"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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Saturday, April 25, 2009

John Brown: The Cost of Freedom reviewed by Ed Edinger of The John Brown Heritage Association, Meadville, Pa.

Louis A. DeCaro Jr.'s book, John Brown: The Cost of Freedom discusses activities and events in John Brown's life that do not appear in most biographical accounts. For example, the Chatham Convention held in May of 1858 is rarely discussed in any detail by other writers. The town of Chatham had a population of about 4,000 in1858 and was located in the Canadian province of Ontario, about 50 miles due east of Detroit. If was at this convention that Brown secured a ratification of the "Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the People of the United States." The purpose of this document, as DeCaro put it, "was to provide a system of laws and guidelines for the guerrilla notion that he expected to lead in the mountains of the South throughout his campaign against slavery." The proceedings at Chatham were a necessary prelude for Brown to the actions he intended to carry out at Harpers Ferry.

Attending the convention were 34 blacks, John Brown and 10 of his followers, The most notable black in attendance was Dr. Martin Delany. Delany was born a slave in Charles Town, Virginia in 1812. He escaped slavery and lived for a time in Pittsburgh. He and Frederick Douglass established the North Star newspaper together. He was active in the Negro Emigration Movement but eventually lost faith in that program. When the Civil War broke out he served in the Union Army and attained the rank of major. As it turned out only one person from all the blacks that attended the convetion stayed with Brown and made the trip to Harpers Ferry. That person was Osborne Anderson. Seventeen of the blacks at the convention enlisted and served in the Civil War when they later had the opportunity. This fact probably is evidence that they had doubts about Brown's plan to conduct guerrilla warfare in the Appalachian Mountains setting.

DeCaro explains that John Brown, while established at the Kennedy farmhouse in Maryland, did far more than most people realize to prepare for a successful Harpers Ferry raid. During that summer of 1859 in Western Maryland he traveled as far as Philadelphia to meet black groups hoping to enlist more men in his guerrilla band. Contacts were made with free and enslaved blacks in the vicinity of Harpers Ferry. Up to 1,000 slaves were ready to join his effort at the right moment. The main source of this fact is some testimony given in 1869 by a young black man, Antony Hunter, who in 1859 was enslaved on a farm at Sheperdstown,Virginia (now West Virginia) about 12 miles north of Harpers Ferry. During the Civil War when Union troops were occupying Harpers Ferry, Hunter escaped from his farm and enlisted forces with the Union. He became an aid to Lieutenant Robert Morris Copeland of the Massachusetts 2nd Regiment. Hunter told Lieutenant Copeland that at the time of Brown's raid between 500 and 1,000 blacks would have gathered with Brown had he left the town in time, returned to the Maryland side of the Potomac River and gathered his supplies that were being guarded by his son Owen and five other of his men, This then would have been the guerilla band to go off into the surrounding mountains and begin their work to destablized the slavery economy of the South. Antony Hunter further stated that the Negroes gathered on the east bank of the Potomac waiting for Brown's arrival disappeared when they realized Brown was trapped in the town and his plan failed. The conventional thinking that has surrounded the Harpers Ferry incident has been that the blacks were not sufficiently motivated to seek their freedom and/or that Brown did little to make sure blacks were aware of his aims at Harpers Ferry. DeCaro explains that this thinking is erroneous. It was Brown's almost inexplicable delay in departing from the town– due in large part to his inordinate concern for the fate of his white hostages–that was the fatal element that upset Brown's stategy at Harpers Ferry. A quote from Osborne Anderson's book, A Voice from Harpers Ferry, reflects his view on this matter:
. . .and could our brave old Captain have steeled his heart against the entreaties of his captives, or shut up the fountain of his sympathies against their families–could he, for the moment, have forgotten them, in the selfish throught of his own friends and kindred, or, by adhering to the original plan, have left the place, and thus looked forward to the prospective freedom of the slave–hundreds ready and waiting would have been armed before twenty-four hours had elapsed.
Unfortunately, historians beginning with Oswald Villard in 19[10] have discounted the eyewitness account of the raid given by Osborne Anderson, who was one of the few of the raiding party that escaped Harpers Ferry and left a written account of the event. DeCaro applauds two current historians, Jean Libby and Hannah Geffert, who continue to develop information on the widespread support that Brown and his men had developed prior to the raid. These ladies have documented the considerable damage slaves did to the property of the slaveholders and jurors (those that stood in the jury at Brown's trial) following the raid. Libby and Geffert have documented that there was an unprecedented increase in black runaways in the counties surrounding Harpers Ferry in the year after the raid. This is Louis DeCaro's second book about John Brown. It was published in 2007 by International Publishers of New York. His first book, published in 2002, was entitled, Fire from the Midst of You: A Religious Life of John Brown.

Ed Edinger is the secretary of the John Brown Heritage Association (JBHA) and is a long term student of Brown’s life. JBHA publishes the only continuous John Brown publication in the country. If you wish to join JBHA email Mr. Edinger at peter5@zoominternet.net.

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