"Posterity will owe everlasting thanks to John Brown for lifting up once more to the gaze of a nation grown fat and flabby on the garbage of lust and oppression, a true standard of heroic philanthropy, and each coming generation will pay its installment of the debt. . . . John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed." Frederick Douglass

Search This Blog & Links


Thursday, May 18, 2006

Another Grubber, Another Screed: Responding to More Anti-Brown Nonsense

An unfortunate part of doing the work of John Brown scholarship is having to waste good research and writing time and energy in exposing, debunking, and refuting the hacks and grubbers who infest and contaminate the historical ground of study with their contemptible screeds and diatribes. Mind you, everyone has the right to their own opinion, like and dislike. But everyone does not have the right to hurl skewed and distorted characterizations in the name of valid historical representation. Of course, when it comes to John Brown, there seems to be a high tolerance for nonsense in this country.

While some anti-Brown attacks are more subtle, shrouded in the respectable garb of psycho-historical specialization, others are blatant displays of malice and prejudice. Of the latter, one of the most blatant in recent years was written by Patrick Brophy, entitled, "John Brown-Pioneer Terrorist,” and published in the Kansas Journal of Military History in 2005–frankly a piece unworthy of publication in a historical journal since it is a reactionary and prejudiced regurgitation, not a work of scholarship.

In all fairness to Mr. Brophy, it appears that he hates the famous attorney Clarence Darrow too, and what prompted his little spewing-session was reading Darrow’s adulation of Brown in an unnamed volume of the attorney’s collected writings. While I am not certain which essay got Brophy's goat, my guess is that it is one that Darrow first published in The Crisis, the publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in May 1926. The same piece was reprinted in Abbott’s Monthly, in November 1930. I am no fan of the agnostic Darrow either, but his appreciation of Brown is far more worthy than the malicious reaction of Mr. Brophy, a sampling of which fully represents the jaded letter and spirit of his writing:

An old has-been (or never-was), he followed his sons to Kansas.

No, Mr. Brophy, John Brown did not follow his sons to Kansas. He went to Kansas to supply them with weapons as a result of their direct appeal to him and to the abolitionist community in the east. Being a good father, he went to Kansas primarily to protect his sons. At the age of 55-years, Brown was not really old, nor was he a “has-been-never was.” Brown actually had a nation-wide reputation as one of the foremost experts in fine sheep and wool, and was well-written of in many agricultural journals of the day. After the largely misrepresented failure of his wool commission partnership with wealthy Ohioan Simon Perkins, Brown chose to move to the Adirondacks to support a struggling black colony there. He may not have been a wealthy man, but assuming Brophy does not measure a man's character according to wealth, his remarks must reflect his own contempt and mean-spiritedness.

To vent his frustration and reassert his ‘captaincy’ at least over his own sons, he led the sons and three others aside from the homecoming Osawatomie crew. That night, they dragged five poor-white Southern settlers out of their cabins along Pottawatomie Creek. Their corpses were found the next cutlass-hacked and decapitated.

Again, Mr. Brophy, no. Brown was not “frustrated.” He was fearful, and for good reason. He and his family were infamous in the pro-slavery community for being extraordinarily pro-black and hostile toward slavery. They were marked by their pro-slavery neighbors as particular enemies. These so-called “poor-white Southern settlers” were known collaborators with the “Border Ruffians” and other armed invading southern white supremacists (read: terrorists). Reliable intelligence, including Brown's own investigation, gave the Browns good reason to single out specific men who were able conspirators. The Pottawatomie victims were not killed for being pro-slavery. They were killed for their “devilment,” as old Mahala Doyle--wife and mother of three of the five men killed--inadvertently admitted on the night that the Browns struck. Nor were they decapitated or otherwise deliberately mutilated.

Brown led a raid into Vernon County, Missouri in late 1858. Merely "doing the Lord's will," he told a victim. This consisted of murder, abduction and the stealing of thousands of dollars in property, including half the value of the Lawrence estate.

This reflects perhaps the worst on Brophy, for he sounds like a racist himself, since he has the audacity to refer to human beings as “thousands of dollars in property,” which was the primary loss to the Missouri slave holders in that heroic Missouri raid of late 1858. Yes, Brown and his men seized material property too. And yes, one slave master was killed when he drew his gun on Brown’s men. The question for Mr. Brophy is: “Who was the bigger thief,” the man who “stole” the slaves, or the slave masters who stole the lives, freedom, and labor of human beings? Anyone who apologizes for or defends the interests of slave masters in the 21st century is little better than one himself.

The Harper's Ferry raid was a farce and a fiasco from the beginning. The first victim of the famously color-blind Brown was a free black man. The slaves didn't rise.

The Harper’s Ferry raid was never a farce. If it proved a fiasco, it was only because Brown failed to follow his own plan, something he later acknowledged. Had he been a meaner sort--like Brophy--he might have paid less concern for his hostages and thereby made an easy escape. But alas, he erred by being too concerned for the lives of those he is often charged with wanting to murder.
Furthermore, by denying that the slaves didn’t rise, Brophy is reiterating the "official" testimony of the slave masters. In fact, many more enslaved people either supported or positively responded to Brown’s activities, during and after the raid. Jean Libby’s research in John Brown Mysteries is a book that Brophy should read before he ventures to write on this subject again. Libby is master of Harper’s Ferry researchers and has almost single-handedly (and by the way, Brophy, through solid on-the-ground-and-in-the-archive research) debunked the slave master thesis and shown how the enslaved community vitally supported the raid within the limits of their ability. It is a new day in John Brown research. We are no longer content to rely on hackneyed, unsupported, and bigoted narratives that rest on one-sided, politically self-serving 19th century southern testimony.

If John Brown were around today, he'd find a soul-mate in Osama bin Laden: Both dedicated to a lofty cause and prepared to commit heinous crimes in its name.

Certainly, comparing Brown to Osama bin Laden is just fashionable nonsense. Brown was a devout Christian and his biographical track record on that count is indisputable. He manifested neither a criminal profile nor violent tendencies--his only social aberration was that he took the plight of oppressed blacks much too seriously to suit most of his white contemporaries. The terrorism charge has no more historical grounding than did the “madman” charge that used to be the mainstay of Brown’s detractors in the mid-20th century. Were John Brown a terrorist, more than five dangerous conspirators would have died in Kansas in 1856. Were Brown a terrorist, he would not only have escaped from Harper's Ferry to the mountains, but would likely have left a trail of dead Virginians behind him for a country mile.

There is a long history of John Brown’s enemies that cannot be discussed here. But Patrick Brophy has evidently drawn deeply from this bitter well, especially in his references to Malin’s John Brown and the Spirit of ‘56 (1942). However it has long since been established by scholars that Malin’s work, while authoritative on many Kansas matters, is malignant with prejudice and distortion when it comes to Brown. Boyd B. Stutler, the foremost Brown documentary scholar, as well as Stephen Oates, Brown’s most famous biographer to date, and Louis Ruchames, another leading documentarian, all made extensive criticism of Malin’s work, proving its analysis of Brown to be unreliable and corrupt. Since Brophy relies so uncritically on Malin, it is no surprise that he writes from a similar perspective.

John Brown is one of the most amazing men of the 19th century. His life represents a rich slice of our nation’s history. He was a pioneer farmer, tanner, and postmaster; he was an activist for white homesteaders in the 1830s and wool growers in the 1840s; he was an aggressive underground railroad conductor and an independent activist against slavery; he was a church planter and an amateur Bible scholar; he was a lover of new technology and ancient history; he was an avid reader of newspapers and a keen observer of the times; he was a well-respected community citizen among whites and a well known activist among blacks--a whole decade before most whites had ever heard about him. Most importantly, John Brown manifested an uncommon belief in the equality of all human beings in a time when people like Abraham Lincoln still believed that blacks were not the human equals of whites.

Were Brown alive, I would encourage him to sue Mr. Brophy for slander. Since he is not, the least I can do is register this criticism. Obviously I have my opinion and Brophy--who is neither a scholar nor a gentleman--has his opinion. But honesty and fairness in historical writing are not a matter of opinion. They are essential to sound historical writing, especially with regard to John Brown the abolitionist, who may be the most misrepresented and misunderstood figure in our nation's history. The work of Brophy, like the work of grubbing screed writers and lackeys in former generations, contributes nothing of value to history.

“Sir,” Brown once told an arrogant critic, “it would take as many men like you to make a gentlemen as it would wrens to make a cock turkey.” Similarly, it would take many more pieces like Brophy’s screed to equal one mediocre article about John Brown.

Author's note: I would like to thank my friend John Hendrix for the use of his illustration. For the record, I have taken the liberty to use his illustration in representation of anti-Brown writers, and this use expresses my opinion alone. Mr. Hendrix may likely agree with me, but in fairness to him, his illustration was created to represent any sort of heresy or perversity coming from the depraved pen of fallen humanity.

No comments: