A thoughtful listener of my John Brown Today podcast named Len Bussanich has previously submitted his reflections on Old Brown, prompting a response on that platform that I hope was useful. Now, once again, I am pleased to receive a comment from Len on this platform following the last entry. Partly because my response is too long to fit into the comment section, and partly because I think he raised a good question worthy of posting, I thought it best to copy Len's note to me below, followed by my response. I hope that blog readers will find it useful.
I've always been interested in the "dichotomy" between slave labor in the South and industrial/mill labor in the North. The Industrial Revolution essentially began in this country in Massachusetts, also the hotbed of abolitionism. Some of your wealthiest capitalists were also abolitionists. These same abolitionists and their followers were calling for the destruction of slavery in the South but said virtually nothing about the dehumanizing conditions farmer girls turned factory workers endured in the mill factories in Massachusetts and elsewhere in New England. John Brown lived and worked in Springfield, MA. He must have known or heard about the conditions in the factories. I guess my question now is, why is there no examination of Brown's actions in the context of the industrializing North? Why would he-or the abolitionists-remain silent to the same oppressive conditions wracking the labor force in the North and not question, challenge or even confront the same capital dynamics that shaped the South as well as the North. Cotton as we know drove agricultural expansion in the South and industrial expansion in the North.
There was a man however in the North named Brownson who was examining and writing about the brutal conditions in the North, Orestes Brownson and his piece, The Laboring Classes.
Perhaps I am asking too much of John Brown, but he detested slavery and yet he essentially remained silent on the dehumanizing nature of industrial labor and wage slavery.<>
Thank you for writing and for sharing your continued thinking and reflections on John Brown. Your question, as to why Brown seems to have been silent regarding the plight of exploited free laborers is interesting, to be sure.
In my study of his letters, I have never seen any expression of concern over the struggles of free laborers in the factories of the North. I'm not even sure I can recall an incident where his family or biographers recount such concerns.
The closest that Brown comes to fighting for free white labor in the North is his involvement in the wool business on behalf of the wool-growing farmers of Ohio, western Virginia, and Pennsylvania, expressed in his desire to open a wool commission operation in New England that would push back against the abuses of the manufacturers by protecting the interests of the growers. This was a cause that gripped him in the 1840s, although he lost that battle by trying to create a solution. The farmers were not ready to "unionize" (it took another half century before they actually did), the manufacturers were too powerful (and dishonest), and were able to undermine his efforts. Earlier in his life, in northwestern Pennsylvania, Brown interceded on behalf of settlers who were fighting the encroachments of a powerful Philadelphia land company. He felt they were unjustly being treated and tried to stir up a movement against this company. Although his efforts apparently came to naught, he did ruffle the feathers of the company's agent. I unpack these earlier episodes of his struggle for justice in my little book, John Brown--The Cost of Freedom (2007).
In light of this, I can only offer a couple of thoughts. First, Brown was an agrarian by nature and orientation and this shaped the arc of his life and activities. His most urban experience was in Springfield, Mass., 1846-49, and by then he was primarily caught up in resisting the expansive power of the slaveholders, especially after the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. I think that despite his forward-looking ways, Brown was more a product of agrarian society, and that was where his treasure was: fighting for settlers against a powerful company, or fighting manufacturers for farmers, and all the while moving steadily toward militant opposition to slavery.
Second, although it may be that Brown did not spend any energy on behalf of the struggling and exploited laborers of the North, I suspect he knew about their plight and sympathized. He was likewise sympathetic to the concerns of women. But if he did not come out in favor of the laborers or of women, it may be because he felt that the problem of slavery was far worse, more politically apocalyptic for the nation.
Perhaps too, he not only felt the concerns of free white labor and women, in general, were secondary to the black struggle, but he was put off by evidence of racism among free white laborers in the North. So, while he was aware of their struggles, perhaps Brown felt he had to prioritize the interest of the black struggle despite the inequities of the North. I know the antebellum apologists of the South often referred to the exploitation of the Northern laboring class, but perhaps in Brown's mind, he felt it was a category error to compare immigrant and poor white laborers in the North to enslaved Africans. The former were greatly exploited but they were free in some sense, whether or not they were despised for reasons of class or ethnicity. Still, this wasn't the same as the wholesale racist treatment of blacks, whether in southern slavery or northern "freedom." (A good book here is the modern classic by Leon Litwack, North of Slavery).
Far be it from me to underrate the sufferings of the Irish people. They have been long oppressed; and the same heart that prompts me to plead the cause of the American bondsman, makes it impossible for me not to sympathize with the oppressed of all lands. Yet I must say that there is no analogy between the two cases. The Irishman is poor, but he is not a slave. He may be in rags, but he is not a slave. He is still the master of his own body . . . . He can write, and speak, and cooperate for the attainment of his rights and the redress of his wrongs." (Dec. 1, 1850)
I do not think I'm stretching it to suggest that if Douglass felt this way about the poor Irishmen living under the British empire, he felt the same about poor white factory workers in New England. They were victims, but only the racist chattel slave system was, in Douglass's words, the "grand aggregation of human horrors." I suspect that this would have been John Brown's sentiments and those of his black and white counterparts within the abolitionist movement.
Thank you for your note, Len. I hope this is useful in your continued study and reflection.--LD