Lawrence [Kansas] Journal & World News (Feb. 18, 2008)
John Brown had all of his marbles. He had a wife and many children, too. A strict belief in his faith. Many failures in his personal and professional life. And a single-minded belief in the equality of man, black or white. The famed abolitionist was more than just the crazy-eyed man with a flowing beard brandishing a Bible and a shotgun in John Steuart Curry’s famous painting at the Capitol in Topeka.
Jonathan Earle wants you to know the man behind the historical caricature. Earle, the interim director of the Dole Institute of Politics and an associate professor of history at Kansas University, spent five years sorting through documents — including letters, newspaper articles and legislative acts — to paint a concise, unique picture of Brown. The result is Earle’s new book, “John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry,” which he will discuss at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vt.
“So many historical biographies now have to be a thousand pages and $50. That wasn’t the idea of this,” says Earle of his book, which barely breaks 150 pages and lists around $16. “It was a short, biographical sketch that explains John Brown’s raid and John Brown’s career and then shows (it) in documents, primary historical documents.”
Compelled, not crazy
The first thing Earle wants readers to understand about one of the most controversial figures in pre-Civil War history? He had those aforementioned marbles. “I honestly don’t feel that he was crazy,” Earle says. “I think that’s part of what his image is, and that’s just something I found not to be true during my research.” What he did find was a man who was compelled from a young age to stand up and fight for racial equality. As a 12-year-old driving cattle into western Michigan during the War of 1812, Brown stayed at an inn where the innkeeper owned a slave about Brown’s age. That night in that inn, everything changed for Brown. “During the night the innkeeper whacked on the slave with a big fireplace shovel,” Earle says. “He writes about it later in life and never forgot being horrified by this and even as a kid saying, ‘That is not right.’
“A lot of us when we’re 12 see terrible injustice, but we don’t end up dedicating our lives and end up giving our lives to finishing it off. That’s not normal.”
Earle says his need for action was compounded by chaos in his life — between his business failures and fathering 20 children. Earle believes that had Brown’s life been more stable, he wouldn’t have become as single-minded in his need to rid his country of slavery. “I think had he been more successful in his business ventures, I don’t think he would have been the abolitionist figure that he was,” Earle says. “He might have given money, he might have signed petitions. But he wouldn’t have moved to Kansas and planned an insurrection and trained an army and come up with this scheme to get rid of slavery — which, by the way, didn’t work at all.”
That move to Kansas happened in late 1855, and Brown’s trail of blood in Bleeding Kansas began shortly there after, as Brown and his supporters were suspected to have brutally murdered five pro-slavery settlers in the Pottawatomie Massacre of May 1856. Little more than three years later, on Oct. 16, 1859, Brown and his supporters raided Harpers Ferry, took the federal armory, engine house and hostages before being captured two days later. He was hanged Dec. 2, 1859, a radical among radicals.
“‘Anti-slavery’ is kind of a broad-based word that encompasses everyone who was opposed to slavery, from the mildest ‘maybe we shouldn’t let slavery expand into the West’ to being an out-and-out abolitionist. Abolitionists are at the one radical end of anti-slavery — they are the people who want to immediately end slavery with no compensation for slaveholders, so they’re pretty radical,” Earle says. “Even among those abolitionists, the maybe 1 to 2 percent, John Brown is on the radical end of them. He actually believed in pure racial equality. Even other abolitionists and anti-slavery folks who saw the way that John Brown interacted with black people were shocked.”
John Brown today
Today, Brown’s “shocking” acts of race equality — “He sat with African-Americans in his church pew, he invited them to sit with them at the table, he addressed them as Mr. and Mrs., which is a term of respect,” Earle says — are the norm. And Earle believes Kansans — who have honored Brown in everything from beer (Free State Brewing Co.’s John Brown Ale) to sports-minded T-shirts during the yearly “Border War” between KU and Missouri — have every reason to take pride in John Brown.
“There’s the iconic figure that John Steuart Curry made at the Capitol, and there’s a pride,” Earle says. “Kansans committed acts of viciousness and violence on the other side of the border, too, but I think there’s a pride that Kansans were on the right side of this. I think Kansans are right to be proud that on the great issue of the day they chose the right one.” And though Brown’s ultimate goal of equality wouldn’t shock any American today, his means — the strong arm of violence — sure would. Even by today’s standards, Earl says, Brown was a terrorist.
“Nowadays we hear from the candidates on the campaign trail and the president about terrorism, and John Brown was a terrorist,” Earle says. “Is it OK to commit violence or kill for your political beliefs? I think today we say, ‘Of course not. That’s way over the line.’ In John Brown’s case, the thing is that it turns out he was right. And I don’t think that slaveholders would have let their slaves go without a fight. I honestly don’t.
“For today, there’s all sorts of issues — terrorism, violence, political murder, whether it’s OK to fight for your political ideals using violent means, it’s really a central part of today’s world as well as 150 years ago.”
That may be why crowds show up in droves to hear Earle speak about Brown. Right after the publication of the book, Earle gave a talk at the County Club Plaza branch of the Kansas City, Mo., Public Library on Jan. 20, the day of this year’s highly anticipated AFC and NFC championship games. Despite the perfect day to be a couch potato, more than 150 people picked John Brown and Jonathan Earle over Tom Brady and Brett Favre. Henry Fortunato, director of public affairs at the Kansas City Public Library, believes both speaker and subject contributed to what Fortunato calls a “remarkable turnout.”
“The combination of the enduring fascination of John Brown, and plus Jon Earle has a growing reputation as a leading, young scholar and a lot of people know about that, and so that was a pretty great combination,” says Fortunato, a former KU graduate student in history. “And so they came.”
Earle, though, gives all the credit to Brown. “He’s an exciting figure. It’s a time in history when anything could have happened — it was one of those moments where it was wide open. It didn’t have to come out the way it did,” Earle says. “It’s not that often that you find a person who epitomizes a movement as much as John Brown did.” Sarah Henning