"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

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Monday, May 15, 2006

Critical Notes on Robert E. McGlone’s “Rescripting a Troubled Past: John Brown’s Family and the Harpers Ferry Conspiracy,” in Memory and American History, edited by David Thelen. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1990. (All parenthetical page numbers refer to this text)

In his 1990 article, Robert McGlone (University of Hawaii, Manoa) presents an apparently credible psycho-historical analysis of the family of abolitionist John Brown, claiming that their memories of their father and their own involvement with his anti-slavery struggle were “rescripted” or stylized in order to deal with the painful realities of his failures and their own disloyalty. However, like so many psychohistories, McGlone’s analysis is highly speculative and problematic. Initially, I had my own presumption about McGlone, assuming that his work revealed his own anti-Brown prejudice. But in personal correspondence, Dr. McGlone assures me that he is, in fact, quite admiring of Brown. Notwithstanding his stated goodwill, I have yet to be able to reconcile his treatment of the evidence in writing this article. Indeed, he has yet to demonstrate to me that he has not been reckless and perhaps deliberately misleading in his use of John Brown sources. While I would like to revise this conclusion, I am awaiting a reasonable response from my well-intended colleague in terms of the criticisms presented below. What follows is the analysis that I posted in 2006, which stands until or unless Dr. McGlone can show me otherwise. I wish him well, but. . . .


McGlone writes that the adult children of John Brown found fame in “spectacular failure” and were “born anew in the heroic gesture that ended with the hanging of its founder.” This rebirth was a “remarkable mutation of consciousness,” a transformation that emerged with a long period of time during which they came to terms “with the troubled legacy of Harpers Ferry,” setting “new emotional and social parameters for their lives.” (p. 50) Because they were the children of the famous martyr, McGlone says, the Brown siblings were the focus of both adulation and resentment since their father’s image “was profoundly ambiguous, reflecting sectional and ideological divisions within the nation and ambivalence about the use of violence to effect reform.” (p. 51) From the onset, one would question to what degree McGlone is simply erecting an intellectual platform in order to play out the psycho-historical premise he brings to history. No doubt the Brown children had to face tremendous emotional and psychological changes as a result of their father and brothers’ deaths. But whether this involved a “remarkable mutation of consciousness” is quite unclear.

A Memory Thesis

According to McGlone, the core of this alleged mutation of consciousness was based on a “profound restructuring of memories of crucial events in their lives,” based on selective memory, edit, and telescoping of incidents. This supposed restructuring took place in order to grant themselves “morally unambiguous and psychologically self-affirming roles” in the John Brown story. With a great deal of presumption, McGlone asks: “How can sincere people be convinced of the truth of memories that the researcher knows [my italics] cannot be accurate representations of past events?” This is key to understanding the problematic nature of his thesis, for only by discrediting certain aspects of the Brown family story can McGlone make his memory thesis work. As becomes apparent, however, “the researcher” in this case clearly cannot be trusted. What he claims are inaccurate representations are nothing more than his own fabrications.

McGlone says further that historians must understand the influence of memory, since memory is “the compass of our actions.” He concludes that contemporary cognitive psychologists believe that memory is not merely a copying of past events, but a reconstructing of the past in order to serve present needs–this reconstructing is based on “unconscious knowledge structures” operative over a lifetime (pp. 52-53). These “unconscious knowledge structures” are called different names, but McGlone uses “script.” As such, the script” provides order to daily expectations and structure our recall of experiences that would otherwise be lost. According to McGlone, then, this is relevant for understanding autobiographical memory, which is not “wholly faithful” in retelling the past because memories “fuse and blend” over time. Things that did not happen may be incorrectly identified as real past events because of their resemblance. This process is not deliberate but “a transformation in the controlling expectations and logic of life situations that finally reorders autobiographical memories.” (p. 53) This is done to bring coherence to life and “helps to prompt new strategies of recall and hence to elicit newly accessible memories of actual events.” (pp. 53-54).

All this is to say that McGlone believes that the Brown children’s recollections cannot be trusted, that in order to come to terms with life as it was in later years, the Browns’ blended and fused wishful thinking and imagination with real events and their testimonies are not “wholly faithful.” This does not mean they were lying or deliberately deceptive, but that they subconsciously invented moments in their family history that helped them find coherence in life and memory. This all sounds quite innocent and even credible. We are all too aware of the limits of our own memories. We also understand that autobiography by nature is self-interpretation. In itself, McGlone’s thesis reminds us of the importance of critically weighing the evidence and considering the possibilities of distortion and error in human testimony.

As I have pointed out in my own religious biography of Brown, John Brown Jr. [hereinafter, "Junior"] claimed that his father was dismissed from church membership in Franklin Mills [now Kent], Ohio, for having insisted on seating blacks in the Brown family pew–flaunting the white racism of the church. While the incident undoubtedly took place, church records show that his father was not excommunicated because he had never joined the Franklin Mills Congregational church. In fact, John Brown never even transferred his membership from his home church, the First Congregational Church of Hudson, Ohio. In this case, John Junior’s memory clearly failed. He erroneously assumed that his father was put out of the church and thereafter used this imagined crisis as the basis for his own break with the church. In fact, far more than white racism in the church, Junior’s break with Protestant Christianity was far more a result of his growing heterodox views and great attraction to spiritualism, something that deeply displeased his father.1

Manufacturing “Mental Instability”

Unfortunately, a red flag immediately goes up when we note how McGlone begins his treatment with a grandiose assumption, namely that the Brown children “feared privately that [their father’s] bloodline destined them to lives of episodic mental instability and poverty.” (p. 54). How does he presume to speak so assuredly regarding the private thinking of the Browns, especially since there is no evidence that they entertained or discussed fears of “episodic mental instability”? I have read many letters and documents of the Brown family and have never seen anything that promotes such a notion. Indeed, the whole notion presumes that the Brown siblings thought of their father’s legacy as beset by “mental instability”–a fiction that says more about modern interpretation than historical reality. Indeed, since there is no such evidence, McGlone sets out to manufacture it.

In so doing, McGlone turns to Katherine Mayo’s interview with Jason Brown, the second son of John Brown, in December 1908. Mayo was Oswald Garrison Villard’s field researcher in the preparation of his 1910 biography. Relying on the relative obscurity of this unpublished interview, McGlone claims it as evidence that Jason was apprehensive about “mental weakness” being John Brown’s son. Apparently he cites this interview knowing that most scholars will simply assume the credibility of his research. However I have accessed the Villard Papers and have given them probably the most thorough reading in many years; I have likewise read the Jason Brown interview. Unfortunately, it is evident that McGlone has taken Jason’s words completely out of context for self-serving reasons.

In fact, the only reference to mental instability in this interview is something Jason said in the context of the Pottawatomie incident of 1856, when his father, brothers, brother-in-law, and a free state neighbor killed five pro-slavery neighbors who were found to be collaborating with southern terrorists. Jason told Mayo that he and his brother John Junior knew in advance about his father’s intentions but later denied it “because of mental weakness.” In other words, this had nothing to do with mental instability in the modern psychological sense. Jason was merely acknowledging he was too afraid to admit his foreknowledge of the Pottawatomie killings. A practical reading of the interview shows that McGlone has distorted it for his own advantage.2

“Balanced Mind” versus “Doubtful Sanity”

Professor McGlone rightly points out that the political climate in late 19th century worked against the memory of John Brown. As the radicalism of his generation receded, moreover, a profound ambiguity in Brown’s role emerged. Having given his life to free the slaves, Brown was a symbol of racial acceptance in a time of growing racial intolerance.” But this valuable insight is marred by what follows. Using the writing of Brown’s “Secret Six” associate, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, he once more attempts to create a psychological issue where none exists. Using Higginson, McGlone writes:

After the Civil War, Brown’s martyrdom seemed less perfect. Even admirers often remembered him as a figure of moral ambiguity or doubtful sanity [my italics]. Forty years after the raid, Thomas Wentworth Higginson . . . conceded offhandedly that by the time of Harpers Ferry the “delicate balance of [Brown’s] zealot’s mind” had become “somewhat disturbed.” . . . To many Americans in the twilight of Reconstruction, John Brown had been a prophet of chaos and bloodshed, not liberation. (p. 55)

McGlone cites Higginson’s Cheerful Yesterdays, first published in 1898. But in quoting Higginson, he clearly misrepresents his intent. In the original version of Higginson’s memoir, which was originally serialized under the same title in the Atlantic Monthly in 1897, Higginson’s recalls first hearing news of the Harpers Ferry raid.3 Reflecting on the delays and problems that detained Brown’s plans for over a year, Higginson writes:

Repeated postponements had taken the edge off from expectation, and the whole enterprise had grown rather vague and dubious in my mind. I certainly had not that degree of faith in it which would have led me to abandon all else, and wait nearly a year and a half for the opportunity of fulfillment; and indeed it became obvious at last that this longer postponement had somewhat disturbed the delicate balance of the zealot’s mind, and had made him, at the very outset, defy the whole power of the United States, and that within easy reach of Washington. Nothing of this kind was included in his original plan.4

Elsewhere in the same article, Higginson refers to an interview that he had in 1860 with one of Brown’s surviving raiders, Charles Tidd, who “pronounced the Harpers Ferry attack ‘the only mistake Brown ever made,’ and attributed it, as it is now generally assigned, to a final loss of mental balance from over-brooding on one idea. Brown’s general project he still heartily indorsed; saying that the Virginia mountains were ‘the best guerilla country in the world.’”5

In reading the proper context, then, it is clear that neither Higginson nor Tidd believed that Brown suffered from “mental instability,” as McGlone insinuates with respect to mental illness. By exploiting 19th century phrases like “balanced mind” and “mental balance,” he forces his own biased psychological reading of the alleged “doubtful sanity” of John Brown. However it is clear that Higginson was not questioning Brown’s sanity, only his judgment. Higginson intended nothing more, and to make his words read otherwise is reckless and disingenuous on the part of Professor McGlone.

The Brown Family “Rescripts”?

McGlone rightly points out that as the public’s attitude and perception changed toward John Brown in the later 19th century, his children were caught up in a “political, cultural, and moral” crisis, and they were faced by a growing body of hostile writing on their father. This is evident enough in the emergence of anti-Brown screeds during the same period as the demise of Reconstruction and the renewed plight of African Americans due to revivified white supremacy in the South.6 But McGlone goes far afield of the evidence when he claims that the Brown children “assiduously marshaled fading memory fragments to vindicate” the Pottawatomie killings in later years. In fact, the testimony of the Browns was low key but forthright, and hardly as “fragmented” as McGlone would like to convey. Furthermore, only when the Pottawatomie killings became an excuse for wholesale attacks upon their father did Junior and his siblings respond. Knowing the unique circumstances of Kansas in 1856, as well as the fundamental integrity and moral character of their father, they were never as interested in “vindicating” the Pottawatomie killings as their critics were interested in using them to condemn their father. The kind of groping at “fragmented memories” described by McGlone has little to do with John Brown’s sons and daughters.

Similarly, McGlone has no basis for saying that the “Kansas years unsettled filial ties and undercut Brown’s paternal authority,” or that the withdrawal of John Jr., Jason, Owen, Salmon, and Oliver after leaving Kansas “was a crippling blow to John Brown.” (p. 58) This unwarranted speculation is clearly contradicted by the record. The Brown boys reflected normal father-son tensions, and given their father’s strong-willed manner, they clashed with him over a variety of issues, from religion to strategy and action in the field. But his ability to enlist his son Owen, a Kansas veteran, for the Harper’s Ferry endeavor shows nothing of the undercutting McGlone suggests. With respect to Junior, Jason, and son-in-law Henry Thompson, it is evident that the first two were notably fearful of combat and chose not to support their father’s southern venture. Brown had been pleasantly surprised and gratified that Jason had even fought in Kansas; he was hardly surprised when this mild-mannered son demurred from joining him in Virginia. Junior was not much of a warrior either, especially after having experienced significant trauma in the Kansas wars. Yet Junior acted as his father’s agent in the months prior to the raid, overseeing preparations and visiting Canada to enlist black supporters. Brown’s favorite warrior, son-in-law Henry Thompson, would probably have gone to Virginia except that he and his wife (Brown’s eldest daughter Ruth) felt the risk too great to their family’s ultimate welfare. “If I should leave and never get back my wife and little ones would be dependent on their friends for a living as our place is in no situation to afford any income,” Henry wrote. “If I thought the success of the enterprise depended on my going, I should go at once. Nothing but three little helpless children keeps me at home.”7 Though Brown was likely disappointed that Henry and other sons did not join him, he was a realist and probably had doubts about Junior and Jason in the first place. To say that their decision not to join him in Virginia was a “crippling blow” is yet another example of McGlone’s self-serving presentation. (Indeed, if any single person dealt Brown a “crippling blow,” it was his associate Frederick Douglass, whose determined lack of support rippled through the free black community and diminished enlistment.8)

Mary Brown

Unfortunately McGlone has a field day with Mary Brown, similarly distorting and misrepresenting the wife and widow of the abolitionist. McGlone says that Mary “refused to join [John Brown] in Kansas, and plagued by ‘anxious forebodings,’ she tried to persuade her sons to come home even before the fighting there threatened them.” (p. 59) This is an incredibly bogus claim on McGlone’s part because the evidence he cites has nothing to do with his claim. Checking his notes, one finds his reference to a letter from Oliver Brown to Mary Brown dated February 4, 1856, in the Villard Collection at Columbia University. But having accessed this letter myself, I found that Oliver says only that his mother was afraid for his well being and feared he would not come home alive. There is nothing of Mary trying to “persuade her sons to come home” as McGlone claims. Furthermore, the phrase “anxious forebodings” is snatched from an entirely different source and put into her mouth. Actually the phrase “anxious forebodings” comes from a letter written by Junior to John Brown on April 23, 1857. In this letter Brown’s son expresses his “anxious forebodings” regarding his father’s continued safety in Kansas.9

As a scholar and biographer working in the same sources, I find it hard to believe that this distortion was an accident on McGlone’s part. It is evident that he deliberately tampered with the sources in order to convey a different and unsubstantiated meaning. In other words, Professor McGlone is faking it to make his clever thesis work.

How can the work of historians move forward when scholars like McGlone resort to deception, dishonesty, and sleight-of-hand tricks in order to mislead their trusting readers and students? How can John Brown ever be fairly and decently treated when those we trust with his story are given to counterfeiting evidence?

I have omitted a longer critique of McGlone’s further abuse of Mary Brown. But let it suffice to say that he presents her as having been essentially disloyal and polemical with regard to her husband’s Virginia campaign of 1859, and then claims that our view of Mary Brown as a noble, supportive wife and anti-slavery figure is only a product of abolitionist propaganda. Of course he spins a yarn with little substance and typically distorts the evidence of history in doing so.

The Brown Family Vow Episode

McGlone is certainly correct in his observation of the lack of militant support shown by Junior, Jason, and Salmon. He suggests that they developed retrospective explanations for their absences at Harper’s Ferry. Doubtless they did provide self-justifying reasons for not having attended their father as did their brothers who fell at his side in 1859. One would expect them to be defensive about this point. Yet McGlone again goes beyond what can be proven by the evidence in order to justify the psychological argument of his thesis. From his uneven and often flawed interpretation, he proposes that the Browns reinvented themselves as a loyal family that stood with their father, placing themselves heroically alongside those who perished at Harpers Ferry. As criticism and opposition of their father increased in the later 19th century, McGlone says, the surviving Browns “closed ranks” and “reconstituted” their image. Though they were actually disloyal and unsupportive, they refashioned their story, vis a vis memory, into one of unity and living martyrdom.

In this case McGlone targets one of the most important episodes in Brown family history, as relayed in two separate letters by John Junior to Franklin B. Sanborn, his father’s supporter and biographer. According to Junior, sometime before 1840 their father turned the normal post-dinner family worship into an even more solemn occasion. On this memorable evening, Brown led Mary, Junior (about 19- years-old), Jason (about 16-years-old), and Owen (about 15-years-old) in making a family vow to fight slavery. As McGlone points out, the reason Junior even revealed this episode was because writers had begun to question his father’s early commitment to fighting slavery. In conferring with Sanborn, Junior shared this intimate family moment, first in a letter written in February 1883, and later in 1890.10

Incredibly, McGlone makes much of the lack of “contemporary evidence” to support this incident. His intention is to argue that this incident never took place and was merely generated by false memory in order to prove their own loyalty to their father. But such a suggestion is ridiculous, first of all because it is quite unlikely that this private family incident would have been amply documented at the time. What kind of "contemporary evidence" is McGlone looking for, a newspaper article? Most of the participants were adolescents and this was an intimate moment that was probably not even shared with relatives.

According to Junior, the Brown family vow episode was further attested to by his brother Owen, who was present when he wrote to Sanborn about it in 1883. This is perfectly believable since Owen, a bachelor, was living with Junior and Wealthy Brown in Put-in-Bay, Ohio, at this time. Second, according to Sanborn, “similar” accounts attesting to the incident were relayed to Salmon Brown by Mary Brown as well as his older half-brothers Jason and Owen. Unless McGlone will accuse Mary, John Junior, Jason, Owen, Salmon, and Franklin Sanborn of outright lying, he cannot discredit the Brown family vow without doing violence to the historical record. To question the incident simply shows an ulterior motive.

Third, McGlone says that according to biographer Oswald Villard, “the accounts that John, Jr. and Jason provided Sanborn of this dramatic incident conflicted on key points.” (p. 67) Once more, checking McGlone’s alleged source will reveal that he has misrepresented the evidence to suit his claims. In fact, Villard fully accepted the story of the Brown family vow, and the only conflicting "points" pertained to the precise date of the event. Villard thus concluded that dating the incident was uncertain except that it took place prior to 1840.11 McGlone then continues this shell game by saying: “We know only that Jason gave a somewhat different version of the event to Franklin B. Sanborn . . . and that John, Jr. consulted Owen’s recollections in preparing his own initial story.” (p. 67). This is shabby work indeed, especially since Sanborn testifies that Jason and other family members gave “similar” attesting accounts of the incident. Shame on McGlone. Is he so desperate to diminish John Brown and his family that he would stoop to such deceptive and misleading methods?

Finally, according to Junior, Jason reminded him that another person was present during the Brown family vow, a theology student from Western Reserve College named Fayette. This is the only other difference in their recollections, though McGlone makes it appear as if there are problematic conflicts. In fact, John Sykes Fayette’s presence as a student at Western Reserve College in Hudson, Ohio, is well-attested by Thomas Vince, the present archivist of the school (now The Western Reserve Academy). Thus Jason’s recollection actually strengthens the historical trustworthiness of the Brown family vow episode.12

Professor McGlone’s overall thesis about the “rescripting” of the family story with alleged false memories rests heavily upon his attempt to disprove the Brown family vow episode. To the contrary, his shabby efforts not only fail to discredit the historicity of this incident, but actually serve to persuade us that his psycho-historical approach offers little if any value in studying the Brown family during the later years of the 19th century.


As we have observed, McGlone takes far too many liberties with the record. More than once he twists the evidence to his advantage, trying to cheat the historical record and fool those who trust his scholarship. One would like to grant him room for error, as we have all made our share of mistakes. But Professor McGlone has gone beyond error, wandering into the willful and disingenuous neighborhood of manipulating facts and evidence to suit his apparent agenda of undermining the John Brown legacy. It has been reported that he is working on a biography of John Brown, though it is unclear when or if that work will be published. Should it ever see publication, my advice to the reader is to accept nothing McGlone writes without fact-checking and comparing his notes with the actual documents. There is already too much misinformation published on Brown in the name of history. The abolitionist and his family deserve better treatment, and in the name of honesty and fairness we owe John Brown at least that much.

1 Louis A. DeCaro, Jr., “Fire from the Midst of You”: A Religious Life of John Brown (New York: NYU Press, 2002), n. 9, p. 306).

2 Jason Brown interview. December 13-14, 1908, in Jason Brown folder, Box 2, John Brown Papers of Oswald Garrison Villard, Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Collection, New York, N.Y. Hereinafter, OGV.

3 Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Cheerful Yesterdays (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1898, 1900), p. 223; Thomas W. Higginson, “Cheerful Yesterdays, VII: Kansas and John Brown,” Atlantic Monthly (May 1897): 665-78.

4 Higginson, “Cheerful Yesterdays,” p. 674.

5 Ibid., p. 676.

6 See Louis A. DeCaro, Jr., “Black People’s Ally, White People’s Bogeyman: A John Brown Story” in The Afterlife of John Brown. Edited by Andrew Taylor and Eldrid Herrington (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 11-26.

7 Ruth added similar sentiments: “I should like to have [Henry] go with you if I could feel that he would live to come back. It seems realy [sic] hard to consent to let him go and leave me with my little ones. I have not said much to him about it either way. He has decided the question himself.” Henry and Ruth Thompson to John Brown, April 21, 1858, No. 299, Box 1, Folder 31, John Brown Collection, Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka, Kansas.

8 This is discussed in my forthcoming monograph, John Brown and the Cost of Freedom, to be published by International Publishers in 2007.

9 “Mother you speak as if dispairing [sic] of our ever returning home.” Oliver Brown to Mary Brown, February 4, 1856, Box 6, Oliver Brown folder, OGV; Junior to John Brown on April 23, 1857, Box 6, Mr. and Mrs. JB, Jr. folder, OGV.

10 John Brown Jr. to Franklin B. Sanborn, February 16, 1883, in John Brown Jr. Letters, Box 4, Alfred Anthony Collection, Manuscript Collection of The New York Public Library, New York, N.Y.); See John Brown Jr. to Franklin Sanborn, ca. 1890, in Franklin B. Sanborn, “John Brown’s Family Compact,” The Nation, December 25, 1890, p. 500.

11 Oswald Garrison Villard, John Brown: A Biography 1800-1859 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1910, 1929), 45-46.

12 See “Fire from the Midst of You,” p. 114.

1 comment:

TullieMay said...

Hi there, I just wanted to say that i really appreciate your point of view and more so because you have shown and proven your points quite eloquently. I Just picked up John Brown's War Against Slavery by Robert McGlone and I would love to hear your point of view on this piece, if you have read it that is :)

Tullie May