"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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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Part II
John Brown & New York

John Brown entered the public eye in the later 1850s when he became an activist and guerilla in the struggle for Kansas. A newly opened territory ripe for settlement and statehood, Kansas became the focal point of conflict between pro-slavery and free state settlers, and even though the latter were in the majority, the pro-slavery side was determined to use threats, vote tampering, and terrorism in order to secure control of the territory. Much has been made of Brown’s violent campaign in Kansas, and unfortunately the slant of historical writing since the early 20th century has largely set the stage for the latest trend of journalists and scholars in branding John Brown a terrorist. In fact, the popular notion of John Brown as a wild-eyed fanatic and marauding killer represents a fascinating blend of personal resentment, Southern vendetta, conservative politics, and pacifist bigotry. Brown’s first critics were jealous contemporaries who attacked his reputation in the later 19th century in order to uplift themselves. These old timers were shortly joined by younger writers who did not share the previous generation’s sympathies for the emancipated community, and tended to reflect the nation’s post-Reconstruction shift toward the political and cultural reunification of white society. To them especially, the celebration of John Brown’s legacy seemed a great embarrassment, and his violent measures in Kansas and Virginia became the basis for dismissing him from the pantheon of American heroes. Yet no single writer did more to undermine Brown’s legacy than a liberal New York pacifist and scion of the abolitionist movement.

When Oswald Garrison Villard, the wealthy grandson of William Lloyd Garrison, published a definitive biography of Brown in 1910, his ambiguous interpretation proved quite damaging. Villard probably resented Brown for stealing his grandfather’s thunder, especially since grandpa Garrison, orator and publisher of The Liberator, had labored so strenuously to advance abolition when Brown was still counting sheep in Ohio. But most of all, the pacifist Villard despised any notion of violence, and thought nothing of telling blacks to their faces that it would be better for them to be murdered by racists than to defend themselves by force. In the name of scholarly objectivity, Villard seemed determined to diminish John Brown. In 1909 he used his controlling ownership in The Nation and The Evening Post to publish a harsh criticism of the admiring and eloquent biography, John Brown, by the premier black intellectual, W. E. B. DuBois. Even though they were supposedly friends and colleagues in civil rights efforts, Villard refused to publish DuBois’s response, and treated his further protests with condescension. When Villard published his own biography to the acclaim of scholars and journalists the following year, he prefaced his own work as unbiased and definitive, and pronounced John Brown guilty of being a “principled murderer.” The problem with Villard’s biography was that–regardless of the facts--Brown had to be wrong in light of the author’s pacifist beliefs. His treatment of the Kansas conflict, for instance, was decidedly skewed by the assumption that nothing could vindicate John Brown for his role in the killings of five unarmed pro-slavery settlers in 1856. [Readers may find an expanded discussion about Villard and DuBois in my article, "Black People's Ally, White People's Bogeyman," in The Afterlife of John Brown, edited by Eldrid Herrington (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)].

However a careful examination of the evidence (much of it in Villard’s own files, now held by the Rare Book and Manuscript Collection, Columbia University Library) shows that Brown and the others involved in the killings were acting in desperate concern for their own safety, especially at a time when free state settlers were under heavy siege by armed “border ruffians” from Missouri and other Southern terrorists. Brown had gone to Kansas in the fall of 1855 after receiving an appeal from his sons, several of whom had migrated westward when the territory was opened for settlement. The boys wrote that they needed weapons, real weapons, since the free state settlers were being threatened and assaulted by pro-slavery thugs. The “border ruffians” killed and terrorized settlers and were tampering with ballots in an attempt to force a pro-slavery constitution upon the territory. With the federal government essentially turning a blind eye to these Southern intrusions, the free state settlers found themselves without recourse to federal or territorial protection, even though many naively expected that democracy would somehow prevail in the face of brute force. With the murders of several free state men, the South had already set the precedent for “Bleeding Kansas.” Indeed, the arming of free state activists was inevitable as long as Southern leadership showed its determination to force slavery upon the territory. While conservatives criticized their own free state warriors for exacerbating the violence, the reality is that there was nothing between them and pro-slavery domination except the counter-attacks of John Brown, James Montgomery, and other Kansas leaders who were determined to fight fire with fire.

In their own community of Osawatomie, the Browns were already distinguished for being hard-headed free state men and advocates of black equality–two positions that did not necessarily go hand-in-hand. As unabashed friends of the black man, the Browns were thought too extreme by conservative free state settlers, and were especially despised by pro-slavery neighbors in their vicinity. In the spring of 1856, a large party of Southern troops were watching Osawatomie, and some of the Browns’ pro-slavery neighbors became informants, identifying them among other free state men as primary targets in an imminent assault. Posing as a pro-slavery surveyor, Brown actually penetrated the Southern camp, talked with the enemy, and learned that the “damned Browns” had been marked for attack. When pro-slavery forces struck at Lawrence, the center for free state leadership in the territory, late in May 1856, it signaled that Osawatomie would soon be attacked as well. With the help of free state leaders in the area, Brown thus obtained a list of pro-slavery neighbors who were clearly conspiring with the Southern camp as informants and collaborators. Swords were honed razor sharp, and a wagon was obtained to carry a handful of men in the dead of night along Pottawatomie Creek where most of the informants lived.

John Brown Jr. said in later years that his father and the other Pottawatomie killers “got the jump” on their enemies. Leading them out of their homes at gunpoint, Brown’s sons Frederick, Owen, and Salmon, along with his son-in-law Henry Thompson and their neighbor, a burly Polish Jew named Theodore Weiner, escorted the informants into the darkness. Brown looked on in grim determination as they were hacked to death. At the home of a Tennessean named Doyle, the wife scolded her husband in panic: “I told you what you were going to get!” But her frightened admission that her husband and adult sons were indeed involved in “devilment” did not save their lives. The free state sword fell on all three with horrible precision, bringing the total number of men killed to five. Afterward John Brown fired his pistol once into Doyle’s dead body, as if to punctuate the episode with lead.

Even though it arguably derailed a local conspiracy and was generally acknowledged as a positive turning point for the free state side, this brutal episode became the Achilles heel of the John Brown legend in later years. While Brown’s critics presented one-sided accounts of the incident in the late 19th century, it was Villard’s inherently negative and condemnatory biography that made the so-called Pottawatomie massacre the most controversial and distorted aspect of the John Brown story. Indeed, the incident still remains the greatest opportunity for any detractor with an ax to grind, especially in the trendy literature that connects Brown with anti-abortion bombers and Osama bin Laden. Villard’s contention that the killings were politically unnecessary and morally inexcusable has ultimately been appropriated within every subsequent attack on Brown, no matter how slipshod or meretricious. In fact, few figures in U.S. history have been so regularly subjected to blatant misrepresentation and distortion under the heading of scholarship.

In popular culture these biased representations are not only basic to textbooks and fiction, but have been conveyed in almost every cinematic portrayal of Brown’s life from Santa Fe Trail (1940) to the recent PBS documentary, John Brown’s Holy War (2000)--both of which present him as a religious fanatic and a delusional killer. For the record, however, Brown deserves greater consideration. While there is no doubt that he supervised and thereafter defended the Pottawatomie killings (as did the killers themselves), it is hardly fair to make this episode into something akin to the Charles Manson story. The killings represented a consensus of desperation among many of Brown’s family and neighbors, and the killers were all willing participants who clearly believed they had no alternative if they wanted to prevent an imminent attack upon them and their families. Without protection from the law, overshadowed by hostile invaders, and vulnerable to the conspiracies of hostile neighbors, the Browns found themselves with their backs to the wall of history. That they chose a violent recourse might be disturbing, but in an age when we are overshadowed by threats of terrorism, perhaps we should ask ourselves if we would act any differently in the total absence of governmental security.

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