Body Slam: The Pottawatomie Killings as an Anti-Bully Episode
My wife recently showed me a You Tube video that she saw on facebook, where a kid was getting bully-punched and physically harassed until he became so fed up that he picked up the bully and body-slammed him. I never realized it, but You Tube has a bunch of such videos, some of them dramatized productions, others raw images of bullies getting knocked out and stomped. Apparently there is something deeply satisfying for many people to see a bully get his butt whipped.
Brown's Early Anti-Bullying
This got me thinking about the Old Man in Kansas, especially since I recently had a couple of days of going back and forth on Answer.com with someone who strongly objects to Brown and his role at Pottawatomie. In fact, seeing the You Tube video thus prompted me to think of the whole bloody Pottawatomie episode as an extension of John Brown’s perennial war on bullies. I’ve documented Brown’s anti-bully inclinations in John Brown—The Cost of Freedom, including two testimonies from his younger (half) siblings to the effect that Brown really disliked bullies from the time of his youth and was known to intervene on behalf of weak kids who were getting bullied by big kids. This apparently happened enough during his fitful, scanty school days to earn him the reputation of being an anti-bully. Certainly, his passion for the underdog obviously goes a long way toward understanding how Brown conducted himself throughout his life.
Nor did John Brown abandon his contempt for bullies when he became an adult. Around the time that he moved to northwestern Pennsylvania, he went to bat for settlers in that vicinity who were faced with eviction by a big land company based in Philadelphia, earning the reputation of a troublemaker by one of the firm’s agents. As a settler, he once warned some white men who were going to harass local Native Americans that he would just as soon shoot them then join them. Similarly, in the 1840s, after working among wool growers for a number of years, he concluded that these farmers in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and western Virginia were being victimized by rich manufacturers in New England, particularly since the latter were fixing the prices of wool to their own advantage. As a result, Brown organized a wool commission operation with the backing of Simon Perkins Jr. of Akron, Ohio. The Perkins & Brown firm opened its operation in Massachusetts in 1846 with the specific intention of empowering woolgrowers. By grading and pricing the wools on their behalf, he introduced quality controls and sought to give a measure of self-determination to the growers. While the firm ultimately failed, it was probably more as a result of the unified efforts of the manufacturers to undermine its operation than Brown’s alleged poor business abilities. The point is that the New England wool manufacturers were bullies and John Brown hated bullies, whether they were big, scary thugs in the schoolyard or rich industrialists and businessmen taking advantage of settlers and farmers.
Slavery the Bully
Needless to say, John Brown fought for black people in a variety of ways, first by using every non-violent means necessary—up until the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was passed into law. Then he organized blacks in Springfield, Mass., in a resistance group and tried to arm them. Viscerally, he was just doing what he had always done since his frontier school days. Of course there are political, social, and religious dimensions to everything Brown did in fighting slavery. But in one sense, his entire private war against slavery was one long anti-bully crusade.
When his sons and family went out to the Kansas territory in 1854 to settle, they surveyed lands given to Native Americans in an attempt to help them secure their boundaries against pro-slavery squatters from the South. In one case, Brown apparently sent his sons to remove one such squatter at gunpoint, something that the Native Americans could not have done given their politically powerless circumstances.
When John Brown went to Kansas in the fall of 1855, he did not go to settle, vote, or become a free state leader. He went to arm his sons and other free state settlers in the event of a violent assault initiated by pro-slavery thugs. In Kansas, Brown’s anti-bully inclinations were at the ready from October 1855 until the outbreak of pro-slavery terrorism took place in the spring of 1856. Until the latter took place, Brown never took any kind of action against the pro-slavery side; his correspondence shows that he was optimistic at first about the Territory entering the union as a free state based upon a fair vote. But in 1856 it increasingly became aware that the pro-slavery side was willing to turn to fraud and terror in order to defeat the free state majority and make Kansas into a slave state. When his worst fears came true, Brown went on the defensive. Five free state people were killed in various situations and pro-slavery “hordes” (as he called them) began to threaten assault upon free state communities. Brown and his sons made it clear that they would not succumb to pro-slavery bullying, either through the courts or by threats of blunt force. After facing of a pro-slavery judge with success, Brown and his family were marked as dangerous enemies by the pro-slavery side, and their pronounced pro-black politics readily distinguished them among the more conservative white free state settlers. They were soon marked for assault.
Although Pottawatomie is typically portrayed as a “massacre” of “unarmed” pro-slavery people, the reality is that Brown never bothered pro-slavery people. He was law abiding and was willing to respect the Popular Sovereignty doctrine, believing that the free state side would easily win the state by ballot. He was right, except the pro-slavery side had no intention of letting Kansas enter the union as a free state, and they were determined to use any means necessary to secure the new state as a place for slavery, even if the majority had to be suppressed with threats and terrorism.
When the free state town of Lawrence was attacked in late May 1856, five free state men had already been murdered in different episodes. Armed mobs of pro-slavery racists with banners like “The Supremacy of the White Race” were riding into the Territory and their intentions were not democratic. It was no surprise that the Browns were marked for assault and when the Old Man learned that local pro-slavery activists were involved in a conspiracy to bring these “hordes” down upon his family, Brown rose up like the quintessential anti-bully. He had not come to Kansas to settle, but to protect his family.
The Pottawatomie killings are terrible to contemplate. But most people who talk about them don’t consider that there was an unofficial civil war going on in Kansas in May 1856. Not only was their a civil war going on, but the federal government was not intervening to enforce the rights of the free state majority, since the powers of that era were in the lap of the pro-slavery politicians, including Presidents Pierce and Buchanan. The lawlessness of the hour was absolute; there was no protection from federal, territorial, or local officials. Free state people were like the proverbial fish in a barrel—easy to shoot.
With terrorism off the hook in Kansas, John Brown did not explode in rage. Based upon the names of certain men that he had received from free state associates, he conducted his own investigation and found that these men were actually determined to lead an assault upon his family and other free state associates. Based upon everything that had taken place up to that point, he had every good reason to believe that he and his sons would have been killed, and their women folk and children driven off by sheer terrorism.
Responding to Real Threats
People flinch at how horrible Brown was to conduct such a cold-blooded attack, but Brown was not the bully. He was the man who stood up to the bully. Brown attacked these men because Lawrence had fallen and he had good reason to believe that Osawatomie and the Browns in particular were next on the list of terrorist assault. There was a large group of pro-slavery thugs in the vicinity. Three of the men on his hit list were collaborating with them and Brown himself had spied on them and found this to be true. Brown did not attack on the basis of empty threats made by big, drunken pro-slavery blow bags. He knew that given the political situation, their threats were grounded in real determination to overthrow free state people, especially “those damned Browns” (as one called them), whose belief in black equality was just too much for these racist thugs to tolerate.
This was how the Pottawatomie killings came about. Brown believed something had to be done and basically no one was willing to do anything about it. Brown believed this was first a matter of his family’s well being, and he wasn’t about to let these thugs hurt his sons, daughters-in-law, and family. The pro-slavery faction had bullied and abused, destroyed and murdered, and no one had stood up to them. Free state people shuddered and prayed, refusing to use “violence” in self-defense, and naively trusting in the federal government to do the right thing. John Brown knew better.
The Pottawatomie strike was weighed, strategic, and harsh. It was not about scaring people. It was about squashing the worst kind of bullies and making sure they did not rise up again. When he took old man Doyle out of the house at gunpoint, along with his two sons, Brown was laying hold of the man who was his complete antithesis. Doyle was a Tennessean father and husband who had gone to Kansas to settle after working as a slave patrol in the South. He was not a slave holder, but he had made a living hunting black people down like dogs and forcing them back into chains. Doyle was a father, but he had no qualms about seeing John Brown and his sons killed. If he had had his way, it would have been the Brown cabins that would have been invaded with violence and murder. Salmon Brown clearly remembered Mahala Doyle, this man’s wife, tearfully scolding her husband as he went out of the door for the last time, reminding him that she had warned him about his “devilment.”
What was Doyle’s “devilment?” It was his conspiracy to bring a violent assault upon the Brown family. It was his intention to bring the force of pro-slavery terrorists upon John Brown and his sons, leaving their wives as widows.
The Bully's Mistake
After the Doyles were hacked to death with swords, it seems that old man Doyle was the one that Brown contemplated. He stood over the body of the Tennessean who had conspired to kill his family. Perhaps he looked into his face and feared that the man was still alive. Perhaps not. Whether to make sure he was dead or to signal to the others, Brown fired one shot into the head of the corpse—the only actual act of violence that he committed that dreadful night. I suspect he was also making a point in his own mind. Old man Doyle hadn’t realized it, but he had started something that John Brown had determined to finish. He was a father; he should have known better than to threaten another father's family. He should have reared his sons to be just men, not thugs. Doyle had mistakenly assumed that all free state people were going to be led like lambs to the slaughter. He hadn’t counted on what John Brown might do.
Bullies never count the cost. They assume that their “strength” and ability to use force and intimidation, even violence, will not be met with resistance. They assume the weakness of good people, and they count on fear scattering the weak like sheep without a shepherd. In their wildest imaginations, bullies never imagine that violence, like a sword, can be wielded as ruthlessly by a certain kind of well-intended man. And they never count on meeting such a man. Like Goliath overshadowing David, they simply cannot imagine just how bad things are about to get.