"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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Tuesday, April 01, 2008


The Blogger's Response, My Apology and Remarks

Thank you for your comment. You are obviously very passionate about John Brown and I can appreciate that. But you have also served to illustrate my comment that Brown is a controversial figure. If he were not, we’d all have said some very different things. As for my sources about Brown, they all came from the internet, Wikipedia mainly but also historical sites about Kansas and some university history lectures that are online. I should elaborate as to why I saw Brown as a hero when I was in grade school. At that time I misunderstood my history and thought Brown was a black man, an escaped slave, and the Raid on Harper’s Ferry and attempt to rescue his family. I do think the US could have ended slavery without a bloody civil war from which we as a nation are still suffering the consequences. You say Brown has been misrepresented by slave masters, pro-slavery people and pacifists. While I am neither a slave master, nor pro-slavery, I am a pacifist. In my opinion violence is rarely the best solution to anything. Part two of your comment doesn’t even merit a counter-argument on my part. You do not know me or my beliefs or my ethnic background and engaging with you and your accusing rhetoric is pointless because you have already passed judgment.
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My response:

Perhaps I have judged you harshly and wrongly, and I do apologize. The fact that you are a pacifist does put your critique in a different category, one which I nevertheless do not agree with. However you feel no less strongly about your analysis than I do about mine. Pacifists can rightly and easily point out that violence usually leads to more violence, and never has a utopia been born out of a war. On the other hand, pacifists often stand on the sidelines of history and make judgments upon men and women who choose to fight, as if all people who fight believed in violence as THE answer, or that they are essentially defined as violent people. Brown did not see violence as man's hope. He had great apprehension about the use of force insofar as civilians were concerned, which is why he wrote a constitution for his people in which the rights of prisoners were to be protected and war crimes were to be punished. As a Christian, he preferred peace and lived 50 years without ever using violence. But as a Christian he felt the Golden Rule constrained him to do something, and by 1850 it was clear that slavery was not going to go away. In fact, slavery was encroaching upon the North (Dred Scott, Fugitive Slave Law). Brown knew there are times and seasons when men and women must fight, particularly when evil men and institutions become so powerful that nothing but militant power will overturn them. In Kansas Brown would have killed many more people had he loved violence or practiced "terrorism" as he is often accused. I believe he and others killed there for self-preservation, and only a pacifist would indict him for that (smile). He was actually a man who minimized violence and tried (I think to the point of self-defeat) to avoid general bloodletting. He had no intention of a general insurrection (which involves killing slave masters) and the reason he was caught at Harpers Ferry is because he delayed in "parleying" with his captives, for whom he had a kind of paralysis of pity. He was trying to assuage their fears, believe it or not, and show them that his only concern was to release enslaved people, not kill them. This is documented, but too many people have only listened to the slave master record, which was carried into the northern press, upheld by the moderate Republican party, rehearsed by Lost Cause southern romantics, and harped upon time and again by journalists and scholars with little interest or understanding of Brown's life.

You write: "I do think the US could have ended slavery without a bloody civil war from which we as a nation are still suffering the consequences." But this is my point: even if this were possible, slavery would have ended in the 20th century, and only after slave masters had been compensated for their "property." And that's the optimistic viewpoint. There's still plenty of reason to believe that forces in the South were pushing for secession, independence, and a permanent continuation of slavery. Nor do I know what consequences we as a nation are suffering as a result of the Civil War. Where are they? The nation boomed as a result of war time industry; the South was welcomed back and power returned to white southern secessionists within fifteen years. While there may be "nooks and crannies" of the South where people still hate Yankees, the only people who REALLY suffered the consequences of the Union victory were emancipated blacks, who fell back into the hands of their defeated former masters after 1875. Post-reconstruction, segregation, lynching, and economic disenfranchisement from that era still resonate in disparities that exist today. This was also the era when John Brown was increasingly slandered and misrepresented.

I apologize also for nosing in on your blog. As a biographer of Brown, I survey what's being written about him regularly on the internet, and so much of it follows along the lines of the bigotry and malice expressed by Sam Houston the commenter above. Once in a while I throw my two cents in, but I should have refrained and let you have your conversation with your colleagues. So forgive my intrusiveness. I do admire your literary passion and humanitarian perspective even though I still don't agree with your view of Brown, or your perspective on the "could haves" of history. Maybe some day you'll do me the honor of reading my two biographies of the man. You may not change your opinion, but I believe you will see him in a different light in some respects.

FIRE FROM THE MIDST OF YOU: A RELIGIOUS LIFE OF JOHN BROWN (nyu press); JOHN BROWN--THE COST OF FREEDOM (international publishers)

All the best to you.--Lou D

PS Brown was not a good orator at all. He found speaking difficult although he tried at points to address audiences, particularly in 1857. If Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass, and others had golden tongues, Brown had a copper one at best. Believe me, he was a better guerilla than an orator.--LD