History, Research, and Current Themes

"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Monday, March 31, 2008

Some white people just cannot get past John Brown's use of violence in the struggle against slavery as well as the necessity of protecting his family and his own life. Today I read a blog by a woman who has read very little herself about Brown, but comments on his life vis-a-vis two speeches of Emerson, which she cites as having been made on November 18, 1859 (before Brown's execution) and on January 6, 1860 (about one month after the State of Virginia executed Brown by hanging on Dec. 2, 1859). After providing a succinct discussion about Emerson's remarks about Brown on both occasions, the writer says
Emerson states that it is easy to see that Brown will be a favorite in history. . . . On this, Emerson was wrong. Brown is a controversial figure in history. When I was in high school I remember learning about the Raid on Harper’s Ferry and I thought Brown was a hero because he tried to free the slaves. But the more I have been reading about him lately, the less I think of him as a hero. His cause, however good and righteous, was forwarded by armed insurrection and murder. I can’t help but wonder if Brown hadn’t been so successful, perhaps there may have been a way for the country to find a way to avoid civil war as well as a peaceful dissolution to slavery.
The blogger goes on to write that Emerson attributed the source or origin of abolitionism to slavery itself, a point that seems obvious enough since abolitionism is nothing more than a humanitarian reaction to inhumanity and injustice. But no, our blogger writes:

All the blame is laid squarely on the slave holder, neglecting to take into account history, politics, economics, and culture. He oversimplifies, implying that ending slavery is easy. He also exonerates Brown by implying that his being an abolitionist was not his fault.
In conclusion, the blogger writes what unfortunately seems inevitable when it comes to the rationale of many of Brown's contemporary (white) critics: "I can’t support Brown like Emerson did. Brown’s cause was just, but his methods, not so much."

I have thus addressed this unfortunate and mistaken rendering as follows:
As a biographer of John Brown the abolitionist, I’m sorry that you have taken such a dim and cynical view of him, while you seem to have embraced such a idealistic notion with respect to what might have happened.
I do not know what sources you are reading about him, but your tendency in thinking actually goes opposite of what most people think. Most–particularly whites–have been schooled to believe that Brown was a crazy, violent fanatic. You saw him as a heroic figure but now, based on your reading, think of him as a violent man and murderer. You think Emerson was largely stylizing him.
Let me assure you that you have not read enough about Brown. Brown nowhere planned insurrection, which is essentially an armed uprising with the intention of eliminating slave masters. Brown planned an armed defensive campaign. His intention was to lead enslaved people away from slavery, arm them to fight defensively while they liberated still more people, fighting in small groups in the mountains, until the economy of slavery collapsed. Brown did not believe in killing unless it was absolutely necessary. This also explains what happened in Kansas. The men that were killed by Brown and his company were terrorist collaborators and the Browns themselves were targeted for attack. There was no law and order and protection had to be taken into their own hands. Brown has been prejudicially misrepresented. Most of the “facts” of his case have been mediated from slave masters, pro-slavery people, and pacifists.
I wonder what answer you would have to slavery in 1859? You vainly imagine that another route toward peace was possible between north and south. Number 1, the South was looking for an excuse to secede and sustain slavery at all costs. Prior to the war, the South was bullying the federal government and running roughshod over the North to get their way. When moderate Lincoln was elected, they blew up and rebelled, and Lincoln did everything possible to assure the South that he would not take their slaves from them.
Number 2, with all due respect (and writing as a European American), you reason like a white person who sees slavery as an ethical “problem,” but not as a life-or-death crisis as would a black person, or any human who was enslaved. You seem to think that ending slavery has to be done “without violence,” when you would not feel the same way if you and your family were robbed of their labor, and your body was subject to the lusts of a man who owned you. Slavery is the great monstrosity of this nation and when whites talk about it so clinically, so removed, as if it were a mere economic issue, or bad policy, they only show that they STILL DO NOT GET IT. If you GOT IT, you’d appreciate how important John Brown really was, because there were not too many of “us” truly committed to human liberation at all costs. You probably admire the “founding fathers” who use violent insurrection and killing to win our independence, when as “whites” our independence was a matter of economic advantage, not freedom to control our bodies or earn wages. But still you hate and dismiss John Brown. I think that you have yet to read history correctly. I would recommend reading or rereading John Brown’s last statement to the court. Best wishes in your continued study and writing.