"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

Search This Blog & Links

Translate

Sunday, April 23, 2017

"We As a Family Have Sacrificed Enough": The Browns' Civil War Disappointment (1862)

In composing our narratives, it is tempting to jump from John Brown's death in 1859 to dramatic 
martial scenes of men in blue--white and black--marching into battle against rebel forces in the Civil War. While the ultimate outcome of the war was the defeat of southern rebels and the end of slavery, the two outcomes were not held as equal objectives by the federal government when the war began in 1861. A realistic historical sketch of the Civil War must include the fact that despite his alleged life-long hatred of slavery, Abraham Lincoln was willing to avoid war at the onset, even at the cost of allowing slavery to be contained in the slave states.  It was Southern greed, prejudice, and hubris that caused the rebels to mistake Lincoln for John Brown and reject his compromise.

Consequently, when the South seceded, Lincoln sent federal troops to save the Union, not free the slaves.  Indeed, it took much of the war for Lincoln's social and political sensibilities to catch up with those of the abolitionists, since his sine qua non was the preservation of the Union until late in the war.   Of course, this was not an exceptional position.  Lincoln's agenda was typical of many whites in the North who didn't want to overturn slavery, but felt compelled to support a military prevention of Southern secession.

To no surprise, the abolitionists were not enthusiastic about Lincoln's election and were disappointed with the way the newly elected Republican administration put black liberation on the back burner in order to prioritize saving the Union.   It is also no surprise that many whites disdained John Brown and expressed antipathy toward his surviving widow and children.   Even though a segment of the antislavery population sympathized with Brown, many of them considered him a kind of Don Quixote figure, who meant well despite his erroneous effort to free the slaves.   Many others simply disdained Brown, like proslavery Democrats who would even show political contempt toward his family.   A good example of this is found in the case of Salmon Brown's effort to join the Union army.  

Salmon Brown--as he would
have looked around 1862
(West Virginia State Collection)
Salmon Brown

In 1862, twenty-six-year-old Salmon Brown, was still single and at home with his mother and younger sisters.  His older half-brothers, John Jr., Jason, and Owen had long left the fold, and his two full brothers, Watson and Oliver, had died at Harper's Ferry.  Salmon was "the man in the family" at North Elba when the war started, and at first he felt duty-bound to support the cause, lending his hand in starting the 96th New York Regiment. 

But no sooner had Salmon donned his uniform that a protest began to arise against his promotion on the grounds that he was the son of John Brown.  Protests were varied: some stated simply that they were opposed to Brown's legacy; others did not want him ascending to a command position in the event that his superior officers were struck down or fell to sickness in the war.  Finally, others complained that they feared the hostile retaliation of the Confederates if they fell into rebel hands under Salmon's command.   Complaints became so great that he not only lost his lieutenancy, but felt it necessary to resign from the army, stating that his continued presence in the 96th would only impair its usefulness.1

Jason Writes

On April 22, 1862, Jason Brown, who was nearly forty years old, penned a fascinating letter to his younger half-brother.  Initially, Jason apologized, apparently for having been such a poor correspondent and for having neglected him.   Jason appealed that he was not showing favoritism by not having written--that is, apparently he worried that Salmon would think that his neglect was based on the fact of their different mothers (Jason's mother was Dianthe Lusk, John Brown's first wife, who died in 1832; Brown married Mary Day, Salmon's mother, the following year).   

In his letter, Jason knows of Salmon's recent disappointment, although he adds in a postscript that he had just found out that he had been offered the rank of lieutenant. Evidently, the reason for Jason's letter was that Annie, Salmon's younger sister, had sent him a copy of Salmon's resignation letter to the army.  "I am very glad that you did not go with a regiment of men who are ashamed of the son of a man who dared to do right! Ashamed of a man who dares to think an speak for Justice and truth," Jason wrote.2
 
Jason Brown, in later life
(Kansas State Historical
Society
)
He continues the letter by affirming Salmon's decision and expressing his gladness that he had "escaped from a regiment of men who I believe would be willing to die to save the infernal cause of this war"--in other words, Jason believed that many Northern men were yet willing that slavery continue, and were fighting only for the preservation of the status quo.  He then mentions that he too had considered enlisting, but had not done so because his wife Ellen was in poor health.  Nor had his older bachelor brother, Owen, enlisted. However, John Brown Junior had already enlisted, and Jason writes that he hopes that he too would "resign and come home," and that no other family member would serve in the army until "the Government is willing to do right."3

The Browns had consistently taken an abolitionist and egalitarian stance and found the circumstances quite dissatisfying, and Jason's sentiments reflected those of John Junior's as well.  Junior had been the first to become involved in the army in late 1861, when he assisted in raising a company of sharpshooters from Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. After his company was mustered into the 7th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry, Junior complained.4  "We are all feeling very sore about serving under Proslavery Gen. Halleck," he wrote to Jason that previous month.5

Henry Halleck, a Northern Democrat, was given command of the western theater by Lincoln in 1862. He was eventually transferred to the east by the President, but he was disliked by antislavery people in the west because of his Democratic sympathies, which Junior thus rightly characterized as "proslavery." Junior sought and obtained a medical discharge in May 1862, although there were some, like Charles Auiger, an Ohio neighbor, who believed he had faked his health problems (claiming rheumatism) in order to get out of the army.  Auiger thought John Junior fearful of war, which may be the case.6  Despite being his father's namesake (and the chief pensioner of his father's legacy), John Junior was never distinguished as a fighting man.5  Even so, it is reasonable to assume that he likewise had political reasons for backing out of military service.

This certainly was Jason's sentiment:
It seems to me that the mass of the white people of this wicked nation would rather that millions of its best men should die in this war than to do the least act of justice to the 4 million slaves or in any way interfere with the accursed thing (Slavery).  I have lost all desire to have anything to do in that war till the nation is ready to do right. . . . As long as slavery is to be protected let proslavery men fight.  I shall stay at home for the present.7
In the meantime, Jason concluded, he was still struggling with debt and poverty--the unfortunate "estate" that John Brown left his family after giving everything, including his life, for the cause of freedom.  "I think we as a family have sacrificed enough for the present," Jason wrote. "At least till the people are willing to stop fighting to protect slavery."8

L. DeCaro, Jr.

------
     1 See G.W. Palmley, "A visit with a son of John Brown," Montgomery News, 20 August 1915, in Boyd B. Stutler Collection.
     2 Jason Brown, Akron, Ohio, to Salmon Brown, North Elba, N.Y., 22 April 1862, in Brown Family Collection, Henry Huntington Library.
     3 Ibid.
     4 John Brown Jr., Humboldt, Kan., to Jason Brown, Akron, Ohio, 25 March 1862, in Brown Family Collection, Henry Huntington Library.
     5"Biographical Resume" under Inventory and Calendar of John Brown, Jr. (Columbus: Ohio State Historical Society).
     6 See Katherine Mayo's interview with Charles D. Auiger, 4 Jan. 1909, in JB in Cleveland, March 1859, and in Ohio folder, Box 4, John Brown - Oswald G. Villard Papers, Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Collection. 
     7 Jason to Salmon 22 April 1862. 
     8 Ibid.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

In the News. . .

Swann's Africana American Auction Featured Rare Image of Harriet Tubman

The Swann Auction Galleries of New York conducted an auction of printed and manuscript African American documents on March 30.  The auction featured a wide range of materials covering three centuries, from 18th century abolitionist documents to images of boxer Muhammad Ali.  Most notable was the sale of an amazing 19th century photo album that was gifted to Emily Howland (1827-1929), the daughter of Quaker abolitionists from Sherwood, New York.  Howland had embraced  antislavery as a student, and after studying in Philadelphia she became a teacher in a school for black females in Washington, D.C.   After the start of the Civil War, Howland began working with recently liberated blacks in a "contraband camp," distributing food and clothing.  The term signified the legal status of enslaved people who came into the hands of Union forces, in recognition of their legal status as property of the slaveholders according to the Constitution.  (Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation targeted this particular status, declaring all enslaved people in rebel states as free--thus beyond the legal claims of slaveholders.)   Howland worked at Camp Todd, which was situated at Robert E. Lee's estate in Arlington, Va.

Howland received the album as a gift from her friend and mentor, Carrie Nichols, on January 1, 1864, while still working at Camp Todd.  She evidently added images to it in later years, although it is not clear which images were part of the original album gift.  As the Swann site observes, this album is "truly impressive," since it contains an array of images, including two carte-de-visite images of Harriet Tubman.  While one of the Tubman images is familiar, the other is new to us--taken of Harriet by Benjamin F. Powelson sometime between 1868-69, when the photographer resided on Genesee Street in Auburn, N.Y.   This would show Tubman as being somewhere between 48-  and 49-years-old.  Other images in the album are of John Willis Menard, the first black man elected to the U.S. Congress (and the first black politician to address Congress); antislavery figures like Charles Sumner, Lydia Maria Child, Samuel Ely, William Ellery Channing, Colonel C.W. Folsom, and also images of Charles Dickens and Maximilian of Mexico. There are also a couple of images of young black women that were either students or associates.

The album was successfully auctioned and the price realized at $161, 000.

*    *    *

The Adirondack's Black Timbuctoo Community Remembered in Global Timbuktu Conference at Rutgers

On March 24-25, a symposium at Rutgers University symposium examined the legacies of three communities, considering their connections to the freedom struggles of African Americans. Global Timbuktu: Meanings and Narratives of Resistance in Africa and the Americas involved an gathering of international scholars, including archaeologists, historians, and curators from Timbuktu, Mali.
The symposium was organized by Rutgers University's Center for African Studies in the School of Arts and Sciences.  The archetype for this conference was Timbuktu, the city in the West African nation of Mali, a cultural, commercial, and intellectual center in the 14-16th centuries, particularly remembered  for its ancient library on art, medicine, philosophy, and science.  The symposium included a tour of an excavation site in Westampton Township, New Jersey, where an African American settlement existed with the name of Timbuctoo.

More familiar to John Brown students is the Timbuctoo settlement in Essex County, N.Y.  This Adirondack settlement was established in the 1840s as a response to a state law requiring blacks to own $250 in property to vote, and was heartily and advanced and supported by John Brown, who was then emerging as a familiar face to many black abolitionists.  Brown was operating a wool commission business in Springfield, Mass., and formed a friendship with Willis Hodges, who headed the black settlements in the Adirondacks (there was another settlement in Franklin County).

John Brown helped to promote the project, which was the brainchild of abolitionist tycoon Gerrit Smith, who donated huge tracts of land to black residents of New York State.  Contrary to popular opinion, Timbuctoo in Essex County, N.Y., was no haven for fugitive slaves, but predominately an effort to promote an agrarian economic program, which Hodges believed offered a better future to the free black community.  Brown naturally supported this effort, not only as a friend of black self-determinism but also as an expert in most agrarian matters.  To no surprise, he went so far as to relocate to North Elba, nearby Timbuctoo, where he could mentor and coach the urban settlers.  Unfortunately, Timbuctoo was no great success, and from the onset black settlers either found themselves being taken advantage of by local white hustlers, or discovered that settling on the cold Adirondack tracts was simply too difficult and frankly undesirable.  Ultimately, only a small number of black families persevered, although Brown was happy to build himself a home there, which is also the site of his grave.

The Adirondack Timbuctoo was featured at the symposium,  especially featuring the “Dreaming of Timbuctoo” Exhibition, which was introduced by John Brown Lives! founder and director, Martha Swan.  In conjunction with the symposium, Swan hosted Madame Hawoye Fassoukoye of Timbuktu, Mali,  a visiting teacher.  Here, Timbuktu met Timbuctoo, as the African teacher did a whirlwind day tour across the Tri-Lakes area, and Fassoukoye spoke to students in both a local college and high school.  As the Lake Placid News reported (30 Mar.), Fassoukoye also toured the John Brown farm.  "Through what I have seen right now, I've learned a lot of things, like the history of the Browns," Fassoukoye said afterward "Now I know where this name Timbuctoo comes from, where the settlers were. This is kind of an eyewitness (experience). I've seen it with my own eyes and will report it (back home)."



Friday, March 10, 2017

"Mr. Bias" and His John Birch Screed Against John Brown

An article has been called to my attention written by a history teacher from Oklahoma named Steve Byas, entitled, “John Brown’s Lethal Legacy,” which was published on February 7 on the website, The New American.  The New American is published by a subsidiary of the rightwing John Birch Society, an extremist, reactionary, and right-wing organization whose message is a default expression of white nationalism. 

Is it any surprise, then, that the JBS would hate John Brown?   How could it be otherwise, that a white nationalist, right-wing, and “pro-Constitution” organization upholding “patriotism” would not also despise the most radical and authentic “white” freedom fighter in US history? The author, Mr. Byas is “Mr. Bias,” and his bias is definitely from the rightwing—from the same side that hates abolitionism and any criticism of the status quo of white supremacy.

Byas’ article is long and tedious and I do not want to lend any more energy than necessary in highlighting this malignant piece of propaganda.  A series of bullet points should suffice:

·      Byas premises his screed on an erroneous and one-sided reference to the Pottawatomie killings of 1856, in which Brown and his men killed five proslavery conspirators and thugs.  Byas presents them as “innocents,” skewing context and information.  But like most anti-Brown screeds, a selective use of Pottawatomie is their mainstay.

·       Perhaps the real motivation behind the article is Byas’ contempt for film director, Paul Schrader, who evidently invoked John Brown in some anti-Republican, anti-Trump tirade.  Byas finds it “interesting” that Schrader “knew enough about Brown to include the historical point that Brown and his sons participated in the Kansas murders.”  I don’t know why this is so “interesting” given that John Brown haters are always talking about the Kansas killings as sheer murders.   Frankly, whatever Schrader’s politics cannot be automatically attributed to Brown.  People on the right and left have invoked Brown; the only question that matters is what Brown believed in the context of his own political life and times.

·       Like the late, malignant Otto Scott, “Mr. Bias” desperately wants to make much out of the fact that Brown got support from the “Secret Six,” which he characterizes thinly and inaccurately. Byas says that the wealthy members of the Six (that would be Gerrit Smith and George L. Stearns) “were prepared to support him with dollars as much as they could.”  This is not true.  They did support him consistently, but they hardly gave him as much money as they could have given.  Brown got by, and while he ended up with the Sharps rifles that Stearns bought for a Kansas committee (only after the latter defaulted on payment), he was not financially floated in the way that conservative monies have poured out in support of rightwing reactionary forces in Africa and other parts of the world.

·      Byas mistakes the writing of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as having a veiled double entendre for Brown. “For abolitionists,” Byas writes, “the words had a ‘double meaning,’ referring more to Brown and abolitionist activities than to God.”  To the contrary, Byas missed the point of the writing of the Battle Hymn.  In fact, the pacifist abolitionists (claiming “divine inspiration”) rewrote the “John Brown Song” to remove him from their antislavery mathematics because he used force.  Instead, they substituted a Unitarian reading of the Bible and appealed to God’s judgment in the Civil War, but definitely took Brown out of the spotlight and reconfigured the song to suit their theology and their politics.   Byas is just wrong.

·      He insinuates that Brown was bad because his “Secret Six” were Unitarians.  But Brown disagreed with them on points of theology, being a strident evangelical and biblical conservative.  This is a non sequitur. 

·      Likewise, Byas wants to diminish Brown because one of his supporters, Theodore Parker, referred to the South as “the enemy.”  First, Brown never used inimical language in speaking of southerners.  He made it clear that he was against slavery, not against southerners.  He would have invaded Connecticut if it were a bastion of slavery.  His sons later made it clear that Brown did not rear his family to hate Southerners, but he did rear them to hate human bondage and the stealing of labor and human bodies—something that is written into the Constitution and had to be amended.

·      It’s hilarious that Byas finds it negative that another one of Brown’s supporters befriended republican Italian independence leaders like Mazzini and Garibaldi.  So what?

·      Byas takes a statement Brown made completely out of context to prove Brown believed in “genocide.”  Brown reportedly said: “Better that a whole generation of men, women and children should be swept away than that this crime of slavery should exist one day longer.”  It was a statement in principle about the costs of losing many lives over against allowing slavery to triumph over freedom permanently.  But Byas turns this into Brown’s call for genocide.  This is either irresponsible or idiocy on Byas’ part.

·      Amazingly, Byas even turns on Brown’s father, Owen Brown, because he was a trustee of Oberlin College.  “Owen had a low view of Southerners, a feeling he passed on to his son,” writes Byas.  But this is flatly false.  One of Brown's sons lived, worked, and died as a newspaper man in New Orleans. The Browns always hoped that southern people first might be persuaded for moral reasons to give up their slaves, but slaveholders wanted the world to bend to their ways and profits.  At any rate, there is not one bit of evidence to support that the pious Owen Brown either hated Southerners or passed hatred down to his children.   Brown in Kansas was always respectful of his proslavery neighbors, as he was also in Missouri.  He didn’t lift the sword until they threatened his life and the lives of his family.

·      Byas misrepresents Brown’s victory over that slaveholding schmuck and brat, Henry C. Pate as because the former “surprised” Pate at breakfast and this made Brown a “war hero.”  Actually, Brown beat Pate at his own game in the field and it did make him a hero to the antislavery cause.  Nothing wrong there.

·      Byas conveys the same old mistaken notions about Harper’s Ferry, including the notion that he was going to “arm the slaves” with the Harper’s Ferry weapons, and then overthrow the government.  We know Brown had no such plan and made no effort to take the arsenal weapons.  He merely had them guarded during his occupation so that Virginians could not get to them.  Brown denied having any designs on the weapons and superior guns.  I discuss this in Freedom’s Dawn, along with the reason why Brown chose to seize the armory as a “demonstration.”

·      Byas says that despite the warm support that Brown received from the North after his capture, “such opinions were not those of the majority of Northerners, but they were certainly read with a growing animosity in the South toward their Northern countrymen.”  He's probably correct here, although he understands this incorrectly.   Most Northerners were not immediately converted to Brown admiration; most Northerners were racial bigots who did not want to go to war over black freedom.  What Brown did do for many Northerners was to give them the clarity they needed to see how badly and excessively the government had been used against them by the South. 

·       Byas says that “John Brown was an ‘instrument’ to be used by radicals on either side of the Mason-Dixon Line.”  This is nonsense.  Brown was an independent force and no one manipulated him.  If others “used” him after the fact, that is again no reflection upon him or his role in history. 

·      Byas shows his motivation in his summing up of the story of John Brown “in light of modern violent protesters who invoke his name.”  Since so much of his narrative is really just a screed against people supporting people who oppose his conservative views, it is clear this is just a propaganda piece that is really aimed at the current liberal establishment, especially the radical left that is calling for revolutionary action. If the shoe was on the other foot, Byas would probably call them patriots and invoke the “Founding Fathers.”

·      Byas says that “violence committed in the name of a cause, backed by powerful people, can cause a reaction that will further advance that cause. This was true in Brown’s day and is true in our own.”  This is a stupid conclusion that would be self-evident for a sixth-grader.  We all know that when causes are backed by powerful people they can cause a reaction.  I doubt the JBS is opposed to using money and power to support their cause.  So the issue is not violence, or powerful people, or a reaction.  The issue with Byas and the JBS is political. 

Steve Byas and the John Birchers are hypocrites because they say they believe in freedom but they clearly mean only white nationalist freedom.  If John Brown had done what he did to free a population of enslaved whites the Birchers would consider him their patron saint.  The rightwing has always been a movement that operates according to white racial priorities.  If Byas and the JBS are really concerned about a “violent legacy, why didn’t they criticize slavery and slaveholders, who used violence, terror, and murder every day to keep millions of black people enslaved for generations, and to take steal “slave crop” land from the Native Americans?  Why attack a Christian man whose whole life was devoted to ending slavery?


-->
Let the John Birchers come to their senses and change their name to the John Brown Society.  Therein they would find a true sense of freedom and liberty.   John Birch was a Christian soldier who, having been caught breaking the laws of another land as a spy, died as an instrument of US political interests. John Brown was a Christian liberator who, having been caught violating the laws of tyranny, died for humanity.  

We have no use for a John Birch when we have a John Brown.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

John Brown, a "Frustrated American"?

The Voice of America (VOA) website currently features a piece by Chris Simkins entitled "Debate Still Rages Over Controversial American Abolitionist John Brown" (16 Feb.).   The article is fair for the most part, primarily featuring the input of Dennis Frye, the go-to-guy for John Brown information at the National Park Service, but happily also including our friend, Alice Keesey Mecoy, a direct descendant of Brown's through his daughter Anne Brown Adams.

The article begins with a quote from Frye: "Some believe [Brown] is a tyrant, and even use the word terrorist. Conversely, others say no, he is a freedom fighter, he is a martyr, he is a hero." Well, given the nature of his job, Frye does a good job of presenting in a noncommittal manner.  While such an approach is hardly satisfying to those that know that Brown was neither a tyrant nor a terrorist, it is much preferred over the biased nonsense that I once heard from another NPS employee at Harper's Ferry. (See "A Harper's Ferry Return: Reflections from My Visit, October 15-17, 2009.")

"Frustration" versus the Facts

Frye further says that "John Brown is a very frustrated American," a man who was "so angry that he determined the only way to remove slavery from the country was through violent overthrow of the institution, to literally eliminate it through war."

The point is well taken--to a degree.  Brown was deeply frustrated and even angry over slavery, although he was not the only one.  Even so, only two men had a plan to end slavery in 1859, John Brown and Lysander Spooner, and the latter was still dealing with pen and paper when Brown was experimenting, planning, and acting in the field.

However, even in a short statement like Frye's remarks, there are two problems, which I'll call Point 1 and Point 2.  Point One further requires two sub-points, which I'll refer to as Point 1A and Point 1B.

Point 1A:  "Nothing But War"

Colorized Harper's Ferry postcard image, early 20th century
It is a matter of history that by the the late 1850s, the Fugitive Slave Law, the Dred Scott Decision, and the violent determination of the South to force slavery upon the Kansas Territory all proved that John Brown was correct:  There was no way to end slavery without violence.  Not only was slavery deeply embedded in the political, economic, and social infrastructure of the nation, but the South was determined to have slavery regardless of the outcome of the presidential election in 1860. Historians have erroneously blamed Brown and other radicals for the secession crisis, although in reality the proslavery leadership of the South was determined to keep slavery.  Thus, if the Democrats had won in 1860, the Union would have been preserved at the cost of the South's continued push for political control of the nation and slavery's further expansion into new territories.  However, if the Republicans won in 1860, the South was prepared to secede.  Brown knew this in the late 1850s and he knew that there was no way to end slavery.

The journalist William A. Phillips preserved Brown's clear reading of the facts in a remembrance published twenty years later in The Atlantic Monthly.  In a conversation with Brown in early 1859, he recalled how the Old Man “sketched the history of American slavery from its beginnings in the colonies," and showing the young journalist how the proslavery element had grown powerful and tied patriotism to compromise, also countering religious antislavery voices with the threat of secession.
“‘And now,’ he went on, ‘we have reached a point where nothing but war can settle the question….They never intend to relinquish the machinery of this government into the hands of the opponents of slavery.  It has taken them more than a half century to get it, and they know its significance too well to give it up… .The moment they are unable to control they will go out, and as a rival nation along-side they will get the countenance and aid of the European nations, until American republicanism and freedom are overthrown.”*
So Frye's approach is actually less than neutral since he conveys that impression that Brown's conclusions might have had equally reasonable alternatives, and that he was driven by frustration more than a factual reading of political reality.

Point 1B: The Inherent Racism of Counterfactual "Solutions" to Slavery 

Whatever Mr. Frye himself believes, there have long been those who blame Brown and the radical abolitionists for the violent outcome of the civil conflict of 1861-65, and contend--or at least insinuate--that other courses might have been pursued toward the end of slavery.


Any argument that an alternative to war was the better way of ending slavery is really arguing from and for white privilege


The problem is that the historical road to Civil War is itself testimony to the vanity of compromise. Those who argue today that the Civil War should have been avoided are missing the obvious point that compromise was repeatedly tried and failed because of the determined greed of slaveholders. They also miss the point that compromise always privileged white interests overall and left black people in slavery.  No possible compromise or alternative would have resulted in a just conclusion for the oppressed community.  Either enslaved blacks would have been held captive for many more decades in the name of "gradual emancipation," or they would have been deported without compensation while slave holders were financially remunerated by the federal government.  So any argument that an alternative to war was the better way of ending slavery is really arguing from and for white privilege.  I doubt that most of the counterfactual appeals to alternative solutions to slavery are consciously argued with racist intent, but there is an insensitivity to it that reflects the root problem of white priorities being upheld over black necessities.


So, respectfully, Mr. Frye's position here is misrepresentative in two ways: first, Brown's view was not a mere opinion, but a realistic reading of political absolutes.  Second, the notion of a peaceful alternative to ending slavery is politically unrealistic and premised on racial priorities that overlook black human rights.  As Brown would put it, it violates the Golden Rule.


Point 2: Something Other Than War

Another misleading feature of Frye's brief assessment is that he says that Brown wanted war.  He then misrepresents Brown's intentions and plans.

As Brown himself both demonstrated and repeatedly contended in words to the press and to the court in 1859, he neither intended nor attempted to launch an insurrection.  Yes, Brown was willing to use violence in measure to throw slavery's daily operations into a panic, but he was not an advocate of full blown warfare.  Up to his last day, in his famously scribbled words, "I John Brown," the Old Man made it clear that his effort was an attempt to avoid war on a grand scale.  His intention was not war, but a kind of armed subterfuge of slave society.  The priority effort of his plan was to lead away as many enslaved people as possible to the mountains, and then break them into small cadres of armed people who would further the movement into the depths of the South.  The fighting under Brown's plan would be mostly skirmishes here and there, while the greater emphasis was on evading conflict and tapping into the real desperation of enslaved people to escape bondage.  The outcome of Brown's plan would not have been war per se, but a panicked and dysfunctional slave society, with masters selling their slaves deeper into the South, and the routines and operations of slavery increasingly sabotaged.   In the end, Brown lamented that he had failed to accomplish his plan, and now fully anticipated that "much bloodshed" would be required to end slavery.

John Brown intended to arm fugitive slaves
with pikes, not the HF rifles
I would recommend that Mr. Frye read my book, Freedom's Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia, to correct the hackneyed notions that he continues to disseminate in the name of expertise.  Brown was not a warmonger, but a strategist with religious and humanitarian intention of deescalating the nation's movement toward war, and rescuing four millions of black people from being permanently kidnapped by a likely secession if the Republicans won in 1860.  This is the actual intention of the Harper's Ferry raid, not "war."

Frye further errs by saying that Brown and his men "planned to steal 100,000 rifles from the Federal Armory and distribute them to thousands of black slaves and white abolitionist fighters in an effort to overthrow the government."  This is sheer nonsense and it is a shame that a man with such an obvious role as a public educator and historical guide would be repeating these erroneous notions, so as to perpetuate the flawed notions of Brown that abound in this society.

No, Mr. Frye, Brown had no intention of seizing the Harper's Ferry weapons.  Not only did he deny this, but he said he didn't need those breech-loading guns because he had better guns.  Nor did he remove the guns, or even bring the wagons to remove "100,000 rifles."   There is absolutely no evidence that throughout Brown's hours of controlling the armory that he made any effort whatsoever to remove the Harper's Ferry rifles.  Indeed, he posted men to keep the rifles from being removed by Virginians.

Now Frye is correct that "John Brown wanted his army to orchestrate a huge migration of slaves from southern plantations," but the migration was not to the North as he concludes.  Brown's operation was not an armed underground railroad, but rather for a kind of counter-state existing in the mountains and margins of the South.   His hope was to sustain this presence until slavery collapsed, the Southern economy became completely destabilized, and it became impossible to effectively hold humans in bondage, especially with growing support coming from the North and allies abroad.

Brown in his Virginia jail cell, 1859
Detail from NY Illustrated News 10 Dec. 1859
Conclusion: History Reconsidered, Not Revised

Over 150 years after John Brown's death, the reason why there is still controversy and debate over his meaning to our nation is in no small part due to prejudice and misinformation.  While much of it is not deliberately malicious (some of it is), the unwillingness of many people (including people who should know better) to acknowledge Brown as a protagonist of liberty reflects the stubbornness and slowness of heart that sullies understanding and makes bitter that which should taste sweet in our mouths.  Some of this might be corrected by simply reconsidering history with a deeper commitment to research rather than recycling old rhetoric and flawed notions.  But I suspect with the passing of years that if there are good people like Mr. Frye who present some mistaken notions with no malice intended, there are others whose discourse is that of their forefathers--a narrative of deep racial bigotry and selfishness that is not so much a matter of the head but rather of the heart.--LD

      * William A. Phillips, "Three Interviews with Old John Brown," Atlantic Monthly (Dec. 1879), p. 743.