"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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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Osawatomie Notebook
Jason Brown

Salmon Brown reported in 1913: “We had grown discontent in Ohio. There had been a drought that had caused much damage; Uncle Adair had already moved to Osawatomie, and five of us boys decided to follow, to grow up in a new country and fight if necessary for freedom.”

Jason did not come to Kansas to fight, though, as Salmon reported. “Jason in his quieter way was just as active and busy, but his love for peace was not in sympathy with the spirit of war ... which pervaded the atmosphere on all sides,” he wrote.

Salmon offered insight into that gentleness, relating an incident in which Jason’s spirit trumped virtual starvation when he refused to eat quail his brother had hunted and cooked during the winter of 1855-1856:

“I remember one day after we had been without meat for months, I trapped a bunch of quail in the cornfield. I killed and dressed them, and father cooked them in a big kettle over the fireplace,” Salmon wrote. “It seemed to me I had never tasted anything so good, but Jason would not touch them. He had seen the birds flutter as they were dying, and it so worked on his sympathies that he could not eat them. He was always just so tender of wild things and could never endure the sight of suffering either in man nor brute.”

However, Jason Brown was not a complete pacifist. He was arrested after the Pottawatomie Massacre and was released from pro-slavery custody in June 1856, but he still maintained his pacifism until the Battle of Osawatomie. Wrote Salmon: “Jason was released in June. Up to that time, he had never done any fighting, being a nonresistant and averse to shedding blood; but in the Battle of Osawatomie, which followed, he forgot his nonresistant principles and joined and fought with the fierceness of a old trooper. He was keyed up to it by that time.”

Salmon offered insight into why Jason took up arms in defense of Osawatomie, observing that as a child, “in all our wild pranks on the Western reserve, Jason never took part. I never knew him to engage in a fight. Yet he would always take the part of the underdog. He always demanded justice for everybody and never gossiped or would listen to gossip about anybody. Born with an almost abnormal conscience, he would never do anything he thought was not strictly right to save his life.”

Jason Brown was a gentle, peaceful abolitionist who only fought when there was no other option. He joined in the Battle of Osawatomie in defense of his beliefs and to defend the town. His quiet courage here in Osawatomie and Kansas Territory demonstrates that he was willing to stand up for his beliefs and defend the underdog.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Reflection
What Bothers Me About John Brown

I well remember a conversation that I had with the late Ed Cotter, back in October 2000, during a visit to Lake Placid, N.Y. and the North Elba farm and burial site of John Brown.  Cotter was the director of the John Brown farm from the mid-1960s, and had studied the Old Man for years, likewise corresponding with JB greats Boyd Stutler and Clarence Gee.  It surprised me, then, when Mr. Cotter responded in the negative when I asked him if he would like to have met John Brown.  I cannot quote him exactly, but he explained that he did not think that Brown would have been very easy to get along with, and that he would have found his personality less than appealing.   Of course, that was Mr. Cotter’s opinion and he was entitled to it if anyone was, given the years he had devoted to studying John Brown.

 "Our fanatics are heroes; theirs are psychopaths,” the late Murray Rothbard noted in his libertarian discussion about the malignant use of psychohistory—which includes a reasonable defense of John Brown against his many critics.

[The complete entry is available only in the forthcoming book, John Brown: Emancipator]

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Do You Know About This Movie?

In 1960, a year after the centennial of the Harper's Ferry raid, director Sidney Lumet did a film entitled "John Brown's Raid" for the television series, Playhouse 90.  According to a digitized version of Time magazine dated October 31, 1960, Lumet's "John Brown's Raid" aired from 10-11 P.M. on the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) on October 25 that same year, and was filmed on location at Harper's Ferry.  I've never heard anyone mention this program and have not been able to find much of anything on the internet about it except for a description on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb).  IMDb lists Sidney Lumet as the director, Robert Crean as writer, and among the actors most notable are the late James Mason in the role of Brown, and the late Ossie Davis in the role of Shields Green, an associate of Frederick Douglass.

The late James Mason portrayed
John Brown in "John Brown's Raid"
Happily, a brief but informative description of the television production is recalled by character actor, Tim O'Connor on The Classic TV History Blog.  IMDb lists O'Connor as having played "the Doctor"-- the real doctor in the story being John Starry.  In an interview on February 26, 2010, O'Connor recalled:

"We went down to the location, of Harper’s Ferry, and shot it for ten days.  Sidney Lumet directed.  The last four days, there were some of us who worked day and night without stop.  The show got into real trouble, and the company didn’t want to pay us for playing twenty-four hours a day, four days!  So there was a big stink about that.  We had to go to the union about it and make some arrangement. 
Tim O'Connor
The show then turned out so dark, that you could not tell the difference between the people who were white and the guys that were black.  It was just so funny.  But they broadcast it – they put it on!"
The Encyclopedia of Television (p. 1387) says that Lumet’s story of the raid was done in two parts, as was also his production of a story about the controversial Italian anarchists, Sacco and Vanzetti, both programs for the popular NBC series.

I've not been otherwise able to find anything on this film, but if you do, I'd be interested in knowing.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Support for Brown at Pottawatomie

On July 28, The Capital-Journal published my guest column about John Brown's actions during the 1856 attack on proslavery settlers in the Pottawatomie area. The column drew reaction from readers who questioned whether Brown was justified.

Since none of us lived during the time of the "massacre," let's note the words of those whose lives were directly affected by the event.

Gov. Charles Robinson wrote, in February 1878: "I never had much doubt that Capt. Brown was the author of the blow at Pottawatomie, for the reason that he was the only man who comprehended the situation, and saw the absolute necessity of some such blow and had the nerve to strike it."

Judge Hanway, in a statement dated Feb. 1, 1878, accurately summarizes the progress of public opinion in the neighborhood of the crime, saying "so far as public opinion in the neighborhood where the affair took place is concerned, I believe I may state that public opinion was considerably divided; but after the whole circumstances became known, there was a reaction in public opinion and the Free State settlers who had claims on the creek considered that Capt. Brown and his party of eight had performed a justifiable act, which saved their homes and dwellings from threatened raids of the proslavery party."

Thomas Wentworth Higginson, in his Cheerful Yesterdays states: "In regard to the most extreme act of John Brown's Kansas career, the so-called 'Pottawatomie massacre' of May 24, 1856, I can testify that in September of that year, there appeared to be but one way of thinking among the Kansas Free State men. ... I heard of no one who did not approve of the act, and its beneficial effects were universally asserted, Gov. Robinson himself fully endorsing it."

All of this information courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

“A Glint of John Brown”?  More John-Browning Terry Jones

The other day (see Sept. 10th entry) I pointed out the problem of what I call “John-Browning,” a tendency—usually among white writers to identify the abolitionist John Brown with problematic, controversial figures in our own time—particularly people who shoot abortion “doctors” and terrorists stateside and abroad.  To no surprise the latest version of this game is Pastor Terry Jones, the would-be Qur’an burner.  Even before I could finish my last post, which was partially in criticism of a Canadian journalist, a blogger made the same comparison between Jones and Brown, purportedly just on the basis of looks.

Not even two days later is an Op-Ed piece in the Washington Post (Sept. 14) by columnist Richard Cohen—unfortunately more of the same.

In his essay, Cohen begins by announcing: “There is a glint of John Brown in the eyes of the Rev. Terry Jones.” 

Really, Mr. Cohen, “a glint”? 

Cohen, who claims not to be anti-Muslim and is personally opposed to the idea of burning the Qur’an, nevertheless says that he “stands” with Jones.  Even though Jones’ intention of burning the Qur’an is “chaotic and bigoted,” Cohen says, “it was a political statement nonetheless, and he had every right to make it.”  Another slave of secular democracy speaks.

As to Cohen’s appropriation of John Brown, I can only say that once more this approach is indicative of a cultural bent that is typical in “white” society when it comes to how the abolitionist is perceived and remembered.  Cohen’s reading of Brown, which he expresses by alluding to a “glint”—presumably of madness—is entirely subjective.   To his credit,  Cohen does not seem to allow for an absolute parallel.  At least he recognizes that Brown’s antislavery cause was great, and also that some very weighty thinkers, the likes of Emerson and Thoreau, considered John Brown as a great man.  In contrast, Cohen says that Pastor Jones is “neither a great man nor the leader of a great cause.”  Yet, Cohen—with neither adequate background nor any historical evidence, suggests the possibility that Brown was “possibly mad.”

Why do these gratuitous references to John Brown begin with innuendos or even allusions to madness?  Whence does this default judgment of the abolitionist’s madness and mental instability originate?  Most of us have a good idea: it has been worn into the collective thinking of “white” society by the prejudice of ill-read historians, romantic screenplays, hackneyed high school textbooks, sensationalistic journalists and novelists, and neo-Confederate screeds.  There’s no end to this knee-jerk reaction, evidently because so many people find some kind of gratification in it.  Does it indicate some residue of racism?  Perhaps in many cases, but somehow I doubt that’s the case here.  Yet when writers like Cohen get carried away with these notions of Brown, there must be some kind of “glint” in their eyes too.   Just what that glint is remains a point of discussion.

Before I close, let me underscore my point by introducing the following photograph of John Brown.

Boston Atheneum
What do you see, a “madman”?

Most people with any exposure to/knowledge of John Brown from popular culture or the public school system and universities in the United States have actually been conditioned to answer in the affirmative.  The madness of John Brown, the infamous “glint” of insanity is readily assumed by many people.

Look closer and let me ask you again: Do you see the face of an insane man?
If you are certain that that the answer is "yes," then read the following: 
According to Jean Libby, a foremost John Brown aficionado and the undoubted authority on photographic images of the abolitionist, this particular photograph is a half-plate daguerreotype made in Boston, sometime between 1856 and 1857 by John Adams Whipple.  It is a mirror view as a result of the daguerreotype production process.



As Libby reports in her groundbreaking work, John Brown Photo Chronology, a forensic anthropologist examined this daguerreotype, as did a plastic surgeon, in separate reviews.  Dr. Eileen Barrow, the forensic anthropologist, concluded: “His face shows signs of a mild stroke.”  The plastic surgeon, Dr. Tad Grenga reported: “The eyelid weakness and the wider pupil on the left certainly might be from small stroke affecting the third cranial nerve.  The facial muscles seem to be symmetrical from right to left so the seventh nerve was OK.”1

This is not the face of a man who is insane.  It is the face of a man who was physically afflicted with a number of illnesses.  As Libby also points out, Brown’s letters from 1857-59 suggest that he struggled with physical ailments that beset him, sometimes laying him out for days and weeks.  Certainly Brown had repeated bouts of what was commonly known as “Fever and Ague,” a kind of prairie virus similar to malaria.  In the spring of 1859, prior to his move to Maryland in preparation for the raid on Harper’s Ferry, Brown complained of a condition that he described as unpleasantly affecting his head and ear. On April 7, 1859, he wrote to his wife: I have been entirely laid up for more than a week with a terible [sic] gathering in my head; & with the Ague: but am much better now.”  Later that month, Brown wrote to his faithful lieutenant, John Henrie Kagi, “I have been again entirely prostrated with the difficulty in my head, and with ague, so that I have not yet been able to attend to any business.  I am now some better, but do not think I shall be able to do much under a week or more.”2

Subsequent to these professional evaluations, Libby reported that another important evaluation of the daguerreotype was made by Greg Artzner, a registered nurse, better known as one-half of the talented musical duo, Magpie.  In October 2009, Artzner suggested that the drooping side of Brown’s face probably indicated facial paralysis, better known as Bell’s Palsy.   Jean Libby has provided this description from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: Bell’s Palsy typically affects only one of the paired facial nerves and one side of the face; common symptoms could be drooping eyelid and corner of the mouth, ringing in one or both ears, headaches, and dizziness among other things.   According to Brown’s great-great-great granddaughter, Alice Keesey Mecoy, other members of her family have suffered from this condition.

When considering Brown’s depleted health, we should recall that from 1856 until his defeat at Harper’s Ferry in October 1859, most of his life was characterized by stress—the entire Kansas episode, including the Pottawatomie killings, the gun murder of his son Frederick, open warfare and guerilla struggle in the Kansas territory eventuating in a return to Ohio in a debilitated condition.  Between 1857 and ’59 he traveled extensively in the United States and Canada with a minimal budget and the concerns of supporting his family at home, and then a highly difficult trek involving a liberation raid into Missouri in late December 1858.  Carrying eleven liberated people with his men, Brown escorted them through Kansas, then through Nebraska, and well into Iowa in the dead of winter in wagons and on horseback.  After getting this group safely into Canada, Brown was still sick, or had a relapse of his former condition.  At the time of the raid at Harper’s Ferry he was undoubtedly not recovered fully.  Certainly during the last two years of his life, encompassing the time of this daguerreotype, Brown was a sick man.

Despite the weight of these evaluations and the historical context, as well as the absence of any evidence of insanity, people will continue to assume a "glint" of madness in Brown's eye, just as they will persist in calling him forth as an example for the next national controversy, always in accommodation to their prejudices.

 "A prejudice is a vagrant opinion without visible means of support." Ambrose Bierce



           1 Jean Libby, John Brown Photo Chronology: Catalogue of the Exhibition at Harper’s Ferry 2009 (Sunnyvale, Calif.: Far Western Graphics, 2009), 40.
            2 John Brown, Kingsville, Ohio, to Mary Brown, North Elba, N.Y., April 7, 1859.  Transcribed from the original, sold by Swann Auction Galleries, February 25, 2010, Sale 2204 Lot 23; John Brown, North Elba, N.Y., to “John Henrie,” April 25, 1859, Dreer Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pa.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Misinformation.com: History.com and John Brown


I just viewed the short video, “John Brown's Raid,” featured on the website, History.com.  While this short feature has very interesting graphics, the narration by an unidentified “expert” is horrendously incorrect and quite misleading as to the facts.  It is not merely that this narrator is without balance; he is grossly incorrect, particularly in the repeated insistence that the raid was poorly planned and entirely without basis. 

There is no lack of “experts” ready to narrate the life and work of John Brown, many of them completely lacking in primary research experience and tending to parrot what they’ve heard and read from other such “experts.”  This video provided by History.com is a perfect example of the real danger of half-truths and bigotry being conveyed under the polished cover of historical authority.

Let us be clear:

1.  John Brown’s overall plan was reasonable and fully supported by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.  Like Brown, these black leaders and other radical abolitionists firmly expected a positive response from enslaved people.

2.  Although Douglass and even some of Brown’s own raiders objected to his decision to seize the armory at Harper’s Ferry, the plan to do so was also strategically reasonable.  The proof is in the ease and success of the assault.  Brown did a great deal of advance planning and knew the town and armory operation were poorly guarded and without military presence. 

3.  Brown’s error in the Harper’s Ferry raid came down to timing and to mistaken judgment in the case of allowing a train to pass through the town, and by allowing himself to become taken up with parleying and exchanges with captured slave masters.  He delayed far too long, turning what should have been a relatively brief strike into an occupation.  Were Brown simply to have left by or before sunrise, he could easily have walked out of Harper’s Ferry with his raiders, a preliminary cadre of black men, and his fugitives.  His delay was the single, deadly flaw and he and his men paid dearly for it.

4.  The myth of lack of support from local African Americans is perhaps the worst aspect of conventional thinking on the raid.  It is not only insulting to Brown’s plan, but far more an affront to black people and what is clearly shown in history regarding their real response to slavery.  We know that from the onset the outcome of the raid was revised by Virginians, something that moderates in the North readily accepted.  The propagandistic revision of Virginia was essentially that blacks held as slaves resented Brown’s attempt to “force” them to turn against their good masters, and that they were content in their condition; or that blacks were too timid and cowardly to join Brown.  Neither of these claims is true.  Osborne Anderson, one of Brown’s raiders, wrote clearly to this point in 1860, in A Voice from Harper’s Ferry.  It was the Virginia slaveholders, Anderson recalled, who were the frightened, weepy cowards.   In contrast, we know that Brown's raid had both immediate and long-term impact upon the enslaved community, primarily in Jefferson County, but also in bordering counties.  We know that there were more black men in the town of Harper's Ferry than historians (mainly white males) have conventionally acknowledged; we know of at least two solid contemporary black eyewitnesses (Osborne Anderson, a raider, and Anthony Hunter, a slave) that the local black community was brimming with excitement and support, and that Brown would have had a magnet-to-steel influence had he just left the town of Harper's Ferry and availed himself of the gathering black presence awaiting him.  We also know that Brown himself was actually surprised at the extent of the response from the black community; as historian Jean Libby (a specialist in this study) observed, Brown even did some "damage control" after the fact by writing to the District Attorney, engaging in a little revisionism himself by claiming to have "taken" slaves, doubtless with the intention of playing down the extent to which blacks had turned out in his favor.  He had a reasonable concern that Virginia whites would retaliate against the black population after the fact.  After all, Virginians had massacred scores of innocent black people following the Nat Turner incident.

Much more can be written to point out that—at the very least—conventional ideas about the Harper’s Ferry raid are grossly incorrect and many historical “generalists” (like the narrator of the this video) have done more harm than good by perpetuating these errors, and even magnifying them with their own subjective notions.  Unfortunately, it is all too evident that unlike other historical controversies, no small segment of scholars, historians, writers, and people in general have an emotional, psychological, and perhaps political investment in the conventional version of the Harper's Ferry raid.  Evidently, History.com caters to these prejudices by reinforcing as "history" what in actuality is political propaganda.

The Harper’s Ferry raid failed, but many such risky ventures have both failed and succeeded, and any reasonable reading of history must take into consideration the unpredictable influence of “time and chance.”   We admit, with John Brown himself, that the failure of the raid perhaps turned out for the best, since his subsequent witness against slavery and his hanging actually backfired on the slave power, driving pro-slavery leaders to such desperate lengths that they would have to forfeit the very “institution” for which they were even willing to sacrifice their own sons by the thousands.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Opinion
From Jeremiah Wright to Terry Jones: The Sport of John-Browning

Yet another writer, this time a Canadian, has dragged John Brown into a contemporary crisis where, frankly, he does not belong.  I call it the sport of “John-Browning,” a game that is played by authors and journalists looking to score a publishable goal.  Perhaps the most common instance of “John-Browning” is the almost endless invocation of the Old Man by writers and bloggers in comparison to domestic and foreign terrorists.   Forget the fact that Brown was actually a lover of freedom who used force in response to actual terrorism as well as state terrorism (i.e., chattel slavery).   Typically, he’s dragged out, propped up, and knocked down by any commentator wanting to make a point about the murder of of abortion “doctors,” "home-grown terrorists," or al-Qaeda and other violent opponents of western "democracy."  In fact, any crackpot who tries to harm the public is automatically compared to John Brown—the rules of the game being defined by subjective, unstudied, and often prejudiced assumptions.  In fact, the first rule of the John-Browning sport is that John Brown has no historical rights that a writer—especially a white writer—is bound to respect.

Garry Wills, A Skillful Player

An example of the John-Browning sport at its best is the creative and skillful play by the prestigious author Garry Wills, published in the May 1, 2008 edition of The New York Review of Books.  “Jeremiah Wright was Obama's John Brown,” Wills argued. 
"Lincoln had to dissociate himself from the fiery and divisive Brown. He did so, and called attempts to link him with Brown "malicious slander." But some thought that he did not go far enough in denouncing Brown. Lincoln did not call him a fanatic or insult those who sympathized with him. He said Brown's attempt was "absurd" because it could not work."
Wills' comparison of Brown to the controversial Reverend Wright was a clever move.  After all, the comparison entailed looking at two presidential hopefuls on the brink of candidacy and election, both of them entering the political stage at a time of controversy in a sharply divided nation.

. . . the first rule of the John-Browning sport is that John Brown has no historical rights that a writer—especially a white writer—is bound to respect.

Lincoln vs. Slavery: Opposition or Delimitation?

However, the problem with Wills’ comparison of Brown to Wright was more about the assumption behind it, namely that Lincoln was wisely and presciently navigating away from Brown in order to attain the greater good of the nation, including the end of slavery.  Wills thus writes: “Lincoln's political responsibility was not to inveigh against abolitionists, but to take the practical steps possible toward opposing slavery.”  Now this is the game at its best: Wills exploits the gratuitous Brown-Wright parallel for the purpose of bolstering the fundamental myth of Lincoln “the Great Emanciptor”—namely that Abe’s objective all along was to “oppose slavery.”  Of course this is propaganda; Lincoln was never compelled by anti-slavery priorities, particularly on the threshold of his first election.  Rather, his objective was to preserve the union even at the cost of sustaining slavery in the South.

Indeed, Lincoln’s platform as a candidate and then well into his presidency was to delimit slavery—to compromise with the South by permitting slavery to remain where it existed but disallow its further expansion.  If this is “opposing” slavery, it certainly is a funny kind of opposition.  Yet this is precisely what Wills is doing with his Brown-Wright parallel.

Lincoln and Brown ≠ Obama and Wright

Secondly, Wills was wrong in downplaying the extent to which Lincoln criticized John Brown while disassociating himself from the abolitionist.  To the contrary of Wills' presentation, it is quite clear that Barack Obama was far less antagonistic and alienated from the Reverend Wright, and that his ultimate decision to cut off his former pastor was an act of expediency rather than a deep political response.  Mr. Obama undoubtedly realized that Wright’s words had been excised and decontextualized, and that his larger arguments, both historically and theologically, have far more merit than the “main stream” media are willing to consider.  But in order to fly high, Mr. Obama knew that he had to disassociate himself from Wright’s heavy ideological baggage.  Indeed, I suspect that in their respective critique of white racism in the United States, President Obama is far more similar to Reverend Wright than Lincoln was to John Brown in matters relating to slavery and racial justice.  

Pres. Obama & Pastor Wright
Lincoln and Brown were men cut from entirely different cloth.  Lincoln was a renovated Henry Clay Whig, a benign white supremacist married to a border state Southern woman, a politician with connections to people who were hatefully opposed to abolitionism, and himself a political moderate and compromiser in comparison to other Republicans with outright anti-slavery agendas.   Everything about him smacked of "in-between."  According to historian Kenneth J. Winkle, author of The Young Eagle: The Rise of Abraham Lincoln, "The Lincolns' personal relations with free blacks were always respectful, yet they interacted with them only as the employers of servants. At least four African Americans provided domestic help for the Lincolns" (p. 266).  This may impress Lincoln's High Priests, but John Brown students know that the Browns did not merely employ blacks; they befriended them, worshipped with them, assisted them in running away from slavery, armed them, and fought alongside them.  It is no surprise, then, that when Lincoln disowned, denied, and condemned John Brown in 1859-60, he was expressing a real political and social belief about the place of blacks in society, slavery or not.


Lincoln on Brown

Alcorn Studio & Gallery
To no surprise, Abraham Lincoln actually condemned Brown in eight different speeches starting with December 1, 1859 (the day before the abolitionist was hanged in Virginia), and two other speeches made in the Kansas territory.   At Leavenworth, he fed a pro-slavery audience what they wanted to hear by publicly approving that Brown had been “dealt with” on the gallows.  Candidate Lincoln continued to dismiss Brown, not only in his famous Cooper Union address on February 27, 1860, but in several more speeches in Illinois, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. 

Thus Wills is wrong in playing down the extent to which Lincoln dismissed Brown.  He says, “Lincoln did not call [Brown] a fanatic or insult those who sympathized with him,” except with the intention of highlighting the alleged absurdity of his plans.  This is error.  Lincoln’s public position on Brown was that he was delusional—and thus mentally unstable.  Indeed, it may be Abraham Lincoln that we have to “thank” for the prevalence of the “insanity of John Brown” thesis that came to dominate the 20th century.  (Southerners knew better, believing that Brown was perfectly sane albeit villainous.)  Lincoln may not have precisely used the word, “fanatic,” but this was exactly as he portrayed Brown in his speeches—for what sort of man would pursue an allegedly “absurd” plan except a delusional fanatic?  Of course Lincoln was the consummate politician, so instead of “fanatic” he characterized Brown as a brooding “enthusiast” full of self-fancy.  Nor did Lincoln question the untenable Southern claim that blacks in Virginia had not responded to Brown; it was all too expedient to accept the propaganda that had been fed to the Northern press.  Did Lincoln really believe that black people had not responded to John Brown in Virginia?  If he did, then this too suggests a shallow perception of blacks in slavery. (To examine Lincoln various statements on Brown, I would refer my readers to the following source: Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1865.  Edited by Roy Basler [New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953], Vol. III, 496, 502-03, 538, 541, 553, and Vol. IV, 7, 12, 23-24, and 42.)
The Alcorn Studio & Gallery

The strategy of Wills’ John-Browning game places him in a category above the typical players.  Wills’ skillfully played on the embarrassment that Reverend Wright's comments (mutilated and mediated as they were by the main steam media) presented to candidate Obama, ultimately forcing his disassociation from the clergyman.  But Wills was not so much intent upon whacking John Brown like a historical piƱata as much as scaffolding the larger-than-life reputation of Abraham Lincoln as a demi-god figure whose wisdom prevailed for the good of the entire nation. 

The Basic Game Formula and the Canadian Entry: Orest Slepokura

As for the rest of the writers—novelists, journalists, bloggers and scholars, the more typical game formula basically looks like this:


White religious man  +  an extreme or “radical” position amidst any controversy  =  
John Brown comparison

We are not really surprised at the latest expression of this formula, insinuating that John Brown contemporary counterpart is Pastor Terry Jones of Gainesville, Florida, the clergyman who is currently enthralled in a well-publicized plan to burn the Qur’an.  

Writing in the Canada Free Press (9 Sept. 2010), Orest Slepokura, an educator and journalist, sees Brown as the paradigm of the sincere and bold religious figure acting thoughtlessly in regard to deadly implications of his actions.  Recalling the explosive reaction of the South to Brown’s raid, Slepokura thus imagines a parallel with a threatened global jihad coming forth in reaction to Jones’ threatened burning of the Qur’an, Islam’s sacred text.  (By the way, readers may assume that the Qur’an is simply the Muslim Bible, but even that parallel is inexact.  The Qur’an, which Muslims believe is literally God’s incarnate word, is really a theological parallel to the Christian conception of the divine incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.  So one can understand why burning a Qur’an, or even threatening to do so, would enrage Muslims worldwide.)

Slepokura’s approach is at least clever—thus far, I’m not aware that any writer in the U.S. has exploited this opportunity to do some John-Browning.  In his article, he sets the stage first by contrasting the mediocre, “wet noodle” personalities of the former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin and George H. W. Bush (as vice-President of the U.S. under Ronald Reagan) to men like Pastor Jones and John Brown.  Quite in contrast to them, Slepokura says, John Brown was the
. . . irresponsible fanatic who attempted to raise the slaves in the U.S. and arm them against their white masters. In 1859, he led a failed raid by scores of his followers on the armory at Harper’s Ferry in Virginia. Brown had intended to arm African-American slaves with a cache of weapons seized from the arsenal. All his men were either killed or captured or routed. Brown was arrested, tried, and in the end hanged for treason.
During his trial, however, he displayed remarkable fortitude. Such that he soon became a hero in Northern eyes, his cause taken up by New England luminaries like Thoreau and Emerson. Historians in the main agree that as an agitator for the abolition of slavery John Brown helped move the United States a step closer to civil war; a righteous crusader whose good intentions paved a road to mass fratricide.

Not So Fast, Buddy

Obviously, Slepokura is groping for historical validity, although his reach falls short for a number of reasons.

Orest Slepokura,
John-Browner
First, terms like “irresponsible” and “fanatic” are clearly loaded with presumption if not presupposition.  Certainly to refer to men like Brown as a “fanatic” is to suggest that holding a more relaxed and perhaps tolerant view of slavery is the healthful, normative, and justified position held by reasonable and balanced people.  Calling John Brown a “fanatic” regarding slavery is really sanctioning the status quo of slavery in the U.S. as it existed in his time.  I should like to think that Mr. Slepokura is guilty of being unthinking in his choice of words, rather than assuming that he is actually a racist or an accommodationist toward slavery in historical retrospect.   After all, in John Brown’s time, those who referred to him as an “enthusiast,” “monomaniac,” or “fanatic” were in some degree willing to live at peace with slavery until or unless it could be resolved “reasonably” to the satisfaction of white society.  Yesterday’s anti-slavery fanatic has become today’s norm, except in the sport of John-Browning.

“Irresponsible”?

But was John Brown “irresponsible”?  What does Slepokura mean by the term?  If he means that John Brown’s plan was a quixotic adventure, insane, irrational, and necessarily unsuccessful, he is not alone in holding this mistaken assumption.  I will not go into detail as to why Brown’s plan was actually reasonable and fairly successful in its initial execution; this is explained in some detail in John Brown—The Cost of Freedom.   Since most of what is popularly explained about the Harper’s Ferry raid is the result of hackneyed, unstudied assumption, it is understandable that one might conclude the entire effort was “irresponsible.”  But actually it was well planned and worked out as Brown intended, including a strong interest on the part of enslaved people in Jefferson County—all of this is borne out by the evidence, none of which has been considered by conventional scholars.  In fact, the only “irresponsible” aspect of the raid was Brown’s failure to move expeditiously out of Harper’s Ferry, instead getting himself bogged down in parleying and reasoning with his slave holding captives.  His delay in following his own plan was his great failure.

Pastor Terry Jones: A Burning Desire for Righteousness?
Alternatively, perhaps Slepokura thinks Brown was “irresponsible” because he actually tried to do something to liberate enslaved people.   Once more, the posture of “responsible” people in 1859 was to talk about slavery and do nothing.  So I wonder what Slepokura the educator would suggest should have been done that would be considered "responsible"?  He should know that in 1859, the power of slavery was so complete and determined that the entire U.S. was virtually under the thumb of the South’s demands—the most obvious proof being the outrageous obligations of the Fugitive Slave Law (1850) and the notorious Dred Scott Decision by the Supreme Court in 1857.  There was no forthcoming solution or plan to liberate slaves.  Even the Republican Party had no intention of forcing abolition on the South.  There was simply no hope for the black man in 1859, something that Frederick Douglass well recognized in his multiple tributes to John Brown after the fact.  I wonder if Douglass would agree with Slepokura that John Brown was "irresponsible."  Somehow I doubt it.  

Who Really “Paved the Road” to Civil War?

Once more, it is interesting that Slepokura sees John Brown as almost singly “paving the road” to the Civil War, when in fact the road to “mass fratricide” was primarily paved by the excessively lustful and unrelenting demands of the Slave Power.  For years prior to the Civil War, it was the South’s political driving force, not only to sustain black chattel slavery at all costs, but also to force the “Peculiar Institution” outward into new territory—to expand by any means necessary.  For years, pro-slavery politicians bullied the North, always hanging over the Union their threat of secession.   In 1855-56, we see that it was the South that “paved the road” to national fratricide by starting a veritable civil war in the Kansas Territory through terrorism and dirty politics.  Had free state settlers not eventually armed themselves and fought back, a pro-slavery constitution would have been literally forced upon Kansas, anti-slavery leaders would have been murdered or driven out with violence, and Kansas would have entered the Union as a slave state. Still, Slepokura would have us believe that one good man, acting outside of the pro-slavery law of the land, is to be blamed for the nation’s descent into bloody Civil War.

Pastor Jones Hanged & Burned in 
Effigy by Angry Muslims
So, who really paved the road to national “fratricide”?  Neo-Confederate revisionists and anti-government libertarians love to blame Lincoln for “invading” the South and violating Southern “freedom,” but this is playing on a technicality at best.  In reality, the South’s determination to expand chattel slavery was the moral and historical source of the Civil War.  Pro-slavery leaders, in complete patriotic madness, sent hundreds of thousands sons of the South to their graves in order to secure their irresponsible and delusional lust for the expansion of white supremacy.  

John Brown hanged
by Angry Christians
In short, the alleged parallel between the outcome of the Civil War and the threat of a violent reprisal by the Muslim world is neither instructive nor consistent with any correct historical analysis.  It is a caricature based upon an assumption without historical basis, as is the alleged parallel between John Brown and Pastor Jones.

As for Pastor Jones the would-be Qur'an burner, he's neither a good witness nor a wise man.  It is my understanding that he has been hanged and burned in effigy by angry Muslims in Pakistan and elsewhere.  Perhaps Pastor Jones will pause and consider the damage he has done.  If he follows through on his threat to burn the Qur'an, nothing good will come of it, because there is no spirit of love or justice in such an act.  

Quite in contrast, John Brown was hanged, but not in effigy, and his killers were Christians, not Muslims.  He was not hanged for trying to destroy a Qur'an, but for trying to destroy slavery.  Whatever happens to the Reverend Terry Jones as a result of his reckless venture, I doubt that he will be measured in history as one standing alongside such an "irresponsible" and "fanatical" man like John Brown.
--------

P.S.  I Spoke Too Soon

Warner Crocker, John-Browner
Warner Crocker, writing in his blog, Life on the Wicked Stage, Act 2, has entered the John-Browning sporting arena with the self-assurance of someone claiming an expertise on John Brown:

Every time I see a picture of Mr. Jones, I'm reminded of John Brown, especially some of the images of him clean shaven. Of course that's probably because I spent so much time researching and writing about Brown years ago. I'm not comparing the causes here because they can't be compared, but I'm looking at the personalities and the drive. Both supposed "men of God" seem(ed) hell bent on proving their point regardless of the outcome. Both stories prove just how much extremism can carry us into dangerous corners once we loose the bonds of reason.

Thank you, Mr. Crocker, for that eagle eye for historical detail.  Yes, your intuitive reading of John Brown’s clean-shaven images (which are all but one extant) has nailed it.  Thanks to your insights, now we know that John Brown was just a hell-bent extremist, loosed from the “bonds of reason,” and determined to drag the nation into destruction.

This is classic John-Browning.


Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Opinion
Southern Whites and John Brown


We have no delusions about the history of northern whites, many of whom have been taught the mythology of the free North versus the slave South.  Malcolm X observed that "anything below the Canadian border is the South" with historical and cultural clarity.  After all, slavery was a national "institution" before it was defined as a the "Peculiar Institution" of the South.  Northern whites typically exemplified racist prejudice equal to that of the southern white man, but having jettisoned slavery a bit sooner gave the northern white racist a claim to moral superiority that does not hold up under close scrutiny.  More than once, southern black friends have told me that they would rather deal with a Southern white man, because he does not hide his feelings, good or bad, whereas the Northern white man will "smile" but segregate in practice.  


Just as Northern white people are no monolith, neither are Southern whites.  So when I write about "Southern Whites and John Brown," I'm addressing a segment of people--an overwhelmingly large segment perhaps, but not the entirety of the population.  To this majority of white Southerners, however, to speak of John Brown in favorable terms is to pour hot coals over their heads.  White Southerners hate John Brown.


White Southerners hate John Brown for a number of reasons, most of which are historically intertwined:


+ White Southerns hate John Brown because they were taught to hate him by their parents and grandparents.  To them, he is the complete antithesis to the Southern hero--the Northern brute killer.  Hating John Brown is essentially part of the Southern identity and asking them to consider the possibility that he was a good man is like asking a Christian to reconsider Nero.


+ White Southerners hate John Brown because his legacy was associated with the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and the "War of Northern Aggression," particularly since Brown was a kind of patron saint to many Union soldiers, especially African American soldiers.


+ White Southerners hate John Brown because he vehemently opposed slavery, conducted private invasions into two Southern states (Missouri and Virginia), and militantly fought against Southerners in those states and in the Kansas territory.  This is to say, they have something of a historical memory of him being a real opponent of their ancestors.


+ White Southerners hate John Brown because his opposition to slavery represents an ethical, moral, and historical indictment against their own families and communities, including their churches and their understanding of what the Southern "heritage" entails.  If Brown was even half-right, that means the South was at least half-wrong.


+ White Southerners hate John Brown because they lost the Civil War and lost badly.  Despite courageous efforts and brilliant fighting, the South could not keep up with the federal government and ultimately lost everything in a devastating defeat, and even 150 years after the fact, to salute John Brown would be like pouring salt on that historical wound.


+ White Southerners hate John Brown because, in varying degrees, they hold prejudices against him.  In this sense, Brown is simply hated, perhaps even irrationally.  More than once I've heard of Southern whites who used his name as a curse word.  This is a visceral phenomenon that is probably as spiritual as it is sociological.  Just as racial prejudice is passed down, so is hatred of individual people, and certainly there is an almost sinful hatred of Brown that blinds many Southerners from even attaining a measure of objectivity in evaluating him.  This is not just true of various and sundry idiots making random remarks on websites but otherwise notable theologians, historians, and scholars who should know better.  


The funny thing about all of this is that John Brown himself was probably less hostile, personally speaking, to Southerners than were many radical abolitionists who carried his name like a banner into the war and well into the Reconstruction era.  Brown had a critique of Southern power in the antebellum era, but it was aimed at the power brokers of the South, what was called the "Slave Power." It has been observed by those who knew him that the pacifist William Lloyd Garrison was far more hostile to Southerners than was John Brown.  For Southern whites he had no special resentment; his ire was reserved exclusively for slavery itself.  Indeed, if slavery had been legal in Massachusetts, he would have just as readily attacked the armory in Springfield and fired on the soldiers of New England.


The Pottawatomie killings will doubtlessly be cited in contradiction.  But it should be pointed out that (1) Brown lived in the territory for five months without showing any aggression toward any Southern man, and did nothing of a violent nature until he and other free state people were assured of being targeted for attack, amidst a larger context of pro-slavery invasion and terrorism; (2) Brown traded with and interacted with pro-slavery and anti-slavery Southerners in Missouri and the territory and never expressed even a hint of violence unless he was threatened; (3) the five Southern men who died under Brown's midnight attack in May 1856 were not "typical" Southern men; they were clearly collaborators with invading terrorists, some were professional slave hunters, and one or two were criminal types.  Two of their wives inadvertently acknowledged their husbands' guilt at the time they were taken.   Brown did not abuse or otherwise do harm to any Southern men, even pro-slavery men, just because of their origins or their views.  


When Brown led his raid on Harper's Ferry, he ultimately distinguished himself to his enemies as a peculiar sort of abolitionist.  Just as Northerners may have engaged in stereotyping slave masters, it is true that Southerners stereotyped abolitionists as bloodthirsty killers.  Yet all of the testimonies of Brown's former hostages at Harper's Ferry showed he was humane, genuinely concerned for their welfare, and very clear on his intentions of limiting his efforts to liberating blacks unless fired upon.  In fact, Brown's raider, Osborne Anderson kindly but firmly criticized the Old Man in retrospect for being distracted by sympathy for his captives to the detriment of his own plans.  It's kind of funny that Southern whites, most of whom--then and since then--never knew Brown personally, are far more hostile and dismissive of him then were the Southerners who got to know him.  There is good evidence that even as a prisoner in Charlestown, Virginia, the jailer, sheriff, and others inside the jail were far more fond of him than would be acceptable to Southern prejudice. 


My point in writing this is not to prove anything to the white Southerner who sustains a hatred of John Brown.  My sense is that no small portion of people are unwilling to reconsider their positions when they perceive it as a disadvantage to their pride, regardless of facts.  Nor would one want to make John Brown everyman's hero, whether North or South.  The kind of people who find in him a worthy study and a fallible but superior human being generally do not conform to either Northern or Southern norms.  The reason that I opposed trying to get an official posthumous pardon for John Brown last fall is the same reason here in essence: Brown's historical integrity assumes opposition from prejudiced, racist, and mean-spirited people.  To seek to make him a popular figure would be to bleach away his dissent, and sanitize him sufficiently to the point of being inoffensive, like a gold-plaited crucifix.  No, if Southern people hate John Brown, if any people hate him, so be it.  Like the Master he loved, Brown invites men either to be for him or against him.  If you are against him, the likelihood is that you are also an enemy of what I believe to be good--and I would wish no alliance with you.


Nevertheless, Southern people, if they are persons of reflection and a measure of integrity, may someday consider revising their view of Brown.  Perhaps, rather than looking to a future ideal, they may simply read history.  One such place to start would be the testimony of the so-called "Undefeated Rebel," General Joseph (Jo) Shelby.  According to an 1884 article from the Kansas City Times (Villard Papers) entitled, "Gen. Jo Shelby and John Brown," 

Gen. Jo Shelby, the famous ex-Confederate, referred to the recent publications reflecting upon the character of John Brown of Osawatomie.  "I knew John Brown well," he said.  "I freighted with him in Kansas, and I fought with him in Kansas.   I knew him thoroughly, and I tell you a braver or more gallant man never breathed.  It's all a mistake to say John Brown was a coward."
"Do you think he murdered people, as is charged?"
"Why, of course he did; but it was simply a measure of retaliation.  He didn't have any the best of us.  We killed and John Brown killed.  There was no difference on that score.  It was an unfortunate thing for the south when John Brown was hung.  But I suppose the irresistible conflict, as Sumner said, would have gone on until the negro was freed.  The abolition of slavery was to be, I suppose, and after all I am really glad the negroes were set free."

While I do not agree with Shelby about Brown's alleged use of murder as a measure of retaliation, I would commend him for looking beyond Southern prejudice to the man who lived, rather than merely repeating the ancient propaganda of the slave masters.  Perhaps Brown will yet win some Southern friends.

Monday, September 06, 2010

More on the Murder of Frederick Brown by the Rev. Martin White, August 30, 1856

An interesting document is found in the papers of the Rev. Clarence S. Gee, a Congregational minister (d. 1975), who perhaps was second only to Boyd B. Stutler as a documentary researcher of John Brown in the 20th century.  Gee amassed the most important collection of materials pertaining to the Brown family history, the collection now held in the wonderful Hudson Library & Historical Society in Hudson, Ohio.   In the early-to-mid 20th century, Gee came to know Brown family members and extended family, through whom he obtained a good bit of personal correspondence and documentation relating to John Brown. 

One such document is this brief transcription, undated, which Gee made from the writings of the Rev. Samuel L. Adair, the brother-in-law of John Brown who preceded the Brown boys in moving to the Kansas territory.  At first, Adair was very critical of his brother-in-law and nephews for their role in the Pottawatomie killings of May 1856, but like most passive free state settlers in Kansas, Adair came to recognize the validity in Brown's harsh actions against terrorist collaborators living in the vicinity.  As Salmon Brown put it, "Adair came around later."1

Gee labeled this brief portion "No. 3," since it was the third document in Adair's hand where the clergyman addressed the death of Frederick Brown at the hands of the Rev. Martin White on August 30, 1856.  It follows according to Gee's transcription:


Frederick Brown (No. 3)

There was a third document found among the papers of Rev. S. L. Adair pertaining to Frederick Brown. It is practically the same as No. 1, with the few changes at the end. I have copied the last part of it. – [Clarence S. Gee]

            We parted with his saying that he would call early next morning and carry any letters I might have ready to send to the states, with him to Lawrence and send them via Nebraska.  He went to a neighboring house, where the young man who had come with him had stopped, and spent the night.  Early on the next morn he rose, fed his horse, and was on his way to get the letters, when coming to the road near my house he saw some men coming from towards town.  He halted for a moment and when they drew near said, “good morning, boys,” and then asked, “Are you going to Lawrence today?”  They answered in the negative and then remaining silent, he soon remarked, “I think I ought to know you,” when Martin White replied, “I know you, and we are foes,” and as he spoke raised his gun and shot him.  Martin White was accompanied by four other men and what I have given is the substance of the statement made by one of the party in the presence of a friend of mine.

            Frederick Brown was shot down in the road near my house.  The firing of the gun and the running of the horses aroused me and a cousin of mine, who was at my house.  I ran to the door and saw men riding away.  My cousin and myself started immediately to the road and saw the body lying there.  His side arms were on him; they had not been touched.  The cap over the sheath of his revolver was buttoned down.  His Sharps rifle he had left at the place where he had stopped over night.

            One of White’s party stated in the presence of a friend of the writer that they had been down near town and were returning when they saw Brown walking across the prairie; and when he came to the road he saw them and halted, and when they came near said, “Good morning, boys, are you going to Lawrence today?”  They answered, “No,” and saying nothing more Brown, stepping toward them, said, “I think I ought to know you,” at which Martin White, being now quite near to Brown, said, “I know you and we are foes,” and as he spoke shot him.

            This is probably as near a true statement of the particulars of his death as can be given.  A number of things incidental known to the writer, led him to believe that the statement made by that person was substantially correct, while this story, as published in Geary’s book on Kansas,2 that Brown had stolen his horses, and that he saw him riding one and leading another that morning, is wholly false and can be proven by many witnesses.  –Rev. Samuel L. Adair

1 Salmon Brown's statement to Katherine Mayo on the Pottawatomie killings (Portland, Or., Oct. 11-13, 1908), p. 3, in Pottawatomie file, Box 6, John Brown Oswald Garrison Villard Papers, Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Collection.

2 The book to which Adair is referring is actually John H. Gihon, Geary and Kansas: Governor Geary's Administration in Kansas: With a Complete History of the Territory Until July 1857 (Philadelphia: Chas. C. Rhodes, 1857).  The specific citation, on page 100, follows:



 

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Essay
FREDERICK and the LION: John Brown’s Murdered Son and His Killer


Why has white society made this man the
poster boy for "terrorism"?
John Brown’s role in the Pottawatomie so-called “massacre” of May 1856 is constantly held up as a case of so-called terrorism even though his critics never discuss the real circumstances of the case.  This is especially true of the myriad unqualified and ignorant people making random comments about Brown on “information” websites, on-line newspapers, and blogs across the country.  It is clear that there is an anti-Brown bias in this culture, particularly in “white” society.  Typically, this bias is inherited from family and community cultures, learned from school textbooks, or imbibed from novels, History Channel documentaries, or other popular venues produced by people with the very same biases.

[The complete entry is available only in the forthcoming book, John Brown: Emancipator]




Osawatomie Notebook
Martin White Murders Frederick Brown

Emma Adair — the daughter of the Rev. Samuel Adair and Florella Brown Adair, the half-sister of John Brown — witnessed the Battle of Osawatomie on Aug. 30, 1856. She was a child at the time, but the memory of the battle was burned into her mind for the rest of her life. 

She reported that Brown’s son Frederick had returned to Osawatomie from Lawrence on Aug. 29, with messages from Jim Lane, a free-state leader. That night, Frederick Brown visited with the Rev. Adair, saying he would come back in the morning to get any letters the pastor wanted him to take to Lawrence for the mail.


Emma reported that much to the Adair family’s horror, they discovered the next morning that Frederick Brown had been shot by proslavery scouts.

“We were awakened the next morning by firing and the sounds of horses’ feet moving rapidly past our cabin,” she wrote. “My father hastened out with his cousin, David Garrison, who had been sleeping in the north part of our cabin. They soon discovered the body of Fred Brown lying in the rode to the southeast of our house. He had been shot by one of a number of scouts sent in before daybreak to reconnoiter and to find if the town was unprotected, as they had been informed by a Mr. Hughes who lived there.”
Emma Adair recalled more details about the death. 


“So Fred Brown was the first victim on the day of the Battle of August 30, 1856,” she stated. “One of the young men, the one who slept with him that night, told afterwards that Fred said he would get up early, feed their horses, go over to Uncle Adair’s for breakfast and the letters, and be ready to start on their return to Lawrence. 


“As he came into to the road, the men riding from the direction of the town came up. Fred, thinking that they were friends, said, ‘Good morning boys. Are you going to Lawrence today? It seems I ought to know you.’ One of those scouts, called Martin White or old preacher White, replied, ‘I know you,’ and fired a shot into his heart.”


Frederick Brown’s body lay where he was killed by the Rev. Martin White until the evening of Aug. 30. “All that day,” Emma Adair wrote, “the body of Fred Brown had lain in the burning sun by the roadside. Settlers living south of the Pottawatomie had watched the burning of the town from the high hills, and when they saw that the enemy had departed, they hastened in to help gather up the wounded and the dead. Fred Brown’s body was brought into the north part of our cabin.”


Emma Adair later married J.B. Remington and was instrumental in preserving the site of the Battle of Osawatomie, now John Brown Memorial Park. Frederick Brown is buried under the soldiers’ monument at Ninth and Main streets, the first casualty of the battle.



John Brown’s Nephew, Charles Adair: An Unsung Hero of Osawatomie

Charles Adair, the son of the Rev. Samuel and Florella Brown Adair, is an unsung hero of the Battle of Osawatomie. 

When Samuel Adair found that the Rev. Martin White, the lead scout for a proslavery force, had shot Frederick Brown, he and his cousin, David Garrison, saw that the proslavery force was headed for town. The reverend sent his 13-year-old son, Charles, to ride to town and warn John Brown.

Emma Adair, the reverend’s daughter, reported that “when my father and Garrison discovered the body of Fred, my father ran back to our house, saddled and bridled our horse and started my 13-year-old brother to town to warn the people.”

Luke Parsons, a free-state guerilla who fought beside John Brown at the Battle of Osawatomie, gave a more detailed account of Charles Adair’s ride to warn Osawatomie’s citizens in a speech later to the Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic (He stated that Charles Adair was 12 at the time of the battle). 
“There were 30 houses in the town , each containing one family, sometimes two,” Parsons said. “Brown expected they [the proslavery militia] would come from the east and therefore camped east of town, but had his pickets out both ways. They made a night march circling around the town, and came in from the west. 


“They killed two of our pickets in that direction which were posted near the Adair house. This was about daylight. Charles Adair, a boy of 12 years, was sent on his little pony to arouse the town and tell John Brown that the border ruffians were coming. We were camped east of town where the asylum now stands. And we were just getting our breakfast when we saw the little fellow coming up the hill on his pony under the whip. Brown recognized his nephew, and knowing he must have an important message, stepped out to meet him. Charlie shouted that the border ruffians are coming and have killed cousin Fred and Mr. Garrison.”


Because of Charles Adair’s courageous ride, the citizens of Osawatomie were warned and able to flee to safety, and John Brown and his free-state guerrillas were able to take a stand in present-day John Brown Memorial Park on Aug. 30, 1856, and defend the town from John Reid’s 200 to 400 proslavery militia men. Charles went on to serve in the Union Army during the Civil War and became an Osawatomie business owner. 


His courageous ride makes him one of Osawatomie’s unsung heroes, and we owe him a debt of gratitude and respect.


— Grady Atwater is administrator of John Brown State Historic Site, Osawatomie, Kan.