"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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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Little Leaven Leavens the Whole Leavenworth--
Kansas History Professor Remembers John Brown and Abe Lincoln

According to the Leavenworth [Kansas] Times online, Jonathan Earle, associate professor of history at the University of Kansas, spoke on the subject of Lincoln and John Brown yesterday (Feb. 20), addressing the University of Saint Mary's annual Lincoln program.

Earle recalled how candidate Lincoln visited Kansas in December 1859, at the very time that Brown was hanged in Virginia for his effort to liberate enslaved people.  Earle told how Lincoln spoke at Atchison on December 1, the day before Brown's hanging.  Earle reportedly declared: “I’ll come out and say it — if it weren’t for Kansas and a wild-eyed abolitionist named John Brown, Abraham Lincoln would never have been president."  There we go again with that "wild-eyed abolitionist" rhetoric.   I think I'm going to start prefacing every reference to Lincoln with, "that manic depressive."

According to Earle, Lincoln's political career had been doubtful until the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 brought him to the public eye as an outspoken critic of Illinois Sen. Stephen Douglas.  Recall that it was Douglas’ plan to apply the ballot in decided the future of Kansas and Nebraska entering the Union as either free or slave states.  Lincoln's voice arose in objecting to the continuance of slavery's expansion. According to the Leavenworth Times, Earle said that following Brown's attack of Harper's Ferry, "anti-slavery Republican Party faced a political upheaval, with pro-slavery Democrats drawing comparisons between Republicans and John Brown. . . .Though not thought to be a major contender, Lincoln ascended in part because of the turmoil within the party following Brown’s actions. Earle also argued that Lincoln's speech in the town of Leavenworth, Kansas, "were the most forceful, morally grounded and provocatively delivered since his debates with (Stephen) Douglas in 1858.” 

In an amazing stunt of academic acrobatics, Earle admitted that Lincoln's "views on race, by most modern standards, would not likely to be considered 'enlightened,'" but yet "he was well ahead of the vast majority of Americans in his racial thinking, and showed a capacity to grow."

This is pretty predictable stuff coming from obeisant American historians, particularly those enlisted to blow hot air into the grandiose Lincoln blimp that is constantly flown overhead in this nation.   Notwithstanding Dr. Earle's competence in addressing Kansas themes, including John Brown's role in the territorial days of that great state, his little Lincoln trick is quite unconvincing.

Dr. Earle cannot have it both ways.  Either Lincoln's views on race were inadequate or they were "well ahead," and the fact is they were at best benignly racist.  Lincoln might be a lot of things, but "well ahead of the vast majority of Americans in his racial thinking" is not one of them.  Lincoln was certainly no racist ogre, the kind of which would hang a black man from a lamp post in Manhattan.  But there were a lot of benign white racists like Lincoln in his day--white men who indulged in racist jokes, enjoyed black-face minstrel shows, and referred to elderly black women as "auntie."  Yes, Lincoln was a nice guy--even John Brown's black Springfield friend Thomas Thomas knew Lincoln at one point and spoke kindly of him.  Frederick Douglass did the same.  But just because he was a nice guy and didn't express his racism in mean-spirited ways does not make him "well ahead."  

There were few white men who were "well ahead" of their countrymen when it came to race in the mid-19th century, and Lincoln wasn't in that circle.   But John Brown was at the center of it.  

Incidentally, Dr. Earle is the author of a nice little book about Brown, John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry: A Brief History with Documents, which he did in conjunction with the Bedford Series in History and Culture (edited by, among others, David Blight, our kind host at Yale University in 2009).  Earle's book is more than adequate, including a fairly written essay with notes, primary documents culled from published sources, a brief timeline and a bibliography.  As to the latter, I found it interesting--and a little disappointing--that Dr. Earle completely omitted any of my works from his bibliography, which suggests either that he slighted my work or that he knows nothing of my work--and in either case, he would look somewhat poorly for an American historian presenting himself as something of a John Brown authority.  However, I've been slighted before, both by John Brown "scholars" and Malcolm X "scholars," respectively, despite the real dearth of substantial, in depth scholarship on either biographical shelf.   However, I will turn the other cheek and salute Dr. Earle for bringing us a quality scholarly aid that will be useful for students and scholars for years to come.  I am happy to own one and have not stuck it behind on the shelf, as I have done with a number of "John Brown books" that do little but take up shelf space.

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