"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, May 24, 2007

In Praise of Pottawatomie: Why May 24th Should Be "Anti-Terrorism Day"

Ever since the skewed, biased biography of Oswald Garrison Villard branded John Brown as a "principled" murderer in 1910, scholars and journalists (usually white) have picked and poked away at Brown's legacy, forever associating him with violent political action. In the later 19th century, Brown was upheld as a forebear of murderous anarchists; in the later 20th century, he was branded "the father of modern terrorism" in association with outbreaks of domestic terrorism in the 1990s directed at the federal government and abortion clinics. Unfortunately the prejudice and error of these assumptions are so pervasive that it is hard to speak otherwise, especially in defense of Brown and his associates, who killed five pro-slavery activists on May 24, 1856 by hacking them to death with military swords.

Ever since "9/11," however, perhaps people in this country are more open to revising their ideas about John Brown, or so one would hope. The reality is that Brown and his family were not terrorists, but targets of terrorism. Their violent strike was not an act of terrorism, but an act of counter-terrorism. Brown and his family were the good guys. The people who died were the bad guys. Sometimes good guys have to kill bad guys to preserve life and prevent the spread of cancerous criminality, injustice, and wickedness.

As one who has studied the story of Brown's activities in Kansas, it is clear to me that we have been blaming the wrong people for too long. Most of this misdirected blame can be traced back to a number of sources or reasons. The first is Brown's "friendly" biographer, Oswald Garrison Villard, who published his "definitive" biography in 1910. Villard concluded that Brown was a "principled" murderer who took the lives of pro-slavery settlers for no morally justifiable reason. In reality, Villard was biased and deliberate in his conclusions, which were far more interpretive than he portrayed them to be. Villard was the grandson of William Lloyd Garrison and evidently had an ax to grind because his own forebear's legendary anti-slavery leadership was overshadowed by Brown's epic strike at Harper's Ferry and subsequent hanging. Brown got to be the hero of the anti-slavery movement in one fell swoop, while Grandpa Garrison's lifetime of service was relegated to second place in the movement's history.

More importantly, Villard was an extreme pacifist whose zeal for that cause increasingly bordered on fanaticism. Villard could sanction no act of violence on behalf of anti-slavery, so Brown was actually guilty in his eyes before he examined the evidence. When Villard did so, he was selective. As one who has worked through his research papers at Columbia University, I would argue that Villard allowed his bias to "prove" that his beliefs were facts. As a result, his "definitive" judgment regarding the Pottawatomie killings set a precedent for scholarship in the 20th century, a precedent that grassroots scholars are still endeavoring to challenge.

Another reason why Brown has been labeled a terrorist is that he had fallen out of favor with the passing of the Civil War generation in the late 19th century. As the nation moved further and further away from advocating for black rights and closer and closer to reconstituting white supremacy for the new century, Brown appeared more as a problem than a hero to white society in general. Along with the delicate Negrophobia of the North that led many to look back on the abolitionist movement as an embarrassing extreme, the bitter, recalcitrant "lost cause" mentality of many southerners also found expression in the early 20th century. As far as John Brown is concerned, these two streams of white supremacy flowed and merged into a cynical, antagonistic biographical monstrosity.

Finally, this negative interpretation of Brown ultimately flowed into popular culture through second-rate histories (Robert Penn Warren's bio of Brown is a good example) and 20th century cinematic portrayals, particularly Santa Fe Trail (see my blog entry, Santa Fe Trail: The Film that Skewed John Brown for the 20th Century," April 23, 2007). This 1940 film presented Brown as a delusional killer and made heroes of the men who would shortly lead the anti-Union and pro-slavery Confederate cause in the Civil War. Mid-20th century historians were hard-nosed, prejudiced, and judgmental when it came to Brown. Given the socio-historical context, it is no surprise that white male intellectuals, from North and South, would presume to slander and misrepresent Brown without even realizing how perverse was their perspective. (Of course it is also no surprise that the judgment of black historians, writers, and activists has always been quite distinct from their malignant interpretations.)

In the 21st century, however, John Brown is having a comeback. Three of the four latest biographies or biographical studies published since 2002 are either sympathetic toward or (in my case) supportive of Brown's actions in Kansas. David Reynolds, whose biography has gained the most media attention, has caught a great deal of flack for posing challenging questions about the status quo portrayal of Brown, instead showing him in a very positive light. My own recent (second) book on Brown further challenges, perhaps far more deeply, the assumptions of the conventional academy and media.

In my estimation, May 24th should be remembered as "Anti-Terrorism Day" in the U.S. Instead of remembering Brown as a villain, he should be remembered as a man who chose to fight and kill terrorists rather than succumb to their murderous, racist program. Instead of a terrorist, Brown was a counter-terrorist who was forced to take action because there was neither federal nor local police protection. There was simply no guarantee of "democratic" protection from ruthless racists who hated and earmarked the Browns for assault because they were openly pro-black and militantly anti-slavery.

The people that the Browns killed along the Pottawatomie Creek on May 24, 1856 are the proto-type of domestic and foreign terrorists. They are the kind of people who are driven by evil sentiments and who resort to extreme violence and conspiracy in order to drive out good people and decimate communities devoted to justice and equality. To label Brown as a terrorist is to take the side of slave masters, murderers, fascists, and hateful fanatics against the highest principles we claim for this nation. To recognize Brown as an anti-terrorist is to place him right-side-up on the platform of history, finally recognizing that good people--when faced with desperate circumstances--must sometimes use force to set matters right, particularly when government and constabulary organizations will not or cannot do justice. From the White House down to the territorial government of Kansas, in May 1856 there was no just force to represent the Browns, let alone the enslaved and their reluctant "free state" allies. Brown was not intimidated or defeated. At the moment when evil raised its fist, Brown struck first and struck hard. The vector of terrorism along the Pottawatomie was crushed, and the blood that flowed in the Pottawatomie Creek was red with justice despite its horror. Critics may call it "murder" all they like. It was a desperately heroic act and I, for one, am glad it was taken. I would rather have the Browns alive than the likes of Sherman, Wilkinson, and the Doyles who perished at the blade of the Browns' swords. Sic semper tyrannis. Long live the memory of John Brown and men and women like him.--LD

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