"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, November 30, 2007

John Brown & New York City

According to the famous New York diarist George Templeton Strong, nine-tenths of the city’s population in 1859 were quite opposed to John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, and were equally vociferous in opposing the outpouring of Northern sympathy in newspapers and rallies resulting from his execution. Like many Northern whites in the antebellum period, Strong was nevertheless disgusted by the demands and threats of the Southern slave states, and had grown weary of “seeing the North on its knees, declaring it is a good boy, and begging the South not to commit the treason and violence it is forever threatening.” Even though he disapproved of the tributes to Brown that appeared in the New York Tribune, Strong could not help but see the impact that the abolitionist had made on people throughout the free states. “His simplicity and consistency, the absence of fuss, parade and bravado, the strength and clearness of his letters, all indicate a depth of conviction that one does not expect in an Abolitionist,” he wrote the week after Brown’s execution in Virginia. “Slavery has received no such blow in my time as his strangulation.”

John Brown, one of the nation’s leading authorities on fine sheep and wool, had been anything but a good boy. For nearly four years, dating from his first trip out to the Kansas territory until his assault on the [West] Virginia town of Harper’s Ferry in October 1859, Brown waged a full time war against slavery--one that cost him virtually all he owned as well as the lives of three of his sons. Finally, it required that he hang by the neck on a Virginia gallows while his enemies watched with satisfaction, declaring him aloud to be an “enemy of humanity.”

Yet George Templeton Strong and other conservative Northerners could not escape the forces in the wind that made the swaying of John Brown’s body something of a national pendulum, as if marking the months, days, and hours that remained before the whole nation exploded into civil war. Soldiers dressed in blue would soon be singing John Brown’s anthem as they marched into battle, and a troubled President Abraham Lincoln would finally be forced to follow John Brown’s example by putting guns in the hands of black men. But it would take years before Lincoln was ready to do so.

In February 1860, barely three months after Brown’s execution, presidential hopeful Lincoln told an audience at the Cooper Union in New York City that the late abolitionist was a brooding, delusional fanatic whose unwarranted invasion of Virginia merited the harshest penalty. John Brown deserved to be hanged, Lincoln declared before an audience of 1500 New Yorkers. As for slavery, he concluded, “we can yet afford to leave it alone where it is." He made quite a stir with his Cooper Union speech, and many think it was a turning point in his quest for the presidency. Yet it was in cleverly distancing himself from John Brown and black liberation that Abe Lincoln won the nomination of the Republican party in 1860. On that snowy night in Manhattan, it was quite apparent that John Brown’s body was a burden to Lincoln and the Republicans, and that they believed the problem of slavery was a matter best postponed for the sake of the Union. Brown had forcefully disagreed, insisting that the plight of oppressed millions should be the first order of business for American democracy. To the dismay of the Republican party, the South presumed that Brown fairly illustrated the Northern agenda. Thus, figuratively speaking, Lincoln had tried to unload John Brown’s body in New York City–a point that has a certain resonance only because the real body had actually been unloaded in the city twelve weeks before.

Shipped north by train from Harper’s Ferry to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on December 2, John Brown’s remains were accompanied by his widow Mary Brown and James Miller McKim, a prominent abolitionist from the city of brotherly love. Mary needed to rest among friends over night, but the excitement and curiosity surrounding Brown’s body prompted the mayor to insist that his coffin not remain in town. Of course he claimed that he had Mary Brown’s best interests in mind, fearing that the uproar would interrupt her mourning. But the mayor was far more concerned that the excitement might lead to public demonstrations in sympathy for the Old Man, and as the New York Tribune reported, “he preemptorily insisted that another stopping place should be selected.” And so John Brown’s body was tossed northward like the proverbial hot potato, and he entered New York for the last time, on December 3, 1859, inside a crude pine coffin, dressed in tattered, war-torn clothes, with the hangman’s rope still around his neck--a Southern salute to the people of the North.* (continued)


*Some of the material in this section has been re-presented in the epilogue of my book, John Brown--The Cost of Freedom.

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