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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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Saturday, November 25, 2006

Harper's Ferry and the Alamo: An Exchange Between Jean Libby & Yours Truly

In regard to an article I published and distributed in commemoration of the 147th anniversary of the Harper's Ferry raid, my friend and colleague, Jean Libby, issued a critique and corrective. Standing my ground at some points, and standing to be corrected at others, I am grateful nevertheless for her feedback. The original article is published in this blog under date of October 18, 2006. Below the reader will find Jean's response and then my final response.

Jean Libby writes:

Dr. DeCaro concludes: "How one views the Alamo and Harper's Ferry is not a matter of historical trivia. It is a barometer of one's sense of justice in history and probably in the contemporary sense as well."

I have been asked by a correspondent whether or not I agree with it. Even though I think Lou Decaro is an outstanding scholar, and I am personally praised in this piece, and on his excellent blogsite of issues and news items about John Brown, my answer is "No." The reason for my disagreement is not Lou's depiction of the John Brown raid. Although I have some disagreement with his Seven Points (especially that of the reason for Brown's delay in leaving Harpers Ferry), those can be dismissed as historians' quibbles.

My problem is (1) that I remember the Alamo differently than Louis A. DeCaro and (2) I also have a fundamental difference in analysis of the participation of Dangerfield Newby as "self-interested" in comparison with the other members of Brown's army because he was seeking to free his family.

The Alamo: although iconographic in U.S. History, the siege of the Alamo took place in 1836, nine years before the entry of Texas as a slave state into the United States and the Mexican-American War. To say that Texas was an "anti-slavery state" before the battle of the Alamo and the implication that this was part of the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 is a distortion. Tejas was a province of Mexico following the Revolution of 1821 which overthrew Spain, a slave country. One of the high marks of the Mexican Revolution was the abolition of slavery. Slavery does not overturn in a day, not where it has been entrenched for over 400 years (longer than in the U.S.) and in a huge and diverse area that was virtually ungovernable. The Mexican Revolution turned on itself and assassination and intrigue was the rule instead of law. The Constitution of 1824 was negated by 1836 and a new one substituted. This totalitarian had taken power (Generalissimo Santa Anna) and declared himself president for life. In his earlier career he had brutally policed the Indians and assisted in the capture of Hidalgo, the Father of Mexico who was subsequently executed. Santa Anna changed sides at the end of the Revolution to support Iturbe. To say that "Mexico justly suppressed these proto-Texans at the Alamo" is like saying President Bush is defending democracy. It just isn't true.

Dangerfield Newby and Shields Green: this response is to the statement that "there was no self-interest in the group, except for Dangerfield Newby, who was fighting in the hopes of freeing his enslaved wife and family." Shields Green, who was with Frederick Douglass and John Brown when Douglass described Harpers Ferry as "a perfect steel trap" decided to "go with the old man" when Douglass wisely refused to participate in the kidnapping of hostages and attack on federal property. Shields Green, a fugitive, also had a wife and child who were still enslaved.

Carl Westmoreland of the Underground Railroad Freedom Center wrote to me in 2001 that what is important in African American thinking about John Brown is that he truly believed in racial equality, and this was without patronization. I think it is certain that Dangerfield Newby was participating in the raid on abolition grounds as much as the others. Scholar Ian Barford has found evidence, which he shared with this group, that Newby was in Ashtabula when he was recruited by Brown, not in Bridgeport, in southeastern Ohio. From handwritten notes in the carpetbag letters found at the Kennedy Farm and used as evidence in the trials of John Brown and the surviving raiders, both Dangerfield and his brother Gabrie were part of the Underground Railroad and that is how they found out about the Ashtabula center of abolition activity. They went there to join the plan, and Gabriel may have been on his way to Virginia on August 27, 1859.

Shields Green, the forgotten man (whose actual name was Esau Brown) was assigned the role intended for Frederick Douglass in notifying the local black population of the liberation movement on the night of October 16. He went with Charles Tidd, one of the whites who had misgivings about the soundness of the plan to take the armory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Tidd went back to Maryland after cutting telegraph wires outside Charles Town and Green went south to Wheatland, the farm of George Turner (later killed by Dangerfield Newby in the fighting) and back along the new macadam road by the Shenandoah River to the Rifle Works with at least three slave recruits. At least two were killed; all three are listed as fugitive in the census of 1860, when George Turner is dead. Shields/Esau had the opportunity to stay with the outside positions, according to Osborne Anderson's account. But he risked fire to go back into the enginehouse to fight alongside Brown and his sons and related Thompson brothers. It is Osborne Anderson who tells us that Green has said ”twice”that he will stay with John Brown. The John Brown story with these words by Green is not published by Douglass until his last autobiography. Henry Organ has written of this in John Brown Mysteries. Every year on December 16 Henry writes to me to remember the execution of Shields Green two weeks after that of John Brown.

Both Newby and Green, I believe along with Carl Westmoreland and Henry Organ, are revolutionary thinkers and planners with Brown, whom he trusts and they do not let him down. If Newby were there for self-interest, he would not be placed in the most vulnerable position, he would have taken off for Warrenton when the town was secured.

Louis A. DeCaro is generous with praise about the work of Hannah N. Geffert and myself on regional black involvement in the John Brown raid that is recently in Prophets of Protest edited by Timothy Patrick McCarthy and John Stauffer and published by The New Press (2006). It has taken thirty years for this concept of black participation first articulated by Osborne Anderson "who saw it”and by W.E.B. Du Bois, who believed him. Lou DeCaro has written of this fundamental belief by Du Bois in comparison with Oswald Garrison Villard, who defends the white raiders as "fine American boys" but calls the black man a liar.

I know that it is very ungrateful of me to remember the Alamo in a different way than an example of white supremacy, and the Mexican government as one of justice. I am sorry, but I must.

Jean Libby

* * *
Dear Jean:

Thank you for your thoughtful criticism of my "Seven Points" concerning the 147th anniversary of the Harper's Ferry raid. With respect to the Alamo, I realize that I stepped into a quagmire of historical debate and that I am not a scholar of that theme or region. However let me continue to speak from a level of simplicity, which is where I tend to live most of the time (smile).

1. I never suggested that Santa Anna and the Mexican government as it was in 1836 was morally upstanding or otherwise representative of "the good guys." Nor was I defending the regime then in control of Mexico per se. My argument, however, is based upon the issue of American hypocrisy, and in that sense I would argue that my point remains substantially true.

The American male leadership that perished at the Alamo represented pro-slavery interests and envisioned expanding new frontiers for slavery. They had other goals and interests to be sure. They also had their "redeeming qualities" too. However, with all due respect, none of the facts concerning Mexico's regime under Santa Anna negate the essential American hypocrisy that I intended to highlight. The Alamo--for the slave power in the U.S.--represented the hopeful advancement of slave territory. This is why I celebrate the suppression of the "Alamo movement" (if you will) and disdain what it represents in the popular mindset of our nation. John Brown opposed the war with Mexico from the American side, precisely because he recognized the ambition of the pro-slavery side moving within American foreign policy. I am sorry Jean, but while I would assent that the Alamo must be portrayed responsibly with historical accuracy in detail, your apparent denial that the Alamo does not represent white supremacy seems to evade the point.

The fact of white supremacy in the expansion of North American interests throughout history does not deny other aspects, including good ones. From your vantage point, I suppose we could argue that the Alamo patriots were fighting to bring democracy to a society held captive by a totalitarian general. But does this change the fact that these same Alamo patriots would happily have subjected Africans to chattel slavery had they gotten their way? Did not their immediate heirs do so? In principal we're talking about the larger story of our nation, of course, and if it was wrong for our nation to found a republic based on slave labor, then it was wrong for the proto-Texans to think to do the same. So I would respectfully stand my ground on this point. The fall of the Alamo, like the defeat of the Confederacy, was a good thing, even if the victors themselves were less than noble. The failure of John Brown at Harper's Ferry was a tragedy, especially because he came so close to launching the most authentic and morally justifiable freedom movement in our nation's history--even more justifiable than the American Revolution (which I personally question from a moral standpoint, although the Old Man would disagree with me).

2. As to the Harper's Ferry raiders, I thank you for scoring me on my careless phrasing and historical inaccuracy. I indeed forgot (heaven forbid) that Shields Green had also left family behind when he escaped. However the point I was trying to make, however poorly, was that apart from Newby (and Green), these noble young men who comprised Brown's little army were there on principle and stood to gain nothing personally, from their struggle--in contrast to the white American males who died at the Alamo. NOR did I suggest, or mean to suggest, that Newby and Green were not abolitionists by principle. I assumed they were. Again, my point was poorly made, which was simply that most of these marvelous young men had nothing to gain and everything to lose, and that they are to be admired as the greatest Americans rather than dismissed and condemned while Jim Bowie and his kind are glorified in American memory.

Jean, I think our difference is one of letter not spirit. We are working together on John Brown documentation and in opposing the fundamental lack of fairness and truthfulness among conventional scholarship with respect to John Brown. We are claiming the 21st century for John Brown and our numbers are growing across lines of political and ideological perspective. I salute you not only for your scholarly achievements and expertise as the foremost Brown documentary scholar (perhaps second only to the late Boyd Stutler), but also your generosity of spirit. You have become so much a part of the John Brown study that I cannot even imagine it without you . . . . I remain

Your friend in truth,

Lou DeCaro Jr.