"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, August 20, 2011

John Brown Pastimes?
Paper Dolls, Fake Beards, and "WWJBD?"

Recently, Rachel Smalter, an Adults Program Librarian at the Lawrence, Kansas, Public Library noted in her blog, Librarian in a Banana Suit (yes, a real banana suit), that Lawrence Magazine had a link for a download of a (clean shaven) John Brown paper doll by an artist named Jason Barr.  According to Rachel, Lawrence Magazine, Lawrence Public Library, and the artist subsequently joined forces to come up with a John Brown Paper Doll giveaway in conjunction with local Civil War events at the library.  Rachel says the John Brown paper doll program is part of "Civil War on the Western Frontier" (CWWF), a series of annual community events organized by the Lawrence Visitor’s Bureau.  Of course, the paper doll kit is purely amusement.  This is not about dressing the Old Man in a variety of authentic outfits of the day, but rather attiring him in a gorilla suit,  or a jean shorts and T-shirt that reads, "Honk 4 Hemp," or a clown mask, a long, black fake beard, and other amusing accouterments.

Moving from this flippant sort of pop cultural handling of the Old Man, another Lawrence-based publication recently was called to my attention.  It is entitled, "What Would John Brown Do?"--perhaps a spin-off of the "What Would Jesus Do?" Christian style fad, in which believers wear T-shirts, caps, and bracelets emblazoned with "WWJD?"  Whatever the case, there is an article by Amber Brejcha Fraley featuring ten questions with answers supplied by a number of notable Lawrence citizens: Kerry Altenbernd, a law librarian and John Brown impersonator; Katie Armitage, a historian of Lawrence; Napoleon Crews, an attorney and author; Karl Gridley, another Lawrence historian with a special interest in John Brown; Kevin Willmott, filmmaker and creator of the "mockumentary," CSA: Confederate States of America; and Cathy Hamilton, a humorist and director of Downtown Lawrence, Inc.  The article features amusing photographs and thoughtful responses to the questions which are too lengthy to reproduce here, but can be read at the link above (or here).

For what it's worth, I've reproduced the questions below and presumed to present my answers/opinions as well. . . .



1.  Would JB go into Free State and order a JB beer?  Is he the type of guy that you would like to have a beer with?

In his day, John Brown had the option of going into drinking establishments and consuming beer, and socializing with friends at places where people consume beer and other alcoholic delights.  So I'm sure the answer is a resounding “No.”  On the other hand, Brown was not a teetotaler.  No self-respecting Calvinist would be as far as I can tell.  Abstinence from alcohol was the religious expression of post-Reformed and fundamentalist religion, the kind that spread through the revivalists of his day, or that which was associated in religiously-oriented social reform movements in the 19th century.  In the early 1850s, JB made cherry wine for a short time as a business venture; but there is also evidence that he disdained drinking hard liquor.  So he probably didn't think drinking was a sin, but I doubt he drank alcohol beverages.  He wouldn't be caught dead in a bar or saloon, even if he were drinking tea.  He would not think it was the kind of place that a godly man would patronize.   If I'm not mistaken, his beverage of choice was tea.

2. Would JB buy into the "healthful body, healthful mind" approach?  Would he go to the gym?

JB was a lean, hard-working, long-walking man whose diet was likewise lean, so going to the gym wouldn’t have made sense to him.  On the other hand, JB was quite interested in any advancement of science that involved the human body and psyche, so he would probably be interested in the kinds of health information that the average TV viewer hears on shows like Dr. Oz.  But would he spend two hours at the gym to bulk up his physique?  I don’t think so. 

 3. Would JB be satisfied with the progress, or lack of, in racial equality over the past 150 years?  What would JB think of racial relations in the US in general?  Of recent racial tensions with the immigration debate?

On one hand, I think JB would be pleased that the U.S. is a de jure “racial equality” nation; he would also appreciate the fact that what he believed about racial equality in his day has become more broadly accepted.  But I doubt he’d agree with those who have proclaimed "the end of racism."  I should point out that this question is phrased in two different ways; in the larger print it says: "Would John Brown be satisfied with the status of the modern black community?"  That could also be taken as a different kind of question--that is,  what JB would think of the "State of Black America" today.  I wouldn't venture to say, except that his social evaluations of whites or blacks was rooted in his religious presuppositions as well as his belief in self-determination.

 With respect to immigrants, JB would take the side of the underdog every time; but he would also hold the underdog to the same standard as the rest.  How that would flesh out in the current immigration debate is hard to say.  People forget that despite his radical humanitarian views, JB was a very conservative man in many respects, so this dynamic is hard to transpose to our time.

4. Would he be involved in non-violent politics?  Would he run for office?  What issues would be of concern to him?

I know people will not believe me, but JB was basically non-violent.  That is to say, he only believed in using violence when there was no alternative left.  The  slavery by 1859 had exhausted every means of resolution according to purely democratic or non-violent terms.  For all intents and purposes JB practiced non-violent resistance up until the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, after which he prescribed fighting back.  But as far as non-violent politics--no I do not think he would join any party that absolutely tied the hands of good people in the name of non-violence.  I don’t think that JB would even have supported Martin Luther King Jr.’s strategy, although he would have admired him the way he admired Wm. Lloyd Garrison in the 19th century. 

As far as political office goes, we tend to run JB through the filter of his antipathy toward antebellum politicians in regard to slavery.  He certainly didn’t think politicians were going to resolve the slavery crisis and he was right.  Would he have run for office later in life like some famous generals have done?  For some reason, I can’t imagine him making that transition.  Yet, in a local sense, I can imagine him running for some office so that he could make sure local justice and civic order was upheld.  Issues of justice were of his foremost concern; but he harked to the Puritans and was a child of the three-fold societal model that they bequeathed to North America—school, church, and family.  

5. Would JB be proud of the modern American public education system?

Probably not.  JB was a strong advocate of the public school system in his day, but his concept of public education today would be considered a kind of Christian liberal arts viewpoint.  He’d would be offended by the social and philosophical ideas that are espoused in many public schools.  He would also be offended by the way that racism is manifested in public education, where public schools serving the poor lack the resources that are available in other public schools.

6.  Would JB Wave the Wheat?  Root for the Hawks?  Cheer for the hometeam?  How interested would he be in sports, or would he consider them a useless diversion?

I doubt JB would support any sports team, and I think he’d consider sports enthusiasm a useless diversion indeed.  In his day, he looked down on men who hunted and fished for sport, so I think he’d look at today’s vast arenas and team enthusiasm as evoking comparisons with ancient pagan arenas—bread and circus sort of stuff. 

7.  Would JB dig in the ground?  Would he be an organic farmer?  Would you see him at the farmers' market?  Would he be concerned about the issues of local agriculture?  Would he be an urban gardner?

JB did dig in the ground.  Although he was not a professional farmer, he farmed for food, even in the cold Adirondacks. JB was an organic farmer by definition, but in the modern context, he might prefer organic farming if there were scientific support for it from his standpoint.  I think he’d enjoy farmers’ markets and would very much be concerned about local agriculture.  These issues would strike not just close to home for him, but close to his sense of stewardship and responsibility.  His intercession on behalf of wool growers in the 1840s also shows that if justice issues were tied in with issues of local agriculture, he would be greatly concerned.  Urban gardening?  No, John Brown did not like city living, so I doubt he'd ever have any real occasion to become an urban gardener.

8.  Would JB file on April 15th?  Or would he be a tax resister?  If so, what would he be protesting in particular?

Yes, he would pay his taxes in obedience to the teachings of Christ.  He paid taxes throughout his life, although he had problems sometimes because of money shortages.  JB opposed the Mexican War as the southern slave masters’ attempt to expand slavery, and he didn’t want government money spent on that war.   He expressed this sentiment but he still paid his taxes.  So I suspect today he’d still be paying his taxes, although he might dislike doing so for any number of reasons pertaining to foreign and domestic policies.

9.  Would JB be a marijuana legalization advocate?  What would he think of the war on drugs or the culture of drugs in modern America?  Would he be a big agricultural-use hemp advocate?

JB would have nothing to do with the use of any kind of drug for “recreational purposes.”  This would be like abusing alcohol for the sake of getting drunk, and he wouldn't do that either.  Perhaps JB would support the war on drugs.  But he might even support a literal war that would include invading foreign countries if he believed all other avenues and possibilities were exhausted.  As to the culture of drugs, I suspect he would advocate capital punishment and zero tolerance because of the threat that drugs pose to the internal stability of the nation.

10.  Would he be an eco-conscious fuel-consumption advocate. . .Would he be an 'American made' car advocate?

I suspect JB would support the best solutions for the best outcomes as a matter of course.  He was not a man of extravagance or wastefulness.  I believe he would prefer buying “U.S.” goods, from wool socks to pistols.  Given his historical point of view—standing as he did between the American Revolution and the Civil War, he was very “American minded” and would support his nation as a priority.  Obviously it’s a different world today and I don’t know if he’d mind buying a “foreign car” that was manufactured in a U.S. plant by U.S. workers.

WWJBD?  Who really knows for sure?

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