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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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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Letter to the Herald-Mail (Hagerstown, Maryland):
A Response to Some anti-Brown Snobs

Snob No. 1 Writes

"I came across a letter to the editor in Sunday's paper. The letter states that John Brown was not a hero - he was a terrorist. Hurray to the person who wrote this, because he or she is 100 percent right. I took some time a few years ago to study the life of John Brown. What I read of him disturbed me. I came to my own conclusion that John Brown was indeed a murderer, a traitor, and in today's terms, a terrorist."

Snob No. 2 Writes

"This letter in Sunday's paper about John Brown being a terrorist is exactly correct. He was nothing but a murderer of any race who got in his way. Question: Why is it there's no monument for Pvt. Luke Quinn, the only Marine killed by John Brown's crew during the storming of the firehouse? Oh well, he was just another soldier doing his duty."
- Jefferson County, W.Va.

To Whom it May Concern:
Some of your readers confidently assert that abolitionist John Brown was a criminal and terrorist. As a biographer of the man, I get weary of people making these kinds of pontifications based on evidently little knowledge of the man's life and times. Nor do these people know the history of John Brown's biographers and the currents and prejudices that shaped the "mainstream" view of him in the 20th century. My reading of the man is that he killed when he felt there were no alternatives within a society overrun by pro-slavery terrorists, overseen by a pro-slavery government that turned a blind eye to injustice. My belief is that if John Brown were really a terrorist, the outcome in Harper's Ferry would have been significantly different and more terrible as well. In fact, Brown failed because he was too concerned for slaveholders as human beings. Perhaps he should have been less so. The 21st century is John Brown's come back time. More people are gaining an appreciation for the man who lived, and I am proud to be part of that movement of education and understanding. Warts and all, John Brown was a good man, a humanitarian, and a greater hero than many of the killers and truce-breakers sanctified in conventional history texts.

Rev. Louis A. DeCaro Jr., Ph.D.New York, NY

Blog Postscript:

Interesting that one of the anti-Brown snobs writes from Jefferson County, the site of the Harper's Ferry raid. As the old biblical saying goes, "the fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge." In other words, some people's ancestors took the side of injustice and supported the theft of other people's labor, and their descendants still spew out the same bitter prejudice of the slave master. As far as Pvt. Luke Quinn (the marine that died in the final rush on the engine house in Harper's Ferry) is concerned, he died "serving his country" having signed on with the understanding that his death in time of war was a distinct possibility. But the nobility of soldiering is not a given. A soldier is noble when the cause he fights is noble. A soldier's death is worth a monument when the cause for which he lays down his life is monumental. Luke Quinn was "doing his duty," but so was John Brown. Yet on the scales of history, Quinn's sacrifice weighs exceedingly lighter than that of Brown and his men. The former was merely following orders as good soldiers do. The latter were marching to the divine drumbeat of a higher and more principled cause--the liberation of humanity.--LD

Thursday, July 20, 2006

NAACP Honors Abolitionist John Brown

by Nakia Herring

Baltimore Times, July 20,2006

Harpers Ferry, West Va. - Abolitionist John Brown was considered a man of action for his stance on slavery. On October 16, 1859, Brown would lead 21 men on a raid of the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). His plan to arm slaves with weapons he had taken from the arsenal was thwarted by Colonel Robert E. Lee, whose soldiers killed or captured most of Brown’s men. Brown was also captured, tried, sentenced and executed. Brown grew up in a family that opposed slavery.

It was not until 1855 that Brown would become a significant player against slavery; when he became the leader of antislavery guerrillas and fought a proslavery attack against the town of Lawrence, Kansas. For his acts to bring justice to the enslaved, W.E.B. DuBois and attendants of the 1932 Washington NAACP convention, would make the same journey back to Harpers Ferry, to honor Brown with “The Great Tablet,” to be left at historically black Storer College. In 1932, the college denied permission of dedicating the tablet, saying the tablet was too militant.

On July 14, 2006, 74 years after the refusal, the NAACP, who was meeting for their 97th convention in Washington, D.C., returned to Harpers Ferry to lay “The Great Tablet” honoring Brown at Storer College, who now welcomed the tablet with open arms. The re-enactment is part of a series of NAACP events leading up to the organization's centennial celebration in 2009.On a beautiful day, NAACP members, young and old, gathered for this historic moment, taking an eight-car train ride to Harpers Ferry. Dr, Benjamin L. Hooks, NAACP executive director emeritus and the Reverend Theresa A. Dear, NAACP Board of Directors member co-presided over the event. The Bradford Singers of Harpers Ferry provided musical selections.

“History has been recorded throughout the year and today we revisit history and simultaneously we make history,” says Rev. Dear. Dr. Hooks, who has been executive director of the NAACP since 1977 said, “As the NAACP launches a series of commemorations to celebrate the 100th year of our existence, Harpers Ferry is a major landmark in this historical journey in retracing the Niagara Movement. For indeed in 1906, 100 years ago this year, the Niagara Movement held its second meeting in Harpers Ferry.”

“Today, we at the NAACP come back to finalize what W.E.B. DuBois initiated in 1932, but was thwarted by the then president of Storer College,” he said. The Mayor of Harpers Ferry James Addy welcomed the NAACP and those who traveled to be a part of the historic day.

“Today we pay tribute to John Brown, his people, the martyrs to his cause, W.E.B. DuBois, those people who initiated the Niagara Movement and the NAACP. We are here to right a wrong that was committed in 1932. We do this in order to say most loudly, this is not for ourselves alone,” said Addy. George Rutherford, president of the Jefferson County NAACP in Ranson, West Virginia was proud to have the tablet home where it belongs. “This is a very historical day. It has taken 74 years to complete the erection of this tablet, but the NAACP still prevailed. I am sure that Dr. DuBois and the 1932 members are smiling down on us today and saying well done,” said Rutherford. Mary Harris, president of the Storer College Alumni Association brought greetings from her colleagues. “It is an honor to stand on these grounds and witness the accomplishments of an endeavor 74 years ago, the placing of “The Great Tablet.”

Since 1932, John Brown's Fort has been relocated several times, and the Storer College campus no longer exists. We are blessed for the opportunity to participate in this historical moment,” she said. In another announcement, Michael Ward, chairman, president and CEO, CSX Corporation said that the historic eight-car train that was taken to Harpers Ferry, would be dedicated to A. Philip Randolph.After Roslyn M. Brock, vice chair, NAACP National Board of Directors and chair NAACP Convention Planning Committee reminisced about Saturday, May 21, 1932 and the pilgrimage to Harpers Ferry, “The Great Tablet” was blessed by the Reverend Morris L. Shearin, Sr. and re-presented by Julian Bond, chair, NAACP National Board of Directors, Bruce S. Gordon, NAACP president and CEO and the Most Worshipful Past Grand Masters of Prince Hall Masons.

“To complete Dr. DuBois' mission of 1932, to honor John Brown, to execute the NAACP's long documented role in honoring persons who fight for justice and equality and in the presence of this great audience and the Masons from Maryland, Virginia, District of Columbia and West Virginia, I hereby lay this great tablet,” said Bond. Gordon, the current NAACP president said, “We stand here today representing 300,000 NAACP members across the country and around the world. We represent our 2,200 friends and units around the world, as we execute this deed so that others for many years to come will know the history of John Brown and acknowledge John Brown. It is our duty and responsibility to be certain that our young people and future generations know what he did for this country and for our people.”

As the day went on, the Rev. Dear called the roll of civil rights pioneers as related to Harpers Ferry, which included: Prince Hall Masons, Du Bois Circle, Pullman Porters and the NAACP. Jane White Viazzi, daughter of the late Walter White, NAACP executive secretary reminisced about the Niagara Movement.At the closing of the event, all whom attended the historic event posed for a commemorative photograph in front of Anthony Hall at Storer College. The photograph represents the re-presentation of the “The Great Tablet” 74 years later.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Julian Bond, David Reynolds, and Malcolm X on John Brown

Julian Bond's speech at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, which I have supplied below under this date, reflects the best intentions and highest regards befitting the black community's historical appreciation of abolitionist John Brown--and is happily absent of Bond's earlier apologetics in which he differentiated between Brown the hero and Brown the alleged perpetuator of violence.

Besides commemorating the NAACPs pro-Brown demonstrations of 1906, Bond's speech reveals that he has apparently been jolted into action by the publication of David Reynolds's 2005 biography, John Brown Abolitionist, in which the author promotes Brown as "the man who killed slavery, sparked the Civil War, and seeded Civil Rights." The Reynolds book leaves a lot to be desired as a work of history, but the author is at least to be credited for moving many people back toward a favorable reading of Brown after so many years of banishment from the favor of American sentimentality.

Unfortunately Reynolds' book is nevertheless conflicted by the author's portrayal of Brown as a "good" terrorist, a kind of Dirty Harry on the Kansas prairie. I have met Reynolds, I like him, and I think his appreciation of Brown is increasing. However in the same manner that his book has caused activists and scholars to reconsider Brown in a positive light, his work has also affirmed the unfortunate terrorist notion that has become the mainstay of so much writing about Brown these days. After reading the text of Bond's speech at Harper's Ferry, it became clear that his own unfortunate apologia was probably informed by Reynolds's ambivalent portrayal. This also explains why Bond felt it necessary to excuse the NAACP's tribute by "admitting" that even though they like him, they too believe Brown was a "perpetuator of violence."

Yet in his speech at Harper's Ferry, Bond skipped over Brown's oh-so-horrible-violence and emphasizes his singular role as a "righteous Caucasian." Referring to the Reynolds book, Bond pointed out that of all the white Americans in U.S. history, Brown has been more widely admired by blacks than even Abraham Lincoln. (My 2002 biography actually precedes Reynolds in demonstrating the uniqueness of Brown's relationship with the black community, but he has made the significant argument that Brown "seeded" civil rights by his life and death.) So what does Bond really believe about John Brown?

Obviously the NAACP leader was also speaking out of the tradition of the NAACP itself, particularly the thinking of DuBois, one of the movement's founders. Interestingly, though, another founder of the NAACP was the white pacificist Oswald G. Villard (grandson of William Lloyd Garrison). Villard wrote the first modern biography of Brown, providing the ambivalent paradigm that Reynolds and Bond have used in both praising him and branding him a violent man.

Incidentally, as I suggest in my earlier commentary on Bond's words, he indeed drew the association of Brown with Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser, and Denmark Vesey as "compatriots" in struggle. Yet in his address there is not the slightest apology on their behalf for their violence (or intended use of violence) against white pro-slavery people. I wonder why Bond felt it necessary to offer a shabby apology for the NAACP's support of Brown, but waxed so boldly in his ceremonial address in speaking of Nat Turner and Brown so heroically?

One last point. Bond included Malcolm X in a list of black leaders who "celebrated" John Brown. As a student of Malcolm, however, my own reading leaves me feeling that Bond is exaggerating. I would not call Malcolm's several recorded references to Brown grudging, but neither would I call them celebrative. I believe Malcolm quietly admired Brown, and my guess is that his awareness of Brown went back to his prison readings in the late 1940s. I suspect (for reasons I have not fully documented) also that Malcolm was probably reading about Brown in the latter phase of his time in the Nation of Islam and thus was troubled by the fact that the abolitionist's legacy frankly debunked the claims of the "Black Muslims." He was not only a "good white," but he fought harder than most black contemporaries and died on behalf of the anti-slavery cause. Any black person who would call such a man a "white devil" would have to be either poisoned in his soul or simply a liar and a charlatan. Elijah Muhammad may have been both, but Malcolm was surely neither. Perhaps if he had not been entangled in Elijah's "straitjacket" religion, he would have admitted that Brown was indeed a "righteous Caucasian" as Bond says.

Even after Malcolm was put out of the Nation of Islam and became an independent leader his remarks about Brown were appreciative but laced with a tone of indifference--as if he was afraid that speaking too warmly about him might cause blacks to slip back into integrationism or provide some self-congratulating relief to whites. Whatever the case, I believe Malcolm X used Brown more as a means of challenging whites who were steeped in the non-violent civil rights mindset by holding him up as a model--probably knowing full well that few if any of them could ever attain such a stature. Otherwise he made it clear he had no intention of celebrating John Brown.

L. DeCaro Jr.
Speech by Julian Bond,
Chairman of the NAACP Board of Directors
at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia
July 14, 2006

To distinguished platform guests and friends. Our great thanks to all who have made this day possible.

We are here today because this place and the martyrs who died here are inextricably tied to the NAACP and the unending struggle for freedom. There is an unbroken line leading from this place until today – a line and lineage we are come to commemorate and honor so that future generations will never forget.

John Brown’s biographer David S. Reynolds argues that no other white person, including President Lincoln, has been so widely admired among American blacks as John Brown.

One of our founders, Dr. W. E. B. DuBois wrote of Brown as "the man who of all Americans has perhaps become nearest to touching the real souls of black folk. John Brown worked not simply for black men – he worked with them; he was a companion of their daily life, knew their faults and virtues, and felt, as few white Americans have felt, the bitter tragedy of their lot."

Generation after generation have praised him and held him up as an example of righteous wrath. From T. Thomas Fortune and Frances Grimke to Langston Hughes to Countee Cullen, Robert Williams, Eldridge Cleaver, H. Rap Brown, Malcolm X, a constellation of who’s who of black Americana has celebrated John Brown as the exemplar – the righteous Caucasian.

John Brown lived in an America where great social ills abounded – income inequality on a scope we cannot imagine, women without rights or votes, gross political corruption at every turn, environmental degradation far beyond today’s horrors, urban decay. But of all these, it was human slavery that repulsed Brown enough to lead him to make Kansas more bloody – and later, brought him here to Harpers Ferry.

Slavery, to Brown, was "the sum of all evils." And slavery seemed to Brown and others to be fixed, cemented in the culture, immovable. It denied millions their rights and dignity.

"No other social phenomenon approached its wickedness. No other problem, thought Brown, required the use of arms."

It was because of what happened here that DuBois chose Harpers Ferry for the Niagara Movement’s second gathering in August of 1906. Here women were invited to join the Niagara Movement, and here DuBois outlined what the struggle for freedom was about. He wrote:

"We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a freeborn American, political, civil and social; and until we get these rights we will never cease to protest and assail the ears of America. The battle we wage is not for ourselves but for all true Americans."

In 1932, as part of the 23rd Annual NAACP Convention, Dr. DuBois led a pilgrimage to Storer College to place a memorial tablet here to commemorate the great service and sacrifice of John Brown to the cause of human freedom.

The effort was not as welcomed then as it is now. DuBois' plans were frustrated in 1932, but today we have taken up his unfinished work from all those years ago. In a speech here then, W.E.B. DuBois captured for all time the unsettling meaning of Brown's legacy:

"Some people have the idea that crucifixion consists in the punishment of an innocent man. The essence of crucifixion is that men are killing a criminal, that men have got to kill him ... and yet that the act of crucifying him is the salvation of the world. John Brown broke the law; he killed human beings... . Those people who defended slavery had to execute John Brown although they knew that in killing him they were committing the greater crime. It is out of that human paradox that there comes crucifixion."

At that gathering, another NAACP founder, Dr. J. Max Barber said "The ideals of John Brown are being carried forward by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People". And so they are today, 74 years later.

Frederick Douglass and John Brown had been friends long before the raid. Douglass wrote:

"From the time of my visit to him in Springfield, Mass., in 1847, our relations were friendly and confidential. I never passed through Springfield without calling on him, and he never came to Rochester without calling on me. He often stopped over night with me."

Brown had mentioned his plan to Douglass as early as 1847. The two men met for the last time on August 19, 1859, in an abandoned quarry near here in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. For three days, the two men discussed whether violence could be legitimately used to free the nation's slaves. Douglass, in the end, refused to join his friend in the raid.

When Douglass spoke at the commencement here on May 30, 1881, the man who had prosecuted John Brown and sent him to the gallows sat on the Storer College platform directly behind Douglass. But that did not stop Douglass from explaining what John Brown had meant in 1859 or in 1881 or predicting what he would mean in the years ahead.

Douglass said: "With John Brown, as with every other man fit to die for a cause, the hour of his physical weakness was the hour of his moral strength—the hour of his defeat was the hour of his triumph—the moment of his capture was the crowning victory of his life. With the Allegheny Mountains for his pulpit, the country for his church and the whole civilized world for his audience, he was a thousand times more effective as a preacher than as a warrior …"

"Mighty with the sword of steel, he was mightier with the sword of truth, and with this sword he literally swept the horizon. . . . "

"If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did at least begin the war that ended slavery. . . . Until this blow was struck, the prospect for freedom was dim, shadowy and uncertain. The irrepressible conflict was one of words, votes and compromises. When John Brown stretched forth his arm, the sky was cleared." So we gather to honor the man and the standards of justice and equality for which he stood. We hope to remind America of freedom’s costs and to call forth others with the John Brown spirit.

Gabriel Prosser and Denmark Vesey were his compatriots. Nat Turner and Toussaint L’Ouverture were his inspiration. The modern day freedom movement was his offspring

In his autobiography, Dr. DuBois summed up what John Brown meant for all time.

"We do not believe in violence, neither in the despised violence of the raid nor the lauded violence of the soldier, nor the barbarous violence of the mob; but we do believe in John Brown, in that incarnate spirit of justice, that hatred of a lie, that willingness to sacrifice money, reputation, and life itself on the altar of right. And here on the scene of John Brown's martyrdom, we reconsecrate ourselves, our honor, our property to the final emancipation of the race which John Brown died to make free."

NAACP honors John Brown

The Associated Press (July 15, 2006)

BALTIMORE — About 74 years ago, W.E.B. Du Bois led the NAACP from the group’s convention in Washington to a historically black college in Harpers Ferry, W. Va., to lay a tablet to honor militant abolitionist John Brown.

But Storer College officials objected, saying it was too militant.

Friday, as the NAACP gathered for its 97th convention in Washington, the group’s officials took a vintage train ride to Harpers Ferry to lay a tablet in a town where Brown captured a government arsenal in 1859.

Julian Bond, the chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the raid sent shock waves through the country — 16 months before the Civil War — spreading fear in the white South and causing abolitionists in the North to celebrate Brown’s actions as heroic.

“Most condemned the violence but celebrated the impulse, and I think that that’s generally true today,” Bond said. “They’re not celebrating the violence that he perpetuated. They’re celebrating his commitment to racial justice, and we think it’s fitting to continue that celebration.”

The tablet laid Friday includes the original language, which expresses the NAACP’s gratitude for Brown’s actions. It is the same design and layout of the original.

“With him fought seven slaves and sons of slaves,” the tablet says. “Over his crucified corpse marched 200,000 black soldiers and 4,000,000 freedmen singing ‘John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave but his soul goes marching on!”’

The re-enactment was part of a series of NAACP events leading to the organization’s centennial celebration in 2009.

In the late 1850s, Brown and 21 others occupied the arsenal at Harpers Ferry in what is now West Virginia to start a “war of emancipation.” The next day, a company of Marines under Col. Robert E. Lee took Brown’s last stronghold by assault. Ten people were killed or mortally wounded, including two of Brown’s 20 children.

Brown was convicted of treason to the Virginia Commonwealth and conspiracy to murder.

Harpers Ferry has a special place in the history of the NAACP. It was where the Niagara Movement, which Du Bois founded as the cornerstone of the modern civil rights movement, held its first meeting on U.S. soil in 1906. (The first meeting was in Canada.)

Julian Bond's Shabby Defense of John Brown

by Louis A. DeCaro Jr.

It is well and good that the NAACP would acknowledge John Brown in following the example of civil rights leaders in 1906, as well as following the lead of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), whose leaders placed a wreath on Brown's grave this past May.

However Julian Bond's remark to the effect that the NAACP is "not celebrating the violence that he perpetuated" is insulting and shows the extent to which Bond's understanding of Brown has been imprinted with historical error, and perhaps even reveals a level of intimidation and hypocrisy in the thinking of the civil rights leader.

For an African American leader to speak of John Brown "perpetuating" violence in the context of a nation steeped in slavery and racism is not only proof of deficiency in historical understanding, but an insult to the man he claims to be honoring. Bond is undoubtedly sincere and well-meaning, but his remarks class him among a set of 20th century black intellectuals who embraced the status quo profile of John Brown contrived mainly by elitist European American male scholars. In contrast to fearless, unapologetic black writers like Lerone Bennett and John O. Killens, Julian Bond joins the ranks of black "admirers" like Benjamin Quarles and Ralph Ellison, who were apparently intimidated by the reactionary historical ban on John Brown that prevails in liberal and conservative narratives. Like Quarles and Ellison, Bond would both praise and incriminate Brown at the same time, putting forth his lame distinction between Brown's alleged role in "perpetuating violence" and his sterling commitment to racial justice.

John Brown did nothing to “perpetuate violence” despite all the rhetoric and hearsay that is reported as history in the United States. Indeed there is still a lack of fair and accurate analysis of Brown's efforts in Kansas and Virginia, and despite his role in certain violent episodes, it is highly unfair to blame him for perpetuating the theater of blood and brutality that was the United States in the 19th century. As the historical record actually shows, John Brown made every effort to conduct a campaign of minimalist force in Virginia, endeavoring to destroy the economy of slavery without massacre and insurrection. When initiation of that plan failed at Harper's Ferry in 1859, Brown happily went to the gallows to demonstrate his commitment to opposing slavery with every fiber of his being.

One must finally ask Mr. Bond if he would issue such a gratuitous, half-baked defense of Nat Turner, Gabriel (so-called Prosser), or Denmark Vesey--all black men who either used violence or intended to "perpetuate violence" in order to oppose slavery. If he would answer in the affirmative, what would the black community's reaction be toward such double-mindedness? But if he refused to apologize on behalf of blacks who either killed or intended to kill pro-slavery whites, then he would surely seem self-contradicted and perhaps even hypocritical for doing so on behalf of Brown, even if he were a perpetuator of violence.

John Brown could do without the shabby apologetics of Julian Bond. His timid remarks are a far cry from that of Frederick Douglass who, at Harper's Ferry in 1881, emphatically declared that when "John Brown stretched forth his arm the sky was cleared. The time for compromises was gone – the armed hosts of freedom stood face to face over the chasm of a broken Union – and the clash of arms was at hand. The South staked all upon getting possession of the Federal Government, and failing to do that, drew the sword of rebellion and thus made her own, and not Brown's, the lost cause of the century."

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Who Can Rightly Claim John Brown–the Left or the Right?

Besides being the chairman and founder of the John Brown Society, my friend Larry Lawrence is a brilliant exponent of the Leftist tradition and often expresses the conviction that the Left can absolutely claim John Brown as one of their own. I never argue with Larry because I am primarily a student of religion, and he is far more versed in politics and can certainly make an excellent case for the Left’s claim that the abolitionist is one of their own. However the late Edwin Cotter did not agree with Larry’s political views and for many years the two associates clashed over the idea that the Left could claim John Brown. A researcher and supervisor of the John Brown Farm in Lake Placid for many years, the late Mister Cotter was the undoubted authority on Brown’s life in the Adirondacks. He was also a Republican and a political conservative. Happily, by the time that Cotter died in 2001, he and Larry–both men of goodwill–had mended the fences of their relationship, although they never came to agreement with respect to politics and Old Brown.

John Brown has always been attractive across a spectrum of political and social views and has long enjoyed the admiration of liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, and Bible-wielding theists as well as agnostics and atheists. In this respect he reminds me of Malcolm X, since both men seem to transcend human boundaries, drawing admirers from across the spectrum of "race," religion, and ideology. Even today, were one to travel across the country and speak with people with an expressed interest in Brown, one would find that some of his biggest fans are conservative Republicans and others are revolutionary Leftists. So who can rightly claim John Brown, the Left or the Right?

John Brown the Leftist?

If contemporary Leftists are the heirs to the radical abolitionists of the 19th century as my friend Larry claims, then perhaps the Left can claim Brown as one of their own. Certainly the Left has made great contributions toward opposing segregation and injustice, and Leftist scholars have been on the vanguard of supporting Brown when status quo writers skewed and slandered his image in history texts. W. E. B. DuBois, the renowned scholar and intellectual who wrote an elegant biography of Brown in 1909 ultimately moved toward the Left. When his great biography was republished by International Publishers, a Leftist press, in 1962 (commemorating the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation), he affirmed his work with a pronounced Marxist perspective. "One could wish that John Brown could see today the results of the great revolution in Russia," DuBois wrote in addition to his 1909 text. "[T]hat he could see the new world of Socialism and Communism expanding . . . ." Indeed an array of Leftist intellectuals and scholars have uplifted and identified with Brown in oratory and scholarship, ranging from Christian socialists to atheistic Marxists.

On the other hand, if revolutionary commitment is judged to be inseparable from Leftist thought, then it may be that John Brown is not as close to the Left as these intellectuals and activists have assumed.

In the most literal sense, revolution pertains to the overturning of a system, and in this sense Brown might be considered revolutionary in his intention of overturning the economy of chattel slavery. But if revolutionary ideology necessitates the overturning of the capitalist system, then perhaps Brown is not revolutionary at all. In fact there is no evidence that he opposed capitalism, or at least that he assumed that capitalism necessarily required injustice in order to thrive.

John Brown the Capitalist?

In my forthcoming book, John Brown–the Cost of Freedom,1 I have made perhaps the most extensive study of Brown’s early life as a businessman, examining him in the context of mid-19th century developments and showing his efforts to support settlers in western Pennsylvania in the 1820s and his daring attempt to defeat the powerful New England manufacturers as the operator of a wool commission house on behalf of western wool growers in the 1840s. Yet in every case, Brown focused on inequity and injustice while never questioning the fundamental premise of capitalism, and even made a last ditch effort to build an alliance with European capitalists in order to undermine his opponents in New England. Indeed, if there was ever a genuine "compassionate conservative," it seems to be John Brown the businessman, who hoped to emulate men like Harm Jan Huidekoper of Pennsylvania and Gerrit Smith of New York, both of whom were abolitionist tycoons.

While it is fashionable to argue that his failures in business forced Brown into militancy, I would argue that this is not the case. While he was no great success in business, it was the intensifying political situation in the mid-19th century that forced Brown to reassess his earlier "abolitionist tycoon" ideals and move toward taking up arms to undermine slavery. Yet as I also argue in my book, Brown did not evolve into a classic revolutionary as much as he did a radical reformer who believed that a precise but restrained militancy could kill slavery without overturning the political and economic system of the United States itself.

Revolutionist or Reformer?

In the political context, Brown was thus unique in his approach. Recall that the pacifist abolition leader, William Lloyd Garrison, renounced the Constitution of the United States because it provided for slavery. The nation had no reason to fear that Garrison would attempt to overthrow the government given his non-violent commitment. Yet in this sense he was far more a revolutionist in outlook than John Brown, who merely believed that radically excising slavery from the body politic would save the nation from civil war and restore health to the capitalist republic.

As his host Mary Stearns (wife of one of supporters) once referred to him, Brown was a "new sort of man" in the anti-slavery movement--thoroughly Christian and peace-loving but also an advocate of self-defense and strategic force in defeating slavery. Indeed, he had little regard for pacifist anti-slavery activists, whom he considered "milk and water agitators." Like Malcolm X in the Civil Rights era, Brown saw the real limitations of "non-violent revolution," or "moral suasion," as it was called in the antebellum era. But even though Malcolm and Brown harmonize in their belief that non-violent resistance is actually impotent in the face of militant systems of injustice, the former died a revolutionary while the latter died a reformer.

Despite his wish to destabilize and destroy slavery, John Brown had no intention of overthrowing any established state or local government, North or South, and certainly not the federal government. "The old flag was good enough for him," recalled one of his black associates. Indeed Brown insisted that just as "freedom had been won from the tyrants of the Old World for white men . . . he intended it to do duty for black men. He declared emphatically that he would not give up the Stars and Stripes." The same associate recalled his strident reaction when someone recommended delaying the raid until the United States was engaged in a war with another country. "I am no traitor," Brown responded. "I would be the last man to take advantage of my country in the face of a foreign foe." Brown was "intensely American; he never for a moment thought of fighting the United States as such, but simply the defenders of human slavery in the States. Only the ulcer, slavery, he would cut from the body politic."2

Reformers seek to amend, repair, and revise a system by making fundamental changes. Even if those changes require radical measures, they are never intended to undermine or overthrow the entire system, but rather to align the practical workings of the system with its best political ideals. Brown did not live to see the Constitutional amendments that abolished slavery and empowered blacks as citizens, but undoubtedly he would have approved. Even his plan, which failed in its inauguration at Harper’s Ferry in October 1859, was fundamentally the intention of radical reform, not militant revolution. Every measure Brown attempted, including his intended "Provisional Government of the United States," was only a measure of reform with the ultimate goal of repairing and sustaining the government according to its foundational structure–minus slavery. Had Brown’s plans materialized, slavery would have collapsed, but the structure of the U.S. system would have been preserved. Otherwise he was neither a socialist nor communist, and would look upon their revolutionary ideals as highly problematic given their philosophical presuppositions.

Against the Grain

Another problem with the claim of the contemporary Left upon Brown is that one can be absolutely certain that he would look upon other modern ideals of the movement, generally speaking, as unacceptable. Certainly Brown, given his firm evangelical Christian reading of the Bible, would look negatively upon the presuppositions of the Pro-Choice movement and the gay rights movement. Leftists and liberals who admire Brown, conveniently set aside this aspect of his life, much as they do with Malcolm X, whose Islamic beliefs would likewise put him at odds with these secular rights movements. Of course, when it comes to claiming heroes, people see what they want to see. For example, in discussing "sexual justice" for gays, Morris Kaplan writes: "Brown in his individuality exemplifies the paradoxical aspiration of the American democracy to nourish citizens strong enough to say ‘no’ to their country in its errancy [sic] and to found a community of conscience."3 This may be so, but John Brown the biblical Calvinist would hardly be pleased at being cited within a political study relating to gay rights. With respect to abortion, I am not convinced that Brown would support any murderous attack on medical professionals and clinic staff, although he would most certainly oppose the "Pro-Choice" agenda despite his 19th century commitment to women’s rights. To what length Brown would go today in opposing abortion is a matter of speculation, although he would identify with a theistic conservative approach.

No Right-Winger Either

Yet none of this militates against the fact that Brown would be uncomfortable with other aspects of the Republican and conservative agenda, particularly where it involves indifference to the poor and oppressed and policies in violation of what he understood as justice. He would likely be opposed to the current Republican administration’s opportunistic invasion of Iraq just as he opposed the invasion of Mexico in his day. In this regard, flag-waving Republicans certainly err in thinking that John Brown represents their overall perspective as well. Interestingly, the granddaddy of Brown scholars, Boyd Blynn Stutler (d. 1970), was a firm Republican and political conservative. Editor of the American Legion Magazine and advocate of "old school" Republican ideas, Stutler despised liberals and Leftists and privately criticized black intellectual W. E. B. DuBois for his political ideas. Writing in 1963 after DuBois died an expatriate in Ghana, Stutler wrote: "I shed no tears when I read of the passing of DuBois--I think he did the cause of the colored people more harm than good."4 Ever the gentleman, Stutler was not argumentative toward left-oriented scholars like Louis Ruchames, to whom he rendered assistance in the production of A John Brown Reader (1959). But Stutler clearly held to the old Lincoln-Brown Republican romance, a view that was likewise expressed by Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon. In such a scenario, Brown is seen as a hero for opposing slavery although the fundamental racism of the country, including the inherent presumptions of white superiority, are never challenged. Instead Brown is perceived as representing the supposed self-purifying virtue of the United States and thus is prized as an agent of historical beautification.

A "New Sort of Man"

Scholars and activists will continue to interpret and appropriate Brown according to their own agendas, but it may be that Mary Stearns summed him up best when she said he was a "new sort of man." Long before he appeared on the national scene, it was clear that no single category was sufficient to hold him. Brown was sui generis, a man after his own kind. Leftists may look to him for good reason. But conservatives may also claim that a holistic appreciation of Brown would position him closer to their side of the American political contest and "culture wars" of the 21st century.

The point is that you have your political views and I have mine, but the role of the student of history is to allow our Subject to be who he was, in the time that he lived, and thus appreciate and criticize him accordingly. Speaking for myself, I am much more concerned with knowing about John Brown the man who lived than I am about forcing him into one or another political category. The truth is that Brown does not comfortably or absolutely fit into either political camp. He never really fit into a political camp in his own day, and there is no reason to demand that he do so now.

Once when a reporter asked Malcolm X if he considered himself militant, he answered, "I consider myself Malcolm." His smile and gentle tone notwithstanding, Malcolm’s point was to resist the simplistic labeling of a media that was more interested in sensationalism than truth. We should demand the same for our Subject, since he never identified himself with any political party or ideology. Our greatest work as students of history is not to place him on a contemporary political map. Rather it is to inquire, to the best of our ability, who John Brown considered himself to have been.

1 International Publishers.

2 Mary E. Stearns, "George Luther Stearns and John Brown," in Hinton, John Brown and His Men (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1894), 722; Victor Lauriston, "John Brown House, Historical Site," Daily News [Chatham, Ontario, Canada] (November 12, 1932), in Stutler Scrapbook 10, Reel 7, Stutler Papers on microfilm, in Ohio Historical Society; James Monroe Jones, "John Brown’s Plans," Daily Tribune [Chicago, Ill.] (August 21, 1883), 10.

3 Morris B. Kaplan, Sexual Justice: Democratic Citizenship and the Politics of Desire (New York: Routledge, 1997), 191.

4 Boyd B. Stutler to Clarence S. Gee, Nov. 24, 1963, 1, on Stutler correspondence microfilm, Hudson Library and Historical Society, Hudson, Ohio.