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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, July 03, 2009

Distorting John Brown: Another Case of Journalistic Irresponsibility

Few would deny that in the popular mind of our nation, the abolitionist John Brown may be one of the most hated figures in U.S. history. Maybe I'm wrong, but I haven't observed the kind of sloppiness or slander typical of writings on Brown put forth about other perceived "traitors" and enemies of the state. From Benedict Arnold forward, no one elicits such contempt and condescending attitudes from the masses, generally speaking, as does John Brown. To be sure, one could make a list of the kinds of people who decidedly disregard or even hate Brown out of loyalty to their particular ideology--some conservative, some liberal, some religious, some secular, etc. These kinds of people find fault with Brown as they perceive him through the grid of their particular ideological beliefs. Yet the bigger problem is not those with "specialty" reasons for despising John Brown. I do not expect the high priests and worshipers at the shrine of Abraham Lincoln to acknowledge Brown's leadership and heroism since they are religiously devoted to elevating Lincoln as a liberator and saint, thus requiring the near total diminishment of Brown. Similarly, one would hardly be surprised at southerners--still pitifully clinging to the "Old South" romance (or those dreaming of a new "Christian" South seceding from the union!)--hating Brown. It would seem that nothing short of divine intervention could lift the veil from such clouded eyes of prejudice.

Yet it is not these "specialty" critics that do the most damage to Brown's popular legacy. Rather it is the widespread misinformation and misrepresentation that prevails due to years of stubborn misportrayal by film makers, novelists, journalists, and (nowadays) bloggers that sustains a prevailing cloud of ignorance and bias against him in popular culture. Much of the Brown "dislike" in this country was born from the misinformation rendered from a high school history text book or similarly miseducated history teacher (where I grew up, high school history teachers were just sports coaches disguised as teachers anyway). This kind of miseducation continues through negative images and portrayals in movies and magazine articles. If you monitored the internet as I do regarding John Brown, you would be amazed at how many ill-informed references and remarks are made about him across this country every week. Most of this nonsense is not worth responding to because it is merely the flotsam and jetsam of the very cultural ignorance of which I write.

Not so rarely, however, journalists publish features that are more likely to contribute to the ongoing anti-Brown ignorance and misinformation that plagues this culture.

For example, recently I have responded to a number of articles by Jim and Lisa Gilbert, two otherwise capable journalists writing for a newspaper in Chatham, Ontario (Canada), who have been doing articles about John Brown's interaction with blacks in Canada in 1858. The Gilberts are seemingly determined to portray Brown with the "wild eyes" (sometimes they are "flashing") of a religious fanatic. Of course they also portray Brown's strategy in the South as doomed and insurrectionary. Neither journalist has adequately studied Brown's history, yet the norms of journalism permit Brown to be castigated, misportrayed, and diminished without warrant. Were Robert E. Lee or Andrew Jackson treated with the same hostile misinformation, all of the academic world would rise up in rebuke. But it's okay if your facts about Brown are wrong; it's perfectly acceptable to batter and abuse his reputation without checking the evidence of history. This double standard exists because it has become culturally acceptable.

I have taken you on this long-winded introduction only because Michael Cervin, a journalist and author, has recently published an article about Brown in an on-line magazine entitled Vision [San Diego, Calif.]. His article, "A Long Night’s Journey into Day," is yet another example of how popular readers are misinformed by irresponsible journalism. Cervin's article is fraught with detail errors. For instance, he has Brown's entire 21-man army of raiders marching to Harper's Ferry to attack the armory, when in fact a portion of the men remained behind; he describes Brown as "a tall, lanky man of six feet," when Brown was actually little more than 5' 9" and has been described as "sinewy" and slender, not "lanky" (is Cervin confusing Brown with Lincoln?); Cervin says that Brown's raid was "ill-timed and poorly planned," and in this he is (at best) only half-right. The timing of the raid was not according to Brown's intention. According to his son Owen Brown, the raid had to be expedited because Brown had reason to believe that authorities were going to be alerted. More importantly, the raid was actually quite well-planned. Consider that Brown had been studying the armory structure in the U.S. for about a decade. There were only two federal armories in the country, one in Springfield, Mass., where he had lived in the 1840s, and the other was in Harper's Ferry, Va. (I believe it was during his residence in Springfield that he first got the idea of attacking Harper's Ferry.) Brown knew that neither armory was protected by military guard and that the civilian guard at Harper's Ferry was ill-prepared. It is also a fiction of both journalists and academics that Brown did no advance work in contacting the enslaved community, and that the enslaved population showed little or no interest in his endeavors. There is more than sufficient evidence to the contrary. In short, Brown's raid was well-planned. It failed, by Brown's own admission, because he failed to follow through with his own plans. Overly ponderous and distracted by debates and parley with captive slavemasters, Brown's delay of but a few hours proved lethal. Yet he could shut the mouth of Virginia's Governor Wise by reminding him that despite the alleged foolhardy nature of his assault, he actually held Harper's Ferry successfully for more than one day!

Following conventional narratives, Cervin writes that Brown "was a failure at most everything he put his hand to and he’d accumulated debts he could never pay." To be sure, Brown did have preponderant business failings. But he was also one of the most notable authorities of fine sheep and wool in his era and his expertise was so well recognized in the antebellum era that he could write certificates of quality for livestock and was called upon by farmers in the northeast for his expertise and opinion. He may have failed as an entrepreneur, but readers should recall that he did not do so in a vacuum. Many of his contemporaries failed in business too.

Furthermore, Brown lived a time when there was no national bank or federal currency, no limited liability corporations, business insurances, etc. that are commonly used by entrepreneurs today. Finally, despite the failure of his wool commission operation in Springfield, Mass., which he operated in partnership with the wealthy Simon Perkins Jr. of Akron, Ohio, a closer examination of the firm's failure must take into consideration the opposition of manufacturing interests and their powerful abilities in the market, as well as the failure on the part of the wool growers to unify and collaborate effectively. All of this is a matter of record, although few have studied these things. All they care about is declaring Brown a business failure, and that ipso facto his failure drove him into the desperate quest for "success" as a liberator. This thesis is nonsense and easily set aside.

Cervin further misses the date of Brown's vow to oppose slavery by a decade, setting it in 1847, instead of 1837, after the shooting of abolitionist Lovejoy in Alton, Illinois. Far worse, he totally misrepresents Brown's intention for the 1859 raid as to "agitate the white slave-owning population, and give the courage for slaves to rise up, kill their masters in their beds and join Brown on a crusade to stomp out slavery." What is Cervin's source for this claim? It sounds like he used the same source that most northern journalists used in 1859--the slavemasters of Virginia! The fact is that John Brown NEVER planned for a general insurrection and the LAST thing that he wanted was a widespread bloodletting of slave masters. Killing slave masters in their beds may have been the Nat Turner strategy (and I'm not saying Nat Turner was not justified from his standpoint in doing so), but it definitely was not what Brown intended. His campaign was by all accounts a minimalist effort with respect to violence. He wanted to operate primarily clandestinely and lead off enslaved people, fighting only when necessary, and always using the recourse to retreat and hide in small cadres within the mountain system that stretched deep into the South. Cervin's understanding of the raid is seriously flawed and demonstrates that he is not working with facts but rather with imagination and misinformation himself.

Further, Cervin writes that "Brown was a man blunted by contradictions." I have studied Brown for years and have written two books on his life and I am not yet done studying his life. Yet I have never seen the "contradictions" or "complexity" that are often attributed to him. Brown was not conflicted or troubled by contradictions. He contradicted the cultural and social norms of his time; he contradicted the religious hypocrisy of the white church; he contradicted the perceived "right" of the wealthy and powerful to dominate the weak and helpless; he contradicted the "liberals" of his day by exposing them as "talk only" hypocrites. Yet he was firm and undivided in his efforts. Even in earlier days, when he hoped to become a financially successful businessman, it is clear that his Puritan heart and mind were determined to use that wealth to fund anti-slavery efforts. When his business life waned and he reached middle age, the extremities of the nation's condition as well as the dire problems faced by his family in Kansas pulled him into the heart of the militant struggle. There are no contradictions in the man. He is simple to understand if one correctly reads his letters and the witness of his record.

In all fairness to Cervin, he is not hostile toward Brown, and seems to forgive and even credit him for his devotion to fighting slavery at the end of the article:

His actions caused others to reevaluate theirs. According to Virginia law, Brown was guilty of treason. But moral law may have reached a different conclusion. . . . . At the very least, John Brown stood and fought for something he fully believed in to help those who could not help themselves. The very least we can do, as mindful citizens of planet Earth, is to stand up and be counted. Right or wrong, Brown put his life on the line. . . . Talk may be cheap, but inaction can be fatal.
This is a generous conclusion, given the preceding errors in detail and presentation. Yet Cervin's work as a journalist is wanting in this case, and it is this lack of care in factgs that has often hurt Brown in popular culture. When we start getting our facts straight about the man who lived, we may also start to understand the importance of his presence on the landscape of the antebellum era, as well as the dimensions of meaning and importance that he represents beyond the hackneyed notion of a wild-eyed, conflicted, and ill-prepared fanatic.

Louis DeCaro Jr.

Michael Cervin's article may be found at http://www.visionmagazine.com/archives/0907/Culture.html

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