"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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Thursday, October 19, 2006

Abe Lincoln's 1860 John Brown Rhetoric; Hartford Speech Notes for Sale by Christies
Despite the tendency of old school Republicans to couple John Brown and Abraham Lincoln as partners in liberation, and notwithstanding Lincoln's many and varied defenders and apologists, it is a matter of record that the 16th President of the United States was never the friend of the black man that has been portrayed. Just as we can trace the rise of anti-Brown propaganda with the fall of Reconstruction and the reversal of civil rights gains later in the 19th century, we can also trace the canonization of Abraham Lincoln as a race savior in the Reconstruction era. Lincoln's apotheosis, based on the propaganda of abolitionists and the shock following his unprecedented assassination, enshrined him in this nation's memory as a kind of Christ figure for the black community even though black leaders knew that the real Lincoln was a mediocre ally at best. Like John F. Kennedy (who was hardly a civil rights hero), Lincoln's ratings in the black community shot up wonderfully after he took a bullet to the head in 1865. As the eminent historian Leon Litwack writes:
Despite the disappointment over Lincoln's lenient amnesty program [toward Confederates], his misplaced confidence in southern Unionists, and his "moderate" experiments in state reconstruction, the assassination of the President silenced his black critics and threw a stunned black community into deep mourning, as though it had lost its only white friend and protector. The President's initial doubts about the wisdom of emancipation and the enlistment of blacks were now forgotten, his equivocations on civil rights ignored, his schemes of colonization, expatriation, and reconstruction forgiven. Even the cold language and forced nature of his Emancipation Proclamation no longer seemed relevant, giving way to the legend of the Great Emancipator.1

To be sure, Lincoln nearly "came around" to sound thinking in the later years of the Civil War, and his ultimate commitment to emancipation is not to be doubted. He never liked slavery and thought it inappropriate to the great republic. But he also thought its black presence an unfortunate reality as well, and there is little doubt that his ideal vision of the nation entailed the end of slavery and the removal of blacks, or at least their social separation from whites. Notwithstanding his other great qualities, as Frederick Douglass put it in 1876, "in his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices . . . [Abraham Lincoln] was a white man. He was preeminently the white man's President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men . . . . We are at best only his step-children."2

To be sure, David Reynolds shows that Lincoln apparently came to appreciate some aspects of Brown's strategy once he found himself leading the army of the Union. In late 1861, when he was anticipating the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, the New York Herald reported that Lincoln had said that "Emancipation would be equivalent to a John Brown raid, on a gigantic scale."3 But this hardly proves Lincoln an advocate of black liberation and equality. As Douglass well knew, Lincoln's priorities were vested in the interests and agenda of the great white republic as he envisioned it.

Despite the good he ultimately accomplished for the slave, Lincoln essentially stumbled his way into the path of light that Brown had followed quite consistently throughout his days. Lerone Bennett rightly entitles his Lincoln book Forced into Glory precisely for this reason--for he had set out only to save the union, contain slavery, and preserve the status quo of white superiority in the United States. But a stormy Providence forced him to walk where politicians feared to tread, and in the end he suffered assassination for it.

In 1860, however, the man who would be president was certain that the Union could be saved without destroying slavery. In the wake of the Harper's Ferry raid, with the South accusing the Republicans of being an abolitionist movement (something laughably incorrect), Lincoln repeatedly sprang to the defense of his party. His condemnation of John Brown at New York City's Cooper Union was only the most famous of his 1860 renunciations. There was a similar disavowal of Brown made in Kansas, and also at Harford, Connecticut. On March 5, 1860, speaking at the Hartford City Hall, Lincoln accused southern leaders of engaging in "another species of bushwhacking . . . in their treatment of the John Brown and Harper's Ferry affair." Lincoln explained that pro-slavery leaders insisted that "the Republican party incites insurrections," although every "Republican knew that the charge that his party had incited the insurrection was, so far as he was concerned, a slander upon him."4

In 1860, with hopes of entering the White House, Lincoln's job was to disassociate himself and his party from John Brown by any means necessary. Liberation was hardly the watchword of the party, and as the premiere spokesman for the Republicans showed, it was all about disowning John Brown.

This is context for the announcement by Christie's, a leading auction house, concerning the sale of Lincoln documents from the The Forbes Collection of American Historical Documents,Part V. As Christie's website description reports, among them are the

Autograph speech notes, prepared by Lincoln and used when delivering his address at Hartford, Connecticut, 5 March 1860. 2 pages, 8vo (6 x 4½ in.), comprising some 80 words, the first four lines boldly penned in ink (minor dampstains, slightly affecting ink), the rest of the notes added (slightly later?) in pencil (one line slighty shaved in binding). The sheet of Lincoln's notes neatly inlaid to a larger, protective sheet; preceded by a manuscript titlepage reading "Notes used by Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, in a Speech at City Hall, Hartford, Conn. On the evening of March 5th 1860. Left on the Table by Him and preserved by Jesse H. Lord, Reporter of the Hartford Daily Times"; a 4 May 1923 letter from Robert Todd Lincoln to John O. H. Pitney tipped in. Bound in dark green morocco gilt, gilt borders and spine, gilt inner turn-ins, watered silk endleaves, by H. Zucker.5

The auctioner's description further states that this document represents an "exceptionally rare speech outline attacking 'Southern bushwhackers,' rejecting John Brown, and defending free labor's right to strike." The document was taken from the city hall podium after Lincoln's "mostly impromptu address." I should add that Lincoln gave this speech nearly one year to the day that he was inaugurated as President, March 4, 1861.6

The first page has telegraphic styled notes in Lincoln's hand that read: "Signs of decay--bushwhacking. Irrepressible conflict. John Brown Shoe trade. True or not true. If true, what? Mason. Plasters. If not true, what?" On verso, Lincoln writes: "is the question. We must deal with it. Magnitude of question. What prevents just now? Right--wrong--indifference. Indifference unphilosophical. Because nobody is indifferent. Must be converted to. Can be, or cannot be done. I suppose can not. But if can, what result? Indifference, then must be rejected. And what supported? Sectionalism Conservatism. John Brown. Conclusion."7

Interested collectors are encouraged to check out the Christie's website ASAP. Certainly this was a fascinating and historic speech by President Lincoln. It reminds us that in 1860--like today--John Brown's soul was indeed marching on.


1 Leon F. Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery (New York: Knopf, 1979), 527.

2 The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass; written by himself (Hartford, Conn.: Park Publishing Co., 1881; rptd. Seacaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1983), 492-93.

3 David S. Reynolds, John Brown Abolitionist (New York: Knopf, 2005), 471.

4 Hartford Courant [Conn.] report as quoted on Christie’s website, retrieved October 19, 2006 from <http://www.christies.com/LotFinder/search/LFA.asp?eid=5406496>

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

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