The John Brown Year--and W.E.B. DuBois too!
All around the country there is talk about John Brown the abolitionist. In case you haven't been paying attention, 2009 is the sesquicentennial year of the Harper's Ferry raid and Brown's hanging in Virginia. Yesterday marked John Brown's 209th birthday and there have already been events taking place from coast to coast, most recently a weekend celebration in Lake Placid, N.Y., the site of Brown's burial. Last weekend, yours truly participated in a symposium in beautiful Hudson, Ohio, sponsored by the Historical Society and Library in that community--which also happens to be the hometown of the abolitionist. In a symposium in which the discussants were given the choice of choosing either "hero" or "madman" in referring to Brown, biographer David Reynolds and I opted (in so many words) for "hero." Our colleague, Paul Finkelman, took a little more complicated stance, arguing on behalf of Brown from a political standpoint, but essentially diminishing Brown as an individual, including the opinion that Brown "had to be a little nuts" to have undertaken the Harper's Ferry raid. I was quick to contradict my esteemed and brilliant fellow panelist because I do not see the Harper's Ferry raid as a quixotic adventure. As I pointed out, Brown made a careful study of both government armories then operated by the United States and he knew that Harper's Ferry had no military guard or supervision, and that it could be easily taken. Indeed, Brown had no difficulty taking the armory or the town. Had he gotten out of town far sooner, he could have pulled off a perfect coup. As Brown himself acknowledged, his delay proved lethal.
This weekend I was sad to miss the events held in lovely Lake Placid, in upstate New York, which in Brown's day was the town of North Elba. It was there that John Brown lived in a rented farm between 1849-51, before relocating to Akron, Ohio, to continue his partnership with the wealthy mogul, Simon Perkins Jr. After their partnership was dissolved (due to no fault of Brown's, but rather to Perkins's own financial failures) in 1854, Brown prepared to re-located to North Elba once again and had his trusted son-in-law, Henry Thompson, build a simple home--now restored and sustained as a New York State historic site, The John Brown Farm. Brown hardly had a chance to live in the house. In the spring of 1855, he went to the Kansas territory in response to an urgent appeal for weapons sent by his son John Brown Jr. That call, and Brown's response to it, pretty much ended his life as it was up to that point. Subsequently he would return home for short visits, but until the raid on Harper's Ferry, Brown traveled extensively, either fund-raising in the east, or eluding federal marshals, and escorting fugitives from Missouri across several states to escape to Canada, the "land of the free."
You can listen to an interesting radio broadcast by Brian Mann of North Country Public Radio (NCPR) about the event, which includes interviews with the brilliant novelist, Russell Banks and my friend, Martha Swan, of John Brown Lives! I have only a tiny bone to pick with Martha, in that she concludes (as do many people) that John Brown was a "complex" man. In my opinion as a biographer of the man, I do not think Brown was all that complex--at least he was no more complex than the rest of us. (The same has been said about Malcolm X, whom I had the privilege of studying in earlier years, and I likewise differ. Neither Malcolm nor John Brown are difficult to understand and they are entirely consistent and quite honest, notwithstanding the predictable self-editing that goes on whenever we engage in auto-biographical reflection.) The problem is not so much that Brown was complex, but rather than there are so many opinions and interpretations of him composed by so many people that trying to reach a consensus seems impossible. What makes him more complex is that academics in large part do not bring real light to Brown's life story; rather they complicate it with theories, multi-disciplinary interpretations, and any number of political "axes to grind." Then there is the contemporary disconnection between a largely secular academia and evangelical Christianity. Since most scholars do not understand the mind set or even respect the values of conservative Protestant Christianity, they tend to speculate (always more negatively than positively) concerning his religious life, or they concoct peculiar theories to present him more positively as a religious figure (as John Stauffer does in his study of Brown, Douglass, McCune Smith, and Gerrit Smith). Clearly Stephen Oates did not understand the mind and heart of evangelical Calvinism and yet many people consider his book definitive and the most fair.
John Brown was not a complex figure. He was a flawed hero, but there is no difficulty in understanding him once you grasp his life, faith, values, and family background. Contrary to what Dr. Finkelman and others believe, he did not "reinvent" himself in his Charles Town jail cell. To be sure, he fell back on the ultimate "victory" by embracing Christian martyrdom (and to Brown, his death was not simply political martyrdom, it was an expression of his Reformed faith). But both his willingness to die and his way of dying in Virginia were consistent with the life that he had lived up to that point. He did not see his failure merely as an opportunity to "reinvent" himself, but as the point at which God closed one door and opened another door--both doors (living for the slave vs. dying for the slave) being fundamental to his own sense of vocation throughout many years of life.
One last note: do not forget that 100 years ago this fall, William Edward Berghardt DuBois published his much-criticized biography of John Brown. DuBois was limited in resources and time and relied on many unreliable and problematic sources, so the book is pocked and scarred by detail errors. Yet the essence of the book is far more important and definitive insofar as DuBois presents the black community's understanding of Brown--an understanding that has long been far more true to the man than has "mainstream" (white) society's perception.
DuBois' book was sacked by Oswald Garrison Villard after its release. Villard, the grandson of pacifist William Lloyd Garrison, was preparing his own "definitive" work (published the following year) and could afford to pay someone to do his research. Villard owned the New York Evening Post and The Nation and he used his literary power to crush DuBois's effort and then refused to allow the black scholar to respond. Interestingly, a century later it is DuBois' biography that is the most reprinted and read. Scholars use Villard's book for its framework and documentation, but his narrative is dry, his tone condescending, and his treatment of Brown hardly as "objective" as he claimed. DuBois himself liked his biography of Brown among all his works--perhaps because he had connected with what Malcolm X once called "the black secret soul." John Brown is one of a few so-called white people in U.S. history that connected to blacks at a level of intimacy and understanding, to the point that he is far more "owned" by African Americans than he his by his own "white" community, including most of his descendants and extended family members.
Looking back at the year of Harper's Ferry, abolitionists in 1860 considered it as having been the John Brown year. It was simply impossible for them to think of 1859 without thinking of the Old Man at Harper's Ferry. One-hundred-and-fifty-nine years later, we are in the midst of another John Brown year as people from across the nation reflect upon John Brown life, death, and legacy. John Brown's soul is still marching on.