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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, January 02, 2010

There is no need to render John Brown a complicated jigsaw-puzzle of a man but writers and scholars continue to do so. . . . Why?

Regarding the “Complexity” of John Brown and His Readers


In a recent presentation before the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia), I made a point of saying that contrary to what is often said, John Brown is not a complex historical figure. Abraham Lincoln, with his personal racism, his political ambitions and connections, his simultaneous devotion to the Declaration of Independence and white supremacy, and his contempt for slavery, makes for a much more complex and difficult study. Quite the opposite, John Brown is simple to understand once you comprehend the grade of his fiber and the knit of his thoughts and convictions. W.E.B. DuBois put it best when he said of Brown, “He was simple, exasperatingly simple.”

Recently even some admirers of Brown have been quoted as speaking of him as a "complex" person. Perhaps their claim of his complexity may have seemed to them a profound but salutary historical observation; or it may have been intended as a kind of apologetic given the fact that so many people tend to dismiss Brown as a “terrorist” with little or no actual knowledge of his life and activities. Given their good intentions, I’m sure that his admirers can be forgiven the error of burdening Brown with a certain “complexity” that actually did not exist. To the contrary, the more I study his life and seek to understand his words, the more I have concluded that John Brown was not at all complex. DuBois was right: John Brown is "exasperatingly simple.”

Of course, as far as human beings go, he was no less complex than the rest of us. But ask yourself to what degree you would admit to your own complexity and you can fairly well attribute that same sort of complexity to Brown. But if you are so complicated that people find it hard to be certain of your motivations, or if your life is fraught with obvious contradictions, and your efforts are subject to radically different interpretations, then you are actually more “complex” than John Brown the abolitionist. Indeed, you are more like Lincoln than Brown. To be sure, his was a unique blend of conservative Protestant theology and an egalitarian anthropology, and this did make him radically different from the majority of whites in his day. But being exceptional does not mean one is “complex.”


It is unfortunate that historians and journalists have long been making a complicated mess of understanding John Brown by imposing their own contradictions and complexities upon him. Fifty years ago academics were troubled by the John Brown they had contrived in their own writings, the supposedly insane man who started an allegedly unnecessary war. Although contemporary writers have moved beyond the baseless notion that Brown was insane, they still entangle him in lamentations about how the Civil War might have been avoided, or further these ill-founded complications with the faddish comparison of Brown and his men with contemporary terrorists.

As to the latter, the most recent foray into the realm of John Brown’s alleged complexity was an op-ed piece published in the New York Times (Dec. 1) by the noteworthy and esteemed author, Tony Horwitz, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at a conference at Yale University this fall. In his op-ed, Horwitz compares the Harper’s Ferry raid to “9/11,” but admittedly has done so with a good deal more caution and respect for the differences between the abolitionist agenda of the 19th century and the terrorist agenda of the Muslim fanatics who brought down the World Trade Center towers in 2001. Horwitz acknowledges that “Khalid Shaikh Mohammed is no John Brown” and observes the concern for human life that the latter displayed during his occupation of Harper’s Ferry. Yet he subjects the abolitionist to a hermeneutic of cynicism by insisting that there is sufficient justification to keep the bearded Brown in the same ideological holding pen with the bearded Shaikh who mastermined “9/11.”

Obviously I disagree. Specifically, Horwitz says that in 1859, “Brown occupied the far fringe of abolitionism.” To justify this notion he quotes the New York Times, which referred to him in 1859 as a “wild and absurd freak.” This is hardly substantial. The Times was never the voice of abolitionism in the antebellum era and could no more evaluate Brown’s relation to the anti-slavery movement than it could properly evaluate the relation of Malcolm X to the black freedom movement in the 1960s. Considering the notoriety that Brown gained in the Kansas territory and the confidence and support that he enjoyed among black and white abolitionists, it simply is not correct to speak of him as having been on the fringe of abolitionism in 1859. This kind of caricaturing may be easily swallowed by the public, but it does nothing to service the historical record.

Horwitz further errs by concluding that “John Brown sought not only to free slaves in Virginia but to terrorize the South and incite a broad conflict.” It is true that Brown recognized the value of creating a panic in the South, but his conception of creating “terror” is not categorically the same as “terrorism” today. Brown’s idea of “terror” was founded upon the biblical story of Gideon, for instance, who employed lamps and horns to scare his enemies into a subversive panic in the midnight hour. If Brown hoped to incite anything it was a panic among slave holders that would cause them to sell their slaves deeper into the South, disrupting southern communities by throwing the slave economy into an upheaval. Furthermore, he was aware that far more violent measures might be taken to strike at the South. For instance, in a clandestine meeting in Detroit in 1859, one black leader suggested that Brown and his men might blow up a number of white churches, a notion that he completely disdained for its fundamental violence.

Furthermore Horwitz has misread the abolitionist’s strategy and purpose. The point of Brown’s effort actually was to divert the course of the nation away from “broad conflict.” As journalist William Phillips later recalled, Brown clearly understood that pro-slavery leaders were preparing for war in the 1850s. The goal of destabilizing slavery in the South was, in Brown’s mind, a last ditch effort toward evading a likely civil conflict of tragic proportions. In his famous last note written prior to his hanging. Brown jotted down these very sentiments, lamenting that a great deal of blood would have to be shed in order to end slavery now that his own plans had failed. He was correct.

Another unfortunate complication of Horwitz’s piece is that by imputing a kind of terrorism to Brown, he is impugning the black community’s historic reading of the Harper’s Ferry raid by suggesting that African Americans were applauding terrorism, and that the black perspective on slavery was actually warped in comparison to the prevailing consensus of white society. Is Horwitz really suggesting that we should trust his reading of the Harper’s Ferry raid over that of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and others who knew Brown as well as the depth of slavery’s own fundamental terrorism? Of course the author is entitled to remain “on the fence” regarding Brown; he told me personally that in his former work as a journalist he saw many awful things in the field, and it may be that he simply cannot separate his ideas about religious extremists and violence. Horwitz’s passing reference to Brown as “a bearded fundamentalist who believed himself chosen by God” is no simple description, but a loaded innuendo coming from an author who has already made up his mind that John Brown is a complex, troubling figure.


Writing an online piece for the History News Network (Nov. 30), David Blight, a renowned scholar (and our gracious host at Yale University this past October) also makes of John Brown a complex figure. While he handles the abolitionist more objectively, he tends to stoke the flames of historical complexity by the problematic assumption that “[e]very discussion of the history of revolutionary violence or terrorism (choose your label) in American history begins with John Brown’s efforts to destroy slavery.” Once more I respectfully disagree. To mark the genesis of “American revolutionary violence” or “terrorism” with John Brown is sheer presumption: There are many examples of militant campaigns of revolutionary violence or terrorism, especially violent efforts to assert white supremacy, from the earliest stages of European settlement in North America. Even if one sees Brown as a terrorist (and I do not), why start with him? According to whose history book does such violence and terrorism begin with Brown? Once more, I doubt that Frederick Douglass would agree with his esteemed biographer on this point.

Blight goes on to warn against the “extremes” of interpretation regarding Brown: either he is a redemptive, heroic figure or a “midnight terrorist.” Either one “can keep us comfortable with our prejudices and our desires,” says Blight, “but blind to the authentic fated tragedy in Brown’s acts. . . . [W]e should never let him or his story rest too easily in the narratives we tell ourselves.” Furthermore, we should avoid what Blight calls the “pleasing sense of the inevitability of the Civil War,” or that the battle at Harpers Ferry was “the ordained” initiation of bloody civil conflict.

Frankly, I am not clear as to what he means by “authentic fated tragedy,” especially since he opposes the notion of historical inevitability in the same context. If he is saying that John Brown’s actions cannot be justified in the name of divine determinism, I would agree. On the other hand, if he is suggesting that responsible historians must religiously embrace a world view where nothing can be seen as having been determined, ordained, or predestined, then he is dictating a secular world view and I would respectfully disagree with him. Contrary to what Blight may be suggesting, just because one believes that God has ordained all the events of history does not mean that one will distort the evidence and manipulate the narrative in order to sustain the comfort of one’s prejudices. Certainly Pelagian historians, whether secular or religious, are just as capable of manipulating historical narratives to suit their own prejudices.

Blight argues further that if Brown had succeeded in launching his liberation movement, if he “had not been captured so readily, if a slave insurrection in Virginia had killed thousands and Brown himself had been merely shot on some country road and the body never found we would not be thinking about him today. It is all about the gallows.” I appreciate Blight’s point: The John Brown story, culminating as it does with martyrdom, would be quite a different narrative had he died in the battle of Harper’s Ferry, or sometime afterward in a skirmish with southern militia. His last days, letters and interviews, and his brave, dignified bearing on the gallows have given us a greater understanding of the man who was John Brown. But to say that “we would not be thinking about him today” had he died otherwise is untenable.

First, given Brown’s notoriety in Kansas, he was already a controversially popular figure in the North. He would not have been revered or memorialized in song, but historians would be talking about him. Second, had Brown been able to make even three months’ work of his efforts in the mountains leading into the heart of the South, he would have been the subject of a whole different kind of historical discussion, probably just as politicized and equally polemical. Third, there is no saying for certain that had Brown died of a bayonet attack in the armory engine house at Harper’s Ferry that he would not have been memorialized as a fallen hero, the same way that his pro-slavery counterparts died at the Alamo. Who knows, instead of “John Brown’s body,” Union soldiers might have been charging into battle with shouts of “Remember Harper’s Ferry!”

Apart from this point, however, I do agree with Blight that the gallows made the difference. Although I disagree with those who say that Brown “reinvented” himself as a martyr, it is clear that he understood the power of the voice he possessed within his jail cell. The problem with the complicating notion that he “reinvented” himself is that it suggests a certain contrivance or posturing that is not the case with John Brown. From the earliest stages of his activism, he made use of the pen as well as the sword, but he believed it a point of weakness to rely on words when action could be taken. From “Sambo Mistakes” to the organizational papers of the United States League of Gileadites to his free state circulars, and from his “Provisional Constitution” to “John Brown’s Parallels,” the man clearly believed in the power of the pen and sought to use it effectively as a complement to his militant struggle. As a prisoner of Virginia, he did not make himself into someone new, but rather threw himself completely into the power of words because this was all he had left to him. The compelling, charismatic Christian man writing from his jail cell is the same man who had previously used militant means to oppose slavery. John Brown was as much a praying-and-Bible-reading Christian activist before his defeat and arrest as after when he awaited his appointed hour on the gallows in Virginia. So it was not John Brown who “reinvented” himself in the shadow of the gallows, but rather the North which was compelled to “reinvent” itself by the fact of Brown’s witness in words and death. In this sense too, it is not only the gallows, but the road to the gallows that enables us, even today, to see the man who lived and died as John Brown the abolitionist.

Finally, Blight sounds much like another Douglass biographer, William McFeeley, who has written of the vexing nature of John Brown as a historical figure. Blight opines:
John Brown should and does still trouble us; his “soul” may “go marching on” in the song that bears his name, but we should never let him or his story rest too easily in the narratives we tell ourselves. History should never come so cheap as to simply make us feel good about murder in the name of vengeance for slaveholding. . . .
This is probably one of the best examples of how scholars complicate Brown’s place in history. This caveat, coming from one of the most admirable and brilliant U.S. historians of our day, that Brown “should and does still trouble us” raises questions to those of us who simply cannot understand why we should feel the way Blight says we should. Blight is an excellent man, but he is no more moral or spiritually high-minded than others who have been devoted to Brown without apology. In fact, it is interesting that over a few generations some of the leading proponents of Brown have been clergymen (including a rabbi named Louis Ruchames). While none of them have taken the Pottawatomie killings lightly, nor have they retreated so bashfully from Brown as have academics like Blight. (I should add, too, this is not simply a “white” thing; as much as we love and appreciate the work of Benjamin Quarles, his assessment of Brown is occasionally marred by small but demeaning concessions made in deference to the ivory tower in his day.)

Contrary to Blight and other academics, the issue of “murder” in the case of the Pottawatomie killings is not a settled fact of history. That one can so easily throw down the gauntlet of “murder in the name of vengeance for slaveholding,” in my opinion, suggests a deficiency in consideration of the facts, and perhaps an all-too-easy acquiescence to ivory tower assumptions. For too long scholars have uncritically accepted Villard’s thesis of the Pottawatomie killings as having been “murder,” which has more recently lent itself to the terrorist-minded detractors of Brown. To the contrary, there are alternative readings of these infamous killings, especially that they were preemptive and counter-terroristic by nature and must be understood in the context of a lawless and bellicose situation where the Browns had no recourse to constabulary protection.

Finally, it is more than interesting that Blight and McFeeley, both notable biographers of Frederick Douglass, would depart so drastically from their subject’s assessment of Brown. Does Blight consider Douglass’s reading of Brown as “cheap” and “feel good”? Is not Blight being a bit more than “preachy” to moralize so about embracing Brown too closely? Many of us who have studied Brown simply do not feel so troubled, nor do we speak of “murder” and John Brown in the same historical breath. What is it really that so vexes and disturbs these scholars about John Brown? Is this really about “murder,” or is it about the unspoken assumptions, values, and cultural pressures inherent in academia, or the politics of naming and grading our heroes and banishing our rebels to the margins of the history text? Was Frederick Douglass being cheap when he wrote in retrospect, “John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed”?

There is no need to render John Brown a complicated jigsaw-puzzle of a man, vexing to assemble, hard to handle, and impossible to appreciate except without constantly reminding us of his allegedly difficult, problematic, and troubling legacy. The issue here is not Brown’s complexity, but that of his readers, many of whom are themselves so entangled in a complexity of their own presumptions that the profound simplicity of the man simply frightens them.-LD

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