History, Research, and Current Themes

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

Search This Blog & Links


Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Gilder-Lehrman Instituate and New York Historical Society's
September 15, 2009-March 25, 2010

The Gilder-Lehrman collection, an amazing archive for anyone and everyone interested in U.S. history, holds an amazing amount of John Brown material--particularly letters from Brown and his children. By all accounts, it is one of the most important collections of the several major John Brown holdings across the country.

According to the Gilder-Lehrman Institute's website:

On view from September 15, 2009 through March 25, 2010, this exhibition of rare materials from the Gilder Lehrman Collection and the New-York Historical Society also sets the stage for the culminating presentation of the Historical Society’s Lincoln Year, with the landmark exhibition Lincoln and New York, opening October 9, 2009.

“John Brown: The Abolitionist and His Legacy examines Brown in the context of growing national divisions over slavery in the 1850s,” said James G. Basker, President of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. “Most African Americans and abolitionists saw John Brown as a martyr for a noble and humane cause. Others saw him as a terrorist who attacked legal institutions and was willing to kill to achieve his goals. This exhibition invites people to examine the tension between these divergent views at the critical moment in American history, with repercussions down to the Civil Rights movement of the twentieth century.”

"John Brown’s attack at Harpers Ferry convinced Southerners that their political and economic survival was threatened, while outrage over his execution rallied and unified Northern abolitionists,” according to Louise Mirrer, President and CEO of the New-York Historical Society. “As we continue our year-long celebration of Abraham Lincoln, we hope these extraordinary and seldom-seen materials will not only shed light on Brown himself but will help illuminate events that led to Lincoln’s election in 1860."

Visitors to the exhibition will encounter manuscripts never before exhibited, including dramatic letters by John Brown to his followers; a letter by Frederick Douglass praising Brown but distancing himself from the raid; Brown's parting words on the eve of his execution; a letter from the mother of a Kansas murder victim, damning Brown on the scaffold; and reminiscences by Brown's children and other eyewitnesses.

Lending dramatic context to these materials are powerful images, such as the 1859 sculpture “The Slave Auction” by John Rogers; the heroic 1867 painting by Thomas Satterwhite Noble, "John Brown's Blessing"; photographs of Brown and his family members; photographs of his supporters, the "Secret Six"; and photographs of other key participants. Among the other important objects on view will be a "John Brown Still Lives!" broadside from 1859; a rare printing of the Emancipation Proclamation; a 1926 lynching poster; and other artifacts of the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras.

Apparently most of the materials on display are from the Gilder-Lehrman Collection, although researchers should be aware that the New York Historical Society, which hosts and houses the Gilder-Lehrman Collection, has its own prestigious holdings which include John Brown letters and documents.

As to James Basker's remarks quoted above, we should point out that the term "terrorist" was not in use in the U.S. in the antebellum era, so this portrayal is anachronistic. To be sure, John Brown was viewed as an invader and killer by his enemies (the defenders of slavery), but given the fact that slavery had its own share of invaders and killers, one should not confuse certain contemporary notions (put forth largely by white scholars and intellectuals) of Brown as a "terrorist" with the inimical perception of Brown by pro-slavery people in the antebellum era. Similarly, the reference to a "letter from the mother of a Kansas murder victim" is a loaded description. Undoubtedly a reference to the letter of Mahala Doyle to John Brown, this is indeed the letter from the widow and bereaved mother of three men killed by Brown's men in May 1856. The question remains to what degree they were "victims": in the most literal sense, the Doyle men, father and two sons, were Brown's victims because they were apprehended and executed at his direction. But in the broader sense, the Doyles, along with the two other men killed by Brown's men in May 1856, were conspirators, collaborators in a plot to murder, and essentially insurgents--so that killing them was more a strike against victimization, a kind of counter-terrorism (to engage Mr. Basker's terminology).

Whatever the case, readers of this blog who reside within reach of New York City are advised to make the trip to the New York Historical Society, not only for the Gilder-Lehrman Exhibit, but beyond that to utilize these great archival resources for research and study. For further information, visit the New York Historical Society website and the Gilder-Lehrman Institute website.

No comments: