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.