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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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Harper's Ferry Reunion: Veteran JB Scholar, Jean Libby (center), poses with Ian Barford, actor, filmmaker, and JB student (right) and your blogger on Oct. 17th

Scholar Jean Libby to Brown Descendant: John Brown's War in Virginia was a Just War

Following an insulting, undoubtedly racist e-mail having been sent to Alice Keesey Mecoy, John Brown's great-great-great-granddaughter, Jean Libby--the veteran scholar and expert on Brown--wrote the following thoughtful and insightful reflection concerning the theme of Brown's use of violence. Considering that the ongoing academic discussion on this theme often tends toward a kind of tired, self-righteous discourse, I find Libby's reasoning quite refreshing. Perhaps you will also. Libby writes:

Dear Alice -- you are doing wonderful, inspiring work at bringing John and Mary Brown back to life through their descendants.

I think that President Barack Obama's speech at acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize has much relevance to John Brown's plans and ideas. He spoke about the right to self-defense as a reason for war.

In the case of Kansas, the five victims at the Pottawatomie Creek had made death threats, in writing, against the Brown settlement. Their political party in Kansas and Missouri had murdered six freestate settlers in ambush. John Brown's retaliation was to include one of the Sherman brothers who had attacked the freestate settlement and threatened the women with rape. When he was not home, there was no substitution.

In the case of Harpers Ferry we must consider that John Brown was -- from his perspective -- at war to liberate slaves. He followed those rules of war as he announced and understood them. Victims were not random civilians, they were people who were actively defending the town of Harpers Ferry against invasion.

Therefore, those five deaths on October 17 and 18, 1859, are more problematic for me. Again, I return to the speech of President Obama in Norway yesterday. Is there a time when war is just? There will be people killed, troops and civilians, in any war.

I believe that John Brown's war against slavery, in defense of people captive through the legal systems of the slave states and the federal government by the Dred Scott decision, was a just war. One of the people killed by his army was George Turner, who had murdered a young slave by drowning him in a well. He got away with it because of the system of slavery. The owner of the Turner farm near Charles Town told me of this murder when I showed up at his door one day asking to take pictures of the barn.

The mayor of Harpers Ferry, Fontaine Beckham, was certainly defending slavery in his daily life. He "held papers" for many freed slaves and was head of a graft system that paid workers in script instead of money for their labor at the federal arsenal. They were required to spend this script for food & supplies in his store. During the fight, he climbed the water tower to get a better view. Stupid?! John Brown later expressed regret that he had ordered his shooting by Edwin Coppoc because Beckham was unarmed. There was no way that they could have known that.
Private Luke Quinn was doing his duty as a U.S. Marine. Other marines who entered the enginehouse bayonetted Dauphin Thompson (engaged to Annie) in brutal death and killed and mutilated Jeremiah Anderson. They were doing their duty, too. I saw the Marine re-enactment in Harpers Ferry when the descendants' group was on the hill that I couldn't climb. They admitted they came in to kill the men, not capture them. Col. Robert E. Lee removed their guns so no hostages would be shot at close quarters. We all know the destiny that Lieutenant Green's sword bent instead of killed John Brown.

The most problematic of all is the death of Hayward Shepherd, night baggage master at the railroad. He was shot in the back when he turned and ran when ordered to "Halt" (a military term). In the new handbook published by the National Park Service there is a suggestion that guns may have been fired by the railroad party following Shepherd. I am not recommending that anyone buy this handbook because John Brown is presented as insane. I don't know who is responsible for this, as the publication is very adept at covering up who wrote and edited it. I expect the decisions were higher up than the people we met.

Jeffrey Dahmer (I forgot who he was) or another mass murderer Timothy McVeigh who is often invoked by the ilk of your Southern National Congress correspondant, did not inspire people to continue their work. Their motives are not clear. John Brown's motives were just and clear. And he inspired the end of slavery in our nation which was accomplished with a just war. His children Ruth and Jason asked him to pursue peace. He replied, "How can you say 'Peace, Peace' when there is no peace" for the enslaved people.

I am very proud of my President Barack Obama today. And I am proud of your ancestor John Brown 150 years ago.

Jean Libby, editor
Allies for Freedom

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