"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, September 26, 2015

John Brown in "The Civil War”: Historical Error Now Enhanced in High-Definition


In September 1990, over forty million people reportedly viewed “The Civil War,” a documentary series on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) produced by Ken Burns.  The series proved enthralling, with its brilliant use of original images blended with moving music and cinematography, actors providing voice-overs of leading historical figures in the story (most notably Sam Waterston as Abraham Lincoln), as well as scholarly commentary.  Burns was already known for his notable documentary on the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge (1981), but the impact of his Civil War series was unprecedented.  

Since its release, “The Civil War“ has won numerous awards and has become a paradigm for documentary filmmakers, and Burns himself has been lauded as one of the most important filmmakers of this generation.   Even Apple named the “Ken Burns” screen saver after the technique that was made famous by his celebrated Civil War series.

To commemorate the impact of the series, PBS produced “Ken Burns and the Civil War," a twenty-fifth anniversary documentary that was aired last month, and likewise broadcasted the entire documentary this month in a newly restored, high-definition version.   One PBS affiliate observes that the series has been widely praised, even across the political spectrum, from the New York Times, which called it a “masterpiece,” to conservative George F. Will, who declared that no better use of TV has ever been made than “The Civil War.”  


"More Americans Get Their History from Ken Burns Than Any Other Source"

As noted on the PBS website, historian Stephen Ambrose once observed, "more Americans get their history from Ken Burns than any other source."  Although this speaks highly of Burns' impact, many historians and biographers may question whether this is good for the study of history, particularly when problematic representations may end up being widely disseminated in television documentaries.  In Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985)Neil Postman once noted that the rational argument that is so essential to print typography is lost in the medium of television.  To what extent this applies to television documentaries is not clear, but it rightly might be asked, for instance, if Burns has properly instructed the nation as to the real meaning and significance of the Civil War, or if he has presented an impressive but selective series of images and voices without the critical appraisal and rational discourse that historians bring to their work.
Illustration by the late Harry J. Dierken

Certainly the inadequacy of Burns’ history lesson is apparent in the first part of “The Civil War,” where the abolitionist John Brown is presented as something of a misanthrope who became important to history by accident.  In “1861 The Cause,” Burns uses his multimedia and dramatic approach to present a moving story on the screen, but in doing so embeds Brown in a problematic reading that solemnizes a great deal of error in the name of history.  In contrast to the more studied treatment that Brown has received from historians since the beginning of the 21st century, Burns frames the abolitionist in a hackneyed, erroneous narrative that conveniently also presents the voice of Abraham Lincoln as the moral compass of the story.


"1861 The Cause": A Hackneyed, Erroneous Treatment of Brown

Lincoln is romantically described as
"the rough man from Illinois" . . .
From the onset, even the descriptive language employed by Burns signifies the misrepresentation and bias of this segment.  President Lincoln thus is “the rough man from Illinois,” a romantic phrase alluding to his legendary origin on the prairie, although Lincoln actually was a learned and savvy politician with real political connections despite his humble beginnings.  In contrast, John Brown is first described as “a strange, gaunt man,” terms that have no basis in any contemporary description, even by those rendered by his Virginia captors.  Indeed, the only thing that white people found strange about him was his intense devotion to black equality—a view not held by Lincoln.  

. . . but Brown is
first described as
"an inept businessman"
Likewise, Burns’ narrative continues by describing Brown as “an inept businessman that had failed twenty times in six states and defaulted on his debts.”  To this gross misrepresentation, Burns adds the discordant remark: “Yet he believed himself God’s agent on earth.”  As a biographer of Brown, I have found the frequent reference to his business failings to be an empty charge often used by critics in order to detract from his character as an antislavery figure. While Brown certainly experienced financial difficulties in the 1830s and early 1840s, an informed account of his early career does not so much reveal an inept businessman as much as an unfortunate entrepreneur caught in the economic crises of that era. 

Brown as Businessman: Not Exciting, But A Better Assessment

The time of Brown’s financial difficulties was a period of tribulation for many others too.  In the antebellum era there was no national bank and none of the supports and resources that are available to the business community today. If there were such a thing as the limited liability corporation in Brown’s day, his personal story would have been much less agonizing.  Furthermore, in the 1820s and early 1830s, Brown actually was fairly successful as a frontier businessman in northwestern Pennsylvania.  When he returned to his home state of Ohio to engage in land speculation in the later 1830s, he fell prey—like many others—to the economic downturns that afflicted states in the west, and became overly dependent on credit.  The lawsuits, debts, and financial difficulties that plagued him into the 1840s involved properties and real estate speculation that ultimately brought him to bankruptcy in 1842.

What Burns overlooks in his cynical reading is that by the later 1840s, Brown had made an impressive comeback, having distinguished himself as one of the nation’s leading experts in fine sheep and wool—so much so that his name, activities, and correspondence can be found in a number of agricultural journals of the day.  His only other business difficulty came as a result of affiliating himself with the wealthy but incompetent Ohioan, Simon Perkins Jr. of Akron.  With Perkins’ support, Brown oversaw the expansion and success of the Perkins flocks in Ohio.  In 1846, the partners embarked upon a wool commission operation in Massachusetts that was intended to better the condition of woolgrowers, then under the heel of powerful manufacturers in New England.

To be sure, "the firm of Perkins & Brown" lasted only three years, but it did not fail because Brown was an “inept businessman.” Rather, the demise of the wool commission operation resulted from two more significant causes: the woolgrowers primarily represented (from Ohio, western Pennsylvania, and western Virginia) were not yet unified or disciplined sufficiently to organize against the powerful manufacturers; in contrast, the manufacturers were well aligned and had sufficient resources to hold off from buying Perkins & Brown wools.  

Based on reading the firm's correspondence, Boyd Stutler believed there was even evidence that the commission's operation in Springfield was infiltrated and undermined by an agent of the manufacturers.  When Brown made a last, desperate effort to find a market overseas with English and Belgian firms, he found that these European manufacturers were just as uncooperative, preferring to fall back on their own colonial products rather than pay for Perkins & Brown's North American wools.

By 1849, the partners were thus forced to close, but it was primarily a loss to Perkins, not Brown, who had primarily brought expertise and labor to the venture.  Historians have never focused on the fact that Perkins was far more the "inept businessman" by all accounts.  Following the closing of the firm, Perkins went on to lose his shirt in a bad railroad deal and had to be bailed out by his brothers.  Brown did not quite break even from the venture, but he actually sustained a sterling reputation among businessmen despite these difficulties, and remained the agricultural manager of the Perkins farm and flocks for several years, until he finally relocated his family back to the Adirondacks in the mid-1850s.  
Burns followed the least informed historical narrative, preferring rhetoric rather than research when it came to the controversial abolitionist
The actual story of John Brown's early life not only contradicts the "inept businessman" notion, but it also shows that these misrepresentations found their way far too easily into “The Civil War.”  As far as the best research and biography are concerned, Burns followed the least informed historical narrative, preferring rhetoric rather than research when it came to the controversial abolitionist.   

"God's Agent on Earth"

Brown at prayer, from John S. Curry's
illustration for the 1948 edition of
John Brown's Body
Not surprisingly, Burns’ narrative then alleges that despite being a complete business failure, “yet [Brown] believed himself God’s agent on earth.”  Taken without context and appreciation of Brown’s typical evangelical belief in divine providence, Burns thus conveys the notion that the abolitionist was a delusional religious fanatic—yet another fraudulent notion that has plagued his story despite the facts.  To the contrary, Brown never claimed he was God’s “agent” in the manner of religious enthusiasts like Joan of Arc.  A traditional Protestant, Brown simply believed in divine providence, and that men and women may be raised up for various roles in service to God’s kingdom.  That he believed himself called and equipped to live and die for black freedom was far more similar to his many evangelical counterparts, who likewise believed themselves called to be pastors or missionaries in foreign lands.  Brown nowhere said he was the only one called by God to oppose slavery, only that he believed himself an instrument of God. To present John Brown’s religious self-conception otherwise is to deal in caricatures of religious fanaticism that have no basis in his biography.


Brown and the So-called Pottawatomie Massacre 

Perhaps inevitably, the Burns narrative also recounts the 1856 Pottawatomie killings in Kansas, in which the abolitionist and his sons “hacked five proslavery men to death with broadswords, all in the name of defeating Satan and his legions.”  It is almost impossible to discuss John Brown without the Pottawatomie incident, although invariably those who press these killings on the narrative tend to overlook the political realities and necessities that forced his hand. Like so many 20th century narrators, Burns misrepresents the incident by suggesting that the five men killed were targeted by the Browns simply because they were proslavery.  This is quite incorrect, since the five men actually were collaborating with invading proslavery terrorists, and were plotting against the Browns because of their antislavery and pro-black convictions.
[Burns suggests] to viewers that Brown had some kind of delusional determination to wipe out the devil
Furthermore, proslavery thugs had already murdered five free state men before the Pottawatomie killings, and the Kansas territory had been invaded by hordes of proslavery terrorists without the intervention of the proslavery government in Washington.  The Browns were cornered and had no reason to think they would be spared, especially since proslavery invaders had just attacked the free state town of Lawrence.  Brown had neither the recourse to seek protection from the government, nor the hope that free state allies would rise up in self-defense.  Determined to protect his family, he obtained the names of the local proslavery men involved in the conspiracy.  After investigating the matter for himself, Brown concluded that a handful of the most determined proslavery guides and supporters would have to die in order to avert a proslavery assault.  Although the illegal proslavery onslaught was renewed that summer, the Browns' preemptive strike at Pottawatomie in May 1856 successfully derailed the impending invasion, undoubtedly sparing the lives of Brown and his sons. None of these facts are considered in the Burns’ series, and instead it is suggested to viewers that Brown had some kind of delusional determination to wipe out the devil.


Misrepresenting the Harper's Ferry Raid

As to Brown's Harper’s Ferry raid of 1859, “The Civil War” narrative is hardly better, since it continues the problematic notion that despite Brown’s expectations “the slaves did not rise up.”  The alleged unresponsiveness of enslaved people in Virginia is one of the most stubborn errors to plague the conventional account of the raid, largely based upon the claims of slaveholders as conveyed through proslavery newspapers like the New York Herald.  To the contrary, the evidence shows that Brown and his men received a healthy response from a good many local slaves.  Indeed, one of his surviving black raiders, Osborne Anderson, actually wrote afterward that there was a good bit of rejoicing and enthusiasm among enslaved people regarding Brown’s invasion.  Although Brown delayed to the point of that he could not withdraw into the nearby Appalachians, many local blacks were so inspired by his effort that they persisted in running away in significant numbers.
Ed Bearss: No John Brown scholar, but he
got the last word on Brown's significance

Overall, “The Civil War” grossly misrepresents and distorts the record of John Brown, including the erroneous conclusion of military historian Ed Bearrs, who dismisses the abolitionist as a “failure in everything in life.”  One might agree with Bearrs that Brown was “the single most important factor . . . in bringing on the Civil War.”  But for Ken Burns to include such a cynical and limited conclusion suggests bias, not sound historical analysis.  

Indeed, "The Civil War" not only presents a sloppy, unreliable reading of Brown, but it also makes selective use of Abraham Lincoln’s words, presenting him as the true abolitionist and antislavery hero of the story—even though it is a matter of history that Lincoln consistently subordinated black rights to white priorities in law, politics, and personal prejudice.
"The Civil War" not only presents a sloppy, unreliable reading of John Brown, but also makes selective use of Abraham Lincoln’s words, presenting him as the true abolitionist and antislavery hero of the story--even though it is a matter of history that Lincoln consistently subordinated black rights to white priorities. . . .

"A Horse Thief and a Murderer"

When Burns was writing the screenplay for “The Civil War,” he contacted Larry Lawrence, the founder of the John Brown Society in New York City.  The filmmaker had heard that Lawrence had previously been in conversation with Leo Hurwitz, the veteran documentary filmmaker known for his work on the Spanish Civil War, the labor movement, and post-World War II racism.  As Lawrence recalls, Burns actually was far more interested in what he could find out about Hurwitz than gain a greater understanding of John Brown. This was interesting to Lawrence, who found that Burns was decidedly hostile toward the abolitionist—quite in contrast to Hurwitz, who died in 1981 while working on a favorable John Brown documentary.  According to Lawrence, Burns was quite convinced that Brown was little more than a horse thief and a murderer.  While input from Lawrence apparently tempered the filmmaker's prejudice, his presentation of Brown—now enhanced in high definition for a new generation of viewers—remains a serious problem for the many who will continue to "get their history" from television documentaries.-LD

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