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

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Sunday, July 05, 2020

NYU PRESS FALL 2020 CATALOGUE: The Untold Story of Shields Green: The Life and Death of a Harper's Ferry Raider

When John Brown decided to raid the federal armory in Harper’s Ferry as the starting point of his intended liberation effort in the South, some closest to him thought it was unnecessary and dangerous. Frederick Douglass, a pioneering abolitionist, refused Brown’s invitation to join him in Virginia, believing that the raid on the armory was a suicide mission. Yet in front of Douglass, “Emperor” Shields Green, a fugitive from South Carolina, accepted John Brown’s invitation. When the raid failed, Emperor was captured with the rest of Brown’s surviving men and hanged on December 16, 1859.

“Emperor” Shields Green was a critical member of John Brown’s Harper’s Ferry raiders but has long been overlooked. Louis DeCaro, Jr., a veteran scholar of John Brown, presents the first effort to tell Emperor’s story based upon extensive research, restoring him to his rightful place in this fateful raid at the origin of the American Civil War. Starting from his birth in Charleston, South Carolina, Green’s life as an abolitionist freedom-fighter, whose passion for the liberation of his people outweighed self-preservation, is extensively detailed in this compact history. In The Untold Story of Shields Green, Emperor pushes back against racism and injustice and stands in his rightful place as an antislavery figure alongside Frederick Douglass and John Brown.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

From the Field: An Iowa Return; Notes and Pictures by H. Scott Wolfe!

Traveled to Springdale, Iowa yesterday [Jun. 5]...for the first time in ages. As usual, halted at the Quaker Cemetery, where a number of JB connections are buried.

The Old Man spent a good deal of time with Moses Varney, who was acquainted enough with Brown’s plans that he was later suspected of being the author of the “Floyd Letter,” warning the Secretary of War of a contemplated raid upon a government installation.

The name of Elza Maxson appears in some of the Old Man’s correspondence. He was one of several men recruited in the Springdale area for Brown’s Provisional Army. And like several others, he did not participate at Harpers Ferry.

Some additional stones of interest:

Ann Raley, a Quaker resident of Springdale, was the mother of Edwin and Barclay Coppoc, who were recruited into Brown’s Provisional Army during the winter of 1857-58. Of course Edwin was captured at Harpers Ferry and later executed. Barclay managed to escape, and made his way back to Springdale. Brown allies, such as C.W. Moffett, guarded him there...and eventually took him to nearby Mechanicsville, Iowa, where he was put on a train for Canada. Barclay eventually died in a Civil War train wreck in Kansas.

Nearby is the grave of Levi Coppoc, another sibling.

Uncle Tom Jenkins, aka Richard Lewis, was one of a number of ex-slaves who resided in the Springdale area. The village was a depot on the UGRR...and it is rumored that a number of blacks are buried in the nearby North Liberty Cemetery.

It was here that Brown’s men boarded and trained during the winter of 1857-58. The site is just northeast of the village of Springdale and still quite remote. In fact, it could be the least visited historic site in the nation...unless you hang out with this infidel.

Here you see your hero, propped against the Maxson house marker placed by the Daughters of the American Revolution back in 1924 A.D. 

Now, I think, to place a John Brown marker on the Iowa prairie took some awfully liberal Daughters! The plaque includes some lines from John Greenleaf Whittier.

In the final image...the actual Maxson farmhouse sat between the two electrical poles visible in the very center of the picture. Oh, for an archaeological dig! The original foundation should still exist beneath an Iowa machine shed!

Thus does a questionable historian spend his time during a pandemic.
For further reading, see Scott's previous articles on this blog about the Springdale connection to John Brown's story:

Monday, May 18, 2020

Did John Brown Really Make a “Mistake”? Some Thoughts in Response to “A Curse Upon the Nation”

Kay Wright Lewis is a professor of history at Howard University, and is the author of a fascinating and well written volume entitled, “A Curse Upon the Nation”: Race, Freedom, and Extermination in America and the Atlantic World (University of Georgia Press, 2017).  Wright Lewis has an impressive resume, including a fellowship at the Gilder Lehrman Center of Yale University, a dissertation finalist’s position for the Southern Historical Association, and other fellowship awards that certainly highlight her as a distinguished scholar. 

A Curse Upon the Nation is concerned with race-based violence and its horrific consequences for black people.  In the introduction, Wright Lewis contends “racialized violence toward African Americans became inscribed in race relations in America, continuing throughout the civil rights era,” and became “entangled with how certain narratives are privileged over others in the production and creation of what is considered fact or truth.”  This “erasure,” Wright Lewis continues, “is made manifest by the countless testimonies of African Americans about the violence they experienced and the trauma that such violent events caused in their lives, events that have not been acknowledged” (p. 2).  Wright Lewis further argues that the real concern of racial extermination “forces us to reevaluate the conditions in which slaves and free blacks exerted power.”  In fact, throughout history, black people shared a “common wind”—conveying information through oral communications—that made all Africans in the Americas “well aware of what they were up against” (p. 4).  Today, however, “most people today, white or black, do not know that the history of racialized exterminatory warfare is an essential part of the American story” (p. 7).

One must agree with Wright Lewis that the development of the United States as a powerful nation was not merely the result of courageous pioneers and “political brilliance,” but also “acts of incredible violence toward those enslaved”—“exterminatory warfare and violent conquest” with roots in Europe and Africa (p. 10).  Southern whites, then, carried forth this long tradition of racist violence by enslaving blacks, always with the belief that enslavement could only end with the extermination of black people. As a result, her book surveys a number of themes reflecting the terrible history of racial violence and “how the potential for a race war between blacks and whites shaped the human cost of slavery— and freedom—in ways that have been previously unexamined” (p. 10). Overall, this is an estimable work.  Wright Lewis presents a tragic theme and does so with erudition and insight.  

Notwithstanding my admiration for her work, however, I must stringently object to the conclusions she draws in chapter seven, entitled, “John Brown’s Mistake: The Power of Memory and the Dangers of Violence.”  It seems to me (1) that Wright Lewis has constructed her entire argument on a flawed premise concerning John Brown’s plan and intentions; and (2) that she erroneously uses certain sources to prove her point, and in so doing only ends up reinforcing a mistaken conclusion herself.  As concerns the subject, it seems that Wright Lewis holds Brown historically at arm’s length. While acknowledging the longstanding tradition of black appreciation for him, actually she thinks Brown a half-loaf ally, a well-intended outsider with intrinsic racist proclivities in his thinking about black people. 

I. The Deep Flaw

The deep flaw that runs through the whole of chapter seven on Brown is the persistent representation of John Brown as having an insurrectionary intent.  In fairness, Wright Lewis cannot be solely blamed because this is a longstanding error that prevails in the literature and in the academy.  In A Curse Upon the Nation, then, the entire argument concerning (really, against) Brown is based upon a false premise.  As Jesus said, building one’s house on sand is risky business.

Wright Lewis generally uses the term “insurrection” in this chapter many times but speaks of Brown’s actual plan as an “insurrection” at least fifteen times, and only one of these times is she quoting someone else’s words.  However, amidst her discussion, Wright Lewis passingly writes: “Although Brown testified that he was not attempting to instigate an insurrection, southern whites believed that he was, which would have led to a war between the races” (p. 166).

This is problematic because Wright Lewis is blurring the difference between two historical questions and apparently has done so because it is convenient to her thesis. It is one thing to repeatedly say that Brown planned and intended to carry out an insurrection; it is quite another to say that “southern whites believed that he was.”  The answer to the latter is self-evident. It is the Southerners who invented the charge that John Brown was an insurrectionist.  Brown denied the charge although Virginia indicted and executed him on this basis, then the Southern press advanced it, and finally the US Senate embedded it in the so-called Mason Report of 1860. Far too many historians have then followed suit without questioning whether the evidence supports it.

Wright Lewis herself acknowledges how Brown explicitly denied that he intended an insurrection.  What is disappointing, however, is that although she knows Brown denied the insurrection charge, as a historian she makes no effort to evaluate his claim by examining his words or the evidence.  Again, this appears to be the case because she needs John Brown to be an insurrectionist not only to make this chapter work, but in order to justify impugning his judgment and calling him a well-intentioned paternalistic “romantic racist.” This is most unfortunate.

I should reiterate that although Wright Lewis has failed in part because of drawing upon questionable narratives, there is sufficient evidence in the record to question the “insurrection” fallacy.  Even Wright Lewis herself relays the testimony of Harriet Tubman, who said it “was not John Brown’s idea to murder the white people but to stir the slaves so as to attract the attention [of the] country and to strike for freedom” (p. 171). Franklin Sanborn—a source to which Wright Lewis has access—likewise denied that Brown intended an insurrection “in any sense of the word, but an invasion or foray” (Life and Letters, p. 123). There are other witnesses who make the same claim, although sadly many historians are either bound to the Southern claim or are too dull to make this important distinction. As I have argued in both Freedom’s Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia and in my forthcoming book about Shields Green, the following should be understood as a corrective to two errors in conventional notions of the raid: (1) Brown did not intend an insurrection; and (2) Brown did not seize Harper’s Ferry to arm the slaves with guns as Wright Lewis suggests (p. 142). 

Having built her thesis primarily on this first error—the defining flaw of the chapter—Wright Lewis sets up the interrogative that she badly wants to answer. “The question, then,” she asks, “is why Brown, a colleague and friend to many black abolitionists, would attempt to initiate a slave insurrection in the South?” (p146). The answer, esteemed professor, is that Brown did not “attempt to initiate a slave insurrection in the South.”  He attempted to launch a movement that would destabilize slavery’s operations, not “terrorize” slaveholding families or spark a race war that would backfire upon black people in racial “extermination.”

II. Further Errors

There are a good many secondary problems with Wright Lewis’ chapter on “John Brown’s Mistake.”  Some of them are sketched as follows:

A. Misreading Brown on Black People

It is a matter of history that Northern blacks showed little interest in Brown’s plan.  Wright Lewis does a good job of highlighting a number of black leaders who lacked confidence in Brown’s plan, declined from joining him, and even disagreed with him.  She also notes the late Benjamin Quarles’ explanation, that the prominent black discourse on resistance in Brown’s day was rhetoric.  To otherwise put it bluntly, most of the militant black talk in Brown’s time was hot air and he didn’t realize it.  Wright Lewis says instead that Brown actually “was well informed by the end of the 1850s,” and that he knew that “the black community North and South would have been unwilling to instigate a violent uprising of the slaves.”  Therefore, she argues, Brown’s “insistence on going ahead anyway with his insurrection plans points toward his style of leadership, as well as his and other white radical abolitionists’ racial assumptions” (p147).
In other words, Wright Lewis thinks that John Brown was quite aware of how hesitant black people were when it came to taking up arms, and went ahead anyway in promoting his “insurrection.” The reason he did so, it turns out, is because he was a “romantic racist” who shared “common social assumptions” about blacks and enslavement—notions like violence could prove black manhood and that whites had to lead black people to fight.  Not only did Brown hold these warped views of black people, but he was quite willing to send them to their deaths and provoke mass racial “extermination” in order to accomplish his “insurrection” (p. 149).
To be sure, Brown cannot be separated from the time and context in which he lived, and to some degree his life reflects the patriarchy, patriotism, and ethnocentrism of his time and context.  As Wright Lewis points out, Brown praised Harriet Tubman privately with masculine references.  As I have pointed out in my forthcoming work on Shields Green, at times he took it upon himself to write, as it were, speaking in the voice of black people to argue on their behalf.  He did have concerns about leading people from slavery, arming them with pikes, and forming them into a functioning outlier community, which is why he wrote both a constitution and tried to recruit black leaders to guide them. 
Like any historical figure, John Brown must be judged by history and evaluated, but most of the judgment that he has faced over a century has been unfair, often biased.  Typically, this bias has emanated from the “the top down”—either from romancers of the South or from high holy Lincoln and Civil War scholarship.  Very rarely, however, has the bias against Brown come from the black community, although there are a few cases (e.g., Vincent Harding).  Unfortunately, it appears Wright Lewis is such a voice since she is essentially blaming Brown for being a paternalistic racist who didn’t care what happened to black people as long as they did what he wanted them to do.
For instance, Wright Lewis writes: “Brown and other white radical abolitionists discounted the atrocities that the black community would face if they were to initiate an insurrection in the South.” (p149)  But in order to buttress this accusation, she misreads John Brown twice!  First, she misapplies his famous statement that “it would be better that a whole generation should pass off the face of the earth—men, women, and children,—by violent death” as a reference to black people. To the contrary, Brown was speaking of the entire nation and reading the complete quotation would make this clear.  That Wright Lewis twists this to mean Brown was willing to sacrifice all of the lives of black people is a misrepresentation that suggests she is groping, and perhaps is driven by some form of prejudice.
Likewise, Wright Lewis refers to Brown’s Sambo Mistakes (not “Sambo’s Mistakes as it is commonly misrepresented in texts).  This is a document, written in the 1840s, ostensibly for a black newspaper, The Ram’s Horn, although we do not know if it was actually published. In Sambo, Brown’s literary black persona admonishes blacks not to think they would secure favor with whites by tame submission but advises rather “nobly resisting” the “brutal aggressions from principle” (p. 149).  But here Brown is not speaking of insurrectionary violence.  He is writing to free blacks who are bullied and abused on the streets of Northern cities, suggesting to them that there is nothing principled nor admirable in tolerating racist abuse as free people.  This was an opinion that Brown doubtless shared with militant black abolitionists who, like him, disagreed with the Garrisonian “moral suasion” school.  To make more of this statement is once more a misrepresentation on the part of Professor Wright Lewis. The question is, why does she want to create a breach which generations of black writers going back to Brown’s time have never discussed?
B. Further Misuse of Sources
1. Edward V. Clark

Just as Wright Lewis has abused two of Brown’s own statements in order to substantiate her claims, she also misrepresents the first source presented under a section called, “John Brown’s Plan from the Black Perspective.” Starting with the premise that “blacks overwhelmingly rejected John Brown’s plan to arm those enslaved in the South,” her first evidence is in quoting Edward V. Clark, a black entrepreneur who objected to the use of force in a meeting at the Zion Church in New York City.  But an examination of the citation shows that Clark made this objection in 1850 (p. 154; see ch. 7, note 57).  The quotation has value, of course, but it is misleading because the quotation was not made in reference to John Brown, and Wright Lewis should have pointed this out instead of apparently hiding the chronological issue in her endnotes.

2. Frederick Douglass

Wright Lewis misuses Frederick Douglass’ reminiscences as well, citing his famous objections to Brown’s decision to seize the Harper’s Ferry armory in this third autobiography.  “When Frederick Douglass found out that Brown intended to capture Harpers Ferry,” Wright Lewis states, “he also rejected the plan because it would be dangerous to the black community. Douglass told Brown that ‘to me, such a measure would be fatal to all engaged in doing so. It would be an attack upon the federal government and would array the whole country against us’” (pp. 155-56). 

There are two problems with how Wright Lewis uses Douglass.  First, it should be remembered that by his own admission, Douglass fully supported Brown’s original plan to invade the South.  In fact, it is Douglass who provides us the best sense of what Brown’s plan was (up until about 1856), before he decided to seize Harper’s Ferry.  Even in the original plan, Brown had intended to arm enslaved people, retreat to the mountains, and create a movement through the South that liberated people and destabilized slavery with the possibility of using force. “The true object to be sought is first of all to destroy the money value of slave property,” Brown told Douglass, “and that can only be done by rendering such property insecure.” As to this first plan, Douglass summed up: Hence, I assented to this, John Brown’s scheme or plan for running off slaves” (Life & Times of Frederick Douglass, Ch. VIII, p. 220, Ch. X, p. 319).

Wright Lewis says that whatever Brown’s intentions, it was what southern whites believed “which would have led to a war between the races” (p. 166). [Let us set aside for the moment that this wasn’t the case—not even in the Turner insurrection, since slaveholders were not willing to engage in mass extermination as long as they retained the property value of enslaved people. ] But if Douglass shared Wright Lewis’ belief that any movement upon the South would have provoked racial extermination, why did the abolitionist orator approve of Brown’s campaign in the first place? 

To be sure, Douglass liked Brown’s original plan because it would begin quietly, “gradually and unaccountably drawing off the slaves to the mountains.” Conversely, he was put off when Brown “completely renounced his old plan in favor of “striking a blow that would instantly arouse the country,” which was to seize Harper’s Ferry (Douglass, Ch. X, p. 324). 

This much is true, although Douglass must have understood that even in Brown’s first version of the invasion, Southerners would have quickly learned of the movement and would have begun to attack.  This hardly affirms Wright Lewis’ argument, since Southern violence and retaliation was inevitable, even with a plan that Douglass himself approved.

Secondly, as Wright Lewis interprets Douglass, she presents the orator’s objection to Brown’s revised plan as posing an immediate threat to black people. “To me, such a measure would be fatal to all engaged in doing so,” Douglass wrote. “It would be an attack upon the federal government and would array the whole country against us” (Wright Lewis, pp. 155-56; Douglass, Ch. X, p. 323).  But what did Douglass mean by “against us”?  Contrary to Wright Lewis, he was not referring to black people generally, or to enslaved people. Rather, Douglass was speaking of the antislavery cause.  His point to Brown was that by attacking a federal institution, he might put the entire antislavery cause at odds with popular opinion in the North.  Like other misused references in this chapter, Wright Lewis has unfortunately twisted Douglass to suit her argument against the black community’s traditional reading of John Brown.

3. George DeBaptiste

Wright Lewis’ use of George DeBaptiste is particularly peculiar as well as problematic.  DeBaptiste, an underground railroad leader, was present in a Detroit meeting with Douglass, Brown, and a number of black leaders from Detroit and nearby Chatham, Ontario, in March 1859. The meeting took place right after Brown arrived in Detroit and triumphantly delivered twelve enslaved people to Canadian freedom. DeBaptiste is described in the meeting as being critical of Brown’s plan because, in his estimation, it did not go far enough. Instead, DeBaptiste proposed the use of terrorism, suggesting that a number of white churches in the South be blown up during Sunday service on a given day.  Brown opposed the idea immediately since he had no intention of practicing terrorism. Yet, somewhat incredibly (according to Wright Lewis) DeBaptiste also objected to Brown’s plan because it would have brought tremendous violence down upon the heads of blacks throughout the South (p. 158).
A description of this meeting between Brown, Douglass, and local leaders in Detroit is found in a number of sources, although Douglass himself omits mention of this meeting from his autobiography.  However, the claim that DeBaptiste, of all people, worried that Brown’s actions might bring violence down on black people is either strange or suspect.  Accounts vary of how many churches DeBaptiste wanted to blow up, but it is hard to imagine that DeBaptiste actually thought that Brown’s plan, and not his own suggested terror plot, would bring a more violent reaction from Southern whites. This may suggest that Wright Lewis has depended upon an unreliable source, or that an error has been made on her part, or possibly that DeBaptiste’s judgment was questionable.  After all, if invading Virginia could drive white Southerners to violently attack black people, what sort of mad bloodletting would have followed the blowing up of even a handful of white Southern churches on a Sunday morning?
C.  Was the Aftermath of Harper’s Ferry a “New Reign of Terror”
To justify her sideways condemnation of John Brown, Wright Lewis naturally has to find the outcome that proves her thesis, namely that black people suffered more extensively because of Brown’s effort after the fact.  The problem for her thesis is that her argument must be spread far and thin to make a fitting conclusion for her claim. 
Of course, there is no question that black people suffered reprisals after the Harper’s Ferry raid.  Black people suffered locally when any wind of uprising or threat of uprising blew upon the South, and no one would question Wright Lewis as to this tragic reality of history. However, it may be that by prioritizing “the potential of a race war and black extermination,” Wright Lewis has failed to consider other aspects that informed slavery.  For instance, her argument fails to consider that even a violent, racist slaveholding society bereft of conscience and genuine morality had other motivations that preempted “black extermination” as long as black people were held as property.  As Patrick Breen has shown in his treatment of the Nat Turner incident, Southern leaders may have tolerated a measure of racist violence and black extermination when Southern whites threw violent fits of rage against black people.  However, the norms of the slave economy required that these murderous impulses had to be limited.  The idea of “black extermination” was actually out of the question during slavery—quite in contrast to what happened to black people after slavery, and after they were betrayed by the Republican party and Reconstruction was completely undermined. 
Wright Lewis is certainly correct that black people fell prey to white racist violence after the Harper’s Ferry raid.  I am the first scholar to argue that one of Brown’s black raiders, Lewis Leary, was taken prisoner a wounded man, but was murdered—his throat cut—after he was taken prisoner, by an irate white citizen.  Not a few blacks who were associated with the raid or suspected of associating with the raid, were killed in the immediate aftermath.  No doubt, too, as Wright Lewis shows, racist anxiety and rage flared throughout the South, and undoubtedly more black people were harmed. 
Yet the fact is that Wright Lewis has to stretch all the way down to Texas to find a fairly remote incident where blacks were killed, ostensibly in reaction to John Brown’s raid.  What she cannot do is find sufficient evidence in Jefferson County and neighboring areas to justify her “black extermination” thesis.  To be sure, again, people were tragically killed and abused in the immediate aftermath of the raid.  But having studied the last days of John Brown closely, I can state that Wright Lewis is quite wrong: there was no “new reign of terror” after the Harper’s Ferry raid.  Virginians—led by their leaders—did not turn violently upon blacks en masse, but rather called for reinforcements and prepared for another invasion, either from white abolitionist invaders (which they openly discussed) or a servile insurrection (which they didn’t discuss). 
Instead of turning upon the black population, white Virginians suppressed information, blocked Northern newspapers from getting too close; intentionally portrayed John Brown as a failed insurrectionist and their slaves as loyal and faithful servants who rejected him; blamed white abolitionists in the North; and looked for a conspiratorial connection between Brown and the Republican party. 
Then—which Wright Lewis misses completely, there was no “black extermination” as much as there was an unreported black exodus.  As Jean Libby showed us twenty years ago, the 1860 census records show that many blacks from Jefferson County and neighboring counties actually disappeared—they fled northward after the raid, depriving local slaveholders of their chattel and to some degree vindicating John Brown.
Finally, it is interesting that Wright Lewis, who thinks Brown was careless with the lives of black people, is unaware of his apparent concern for local blacks immediately following the raid.  As a prisoner in Charlestown, he wrote a note to the prosecuting attorney, Andrew Hunter, on November 22, 1859, in which he passingly included the phrase, “the slaves we took about the Ferry.”  The legal point Brown was making in the letter matters less in this case than does this phrase, by which he was essentially misleading the authorities into thinking that the slaves who followed him in the area of Harper’s Ferry had been “taken,” when actually they had chosen to follow Brown.  The letter thus hints at Brown’s concern for local blacks in seeking to alleviate them of any blame, and doing so by the slaveholder notion that blacks preferred to stay in slavery rather than follow a white abolitionist from the North.
More could be said about the problematic nature of Wright Lewis’ chapter on John Brown in A Curse Upon the Nation.  Taken as a whole, this chapter is fraught with problems, and its main argument is misleading and flawed at its core. 
On one hand, Wright Lewis says that Brown knew that his invasion of Virginia would cost black lives, and that he was willing to see all black people die in justification of his white male notions of violence and liberation.  In other words, John Brown understood how black people would suffer and he didn’t care. On the other hand, in her conclusion, she writes: “John Brown’s detachment from the lived experience of blacks made it impossible for him to foresee that his capture of Harpers Ferry would inevitably end even more violently than he imagined” (p. 173). So, Professor Wright Lewis, which one was it?  Was John Brown aware and willing to sacrifice an entire generation of black people to prove a point? Or was he so “detached” from the “lived experience of blacks” that he was clueless as to what might happen to them? 
Has Kay Wright Lewis given us insight into the John Brown of history, or has she fashioned a revisionist version of the abolitionist that services her own project? To be sure, the importance of her quest to explore racist violence and the perpetual threat and suffering that a fundamentally racist society has always imposed upon black people is undoubtable. But her work also raises questions about her own ideological underpinnings with respect to force and her apparent desire to push white abolitionists categorically, and John Brown particularly, in some sense to the margins of the narrative.  Does Professor Wright Lewis finally see with greater clarity than the many black forebears who could speak appreciatively of John Brown without calling him some sort of racist?
In concluding her chapter on Brown, Wright Lewis makes a last-minute concession, stating that his presumed “mistake” was a matter of the head, not the heart (p. 173).  This, she concedes, is why the black community included him in the story of liberation—even though, apparently, they believed he had nearly lit the fuse that would have blown them to kingdom come. But is this, in the end, an adequate assessment?  I do not think so. After Frederick Douglass met John Brown, he wrote in 1848 that it was as if Brown's "own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery.”  Over thirty years later, Douglass again recalled John Brown, writing in 1883 that he “saw Slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed.”  It seems unlikely, then, that the man that Frederick Douglass and other black abolitionists knew and the man that Kay Wright Lewis has presented in "A Curse Upon the Nation" are the same person.--LD

Monday, April 27, 2020

Ephemera: A Liar's Souvenir

In this worried and busy season, there has been a lot to distract from the Old Man.  Perhaps, then, some image-relics will suffice for this time.

The image above is an item published for the World's Columbian Exposition, also known as The World's Fair, held in Chicago, Ill., from May 1 through Oct. 30, 1893.  Unfortunately, this printed document was two-sided, and the image not available on the verso side was of Brown's last written words, known often in history as his "prophesy," in which he stated that slavery would not end "without much bloodshed."

Liar, Liar: A Sketch of
Alexander Milton Ross
Browniana was on display in Chicago for this event, but what makes this "John Brown Souvenir" card interesting is that it was the production of the Canadian physician and naturalist, Alexander Milton Ross, whose signature is reproduced at the bottom.  Ross wrote a memoir of his association with John Brown, Recollections and Experiences of an Abolitionist, and Memoirs of a Reformer, which was a total fraud.  In fact, Ross was a pretender who probably never came within a mile of Brown.  But by the 1880s, John Brown's children were growing older and Ross was able to charm his way into their confidence, especially John Brown Jr., with whom he shared a common belief in spiritualism.  It appears that the rest of the Browns were probably taken in by Ross, who convinced them likewise that he had been a confidant of their father.  Once his hoof was in the door, however, Ross used the trust of the Browns to obtain copies of Brown's actual letters and primary information about Brown, which then enabled him to enhance his phony memoir in a second edition, and cement himself into the narrative as a friend of John Brown.

The extent of Ross's deception is almost stunning.  He is not only mentioned in Richard Hinton's famous biography, John Brown and His Men (1894), but even fooled a good many writers since then.  Ross also developed a warm correspondence with Anne Brown Adams, the daughter of John and Mary Brown, and got her to write extensive descriptions of the Harper's Ferry raiders, ostensibly at the request of his son, Garibaldi Ross.

This Canadian con man not only hoodwinked the Browns, but used his stolen bona fides to worm his way into events like the 1893 World's Fair.  This was how he acquired the original "prophecy" in Brown's hand, written for Hiram O'Bannon on the morning of December 2, 1859, the day of his execution (below).  Evidently, Ross reproduced the document on the verso side of this "souvenir" card and sold it at the World's Fair for a tidy profit. After he had used the original autograph for his own benefit, Ross then made further profit by selling it to Frank Logan, a collector whose papers finally ended up in the Chicago Historical Museum, where it can be found today. It is likely that Brown's signature was reproduced from an original obtained by the deceiver, although the text probably was composed by Ross himself.  Sadly,  apart from being a liar and phony, he seems to have been a genuine admirer and apologist for the Old Man.

John Brown's "prophecy" written for Hiram O'Bannon, which Ross acquired through deceit, reproduced on the verso side of the "souvenir card" and afterward sold for profit (Logan Collection, Chicago History Museum)

Ross perhaps succeeded in his deceptions beyond his wildest hopes because it took decades before his con was posthumously discovered (he died in 1897).  He was finally sniffed out by none other than the godfather of John Brown research, Boyd B. Stutler, who found that the Canadian doctor and ornithologist had been trying to appropriate autographs of Brown for quite some time before he managed to fool the Browns. In a letter that Stutler owned, Ross had written to Brown's former associate and "Secret Six" associate, George L. Stearns in 1865, asking for Brown's writings.  In that letter, Ross lied, claiming that he had attended Brown's Chatham convention in May 1858--something that is quite impossible, since the only whites present in that meeting were Brown's men and certainly his name appears on none of the surviving records of the Canadian meetings.  In fact, Ross appears nowhere in any of the records of John Brown's activities, not even by reference from him or any of his associates at the time or afterward--until he had successfully lied himself into the shrinking circle of Brown's surviving associates in the later 19th century.  (I have confirmed the extent of Ross's duplicity beyond even what Stutler has known in my own examination of his correspondence with John Brown Jr.)  However, Stutler summed up the liar's legacy best in a 1951 letter to his friend and fellow Brown scholar, the Rev. Clarence S. Gee: "Yea, verily, Alexander Ross was a liar and the truth was not in him.  Yet he chiseled his way into a measure of reflected fame."

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

John Brown and the Misrepresentations of Electoral-Vote.com

A friend of this blog has kindly made me aware of an article about John Brown in Kansas that currently is featured on a website, electoral-vote.com, referred to by its proprietors as Electoral Vote Predictor. Its proprietors claim to present a unique state-by-state tracking of polls. They also claim that electoral-vote.com enjoyed immense popularity in 2004, when it was allegedly one of the top 1000 websites in the world.  However, it appears to have declined in prominence in subsequent elections.

Electoral-vote.com includes article features, with a link to Taegan Goddard’s Political Wire, and also features written by their own “front page authors,” Andrew Tanenbaum, a.k.a. "The Votemaster," and Christopher Bates, a.k.a. "Zenger."  One of these two, apparently Bates, has published a piece entitled, "The Times That Try Men's (and Women's) Souls, Part VI: The Raid on Harpers Ferry (1859)."  It is not exaggerating to say that this is one of the worst, most ill-informed and historically false profiles of John Brown that I have ever seen.  I assume this atrocious effort is the work of Christopher Bates because it is concluded with "(Z)."  Bates' use of "Zenger" apparently is an homage to John Peter Zenger (1697-1746), a German-born printer and journalist in colonial New York who has come to represent freedom of the press in historical memory. However, I doubt that Zenger himself would approve of this abusive and flawed representation of John Brown by Mr. Bates. Indeed, his work is so flawed that I've had to break down his many errors, being as brief as possible.

1. Brown was not "raised in Connecticut." He left Connecticut at age five and was raised in Ohio's Western Reserve.

2. "John Brown was a comically inept businessman, with at least two dozen failed business concerns over the years."  This sounds like Bates has been reading the screed of that late fool Otto Scott.  Regardless, this statement is ludicrous.  Brown was a skilled worker and nationally recognized expert in fine sheep and wool in the 1840s.  He is even written up in agricultural journals at the time as an expert.  Of course, Brown did have failings in business among many others who relied on credit in a time of national economic insecurity but this was in a time of national economic downturn.  He was not the only one who had business failures, and he had no safety nets or backups available today.  This whole thing of Brown being a bad businessman is just overdone.

3."On the other hand, he had 20 children, so he wasn't incompetent at everything." This is just a stupid, sarcastic remark.  Brown was widowed and remarried, and about half of his twenty children did not live to adulthood.  Large families and childhood mortality were common in agrarian society in the 19th century.

4. "He was fanatically religious."  Brown was not considered a religious fanatic by any of his contemporaries, and actually many people in his time took their religion far more seriously than secular people today.  This charge is baseless and biased, and frankly it is just another straw man charge that has been commonly used against Brown by ignorant writers.

5.  Yes, Brown "became persuaded that God wanted him to smash the institution of slavery," but Brown had no idea of undermining slavery "Old Testament style," as Bates says.  Now, this is just stupid. Yes, Brown believed he had a vocational "call" to oppose slavery.  Again, the idea of vocation or calling is not unusual in a religious context.  However, that Brown wanted to undermine slavery in some "Old Testament style" is just silly.  Again, Bates' writing reflect theological and religious ignorance prevalent among secular writers, who think they can throw these terms around and get away with it because so many of their readers are as ignorant of these things as they are.

6. "He even grew a beard, eventually, specifically so that he would look more like Moses."  No, Mr. Bates. Brown grew his beard to disguise himself, and probably because he had suffered from Bell's Palsy, and so it had was cosmetic improvement.  This has no historical warrant, and Bates is just engaging in creative writing and lying about it being history.

7. Pottawatomie

Of course, Bates presents no historical background and no evidence, and leaps immediately to the Pottawatomie killings of May 1856. His claims are idiotic. For instance, he says that because there were no guns in the Old Testament, Brown only used swords to kill his enemies.  In fact, the swords were used to minimize drawing opponents to the site of the attack.  The Old Testament had nothing to do with it.  Bates is just generating fiction.

Then he writes: "To Brown's chagrin, the attack on Pottawatomie did not bring an end to American slavery."  What?  To this, I can only respond that Bates is either stupid or he is a malign liar.  Let me be clear: nowhere do even Brown's worst biographers suggest that he believed the killings would "bring an end to American slavery."  For Bates to suggest that Brown was "chagrined" that killing five dangerous neighbors did not bring an end to slavery is the most absurd and baseless thing I've ever read.  I pity the fools who read this article and take it for history.

This knave continues: "In fact, all [the Pottawatomie incident] did was make Bleeding Kansas even bloodier, as pro- and anti-slavery forces avenged Brown's attack, and then avenged that, and then avenged that. Another 29 people died in the month or so after Brown paid a visit to Kansas."

Bates is too ignorant and willfully biased against Brown to recognize that Kansas was already bleeding before Brown raised his hand.  Five free state men were murdered prior to the Pottawatomie attack, and all the latter did was force the free state side to stop allowing the proslavery side wage a one-sided war of terrorism upon them.  Yes, we should credit Brown with upping the stakes in "Bleeding Kansas," but that is a point of political realism, since the free state side was passive until Brown forced their hands to action. The proslavery presence in Kansas brought violence and was terroristic.  The actions of Brown and others were counter-terroristic. It was the proslavery invaders who were trying to use violence to thwart the voting process, who not only killed free state men but tampered with ballots.  This kind of terrorism had to be met with resistance and Brown and those who followed his example saved Kansas from falling to a minority of proslavery interlopers and thugs.

8.  Harper's Ferry

Bates says that after Kansas "the abolitionist began to plan something much grander," meaning the raid on Harper's Ferry.  Of course, this is just wrong.  Brown had been looking at Virginia for decades, and he had planned on using western Virginia as a gateway into the South for a good many years. (One reliable source held at the Gilder-Lehrman Collection says Brown was talking about the Harper's Ferry area as far back as 1840.)

Bates writes: ". . . insurrection was definitely what Brown had in mind."   No it was not.  I've written extensively about this, and address it in my forthcoming book on Shields Green, but Brown was quite intentional about avoiding an insurrection because insurrection is servile war and is intended to wipe out slaveholders and their families.  Brown had no such intentions and, in fact, went too far out of his way to avoid insurrectionary fears among the Virginians.  This is one of the main reasons he lingered too long in Harper's Ferry and lost.

Bates writes: "Specifically, he planned to march his small army (23 people, including several of his sons, of course) into Harpers Ferry, seize the armaments there, and then to arm the local slave population so that they might rise up against their masters."

Bates is wrong again.  The "small army" was twenty-one in number and not all of them went to Harper's Ferry.  More importantly, Brown did NOT "seize the armaments there."   The notion that Brown attacked Harper's Ferry to seize the armaments is one of the oldest and most stubborn errors that persists as history.  Brown did not seize the Harper's Ferry weapons--he removed no weapons, brought no means of transporting them, and made it clear afterward that he had no interest in them.  In fact, he posted two men at the arsenal, apparently to keep Virginians from accessing them.  There is no evidence anywhere of arms having been removed.  The notion of Brown taking the arms originated with Virginians and became a substantive part of Virginia's claims after the fact, but it had no basis.   Brown repeatedly said he had superior guns (Sharps repeating rifles were superior to the breech-loading guns made at Harper's Ferry)  and the weapons he intended to put into slave hands were his famous pikes.   The whole issue with the armory goes even deeper, since the reason Brown targeted the armory was in response to an 1856 episode in which Southerners actually seized weapons from a federal arsenal in Missouri to use against free state men in Kansas.  Brown did not do what the proslavery men had done; but he wanted to make a point because the Buchanan administration never prosecuted the Missouri violation.)

Bates concludes: "Unfortunately, the plan was—to use military parlance—'stupid.'"  No, Mr. Bates.  You are stupid.  You don't know the history, don't know the issues, don't know the facts.  The plan actually was feasible, although Brown made tactical errors, and it was his tactical errors that ruined him, not his strategy.

Bates: "Meanwhile, Brown's men were so skittish that the first person they killed was...a free black man, which is not exactly consistent with the goal of achieving racial justice."  Again, Bates knows nothing.  The free black man was killed because he repeatedly and stubbornly resisted the orders of Brown's men and finally tried to escape.  His men were not "skittish."  They warned Hayward Shepherd and the man simply did not comply; when he ran, he took a bullet as Brown's raiders had warned him he would.

Bates: "Although Team Brown did eventually capture the armory, they took far too long to take care of business. By the time the weapons were secured, a detachment of U.S. Marines, under the command of a brevet colonel named Robert E. Lee, had arrived on the scene."

This is almost entirely wrong.  It is true that Brown delayed to the point of self-defeat.  But "Team Brown" did not "eventually capture the armory."  They captured both the town and the armory immediately upon arriving on Sunday night, October 16, 1859.  Immediately. 

Again, what does Bates mean that the "weapons were secured"?  No weapons were even removed from the arsenal!  What Brown was trying to "secure" was papers signed that allowed exchanges of hostages for slaves.  This was a vain task and it was Brown's great blunder.  But it was the arrival of too many local militia companies that hemmed Brown and his men in, not the marines.  The marines arrived to finish the task, but Brown's delay had doomed him the afternoon before, Monday Oct. 17.

The rest of Bates' article is mostly worthless.  He is so ignorant that he just fills in with his opinions and speculations, like much of the article.

For instance, he writes: "In the nineteenth century, the wheels of justice turned rather more quickly than they do today, as the government did not generally take time for pesky things like appeals."  Brown's trial had nothing to do with "the wheels of justice" turning "rather more quickly."  Brown was literally rushed to judgment by a court of slaveholders. Bates might read McGinty's John Brown's Trial, or my own, Freedom's Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia.  In fact, the Virginians wanted to hang John Brown almost immediately, except his attorney was clever enough to point out that they had to postpone execution for at least one month, which is what happened.  Had John Brown and his men been tried in federal courts (and they arguably should have been handed over to the federal government since they had captured a federal armory and were arrested by federal troops), there would have been ample appeals, delays, and probably no executions.

Christopher Bates just don't know what he's talking about because he's been taught by this society that writing about John Brown is partially about dealing in facts, and partially about dealing in fiction and opinion.

Bates concludes of the aftermath: "The immediate impact of the raid on Harpers Ferry was to militarize the South."  Even here Bates is wrong.  The South was already militarizing before Harper's Ferry.  The South had been militarizing in the 1850s, and there was already a maturing movement among Southerners to secede.  In fact, Osborne Anderson, in A Voice from Harper's Ferry, recalled that arms were supposed to have been moved from the armory prior to the raid--an action showing how Southern leaders were manipulating armaments and preparing for secession.   Even John Brown was aware of the extent to which the South was preparing for war prior to 1859.  Contrary to Bates, the South's militancy was not "new"; it was just now more widespread, thanks to the alarmist, reactionary way that proslavery leaders used  the Harper's Ferry episode, instead of playing it down.

Bates tries to conclude with some reflection, but even here he is ham-handed:

"For well over a century, historians have debated the nature of John Brown. Was he a crazy old coot who just happened to blunder his way into a prominent place in the history books? Or was he crazy like a fox; a fellow who was willing to give his life in order to hasten the end of slavery, and who managed to do exactly that, launching the nation's descent into civil war? There have been many books on both sides of this question."

Yes, Mr. Bates, and you've probably read none of them.  If you were sufficiently studied on the subject, you would know that the debate over Brown's sanity is an old, washed-out argument from the mid-20th century.  Not a single John Brown biographer  believes he was a "crazy old coot."  In fact, no serious biographical consideration of Brown ever considered him "crazy."  Nor did Brown "blunder" his way into the history books.  Even if Brown had not attacked Harper's Ferry, he would still be remembered for his important role in Kansas as a free state leader.   Brown blundered as we all do, but in the end he realized that the importance of his role could even allow his mistakes to work in the favor of the antislavery cause, which is why he went joyfully to the gallows.  Brown understood that failing his own effort to destabilize slavery's operation, it would take bloody war to end it altogether.

John Brown was right.  Unfortunately, as Christopher Bates shows us, many people would rather deal in half-truths, invention, and biased semi-historical narratives than to study the record and the John Brown who lived.-LD

Friday, March 20, 2020

From "Santa Fe Trail" to "The Good Lord Bird": Reflections of a John Brown Descendant

The author of this essay is Marty Brown, a descendant of John Brown through his son Jason. She was born in Nigeria and grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, and Olympia, Washington. She lives in Portland, Oregon.  I am grateful that she was willing to share it on this blog--LD

In 1941 my distant cousin, Nellie Groves, filed suit against Warner Brothers Pictures for their depiction of John Brown in the movie “Santa Fe Trail.” A music teacher and violinist who once had a vaudeville act, she was used to being billed as “the granddaughter of John Brown, the Liberator, Martyr of Harpers Ferry,” and she was righteously appalled by the film’s depiction of her grandfather as a bloodthirsty, maniacal murderer. She claimed that it had caused damage to her reputation as a performer. The judge threw out her suit without a trial. She was in her early fifties then, about the same age that I am now.

I thought of Nellie Groves the other day, when I clicked on a fluff piece in my news feed heralding a forthcoming film adaptation of James McBride’s 2013 satirical novel, The Good Lord Bird. It will run as a miniseries on the SHOWTIME channel, produced by and improbably starring Ethan Hawke as my great-great-great-great grandfather, John Brown, the Liberator, Martyr of Harper’s Ferry.

In 1941, the living memory of the Civil War was close to dying out. John Brown’s cultural capital was sinking, but his name still had the power to stir patriotic feeling. As far as Nellie Groves understood, John Brown was an American hero, a man of principle who lived and died to purge our republic of its original sin. She was horrified not just by the negative portrayal of his character, but also by the way in which the movie wantonly discarded the known facts.
Warner Brothers, through the medium of the motion picture Santa Fe Trail has made a vicious attack upon my grandfather. They called him an enemy of mankind, a murderer, and a vicious killer. They besmirched his name by showing episodes which never occurred, and all through the picture are distortions of the truth. They misrepresent and vilify the character of a nation’s hero.
Nellie Groves’ lawsuit made the papers and she received letters of support, including one from a medical doctor in Los Angeles who wrote:
It is an outrage, unbridled license and ruthless violation of tradition the way these low class Jews and others sacrifice right, honor and common decency and respect merely for box office returns. And these Jews control the movies... Some of these low Jews would even make Lincoln a ruthless renegade, as they have John Brown, if they thought they could get away with it.
He went on to rhapsodize about his visits to John Brown’s grave, “hallowed in the memory of all old-timers and historians that believe in right and justice and honor where honor is due.”

This was 1941, the same year that hundreds of thousands of Jewish people were murdered in ghettos and concentration camps and pogroms all over Europe, the same year that the gas ovens went into operation at Auschwitz. I have to wonder how John Brown’s granddaughter felt about the doctor’s letter.

*  *  *

Nellie Groves was born in 1878, nearly two decades after John Brown’s execution for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia for his raid on Harper’s Ferry. She never knew him. Her father was Salmon Brown, a son of John by his second wife. At the age of seventeen, Salmon was among the band of men who attacked a proslavery settlement near Osawatomie, Kansas, and killed the men with broadswords during the Kansas-Missouri border wars of the 1850s. That event, which came to be known as the “Pottawatomie Massacre,” marks the most infamous episode of John Brown’s infamous career. Even those historians who are sympathetic to my ancestor politely turn their eyes away from that night in 1856, clear their throats, and back out slowly from the room.

Young Salmon Brown
If Salmon ever talked about this chapter of his life with his daughter, he might have told her that the attack on that settlement on Pottawatomie Creek was a preemptive strike in response to a credible threat against their lives. He might have driven home the point that they were actively at war with the proslavery mobs and border ruffians who had long been conducting a campaign of terror against the free state settlers, and who had just three nights before sacked the seat of their legitimate provisional territorial government at Lawrence.

Where does murder end and war begin? Who gets to decide? For as long as John Brown’s body has been moldering, Americans have been divided as to the nature of his truth.

Salmon Brown in later life
On May 10, 1919, Salmon Brown put a gun to his head and fired a fatal shot. He’d been bedridden for years and wanted out. It happened in an old Portland foursquare in the Montavilla neighborhood, just off what is now 82nd Avenue, or Highway 213. The house still stands, much as it stood then. A 1913 photograph from Outlook magazine shows him standing out front of it in his garden, leaning on a shovel, white beard to his navel. The garden has long since been paved over to make way for a street.  There’s a Walgreen’s drugstore right around the corner.

With Salmon Brown's suicide in 1919, the last eyewitness and the living memory of what happened that night on Pottawatomie Creek vanished forever from the earth.

Salmon Brown--shepherd, butcher, meat packer, abolitionist, father of ten children, husband to Abigail--was buried with fanfare in the Grand Army of the Republic Cemetery on a hill in southwest Portland. The grave is still there, beside the graves of Abigail, and Nellie’s brother, John Brown III, DDS, a dentist with a drug habit whose marital problems played out publicly in the pages of the Oregon Journal.

Salmon Brown's house today
The house where Salmon ended his life is about five miles from where I live today, on the other side of Mount Tabor, in east Portland. My neighborhood was developed in the 1920s, a few years after Salmon’s suicide, carved out of small orchards and truck farms. I live along a row of streets named for Civil War heroes: Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, Caruthers. There is no Brown Street.

More than a hundred years have passed since that gunshot rang out, and nobody much remembers Salmon Brown. The house where he ended his life was for sale the last time I drove past. There is no plaque, no historical marker. It's just a rundown Portland foursquare, too close to 82nd, on a slow march toward the wrecking ball.

Like Nellie Groves, I never met John Brown. I’m every bit as biased as she was, just as righteously defensive about his legacy. I’ve been known to write letters to editors, correcting the record. Unlike Nellie Groves, I’ve long been accustomed to the mischaracterizations, misunderstandings, and factually incorrect assertions that abound in both popular culture and scholarly literature. He’s a historical figure, fair game for all confabulators. The sinister fiction of “Santa Fe Trail” was novel and shocking to Nellie Groves in 1941. For me, having grown up in the late twentieth century, it’s standard fare.

Curry's famous John Brown mural, Topeka, Kan.
(Lawrence Journal-World, 2009)
When I was a child, my parents stood me in front of the famous John Steuart Curry mural in the rotunda of the Kansas State House to snap a photograph. I looked up at the larger-than-life image of my forebear, with a rifle in one hand and a Bible in the other, a pistol on his right hip and sword on the left, and what I mostly felt was fear. If all you know about John Brown comes from the Curry mural and a short paragraph in a history book, it’s easy to believe that he was crazy--in a hearing-voices, speaking-in-tongues, cold-blooded-killer kind of way.

John Brown definitely had issues. He suffered from bouts of depression, and may have been obsessive. He was at least obsessed with ending slavery in America. He was zealous in his conviction that slavery was a grievous moral wrong, and after running stations on the Underground Railroad for most of his life, he set out in his fifties to take decisive action. It takes a kind of madness to believe that your individual actions can bring down a long-established tyrannical state like southern slavery, to stand up against the lies of an immoral system and insist upon the truth.

The Good Lord Bird gave me a perspective I didn’t have before on the black experience of the John Brown myth. I read it, and then I forgot about it, and then I saw that article about the miniseries, and felt vaguely sick.

I didn’t mind McBride’s book when it first came out. He did some research, and clearly had affection for the characters he wrote. I didn’t once confuse those characters with my ancestors. I read the book as a parody, satire, farce, a send-up of all the ridiculous fictions about John Brown, from “Santa Fe Trail” to God’s Angry Man. It was only when my bookish friends began to talk about it that I grew worried. Did they believe that these characters were based on people? That the plot was rooted in history? It’s fiction! I wanted to shout, and more than fiction, parody! Whatever ties to the truth McBride started out with, he cut them loose and let his story float away from fact, untethered and buoyant as a hot air balloon.

"Santa Fe Trail's" bizarre John Brown (Raymond
Massey) typified 20th century assumptions about the
abolitionist, especially in the white community
The Good Lord Bird gave me a perspective I didn’t have before on the black experience of the John Brown myth. I read it, and then I forgot about it, and then I saw that article about the miniseries, and felt vaguely sick.

Inured by long exposure to the myth of John Brown’s insanity, I can easily enough accept that millions viewers will now have reason to believe he was a bible-thumping lunatic with a good heart who looked like Ethan Hawke. I find it harder to bring that same sense of resignation to the fictional depictions of John Brown’s children, maybe because they’re closer to me in blood, maybe because in a distant sense I count myself among them.

Out of all possible tellings of the John Brown story, that The Good Lord Bird should be the basis of the only contemporary film version enlists from me the sort of indignation that spills from the pages of Nellie Grove’s lawsuit against Warner Brothers Pictures. Novels are soon forgotten, even when they win the National Book Award, but miniseries stream forever on the internet. Worse than that, they reach large audiences. McBride wrote a fanciful tale, full of made up details, like the notion that the Brown boys were hard-drinking outlaws, when in fact they were all staunch temperance men. But it’s McBride’s caricature of Frederick, John Brown’s youngest son by Dianthe Lusk, that really gets me.
Ethan Hawke as John Brown in
SHOWTIME's "Good Lord Bird"
McBride depicts Frederick as a half-wit, an idiot, a clown. He’s not the first writer to do so, and it always gets under my skin. I want SHOWTIME subscribers to know that Frederick was a perfectly intelligent young man. He suffered periodically from an unknown illness that sounds a lot like what we might call bipolar disorder. He wrote cogent letters in a steady hand to a girl he was courting in Ohio. He was twenty-five years old when he was shot through the heart by the Reverend Martin White where he stood in the middle of a Kansas road, near his uncle’s cabin. He was killed for no other reason than that he was a Brown, killed in retaliation for the “Pottawatomie Massacre.”

Frederick was on Pottawatomie Creek that night, but he didn’t wield a sword. Whether he was keeping watch or couldn’t stomach the task, we’ll never know. Witnesses agree that Frederick waited in the road while others carried out the bloody deeds. The retaliatory killing of Frederick is a bitter irony.  He led a painful, struggle-filled life, and paid with his life for his complicity. Hasn’t he paid his dues? Apparently not. Apparently the facts of his sad life must also be distorted and subjected to parody on the Showtime channel.

If you know a little something about John Brown, the odds are good that your opinion is already fixed and unlikely to be moved one way or the other by a recitation of facts. He’s a good example of a polarizing figure, a symbol of all that divides us, a convenient object for a nation’s displaced hopes and fears. Southern propagandists made him a cartoon villain, and northern propagandists made him a cartoon saint. The difference then, as now, is that one side was on the right side of history. One side was on the side of liberty and truth.

The United States wasn’t very united in 1859 on the day of John Brown’s execution, and it isn’t very united now, in the age of President Trump. Like Nellie Groves, I want to believe that facts still matter, but maybe they never did. We seem increasingly unable as a people to distinguish truth from fiction. Maybe we never could.

I can’t stop SHOWTIME from making their miniseries. I’ll probably watch it.  It will give me a convenient object on which to displace my rage and fear. I’m glad for Nellie Groves’ sake that she never lived to see it.--Marty Brown