The Fool as Biographer
|(John Hendrix illustration)|
John Brown was hated in his life time, especially by pro-slavery southerners and others who resented him for trying to uproot and destroy the status quo of black servitude and exploitation. While widespread prejudice against Brown is familiar in U.S. culture today, I've become convinced that many of Brown’s critics actually “love” to hate him, which is to say that there is some kind of fascination with him that adheres to popular discourse. Typically this fascination with Brown is negative—quite the opposite of the Jesse James legend, which is quite unworthily positive. Meanwhile, the internet is full of random knuckleheads self-assuredly opining about John Brown despite knowing little or nothing about him. This common contempt for Brown is shallow and reactionary, evidence that many people have been propagandized more than educated.
In contrast, a smaller number of people actually hate John Brown for reasons consciously grounded in an ideological, experiential, and existential commitment to the “values” that typified the advocates of slavery in the antebellum era. In other words, these critics truly manifest the enmity of the historical white supremacist that John Brown faced in his own lifetime—the same mentality that ultimately required his death. Such was his most vitriolic enemy of the late 20th century, whose contempt drove him to write a hostile biography.
Otto Scott was born Otto Joseph Scott-Estrella in 1919 and died in 2006, but his writings and videos are still quite influential. He is widely known and loved by neo-Confederates and ultra right-wing Christians. Although he is a hero of contemporary Confederate loyalists, Scott also labored greatly on behalf of the interests of the wealthy and powerful in the western world. It was no exaggeration for the Southern Partisan, the premiere neo-Confederate magazine, to eulogize him as “one of the greatest” conservative writers and thinkers of the Cold War era.1 This was not a man who cared for the plight of the poor and the oppressed, especially in the non-white world, nor could he have cared for those who were their sworn allies like John Brown.
|Scott in younger days|
Scott served in the United States Merchant Marines during World War II, afterward working in advertising and journalism, although a Wikipedia entry says he worked in journalism in Virginia and California prior to entering the Merchant Marines. Regardless, this path led him to embark on a long career as a published author of various themes as diverse as the histories of the Ashland Oil and Black & Decker Companies, and the stories of Robespierre, James I, and John Brown the abolitionist. All told, Scott published ten books along with numerous articles in many publications including the Los Angeles Times, San Diego Union, San Diego Tribune, Salisbury Review (London), Conservative Digest, and Human Events. However, among conservatives, Scott was known for his own monthly publication, Otto Scott’s Compass, a “journal of contemporary culture.” The latter had a considerable run of fifteen years, ending the year before his death. One of Scott’s relatives aptly observed that he was “one of a great many Americans who are well-known to a special audience, but unknown to the nation at large.”2 In Scott’s case, his “special audience” was predominantly one of ultra conservative “Caucasians” with interests in the maintenance of the present order of the western world.
Throughout his professional life, Scott made a living as both a businessman and as the chronicler of big business. The anonymous author of the article Wikipedia about Scott notes that between 1954 and 1963, he held three vice-president posts in Globaltronix de Venezuala, Mohr Associates, and Becker, Scott & Associates. He was also “assistant to the chair” at Ashland Oil Incorporated in the year 1968-69. Even Scott’s family member acknowledges that he largely made a living “from his corporate biographies.”3 As a bona fide gatekeeper of the status quo, Scott was extremely critical of any real or perceived radicalism and liberal or left-oriented ideas, and was also opposed to any liberation movement that challenged what he upheld as the supremacy of the Christian west. He was highly critical of the anti-Apartheid movement in the 20th century and bitterly attacked the abolitionist movement of the 19th century in historical terms.
Although Scott became a major didactic figure for ultra-conservatives in later decades, he had already influenced the conservative movement as an ideologue by the later 1960s. Most notably, he is credited for inventing the phrase, “The Silent Majority,” a term made popular by Republican President Richard Nixon. According to Wikipedia, Nixon apparently appropriated this phrase from a speech that Scott wrote for the CEO of Ashland Oil entitled, "The Silent Majority" (which was delivered to the Chicago Men's Club on May 23, 1968).
Alliance with Rousas J. Rushdoony
|J. R. Rushdoony|
No doubt, Scott’s cachet was further enhanced when he allied himself with the ultra conservative Reformed theologian, Rousas J. Rushdoony, a marginal Calvinist intellectual who similarly influenced President Ronald Reagan’s political ideology. The two ultra conservative thinkers chaired a radio program and Scott published regularly in Rushdoony’s magazine, The Chalcedon Report.4 Scott’s alliance with Rushdoony was significant for his future lionization among extreme Southern conservative Protestants, some of them neo-secessionists. Scott, Rushdoony and their type despised the secular North as the vector of liberal abolitionist ideology, the forerunner—in their thinking—of present day liberalism and Left oriented politics and religion. Scott is said to have had some kind of conversion experience after reading the four New Testament gospels in one night. However, it is not clear if Scott ever had church affiliation until his final role as “scholar in residence" at the Tri-City Covenant Church in Somersworth, New Hampshire (1998-2004), “where he provided historical insight to the school and church staff and assisted in Sunday School instruction, high-school history, and Bible and economics courses.”5
Scott and Reconstructionism
Tri-City Covenant Church is a congregation that follows the so-called Reconstructionist (also known as Theonomy or Dominionism) teachings of Rushdoony, Gary North, and others.6 Reconstructionists are like Libertarians with a Calvinistic theological and philosophical orientation, and are hostile toward liberal and Leftist politics. Reconstructionists are generally distinguished by their belief that the Mosaic Law should be enforced as the law of the land. For this reason, even conservative evangelicals find Reconstructionists problematic. In 1996, the conservative Christian activist Ralph Reed wrote, "Reconstructionism is an authoritarian ideology that threatens the most basic civil liberties of a free and democratic society.”7 Richard J. Neuhaus thus appropriately describes Reconstructionism as a “bastard form of Calvinism contending that the American constitutional order must be replaced by a new order based on ‘Bible Law.’” Church historian Carl Trueman concludes that Rushdoony “was historically incompetent, probably racist” and—based upon his use of questionable sources, “probably unhinged” too.8
. . .one can understand why Scott was so embraced by Reconstructionists, especially since he shared their core white supremacist values.
In this light, one can understand why Scott was so embraced by Reconstructionists, especially since he shared their core white supremacist values. Like Scott, Rushdoony and his colleagues have proven extremely sympathetic to the Confederacy in historical retrospect, just as they defended racist South Africa at the peak of the anti-Apartheid movement. Anything that smacks of egalitarian or liberationist ideas is understood as rooted in godless ideology to Reconstructionists, and this was well suited to Otto Scott. Rushdoony and his Chalcedon Foundation proved to be extremely supportive of white Southern nationalism, especially showing proud devotion to antebellum pro-slavery theology. The Chalcedon Foundation allied with the Alabama-based League of the South in the 1990s, and Scott himself was the featured speaker at the League’s 1995 convention. He even produced videos for the League dealing with their historical and political reinterpretations of the Civil War and slavery.9 According to the insightful Christian blog, Racist Churches, Scott allegedly pronounced regret over the increasing number of non-whites in congress and also supported racial profiling by authorities. He uplifted the so-called Caucasian race as the most “essential to the continued progress of world humanity,” and disdained the removal of an interracial marriage ban in post-Apartheid South Africa. It is also reported that Scott once stood at the grave of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in Virginia and declared that it marked “the end of southern civilization.”10 This depraved orientation clearly provides the basis for Scott’s malignant interpretation of John Brown.
A Word About Conservatives and John Brown
Whatever one’s political orientation, it is not a “given” of history that conservatives have categorically despised John Brown. In fact, he has always had admirers along a range of conservative views. Certainly John Brown studies was largely carried in the 20th century by two conservative researchers, Boyd Stutler and the Rev. Clarence Gee. While Gee was probably the more socially thoughtful of the two, Stutler was a hard-nosed right-winger who disparaged the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s as being too extreme. Notwithstanding this backwards view, Stutler recognized the essential rightness of Brown’s antislavery effort and admired his willingness to die to end human bondage in the United States. Even “tricky” Richard Nixon, coming from a Quaker background, apparently held a soft spot in his heart for Old Brown. At the time of the United States Bicentennial in 1976, Nixon even made reference to Brown’s words.11 My point is not that the politics of men like Stutler were correct, or that their brand of conservatism was identical to Brown’s political outlook. However, when it comes to John Brown, conservatism has never been represented by one opinion, and certainly not the opinion of right-wing neo-Confederates. Furthermore, Stutler would hardly have approved of Scott’s narrative, so replete with political contempt and mean-spirited accusations of Brown and the abolitionist movement.
Scott, Malin, and John Brown
|James C. Malin|
(Kansas State Historical
To Malin, minor errors of date or place committed by writers who have a high regard for Brown are frequently labeled deliberate falsehoods, while the errors of Brown-haters are simply unintentional blunders. Very few anti-slavery leaders and writers emerge unscathed under Malin’s furious onslaught. Typical of his method are his comments on Emerson, Thoreau, Parker and the other leaders of New England opinion, whom he contemptuously refers to as the “New England Transcendental Hierarchy, the self-appointed keepers not only of New England culture, but, according to their own estimates, of national civilization.”13
In retrospect, Scott not only appropriated Malin’s prejudiced hypothesis, but sought to extend it beyond Brown’s story in antebellum Kansas. Meanwhile, serious scholars across the board, from conservative Stutler to left-leaning Louis Ruchames, had exposed Malin’s book as flawed and untrustworthy. While Malin’s effort had general value in presenting the hellish mayhem of the Kansas territory, his one-sided, ham-handed treatment of Brown and the anti-slavery side was warped and untrustworthy.14 Yet Scott saw Malin only as “a truly great American historian” and uncritically accepted his problematic book—which he lauded as “a classic of historic investigation and analysis”—because it suited his base politics. Retrospectively, Scott continued to praised Malin for portraying Brown simply as a “multiple murderer and robber in the Kansas Territory,” even though these allegations were intentionally based upon a selective reading of pro-slavery sources. In the short term, Malin’s John Brown and the Legend of ’56 gave ammunition to anti-Brown scholars, but soon the author was exposed, his work was discredited, and his scholarly reputation was duly diminished. Scott whined about this too, claiming that Malin’s only crime was that he had “outraged the Academy”—a ridiculous assertion, particularly because prominent historians in the mid-20th century were hardly warm toward abolitionism and John Brown. To Otto Scott, Malin and his fetid book were the victims of academic “obloquy.”15 In reality, Malin’s work simply was too tainted and biased to be trustworthy. To this day, no credible historian would use it without exercising extreme care—something that Scott definitely did not do. In fact, he went on quite uncritically to make the greatest use of Malin’s propaganda for his own anti-Brown screed, The Secret Six: The Fool as Martyr.16 The identity of the “fool,” in Scott’s mind, is easy to surmise.
Scott’s “Sacred Fool Quartet”
Scott’s own treatment of John Brown the “fool as martyr” actually was third in his series known as “The Sacred Fool Quartet”—critical biographies about “extraordinary fools whose follies influenced the course of all our lives,” goes Scott’s claim. “Without them, history would have been different, and our lives would today be lived along patterns beyond our powers to imagine.”17 Besides John Brown, Scott’s historical fool hunt targeted King James I of England, Maximilien Robespierre and the French Revolution, and President Woodrow Wilson. Scott thought these historical figures were “sacred” in that society had supposedly conferred a “form of immortality” upon them “irrespective of character.”18 Having fed from Malin’s poisoned plate, Scott’s anti-Brown work thus extended the theme in blanket condemnation of the abolitionist movement, with the particular intention of blaming them for the ruin that befell the South in the Civil War. Scott thus opined: “The costs of Abolitionist virtue ran high. Officially the record is 621,000 dead,” he concluded of the Civil War death toll.19 It is difficult to imagine anyone attributing the expansive deaths resulting from the Civil War to the abolition movement without thinking the writer must be a revivified slave master. But this represents the kind of mind and spirit that animated Otto Scott.
A Publishing Disappointment
Interestingly, the first edition of Scott’s anti-Brown book was published by Times Books, the publishing arm of the New York Times, in 1979. Although the book was smuggled to press, Scott’s Secret Six nearly proved a Trojan horse to the “Old Gray Lady.” Certainly, Times Books was an unlikely home for Otto Scott’s anti-liberal screed, except that he had an inside connection with Tom Lipscomb, a business associate who had become the head of the press. The book was hesitantly published, but it grated upon the legendary Times executive, Sidney Gruson, who rightly observed that it “lowered the tone” of the company. Fearing that his opus would get buried, Scott pulled the rights of his book, bought back the remaining copies, and donated them to his friend Rushdoony. Fortunately for Scott, there was sufficient interest and money in the South, and the book was republished eight years later by the Foundation for American Education in South Carolina, possibly a Klan-related organization. Although Scott lamented that his book had nearly been “murdered” by the “Establishment,” The Secret Six was much more viable than he portrayed.20 Scott may not have had liberal money behind him, but he had right-wing support, especially in a willing audience among neo-Confederates and Reconstructionists. The book was finally published under another label in 1993, which seems to have been Scott’s own imprint.21
The Legacy of Scott’s Secret Six
Otto Scott died in 2006, but his book continues to feed the same counter-establishment of radical right-wingers, neo-Confederates, and Reconstructionists. For this audience, The Secret Six is taken as definitive and quoted by unknowing bigots as if it were the last word in historical terms. Scott undoubtedly knew that he had made a niche for himself with his anti-Brown book; his other “fool” books are extant but rarely mentioned. In The Secret Six, Scott took the Southern screed to a sophisticated and polished level of argument. By cynically portraying Brown as a deluded killer in collaboration with liberal New England elites and other subversive figures, Scott affirms the foundational sentiments of neo-Confederates and ultra-conservatives who deeply despise liberalism in government and society, and who resent the national and global changes that are challenging traditional white supremacy in state and church.
It is not my intention to do a book review and in this piece I have preferred to use Scott’s subsequent reflections as published in Southern Partisan, which present his essential argument about Brown and abolitionism as well as background to his research and the publication of the book. However, there are a couple of points that need to be made in highlighting the fundamental errors of his interpretation.
Scott demonizes Brown over against the opinion of every credible biographer over the past century.
First, Scott’s bibliography belies the lack of fairness that defines his work, particularly regarding Brown. Scott demonizes Brown over against the opinion of every credible biographer over the past century. His narrative not only impugns Brown, but inherently accuses every scholar (including myself) of being a liar and false propagandist by our presentations vis a vis the historical record. If Scott is correct in his profile of Brown, then Villard, Oates, Stavis, Boyer, Yours Truly, Reynolds, Carton, McGlone, and Horwitz have misread the facts to a significant degree. Not that all of us agree on every point, and some of us have considerable differences about the Old Man. Yet none of us have presented Brown and the abolitionist movement in the manner insisted upon by Otto Scott.
Equally important if not more so, Scott’s work is both selective and derivative. Like Robert Penn Warren before him, Scott only mined the most negative assertions of Oswald Villard, and otherwise ignored the more positive and balanced aspects of biographers like Villard, Boyer, and Oates. Otherwise, his work offers nothing new, original, or based on primary research. From Stutler, Gee, Edwin Cotter, and Tom Vince to Jean Libby, Scott Wolfe, and others (including me), those who have studied Brown extensively over time and in great depth simply do not recognize the John Brown of Scott’s rendering. Far from being a historical portrayal, Scott’s “fool” is a straw man, a self-serving caricature that suits his prejudices and privileges his political agenda.
Third, Scott diminishes people of integrity who were Brown’s allies and supporters during and after his death. Besides his obvious criticisms of the “Secret Six” and other “liberal” abolitionist clergymen, Scott essentially calls Frederick Douglass a liar—“disingenuous”—in his testimony about Brown.22
Fourth, Scott’s argument paints the crisis between abolitionists and the South with such broad brushstrokes that he obscures the fact that Christians across the theological spectrum were opposed to chattel slavery and saw it as a great sin. While it is true that many leading abolitionists were “liberal” clergymen, there was no lack of stridently evangelical and even Calvinistic anti-slavery people in the North too. The abolition movement may have had a preponderance of “liberals” in Scott’s terms, but the anti-slavery and abolitionist premises were not essentially based upon heterodoxy. For instance, the counterparts of Reformed Presbyterian slaveholders in the South were the Covenanted Reformed Presbyterians, a movement descended from the Scottish Protestant Reformation. The “Covenanters” were fervent antislavery people and argued against slavery explicitly from the Bible and the Calvinist tradition. John Brown himself was a traditional Calvinist, a point that Scott never properly or fairly assessed because his only interest was in presenting him as a murderous “fool” in cahoots with Northern liberal heretics. Brown was “religious,” Scott says, but certainly not Christian. Even in his death, Brown died like every dark pagan “selected for holy execution” in places like the “Orient, Pacific, Africa, India and other parts, because the gods demanded sacrifices—for the good of the majority.”23
Finally, Scott’s viewpoint necessarily plays down and denies the evil of chattel slavery and makes the slaveholding South a victim of Northern aggression. In his understanding, it was antislavery people who were acting out “with raging demonstrations against the Fugitive Slave Act” in the North, just as it was the “initial exertions of old John Brown” that caused Kansas rhetoric to shift into violence. The Northern heresy “led to the Civil War” while noble Christian Southerners “watched the Northern paroxysms with fear and horror,” increasingly convinced they were to be massacred.24 There is no sense of the aggression and determination of the South to expand slavery by any means necessary. There is no admission that Southern terrorism was already underway in Kansas before John Brown came in answer to a distress call from his family in the territory. There is no acknowledgment that black people in the North, free and fugitive, were outraged and terrorized by the Fugitive Slave Law, and that many patient Northerners felt violated and abused by its requirements. Nor is there any sense of the guilt and hypocrisy of the Christian South, feeding off the sweat and blood of their hapless black chattel. All Scott understood of the antebellum drama of abolition was that it was a grand liberal heresy foisted upon the South that “resulted in a long, terrible [and avoidable] war and punitive peace.” All that mattered to him was that abolitionists had so skewed the world by their doctrines that even future whites, such as white Afrikaners during South African Apartheid, would suffer as a result, just as anti-white terrorism was descending upon the world because of the “boomeranging back” of the abolitionist heresy.25
Epilogue: “Eternal Reality”?
After Scott’s death, one of his family members recalled that although “his work has proceeded without fanfare, it had not gone unnoticed.” This is true enough. His influence remains real in the marginal subcultures of neo-Confederacy and reactionary right-wing Christianity. His work on John Brown has not gone unnoticed either, since it remains authoritative and usable for these audiences. However, Scott’s work lacks the substance of truth and integrity. He not only writes from a standpoint of error, but also from one of tragic self-deception. Scott was a man who gave the whole of his life to twisting history to benefit corporations, slaveholders, and alleged white racial superiority. Gifted with doubtless ability and intelligence, yet his intelligence was wasted on the pride of a fallen slave empire, and every gesture of accusation he pointed at others will come back to rest upon his legacy.
Otto Scott lived on the wrong side of history and left a legacy of white racist pride and denial.
Otto Scott lived on the wrong side of history and left a legacy of white racist pride and denial. As a historian, he had real ability and sensibility, even a sense of obligation to time and eternity. Yet often these make the worst kinds of people when they align themselves to the side of oppression. Were he merely a stupid reactionary or a paid literary assassin, Scott would have been easy to ignore. He once remarked, “I do not regard the past as dead. On the contrary, I regard the past and the present and even the future as part of an eternal reality.” He concluded that his generation faced the same tests encountered by former generations. “All I do is remind my contemporaries that Eternity watches us forever,” Scott concluded.26 It is unfortunate that a man with such a broad scope did not learn from the failure of preceding generations. John Brown was himself quite aware of that “eternal reality,” and could have taught Otto Scott a few lessons had he been willing to learn from history. But instead of deploring those sins, he personified them as an apologist, and even magnified them by making wrong into right, and right into wrong. Like Haman of old, the fool who erects a gallows for the just may find himself hanged on a scaffold of his own error.
So hangs Otto Scott, the fool as biographer.
* I would like to thank the scholar Edward H. Sebesta, who provided me with some copies of Scott’s contributions to neo-Confederate publications, especially the Southern Partisan. Sebesta’s blog, Anti-Neo-Confederate is found on the web at: http://newtknight.blogspot.com/. He is also the co-editor of Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction (University of Texas Press, 2008) http://www.utexas.edu/utpress/excerpts/exhagneo.html and co-editor of The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader (University of Mississippi Press) http://www.upress.state.ms.us/books/1338.
1 “A Giant is Gone,” Southern Partisan xxv:i (May 2006): 11.
2 “Otto Joseph Scott,” Wikipedia. Retrieved on 12 Mar. 2012 from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otto_Scott#cite_note-1; Phillipa Scott-Girardi, “Otto Scott,1919–2006,” Sobran’s Forum on line [originally published in Sobran’s, Apr.-May 2012, p. 12]. Retrieved on 12 Mar. 2012 from: http://www.sobran.com/articles/forum/otto_scott.shtml. Also see “Otto Joseph Scott, May 26, 1918 – May 5, 2006” (Obituary). Bonney-Watson (Seattle, Wash.). Retrieved on 12 Mar. 2012 from: http://bonneywatson.com/obituaries/detail.html?id=1857.
4 “Otto Joseph Scott”; “A Giant is Gone.” Also see, Scott-Girardi, “Otto Scott, 1919-2006.”
5 Scott-Girardi, “Otto Scott,1919–2006.”
6 See Tri-City Covenant Church website (Somersworth, NH) at: http://www.tccc-tcca.org/. Note that the sources of the church’s position paper on “Dominion & Work” are all renowned Reconstructionist scholars.
7 Richard John Neuhaus, “Ralph Reed’s Real Agenda,” First Things (Oct. 1996). Retrieved on 12 Mar. 2012 from: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/11/006-ralph-reeds-real-agenda-5.
8 Neuhaus, “Ralph Reed’s Real Agenda”; Carl Trueman, “Rushdoony once again—for the last time,” Reformation 21 blog [Alliance for Confessing Evangelicals], 31 Dec. 2006. Retrieved on 15 Mar. 2012 from: http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2006/12/rushdoony-once-again-for-the-l.php.
9 Edward H. Sebesta and Euan Hague, “The U.S. Civil War as a Theological War: Confederate Christian Nationalism and the League of the South,” Canadian Review of American Studies 32:3 (2002).
10 “Otto Scott,” Racist Churches blog. Retrieved on 12 Mar. 2012 from: http://racistchurches.wordpress.com/2007/06/13/otto-scott/.
11 See Louis A. DeCaro, Jr., John Brown: The Man Who Lived; Essays in Honor of the Harper’s Ferry Raid Sesquicentennial 1859-2009 (New York: Lulu, 2009), pp. 15-16.
12 Louis Ruchames, ed. A John Brown Reader (New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1959), pp. 14-15.
14 “Malin took much of his source material from the anti-Brown papers and records.” Boyd B. Stutler to Clarence S. Gee, 10 July 1953, p. 2, in Stutler-Gee correspondence, Hudson Library and Historical Society, Hudson, Ohio; “The book contains a lot of good material—but it also contains too much of biased opinion. . . . I think [Malin] violated every rule of historical method in his zeal to establish his legend, and that there are strained interpretations of some of the material he used.” Stutler to Gee, 25 Aug. 1951, p. 1, idem.
15 Otto Scott, “The Return of John Brown and the Secret Six,” Southern Partisan (Spring 1988), pp. 21 and 23.
16 The final version of the book is published under the title, The Secret Six: John Brown and the Abolitionist Movement. See note 20 below.
17 Per the book’s description on Amazon.com. Retrieved on 16 Mar. 2012 from: http://www.amazon.com/James-I-Fool-as-King/dp/0884051234.
18 Scott, “The Return of John Brown and the Secret Six,” p. 23.
19 Ibid., 22.
20 Ibid., 23-24.
21 A routine search on the internet for Uncommon Books shows no other author or book published by Uncommon Books, except for another essay by Scott called “The Church and Modern Culture” (1992).
22 Scott, The Secret Six, n. 10, p. 345.
23 Otto J. Scott, “Transcendentalism: The New England Heresy,” Southern Partisan (Spring 1982), p. 20.
24 Ibid., 19 and 20.
25 Ibid., 21.
26 Scott-Girardi, “Otto Scott, 1919-2006.”