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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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Friday, December 23, 2005

John Brown and Abraham Lincoln:
Some Thoughts on Political Adoration and 2009

When I was a boy, I was a Lincoln enthusiast. From the time of my early primary school years, I was enamored with the life, story, and assassination of the sixteenth President of the United States. Into my junior high school and high school years I collected articles and books about Lincoln, and sustained an almost religious belief in what I now recognize as the political mythology of "Lincoln the Great Emancipator." At the heart of my appreciation for Lincoln was my childlike admiration of his devotion to black emancipation and equality, and his alleged martyrdom for their sake at the culmination of the Civil War in 1865. It would not be an exaggeration to say that no historical figure so closely approximated a Christ figure to me than did Abraham Lincoln.

Of course, I did not arrive at these adoring perceptions on my own. They were fed to me in the materials I read, in the movies and documentaries broadcasted on television, and in the civic piety that upheld him as a prophet and messiah in the pantheon of "American" life and faith. From a Shirley Temple movie (where the starlet portrayed a little girl who sat on the Great Emancipator's lap) to the adoring tones of Carl Sandburg and many other writers, I was convinced of facts that were actually non-facts.

My dissent from the mount of Lincoln worship began when I began to read history through the eyes of the oppressed instead of through the perceptions of the majority culture. As I read the writings of black historians, orators, and social critics my core perceptions were challenged by undeniable realities. Thus I began the painful process of redefining my understanding of "American history." At the height of this process I became resentful toward society and its official historians because I began to see that I had been misled in many respects, and that the history I had embraced as fact was actually quite distorted and subject to interpretations of political convenience.

Certainly the real Abraham Lincoln was opposed to slavery and held no animosity toward people of color. Perhaps we could best say that he held a politically paternalistic view of blacks and wanted them to have a kind of equality that allowed them relative freedom and self-dependence. But like Thomas Jefferson, Lincoln rejected social equality and maintained an ideal "America" as a white nation, not a country where people of different colors lived as social and political equals. His record shows that, for the greater part of his career, Lincoln argued for the limitation of slavery in the South, and tried well into the Civil War to redeem the Union by promising not to touch slavery where it existed. Even when the force of the war took on John Brown's moral tenor in opposing slavery as a great evil, Lincoln sought to pacify the pro-Union Southern states by at least pretending that emancipation was not his priority. Even giving him the benefit of the doubt, Lincoln subjected every black advancement to the priorities of his whites-first policies. When he finally advocated the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery in 1865, he followed--not lead--many other statesmen and national figures who had been calling for abolition for decades.

In later years I began to revisit antebellum U.S. history, focusing, not on Lincoln, but on John Brown. I remember passing over encyclopedia and textbook references to Brown in my pursuits of the Lincoln legend. He was a lunatic, a fanatic, a problem figure who accidentally ignited a war. His misguided, violent efforts--or so I read--could only be redeemed in the light of Abraham Lincoln's leadership and suffering. Like most history students, I otherwise had no interest in John Brown, nor did I care much for understanding the deeper aspects of antebellum life and society. My politically informed stupidity and indifference to the real history of my country allowed me to uphold Lincoln like some pantheon deity and ignore John Brown. In this I was typical of the average American. But as I read history with informed vision, I reversed my understanding completely. I began to see that it was John Brown who represented the truest spirit of liberation and human rights conviction.

Traditionally some "old school Republicans" have sustained a kind word for Brown, but they have done so according to the false premise that Brown and Lincoln were the providential "odd couple" of the Civil War. This notion was started by Brown's abolitionist admirers during and after the war, and still has a degree of impact among traditional Republicans these days. In this mythology, John Brown plays John the Baptist to Lincoln's Christ. His radical actions make a straight path for the coming Great Emancipator. Noble but misguided, Brown must decrease and Lincoln must increase. Of course, for both religious and political reasons, neither Republicans nor Democrats today would acknowledge Brown's legacy. Since most politicians are driven by media, and media is informed by secularists who fear and despise religious "fundamentalists," Brown has been branded a religiously-deluded terrorist by conventional liberals. Meanwhile many contemporary conservatives, including evangelical Christians who should know better, dismiss their Christian brother as a bloodthirsty madman. To be sure, historically African Americans have understood Brown quite differently from whites; but in the post-Civil Rights era he has largely forgotten by them as well.

As popular memory goes, things don't look good for Old John Brown.

As we move toward 2009, we will undoubtedly hear more and more about Abraham Lincoln. As a friend of mine says, we're about to get "Abraham-Lincolned to death." He's probably right. Especially in times of political desperation, as the U.S. continues to sustain its costly role as the protector of "democracy" throughout the world, this nation will probably renew its adoration of Lincoln, protecting the alleged orthodoxy of U.S. history from real and imagined detractors and critics.

Speaking for myself, perhaps I no longer despise Lincoln in the reactionary manner of my radicalized youth; as we mature, we try to reflect more philosophically about human events and actions, and appreciate people while remaining duly critical. Nor have I replaced one idol with another. Despite my great enthusiasm for studying the life and letters of John Brown, it is clear that he had his flaws and limitations, and I make no allegations of a messianic character on his part. God is the only one who can objectively interpret Lincoln and Brown; it is up to us mortals to fairly and truthfully do our best to understand them otherwise.

That having been said let me also point out that I trust Brown far more than I trust Lincoln, because he dealt in moral prerogatives, while the latter dealt in political priorities. Had Brown not been hanged, he might not have been famous, but the quiet record of his life would still show him to have been a true humanitarian and a struggling liberator in the smaller spheres of his history. In contrast, had Lincoln not been assassinated and thus "martyred," the record of his life would show him to have been a reluctant liberator, a racialist, and a politician in both the best and worst sense of the word. Brown walked toward the scaffold with his eyes open toward a future where blacks would be liberated and live as equals under the Gospel and the Constitution. Lincoln took a bullet in the back of his head--an accidental martyr dreaming of a reconstructed Union where whites would be reconciled and empowered, and blacks would follow as free but second-class citizens, or leave the country altogether. I mean no disrespect, but if indeed the forces of history moved a slow-hearted Lincoln toward black liberation as the record shows, then his assassination was, tragically, the ultimate kick-in-the-pants of his career, propelling him forward. As Lerone Bennett says, Abraham Lincoln was forced into glory, and this was the pattern of his life as a "liberator."

Anyone doubting my view should put down their standard American orthodoxy textbooks and pick up the third autobiography of Frederick Douglass. In that 19th century volume, Douglass not only reflects on both Brown and Lincoln from his personal recollections, but is bluntly honest about Abraham Lincoln. In one speech, Douglass has the brave audacity to declare that Lincoln was first and foremost the white man's president--that he thought and acted for the benefit of whites, and subordinated blacks to this ruling principle.

As we move toward 2009, when the nation will be ablaze with bicentennial Lincoln euphoria, let us be mindful that the same year will mark the 150th anniversary of John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. Contrary to popular opinion, the Harper's Ferry raid was the Alamo of liberation struggle in U.S. history. It was there that a small army of whites and blacks willingly laid down their lives together--not to protect territorial control or even to save the Union, but to bring about the demise of slavery with the goal of a minimal amount of bloodshed. Of course John Brown failed, and history had to settle for a bloody Civil War and a subsequently uneven commitment to civil rights befitting the example of the President himself.

Today we have a great temple in Washington D.C. commemorating Lincoln, where myriads of people come every year to sanctify his memory. Perhaps it is fitting that far less attention is paid to the actual burial site of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois, because it is not the real Lincoln that myriads are seeking, but the legend. In contrast, John Brown has no national monument and probably never will. But his friends and admirers, though far fewer in number, must make the less convenient trip to Lake Placid, New York, not far from the Canadian border. Ascending the quiet majesty of God's Adirondacks in order to find the resting place of the "fanatic" of Harper's Ferry, it is a sojourn to the margins of the North, where Brown politically abided as well. Befitting a Christian life beset by difficulty, death, and struggle as well as his uncompromising commitment to human liberation, the trek itself is far more worthy of the man than all the monuments in the world.

Louis A. DeCaro, Jr.

Another Historian Skews
the Legacy of John Brown

Dear ____,

I have just read “Eye on John Brown,” an essay by Prof. Steven Mintz, which appears in Gilder Lehrman’s History Now (Sept. 2005), the on-line newsletter of which you are the editor. As a biographer and student of John Brown’s life and letters, I wish to respond to this well-written and concise treatment of John Brown’s life and how historians have approached him. Prof. Mintz was kind enough to reference my work among others in his article, and I am grateful for this consideration. On the other hand, it seems to me that he takes many liberties with the facts of the story, most of which seem to border on bias.

First, Mintz presents the Pottawatomie killings as if they were more than killings--as if there was the deliberate intention to dismember their victims. This is not so and none of the testimonies substantiate this. The use of the swords was to maintain a great level of secrecy; only one shot was fired probably to signal the men to regroup.

Second, Mintz erroneously puts Oswald Garrison Villard in the company of Brown’s early biographers Redpath and Sanborn, both of whom were Brown’s friends and admirers. Villard was friendly toward Brown to a degree, but actually was quite critical of him and essentially developed the “murderer” thesis that many subsequent scholars used against Brown with greater contempt. You may see my new essay on this very theme in a book edited by Andrew Taylor and Eldrid Herrington, The Afterlife of John Brown (Palgrave/Macmillan), newly released [December 2005].
Third, Mintz, along with historian Allen Guelzo, mistakenly impute Brown’s “intense religiosity” to the “New Divinity” of rural New England. This is simplistic and questionable in its application. Brown was not critical of the pursuit of profit, and his disappointing business pursuits in the 1830s-40s demonstrate this; indeed, his original intent was largely to gain wealth in order to advance the anti-slavery cause. While his father Owen was converted and schooled by “New Divinity” men in Connecticut, their greater influence was in making him a strong abolitionist. Otherwise the Browns were traditional Calvinists, and John Brown himself was far more steeped in older Reformed theologians and writers. Even his father, who became a supporter of Finney and Mahan’s Oberlin Institute eventually grew to disdain the theological inclinations of the school [this is born out in his correspondence to his daughter, in the Hudson Library & Historical Society--LD]. Mintz similarly misrepresents Brown’s story when he speaks of him “vacillating” for an extended time, and then abandoning the “material world” and his family to fight slavery. This is unfair and misrepresents his biography, nor does it really do justice to the record of his growing militancy prior to going off to Kansas in 1855.

As far as the Harper’s Ferry Raid goes, Mintz unfortunately questions David Reynolds’s relations with blacks. Actually my work ["Fire from the Midst of You": A Religious Life of John Brown, NYU Press, 2002] goes even further than Reynolds, and so I am particularly concerned that the former so easily dismisses what Reynolds has observed. Brown was indeed the quintessential “racial egalitarian,” and if he failed to take advice from blacks it was more because he generally resisted taking advice at all. Lacking sufficient space, I would say here only that Brown did take advice here and there from blacks, and was furthermore influenced by them in his political development. That he chose no blacks to serve as lieutenants had to do with the fact that he preferred those with combat experience over those without; furthermore, the black raiders came relatively late to the Brown headquarters in Maryland, only weeks before the raid. Had more free blacks joined in advance, there would have been black commissioned officers.

There are other such misleading and problematic statements made by Prof. Mintz that really come off a bit reckless, if not actually biased. It is certainly not the case that Brown made no efforts to communicate with enslaved people in the vicinity of Harper’s Ferry. The problem with Mintz’s approach (and in this case, Reynolds’s too), is that he follows the conventional, accepted testimony about the raid, which was informed by southerners and southern slave masters, and reiterated over and over again by historians until it has snowballed. Villard and Reynolds disdain or overlook what black raider Osborne Anderson wrote about the raid and thus diminish Brown’s impact on the enslaved community. There is further evidence that Brown and others working with him reached out to the enslaved community and that they also responded to him; but it has become academic orthodoxy simply to dismiss the raid and its impact because historians have merely repeated the same old accounts again and again.

It is unfortunate that these matters continue to arise in writings on John Brown the abolitionist. There is a large segment of intellectuals who seem intent on reiterating the same, skewed image of him that has been promoted by (mostly white) intellectuals for the past century. As the essay by Prof. Mintz shows, many academics are still not prepared to deal with the life and meaning of John Brown the man who lived according to facts and fairness.

Louis A. DeCaro, Jr.