"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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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A Better Book About John Brown
(A review of my latest by the leading John Brown documentarian and researcher, Jean Libby)

Louis A. DeCaro, Jr.’s new John Brown, the Cost of Freedom; Reflections of his Life and Letters (International Publishers 2007) is a better book for scholars and researchers who have some background on the subject. Better yet for Americanists—scholars and teachers—who long for context in the stories of American leaders and events.

Brief historical context is what Lou DeCaro does best. Selecting letters from several periods and locations of Brown’s life, each chapter then tells that period story from the point of view of an author who is firmly on Brown’s side in all things, but understanding that he was a difficult person to organize and lead a mass movement. He was also frequently his own worst enemy.

This is not a hero-worship book and John Brown is not a cardboard figure. Instead, he is the edgy revolutionary seen in original art by John Hendrix on the cover—an emerging modern artist who has been commissioned to make a cover for a 2009 Lincoln commemoration book. Hendrix is one of Rev. Louis A. DeCaro’s former parishoners in his Evangelical ministry. Reverend DeCaro is the author of Fire From the Midst of You; a religious life of John Brown (New York University Press, 2002) and On the Side of My People; a religious life of Malcolm X ( NYU Press, 1997). John Brown, the Cost of Freedom is published by International Publishers of New York, who also publish the W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1909 biography of John Brown.

Among the periods of Brown’s life thoroughly covered in Cost of Freedom, the events of his business affairs from the tannery in Pennsylvania in the 1820s to the wool-producing partnership with Simon Perkins in Ohio which ended in 1855 are presented with much researchdetail and historical insight. We often hear the disparaging comment “Brown was a complete failure in business.” Lou DeCaro shows that he wasn’t, that he was an honest man bested by those who would cheat workers and buyers, but certainly not a Communist (the publishing house is the Marxist press). John Brown believed in the Jeffersonian ideal of small property ownership by the many in order to have an equal stake in society. He aided free black residents of Massachusetts and New York in obtaining legal title to property (which might be shared cooperatively in order to afford it) when laws were changing in the North to exclude them. This is exactly what his friend Augustus Wattles at Lane Seminary did in Ohio, for which the “radical” group who espoused land ownership without racial discrimination was expelled. This is exactly what his friend Joshua Giddings, the Ohio abolitionist Congressman, wanted for the liberated people as well. (Thank you, Mark Rathbun, for this critical information.)

When Lou DeCaro takes on the events of the Pottawatomie Massacre of May 1856 you can be sure that it is a well-researched examination, just as in his Fire From the Midst of You. The victims were not innocent. They had clearly made their intentions known that they would specifically kill the entire Brown family, which the author carefully documents. But they were murdered by Brown and his sons and son-in-law before they could do so, and that split his family forever. DeCaro has an interesting progession in which he demonstrates that Brown may have been telling his family in North Elba about the events “reading between the lines” of a letter home.

The most controversial part of Dr. DeCaro’s documentary narrative will be his assessment of responsibility for the failure of Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry in October 1859. In this assessment I am not an objective reviewer, but the provider of some of the research information that leads the author to the conclusion that his rift with Frederick Douglass was much larger than told by Douglass years later. Brown himself blamed Frederick Douglass for removing the free black leadership that he needed to succeed, because Douglass felt it was a bad plan to attack the arsenal at Harpers Ferry rather than send small vanguard army units into the mountains to liberate and lead people from the plantations.

I agree with Lou DeCaro’s conclusions on the effect of Frederick Douglass’s withdrawal of support. Further, this is in keeping with the author’s previous focus on black nationalism through his work on Malcolm X. When I was a student in African American Studies at UC Berkeley in 1983, the late black playwright Erroll Hill came to lecture. I was just beginning my academic research on John Brown after being “grassroots” (as DeCaro compliments me) since 1976. Professor Hill compared Brown and Douglass to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. John Brown was Malcolm and Fred. Douglass was Martin.

However, DeCaro weakens his case of the yearlong and bitter argument between Brown and Douglass by falling prey to the current historical debunking of Harriet Tubman. Although he does not buy into the “she didn’t help very many people along the Underground Railroad, even her own parents” Lou does not analyze all the documentary evidence of letters from Brown about Tubman of April 1858. There are two important letters at Fisk University of Brown to William Howard Day in which he is looking for her with some desperation. And, Brown’s letter to his son John Brown, Jr., of April 8, 1858, saying that “he, Harriet, is the most of a man, naturally, that I ever met…has hooked on his whole team at once.” This letter is on the microfilmed record from Ohio and in the Boyd Stutler Collection (the microfilm). 1 What is most difficult to understand is not only the omission of these letters in his documentary study—or at least reference to them—but publication of unsubstantiated speculation that Tubman may have been feigning illness for his discussion.

Lou can readily be forgiven this secondary lapse with his definitive work on the local enslaved African Americans support of Brown at the Harpers Ferry raid. He has found the necessary confirming documentary source, that of Massachusetts lieutenant Robert Morris Copeland in an interview of Antony Hunter, a local enslaved man from Shepherdstown who escaped to Union Army protection in August 1861. Copeland wrote “My Man Antony” in Putnam’s Magazine in April 1869. He states—unfortunately in the ill-mannered Ebonics written in Uncle Remus (Joel Chandler Harris) style—that Hunter was among a group of “hundreds” who gathered in the mountains of Jefferson County outside Harpers Ferry and Charles Town to be ready to be armed by Brown and continue South. DeCaro has taken the research and analysis of myself (Jean Libby) since 1979 and Hannah Geffert of Shepherd University (“John Brown and His Black Allies” in Prophets of Protest, Reconsidering the History of American Abolitionism, The New Press, 2006) and brought it together with logic and coherence and his own primary source discoveries in his chapter “The Raid Reconsidered.” I would recommend John Brown; the Cost of Freedom for obtaining the best information about the local support for Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in October 1859.

Lou DeCaro is generous with his attribution to other scholars. I agree with his correction of the time of the portrait of John Brown taken in 1856 in Hudson, Ohio, as December in a family migration from Kansas rather than a quick trip in the summer to pay respects to his half brother on the death of their father, Owen Brown, in May. But the daguerreotype did not stay in Ohio so that it became the model for an awful portrait painted by David Gue in 1915. The image used by the artist (the same David Gue who wrote to Secretary Floyd in 1859 warning him of the impending liberation) was that of the published biography by Oswald Garrison Villard. The daguerreotype was still in the hands of the Fairchild family in Boston when Villard had it reproduced in fine detail in 1910. Later it was donated to the Boston Atheneum, where it is today. Therefore, Brown took the daguerreotype with him from Hudson when he went to Boston to seek funds from abolitionists in early 1857. Sure makes more sense with the December date of the sitting in his ill-fitting suit and home haircut. BTW, it is this image which the forensic anthropologist Eileen Barrow (now head of the Anthropology Dept. at LSU) thought could possibly be a different person. That is primarily because of the hairline, which is deliberately obscured, and because the ears appear somewhat different. However, all the photo portraits which I sent to Dr. Barrow were found to be of the same person, including this one. DeCaro’s suggestion that Brown’s beard was grown as a cover for the effects of mild stroke as much as “disguise” is well-taken.

“Isn’t it great that there are four good biographies about John Brown in the last four years!” quoting Kirke Mecham, composer of a John Brown opera that will premiere in Kansas City in 2008. All four are offered on Internet Bookselling, “where you can find the good books about John Brown” that are sympathetic to the man and his liberation plans. John Brown, the Cost of Freedom by Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. (International Publishers, 2007) is the best one.

Review by Jean Libby, editor
Allies for Freedom Publishers


1 This letter is recited in full by Professor Roy Thomas in Mean To Be Free; John Brown’s Black Nation Campaign by Jean Libby, author and photographer (UC Berkeley TV and Radio Studio, 1986, reissued as a DVD by Allies for Freedom, 2005.)

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