"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, October 01, 2011


John Brown and “Violence”: Two Recent Views of Note

I.  O Say Can You See?

This summer the National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian Institute featured a John Brown program as part of their continuing series called, “Time Trial,” a program of their theatrical education program, History Alive!  According to the Museum blog, O Say Can You See? the program invited visitors “to serve as jurors in a short hearing for a historical person. In the "Time Trial of John Brown," audience members deliberate on John Brown’s contested legacy and decide how he should be remembered in American history.”  Brown is the second biographical dramatization presented in this program about “controversial” figures in our nation’s history.

The first was Benedict Arnold.

“A controversial character in American history,” the Museum blog continues, “John Brown was a radical abolitionist in the mid-19th century. Brown advocated violence to combat slavery and led armed insurrections that would lead to his execution.”  To further reinforce the “violent” framework of the discussion about Brown, the blog then provides a link to a pike in the Smithsonian collection, the only link to anything on the web about him.

The blog article also features a short video describing the program, which begins by suggesting that the program was reaching toward some kind of fairness in presenting Brown’s case.  Perhaps it did so.  But based upon the video, the program fell short.  This is apparent in the statement by Susan Evans, the Daily Programs and Theater Coordinator, when she almost desperately seems to point out that by presenting Brown they are not calling people to violence.  “We don’t want to make out John Brown to be a hero at all,” she says.

“We don’t want to make out John Brown to be a hero at all,” she says. . . . 

Of course they don’t.  That’s why they featured Brown in a program about “controversial” people and made him second only to Benedict Arnold.  In fact, this all but puts Brown in a dim light, no matter how his rationale is portrayed by the actor-facilitator, Terry Aviril.  The point of this program is not to put a light upon the monstrous violence of white racism and chattel slavery, but to excise Brown the traitor from the context of white American normalcy.  Even the one black person in the video comes off like his reasoning was run through a good old fashioned cycle of Tide ‘n Clorox.  Not only does he point out that his mother used to use “John Brown” as a curse word, but he concludes that being opposed to Brown “in some strange way” might mean one has a problem with “what our founding fathers did.”  Really, Brother?   I thought the point of John Brown being controversial to white society was that they had a problem with what John Brown did.   At least, this seems to be the judgment of black historians  As it turned out, even the Founding Fathers didn’t consider chattel slavery an immediate problem to what they "did" in 1776.



You will obviously draw your own conclusions from the video, but you don’t have to be Malcolm X to read the cultural schematics here, folks.   Like the staff at the National Park Service at Harper’s Ferry, evidently the staff at the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum/Theater have an opinion about Brown.   The title of their blog article is, “How should John Brown be remembered?”  I think the answer is obvious.

II.  Who Are You Calling a Terrorist?

Along very different lines, Paul Finkelman, the President William McKinley Distinguished Professor of Law and Public Policy at Albany Law School, published a very thoughtful piece about Brown in Prologue Magazine (Spring 2011, Vol. 43, No. 1), the publication of the National Archives.  Of course, Dr. Finkelman, a brilliant legal scholar, is widely known as the editor, author, and commentator of the John Brown theme.  Although I have differed with him on some biographical points, this article is highly recommended precisely because Finkelman does not frame Brown in the terrorist or violence mode.  Rather, first he discusses terrorism and then lifts up Brown for clear examination, applying his practical and penetrating insight to the error of referring to Brown as a terrorist.  Readers may use the link provided to read the article in its entirety on the National Archives website.  Someone has also posted a scan of the print version on Scribd.

Paul Finkelman
I respectfully differ with Finkelman on a number of points.  Overall, he seems to have a thoughtful and insightful reading of Brown’s actions in political context.  His reading of Brown’s early life and activities, though positive, can seem pedestrian at times, overlooking some of the aspects of his life that we have come to know.  For instance, he seems inclined to see Brown as an impoverished and talentless businessman, whereas I think Brown was probably a better businessman than he looks, and his economic status in the later 1850s, while hardly prosperous, was not as bad as many assume.  The late Ed Cotter pointed out to me years ago that Mary Brown had a house, property, some livestock, and other humble assets that left her better off than many, though hardly rich.  After visiting Brown’s family in November 1859, Thomas Wentworth Higginson made the interesting observation: “. . . they greatly need money; though not so totally destitute as many seem to think” (Higginson to unidentified, Nov. 22, 1859, in Letters and Journals of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, p. 88).  Nor is it clear that he properly evaluates Brown’s plans at Harper’s Ferry, although admittedly this is a subject that bears ongoing and in depth study.  In short, I'm not so certain where Finkelman comes down on the subject of John Brown the man; I doubt he is an admirer, and in at least one context has opined that Brown "reinvented" himself as a prisoner in Virginia, a thesis that I reject, considering his actions, writings, and personal conduct in jail as being entirely consistent with his entire life and behavior previous to being defeated and jailed.  Notwithstanding these points, we are happy to have Dr. Finkelman's arguments regarding the political context of Brown's actions in 1856-59.

Thus, as to the topic of Brown and terrorism, he points out:
There are no complete or certain definitions of terrorism. Terrorists seek to "terrify" people and strike fear in the minds of those at whom their terror is directed. This, however, is not a complete definition. After all, few would consider soldiers in warfare terrorists, yet surely they try to make their enemy "fearful" of them. . . .  So, what beyond scaring or frightening people constitutes terrorism? How do we define the "terrorist?" (p. 18)
Finkelman notes that the goal of terrorism is the “terror” itself, not as a means to an end, but to do harm to those that they opposed.  “This makes terrorism different from other kinds of illegal activity or violence.” (pp. 18-19)  Finkelman says another important characteristic of terrorism is that terrorists kill indiscriminately and without concern (with some exception) because terrorists are not concerned about “collateral damage.” They “avoid direct contact and confrontation with those who are armed, especially the military,” and hope to maximize their violent attacks in mortal terms.   Finkelman says that the “classic American terrorist is the sheeted Klansman, with his face covered, killing, beating, mutilating, burning, and raping, to terrorize those who supported racial equality and black suffrage.” Finally, he points out that terrorism overrides the “political context” and opts to use violence, whereas an act of political revolution take place when all other political avenues are closed. (p. 19)

Having made careful analysis of terrorism, Finkelman places Brown on the examination table of history, paying particular attention to the Pottawatomie killings of 1856 and the Harpers Ferry raid of 1859.  Do these episodes reveal Brown as a terrorist?  He concludes quite reasonably that Brown’s actions differ greatly from terrorist action.  I agree likewise.  Even at its worst, Brown’s actions either avoid or intend to discriminate in favor of innocent, unarmed, and vulnerable people.  At Pottawatomie, only specific men were cut down while family members, associates, and guests were spared.  At Harpers Ferry, great pains were taken to care for prisoners, fight only in self-defense, and sustain an honorable presence.  Although a number of people were killed by Brown’s men, these killings either went against Brown’s directives or were unfortunate incidents.  In both Kansas and Virginia, Brown never conducted himself as a terrorist, and had he done so, a great deal collateral bloodshed would have taken place.


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