"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, November 28, 2007

Response to a Blogger Who Calls John Brown a "Bully"

John Brown was not a bully. He was by nature an advocate for the underdog.

What happened in Kansas was pro-slavery terrorism unchecked. Brown went there to protect his family. The [Pottawatomie] killings [of May 1856] that he and others committed are famously misrepresented. They were not random attacks on pro-slavery neighbors. They were specifically aligned to remove the collaborators of pro-slavery terrorists (euphemistically known as "border ruffians") who were intent on "removing" the Browns. Brown did his homework--he always did his homework, and he knew specifically which men were working to undermine his family. Keep in mind, too, that there was a pro-slavery government in Washington D.C., Kansas was a territory overrun by pro-slavery thugs and terrorists, and there was no local constabulary or law enforcement that would provide them with immediate protection against terrorist assault; Lawrence had just been assaulted and Brown had done surveillance on the "ruffian" camp, having learned that his family were marked for attack. He made a hard choice, and he knew it was problematic; but he chose to strike first and save his sons. Note too that none of the men who were involved with him were forced; they assented and agreed, including one of the sword-wielding neighbors. This incident has been misrepresented, largely because of ignorance and prejudice, which seems to be the blight on Brown's legacy.

As a biographer of the man, I and a few others doing primary research are constantly up against the deep-seated prejudice and misinformation about Brown that saturates the thinking of people in this country--yes, mostly white males (and I say that as one myself).


Your comments on Lincoln likewise suggest you do not know the man. You speak of Douglass, but you should take the time to read what Douglass said about Lincoln and Brown, respectively, in his third and final autobiography. He says of Lincoln that he was primarily a white man's president, and that his choices and judgments as president were for whites, not blacks' advancement. In Douglass's thinking, no "white" man was closer to the cause of black people than John Brown. This was also the judgment of Harriet Tubman and the rest of Douglass's contemporaries. The "Lincoln the Great Emancipator" hype that we've all been fed is a post-1865 propaganda and it is an attempt to make the proverbial half-full glass seem full to the brim. But Lincoln was a politician, not a liberator, and if he did liberate people, he did so when it was politically expedient, or (if Lerone Bennett is correct) even unavoidable.

Lastly, as to Harper's Ferry, the conventional understanding of the raid is wrong, and that error has likewise informed historians and school book authors, where most of us have gotten our basic predisposition and understanding. You say Brown had courage but Douglass had wisdom. That's only half true.

Douglass repeatedly acknowledged afterward that he lacked courage to die for his people, but he never accused Brown of lacking wisdom. Douglass himself did not know what Brown knew about HF. If you examine Brown's strategy, you'll find it was not unreasonable at all. HF had no military guard and it was close to the mountains. Historians like myself and others have likewise found evidence that many enslaved people indeed turned out to support him, so the essence of Brown's plan was feasible at least. Douglass never objected to Brown's basic plan; what he objected to was seizing the armory. Brown failed not because his plan was foolish, but because he lingered too long "parleying" and sympathizing with his whimpering hostages--most of them slave masters. Some bully! His own man, Osborne Anderson wrote this in his memoir of the raid[A Voice from Harper's Ferry-1860]

Brown was no bully. By nature he was a very compassionate man who always fought for the downcast. As a school boy he was known to always take up for the weak guy when he was being bullied. We have that from local history. As a businessman he aligned his interests with white farmers being victimized by industrialists. Of course he was always trying to assist black people, the perennial victims of Jeffersonian democracy. You have incorrectly characterized him, but it's not your fault. It's the fault of biased historians and journalists. Brown is the most skewed and violated historical figure in U.S. history, and a lot of it has to do with race and politics in the post-civil war era leading into the civil rights era. You don't get Brown, but you think you do, and that's been the problem of the majority of bloggers, journalists, and even U.S. historians--the vast majority of them being white males who never do more than a basic reading of a few interpretations. I'm a two-time biographer of the man John Brown, and as I said, you don't get him at all, and because of that your bully notion falls flat.

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