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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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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Michael Kessler, "John Brown's disobedience: Just Law and Religion."

150 years ago--in October 1859--John Brown led a raid on a U.S. armory in Harper's Ferry, Virginia. He hoped to gather arms and lead an army to fight slaveholders. Instead, he was quickly stopped and hanged for his lawless actions. Is he a hero, a martyr, or a criminal?

Or is he all three at once? Whatever you judge, his legacy of violent resistance to slavery still raises questions about when resistance to lawful authority is meritorious.

Brown was angry--angry that some of the people in his nation held slaves. He was also angry at the peaceful abolitionists who refused to advocate for forceful overthrow of the institution of slavery. Something must be done, and Brown was the man to do it. His actions helped set off a chain of events that ended in the Civil War.

Brown hoped to raise an army of the willing who would fight against slaveholding factions. He led a group of 21 other men--a mix of blacks and whites--on a raid of the Harper's Ferry arsenal in hopes of securing enough arms to pose a serious challenge. He was wounded, quickly captured, and tried for treason.

By December 1859, he was hanging from the gallows. He left a note with a prison guard that predicted the bloodshed about to engulf the nation: "I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood." Within a year and a half, the nation was torn asunder in bloody battles.

At his trial, he described his deeply religious convictions for the plight of his enslaved brethren and his deep sense of the injustice that slavery perpetrated. Consider his speech upon being convicted:

In the first place, I deny everything but what I have all along admitted, of a design on my part to free the slaves. I intended, certainly, to have made a clean thing of that matter, as I did last winter when I went into Missouri and there took slaves without the snapping of a gun on either side, moved them through the country, and finally leaving them in Canada. I designed to have done the same thing again, on a larger scale. That was all I intended to do. I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite the slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection.... This court acknowledges, too, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament, which teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to remember them that are in bonds as bound with them. I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done - as I have always freely admitted I have done - in behalf of His despised poor is no wrong but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments - I say, let it be done!
It is hard to quarrel with Brown's claim: a gross injustice like slavery perpetrated under the banner of law should be stopped. Since the legislative changes had not been forthcoming, Brown considered the only option he had to be armed resistance. Disrupt the institution of slavery that God Himself finds despicable.

Indeed, Brown's conviction was borne out to be true--the gross injustice of slavery has been universally condemned for a century by all but the most ardent haters. We have many reasons for the conviction that slavery should be unlawful, most especially widely held religious convictions about the dignity and equality of each human being and rational grounds for thinking of each person as free and equal.

We still struggle, however, with the extent to which laws we judge to be inconsistent with a higher law should be followed. This is an old legacy. Thomas More's famous refusal to swear the Act of Succession and the Oath of Supremacy in 1534 left him parted with his head. His last words on the scaffold were "The King's good servant, but God's First."

Abortion is one area of contemporary debate. Even most who condemn abortion cringe at those who advocate for violence to stop abortion. The murder of Dr. George Tiller was condemned by most groups, including many who advocate for outlawing access to abortion. But when pushed, some people may consider it acceptable to commit unlawful actions in the pursuit of higher justice. The person who killed Dr. Tiller claims to be God's servant.

It's easy to make Brown a hero--he certainly fought for a worthy cause--even while he was, technically, a criminal. What do we do in other cases--like abortion--in which there is wider disagreement about the moral legitimacy of the laws in question? Can we condone people who appeal to a higher law while ignoring the civil law? Do we hold those like Brown accountable to the civil law, even while privately agreeing with their actions? If we condone their disobedience, how do we protect the social order from chaos if everyone is judging for themselves what "higher law" should be followed?

What do you think?

Michael Kessler, Ph.D., is Visiting Assistant Professor of Government Assistant Director at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. His current work is on legal and political notions of fundamental rights, particularly about individual moral liberties and religious freedom. Kessler received his Ph.D. in Religion and Moral and Political Theory from the University of Chicago, where he was a William Rainey Harper Fellow and held a Henry Luce Dissertation Fellowship. He graduated with a BA with honors in Theology, a second major in Philosophy, and a Classics minor, from Valparaiso University. Kessler has also studied law at Georgetown University Law Center. He is the author of a number of articles and reviews, and co-editor of Mystics: Presence and Aporia (University of Chicago Press, 2003).

Friday, October 30, 2009

Massachusetts Historical Society Features John Brown Exhibit

BOSTON, October 30, 2009—This fall the Massachusetts Historical Society, the oldest historical society in the nation, is mounting an exhibit entitled, "John Brown: Martyr to Freedom or American Terrorist—or Both?" Abolitionist John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry on October 17, 1859, was one of the major events leading up to the Civil War and remains one of the most controversial episodes in American history. This consists of personal papers, photographs, broadsides, engravings, weapons, and artifacts that illuminate Brown’s life together with evidence of the continuing arguments about the morality and meaning of his actions.

Beginning with Richard Henry Dana, Jr.’s remarkable diary account of meeting Brown at his hardscrabble Adirondack farm, long before Brown came to national prominence, the exhibition will document his violent career in “Bleeding Kansas" in the 1850s and the strong support he received from abolitionists in Massachusetts—five of his chief financial supporters, the “Secret Six,” lived in the Boston area. The exhibition will focus on the events at Harpers Ferry in 1859, Brown’s trial and execution later that year, and the controversy about how to interpret his life and these events that has continued ever since. Visitors can see examples of the weapons Brown stockpiled for the attack and one of the last letters he sent to his family from jail while he awaited execution in Charlestown, (now West) Virginia. For the debate on the interpretation of his life and death that began almost immediately after his execution—a debate carried on even in the rooms of the MHS, where many members had known and/or supported him—the Society will show letters and documents about Brown that MHS members gathered during and after the Civil War.

The exhibition is funded in part by the Massachusetts Cultural Council and is open to the public Monday through Saturday, from 1:00 to 4:00 PM, through December 23.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

U.S. Representative Shelley Moore Capito Calls for Legislation to Honor John Brown & Harper's Ferry Raid

HARPERS FERRY, WV - U.S. Representative Shelley Moore Capito (R) WV, introduced legislation to honor John Brown's Raid and Harpers Ferry.

The House of Representatives passed the legislation recognizing the 150th anniversary of John Brown's Raid and the important role Harpers Ferry played in our nation's history.

John Brown led 21 men during his famous raid on October 16th, 1859, which ignited the abolitionist movement leading to the Civil War.

Capito called on her fellow representatives to support the bill and also said, "I also encourage those near and far Americans to visit Harpers Ferry and the surrounding area to share in the deep history and tradition in our state of West Virginia."

West Virginia became the only state formed as a the result of the Civil War in 1863.

John Tarleton, "Rethinkin’ Lincoln"

When Abraham Lincoln accepted the Republican Party nomination for the U.S. Senate in 1858, he warned that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” The future president believed it was impossible for the rapidly growing country to continue half-slave and half-free. Like many moderates of his day, he sought a compromise solution that would contain slavery in the hopes that it would eventually expire.

John Brown shattered this illusion. In October 1859, Brown and a small interracial band of followers seized a government arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Va., in a failed attempt to launch a slave revolt. Brown, with his long, flowing white beard, was sent to the gallows and became an instant martyr for millions. His daring raid managed to radicalize many Northern opponents of slavery while intensifying pro-secession sentiments in the South, just as the 1860 presidential campaign was set to begin.

Lincoln disavowed Brown as a madman while pursuing his successful bid for the White House. However, Brown’s parting words (“The sins of this guilty land can only be purged with blood”) would prove to be a prophetic curse. As the Civil War unfolded, Lincoln would find himself trodding much the same ground that Brown had as he reluctantly moved toward becoming the “Great Emancipator” that history remembers him as.

Now, 150 years after Harper’s Ferry, the distinct but overlapping paths of the two men — one a fiery apostle of direct action, the other a pragmatic reformer — are explored in a pair of exhibits at the New-York Historical Society. Combined, the two exhibits speak to the recurring question of whether social change is brought about by radical organizing from outside existing institutions or by reformers acting from within those same institutions.


The John Brown exhibit is tucked away in a single upstairs room. The show follows Brown’s increasingly militant response to concessions made to pro-slavery forces during the 1850s. This in turn is a prologue to the audacious plot he hatched on a remote farm five miles outside of Harper’s Ferry. The details of the raid are precisely recounted. Unlike most abolitionists, Brown believed that slaves were ready and able to fight for their freedom and only needed the arms to do so.

Relying heavily on personal correspondence, the exhibit presents the voices of Brown’s family members, fellow conspirators, skeptical allies in the abolitionist movement and the widow of one of his victims. Deeply religious, Brown was a man on fire. Whether he was a heroic freedom fighter or a 19th-century domestic terrorist is left for visitors to discern.

Downstairs, a sprawling Lincoln exhibit uses a vibrant multimedia format. Audio, video, photos, cartoons, paintings, newspaper front pages, personal correspondence, historic artifacts, an interactive game for aspiring war profiteers and more are used to provide a fascinating look at the 16th president and the Civil War. The show grapples with issues familiar to our own age — an unpopular war, economic crisis, incarceration of prisoners by presidential decree and deeply entrenched white racism. By focusing on Lincoln and New York, the great drama of the Civil War era plays out on a human scale.
The John Brown exhibit is tucked away in a single upstairs room. . . . Downstairs, a sprawling Lincoln exhibit uses a vibrant multimedia format.

Support for Lincoln was thin in New York City, as many business elites wanted to maintain trade ties with Southern cotton growers while working-class whites worried that the abolition of slavery would mean more competition for their jobs. When Lincoln took office, Mayor Fernando Wood went so far as to suggest that New York should secede and become its own independent city-state, which would be free to trade with both the North and South.

These roiling tensions come to life throughout the exhibit, from Lincoln’s 1860 Cooper Union address which launched his longshot presidential campaign, to torchlight parades by thousands of young, whiterobed Lincoln supporters known as the “Wide Awakes” to the screaming front-page headlines of the city’s unabashedly partisan newspapers.

While the exhibit focuses on Lincoln, it does not exalt the Great Man but shows him as the controversial figure he was at the time. For many of his supporters, like the African-American orator Frederick Douglass and New York Tribune publisher Horace Greeley, Lincoln was far too cautious in eliminating slavery once the war was under way. His detractors, meanwhile, are shown portraying him first as a simple-minded rustic (“The Railsplitter”) and later as a thick-lipped tyrant (“King Abraham Africanus I”) and promoter of interracial marriage, a common slur defenders of slavery used against abolitionists.

At about the midpoint in the exhibit, you can sit in the front pews of a re-created African-American church. It is Jan. 1, 1863, and jubilant voices celebrate the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation while a stirring choral rendition of “John Brown’s Body” is performed. Six months and a couple of rooms further into the exhibit, euphoria turns to horror as simmering race and class tensions explode when poor Irish immigrants unleash their fury on New York’s African-American population.

Blown-up wall panels with street maps of the city provide a detailed log of the four-day orgy of violence. It was the deadliest riot in U.S. history. At least 120 people were killed and more than 2,000 injured prompting Lincoln to send in federal troops to quell the disturbance. Sitting in a small enclosed chamber, one can listen to the re-created voices of victims and eyewitnesses describing what they saw.

Lincoln’s institution of a military draft — a first in U.S. history — was the catalyst for the riots. The war’s carnage was mounting with no end in sight. The rich could buy their way out of military service for $300 (a massive sum for the average workingman), while private contractors made fortunes off supplying the troops with shoddy uniforms, rotten food, defective rifles and so on. Such were the conditions that allowed the anti- Lincoln press to stoke a racially charged backlash of one group of powerless people against another.


The Union Army’s growing shortage of manpower forced Lincoln’s hand on slavery. Citing “military necessity” he issued the Emancipation Proclamation and authorized African-Americans to serve in the U.S. military (but only in segregated units). Almost 200,000 did so by the end of the war.

By freeing the slaves, Lincoln transformed the war into the kind of moral crusade previously espoused by John Brown. A proud Black soldier depicted on the front page of an African-American newspaper highlights a great irony: The same federal government that Brown rebelled against was now arming former slaves to fight for their freedom on a scale that he could have only dreamed of a few years earlier.

The mythology that grew up around Lincoln beginning in his own lifetime is gently deconstructed throughout the exhibit, from Greeley’s branding of “Honest Abe” during the 1860 election campaign to the post-Emancipation Proclamation depiction of Lincoln as the benevolent white father liberating the slaves to Lincoln’s final ascent to secular sainthood following his assassination. Lincoln is presented as an extraordinary figure, but viewers are also invited to ask questions and draw their own conclusions.

The Lincoln exhibit’s greatest shortcoming is its lack of context for understanding the economic vision that guided Lincoln and the Republicans. While the Democrats were the party of the Southern slaveholders, most Republicans were not hardcore abolitionists. They did want to see slavery’s spread halted, but for practical reasons. The expansion of the export-oriented plantation economy of the South was incompatible with the North’s continued development of a modern, entrepreneurial capitalism based on wage labor and satisfying the demand of a growing internal market.

The grand compromise that emerged following the end of Reconstruction in 1876 saw the South economically subordinated to Northern capital but allowed to maintain its “peculiar” racial caste system minus chattel slavery. Lincoln and the Republicans would have happily settled for this in 1860. Almost a century later, the civil rights movement successfully challenged many of the worst abuses of a segregated society. Cloaked in moral fervor but guided by nonviolent principles, it shook the country’s power structure and helped ignite the other great social movements of the 1960s. The tactics were different from those of John Brown — but Brown’s dream of interracial solidarity and political and social equality for all was a vision that America was once again moving toward. And much still remains to be done, regardless of who is in the White House. Even in 2009.

Lincoln and New York and John Brown: The Abolitionist and His Legacy will be on exhibit at the New-York Historical Society through March 25, 2010.
212-873-3400 • nyhistory.org

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Answering Rothstein: The Apprehensions of the Ignorant

Unfortunately it is almost impossible to expect even a cultural exhibit about John Brown to evade the sniping of misinformed, biased writers like Edward Rothstein. In his New York Times article, republished in this blog under this same date, Rothstein erroneously refers to "Brown’s vision of a spontaneous slave insurrection," something that John Brown certainly did not envision or plan. Either Rothstein is ignorant of the facts or he thinks like a Southern slave owner. The latter believed that any effort to undermine their so-called Peculiar Institution was "insurrection." In fact, insurrection is precisely what John Brown sought to avoid: insurrection involves the uprising of enslaved people with the intent of exterminating their masters. The ideology behind insurrection is that by killing masters, slaves render themselves free. Taken to extreme, this entails killing the heirs of slave masters, which took place, for instance in the Nat Turner Revolt almost thirty years before the Harper's Ferry raid led by John Brown in the same state of Virginia.

John Brown had no "vision" of insurrection, except as a nightmare. His intention was to arm enslaved people and fight only in self-defense, making every effort to avoid insurrectionary developments and to evade major fighting as much as possible. To be sure, he intended that enslaved people fight in self-defense of their movements if necessary, but nowhere is there any evidence that Brown was an insurrectionist.

The problem is that writers like Rothstein tend to assume they understand Brown, either because they have been miseducated or because they are too fundamentally arrogant to do the research. They simply write what they think constitutes the "problem" of John Brown--an attitude that prevails as much among liberal journalists as among conservatives.

Secondly, the notion that Brown's plans were "fantastical" and that "his strategic abilities" were "sorely strained" at Harper's Ferry is also gross error. First, let Mr. Rothstein be reminded that Brown's plans were hardly beyond reach--both the idea of gathering up enslaved people and withdrawing into the mountains, as well as striking the armory at Harper's Ferry. That his plans failed do not prove them "fantastical," particularly since it is clear that Brown erred in a number of specific judgments--and even the most experienced military commanders may err. Brown's errors were indeed questions of judgment and timing, but the strategy he devised would certainly have enjoyed at least a moderate measure of success had he followed through correctly. Many a battle has been lost due to such misjudgments. Harper's Ferry itself had no military guard and was minimally supervised by civilian workers. It was easy enough to seize the armory at night, and Brown essentially had his way with the town of Harper's Ferry; the problem was leaving before his opponents could muster their own forces. Had Brown, his raiders, and the enslaved men he had gathered departed Harper's Ferry by 6 o'clock the next morning, history might be telling a different story about the raid. That he delayed almost until noon the next day was the fatal flaw, and there is nothing "fantastical" about any of this. Once more, ignorance of the facts on the part of one journalist, conveyed to the public by the most respectable newspaper in the country, marks another setback in educating the public about one of the most important episodes in U.S. history as it regards the struggle for human rights.

But Rothstein's remarks worsen in conclusion. He writes:
But can we not also be distressed by the implications of Brown’s methods, and worry over their enthusiastic embrace over the last 150 years? In his welcome of martyrdom, his visions of apocalyptic retribution and his unshakable belief in his own virtue, Brown is now so familiar a type on the world scene that we cannot resist being horrified by the temptation of terror that he succumbed to, even if, as in this particular case, we welcome its long-sought goal.
It has taken about a century to regain the balance of fairness and thoughtfulness in discussing John Brown, and this journalist decries the "enthusiastic embrace" of Brown's methods? What "enthusiastic embrace"? Certainly not that of the white community! Perhaps Rothstein bemoans the "enthusiastic embrace" of Brown by the black community--you know, the ones whose forebears were enslaved, raped, and terrorized in this country, having been reduced to mere chattel by white society? It is sad that journalist Rothstein is so worried that Brown's efforts on behalf of black liberation are embraced. I wonder if he would be equally saddened had the same John Brown used the same methods as a Nazi killer and liberator of Jews during World War II? There is something wrong with this kind of thinking. That a so-called white man, writing about a white man who used "violence" against an overwhelming racism and institutionalized injustice, should be more worried over the deaths of five racist brutes in Kansas than about the broad scale horrors of black enslavement in the antebellum era suggests that Rothstein presumes the priority of white people, even pro-slavery thugs, over an oppressed people. Again, I wonder whether he would be lamenting Brown's violence if the slain Doyles, those abettors of terrorism in Kansas, had been virulent pro-Nazis engaged in anti-Semitic violence. What's wrong with this picture folks? Why are writers so scandalized by Brown? As the Old Man himself realized, the actions he took, had they been applied to the context of other peoples, would have been roundly praised and awarded. It seems that's a truth that still prevails among white journalists.

Rather than see Brown as a good (yes and also imperfect) man who sought to do something to undermine slavery when the rest of the country was all about compromise and indifference, Rothstein wrongfully sums up the abolitionist as a man of terror, apocalyptic vision, and self-delusion. The man that Rothstein writes about is not known to me; I do not recognize him in the facts of history. I am a biographer of John Brown the abolitionist, certainly one of a small number of scholars who knew more about the man than the rest of the general population. It seems to me that the people who always draw Rothstein's conclusions are not among the number of those who know Brown; they are dealing in caricatures and bogeymen of their own making. It is regretful that the New York Times is not only a newspaper that refuses to publish balanced information about Brown in its Op-Ed section, but also extends erroneous information about the abolitionist at a time when his contributions should finally be appreciated rather than disdained. This is why, among all biographers working in U.S. history, John Brown's biographers must forever be caught up in this tiring, annoying struggle of simply getting a fair hearing for the Old Man in the court of public opinion. White society, especially its academics and journalists, are often far kinder, historically speaking, to men who were far worse in every respect than Brown. This sadly leads us to the conclusion that the reason for this double-standard is fundamentally about race and racism. Brown lived and died in association with and devotion to the human rights struggles of African people in the U.S.A. Many whites simply will never forgive him for holding such an allegiance, first because they do not understand it and second because it vexes and frightens them in some aspect of their thinking. It may be that Mr. Rothstein is so vexed.

RICHMOND, Va. — His body may lie a-moldering in the grave, but in what form exactly does his soul go marching on? We may think we know something about John Brown, the abolitionist and stern Calvinist who 150 years ago this month led 21 followers to take over the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va., expecting to gather weapons to fuel a widespread slave rebellion. His self-proclaimed Provisional Army of the United States took hostages (including a great-grandnephew of George Washington) and killed four innocent citizens. Finally, after being captured by a detachment of Marines led by Robert E. Lee, and tried, Brown and six other insurgents were hanged for treason, though their cause ultimately triumphed.

But in two small-scale but heavily laden exhibitions — one at the New-York Historical Society, drawing on the extraordinary Gilder Lehrman Collection, the other at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond (the first show devoted to Brown in a city that was the capital of the Confederacy) — it becomes clear that Brown’s legacy is nearly as riven now as it was on the eve of the Civil War. His actions still raise unresolved issues about the limits of dissent, the nature of terrorism and the effects of revolutionary violence.

The two exhibitions are also subtly different, reflecting in some respects contrasts that have their origins in the controversies of that earlier era. In New York “John Brown: The Abolitionist and His Legacy,” developed by James G. Basker, president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute, and others, states its goal from the start: to examine “John Brown’s beliefs and actions in the context of growing national divisions over slavery in the 1850s.” We read in the wall text how, in that crucial decade, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act four years later, as well as the Dred Scott decision of 1857, “precipitated a firestorm between slaveholding Southerners and free-labor Northerners.”

Violence even broke out on the Senate floor in May 1856, when Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina assaulted an antislavery colleague, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, beating him so badly that it was three years before Sumner returned to the Senate.

Out of that atmosphere, Brown’s violence also took shape. We see his fierce intelligence in letters to followers, and read reminiscences of his hanging and its aftermath. There are shadows here, but his legacy is given few ambiguities. It is displayed in documents representing the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, which ended institutional slavery and its legal culture. Brown’s legacy, the show suggests, finally found fruition in the 1960s civil rights movement (evoked here by a placard carried in a march that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. joined the day he was murdered).

Ultimately, the assessment of Brown that remains is that of Frederick Douglass, who disagreed with Brown’s tactics but is quoted here in 1881: “If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did at least begin the war that ended slavery.”

In Richmond in “The Portent: John Brown’s Raid in American Memory,” something quite different happens. In the South Brown was condemned not only for his abolitionist views but also because he tapped into latent fears of a slave rebellion. Now, of course, the curators, the historians William M. S. Rasmussen and Robert S. Tilton, take the virtues of Brown’s abolitionist cause for granted; indeed, the last part of the exhibition is devoted to a series of 22 schematic, affecting prints of Brown’s life and his martyrdom by the artist Jacob Lawrence (based on his 1941 paintings). Melville’s 1859 poem “The Portent,” about Brown’s hanging, gives the show its title, presciently calling Brown a metaphysical herald, a “meteor of the war” that was about to begin.

But in Richmond abolition is not the theme; Brown’s tactics are. And we can hear the clamor of the debate more clearly. As the show points out, Brown’s virtue was not always so transparent, even in the North.

Brown was hailed by Emerson, who said he would “make the gallows as glorious as the cross.” Thoreau glorified him as living beyond death. Victor Hugo called him “this liberator, this fighter for Christ,” whose hanging (“so great a crime”) “would impart to the Union a creeping fissure.”

The first biography of Brown, published soon after his hanging, is open here to its title page, where the author, James Redpath, with a typographical shout, dedicated the book to Emerson and Thoreau, “WHO, WHEN THE MOB SHOUTED, ‘MADMAN!’ SAID, ‘SAINT!’ ”

But at the same time Hawthorne called Brown a “blood-stained fanatic.” Lincoln called his raid “absurd” and deplored Brown’s “violence, bloodshed and treason.” In the major Northern cities “Union meetings” were held to condemn Brown.

A petition signed by 3,500 Bostonians proclaimed, “We deeply sympathize with the people of Virginia.” In New York, the exhibition says, there was a huge political meeting: 6,000 people filled the Academy of Music; 15,000 gathered outside; and 20,000 signed a resolution regarding “the recent outrage at Harpers Ferry as a crime.”

There were some, clearly, who opposed Brown because he was both violent and an abolitionist, but others opposed him simply because he was violent. One of the remarkable objects on display here is a long pike topped with the blade of a Bowie knife. In March 1857, in preparation for the raid, Brown ordered a thousand such custom-designed weapons from a Connecticut manufacturer, for use by slaves with no experience with guns. The weapon has a primitive power, and helps give some idea of the kind of battles Brown imagined.

There is a letter in New York, written to Brown before his hanging by Mahala Doyle, the wife and mother of those murdered. “Altho vengeance is not mine, I confess, that I do feel gratified to hear that you ware stopt in your fiendish career,” she writes, pointing out that the Doyles didn’t even own slaves.

“O how it pained my Heart to hear the dying groans of my Husband and children,” she recalls, noting that her youngest son, whom Brown spared in response to her entreaties, wished he could be at the hanging to help adjust the rope around Brown’s neck.

This makes the issues more stark, and in Richmond they become explicit. “Does an individual have the right to carry out violent acts based on conscience?” the exhibition asks in a video surveying the history of the raid. “Does a noble end justify a bloody means?” And given Brown’s unwavering belief in his own righteousness and his embrace of the most extreme methods, the show asks, “Is Brown so different from today’s bombers from Oklahoma City to Iraq?”

The exhibition does not answer those questions; it is effective enough just to raise them. What makes this case so disturbing is that here we have a cause that is now considered inherently virtuous: the abolition of an institution that had led to untold violence and degradation. Moreover, slavery seemed to be so firmly established that nothing but violence could unseat it.

Brown’s vision of a spontaneous slave insurrection might have been fantastical, and his strategic abilities sorely strained, but one judgment (as in New York) is that good grew out of this apparent evil. Like the Union forces in the Civil War, Brown used violence in the service of ending violence.

“I think I did right,” Brown told his captors after the raid, and he considered his effort to be “the greatest service man can render to God.” The New York exhibition has a letter Brown wrote in prison: “I do not feel myself in the least degraded by my imprisonment, my chain, or the near prospect of the Gallows. ... I go joyfully in behalf of Millions that have no rights that this ‘great, & glorious’; ‘this Christian Republic,’ is bound to respect.”

But can we not also be distressed by the implications of Brown’s methods, and worry over their enthusiastic embrace over the last 150 years? In his welcome of martyrdom, his visions of apocalyptic retribution and his unshakable belief in his own virtue, Brown is now so familiar a type on the world scene that we cannot resist being horrified by the temptation of terror that he succumbed to, even if, as in this particular case, we welcome its long-sought goal.

“The Portent: John Brown’s Raid in American Memory” is on view through April 11 at the Virginia Historical Society, 428 North Boulevard, Richmond; (804) 358-4901, vahistorical.org. “John Brown: The Abolitionist and His Legacy” is on view through March 25 at the New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, at 77th Street; (212) 873-3400, nyhistory.org.


St. Louis Civil War Roundtable Monthly Meeting features John Brown Portrayal

Famed abolitionist John Brown, as portrayed by Dave Matheny, Emeritus Professor of Rhetoric and Public Address at Emporia State University and veteran Chautauqua participant, will be the dinner speaker at the Civil War Roundtable’s next meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 28, at Two Heart’s Banquet Center, 4532 S. Lindbergh Blvd. Member cost is $17 with dinner, $5 without. Annual CWRT dues are $35, with discounts for multi-member households and students. For more information on future to attend s monthly event as a guest, call Paul Hauser 636-861-0220.

Phone: 636-861-0220

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

John Brown Symposium in Springfield, Mass. features Biographer David Reynolds

On Oct. 17, 2009 the 150th anniversary of the raid on Harper’s Ferry that ignited the Civil War, the Springfield Technical Community College School of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences held a symposium on abolitionist John Brown, who lived for four years in Springfield. Pictured above is David S. Reynolds, author of the best-selling biography John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights, with the bust of John Brown. Pictured below is Professor John Gately, also an antiquarian book dealer, speaks about his collection of memorabilia of John Brown and the era just before the Civil War.

Brown’s raid events draw large crowds; Officials say nearly 5,000 people came out for 150th anniversary of abolitionist's seige

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and the local community on Oct. 15 recognized the 150th anniversary of Brown's attempt to seize weapons from a local arsenal in an attempt to arm area slaves.

Numerous events took place leading up to the anniversary, and activities continued throughout that weekend.

In all, officials said nearly 5,500 people took part in events at the park that weekend, despite the rainy weather. More than 2,000 travelers stopped by the newly opened Harpers Ferry Visitor Center that weekend, said Paulette Sprinkle, director of the Jefferson County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"That's just what we got in this building," Sprinkle said of the figure.

Sprinkle said the weather may have deterred some of the visitors who were initially expected to turn out for the events.

"The weather was so bad," she said.

Initially, officials with Harpers Ferry National Historical Park expected crowds for the anniversary to be so large that the park's 1,000-car parking lot would not be able to accommodate everyone. Plans were in place to use nearby Bolivar Heights for auxiliary parking if it was needed, she said.

The crowds ended up being smaller than those projections, but considering the weather, Sprinkle said they were still a healthy size.

"That was a very good turnout," she said.

Sprinkle noted that the events surrounding the John Brown sesquicentennial are not over just yet.

In November, events will continue at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. A community forum and walking tour through Charles Town also are planned for that month.

Members of the Jefferson County NAACP are reportedly planning events in December, including a ceremony in which participants will retrace the route from the Charles Town jail to the site where Brown and two of his raiders were hanged.

Sprinkle said the county is expected to again play host to visitors who are partaking in the community's historic tourism attractions in 2011. At that time, the sesquicentennial of the Civil War will get under way, continuing through 2015.

In a previous interview, Sprinkle noted that tourism is the No. 1 industry in the county. In 2006, reports show that historical attractions, outdoor activities and local gaming facilities combined to create nearly 6,670 jobs in the area.

Sprinkle said Tuesday that it is her agency's job to help attract visitors to participate in the many attractions that the local area has to offer.

"What we do is help promote the events as we know they're coming," she said.

In 2008, she said the group placed nearly 10 million ads. The figure was based on the number of ads placed, multiplied by the number of publications and their circulation.

"Of course most of those (ads) had a lot about John Brown," she said. "We usually emphasize the other things we have here too."

Marsha Wassel, spokesperson for Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, had not returned calls from The Journal at presstime.

- Staff writer Naomi Smoot can be reached at (304) 725-6581, or nsmoot@journal-news.net

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A Harper's Ferry Return: Reflections from My Visit, October 15-17, 2009

For the longest time I did not think that I would be able to attend the symposium at Harpers Ferry this month in commemoration of Brown's raid, and since I am scheduled to speak at other John Brown events this fall and winter, I pretty much put aside any idea of going down for the sesquicentennial events in West Virginia. However, about October 1 (the deadline for registration for the symposium) the skies cleared and it became evident that I could get away after all. Unfortunately it was now too late to register, and the Harpers Ferry people didn't even respond to my phone inquiries. I nearly gave up attending, but my wife Michele encouraged me to go anyway. "It's a historic moment for John Brown's legacy, your friends are going to be there, and you should go," she told me.

Things came together: I was able to travel by Amtrak to the Ferry with Larry Lawrence, founder and chairman of The John Brown Society (based in New York City); and Norman Marshall, portrayer of John Brown in the wonderful play, "John Brown: Trumpet of Freedom," offered to share his motel room in Martinsburg, about a half-hour's drive from Harpers Ferry.

Arriving on Thursday afternoon, we had just enough time to drive over to Charlestown, where we were delighted to hear the author Brian McGinty's presentation about the trial of John Brown--delivered in the very same courthouse where the abolitionist and his followers were found guilty and condemned to death. I am reading McGinty's new book, John Brown's Trial and will refrain from making too many comments because I am preparing a review for a scholarly journal. Certainly McGinty's approach throughout was balanced, showing both an appreciation for inequities bound up with the trial (Brown was tried and convicted largely by slaveholders) but also agreeing with the State of Virginia's charge of treason against Brown. (I may be wrong, but I suspect that legal expert and historian Paul Finkelman would not agree.) By the way, Larry made a penetrating comment/question to McGinty which the author evaded. Perhaps he did not want to address the "racist imperialist" theme invoked by our stalwart friend of Brown.

Afterward, under the assumed identity of a registered symposium participant, I "John Browned" my way into Greg Artzner & Terry Leonino's (Magpie) presentation about John and Mary Brown, which I enjoyed from the back row. I particularly liked Greg's performance of John Brown's silent way of laughing, a fact that we know from the testimony of Nellie Russell, the wife of Judge Thomas Russell, who hosted Brown in their Boston home and who also later went down to Charlestown to visit him on "death row." I bought my copy of the Magpie CD back in 2000 in Lake Placid, at an event sponsored by our friend Martha Swan of John Brown Lives!, so it was nice to finally meet these talented and deeply devoted friends of the Old Man.

The next morning I tried to come clean and register for the symposium but was turned away by the Park Service staff. Registration was closed and the catering was precise, or so I was told. Perhaps they would have let me slide had they known I am a John Brown biographer, but trying to get special treatment seemed unworthy of the Old Man's legacy, so I jumped on the next bus down to the Ferry and spent the morning and early afternoon covering the tourist spots and sites of old downtown Harper's Ferry. For the most part, I'd have to say that the mini-museums and restored sites of the town are quite well done and in a couple of hours it is possible to get a fairly good education about the town itself, the John Brown raid being only one portion of its history.

The two John Brown museums in town are very different from each other. The National Park Service's John Brown museum is well done for the most part, and features some important relics and fairly well presents the story of the raid. (Currently, you can enjoy Jean Libby's photo exhibit of John Brown upstairs, who has done the definitive study of dagguereotypes and images of the Old Man, and for which there is a companion volume now on sale on Amazon.com.) The other John Brown museum, which costs $7 for admission, is almost like a "haunted house," where you walk through corridors and look through display windows at very old and often poorly prepared mannequin exhibits portraying various scenes of Brown's life and efforts against slavery (the whole thing seems like it's a left over from the 1960s; the owners are wringing as many bucks as they can out of it before it falls apart).

On Friday afternoon, I had occasion to wait in the welcome center of the Harpers Ferry during which I sat reading, occasionally interested by the mini-lectures provided to tourists by one of the National Park Service representatives. A number of these tourists were foreigners who knew little about antebellum history let alone John Brown. I mention this because some of the Park Service official's remarks that I heard were very telling: "A lot of people around here don't like John Brown very much. . . . We're not celebrating John Brown's raid, we're commemorating it. . . . John Brown the rabid abolitionist." It struck me that these Park Service people are playing the role of educating many people every year regarding the Harper's Ferry episode. How many tourists have been fed this image of Brown as "rabid," a fairly obvious anti-Brown description? I wonder if this same official would speak of slave masters as having been "rabid" too?

I should add that on Friday evening, since I could not march to the Ferry with the symposium folks (it was raining and cold and I probably would have ducked out anyway), I hung around town with Ian Barford, who was taping our whole outing, including plenty of time around the fire engine house (i.e., John Brown's "fort") with a camera equipped with night vision.

On Saturday I got a few minutes to see Jean Libby, finally, as well as John Hendrix, my former parishioner from Jersey City who now resides back home in St. Louis. He is a very successful illustrator and a newly published book for young people entitled, John Brown: His Fight for Freedom. I also saw my dear friends Alice and Fred Mecoy (Alice is a direct descendant--that is, great-great-great-granddaughter of the Old Man), but had unfortunately little time with them this time around and regretably missed her presentation. Just before we left, I was able to slip into one symposium presentation pertaining to black raider Dangerfield Newby and and his widow Harriet Newby. It was revealed that Dangerfield had saved about 750 dollars (about $17,000 today) to buy Harriet and some of his children out of slavery, but this significant sum was not enough. Newby fell in Harper's Ferry and his body was desecrated, as were the bodies of others of Brown's company, to the shame of the "gallant" white Virginians who were not satisfied to kill these liberating invaders.

So that was my time in the Ferry. I enjoyed being there for the importance of the historical moment. I missed a good deal of the symposium itself, but the best of these presentations have a tendency to end up being published in a collection anyway. The most important aspect of the Harpers Ferry event for me was being there--seeing friends and associates in the study, walking the streets and talking with other visitors, and celebrating Brown's effort, even if the National Park Service is only remembering it.