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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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Tuesday, September 07, 2021

On the Road in Kansas, July '21: Sharing Some Pictures

 This summer I was able to make a long anticipated trip to Kansas to do some touring and finally get to the beautiful Kansas State Historical Society to do some serious research on the Old Man.  Happily, I was able to meet up with my old friend, Ian Barford, an actor-scholar whom I've known for a good many years, and who shares a passion for John Brown with me.  (Here's a link to Ian's page on the website of Steppenwolf Theater Company.) We did as much touring as we could do in a day-and-a-half, and then spent the rest of the time researching in the archives. It was an ideal sojourn, fruitful and inspiring, and I wanted to share some pictures with my readers and podcast listeners.  

Black Jack

Here are some pictures from the site of the Battle of Black Jack (in present day Baldwin City, Kan.) which took place on June 2, 1856, when our man Brown faced off against the pompous editor-turned-soldier, Henry Clay Pate.  Outnumbered and outgunned, Brown and his men nevertheless got the better of Pate and took him prisoner.  In 1859, after Brown was defeated and jailed in Virginia, Pate made sure to visit Brown in Charlestown jail and gloat. But Brown was not easily intimidated. Pate the loser went on to try to capitalize on the Brown story by publishing a little book about him and then tried to go on tour, but he was as successful an author as he was a military leader (see my book, Freedom's Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia, pp. 202-03).

Below, left, is our friend and guide at Black Jack, Kerry Altenbernd, who has devoted years, dollars, and devotion to preserving the Battle Jack grounds and the legacy of John Brown in Kansas.  (Click here to visit Kerry's website, "John Brown Speaks."Below, right, Ian Barford poses by marker #7, the site where Brown took Pate's surrender.

Kerry Altenbernd
Photo by L DeCaro, Jr. (2021)
Ian Barford
Photo by L DeCaro, Jr. (2021)


Next we drove over to Osawatomie (OH-sawatomie) to see the Osawatomie Museum which houses the Adair Cabin, and is situated on site of the Battle of Osawatomie, which took place on August 30, 1856.  Nearby also is the monument to the free state fallen (below), especially being the resting place of Brown's son, Frederick, murdered by the Rev. Martin White, who led the proslavery invasion, and the murders sparking the battle. (Reliable evidence states that Frederick's holster was still snapped, so he had no time to draw his gun before being gunned down by the murdering Baptist minister White. Another free state man named David Garrison was murdered at the same time, and is also interred at the same site.) As I recall from doing my research, a shotgun was put to his mouth by his proslavery killers.

Photo by L DeCaro, Jr. (2021)
Photo by L DeCaro, Jr. (2021)

Below is a display of the Battle of Osawatomie and my pan shot of the grounds taken from the entrance. To the upper left at the top of the hill is the museum which houses the Adair Cabin.

Photo by L DeCaro, Jr. (2021)

 Post-John Brown, Osawatomie has an interesting history as a memorial ground. In 1877, the "soldier's monument" above was dedicated in remembrance of John Brown and those who fought in the Battle of Osawatomie, especially those who died that day in 1856. In 1910, the John Brown Park was dedicated on the site of the battle, and the ceremony was presided over by Theodore Roosevelt, by then former President of the USA. In 1935, the statue of John Brown, sculpted in Paris by George Fite Waters, was dedicated.

Undoubtedly, the John Brown statue by Waters is one of the highlights of the Osawatomie grounds.  It is strikingly lifelike, without any stylization or "larger than life" intention, as can be found in the other statues and paintings of Brown. Although Brown did not wear a beard in 1856, he was wearing a beard when he returned to the territory in 1858.  

Photo by L DeCaro, Jr. (2021)

Photo by L DeCaro, Jr. (2021)

. . . And the inevitable pose with the Old Man
Photo by Ian Barford (2021)

We were happily hosted by Grady Atwater (below, right), the site administrator of the museum and John Brown aficionado, who gave us a walking tour of the battleground (below, left) and then the Adair Cabin, sometimes (mistakenly) known as the John Brown Cabin.  Grady is a veteran researcher and historian and can talk extemporaneously on the subject of Brown in Kansas, so the tour was rich and is highly recommended.  Grady is a community educator as well, and one aspect of his work is contributing incisive and informative articles to the local press to keep John Brown before the public--always in a clear and authoritative manner, something that Brown often has not received over the decades.  In fact, not long after our visit, Grady published a great piece on the Pottawatomie killings of 1856 in The Miami County Republic online (17 July 2021), highly recommended.

Photo by L DeCaro, Jr. (2021)

Photo by L DeCaro, Jr. (2021)

Samuel Adair was a Congregational minister and missionary who preceded John Brown's sons by moving to the Kansas territory. His wife, Florella Brown Adair, was John Brown's younger half-sister. When Brown arrived in the territory in late 1855, one of the construction projects he undertook was to install a loft in the cabin, which Atwater explains provided a measure of security for the Adair children since free state settlers were subject to attack by proslavery terrorists.  

These rough-hewn beams supporting
the loftbear the marks of Brown
and his sons' labor

Photo by L DeCaro, Jr. (2021)

Over the years, the Osawatomie museum acquired a number of important items that belonged to Brown or directly relate to his life in Kansas and elsewhere. My favorite is his hat--something rarely portrayed in pictures, and a most unique. According to Atwater, the hat was made by the Native American free state ally, "Taway" Jones, who held property in Osawatomie and was a friend of the Adairs and Browns. The hat is worn and faded but still intact, and it doesn't take much imagination to picture it upon Brown's head, the brim just above his "meat-axe" shaped nose (as characterized by his sons). Frankly, it is no exaggeration to say that seeing this hat was one of the goals of my trip.  

THE Harper's Ferry Hat
Photo by L DeCaro, Jr. (2021)

Most interestingly, this was the hat that Brown wore at Harper's Ferry, although he has often been portrayed wearing "cowboy" styled hats, he wore this unique style of hat against the cold night air of October 16, 1859. The hat apparently was restored to him after his defeat in the Harper's Ferry engine house and then given to his wife Mary in a small trunk with other items the day before his execution. It was eventually passed into the hands of the Kansas Historical Society, and finally found its way to the Adair Cabin museum.  This appears to be the hat portrayed in the sketch below which shows Brown, riding his mule "Dolly," in an 1877 article by L. Witherell ("Old John Brown," Weekly Gazette [Davenport, Ia.], 21 Nov. 1877)
Photo by L DeCaro, Jr. (2021)


Before heading for the archives in Topeka, Ian and I had one more important stop: Pottawatomie Creek, the site of Brown's bold and bloody strike in May 1856 that left five local proslavery men dead.  We somewhat awkwardly found our way down to Pottawatomie Creek in Lane, Kansas, and drove down as close as we could to Mosquito Creek, where the Browns camped before making the strike. We walked down, across some railroad tracks and got a glimpse of the area where the Browns set out for their bloody raid on the night of May 24.  Quite pleased with ourselves, we brandished our fists in solidarity, but were shortly driven away from the creek by a band of violent mosquitos.  As Ian quipped, "Brown is probably smiling and saying, 'So you wanted to see Mosquito Creek, eh?'"  Yep, bites for days.

Photo by L DeCaro, Jr. (2021)
Some are quick to point out that none of the men killed (three Doyles, Wilkinson, and Sherman) were not slaveholders. But Brown did not target them because they were slaveholders, or even because they were proslavery men. Rather, Brown and other free state men ascertained and confirmed that these men were acting local proslavery provocateurs and guides for an invading (and illegal) army of proslavery terrorists, and that they themselves had targeted the Browns for attack.  In the absence of protection from law enforcement in the territory, Brown and his men agreed to take action by eliminating five terrorist enablers.  For all of the noise that Brown's critics have made about this so-called "massacre," the reality is that it was a preemptive strike, that the men killed were prevented from very shortly doing the same thing to the Browns, and--really--the killings showed a lot of restraint and targeted discipline.  Had Brown wished to rampage and kill (like the proslavery men had done and would do again and again in the territory), he could easily have killed many more proslavery men.  But Pottawatomie was simply a decisive guerrilla strike that threw the enemy into confusion and probably bought the free side three more months before another attack was organized. 

To put it another way, we feel no need to apologize on Brown's behalf in the retrospect of history.  In fact, to turn a phrase from the late Boyd B. Stutler, the Pottawatomie five were more or less some "bad eggs in need of killing."  At least two of us tend to agree.--LD

Photo by Ian Barford (2021)

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Special Submission: "Quest for Richard Parker"

I'm very pleased to publish this special submission on Judge Richard Parker, who presided over the trial of John Brown and his raiders in 1859.  In this particularly busy season, I am especially grateful to Trish Ridgeway for sharing her rich and expert research on this important figure in the John Brown story! --LD


I began my quest for the story of Judge Richard Parker in a courtroom where he practiced. As a docent at the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum, located in the 1840 Frederick County (Virginia) Courthouse, I often faced the question, “Were there famous trials here?” 

Richard Parker (Wikipedia)

I told them that there were no outstanding trials, but Judge Richard Parker held court here and explained that he was the judge in the 1859 trial of John Brown in Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia). Fortunately, museum visitors did not ask for more details about Parker because I did not know much more about him.

Sources of Information about Parker

Noted John Brown collector Boyd B. Stutler (1889-1970) wrote the longest biography of Parker—a 1953 article in the Magazine of the Jefferson County Historical Society. Authors writing about the John Brown trial, who want to provide background information on Parker, cite this article. It is full of details about Parker’s life, drawn from his daily journals and other sources but provides no documentation. As a retired librarian and amateur genealogist, I was offended by this. Surely, I could locate more information.

Therefore, I began my search for primary sources relating to Parker. I discovered Stutler did not document his sources because he owned most of them. After Stutler’s death, the West Virginia State Archives acquired his massive John Brown holdings. In 1999, on the 140th Anniversary of Brown’s hanging, the Archives placed the majority of the John Brown/Boyd B. Stutler Collection Database online, and it is a phenomenal resource. The University of Virginia, the Library of Congress, and the Chicago Historical Society also have important Parker documents, and there are minor holdings in other institutions. Parker’s wife, Evalina Moss Parker (1821-1887), preceded him in death, and they had no children. His estate went to two nieces, who sold everything, and what items were not destroyed, either by Parker or the nieces, were widely dispersed among collectors. It was just the kind of challenge a librarian enjoys.

Richard Parker Discoveries

What have I discovered about Judge Parker? I knew that his father and grandfather were also prominent lawyers. Until I put together a complete genealogy of Parker and his wife, I did not realize how enmeshed into Virginia aristocracy he was. His ancestors married into prominent families. His sisters married into the noteworthy Milson, McCormick, and Crenshaw families. When it came time for Richard Parker to marry, he married Evalina Moss. Her great-uncle, Hugh Holmes (1768-1825), was a notable Winchester judge. Evalina’s aunts on the Holmes side married into the McGuire, Conrad, and Boyd families—all leaders in the community. Her sisters also married into prominent families. When Parker presided at Brown’s trial, Virginia Governor Henry Wise, U.S. Senator James Murray Mason, and prosecuting attorney Andrew Hunter were his peers.

Richard Parker, Harpers Ferry Paymaster—Some Shady Practices?

Rarely mentioned is that Parker served as paymaster and military storekeeper at the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry from 1838 to 1847. The job was a political appointment that brought many perks. According to Merritt Roe Smith’s work on the armory, many irregularities occurred in the administration of the paymaster’s office. Richard Parker was no different: 

One of the most mischievous practices consisted of paying armorers with depreciated currency. . .  While every incumbent from Lloyd Beall to Richard Parker practiced this ruse, it became especially prevalent during the 1830s. In November 1839, for instance, Parker exchanged two treasury drafts on New York banks for discounted bank notes and realized a profit of $1700. This sum exceeded his annual salary by more than four hundred dollars.1

Smith cites records of the Chief of Ordnance in the National Archives, which I have not had the opportunity to examine.

Parker: Undated gilt portrait,
Shenandoah Valley
Battlefields Foundation

When Parker left the armory, he strongly recommended his paternal aunt’s son, John Richard Parker Daingerfield (1817-1889), for the post of paymaster. I have not found any research that notes that the men were cousins. Daingerfield was appointed paymaster. On his way to work on October 17, 1859, he was taken by John Brown’s men and held with the other hostages. Daingerfield was a witness in Brown’s trial.  Current Virginia law does not require that a judge recuse himself when a cousin is involved in a trial. However, I think that today this relationship and Parker’s previous connection to the armory would lead a judge to recuse himself. In 1859, ruling-class members were tightly bound by family, political, and other ties. Therefore, Parker’s affiliations were probably of no concern.

U.S. Congressman Richard Parker 

Parker was active in politics during his time at the armory, attending Democratic Party conventions and coercing employees to vote for the party of the armory superintendent—another common practice. He practiced law for a time after leaving Harpers Ferry. In 1849, Parker won the nomination by the Democratic Party in Winchester for a seat in the U.S. Congress. It took sixteen ballots, but he was nominated, and subsequently won. 

One item that survives from his Congressional term is a February 23, 1850, speech he delivered on whether California should be admitted to the Union as a free or slave-holding state. He staunchly defended the right of Southern states to own slaves and to retrieve slaves from the North and stated that the North had no right to exclude slavery from the territories. He warned, “should aggression be accumulated upon aggression, and wrong upon wrong—it is not for me to predict what line of conduct Virginia will pursue.”2 He gave the speech nine years before the John Brown raid.

Judge Richard Parker

Parker resigned from Congress in January 1851 when he was appointed to be a judge of the General Court and soon after was appointed to the Virginia 13th Circuit Court. Ironically, he was following in the footsteps of his father, Richard Elliott Parker (1783-1840), who resigned from the U.S. Senate when appointed in 1837 to what is now called the Virginia Supreme Court. 

Judge Richard Parker, the arraignment of Brown and his men, 
and the Charlestown Court House as portrayed in contemporary
illustrated newspapers (Nov. 1859)

The district that Judge Parker served included Harpers Ferry. He was not selected to be the judge at the John Brown trial because of his political connections. By happenstance, Parker was the judge assigned to hear cases in the Jefferson County circuit court that opened at the county seat of Charles Town on October 20, 1859, two days after Brown and his men were captured. The November 2, 1859, New York Weekly Tribune described Parker at the trial:

"On an elevated platform at the rear sat the Judge, comfortably reclining in his chair, his legs resting upon the table before him, amid the chaos of law-books, papers, and inkstands, and holding upon his knees a volume bigger than all the rest. Judge Parker is a man of middle age, short and stoutish, and with a countenance singularly stern, by reason of the sharp lines about the mouth. His manner is mild and quiet, and there is dignity in his presence, notwithstanding the aspiring legs."

Parker’s handling of the John Brown trial is much debated. The trial proceeded at great speed, and Parker’s rulings have received much scrutiny; however, it is too full a topic to cover adequately here. 

Parker, a Traitor to the Confederacy?

Parker kept a journal during the Civil War. He does mention the war, but the journal is more centered on personal matters and trips to visit relatives. I was surprised that he was able to travel during the war. He mentioned that on July 10, 1863, he had difficulty returning from Richmond to Winchester, a distance of about 136 miles, when, “Found all public means of conveyances taken up by Conf. Govt.” He had left Winchester on June 29, two weeks after the 2nd Battle of Winchester. The Battle of Gettysburg occurred in his absence. By July 10, every possible means of transport had been commandeered to evacuate the Confederate wounded. 

Parker's Parole of Honor, Nov. 2, 1864 (see note 6)

Incidentally, he notes in his journal that while in Richmond, he called upon Governor John Letcher, Secretary of War James Alexander Seddon, Auditor of Virginia Jonathan McCally Bennett, State Treasurer Major John Strother Calvert, and Secretary of the Commonwealth George Wythe Munford.3

Those wartime trips to Richmond did not work out well. When he returned from a trip to Richmond on April 22, 1864, he was stopped at a Confederate outpost. He told the outpost commander, Captain Thomas Davis, a Maryland native, that Davis must not know who he was. Davis replied that he did, and that is why they stopped Parker. The episode is recorded in detail in a six-page letter Parker sent several days later to General John Imboden, the commander of the troops at the outpost. There had been many questions about Parker’s loyalty during the war, and Captain Davis seemed to know all of them. Imboden’s troops at the outpost appeared to lose interest in the affair. However, Parker would not let the matter rest and brought supporters from Winchester. He interrogated them about his fealty to the cause in front of another officer and was sent through to Winchester two days after he was stopped. Winchester saw over fifty different occupations of the city during the war by the belligerents.  Times were perilous for Winchester civilians since some supported the South and others, the North. Every action and word were scrutinized, and every previous wrong remembered.4

Parker after the War

Before the war, Parker was a friend of Francis Harrison Pierpont (1814-1899). Pierpont was an enemy of Virginia during the conflict because he was governor of the loyal (the Union) portions of Virginia and was instrumental in the formation of the state of West Virginia. After the war, Pierpont went to Richmond to serve as governor of Virginia. He appointed Parker to reorganize the courts in Parker’s old circuit. Both Pierpont and Parker were removed from office when the government in Virginia came under military rule in 1867.

Parker then returned to private practice and also accepted a small number of students to his law school in Winchester.  He had no public comment on the John Brown trial until he agreed to be interviewed for an article in the April 1888 St. Louis Globe-Democrat. The article described the 77-year-old Parker:

Judge Parker is not a large man. He is a little below the average height. He has a strong, compactly-built frame, a dignified bearing and a kindly manner. There is none of the tremor of age about him. His hair is thick, long and iron-gray. He combs it back over the crown. The stature, the massive head, the broad forehead, the square chin and the high complexion suggest in some degree portraits of Stephen A. Douglas. . . .

Parker stated that his main reason for allowing the interview was to set straight criticism of the trial, “that John Brown had a fair and impartial trial, just such as should be granted to all persons.” He made the assertion but provided little evidence.5

Parker obituary notices, 1893

In 1893, Parker died at his home in Winchester at the age of 84. I have located obituaries on Judge Parker from newspapers around the country. Except for local coverage, most of the stories were short and said in one way or another, “Judge Richard Parker, the man who tried John Brown, has died.”

My quest for Parker continues. I am working on a book that will discuss Parker’s life and reproduce primary documents about him. I hope it will become a reference work for those who seek information on Parker when writing about the John Brown trials.

Author's Biographical Information

Trish Ridgeway is a resident of Winchester, Virginia, although she has the good sense to winter in Florida. She retired in 2013 after twenty years as director of the Handley Regional Library that is headquartered in Winchester. She has written and spoken on many library and Civil War topics. Recently, she presented “Remember Me, Union Officer Graffiti from the Gettysburg Campaign” to several area Civil War roundtables. In 2001, with her husband, Harry, she helped establish a museum in Winchester, the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum. Her current projects include creating a library for the Shenandoah Valley Battlefield Foundation and writing a book on Judge Parker.  She is also working on an annotated copy of Boyd Stutler’s article about Parker, to be published in the Magazine of the Jefferson County Historical Society on the 70th anniversary of the article’s first appearance.


     1 Merritt Roe Smith, Harpers Ferry Armory and the New Technology, the Challenge of Change (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), 265.

     3 Trish Ridgeway, “Judge Richard Parker’s Civil War Diary, 1862-1864,” Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society Journal, 29 (2018), 24.

     4 Trish Ridgeway, “Judge Richard Parker’s Loyalty, the Parker-Imboden Correspondence, Spring 1864,” Journal of the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War Era, 3 (2010), 107-122.

     5 “John Browns Raid, Important Additions to the History of the Harper’s Ferry Affair. Judge Parker, of this City. who Sentenced the Liberators, Reveals Some Long Kept Secrets,” St. Louis Globe Democrat, April 8, 1888, 26-27

     6 Richard Parker Parole of Honor, Nov. 2, 1864, to Brig. Gen. J.B. Imboden, Judge Richard Parker Papers. Richard Parker, 1810-1893, Folder 3. Chicago History Museum, Chicago, Ill.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

The John Brown Portrait by Selden Woodman

The Woodman Portrait
Sometime in early 1858, probably the week of February 28, John Brown was in New York City amidst a busy schedule of meetings, but took time to visit the Great Hall of the Cooper Union, which had opened a year in advance of the completion of this famous Manhattan structure (now the home of the Cooper Union Institute, near Astor Place in Greenwich Village's east side). Perhaps Brown was in attendance to hear an abolitionist or women's suffrage presentation. Regardless, his visit to the famous site would have been lost to history were it not for Selden J. Woodman, an artist who, as a young man, met Brown and enjoyed a "very animated conversation in the hallway" of the Cooper Union.

In the early 1880s, Woodman met A. G. Hawes, formerly a Kansas associate of Brown, who complained that none of the portraits he had seen were pleasing to his memory of the abolitionist. Afterward, Woodman stopped at the Kansas State Historical Society (KSHS), in Topeka, and examined a number of images of Brown in that collection, none of which impressed him until his eyes fell upon "an old photograph." This image had been sent to the KSHS from Boston. 

Winnie Tintype 
Kansas State Historical Society

According to Francis Adams, then Secretary of the KSHS, the image had been sent along with a collection of materials compiled by Thomas H. Webb of Boston, formerly Secretary of the Kansas Emigrant Aid Company. Woodman later recalled that it was this image, along with his own memory of Brown from 1858 from which he made his portrait. According to John Brown documentary expert Jean Libby, the KSHS image from which Woodman worked is a "copy tintype" (attributed to Winnie of Topeka, Kansas)--one of three images that Brown had made while in Boston in January 1857. Based on Libby's essential work on the John Brown images, we know that Brown's associate James Redpath remembered these images being made, and that Brown had given one of them to Webb in Boston. Libby finds that all three images are attributed to Hawes (or John A. Whipple) in that city. 

The Cole Engraving of
Woodman's Portrait
When Woodman's illustration appeared on the cover of The Century Magazine in July 1883, it was highly regarded—including by Brown's widow, Mary, who saw it in Kansas and afterward wrote that "the more I see it, the more I like it."  In more recent years, however, Alice Keesey Mecoy, a direct descendant of John Brown (through Anne Brown Adams), made an investigation, noting that what The Century Magazine actually featured was an engraving by Timothy Cole, a notable woodcut engraver at the time. As Alice has observed, we have mistakenly attributed the Century image of Brown to Woodman, but should distinguish the engraving in Century from the original portrait done by Woodman based on the tintype in KSHS.  You may read Alice's extensive article about her analysis and conclusions on her blog, John Brown Kin.  See "A Mystery About an Engraving of John Brown," Sept. 17, 2017.  

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Responding to a "1619" critic who says, "Don't create resentment"

A letter to the editor appeared yesterday in the Quad City Times, published in Davenport, Iowa, under the title, "Don't create resentment."  It reveals the thinking of a conservative who considers truth-telling about racial injustice in US history as being unnecessarily divisive and "creating resentment."  In particular, the writer is critical of the controversial New York Times "1619 Project."  I am quite aware that the 1619 Project has faced some legitimate historical criticism, and that while many of these criticisms have been answered, there remains disagreement among historians, some of the harshest criticism coming -- to no surprise -- from some historians who represent the "top-down" reading of US history, including the Lincoln priesthood.

As Leslie Harris of Northwestern University has written in Politico (6 Mar. 20), the best-known of the scholarly critics of the 1619 Project actually "built their careers on an older style of American history—one that largely ignored the new currents that had begun to bubble up among their contemporaries."  Harris acknowledges that one of the central claims of the Project is questionable--that the American Revolution was driven by proslavery interest.  However, Harris is concerned that in challenging the errors of the 1619 Project, a flawed perspective will find opportunity to persist among historians "that consistently ignores and distorts the role of African Americans and race in our history." In other words, the fault-finding critics are still invested in presenting "white people as all powerful and solely in possession to the keys of equality, freedom and democracy."  At least, "the corrective history" of the Project may be imperfect, Harris concludes, but it is moving in the right direction--a direction that its dignified opponents refuse to take.

As a John Brown biographer, I cannot help but sympathize with the 1619 Project, even though it is apparently flawed in some of its notable claims.  Like Harris, I have no problem scoring the journalists of the Project for their errors.  As historians, we need criticism and critical evaluation if we are indeed interested in truth-telling about history.  However, I have seen how some of these same critics of the 1619 Project have misrepresented and maligned John Brown, revealing to me that even dignified Princeton historians can be grossly incorrect, and even use their "gatekeeper" status in order to embed bias and error in the historical record. 

Worse, hostility toward the 1619 Project has become associated with the right-wing and reactionary MAGA mentality toward "American history." It is bad enough that critics in the academy cannot separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to the Project, but as objections trickle down to the larger population, it further depreciates the important direction that the 1619 Project has taken in order to reinforce simplistic, rightwing notions of history that exist in the public, such as the following letter to the Quad City editor charging that the 1619 Project creates "resentment."

I am writing to voice concerns about treating the 1619 Project as "history." It is based on the premise that American prosperity was built on the back of slavery. The historical record states differently.

Early in the formation of the United States, slavery was rejected by the northern states. For decades, Congress tried to maintain a delicate balance between free and slave states. The balance was so tight that a free state could not come into the union without a slave state. This is evidenced by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The Mason-Dixon line divided these two ideologies. Bloody Kansas and John Brown’s attack on Harpers Ferry unraveled the political balancing act.

What has this to do with the 1619 Project? By the start of the American Civil War the free North held overwhelming advantages in population, industrial capacity and railroads. Investment and immigration favored the North because there opportunity was to be found. The North used these advantages to march into the South and crush the Confederacy. With this advantage the North invaded the South with an edge in warships, cannon, logistics, troops, and the ability to move them. Had slavery been the foundation of American prosperity, these conditions would have been reversed.

We can enhance the history of Americans of color without fabrication. There are great heroes from before the Revolution to our astronaut corps today. Let’s add examples that we should all look up to rather than creating resentment and division.

The author of this letter probably thinks he is saying something of a corrective nature, but unfortunately he is reflecting how resistance to the 1619 Project is more than just a matter of historical criticism, but rather is reactionary and determined to sustain a view of US history that does not offend his sensibilities.  This is what he means by saying, "don't create resentment."  This is very typical of rightwing and conservative complaints, which accuse anyone who is critical of the political and social status quo as being divisive or as creating resentment.  It does not seem to occur to such people that for many years, the narrative of history that they embraced has created a great deal of resentment for people of color and for any people wishing to tell the truth about the racist priorities of the US in historical terms.

The writer's objection to the idea that the US was built upon slavery is an incredible denial.  It is a matter of great historical consideration, for instance, that the US in the antebellum era was built upon the backs of slaves.  As Eugene Dattel writes in Cotton and Race in the Making of America, cotton--picked by enslaved Africans from 1803 until the end of slavery, "stimulated economic growth more decisively than any other single industry or crop." Even setting aside the fact that the cheap, oppressed labor of black people after Reconstruction further enriched the US, the point is that cotton was the foundation of the industrial revolution.  In other words, contrary to the letter writer, "American prosperity" was indeed built "on the back of slavery." The centrality of slavery in the building of the US is not a point missed by the 1619 Project, but it is a point that will not be widely appreciated if its opponents are given the final word.

The letter-writer goes on, in retrospective Pollyanna, appreciating "the delicate balance" that existed between free and slave states, and then blames John Brown for "unraveling" the "political balancing act." This is a revealing statement.  The writer seems to credit the compromise that prevailed in this nation, which kept four millions of Africans enslaved, as "delicate balance."  Conversely, the writer is resentful of Old John Brown, for allegedly destroying that "delicate balance." The question is, what kind of mind would have such a retrospective view of the US, to speak of the hellish compromise of the antebellum era in such precious terms?

The letter-writer clearly is dealing in a kind of self-serving naivete, writing about the contrasting economies of the North and South as if they were competing--the strong industrial North versus the inferior slave-based South.  But this is simply not true.  The truth is far more complicated and unpleasant because while the North was based on industrial growth, that growth was premised on cotton and other "slave crops."  Northern factories produced cotton goods and northern banks and insurance companies grew prosperous on slaveholder wealth.  The wealthy sons of the South came North for education and specialized training. In the antebellum era, the North had deep connections to the South, and when John Brown did strike, it was the business community and their workers who protested most loudly against him because they understood what this letter-writer does not.  They understood that the economic condition of the North was bound to the operations of the South.  Indeed, this was one of the features of northern conservatism before the Civil War.

The letter-writer reflects an insular mentality, one that prefers to believe that US history is about "delicate balances" and "great heroes."  To suggest anything else is to--as he concludes--"create resentment and division."  But the division has been there all along--the division between white supremacy and its victims; the division between "top down" readings of US history and grassroots narratives that reveal a nation steeped in racism and injustice; the division between privileged white people and those who see this nation's history as anything but exceptional and "great."

John Brown Today, "Letters and Friends" Feature: John Brown to Mary Brown, Jan. 30, 1858

In "John Brown Today" (Season 2, Episode 6),  I speak with Dr. Margaret Washington of Cornell University, my first guest for the new segment, "Letters and Friends."  Here is a complete transcription of the letter we are discussing.


John Brown, Rochester, N.Y., to Mary Brown, North Elba, N.Y., 01-30-58
Transcribed by Louis A. DeCaro, Jr.

Rochester N Y, 30,th Jany, 1858, My Dear Wife & Children every one

I am (praised be God) once more in [New] York State. Whether I shall be permitted to visit you or not this Winter or Spring I cannot now say; but it is some relief of mind to feel that I am again so near you Possibly; if I cannot go to see you; that I may be able to devise some way for some one, or more of you to meet meet me some -where. The anxiety I feel to see my Wife; & children once more; I (^ am) unable to describe. I want exceedingly to see my big Baby; & “Mums Baby”: & to see how that little company of Sheep look about this time. The cries of my poor sorrow stricken despairing children whoose [sic] “tears on their cheeks” are ever in my Eye; & whose sighs are ever in my Ears, may (^ however) prevent my enjoying the happiness I so much desire But courage Courage Courage the great work of my life * (: the unseen Hand that “girded me; & who has indeed holden my right hand; (^ may hold it still) though I have not known Him”; at all as I ought;) *I may yet see (^ it) accomplished; (God helping;) & be permitted to return, & rest; (^ at) Evening.” O my Daughter Ruth could any plan be devised whereby you could let Henry go “to School” (as you expressed it in your letter to him while in Kansas;) I would rather now have him “for another term”; than to have a Hundred average sc(^h)ollars [sic]. I have a particular (^ & very important; (but not dangerous( place for him to fill; in the “school”; & I know of no man living; so well adapted to fill it. I am quite confident some way can be devised; so that you; & your children could be with him; & be quite happy even; & safe but “God forbid” me to flatter you into trouble. I did not do it before.

[page 2]
My dear child could you face such music: if on a full explanation Henry could be satisfyed [sic] that his family might be safe? I would make a similar enquiry of (^ my) own dear Wife; but I have kept her tumbling “here & there”; over a stormy & tempestus [sic] sea for so many years that I cannot ask her such a question. The natural ingenuity of Salmon: in connection with some experience he, & Oliver have both had; would point him out as the next best man I could now select; but I (^ am) dumb in his case; as also in the case of Watson, & all my other sons. Jason[’]s qualifications are some of them like Henry[’]s also.  I want to hear from you all if possible before I leave this neighborhood. Do not noise it about; that I am in these parts; & direct to N Hawkins; Care of Fredk Douglas Esqr Rochester NY. I want to hear how you all are supplied with Winter clothing, Boots, &c. God bless you all
Your Affectionate Husband & Father 

[postscript in the hand of Frederick Douglass:] My dear Friends:

Your brave husband and father is now my guest-and has been since Thursday of this week. Gladly indeed we hailed him, and joyfully we entertain him. It does not seem safe-or desirable for him to come to you just now-though he could most gladly do so. I shall retain him here as long as he desires to remain and would be glad for yo you to meet him here.

[vertically along left fold]
I remember with pleasure the pleasant moments spent under your roof-and take know no small satisfaction
in the thought of your Friendship

[vertically along right fold]
I shall be truly glad to see either of you or both of you at my house-at any time during Capt Brown’s stay-
Fred. Douglass-

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

The Biter is Bitten: A Ross Snaps Back

Well folks, the biter is bitten.  I've been told off, exposed, and rebuked from an angry Canadian named Don Ross in response to my feature on Dr. Alexander Milton Ross (Jan. 12), "Catch Him if You Can: The True Story of John Brown's Fraudulent 'Friend.'"   I appear to have done it this time, and it looks I've offended a descendant.

Today I found this message in my blog mail, and rather than simply publish it under the aforementioned article, I post it here for your reading interest:

This attack on Dr. Alexander Milton Ross is scurrilous and unwarranted from an American pseudo-theologian, who really knows very little about the biography of AM ROSS, Dresden, Uncle Tom, Buxton or any other parts of Black History in Ontario.
Well, it is more than evident that Mr. Don Ross is angry at me for making what he calls a "scurrilous and unwarranted" "attack" upon the late A.M. Ross (AMR), whom I describe as a faker and fraud, at least in regard to his claim of being a friend and associate of John Brown. I said nothing about AMR's actual antislavery role in Canada, his professional attainments, or his life in Canada.  

Certainly, I would like to apologize to Don Ross for offending his family, as it appears he is a descendant of AMR.  It really was not my intention to offend the living in criticizing the dead, and insofar as I have created offense, I do regret it as human feelings go. I once offended the descendant of a miscreant Southern murderer, but I cannot say that I had any sense of regret in interrogating the record of her murderous forebear.  But I do not see AMR as an enemy of Brown's legacy and so I do not see him as an enemy.  Still, insofar as John Brown is concerned, he was a fake and a liar, and I was not the first one to make this claim.

Don Ross responds vindictively with an ad hominem, calling me an "American pseudo-theologian."   I forgive him this bite.  Actually, I am a theologically trained historian and religious educator with two real earned masters degrees in theology and history, and a real earned Ph.D, but nowhere do I claim to be a professional theologian.  As to Don Ross's second charge, that I know "very little" about the biography of AMR and any other aspect of black history in Ontario, it's probably fair to say that I know enough as has been of interest to me thus far, although there's always more to learn.

Finally, Don Ross, if you're going to lambast me, you must also lambast the late great Boyd B. Stutler, whose expertise on the John Brown theme, including his correspondence with Canadian historians in the mid-20th century, drew this conclusion about AMR long before I was born.  As I shared, I found while doing my own subsequent research on the Ross-Brown correspondence that Stutler was correct in calling AMR a liar and a fake. If I thought otherwise were possible, I would have written that too.  

Of course, I would be happy to rescind my publication on Ross if you can prove me and Stutler wrong.  Unlike AMR, I really do prefer the truth to deception and error.  If you have historical evidence that proves both Stutler and me as being incorrect in our readings of the evidence concerning AMR and John Brown, then please do let me know and I will publish it with an apology besides.  

Don Ross, I hope you will accept that I have no intention of wounding your feelings or family pride. But neither am I willing to alter my understanding of history because it is offensive to you or anyone else.  My writing was neither an "attack" nor was it "unwarranted."  It was perfectly warranted by the burden of historical research and the quest to understand the past, particularly as it relates to my study of John Brown.

I turn the other cheek here, Don Ross, but I wonder if you have any substantial evidence beyond insult and accusation.  Otherwise, my response, borrowed from John Brown in Virginia, is simply this: you have your opinion of me, and I have my opinion of you.  

Let's leave it at that.--LD

Friday, January 22, 2021

John Brown's Bankruptcy Bookshelf

     As a biographer of John Brown, I have found that often the portrayal of his business life by writers  is simplistic, and over the years likewise it has been used to set him up as a kind of ne’er-do-well whose entry into antislavery zealotry was something of an attempt to redeem himself from a failed life. Even one of Brown’s better biographers in the twentieth century, Stephen Oates, tended toward caricature when he wrote: “He was lonely and restless, and when he left the agency in the evening, after a maddening day with his disorderly accounts, he changed roles from a much-maligned businessman to a lone crusading abolitionist.”1  Perhaps the worst example of this is found in the writing of the late Chester G. Hearn, whose treatment of Brown is malign, and fraught with the author’s malicious liberties and misinterpretations that regretfully approximate the work of a scoundrel. In the introduction of his anti-Brown screed, Hearn thus writes: “As Brown grew older, he became acutely aware of his failures, and thrusting them aside, he became a sleuth in search of his own destiny. He followed many trades without ever achieving a permanent measure of self-satisfaction or success.”2  This poisonous nonsense not only flattens the history of John Brown’s business life, but also suggests that the basis of his antislavery zeal was some sort of private quest to find redemption from what otherwise was a life of failure.  

Biographically speaking, ad hominem slurs and dramatic sensationalism aside, Brown did not have an easy time of it in the late 1830s and well into the first half of the following decade. However, he did recover and even enjoyed a measure of success and notoriety as a specialist in fine sheep and wool—frankly something that none of Brown’s biographers have adequately focused on, probably because most biographers are too much in a hurry to get to “Bleeding Kansas” than to spend time looking at businessman Brown’s story in context. Be that as it may, it remains true that this period of business failure was the nadir of his first fifty years, and so a sketch of this chapter of his life should be better understood.

Like many others in the western states in the mid-1830s, John Brown could not have apprehended the downturn that was about to overtake him.  In simple terms, what brought him down was a boom in land speculation, a reliance on credit, and a lack of financial backups, from business insurance to the limited liability corporation, instruments that are part of the modern businessman’s tool chest.  Brown had none of these and he was out of his element, since his professional specializations were in livestock and farming. In fairness to him, however, it was not sheer ambition that caused him to abandon his primary expertise as much as it was desperation.

Brown had returned from Pennsylvania to his native northeastern Ohio in 1836 on the basis of an offer made to him by the wealthy Zenas Kent, a prominent figure in Franklin Mills (present day Kent, Ohio). Kent knew of Brown’s solid reputation and solicited him to become a business partner in his proposed tannery operation.  Given the exciting canal developments in Ohio at the time, Brown quite reasonably saw greater chances for success back in his home state.  However the partnership was rescinded  before it had even begun, when Kent decided to rent out the facility to his own son instead.3     

As a family man finding himself suddenly without work, Brown threw himself eagerly into land speculation and construction in Franklin Mills, primarily intent upon canal-related projects.  Public transportation contracts were booming in Ohio and the west at this time, and private stock companies were formed to undertake these new ventures with state funds. For instance, a major project at this time was the linking of the Pennsylvania and Ohio canal systems, and it is understandable why Brown began to talk up the possibilities of investing in related projects to his family and associates in Ohio.  A number of sources suggest that he took some kind of construction contract on the Pennsylvania and Ohio canal system and that he was also looking to invest in projects funded by independent banks, such as an extension of the canal from Akron to Franklin Mills.  Having borrowed a large sum of money, then, Brown also purchased a sizeable farm that he intended to parcel out for sale, as he had done with his own property before leaving Pennsylvania.  He also bought land and erected office buildings in Franklin Mills that would turn a fine profit once the canal was operative.4

Initially, Brown looked successful, but by 1838 he wrote to a Meadville associate that he had “made money rather too quickly” in the previous three years.  Indeed, his wealth was essentially based on bank notes and credit, and with the Panic of 1837 (which Brown called “the change in the times”), his efforts were considerably stunted.  Still, he pressed on, further and further into credit debt, anticipating a breakthrough in the economy and a harvest of wealth with the completion of his canal and construction projects.  Ever the optimist, he wrote in mid-1838: “We in this country feel now in hope that another year will effectually relieve us,” he wrote in mid-1838.5

Unfortunately, the financial situation only worsened, not just for John Brown but for many others caught up in the boom.  As monies for projects dried up, other business ventures likewise followed, and shortly Brown was left with debt and lawsuits for unpaid notes, wages, and money due on accounts.  At one point, he was the defendant, either by himself or with partners, in twenty-one different lawsuits. Meanwhile, he was  looking and hoping for alternatives, such as the purchase of a mill.  Throughout 1838, Brown went east to scour his native Connecticut for loans, since the eastern states recovered before the western states like Ohio. By the summer of 1839, however, things had only gotten worse. New England proved a disappointment, and he returned home empty-handed, with fading hope of obtaining money from eastern banks.  “The prospect is rather dark however,” he wrote to a close associate.  “I have made every exertion in my power to extricate ourselves from the difficulty we are in but have not yet been able to effect it.” Things were getting bad and he felt “rather more depressed than usual.”6 

At this point, Brown’s story descends quickly.  In 1839,  beside overdue tax and business expenses, he had ten children to feed and clothe, including three adolescents and seven other children between newborn and ten years of age.  He was desperate. In what proved to be an unhappy coincidence, it was at this time that Brown secured a role as purchasing agent for a New England firm, which entrusted him with a sizeable purse for the purchase of western cattle. Tempted in his own desperate mind, however, Brown convinced himself that he could use the firm’s money in order to pay pressing debts and taxes, and then promptly replace the money from a loan that he confidently expected from a bank in Boston.  As if finding himself within a morale tale, when the loan was refused, John Brown found himself in hot water.

Now, I would argue that this episode—and not his later role in the Pottawatomie killings—was John Brown’s moral nadir in biographical terms. In appropriating his client’s money, he deliberately committed an unethical act, both breaking the law and violating his own keen sense of right and wrong.  Whatever one may feel about his resort to violence in the Pottawatomie crisis of 1856, Brown’s ethical stance in that case actually is far more defensible than is this bloodless crime of desperation.  Certainly, had he ended up in jail and his otherwise upright reputation soiled, Brown would have deserved it.  Fortunately for him, when he owned up to his foolish manipulation, he was treated with leniency by his client, although he was not able to survive a host of lawsuits and never was able to fully repay the client, as much he tried to do so, and as much as it weighed upon him (Brown even directed some money to be sent to the client just before his hanging in Virginia in 1859).  

Besides the complexity—perhaps even the impossibility—of untangling John Brown’s many business issues from nearly two centuries ago, what makes this chapter of his life even more difficult is the fact that he continued to pursue any opportunity that might turn his condition around, from selling cattle sales to breeding race horses and silk worms. Overall, as I have argued, although Brown merits some responsibility for his business misfortunes in this period, historians typically have focused on his troubled story without considering the circumstances of which he was a part, and which certainly troubled many other of Brown’s contemporaries. Besides failing to consider that he was among many others facing the same difficulties, and that he did not have the safety nets that modern business people enjoy, historians likewise have failed to recognize that he was caught between a financial panic 1837 and an aftershock that took place in 1839, the latter actually proving to be the context for John Brown’s financial undoing. Even his most notable biographers have missed the Crisis of 1839, as did Stephen Oates, who simplistically wrote that the Panic of 1837 “shook the national economy,” concluding that Brown “should have expected the worst” in the 1830s because President Andrew Jackson had refused to renew the Bank of the United States, leaving the national economy “extremely unstable.”  Lacking a fuller explanation of the downturns of the 1830s, however, Oates imputed greater blame to Brown than he deserves in retrospect.7

In fact, the Panic of 1837 and the Crisis of 1839 were two very different downturns in Brown’s world, and there was no way for Brown to have anticipated.  The Panic occurred as a result of domestic and foreign influences, and was largely felt in the eastern states, but especially in New York City and New Orleans, the major ports for the international cotton trade.  While the Panic was felt throughout the nation, a decline in specie, loans and discounts, and deposits was much worse in the east than in the south and west. In nearly every aspect, it was more severe for northeastern banks than for western banks in 1837.  Yet the Panic was quickly remedied by federal measures, and the economy made a comeback after 1837, which explains why Brown and many others continued to push their luck out in Ohio.  Oates fails to realize that most people could not have foreseen a serious downturn on the horizon, which is why borrowing continued in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio. As a result, the land boom was further bolstered by canal and railroad construction after 1837, which in turn engendered greater public confidence.  But things took a shocking turn for the worst in 1839, and this was the real basis of John Brown’s undoing. 

After dealing extensively in bonds, after 1837, many banks in Ohio and other western states began to find it difficult to redeem them because of the tightening of the market. As a result, they increasingly began to deal in credit, an economic pattern that filtered down into the business economy.  John Brown’s own state of Ohio especially had borrowed heavily and now found itself with enormous debt.  Unable to meet their obligations, banks in Ohio and other western states thus overreached and defaulted, resulting in a sharp decline in the money supply, and a loss of confidence in the banks.  Without depositor confidence, western banks began to collapse while banks in the northeast were in a state of improvement. Under these circumstances, Ohio and other western states experienced heavy losses in specie holdings, loans and discounts, and deposits. Indeed, between January 1839 and January 1841, the national money supply had declined by 22-percent, and the brunt of this loss was felt in western and southern states.8  Contrary to the simplistic narrative, where John Brown was an incompetent, talentless businessman, it is clear that these national economic factors were largely responsible for bringing about his and other people’s ruin in the late 1830s.  While he thrashed about for a few more years, ever hoping to find a way out, Brown finally was forced to surrender.  As he described it later, this was a time of “poverty, trials, discredit, & sore afflictions.”  Years later he wrote to his wife Mary, saluting her faithfulness in the shadowed days “when others said of me, ‘now that he lieth, he shall rise up no more.’”9     

As it happened, the United States had recently passed a new Bankruptcy Act on August 19, 1841, and it was under this new act that the disappointed John Brown submitted a petition for bankruptcy on May 11, 1842, two days after his forty-second birthday.  That month, a small notice appeared in the Akron Beacon declaring John Brown, “Tanner and Currier,” and a grocer named Meacham as having made petitions for a court hearing of bankruptcy the following month. As if to pour salt in the wound, the county commissioner published notice a week later that he was prepared to consider Brown’s claims, and that summer, and in October, he was listed under a short notice entitled “Bankrupts” with eighteen other unfortunate fellow citizens. By this time, however, Brown had already received an assignee from the court named George B. De Peyster, charged with taking a fine-tooth comb to every detail of property in the Brown household. De Peyster gave public notice in the summer that he was handling Brown’s bankruptcy case, and by late September, he had prepared a signed inventory.  Even centuries later, the document is pitiful  because De Peyster’s schedule sets forth the things that the Browns personally owned, and included things that De Peyster permitted them to keep, from household furniture and home furnishings to foods and tools. De Peyster’s schedule still exists and is held in the Boyd B. Stutler Collection in the West Virginia Division of Culture and History.

    Of particular interest to me in this episode are the books De Peyster listed on the bottom of the first page, for they provide a particular insight into Brown’s life and interests at this period. I should add that among these household items on another page De Peyster mentions that there were “about 36 volumes of school & miscellaneous books” in the household, so the books under consideration were the only ones he considered of value.  Doubtless the “school & miscellaneous books” represent the texts that Brown used for the education of his children (and other people’s children, as was the case during his Pennsylvania years), although De Peyster provided no title information. Fortunately, he did list several other volumes, and evidently did so because they had greater value, and evidently because they were John Brown’s own books. 

In listing these more valuable volumes on Brown’s bookshelf,  De Peyster offered scant information as to titles although assigning dollar value to each. Fortunately,  with a little help from Google books and other internet sources, I was able to identify almost all of them, thus gaining insight into the kinds of things that John Brown was reading in the late 1830s and early ‘40s, some of which are interestingly when keyed to his biography. 

    To no surprise, the first item listed  is “11 Bibles & testaments.” De Peyster valued these copies of the sacred text at $6.50, which according to one online inflation calculator is equivalent in today’s money about $200.  Of course, the testimony of the Brown children in later life is that on Sunday evenings, John Brown regularly passed out Bibles for a time of family worship and prayer, the family standing—not kneeling—in prayer, and Brown himself famously handling the chair (tipping it backward on its back legs) as he prayed. (As I recall, John Junior and his siblings only saw their father kneel in prayer once to make a sacred vow against slavery sometime between the late 1830s and early 1840s.) Certainly these Bibles were undoubtedly part of the family’s sacred regimen from week to week.

    The second item was “1 Vol Beauties of the Bible.” De Peyster valued this book at eighty-six cents, actually about $25 today. And no, this was not a book about the pretty women of the Bible (although that probably would make an interesting book). Rather, the “beauties” refers to notable selections of biblical text. In typical style for that era, the subtitle goes on and on: A Selection from the Old and New Testaments with Various Remarks and Brief Dissertations Designed for the Use of Christians in General, and Particularly for the Use of Schools, and for the Improvement of Youth. Interestingly, the editor and commentator of this book was Ezra Sampson of Hudson, New York. According to the old Appleton’s encyclopedia, Sampson (1749-1828) was a Massachusetts clergyman, writer, and a veteran of the Revolutionary War, afterward a chaplain at Roxbury, Mass. Sampson later co-founded a publication called the Balance, then served as editor of the Connecticut Courant [Hartford, Conn.], served as a county judge, and also wrote a number of theological and historical works, including Beauties of the Bible, first published in 1802. Given its publication date, it is likely that John Brown was first introduced to this work as a teenager, and possibly was given this book as a gift after his church membership was made official on March 31, 1816, when he was barely sixteen-years-old. Interestingly, in the preface, Sampson begins with the lamentation that at one time, the Bible was the only textbook used in public schools, but subsequently other books had been introduced along with the Bible as textbooks. Sampson writes that it should humble Christians to realize that “while we have neglected to make the knowledge of the bible any part of the school education of our children, the Mahometans [sic] have been teaching their children the Alcoran [sic] with most diligent care. Will not Mahometans rise up in judgment against us and condemn us?” (p. iii)

The next item is not religious, but rather “Flints Surveying.” De Peyster valued this work at eighty-seven cents, again, about $25 today. John Brown buffs will recall that later in life, he was an active and experienced surveyor, and that he surveyed lands in western Virginia in 1840 on behalf of the Oberlin Institute, and that likewise he surveyed property in the Kansas territory for his sons.  Interestingly, Brown quite intentionally went to the aid of local Indians (presumably the Sac and Fox Nation) by surveying their lands in order to restrict the intrusions of proslavery interlopers in the territory. In one or two cases, when surveying did not convince these Southern intruders, the Brown boys escorted them forcefully off Sac and Fox Nation land at gunpoint.   Brown also quite intentionally Used his surveying abilities as a means of conducting surveillance on proslavery terrorists, which is how he and his sons confirmed that they were marked for death in 1856, and what motivated the Pottawatomie killings. Interestingly, John Brown aficionado, Boyd B. Stutler, prepared an article about the Old Man in The Empire State Surveyor (1969), the official professional publication of New York State surveyors. In that article, Stutler wrote that “John Brown did not have a formal college training in surveying. He did have a propensity for math and geometry. His training in surveying was self-taught from the text of a book known as “Flints Surveying,” written sometime before 1820.” In his own famous autobiographical letter written in 1857, Brown described this informal education, writing of himself in the third person: “He however managed by the help of books to make himself tolerably well acquainted with common Arithmetic; & Surveying: which he practiced more or less after he was Twenty years old.” The book that Brown primarily alludes to is Abel Flint’s 1806 publication, A Treatise on Geometry and Trigonometry with a Treatise on Surveying in which the Principles of Rectangular Surveying without Plotting are Explained. I have not located the 1806 version that Brown likely used, but an 1839 version is accessible through Google Books.

 Once more dependent upon the old Appleton’s encyclopedia, we learn that Abel Flint (1765-1825), was from Connecticut, a graduate of Yale University, and served as a tutor at Brown University until 1790. He studied theology and afterward became a minister (often young clergymen took their training as mentors of established ministers, rather than going to seminary), pastoring a Congregational church in Hartford, Conn. He edited the Connecticut Evangelical Magazine, helped compile a Congregational hymnal, and was one of the founders of the Connecticut Bible Society in 1809. In 1818, he received an honorary doctorate in divinity. Fortunately, this encyclopedic entry gives us the publishing date of his surveying work as 1806. 

The four book on John Brown’s shelf is listed by De Peyster as “Dicks Works,” which he valued at $2.00, about $60 in contemporary terms. Thomas Dick was a Scottish theologian and astronomer who sought to advance a Christian form of science in the face of rising secular science. In the pre-Darwinian era, Dick’s concerns were more broadly focused on how theology, which was still considered a science too, could be broadly applied to the "natural sciences," earth, space and social sciences. This may sound odd to us, particularly since we have been largely influenced by modern scientists who have philosophically demanded the absolute break between the secular and the sacred (some of whom have also presumed to make grandiose judgments about the sacred despite being limited to the more narrow notion of “science” that prevails today.) But Dick's approach is actually a logical outcome of the Protestant Reformation, particularly Calvinism, which presumed that the normative role of humanity as imago Dei, the image of God, was to explore and measure the creation. Since John Brown clearly inherited a Puritan’s curiosity for just about every study including science, it is no surprise that he would have had Dick’s writings on his home library shelf. There is an interesting vignette that relates to this theme, preserved in an 1879 article in The Atlantic Monthly, written by the journalist William Addison Phillips.  In this article, Phillips recalled meeting John Brown on three different occasions, but the first was in 1856, in Brown’s camp in Kansas in a wooded area where the Kaw and Wakarusa Rivers converged.  Phillips recalled:

The sun went down as we looked at it, and as I turned my eyes to his I saw he had drunk in the glorious beauty of the landscape.

"What a magnificent scene, captain!" I exclaimed.

"Yes," he said, in his slow, dry way; "a great country for a free State."

As the sun started to set, Phillips and Brown put their saddles down together, and lay down for the night, covered with a blanket under the broad night sky. “He seemed to be as little disposed to sleep as I was,” Phillips recalled, continuing

and we talked; or rather he did, for I said little more than enough to keep him going. I soon found that he was a very thorough astronomer and he enlightened me on a good many matters in the starry firmament above us. He pointed out the different constellations and their movements. “Now,” he said, “it is midnight,” and he pointed to the finger marks of his great clock in the sky.

Phillips continued:

In his ordinary moods the man seemed so rigid, stern, and unimpressible when I first knew him that I never thought a poetic and impulsive nature lay behind that cold exterior. The whispering of the wind on the prairie was full of voices to him, and the stars as they shone in the firmament of God seemed to inspire him. “How admirable is the symmetry of the heavens; how grand and beautiful. Everything moves in sublime harmony in the government of God. Not so with us poor creatures. If one star is more brilliant than others, it is continually shooting in some erratic way into space.”10

We do not know precisely what volume of “Dick’s Works” that De Peyster assessed on Brown's bookshelf, but it could easily have been Dick’s Celestial Scenery, or the Wonders of the Planetary System Displayed; Illustrating the Perfections of Deity, and a Plurality of Worlds (1837).  This work is essentially a Christian astronomer’s reading of his science. Interestingly, in this volume, Dick includes arguments for “plurality of worlds,” or other inhabited planets in the universe. More central to the work, however, is a theistic understanding of the cosmos as a divinely created and operated system, what in his preface Dick calls “the perfections and the empire of the Creator.” Demonstrating a certain knowledge of astronomy, Dick concludes that the “harmony and order” of heavenly bodies “evince [God’s] wisdom and intelligence” (p. 21), and amidst his astronomical speculations, concludes that the starry heavens “answer purposes in the Creator’s plan worthy of His perfections and of their magnitude and grandeur” (p. 27).

Another book on Brown’s shelf is identified by De Peyster the work of “Dr Rush.” Valued at $2.00 (again, about $60 today. In this case, the book is undoubtedly Essays, Literary, Moral, and Philosophical, published first in 1789 and again in 1806 by Benjamin Rush (1746-1813). Rush was a physician and one of the founding fathers of the United States, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, and a leading educator and humanitarian who opposed slavery. Although Rush was a Universalist, Brown undoubtedly appreciated him because of his anti-slavery views and his contributions to educational theory. Rush may have entertained peculiar biological views of “race,” but he believed blacks were equal with whites and opposed chattel slavery. Brown’s story resonates with two particular essays in Rush’s book: the first was an essay dating from 1786 in which Rush set forth a plan to establish public schools in Pennsylvania, and his defense of public schools as being consistent with a republican form of government. John Brown was always a defender of the public school system, but this essay may have been of special interest to Brown during his decade in northwestern Pennsylvania, where he acted as a kind of community father in his own right—particularly as one who planned for the schooling of his children and others in his vicinity. Not only was he an advocate of public school education, but apparently he had held a seat on something similar to a school board in the Meadville area, and likewise dreamed if not planned on starting a school for black youth in the same area. Another essay in this book that would likely have been quite meaningful to John Brown is Rush’s inclusion of an essay by Anthony Benezet (1713-84), a Huguenot abolitionist. Benezet’s essay is more than fascinating—a short story called “Paradise of Negro Slaves—A Dream.” In Benezet’s fictive dream, he finds himself intruding upon a peaceful colony of black people at worship, only to discover that he is in the afterlife with black people who had suffered and died in slavery.

    The sixth book that got De Peyster’s attention is listed as a “Church Members Guide,” valued at twenty-five cents, about $7 in today’s currency. The exact identification of this book is somewhat difficult to determine since there would have been a variety of such works available. Assuming that Brown would have preferred a volume reflecting his own church heritage, a likely candidate is The Church Member’s Guide by John Angell James, published in England in 1822. This appears to have been a prototypical work of its kind in the early 19th century. The problem here is that it was not published in the U.S. until 1855; so if Brown had a copy of the James Church Member’s Guide, it was a British edition. A second possibility is that Brown had a copy of  A Manual for Young Church-Members (1841) by Leonard Bacon, a clergyman from New Haven, Conn., one of the founders of the anti-slavery New York Independent. Of course, this might have been another church membership book, published locally or otherwise. Generally, church member’s guides or handbooks set forth distinctive themes of Protestant denominations as well as major theological and ecclesiastical doctrines. 

Finally, De Peyster listed “Balls narrative,” another book valued at twenty-five cents, about $7 today. While it is no surprise to find an authentic so-called “slave narrative” on John Brown’s bookshelf, it is nonetheless interesting to know what he was reading about slavery at this time. The Narrative of Charles Ball is one of the more notable antebellum narratives, a genre of antislavery writing that tended to be edited by those not associated with radical abolitionism. According to the late historian John Blassingame, Ball’s editor was a lawyer named Isaac Fisher, and the first printing of the narrative was published in Pennsylvania in 1836—the same year that Brown returned to Ohio from Randolph Township near Meadville, Pennsylvania. Pro-slavery critics tried to debunk Ball’s narrative without success, and ultimately it has proven highly reliable to historians.11 If you’re interested, an 1854 edition of Ball’s narrative is available through Google books.

This short list of books from John Brown’s bookshelf in 1842 provide a sense of the man, certainly that he was deeply religious, practical in his studies, and interested in matters like astronomy while constantly being mindful of the plight of the enslaved.  At the same time, of course, De Peyster’s document is a reminder of a particularly painful period in John Brown’s life in which he, like other aspiring frontier entrepreneurs in the 1830s and ‘40s, had experienced devastating failure. In his younger days, Brown had envisioned himself as becoming a successful abolitionist tycoon who could do the kinds of things that his later associates among the “Secret Six” did by funding his antislavery. But in his early forties, John Brown was far from reaching the success that he had hoped to attain, while the nation itself had not yet come to the point when hope for the peaceful demise of slavery would vanish, finally pushing him across the line toward taking radical antislavery measures.  

In 1848, six years after his bankruptcy, Brown confided to a friend: “I believe I received my Bankrupt discharge in the Fall of 1842 at which time all I possessed would not pay near the expense of getting it, so that I then had to go into a debt on annual interest which took me several years to pay. I then had a wife & Twelve minor children, & we were so destitute of clothing that the greater part of us stayed away from [church] meetings till we had nearly lost the habit of going entirely.”  By 1848, he concluded, he had “paid a good deal on my old debts,” as he wrote, and was looking forward to a good year in the wool business.12  More could be said about John Brown’s troubled business story, but suffice it to say that while he never found success, he did not finish his professional life a defeated soul.  There would be more ups and downs, but he would never again taste the bitterness of this period. In early 1849, writing from his wool commission operation in Springfield, John Brown informed his father back in Ohio: “Our business is prosperous; to all appearance.  Money is becoming more easy.”13



      1 Stephen B. Oates, To Purge This Land With Blood: A Biography of John Brown (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1970), 72. 

       2 Chester G. Hearn, Companions in Conspiracy: John Brown & Gerrit Smith (Gettysburg: Thomas Publications, 1996), 1.

       3 Marvin Kent later wrote: “The tannery . . . was just completed when I rented the same from my father for my own business.  This put John Brown out of a job and led him to take a construction contract on the line of the P&O Canal from Kent to Akron.  During this period, he traded many hundreds of dollars with my family.”  Quoted in a letter from Dudley Weaver to Boyd B. Stutler, Aug. 12, 1952, RP05-0042, in the Boyd B. Stutler Papers; Also see “John Brown, of Harper’s Ferry,” Kent Courier, Sept., 7/14?, 1906, Box 4, John Brown – Oswald Garrison Villard Papers.

 4 “John Brown Had Faith in Kent, O,” Plain Dealer [Cleveland, Ohio] (July 6, 1926); Mary Land, “John Brown’s Ohio Environment,” Ohio Archaeological and Historical Quarterly (Jan. 1948): 33; J.B. Holm, “John Brown Was Resident of Kent; 100th Anniversary of Harper’s Ferry Is Today,” Record-Courier [Ravenna-Kent, Ohio] (Oct. 16, 1959), 9; Dudley Weaver to Boyd B. Stutler, Aug. 12, 1952, RP05-0042, Boyd B. Stutler Papers.

 5 John Brown to H. J. Huidekoper, July 5, 1838, in the John Brown Collection of Pelletier Library, Allegheny College, Meadville, Pa.

 6  Oswald G. Villard, John Brown: A Biography 1800-1859 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1910, 1929), 36-37; Holm, “John Brown Was Resident of Kent,” 9; John Brown to Seth Thompson, Dec. 13, 1838, Box 1, Folder 63, University of Atlanta.

 7  It is interesting, too, that Oates relied heavily on John Brown Jr.’s testimony, yet too easily rejects Brown’s claim that he was largely undone by dealing in credit.  Cf. Stephen B. Oates, To Purge This Land With Blood, 36-37

 8  John J. Wallis, “What Caused the Crisis of 1839?” Historical Paper 133 (Cambridge, Mass.: National Bureau of Economic Research, Apr. 2001), 10.

 9   Mary Land, “John Brown’s Ohio Environment,” 33; “John Brown: Citizen of Kent,” The Kent Historical Society Home Page (Kent, Ohio). Retrieved from https://bit.ly/39R1SFa;  “John Brown Had Faith in Kent, O”; John Brown to Mary Brown, Mar. 7, 184[6], MS01-0016, Boyd B. Stutler Papers; also see DeCaro, “Fire from the Midst of You” A Religious Life of John Brown (New York: NYU Press, 2002), 115-20.

        10 See William A. Phillips, “Three Interviews with Old John Brown,” The Atlantic Monthly (Dec. 1879). See Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies, edited by John W. Blassingame (Baton Rouge: University of Louisiana Press, 1977, 2002), pp. xxiii-xxvi. John Brown to Seth Thompson, Dec. 12, 1848, in Washington University Library collection. John Brown, Springfield, Mass., to Owen Brown, Hudson, Ohio, January 10, 1849, Kansas State Historical Society.