"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, 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.

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