greatest undoing at Harper's Ferry was based upon his inclination to worry too much about the welfare of his prisoners. Hardly a terrorist prototype.

Considering the bloodthirsty, racist brutes that plagued Kansas in the 1850s, or shortly afterward, the murderous Quantrill, and later the ruthless racist Confederate terrorist, Nathan Bedford Forrest, it seems ludicrous to class John Brown with them. Brown was a godly gentleman and deserves at least to be put in the company of the South's romanticized heroes like Jackson, Stuart, and Lee, who jointly used their gifts and talents to the detriment of a whole generation by preserving and extending a hopeless and unjust cause. In my opinion, of course, Brown was by far a better man than these pious pro-slavery figures. He was certainly a truer Christian, for he died to set men at liberty, not to sustain their bondage in the name of "independence."--LD

Please note that you can read the entire interview on the OUP website at: http://blog.oup.com/oupblog/2007/02/a_few_questions.html

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