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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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Friday, November 30, 2007

Part I
John Brown & New York City

Louis A. DeCaro Jr.

Unlike his final visit, most of John Brown’s previous trips to New York City had gone unnoticed by the public. More accustomed to rural life, businessman Brown probably felt a bit awkward walking the streets of the city, though in later years as a celebrated Kansas guerilla he learned to wear his frontier bearing like an exotic costume in the great cities of the east. But in the early days, he was just one more struggling traveler hoping to complete his mission and get out of New York as soon as possible.

An Early Visit to NYC

Brown’s earliest documented visit took place in December 1838, when he spent the better part of a week in “new York,” writing to his wife back home in Ohio that “I have not yet succeeded in my business, but think the prospect such that I do not by any means despair of final success.” But this kind of optimism would often decorate his disappointments. After a decade of doing reasonably well in Pennsylvania, for some reason Brown had returned to his home state of Ohio in the mid-1830s and gotten himself involved in land speculation, as well as buying western cattle for a firm in Connecticut. When the former venture collapsed, he used money from the latter to pay off some debts, determined that he would quickly replace the borrowed funds with the profits from his livestock venture. When his cattle sales proved disappointing, Brown somberly packed his bag and headed eastward in the hopes of securing a loan from a New York bank. But interviews and applications came to nothing, and after being likewise disappointed in Boston, 38-year old John Brown found himself returning home empty handed–the first leg of a journey of miles and tears that ultimately led to bankruptcy in 1842.

Brown's Hatred of Slavery

The prevailing view of many historians is that John Brown’s zeal for the anti-slavery cause grew in proportion to his failures in business. However, the reality is that he was reared in a devotedly abolitionist home where it was expressly taught that Africans and Native Americans were human beings made in God’s image. John Brown’s father was a stubborn Yankee who moved his family to the frontier in 1805, settling on Connecticut’s “western reserve” lands in the wilderness of northeastern Ohio. Owen Brown was a tanner known for his piety, his abolitionist zeal, and his tendency to stutter in speech–except when addressing the Almighty in prayer. He had been converted to the anti-slavery cause by Puritan revivalists in Connecticut, and took these sentiments with him to Ohio where he befriended local Native Americans and aided fugitives from slavery coming up from Kentucky and other slave states. A good businessman, Owen did quite well in land sales, and it was undoubtedly his example that first inspired young John to dream of surpassing his father’s attainment of wealth and support of the anti-slavery cause.

Later in life, when he wrote an autobiographical sketch for a friend in New England, Brown discussed his early years on the frontier, his inclination toward livestock and sheep farming, and a painful experience with slavery that he never forgot. After single-handedly herding some of his father’s “beef cattle” a great distance for sale to federal troops during the War of 1812, Brown recalled being treated very kindly by his white host. The man doted over 12-year old John, making much of his bravery and independence. But John was aghast when the same kind man acted out in sheer brutality and violence toward a black youth right before his eyes. John Brown always remembered this young man–fatherless and vulnerable–as representing the plight of enslaved blacks throughout the South. With all that his father had taught him, it was nevertheless this incident that solidified his unrelenting hatred of slavery.

Businessman Brown

Brown has often been portrayed as being a terribly reckless and untalented businessman, and his failures have usually been highlighted in order to discredit his later anti-slavery activities. However, while he was hardly a great businessman, the economy of the nation was shaky and uncertain. Many more capable businessmen also failed in the first half of the 19th century, especially in the western states which suffered for lack of a national bank, and where currency was inferior and entrepreneurs often found themselves entangled in debt involving unreliable promissory notes and drafts. Indeed, what is interesting about Brown’s business career is that despite major setbacks, his sterling reputation went unquestioned and some of his ideas–though not his tactics–were later implemented by other businessmen to some success.

Throughout the 1830s and 1840s, John Brown dreamed of using the profits of capitalism to advance the anti-slavery cause and provide assistance to the black community. Others were already so engaged, such as Gerrit Smith, a pious magnate in upstate New York, and the brothers Arthur and Lewis Tappan down in New York City, who generously funded educational and religious efforts among abolitionists. Brown’s early ideas were conservative, such as establishing a school for blacks. But with the passing of years and the worsening of conditions in the antebellum era, he undoubtedly became more militant in his plans. In between business trips, Brown thus applied himself to aiding blacks en route to Canada. Sometimes he was known to make forays into Kentucky and Indiana for the purpose of smuggling fugitives under the cover of a furniture wagon. Gradually, however, it became clear that he would never attain great wealth, and John Brown began to reassess his place in the anti-slavery cause, although it would take another decade before he willingly exchanged his role of entrepreneurial facilitator for that of militant freedom fighter.

Wool and Justice

By the mid-1840s he began to distinguish himself in the area of livestock, especially fine sheep and wool. In partnership with Simon Perkins, a wealthy investor from Akron, Ohio, Brown traveled throughout the northeast, examining flocks and conferring with wool growers, especially those with anti-slavery sentiments. By 1845 he had become something of an authority, writing pieces for agricultural journals, preparing certificates of quality for wool growers, developing cures and treatments for sheep, and making the Perkins flock one of the best in the country. In the midst of these activities, Brown came to the conclusion that the wool growers of the nation were at the mercy of the manufacturers in New England. As he saw it, U.S. wools had a bad reputation abroad partly because the wool growers themselves were careless and even dishonest in preparing their product for market. But they were nevertheless at the mercy of capitalists who controlled prices and manipulated the wool growers accordingly.

To answer this injustice, in 1846 the two Ohio partners set up a wool commission business in Springfield, Massachusetts, where Brown himself would carry the mandate of the wool growers to the New England manufacturers. By uniting the wool men and providing standards for quality and pricing, or so he believed, the whole nation would benefit. At the same time, Brown began to associate with leaders in Springfield’s black community, especially those affiliated with the city’s leading black Methodist church. While bankers thought him somewhat eccentric and stubborn in business matters, whites working closest to him were probably more put off by Brown’s passionate interest in the slavery question. Conversations with black employees and associates sometimes kept him in the office until late in the evening. John Brown was developing a plan to undermine slavery on a grand scale, and he wanted to recruit black men to help him.

But the wool venture failed, and while its demise was bound up with Brown’s business decisions, the firm was far more hurt by a lack of unity among the wool growers as well as the subterfuge of the manufacturers, who moved against him in the market and even placed an agent inside his wool commission. Furthermore, the wool venture was a partnership, and certainly Simon Perkins shared the blame for the failure, especially since he made no effort to contradict Brown’s management at any time. Some writers have exaggerated the significance of the firm’s failure to John Brown’s personal life, though in truth it was more a hassle than a heartbreak, and Perkins absorbed the loss without complaint. Indeed, he thought so highly of Brown’s skills and work ethic that he pressed upon him to continue the management of his flock and farm back in Ohio. Sitting in a lackluster hotel room in Manhattan in February 1851, Brown thus wrote home that his disappointed partner still seemed “anxious to have us go back to Akron, and wants me to go on with him.”

The Browns, New York City, & Phrenology

In the aftermath of business failure, the partners faced a good many lawsuits involving manufacturers and former clients, and these kept Brown living out of a suitcase. Besides business stopovers, his visits to New York City in 1849-50 also entailed seeing his eldest son, John Jr., who had become an associate of the phrenology firm of Fowler & Wells. In the antebellum era, phrenology was upheld as the science of measuring human intellect, ability, and personality according to the shape of the skull. Inspired by a European theory that was carried across the Atlantic in the 1830s, traveling phrenologists in the U.S. lectured widely, providing skull-based evaluations and advice, and promising a future where advanced knowledge could be applied to practical use for the betterment of society. Unlike their European counterparts, advocates of phrenology in the U.S. blended scientific claims with other popular therapies and moral reforms, such as water-cure, temperance, mesmerism, and spiritualism.

Unlike his Puritan father who believed mainly in the Bible and the Declaration of Independence, John Jr. was always attracted to novel ideas ranging from science to the supernatural. In this case, however, it appears that both father and son were impressed by phrenology, perhaps after encountering Orson Fowler who, with his brother Lorenzo, were its foremost advocates in the country. The Fowlers lectured, advertised, and published a variety of materials applying phrenology to many social problems in their American Phrenological Journal and Miscellany. With branch offices in Boston and Philadelphia, they kept their headquarters and publishing company in New York City, where they formed a partnership with Samuel Wells. It is not clear which John Brown, father or son, was first attracted to the claims of phrenology, though they apparently became aware of it during their time in Springfield. Perhaps the Browns had heard Orson Fowler lecture at Springfield’s Town Hall, or had read about Fowler & Wells in newspapers like the Springfield Republican and the New York Tribune, which they favored for their anti-slavery sympathies.

Interestingly, the earliest document linking the Browns with phrenology is Orson Fowler’s handwritten “Phrenological Description of John Brown.” How it actually came about that Brown got a skull reading by Fowler is not known, though it is possible that his own curiosity as well as the urging of John Jr. compelled him to seek out the Fowlers while visiting New York City. The Fowler & Wells office was located at 131 Nassau Street, not too far from the American Tract Society at 150 Nassau Street, where Brown probably shopped for his favorite Puritan theological texts whenever visiting the city. He thus appeared at the door of the Fowler & Wells office on February 27, 1847 to have his head analyzed. Of course no one could have known at the time that businessman John Brown, yet to emerge as a public figure in the anti-slavery struggle, was joining a small circle of famous people, including Mark Twain, John Greeleaf Whittier, and Walt Whitman, all of whom had their skulls squeezed and measured by the chief apostles of phrenology in America.

Fowler’s “Description” is quaint and at some points seems no more revelatory than a popular horoscope:

Your mind. . .is of the kind that is continually expanding and improving. . . . You are very active both physically and mentally–are positive in your likes and dislikes. . . . You have strong domestic feelings, and are very fond of children. . . .It would be an advantage to you if you had a little more hope, and would allow yourself to look more on the bright side of things.

On the other hand, some of the analyst’s remarks seems quite true to the subject, probably demonstrating Fowler’s keen perceptions as an interviewer more so than the reliability of his science:

You have a pretty good opinion of yourself–would rather lead than be led. . . . In making up your mind you are careful & judicious, but are firm as the hills when once decided. You like to have your own way. . . . As a religious man you would become inclined to “deal justly and love mercy” than to pay much regard to forms and ceremonies. . . .You like to do business on a large scale, and can make money better than save it–you want it for its uses (in one form of another) rather than for its own sake.

To be sure, while Brown’s ability to make money was quite uneven, he never seems to have had any great passion for wealth in itself. Indeed, his supposed predisposition toward “business on a large scale” and the acquisition of money “for its uses” were never more evident than when he became a full-time soldier in his own personal war on slavery.

Judging from the manner in which the family seems to have treasured Fowler’s skull reading, John Brown was apparently impressed by the analysis, and seems to have had no problem when his namesake decided to become a professional phrenologist under the employ of Fowler & Wells. The younger Brown and his wife moved to New York City, but after less than a year, his career seems to have been cut short when he developed throat problems that interfered with his lecturing responsibilities. When John senior learned that his son and daughter-in-law were returning to Ohio, he wrote: “I am taken somewhat by surprise; but am exceedingly gratified to learn that you have concluded to quit that city.”

"That City"

It is no surprise that Brown was pleased that his son was leaving New York. While the booming metropolis undoubtedly had its benefits, its liabilities were all too evident, especially for someone accustomed to open land and mountain air. New York City was experiencing the birth pangs of modernity, and had already outgrown Philadelphia as the largest city in the country. By mid-19th century, the population swelled to a half a million, and although the city grid had already been expanded to accommodate growth, most residents were crammed into noisy, muddled areas in the lower third of the island. The sound of carriage traffic alone could be deafening at times, and one Manhattan resident wrote to the Tribune complaining that the city had become “a large, crowded, ill-ventilated, vulgar collection of bricks and mortar, and dirty streets and unsightly wharves.” John Brown must have worried at the thought that his family members were living amidst the racket and congestion of “new York.”

The same writer in the Tribune also complained about the influence that foreign immigrants were having on the city’s more pleasant sections, such as the Battery, which now seemed “about to be surrendered to the most vulgar occupation” of “thousands of unwashed immigrants who are vomited forth from the cities of Europe upon our shores.” Broadway too, “our great thoroughfare, is to be blocked up by these wandering hordes,” and “the lowest beggars and lazzaroni” were spreading “ship fever and small-pox and other loathsome diseases” to the point of creating a “deadly, polluting effect.” The city was indeed changing, even as the conventional notion of the so-called Caucasian race was being stretched painfully wider to include new waves of Irish, Italian, and other European immigrants, particularly Jews and Roman Catholics whose very presence would challenge the traditional dominance of Protestant culture. It was these “unwashed” peoples who were swelling the population, even as they laid the groundwork for a future metropolis where their descendants would outnumber those whom the writer called “the old citizens of New-York.”

Although John Brown was hardly xenophobic, his Puritan heart was probably a bit discomforted by the idea of an influx of Roman Catholics in the United States. However, if he had anything against the immigrants, particularly the Irish, it was probably that they seemed to be feeding into the worst aspects of race and racism in the city and nation as a whole. Despite their own flight from famine and oppression in Europe, the Irish–followed by other European immigrants in later years–quickly adapted to the racist norms of white society. “It bears terrifying witness to what happened to everyone who got here, and paid the price of the ticket,” James Baldwin writes. “The price was to become ‘white.’” In their quest to distinguish themselves from the most despised minority, the new immigrants often became far more virulent and antagonistic in their prejudices than even the Anglo-Saxon Protestants. These prejudices eventually exploded in the Draft Riots of 1863, when the resentment of immigrants in New York City turned in violent rage against black men, women, and children. In his visits to major eastern cities like New York and Boston, John Brown undoubtedly saw the vivid impact that white racism was having on the new immigrants, and how it was only worsening the condition of the despised black population.

Racist New York & Slave "Renditions"

To be sure, it would be nearly a century before New York became the “Big Apple” that jazz musicians adored, nor was the great black metropolis of Harlem even a remote possibility in the 1850s. Indeed, from the perspective of an abolitionist visitor like John Brown, New York City was one of the worst places for African Americans to live. Flagrant acts of racism were common, and blacks not only faced regular occurrences of open insult and physical assault by white ruffians, but lived under a system of de facto segregation. For black people in New York, every aspect of life was poisoned by white prejudice, from housing and employment to public facilities and entertainment. Apart from their own organizations and protest efforts, blacks had few choices, even fewer allies, and certainly no options whenever whites decided to pull rank according to skin privilege.

In 1855, the Rev. James W. C. Pennington, the prominent pastor of the Prince Street Presbyterian Church, found himself in such a dilemma when he was violently removed from a Sixth Avenue street car by the driver and conductor. Determined to have justice, Pennington held onto the back of the car, running behind it all the way downtown to the depot, where he found a policeman and demanded that the officer arrest the driver who had assaulted him. Instead of receiving justice, however, the minister was told to forget his complaint and move on. Outraged, Pennington argued with the policeman, only to find himself arrested and jailed. While a magistrate dismissed charges against the prominent pastor, nothing came of Pennington’s complaint–the incident only serving to suggest how much worse things were for blacks of no reputation or social standing. Unlike the Pennington incident, the injustices blacks experienced on a daily basis in the city were hardly reported in the Tribune or any other city newspaper. Although New York would one day become a haven for white liberals and black nationalists, in the antebellum era it was essentially a hostile environment for African Americans and white abolitionists. Indeed, compared to New York City, John Brown’s “western reserve” section in Ohio was a far more liberal and progressive society.

With the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act in the fall of 1850, things in New York and throughout the North could only get worse for blacks. While the law of the land already supported the capture and return of fugitives from slavery, the pro-slavery precept empowered the institution in unprecedented ways. Marshals and man hunters were authorized with the maximum support of the government, and those who refused to cooperate and assist them could be fined and imprisoned. Judges were awarded more money for blacks they sent back into slavery than for those they released, and blacks themselves had no voice in their own trials. Within a short time of the passing of the law, several black New Yorkers were seized, tried, and sent to the South in chains. The most notable incident was that of Henry Long whose case became noteworthy because the despised abolitionists of the city rallied to provide him legal aid, postponing his return and creating financial inconvenience for the Southerner who claimed to be his master. In response, the “Union Safety Committee” was formed by city merchants and businessmen, who successfully raised money to hire additional legal assistance on behalf of the slave owner. Thanks to their intervention, Long was finally returned to slavery.

Another case was that of Horace Preston, a fugitive living in Brooklyn who was not aware that a policeman from New York’s 6th Ward had conspired with a city lawyer to seize and return him to slavery in Maryland. According to the Tribune, in April 1852 Preston was arrested on false charges and jailed “in the lower part of the Tombs, not under the control of the regular Warden of that prison.” When friends offered to pay Preston’s bail, they were refused, as was the offer of counsel. He was secretly arraigned with no legal representation so that the false charge could be laid aside and the slave law invoked. By the time any effective action could be taken on Preston’s behalf, it was already too late, the conspirators having made sure of their reward.

Ally For Freedom

John Brown greeted the Fugitive Slave Law with a peculiar theological optimism. He followed the reports of “slave renditions,” noting that the Long case in New York City had sent shock waves throughout the black community, including his friends up in Springfield, Massachusetts. But rather than see the law as an overwhelming monster, Brown believed it was God’s way of fueling the fire of the anti-slavery cause. “It now seems the fugitive slave law was to be the means of making more abolitionists than all the lectures we have had for years,” he wrote to his wife Mary during a business trip. But Brown also saw the passing of the law as an opportunity for action, and he gathered black friends and associates together in Springfield, organizing a self-defense group which he called “The United States League of Gileadites”--an allusion to the biblical story of a small army of Israelites who organized to fight against foreign invaders. He then drafted an organizational document for the Gileadites which included advice and strategies for militant struggle resistance. According to Brown, there were to be no Henry Longs or Horace Prestons taken from Springfield, as the Gileadites should expediently kill any agent of slavery who dared to operate in their town. According to local black history, one Sunday morning after service at the Zion Methodist Church, Brown stood in the back of the sanctuary passing out Bowie knives to the parishioners. Interestingly, the presence of the Gileadites not only seems to have dissuaded man hunters from coming into town, but in a real sense the organization also established John Brown as the most influential militant leader in Springfield’s black community until “Temple No. 13" of the Nation of Islam was established by Malcolm X over a century later.

During this period, Brown, his wife, and younger children had settled into a small community nearby a colony of African Americans in the chilly Adirondack community of North Elba, known today as Lake Placid. Even as the wool business in Springfield was winding down, Brown had become enamored with the idea of joining the efforts of free blacks who had received land grants from the wealthy abolitionist, Gerrit Smith of Peterboro. Smith had inherited thousands of wilderness acreage from his father, and devised the plan of giving parcels of land to blacks from New York State, thus enabling them to overcome racist voting restrictions that limited suffrage to property owners. Contrary to what has sometimes been reported, none of the black grantees were ex-slaves or fugitives from the South, but hailed from cities like Troy, Albany, New York, and Brooklyn. All they needed to do was claim their deeds and settle their lands.

Brown was delighted to hear about Smith’s plan and imagined himself settling along with them as a kind of fatherly consultant, particularly since they were urban folks who would need guidance and instruction in the ways of the wilderness.

The problem with Smith’s land grant program was that its strength was in sentiment rather than practicality. It would have been hard enough for city dwellers to learn the skills necessary to establish an agrarian based settlement. But when they arrived, the black settlers found that much of the land was not arable. In addition, the climate seemed enduringly cold, the planting season short, and vegetation stunted. Nor were they free of the subterfuge of unscrupulous whites who set about scamming some of the settlers out of their deeds. Notwithstanding the many challenges facing the colony, Brown had irreversibly determined that the program was full of potential, and then threw himself and his family head-first into the effort. Moving into a rented farmhouse in the spring of 1849, the Browns began to reach out to the fledgling black community, which called itself “Timbuctoo” after the great cultural center in African history. Throughout 1849-51, Brown was frequently moving back and forth between Springfield and the Adirondacks, struggling to close out business affairs while providing for his family and looking out for the interests of the “Timbuctoo” colonists.

But even before moving to North Elba, Brown had established regular communication with Willis Hodges, the foremost black leader associated with the grantee program. Hodges, a Brooklynite with roots in Virginia, was distinguished as one of the leading blacks in the state, and had co-founded a newspaper called The Ram’s Horn with the black restauranteur Thomas Van Rensselaer, whose popular eatery was located on the corner of John and Williams Streets in Manhattan. Brown had made great efforts to promote and support The Ram’s Horn, and even wrote a quaint piece for the paper under the guise of a black writer. The article, entitled “Sambo Mistakes” (not “Sambo’s Mistakes” as many of us have previously supposed), was Brown’s way of identifying a set of behaviors and attitudes–Sambo mistakes–that diminished black manhood, weakened the struggle for justice, and reinforced prevalent racist stereotypes. The article showed real chutzpah, but John Brown was not patronizing and he wore his literary black face with genuine determination; if the editors actually ever read it, they probably felt Brown’s audacity more thoughtful than offensive. Nevertheless, it has long been a scholarly presumption that Hodges and Van Rensselaer published Brown’s little essay sometime between 1848 and 1849. Unfortunately, almost nothing of the paper has survived, and our only source for the piece comes from Brown’s own copy pad. If “Sambo Mistakes” was actually published, we have no way of telling from the few extant fragments of The Ram’s Horn.

Regardless, Hodges and Brown thereafter carried on a warm correspondence in the early days of the black colony experiment in the Adirondacks. Hodges himself had headed up another Adirondack colony called “Blackville.” From time to time, Brown wrote letters of encouragement to Hodges, and purchased food and supplies to be shared among the colonists. By the later 1850s, however, most of the grantees from “Timbuctoo” and “Blackville” had fled the cold wilderness, leaving only a few determined settlers on the land. Hodges himself pulled out sometime in the early 1850s and returned to his home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The next time he saw his somber blue-eyed friend, John Brown was sporting a long white beard and plotting a raid upon the slave states.

Though African American leaders knew of him a whole decade before the raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, Brown remained on the margins of the abolitionist community and was unknown to prominent white leaders like the fiery writer and orator, William Lloyd Garrison of Boston. Not only was he stubbornly independent, but he increasingly dismissed abolitionists for their talk-only inclinations. Most of all, Brown was convinced that the pacifist doctrine of “moral suasion” was nonsense, and that the institution of slavery had become so monstrous, unrelenting, and morally reprobate that the only manner it could be defeated was through the use of force. [continued]

John Brown & New York City

According to the famous New York diarist George Templeton Strong, nine-tenths of the city’s population in 1859 were quite opposed to John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, and were equally vociferous in opposing the outpouring of Northern sympathy in newspapers and rallies resulting from his execution. Like many Northern whites in the antebellum period, Strong was nevertheless disgusted by the demands and threats of the Southern slave states, and had grown weary of “seeing the North on its knees, declaring it is a good boy, and begging the South not to commit the treason and violence it is forever threatening.” Even though he disapproved of the tributes to Brown that appeared in the New York Tribune, Strong could not help but see the impact that the abolitionist had made on people throughout the free states. “His simplicity and consistency, the absence of fuss, parade and bravado, the strength and clearness of his letters, all indicate a depth of conviction that one does not expect in an Abolitionist,” he wrote the week after Brown’s execution in Virginia. “Slavery has received no such blow in my time as his strangulation.”

John Brown, one of the nation’s leading authorities on fine sheep and wool, had been anything but a good boy. For nearly four years, dating from his first trip out to the Kansas territory until his assault on the [West] Virginia town of Harper’s Ferry in October 1859, Brown waged a full time war against slavery--one that cost him virtually all he owned as well as the lives of three of his sons. Finally, it required that he hang by the neck on a Virginia gallows while his enemies watched with satisfaction, declaring him aloud to be an “enemy of humanity.”

Yet George Templeton Strong and other conservative Northerners could not escape the forces in the wind that made the swaying of John Brown’s body something of a national pendulum, as if marking the months, days, and hours that remained before the whole nation exploded into civil war. Soldiers dressed in blue would soon be singing John Brown’s anthem as they marched into battle, and a troubled President Abraham Lincoln would finally be forced to follow John Brown’s example by putting guns in the hands of black men. But it would take years before Lincoln was ready to do so.

In February 1860, barely three months after Brown’s execution, presidential hopeful Lincoln told an audience at the Cooper Union in New York City that the late abolitionist was a brooding, delusional fanatic whose unwarranted invasion of Virginia merited the harshest penalty. John Brown deserved to be hanged, Lincoln declared before an audience of 1500 New Yorkers. As for slavery, he concluded, “we can yet afford to leave it alone where it is." He made quite a stir with his Cooper Union speech, and many think it was a turning point in his quest for the presidency. Yet it was in cleverly distancing himself from John Brown and black liberation that Abe Lincoln won the nomination of the Republican party in 1860. On that snowy night in Manhattan, it was quite apparent that John Brown’s body was a burden to Lincoln and the Republicans, and that they believed the problem of slavery was a matter best postponed for the sake of the Union. Brown had forcefully disagreed, insisting that the plight of oppressed millions should be the first order of business for American democracy. To the dismay of the Republican party, the South presumed that Brown fairly illustrated the Northern agenda. Thus, figuratively speaking, Lincoln had tried to unload John Brown’s body in New York City–a point that has a certain resonance only because the real body had actually been unloaded in the city twelve weeks before.

Shipped north by train from Harper’s Ferry to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on December 2, John Brown’s remains were accompanied by his widow Mary Brown and James Miller McKim, a prominent abolitionist from the city of brotherly love. Mary needed to rest among friends over night, but the excitement and curiosity surrounding Brown’s body prompted the mayor to insist that his coffin not remain in town. Of course he claimed that he had Mary Brown’s best interests in mind, fearing that the uproar would interrupt her mourning. But the mayor was far more concerned that the excitement might lead to public demonstrations in sympathy for the Old Man, and as the New York Tribune reported, “he preemptorily insisted that another stopping place should be selected.” And so John Brown’s body was tossed northward like the proverbial hot potato, and he entered New York for the last time, on December 3, 1859, inside a crude pine coffin, dressed in tattered, war-torn clothes, with the hangman’s rope still around his neck--a Southern salute to the people of the North.* (continued)


*Some of the material in this section has been re-presented in the epilogue of my book, John Brown--The Cost of Freedom.

Two Harper's Ferry Raid Items Under Auction

The Heritage Auction Galleries are currently conducting an auction of Civil War era items, including two items pertaining to John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, [West] Virginia, in October 1859. The items are pictured and described below, based on the Heritage Auction website.

According to the Heritage Auction description:

THE ONLY KNOWN PERIOD IMAGE OF JOHN BROWN'S CARBINE [left] On the reverse of a post-Civil War carte de visite photograph, taken by R.A. Lewis of New York City, is penned the following bold browned ink inscription, which definitively proclaims a most historic declaration:

The gun taken from the hands of John Brown at Harper's Ferry, now in possession of H.T. Drowne, New York, The lad holding it is Drowne's son. Presented to me by Mr. Drowne, Oct. 4th, 1870. The well-dressed lad on the obverse of the CDV does indeed solemnly hold an example of what has come to be known as the "John Brown model" of Sharps carbine, but no other supporting evidence of the veracity of the written testimonial is offered. Additionally, at his feet on the floor of the photographer's studio there appear some mysterious folded documents or papers for which there is also given no explanation.

Then, in 1998, out a family estate in Cooperstown, New York, the identical carbine surfaced with great fanfare and is currently on display at the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. Most amazingly, an envelope containing an 1870 dated letter of provenance was still with the firearm and provided a wonderfully unbroken chain of ownership up to that time, that letter being the exact one shown in this carte de visite.

According to the letter, which was written on behalf of the widow of Confederate General George W. Randolph by former Confederate Major Thomas G. Peyton, the "rifle used by John Brown at Harpers Ferry" was secured by General Randolph in his presence and further states that "the fact of the rifle being the one used by Brown and captured in his hands in the Engine house" can be corroborated by the Governor of Virginia H.A. Wise. The recipient of the letter, one J. Lyttleton Adams, may have been an associate of noted New York historical collector Henry Thayer Drowne, in whos appreciative hands the carbine was placed very shortly thereafter.

Correspondence with Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and a xerox copy of the actual letter and cover accompany this lot. An incredibly significant and extremely important photograph, backed with impeccable documentation. Condition: Very Fine, with great contrast Estimate: $2,500 - $3,500.


A JOHN BROWN CARTRIDGE...SAVED BY ONE OF HIS RAIDERS [top]. During the summer of 2006, a grouping of Civil War personal effects and ephemera attributed to a Federal officer (whose family had moved to Ohio from Boston at some point after the war ended) was sold at an estate auction held near Cincinnati. The officer, Benjamin H. Ticknor, first served as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 45th Massachusetts Infantry, but was later commissioned as a Captain in the 2nd Massachusetts Artillery.

A number of his more treasured mementos had been stored in labeled and rather colorful "PRIDE OF VIRGINIA" tin tobacco boxes made by the J. Wright Company of Richmond, actually highly collectible pieces in their own right. In the box marked "Political" was something extra special, an original wrapped .52 caliber Sharps cartridge from John Brown's Raid.

Written in old browned in on the back of one of his engraved calling cards was the true history of this singularly unique and most extraordinary relic, penned in the hand of Captain Ticknor himself:

This bullet was carried on the John Brown raid by Francis Jackson Merriam and was by him given to Dr. David Thayer by whom he was secreted after his escape. Given by Dr. T. to me today. August 31st, 1889. B.H.T.

An official solder of Brown's Provisional Army, Francis J. Merriam is described by one source as "one-eyed and mentally challenged." Born into an elite Boston abolitionist family and wielding a modest inheritance, he joined the raiders late in the game and was assigned to help guard their farmhouse stronghold and also supply weapons and distribute munitions to arriving slaves at their schoolhouse rendezvous point. Upon the failure of the Raid, Merriam escaped and eventually fled to Canada with the able assistance of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, as well as the above mentioned Dr. David Thayer. He later returned to the U.S. and became an officer in a colored infantry regiment, where his wild and quirky behavior soon earned him a leg wound. He died mysteriously in late 1865.

An incredibly intriguing artifact with wonderful period provenance. Full details, plus additional background and particulars upon request. One of the most interesting Civil War cartridges one is ever likely to encounter.

Condition: Fine, powder is falling out Estimate: $2,500 - $3,500.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Response to a Blogger Who Calls John Brown a "Bully"

John Brown was not a bully. He was by nature an advocate for the underdog.

What happened in Kansas was pro-slavery terrorism unchecked. Brown went there to protect his family. The [Pottawatomie] killings [of May 1856] that he and others committed are famously misrepresented. They were not random attacks on pro-slavery neighbors. They were specifically aligned to remove the collaborators of pro-slavery terrorists (euphemistically known as "border ruffians") who were intent on "removing" the Browns. Brown did his homework--he always did his homework, and he knew specifically which men were working to undermine his family. Keep in mind, too, that there was a pro-slavery government in Washington D.C., Kansas was a territory overrun by pro-slavery thugs and terrorists, and there was no local constabulary or law enforcement that would provide them with immediate protection against terrorist assault; Lawrence had just been assaulted and Brown had done surveillance on the "ruffian" camp, having learned that his family were marked for attack. He made a hard choice, and he knew it was problematic; but he chose to strike first and save his sons. Note too that none of the men who were involved with him were forced; they assented and agreed, including one of the sword-wielding neighbors. This incident has been misrepresented, largely because of ignorance and prejudice, which seems to be the blight on Brown's legacy.

As a biographer of the man, I and a few others doing primary research are constantly up against the deep-seated prejudice and misinformation about Brown that saturates the thinking of people in this country--yes, mostly white males (and I say that as one myself).

Your comments on Lincoln likewise suggest you do not know the man. You speak of Douglass, but you should take the time to read what Douglass said about Lincoln and Brown, respectively, in his third and final autobiography. He says of Lincoln that he was primarily a white man's president, and that his choices and judgments as president were for whites, not blacks' advancement. In Douglass's thinking, no "white" man was closer to the cause of black people than John Brown. This was also the judgment of Harriet Tubman and the rest of Douglass's contemporaries. The "Lincoln the Great Emancipator" hype that we've all been fed is a post-1865 propaganda and it is an attempt to make the proverbial half-full glass seem full to the brim. But Lincoln was a politician, not a liberator, and if he did liberate people, he did so when it was politically expedient, or (if Lerone Bennett is correct) even unavoidable.

Lastly, as to Harper's Ferry, the conventional understanding of the raid is wrong, and that error has likewise informed historians and school book authors, where most of us have gotten our basic predisposition and understanding. You say Brown had courage but Douglass had wisdom. That's only half true.

Douglass repeatedly acknowledged afterward that he lacked courage to die for his people, but he never accused Brown of lacking wisdom. Douglass himself did not know what Brown knew about HF. If you examine Brown's strategy, you'll find it was not unreasonable at all. HF had no military guard and it was close to the mountains. Historians like myself and others have likewise found evidence that many enslaved people indeed turned out to support him, so the essence of Brown's plan was feasible at least. Douglass never objected to Brown's basic plan; what he objected to was seizing the armory. Brown failed not because his plan was foolish, but because he lingered too long "parleying" and sympathizing with his whimpering hostages--most of them slave masters. Some bully! His own man, Osborne Anderson wrote this in his memoir of the raid[A Voice from Harper's Ferry-1860]

Brown was no bully. By nature he was a very compassionate man who always fought for the downcast. As a school boy he was known to always take up for the weak guy when he was being bullied. We have that from local history. As a businessman he aligned his interests with white farmers being victimized by industrialists. Of course he was always trying to assist black people, the perennial victims of Jeffersonian democracy. You have incorrectly characterized him, but it's not your fault. It's the fault of biased historians and journalists. Brown is the most skewed and violated historical figure in U.S. history, and a lot of it has to do with race and politics in the post-civil war era leading into the civil rights era. You don't get Brown, but you think you do, and that's been the problem of the majority of bloggers, journalists, and even U.S. historians--the vast majority of them being white males who never do more than a basic reading of a few interpretations. I'm a two-time biographer of the man John Brown, and as I said, you don't get him at all, and because of that your bully notion falls flat.