"John Brown As A Farmer"
[From the New York Observer, Nov. 3 (1859)]
The late strange and thrilling events at Harper's Ferry, which have startled the public mind and revealed such hidden dangers to the country, excite a natural curiosity in respect to the prominent actor in the scene. I have no knowledge of the origin or early career of Brown. It was about ten years ago that he made his appearance as a farmer or cattle breeder in north Elba, and of the interior and most secluded towns of Essex county, and verging upon the vast wilderness of northern New York. The humble farm of Brown is situated on an elevated and broad plateau, embosomed in the giant arms of the Adirondacs [sic]. No district of the State is more impressive by the grandeur of its physical features or its natural beauties. The town is separated from the outer world by a barrier of dark and lofty mountains. Although embracing a territory equal to that of some counties, its population does not exceed four hundred souls.
North Elba was the scene of Gerrit Smith's abortive attempts at negro colonization. The scheme may have been suggested by honest and sincere philanthropy, but its issue was an utter failure, entailing upon the author disappointment, and sorrow and suffering on the recipients of his bounty. Scarcely a vestige now remains of this colony, although at one time so numerous that it seemed probable the anomalous political aspect would be exhibited of a town in New York controlled by negro suffrages, and represented in the country board by a colored supervisor. Only two or three of the colonists remain. They have either abandoned their farms or the lands have been sold for taxes. Nothing remain of this vaunted city of refuge.
Brown made his appearance in North Elba near the advent of the negro immigration. I do not know, however, that he had any connection with the movement, or any agency in promoting the eccentric vagaries of Mr. Smith. Recent occurrences seem to warrant the conclusion that even at this period an association of sentiment and action existed between these infatuated enthusiasts. In a political speech in Essex county last autumn, Smith referred to Brown with high eulogium, and while he denounced all parties for their course in Kansas, he asserted that John Brown has done for Kansas more than all other men combined."
At the Agricultural Fair of Essex county for 1850, a great senstation was created by the unlooked for appearance on the grounds of a beautiful herd of Devon cattle. They were the first that had been exhibited at the county festival, and every one was surprised and delighted by the incident. The inquiry was universal, Whose are these cattle, and from whence do they come? The surprise and excitement was not diminished when it was understood that a certain John Brown was the owner and that he resided in the town of North Elba. The report of the society for that year contains the following reference to this event--"The appearance upon the grounds of a number of very choice and beautiful Devons, from the herd of Mr. John Brown, residing in one of our most remote and secluded towns, attracted great attention, and added much to the interest of the fair. The interest and admiration they excited have attracted public attention to the subject, and has already resulted in the introduction of several choice animals into this region. We have no doubt but that this influence upon the character of the stock of our county will be permanent and decisive." (Trans. 1850, page 229.)
The writer of this article soon after opened a correspondence with Brown in relation to these cattle. His reply is now before me. The letter is written in a strong and vigorous hand, and by its orthography, accurate punctuation and careful arrangement of paragraphs, evinces far more than ordinary taste and scholarship. I consider it remarkable, not only for the force and precision of the language for a business letter, and for the distinctness of the statements, but equally for its sound sense and honesty of representation. I think I am not wrong in the impression that in extract will interest your readers, as illustrating the former habits and pursuits of a man who has impressed an ill terms[?] episode upon our national history--
Your favor of the 30th of September came on seasonably; but it was during my absence in Ohio, so that I could not reply sooner. In the first place, none of my cattle are pure Devons, but are a mixture of that and a particular favorite stock from Connecticut, a cross of which I much prefer to any pure English cattle, after many years experience of different breeds of imported stock. . . . I was several months in England last season, and saw no one stock on any farm that would average better than my own, and would like to have you see them all together.Such were the habits and tastes of the man while engaged in the pursuits of husbandry. What a contrast is presented, by the intelligence and zeal here displayed in a worthy and useful occupation, which was leading him along the pleasant paths of peace, contentment and prosperity, to the career of violence he has since been impelled less perhaps by his own insane fanaticism than by stimulations applied by the profligate designs of others to his ardent and fearless temperament. The natural impulses of Brown, those who knew him well affirm, were honorable and just, and his education and abilities of a superior order; but his mind has been distorted and his passions inflamed by a mad delusion. The evil influence of others, who shrunk from the perils on which they precipitated him, has betrayed him into deeds of blood and treason, and consigned a band of gallant sons to bloody shrouds, and himself to an ignominious death. Whilst every well constituted mind must denounce his course, the bold and heroic bearing of the man, his inflexible zeal and devotion, and the appalling end of his schemes, assert a claim that we scarcely can resist to our pity and commiseration.
Brown was at North Elba during a large part of the last summer, engaged everywhere in disseminating his fanatical opinions. The small remnant of his family which have escaped his fatal schemes still remain on the farm at that place, clustering around the hearth that has become so fearfully bereaved and desolated.
Source: Reprinted in The New York Herald, 6 November 1859, p. 1, col. 3
Neither the New York Observer or The New York Herald were friendly to the antislavery cause, both being publications of a right-wing nature, especially the latter, which is remembered in history for publishing the most outright racist vulgarities along with its wide-ranging and often valuable reportage. The article above, published first in the former New York paper, is written anonymously by someone likely resident in Essex County, N.Y., whose association with Brown dated back to 1849-51, when Brown had moved his family up to the Adirondack community of North Elba, N.Y. after spending a few years in Springfield, Mass. The Browns lived in North Elba in a rented farm throughout this stage of residence, then removed to Akron, Ohio, to complete a partnership with Simon Perkins, Jr. After successfully fulfilling his work with Perkins as overseer of the magnate's flocks and farms, the Browns returned to the Adirondacks in the spring of 1855, moving into their newly constructed but humble dwelling, which is the present John Brown Farm in Lake Placid, N.Y., a state historical site.
Clearly the author of this reminiscence knew and liked Brown, but parted ways with him over his strongly abolitionist and militant attitude toward slavery. The conservative author was typical of a lot of "anti-slavery" people in the North who disliked slavery but were not willing to take any political action and preferred to let enslaved blacks languish in chains until the nation somehow worked out a peaceful way of resolving the "peculiar institution" to the satisfaction of all whites. It is understandable that this piece would appear in conservative publications at the time of the Harper's Ferry raid, since the overwhelming attitude among so-called free state or anti-slavery northerners was one of compromise and gradualism, and certainly no willful position in opposing slavery by use of force.
The author of the article thus suggests that John Brown once was a civil and decent man of great ability and talent, but sadly had gone astray into fanaticism. Interestingly, however, the author does not blame Brown, but rather insinuates that he was driven to such fanaticism by exploitative abolitionists, who exploited and drove him to desperate acts in Virginia. Of course, such an apologist might as well have been Brown's enemy, and certainly the Old Man--still incarcerated in Virginia at the time this was published, could not have been pleased by the piece, and probably knew its author. While in jail in Charlestown, Brown had little access to the press, with the possible exception of the Herald, which was a racist journal, sympathetic toward the South and slave masters, and certainly far more interested in preserving the union of white people than even the basic human needs of enslaved and repressed blacks. Yet if Brown saw this article while in jail, he seems to have made no effort to respond by letter.
Besides its function as a right-wing political commentary, the reminiscence offers two positive aspects. First, it rightly provides a vignette of Brown's expertise and notable abilities in animal husbandry--something that he almost has never been credited with by historians and biographers. In fact, John Brown was a learned and successful breeder of livestock and one of the foremost experts on fine sheep and wool in the northeast prior to the Civil War. Those interested in this otherwise unexciting aspect of his biography may consult my little book, John Brown--The Cost of Freedom, which actually provides a little more insight into this aspect of his life than other writers. Second, the article provides a portion of a John Brown letter that is otherwise out of reach. I have not seen this letter extant in any source, so the article inadvertently preserves an interesting slice of Brown's life in the less than dramatic days circa 1850. Internal evidence suggests it was written in late October or November 1850, as he was answering the writer's letter of late September. He also mentions having been in England "last season," or the previous fall. Brown was abroad in England and the European continent for wool matters in the late summer and fall of 1849, so most likely he wrote the letter excerpted above in the fall of 1850. There are not many extant letters of John Brown from 1850, and the only one that I have not seen is one he wrote to a "G. Watson" on 11 November 1850--a letter held in The Newport Historical Society, Newport, R.I. (if anyone chances to visit there and can obtain a copy or transcript of their John Brown materials, I'd be most grateful for the favor!). At this point, I can only speculate that the Watson letter held in that institution may have the same author as this November 1859 piece.
Of course, I would hardly take the author's political view or assessment of Brown as truth. His thinking is reflective of the conservative mind of the 19th century--indifferent to the cause of black freedom, hostile toward any demand that fighting slavery was morally necessary, and oriented toward blaming and stigmatizing the abolitionists. Unfortunately, Brown was swimming against the tide of white northern opinion, a fact that the paranoid and reactionary Southern states could not see at the time.
Still, in the end, the author pitied Brown and believed him a heroic figure. This kind of sideways sympathy is common in northern conservative and Republican writing from this period. On one hand, conservative whites condemned Brown's extreme actions and dismissed his political position as "mad"; but on the other hand, they could not overlook the bravery, boldness, and devotion that he showed to his convictions. In the end, the North could not hold its John Brown cake and eat it too--the North either would have to dismiss Brown or embrace his vision, and this came about steadily as the South moved more and more toward rebellion. While the conservative spirit would later return to attack Brown's legacy with the demise of Reconstruction, during the Civil War era, selfish white conservatism was forced into submission by the unprecedented historical and spiritual power unleashed by Brown's last witness and death--a power that steadily overcame the North and forced even the most hesitant compromisers, including President Lincoln, to accept the final necessity of abolishing slavery.