Over a Decade of History, Research, and Current Themes


"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Sunday, January 20, 2019

From the Files: Controversial John Brown

        Of all the antislavery figures of the antebellum era in the United States, John Brown perhaps is both the least known and yet the most controversial.  This is particularly true within the collective memory of white society, a memory entangled with dubious notions of his alleged terrorism and mental instability.  Quite in contrast, African American memory holds the blue-eyed freedom fighter in high regard, from the warmly appreciative narratives of Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to the contemporary fiction of novelist James McBride in The Good Lord Bird.   Certainly in the more urgent reflections of black activists over 150 years, Brown has been considered an ally and hero, even if flawed.

 While even sympathetic white historians seem compelled to speak with a certain apprehension about Brown, African Americans have typically remembered him in a warmer light—the difference between these two perspectives being somewhat like the argument between “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter.”  Indeed, John Brown and “Black Lives Matter” may be inseparable, since it was the former who fervently argued for the latter.   He was quite visibly out of place in an era when the official and cultural opinion of whites in the USA was, in the summary words of Chief Justice Roger Taney in 1857, that black people were “unfit to associate with the white race either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

In many respects, John Brown was a typical man of the antebellum United States: he struggled as a businessman amidst a problematic economy; he buried a good many children due to yet untreatable infections that raged through his agrarian society; and he embraced a traditional form of Protestant Christianity, upholding the Bible as God’s inspired and infallible word.  In short, his first fifty years are largely interwoven into the times of a growing nation, a country for whom rebellion and revolution were still a recent memory, and whose rising future seemed increasingly bound up with black chattel enslavement. 

As he grew from youth to manhood, his ideas evolved about remedying slavery, even as slaveholders grew steadily more powerful and hungry for expansion.  In the 1820s and 1830s, Brown hoped to achieve the rank of an antislavery magnate who might support education for free blacks while financing peaceful means of discouraging slavery.   However, by the later 1840s and throughout the 1850s, he was among a small number of people who had changed their views.  In light of the growing audacity of proslavery leaders, it now seemed that some sort of militant interference would be necessary to prevent slavery’s territorial acquisition and demand for passivity from the free states.

For many whites, the first and last words about Brown typically are associated with killing, although invariably these killings have been as negatively misrepresented to his disadvantage as the career of the racist criminal Jesse James has been positively misrepresented to his benefit.  Indeed, that a proslavery terrorist, robber, and murderer like Jesse James has emerged in popular legend as a kind of Robin Hood, while Brown is regarded by the same nation as a “terrorist” actually says far more about how racism has shaped our national narrative.

The facts are that John Brown believed in arming free blacks against kidnapping and enslavement, travesties recently dramatized in the film version of Twelve Years a Slave.  In 1850, he founded an all-black organization in Springfield, Massachusetts that was devoted to defending blacks from forceful seizure by slave hunters.  His approach was not paternalistic, but informed by frequent associations with black people—both the humble and the most renown of the day.   Indeed, it was his personal experience among blacks that caused him to realize that their lives mattered so much that they should fight for themselves and be aided in their fight. 

John Brown is commonly remembered for his proposed guerrilla warfare strategy in the mountains, and certainly for the killing of proslavery thugs in the bloody Kansas territorial conflicts of the 1850s.  It was in this season that he was forced to extremes of violence—though this often is the only thing recalled by white society.  Yet in fact these extremes were undertaken against proslavery terrorists and in defense of family and community.  Likewise, in 1859, Brown implemented a long-considered plan, a kind of “grand rescue” that he wanted to launch in the South.  His famous raid on the armory and town of Harper’s Ferry, Virginia marked the only strategic plan ever undertaken by humanitarians in order to undermine slavery.  At Harper’s Ferry, he hoped to lead off enslaved people, gradually building a movement of armed runaways who would destabilize slavery throughout the South without engaging in full-scale insurrection.   His failure to launch the movement at Harper’s Ferry left him a prisoner of Virginia, likewise leaving his legacy to be reinterpreted to the advantage of the powerful proslavery element that reigned before the Civil War.

Given over to slaveholders when he ought to have been tried by a federal court, Brown inadvertently became the most famous antislavery martyr by capping off the antebellum era with his death on a Virginia gallows.  His life, his legacy, and his commitment to ending slavery not only prevailed throughout the Civil War, but also permeated the national psyche for many decades, well into the 20th century.  The controversial abolitionist quietly haunted even the backdrop of the Civil Rights era, being remembered by the most strident critics of white racism.  John Brown “was right then, and he’s right now,” James Baldwin told an interviewer in 1972.  “I think he was a great American prophet.”--LD

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