History, Research, and Current Themes

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

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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.

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