"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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Friday, May 18, 2007

Not At All Troubled by John Brown

I recently made contact with Deb and Tom Goodrich, authors, historians, and expert advocates of prime Americana on their excellent blog, "Mason-Dixon Wild West," which can be viewed at


As the blog subtitle reads, "This is the blog where paths cross--South, West, Civil War, Indian Wars, Peace, Conflict, Saints, Saloon Girls, Myths, Movies, BS, TV. This is where you will find the stories." Obviously John Brown has among those themes, and the Goodriches are quite keen to the fact, especially since Tom is the author of War to the Knife: Bleeding Kansas, 1854-1861, a book which I wish I had known about sooner, and which is now on my must-read list for the summer.

For Brown's birthday, May 9, Deb Goodrich published a thoughtful, reflective entry regarding Brown that I took the liberty of responding to, and which she kindly published on their blog. In exchange, I here publish her entry and my response as well. I send my best to Tom and Deb, and wish them continued success in all their efforts.
William C. Davis called him a "mountain in the path of American history." Henry David Thoreau compared him to Christ as he sacrificed himself for the world's sins. The Commonwealth of Virginia called him a treasonist and hanged him. John Brown, John Brown, He'll trouble 'em more when his coffin's nailed down. John Brown was born on this day in 1800. He was hanged when he was 59 years old, which Tom will tell you is too young to die. But what an impact he made in 59 years. While Tom was writing War to the Knife, he became intimately acquainted with Old Osawatomie, so named because he lived near the Kansas town. While dwelling there, along the creeks and hiding in the woods, he penned this letter to his wife (and I don't know why the Kansas Department of Tourism hasn't appropriated this slogan): We have, like David of old, had our dwelling with the serpents of the rocks and wild beast of the wilderness. . . . Then he became as one of those beasts. In 1856, after the sacking of Lawrence and the beating of Sen. Charles Sumner on the floor of the U.S. Senate, Brown went crazy. Setting his sites on Southerners who had settled near him, he told his sons, It has been ordained by the Almighty God, ordained from eternity, that I should make an example of these men.

His example was to hack them to pieces with broadswords. I am fascinated by John Brown. He sacrificed everything--his future, his life, his children--to end slavery. I don't agree with his methods; I don't understand how he could sacrifice the lives of his children. I don't understand how he could take the children of others and slaughter them as he did with the Doyle family here in Kansas. But, like each of his, he is a product of his time and profoundly affected his time. He troubles us still.

Dear Goodriches:

It was nice finding your web log, "Mason-Dixon Wild West" today, and glad that the John Brown theme is such an essential part of your interests.

Like Tom, I'm also a fairly "acquainted" with the Old Man, being a biographer and student of his life and letters. I look forward to reading Tom's book when I get through a mountain of papers that I'm currently grading. I haven't yet gotten a hold of the Evan Carton book either. My second book has recently been published, a short monograph with 20 letters, including a transcript of the original copy of the letter to which you allude in your blog entry. It was written in pencil and is quite smudged at points, but happily Sanborn's transcription, though highly sanitized, provides the missing phrases.

At any rate, I was moved by your words, your reflections, and I dare to venture my own understanding--not that it will change your mind, but simply to let you know how another person feels having studied the man's life "up close and personal."

You say there are two things you do not understand about Brown--how he could sacrifice his children's lives, and how he could slaughter other peoples' children. You trace some of this to his being a product of his time, but ultimately conclude he troubles you still. Historian William McFeely similarly wrote that Brown is "vexing" to the nation, and many others harmonize with you that he is troubling to them.

Speaking for myself, however, I am not at all troubled by Brown, and while Brown was a man of his times and responded within that framework, I think there are certain "eternal" aspects to his humanity that we could all appreciate given the right circumstances, or with the same presuppositions.

First I would say that Brown NEVER sacrificed his children to the anti-slavery cause. The young men who died at Harper's Ferry and Kansas (the latter being the murdered Frederick Brown), both his sons and those who followed him as a father-leader, did so as adults and did so willingly and with great passion for the cause. Brown never coerced, cajoled, exploited, or deceived anyone into giving their lives for the anti-slavery cause. It is true that he did not fully reveal his Harper's Ferry plans to his men until quite late in the game, but even so those young men had already made a decision to live and die (if necessary) for the cause; once apprised of the full plan for Virginia, they decided nevertheless to follow him. When his sons John Jr., Jason, and beloved son-in-law Henry Thompson opted not to join him in Virginia, Brown accepted it and moved forward. So I don't think it's quite fair to say he ever sacrificed anyone except himself, and he did so willingly. As to the impact of his absence upon the family, there was sacrifice there too. But again Mary Brown and the family as a whole had long made that commitment to give their "all" for the anti-slavery cause.

One important element in understanding this sacrificial mentality is to see Brown as the deeply religious man that he was. This is not an element that is generally viewed rightly, or even taken seriously because so many contemporary scholars are alienated from or indifferent to religion, particularly Christianity. Christianity suffers from the "condemnation of proximity" in western scholarship--that is, because it is most familiar, it is most easily dismissed and blamed, most likely misrepresented, and the least likely to be appreciated for its positive elements, while other "world" religions are treated romantically because they are exotic to the "American experience."

Nevertheless, John Brown was a strong, Bible-believing Christian and his theology was premised on living for the gospel, dying for Christ, and having a strong hope in the resurrection. Brown did not fear death or the gallows because he was truly convicted of the hope of the resurrection and the sovereign purpose of God. This may or may not seem bizarre to you (I do not know what your religious views are), but I share a very similar theology to Brown and I understand his faith. Many Christians have thus given their lives for "the gospel," whether being persecuted, or in life-time service to the poor and sick, or in spreading the teachings of Jesus to the world, or in pursuing social reform and justice. Brown's genius, however, was that he fused evangelical witness with militant reform in the cause of black people. To Brown, esp. in the late 1850s, to live for Christ was to live for liberty, and to die for Christ was a happy ending because he held the hope of the believer, not just in going to heaven, but in the resurrection to come.

Lastly, if you will kindly bear with me, we have a different "read" of Pottawatomie. I believe there is ample argument--more than conventional scholarship has allowed--for the killings as a counter-terrorist effort. The late Boyd Stutler, the foremost John Brown documentarian, once referred to the Doyles as "bad eggs that needed killing." I argue that Doyles, Wilkinson, and Sherman were collaborators with terrorists, and that it is time to stop labeling Brown as the terrorist--as has become fashionable these days (among white scholars, I should add). The Pottawatomie five were not killed because they were pro-slavery people; there was another criterion involved and it had to do with their imminent designs and agenda, and it was this that Brown and his men cut off at the root. It is ugly and bloody, but I think that, at the very least, Brown should be given the consideration of having come to the conclusion (and not in a vacuum) that this had to be done to secure their own lives and security as a particularly despised abolitionist family. There were many pro-slavery people in the territory in those days, but the Browns attacked only certain people because they had specific reason to do so. Bear in mind too, that the men who followed Brown were fully persuaded, especially Henry Thompson, who always argued until his dying day that the killings were absolutely necessary even though he himself was sickened by the bloodshed. Theodore Weiner, a former slave owner turned free state man, also participated in the killings, so that should also serve as a barometer of the intent and circumstances. In an age of terrorism, I think it is time that we start recognizing that Brown's position was the sympathetic one, not the Doyles and their ilk. Mahala Doyle had a right to resent Brown's homicidal action--even bad people have a right to grieve. But at the time she knew her husband and sons were up to NO GOOD and said as much; later in years she lied, even though Brown had actually spared her youngest son, who was likely a terrorist thug in training. As I mention in my latest book, the Doyle who lived was afterward willing to die for the Confederate cause and for slavery, so the apple didn't fall far from the tree. These were not good people and frankly in a world where good and bad people live, I vote for the Browns, who took their own security in hand in the midst of a politically chaotic and white supremacist flux. I am not at all troubled by Brown. Every nation has its killers, and at least Brown was among those who did not go to war for love of money, theft of land, oppression of human souls, or boastful pride. He killed necessarily and he killed minimally by intention. Had Brown had his way, there would have been far less blood shed and slavery would have collapsed with far less human loss.

Regardless, congratulations and best wishes for the book, the fine blog, and all your endeavors. . . .--LD

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