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.