The Observer, an online publication that purports to bring an “irreverent” but “original take on the latest in news, culture, politics and luxury,” published a piece by Bernie Quigley (Aug. 22) entitled, “Civil War Tensions Brew as Vermont Celebrates Awkward Yankee History.”
Quigley’s piece was spawned by President Trump’s recent, ham-handed question about the Civil War, in which he audaciously inquired why the conflict between the Union and the slave states could not have “been worked out” without civil conflict. In what likely will be counted as one of the most stupid presidential remarks to be made about U.S. history, Trump opined that Andrew Jackson might have prevented the war had he “been around to stop it.” Quigley concludes that Trump was really “asking a question that needed to be asked, especially today.”
Quigley suggests that Trump (but more likely Steve Bannon, who at least reads, albeit probably only right-wing interpretations of history) was informed by author David Goldfield, who called the Civil War “America’s greatest failure.” Then, quoting Goldfield quoting Tony Horowitz, Quigley concludes that since emancipation and reunion were “badly compromised,” the outcome of the Civil War—an “immense toll in blood and treasure”—-proved the war was not “worth it.”
Of course, Quigley is merely quoting an opinion that suits his politics, which is the real reason for this “cosmopolitan” tripe. As to the opinion itself, including the views of Goldfield and Horwitz, we find an unfortunate and privileged revisionism in which white scholars reevaluate the cost of the Civil War and conclude that anyone, including Trump, are correct in contending that any compromise would have been better than the war.
“Justice Fatigue” Revisited
However, this top-down revisionism is deeply racist. Even superficially, it reflects the same spirit among white society that undermined Reconstruction in the later 19th century. The prerogative of whites to revisit the cost and burden of liberation and maintenance of former slaves wore out the patience and interest of whites by the 1870s. Even some who had lived through the Civil War eventually grew tired of worrying over the former slaves and wanted to get on with the business of nation-building. This “justice fatigue” led to the selling out of blacks by the Republican party, the end of Reconstruction, and the beginning of Jim Crow oppression in the South.
Quigley and others are also exhibiting signs of “justice fatigue” in weighing the massive loss of millions of soldiers, most of them white, as having been too precious for the outcome of the Civil War. The reasoning is that since black liberation and the reunion of the North and South were not well processed, it would have been better if the Civil War had never been fought in the first place. Apparently, Quigley would also prefer that enslaved Africans remain in bondage for another generation or two (or more) until white society could work out the best way for the issue of slavery to be resolved in a “win-win” manner. All those white deaths just cannot be justified by the end of slavery in the United States. This is quite a different view of things from what John Brown once opined, that it would “better for a whole generation to die a violent death” than for slavery to triumph in the nation.
Racist Wishful Thinking
The problem with the sort of wishful thinking expressed by Quigley and his ilk is that there is no basis to think that either emancipation or “reunion” could have been accomplished in any way better than it did, particularly given that white racism permeated the entire national context. After all, the path to black liberation was fraught with many difficulties, and ultimately faced setback because of white society—-both the racism of former slaveholders as well as the racism of the prejudiced North. Nor could “reunion” have been accomplished in any realistic manner since the whites of the South were both beaten and embittered and had no intention of yielding to black freedom and black equality. In what historical scenario could Quigley possibly imagine that the South and the North would have been reconciled other than the way that it actually happened—by the selling out of emancipated blacks and the return of political and economic control to former slaveholders?
This argument is racist foolishness, the longing for an outcome that would have spared white lives and left black people to writhe in the chains of slavery for decades to come as the price of white satisfaction.
Practically, the idea that the North should not have prevented secession is ludicrous. It was abundantly clear prior to the war that the South was expansionist and committed to an agenda of slavery’s advancement into new territory. This was obvious in the terrorism that the South unleashed in undermining democracy in Kansas. It was previously seen in the manner that the South was led into a war with Mexico, and the “filibustering” of some Southerner adventurers in Latin America. Had the South been left to its own devices—if the North had chosen to spare its sons and let secession go unhindered, four millions of black people been permanently trapped in chattel slavery. Furthermore, the South would have been free to invade the Caribbean and Central America to pursue its expansionist lusts. These were as clear as Belshazzar’s handwriting on the wall, and to say otherwise is simply to say that one’s commitments, even in the interpretation of history, are essentially racist. Better to spare hundreds of thousands of white boys than to prevent the monstrosity of chattel slavery to devour millions of black lives.
Apparently to Quigley, black lives really do not matter, not even in retrospect.
As to John Brown, there is nothing “original” in the Observer’s presentation by Quigley. Quigley goes on record as speaking of Brown as
* the “catalyst to the Civil War”
* “the trickster figure who brought the chaos moment that would turn the tide and reformulate history”; and
* the point of no return for the killing and maiming of “over a million Americans. . .on American soil.”
This is more or less old cracker mythology.
It was the habit of mind of “Lost Cause” and top-down historians to blame John Brown as either THE catalyst or at least one of the catalysts that brought a needless, avoidable war upon the nation. Quigley shows the depths of his embedded racist rationale by attributing exclusive blame to Brown—as if nothing else happened that helped to foment the South’s desperate betrayal of the Union. Even a reasonable conservative would have to admit that a number of issues acted as catalysts of the war, but not Quigley.
Second, that Brown is labeled a “trickster” is clearly a way of demonizing him. In folklore, the trickster is an agent of evil whose literary DNA leads back to the story of Eden and the serpent. Quigley here is appealing to some sort of religious white nationalist history, where God’s people are beguiled and led to a national fall by that devil John Brown. But if Quigley thinks Brown a trickster, then it is clear that he also assumes that before Brown the nation was better off than it was after the Civil War.
Finally, it is simply not the case that after Harper’s Ferry the nation had reached a point of no return. To the contrary, even a superficial reading of history shows that “the point of no return” was the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, and this was to no fault of Lincoln. The sixteenth president made it abundantly clear in his quest for the White House that he had no intention of ending slavery. Lincoln’s only caveat in 1860 was that the South should not expand any further; unlike John Brown, Lincoln was a moderate when it came to black freedom. He had no intention of emancipating blacks and would not have done so. But the core political leaders of the South were determined to secede regardless. Indeed, their sentiments in this regard dated back a decade, so that it is not incorrect to say that the most radical and influential leaders of the slave states were planning on secession as soon as circumstances allowed for it. Those circumstances came when Lincoln was elected—-not when John Brown raided Harper’s Ferry. Had a unified Democrat party put forth a candidate and won in 1860, there would have been no secession. Indeed, there would have been no secession as long as the slave states maintained control of the White House.
To no surprise, Quigley’s article reveals that besides justifying Donald Trump’s revisionism and condemning John Brown, he is critical of the removal of Confederate statuary. He asks not only if the Union followed the “right approach” by war in 1861, but if in 2017 it is the right approach to remove “monuments and memorials.” Indeed, he asks, will “a new cycle of Yankee contempt” for the South also in the North?
With this as his burden, Quigley returns to Brown, to further slander and skew his story. He writes that
* Brown failed to capture the U.S. arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in the hope of “upstarting the Civil War”
* That Lincoln considered the raid was so absurd that even ignorant slaves saw it was ill-fated from the onset
* Brown was a mad man and insane (quoting the 20th century Southern historian C. Vann Woodward); and
* that a Google search of “John Brown” and “terrorist” will produce articles that suggest Brown was a terrorist.
Like so many other anti-Brown screeds, Quigley’s facts are skewed in ways great and small. First, Brown captured the entire armory (which included the arsenal) and held it for two days. Second, Brown had no intention of triggering a Civil War; to the contrary, he wanted to defuse a full-scale war by launching a campaign that would largely attract, defend, and sequester runaways so that slavery would be destabilized.
As to Lincoln, he was no more informed or competent to judge Brown’s plan in 1861 than most other people since he had only the skewed reportage of the proslavery press (the antislavery press was prohibited from coming into Virginia, and only the New York Tribune managed to sneak in a secret reporter—whose account of Brown differs significantly from the proslavery press).
As to the old, tired allegations of Brown’s “insanity,” there is nothing of substance to them. This was a plaything of 20th century historians, especially the “Lost Cause” set. There is simply no substance or evidence that Brown was mentally ill. If anyone would have found it, Tony Horwitz would have had he been able to do so. As it stands, the best he could manufacture in his book, Midnight Rising, was Brown’s possible bipolar disorder—a notion that is wishfully knitted of scattered phrases and circumstances to suit Horwitz’s enthusiastic Civil War readership.
Finally, as to Googling Brown and terrorism, this means nothing other than it will dredge up some of the worst, ill-informed and biased writings about John Brown by contemporary authors—most of whom approach his story with decided opinions and designs. This is but froth and bubbles from an overflow of Quigley’s bigotry.
Quigley concludes that we are living in “a precarious, teetering moment,” in which the Republican senator from Nebraska has expressed concerned that “violence is coming.” He finally targets Vermont for recognizing and celebrating John Brown. Isn’t it better to look to a pacifist icon, isn’t it better to get past the Civil War? It is “time to move on,” Quigley says.
The obvious answer to Quigley’s question is “No,” because it has always been the posture of a racist society to “move on” when it comes to racial justice. It was the desire of people like Quigley to “move on” that left black people to the violence of segregation and the terrorism and economic destruction of the Ku Klux Klan and Citizen’s Councils of the 20th century. It has been the desire of a racist majority to “move on” that turned its back on racist constabulary violence against blacks and Latinos for a century, and even now when the murder of black people by racist officers can be viewed on video and posted on Face Book. It has been the desire of far too many white people in this nation to “move on” that has led to counter-freedom mottos like “All Lives Matter,” or has allowed conservatives to cloud the point that Colin Kaepernick has clearly made by his example in refusing to pledge allegiance to “Old Gory.” It was the desire to “move on” that resulted in Vice President Pence from moving on and out of a football stadium in Indianapolis this past Sunday.
No, I submit, it is not the time to move on from John Brown. It is, rather, the time for white America to face the real facts of John Brown, perhaps for the first time in 150 years.
John Brown was neither a trickster nor a terrorist. John Brown was a citizen who so believed in the claims and possibilities of justice in the United States, that he gave the whole of his adult life to justice. It was John Brown who proved that every means of peaceful effort had been exhausted when it came to the end of a racist system that relied upon terror and murder to steal the labor and bodies of men and women simply because they were black.
Brown was among only a small number of anti-racists in proportion to the larger white population of the United States—and among them he was the only one in 1859 who had a plan that could undermine and destabilize slavery.
It is not time to “move on” to suit the priorities and preferences of the white center. It is for people—inspired and informed by John Brown’s example—to move into the center, dismantling white privilege, opposing white supremacy, and contradicting the real “fake news” put forth by this racist status quo.
John Brown will not go away. His stubborn audacity and unapologetic devotion to human equality and justice makes his memory one of the vital organs of anti-racist memory, one of essential models for the anti-racist present, and one of the prophets of the anti-racist future.--LD
The link for the Quigley article is: