History, Research, and Current Themes

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

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Friday, December 23, 2005

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.

1 comment:

JamesHofsiss said...

Dr. DeCaro,
Excellent points. My own reading of Anderson's account bears out your opinion on the lack of black officers in Brown's "army".

I was unaware of the response of slaves in the Harpers Ferry area. I'll have to reread his book again to find those points I missed.

James Hofsiss