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, April 29, 2010

John Brown Action Figure? Not!

Alice Keesey Mecoy, my esteemed friend and the great (3x) granddaughter of the real "Great Emancipator," John Brown (not that tall, bearded pretender with his own personal temple in Washington, D.C.), told me about this one folks:

eBay is currently featuring a John Brown action figure for sale under the title, "John Brown abolitionist Civil War custom 12" figure." Now get this, first of all the thing is going for $50.  It's a 12-inch G.I. Joe for goodness sakes with a bathroom, for goodness sake. This so-called John Brown comes with a little rifle that looks like something that fell out of a G.I. Joe set, a gun and holster, pants, boots, and something that Alice aptly describes as an outfit from Star Wars. The folks selling it have the audacity to have it posed near a print of John Steuart Curry's famous painting of Brown--but the worst part is that the figure doesn't even resemble a young John Brown, let alone John Brown in the late 1850s. It's got brown hair and beard, but JB's hair was darker and streaked with gray by the time he got to Kansas in 1855, and virtually gray when he was there in 1858-59. Of course, Brown never wore a beard trimmed that close, and even his trademark long, white beard was actually cropped much shorter at the time of the Harper's Ferry raid.

At any rate, this has got to be the worst popular representation I've seen of JB in any medium and one cannot help but get the impression that somebody had a bright idea to make a "John Brown action figure" based on a lot of leftover pieces lying here and there in the toy factory.

Oh yeah, there's one other thing that's missing from this bogus John Brown action figure. Can you guess what it is? (No, not a noose. Look at a complete version of the Curry painting and you'll figure it out.)

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Cat Who Went to Kansas (and Other John Brown Animals)

John Brown, besides being a friend of freedom, was an animal lover. It is doubtful that he would subscribe to the contemporary presuppositions of "animal rights" activism (whether or not one believes in animal rights or human responsibility for animals has a lot to do with one's fundamental philosophy, but I won't address that here). Nor would he kiss his pets, have them sit at the dinner table, or put them in his will as some folks do these days. But as a thoroughgoing biblicist, Brown personified the Proverbial "righteous man who cares for his beast." [This complete entry is available only in the forthcoming book, John Brown: Emancipator]

Monday, April 19, 2010

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Robert E. Lee's Legacy is in Defending White Supremacy

Mr. Coates, an excellent author and senior editor for The Atlantic, has recently (Apr. 14) addressed the argument of another writer who contends that the Confederate General Robert E. Lee can be seen as a fine man, "warts and all," particularly in his capacity as a military leader in the cause of Southern secession. Coates responds:

I think the key problem here is the point that Lee's "great legacy is his defense of the system, through force of arms at a horrific cost." That system being a kind of all-encompassing white supremacy--a system of consumption--that did not just indict slave-owners, but poor whites and yeoman farmers that owned no slaves.

The question, though, is one of means versus ends. Can you admire the way someone lived, even if you deplore that which they were willing to give their life for? I don't know. I have deep-seated questions about the means employed by some people who I have, at various times, included in my pantheon. I question John Brown's means, but not his moral ends. I question Nat Turner's means, but not his moral ends. I'm hard pressed to come up with people admire despite deploring the great cause of their life.

I certainly agree. However, if Mr. Coates does not sanction the means of John Brown, I can only hope that he will read more closely on the Subject. Certain of Brown's actions may have been extreme, but he did nothing except in defense of his family and in the cause of the slave, over against racist, terrorist, and violent foes. In his Kansas career fighting racist thugs, Brown put five greasy villains in their graves, yet he is excoriated by professional historians as if he were a deranged serial killer. In contrast, on the basis of something as hollow as statesman's loyalty, Lee commanded multiple thousands in treason against this nation, and through his illicit command did such great harm against his own nation that he virtually sowed a myriad corpses like bloody seed across the landscape of this nation. Was he really a humble, noble, and salutary figure? If he was, then God save us from such "good" people!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Pat Buchanan Defends the Confederacy

This past week, the right-wing leader and journalist, Pat Buchanan, raised more controversy in defending Virginia's governor McDonnell in his determination to pay tribute to Virginia's Confederate history. According to an article by David Edwards and Daniel Tencer on the raw story website (9 Apr.), Buchanan was interviewed on MSNBC's Hardball, where he made an outrageous apologetic in favor of the historical Confederacy, misrepresented the motivation of Virginia's secession from the Union on April 17, 1861, and then proceeded to defend the rebel cause. According to Edwards and Tencer:
Virginia did not secede over slavery," Buchanan said. "Virginia stayed in the union when Lincoln was elected. ... What took them out of the Union was when Abraham Lincoln said, ‘We want 75,000 volunteers, your militia and your soldiers in Virginia, to attack the deep South and bring them back into the union.’ They said, ‘We're not going to kill our kinsmen.’ That's how Virginia left the union."

The writers report that Buchanan then angered his host, Chris Matthews, by contending that Southern secession was based on a desire for freedom.

"They wanted to be free of the Union," Buchanan said. "They wanted to keep slaves," Matthews retorted. Finally, Matthews pushed Buchanan into a corner. "Who was right in the Civil War?" he asked. "I think in a way both sides were right," Buchanan responded. "Lincoln had a right to save the Union. I think they [the South] had a right to go free."

The date of this posting (17 Apr.) is the 149th anniversary of Virginia's secession from the United States and it seems appropriate to publish notice of Pat Buchanan's undisguised, unrepentant declaration on behalf of the Confederacy. Frankly, none of this is a surprise--no more than Pat Robertson's recent, idiotic declaration regarding Haitian liberation and an alleged pact with the devil. Men like Robertson and Buchanan represent the legacy of the Southern establishment and there is nothing actually revelatory about their remarks if one understands them rightly. The truth is that there are many people, many of them descended from slave holders and Southern rebels, who continue to portray Confederate history in romantic, noble, and grandiose moral and political terms. To be sure, they are not like their fathers and grandfathers, who enforced segregation and opposed black liberation in the civil rights era; but people like Pat Buchanan have done everything possible to reverse the gains of the civil rights struggle within the bounds of contemporary politics.

Jesus once impugned the Pharisees for being like unmarked graves over which people unknowingly walked in defilement (Luke 11:44). In other words, their acceptable appearance as leaders belied the decadence hidden beneath the surface of their religious posturing. The same thing can be said for the Pat Robertsons and Pat Buchanans of the conservative Christian right-wing, particularly in their devotion to Confederate heritage. Pat Buchanan is not a villainous, evil person. However he is unfortunately steeped in the same "Christian" assumptions of his forebears. If Wikipedia is to be trusted, Buchanan is not only the great-grandson of a Confederate army soldier, but a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and an admirer of Robert E. Lee the military mastermind of the Southern war of secession. Should anyone be surprised that Buchanan should go on the offensive in favor of the Confederate cause? Then it also should not be a surprise that his revisionist approach to Confederate history is premised on Southern "freedom" in opposition to the "oppression" of the federal government. Buchanan likely believes his own propaganda. He really does think that the Confederacy was heroic, that its cause was about freedom, and that his forebears were noble, admirable figures whose political militancy can somehow be set apart from the wicked institution of black chattel slavery.

I should stress here that this is not an anti-South diatribe. First, not all Southerners supported secession, nor did all Southerners advocate slavery. Second, chattel slavery is not solely a legacy of the old South; rather, it is a legacy of the Founding Fathers and their Constitution. Thirdly, although chattel slavery became a sectional issue by the time of John Brown's political activism in the 1850s, we should remember that slavery was a national blight that infested many northern states, and many northern slave holders enriched themselves on stolen black labor in New York, Connecticut, and other states that abolished slavery in the 19th century. John Brown himself was not patently anti-South, nor did he blame Southerners for slavery. He blamed the nation as a whole although he recognized that the so-called Peculiar Institution had become essential to the Southern economy in his era. The struggle against slavery and racism in the United States is not a North versus South argument; it is a contest of freedom versus oppression and truth versus fallacy.

As the ancient proverb goes, "the fathers eat the sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge." Buchanan's forefather fought for the right of the South to enslave blacks, not for "freedom." The delusion of the slave master's mind (which John Brown recognized as a kind of madness)--the "sour grapes" of Confederate self-justification--has long infested the minds of their descendants with a certain bitterness, namely the prideful necessity of defending immorality and injustice in the name of "Southern" heritage. Yet the question needs to be asked: in what way does Confederate history relate to Southern history? How should it be properly understood? Is Nazism fundamentally identical to German heritage? Is La Cosa Nostra history identical to Italian and Italian American heritage? I would hope that the answer would be obvious. Yet why have so few Southerners ever sufficiently differentiated themselves from the history of slavery and Confederate rebellion? What is it about the fallen Confederacy that so enamors men like Pat Buchanan that they cannot bear witness to the generations of groaning, bleeding, and exploited black people who suffered under the rule that the Confederacy sought to sustain? What is it about the Confederacy that exempts its proud sons and daughters from any sense of regret--yea, that seems even to puff them up with arrogant pride? Even if one accepts the spurious notion that "State's Rights" was the real reason for Southern secession, what was at the core of these "rights"? Was it not primarily the "right" to hold black people in captivity? Was the South otherwise so abused and oppressed by the federal government that it had a higher purpose to rebel? How can Pat Buchanan speak of Southern secession as a matter of "freedom"?

Patrick Buchanan is a true son of the Confederacy. Ostensibly an advocate of high morality, family values, and Christian heritage, he is also a defender of a "lost cause," a fallen slavocracy, and an ill-fated and bloody adventure in rebellion largely premised on the presumption of white supremacy. John Brown has admirers in many nations, especially wherever struggles for freedom have ensued. The same cannot be said for the leaders of the Confederacy whom--with the exception of people like Pat Buchanan--are universally seen as racist oppressors.

Surely the rebel apple doesn't fall far from the Confederate tree.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Regarding "Confederate History Month" in Virginia

The Practical Implications of "Confederate History"
According to reports by CNN and The Washington Post, Governor Bob O'Donnell, Republican Governor of Virginia, is looking pretty stupid.  No doubt motivated by hopes of exploiting the coming Civil War sesquicentennial for political and economic profit, the Gov declared the month of April as "Confederate History Month."  Completely lost in white narcissism, it seems that Governor O'Donnell forgot that (1) Virginia was the heart and soul of black chattel slavery and its interest in rebelling against the union in 1861 was essentially premised on the right to sustain that cruel and exploitative institution; (2) that a large portion of people in Virginia and the rest of the country do not want to commemorate political treason, rebellion, and the contribution that so-called Confederates made in forcing our nation into a bloody civil conflict; and (3) that Confederate history, so-called, is fundamentally intertwined with white supremacy, racial oppression, and hypocritical "evangelical" conservatism--the kind of religious subculture that doesn't condone drunkenness, gambling, or adultery, but sanctions stolen black labor, the rape of black women, the prohibition of blacks from marrying or having an education, and even the right of a white slave master to murder his blacks without facing penalty of law.  And this is a legacy that Governor O'Donnell wants to remember?
The Confederacy was a secessionist movement that formed for all the wrong reasons.
The Confederacy was a secessionist movement that formed for all the wrong reasons.  The Confederacy was a union of betrayal and hubris  that drove millions of the South's sons--slave owners and non-slave owners alike--to death for the sake of the profits of slave holding elites.  The Confederacy was a foolish venture in which arrogant leaders failed to "count the cost" before throwing the nation into a pit of blood and death.  The Confederacy was happily crushed in 1865 because, despite all the arms-piling and antebellum preparations made by Southern leadership in anticipation of secession, it could not go the distance with the federal government. Similarly, neither could it stand vindicated in the light of history because its agenda is clearly one of shame and immorality, no matter what a deluded set of Southern Calvinists may argue.  No decent person should believe that a society essentially defined by race slavery is noble, endearing, or worthy of celebration at the point of its most foolish and wicked history -- southern secession.  If Virginia's Confederate heritage people want to do something, they ought to collect money to build a memorial to all the slaves their forebears exploited, and draft a state apology, signed by Governor O'Donnell, to Virginia's black community.  While he's at it, maybe David Reynold's idea of pardoning John Brown could be thrown in by Governor O'Donnell for good measure.  

At any rate, because he's standing on the wrong side of history, Governor O'Donnell's proclamation came off like a political pants-pooping episode, and subsequently he has had to clean up his mess by a too-little-too late expression of regret, clarifying the fact that the State of Virginia abhors and regrets slavery.  Of course, the Governor did so after the fact, but he is apparently sticking to his guns about making April "Confederate History Month" in the Old Dominion.

It would be easy to blast the G.O.P. over this, perhaps even opine that this is a subtle slap at President Obama.  But this blogger is non-partisan and I'm not going there.  More importantly, this theme goes far deeper than current political tensions between white liberals and white conservatives, neither of whom have ever sufficiently addressed the shameful history of slavery in this nation and the legitimacy of working out some kind of reparations and accountability on the part of the government.  This is about telling the truth about the history of the United States, Virginia included.  Do we really want to celebrate Confederates?   And why is it that so few whites seem to get it, that celebrating the Confederacy in Virginia is like Germans celebrating the role of the Nazis in World War II?  Was black chattel slavery really so much different just because it was enforced by a so-called Christian society?

There are sadly a significant number of Southerners who still love their Confederate so-called heritage.  When they say that they love it, that they're proud of it, that it was a noble Christian society, etc., they are really apologists for the sins of their fathers.  How can Governor O'Donnell sustain Confederate History Month and express regret over slavery?  Didn't the Wisest of All declare, "You can't serve two masters"?  Which master does Governor O'Donnell want to serve, the Confederacy or Liberty?  This double standard is certainly the case with a significant segment of Reformed Presbyterians in the South, who have elevated the Confederate heritage because of its historic theological "orthodoxy," and to this very day idolize Southern, pro-slavery theologians for being faithful to Holy Scripture.  Are these people so devoid of humanity that they cannot see the contradiction in their thinking?

A Confederate Family "Tree"
Confederate history is best summed up in two words: slavery and rebellion.

Confederate history is best summed up in two words: slavery and rebellion, and rebellion for the worst of reasons.  At least John Brown committed "treason" against the Old Dominion in an attempt to set people free from slavery.  Sadly, no other country that has been forced to suppress a civil rebellion has afterward so glorified, praised, and romanticized its defeated rebels and enemies as has the U.S.A.   No traitors and rebels have ever been as warmly welcomed back and forgiven as were white Southern "Confederates."  No government in its right mind would allow the flag of its former rebels and enemies to be flown as state emblems and banners after having crushed that same rebellion.    Had Abraham Lincoln not been such a whites-first politician, and had he dealt with the Confederacy as its leaders deserved, there would have been something akin to the Nuremberg trials in Washington D.C. in 1865, and a whole lot of Confederates would have been "John-Browned" rather than coddled and suckled at the breast of white unity.  "With malice toward none" except former black slaves, that is!

To declare April "Confederate History Month" in Virginia is not only a political insult to the United States and its people, it is a glorification of greed-based rebellion wearing the cloak of nobility.  (No wonder ex-Confederates were so good at hiding under cloaks and hoods after the Civil War.)  Worst of all, "Confederate History Month" in Virginia is an open, flagrant affront to black people and their allies in this nation, who recognize that REAL "Confederate history" is the history of oppression.  Indeed, it is the STARTING POINT of post-Reconstruction segregation, racist brutality, lynching, and discrimination that continued well into the 20th century.  

Maybe blacks in Virginia ought to proclaim their own annual celebration--NAT TURNER HISTORY MONTH.

Maybe instead of complaining about "Confederate History Month," blacks in Virginia ought to proclaim their own annual celebration--NAT TURNER HISTORY MONTH.   If that's offensive to white Virginians and their cousins across this country, then maybe it will finally occur to them how offensive this notion of glorifying Confederate history is to black people and their allies.   If Virginia really wants to commemorate the Civil War sesquicentennial, that is perfectly legitimate as long as the spirit of hubris, oppression, and rebellion is not glorified and idealized in name of "Confederate history."  Rather than celebrate Virginia's Confederate legacy, perhaps an extensive education and information program could promote understanding of the history, politics, and crisis that led this nation to civil conflict and how Virginia's leaders played a major role in bringing this about.  Let Virginia tell the truth about itself and so provide a positive model rather than resurrecting the demons of the Old Dominion.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Abolitionist John Brown's "Black" Springfield Years Radicalized Him

When John Brown left Springfield after closing his wool business, he bid farewell to his fellow parishioners at the Sanford Street Church (today’s St. Johns Congregational Church), his many friends in the growing African-American community, and his respected cohorts involved in the local Anti-slavery movement.

He left with full confidence that the leaders in the local black community had become quite effective in helping individuals seeking to escape slavery in the south. Brown felt the need to move on to other communities to continue his work knowing that Springfield was in good hands with the likes of strong-minded, brave, and dedicated African Americans like Thomas Thomas, William Montague, and Eli Baptist.

Since the end of the 18th Century, Springfield had become one of the safe havens for blacks escaping slavery from parts of the Northeast including neighboring New York where slavery was still legal until 1828 as well as the southern states.

During John Brown’s residency in Springfield from 1846 to 1849, he witnessed first hand how effective that safe haven status had become. In fact, his years in Springfield helped to confirm his thoughts about the evils of Slavery, the pervasive influence the “Slave Power” had on American national Government, but most of all his sojourn in this community opened his eyes and mind to the possibility of effective resistance.

In Springfield, he found a community whose white leadership from the community’s most prominent churches, to its most wealthy businessmen, to its most popular politicians, to its local jurists, and even to the publisher of the Republican, one of the nation’s most influential newspapers were deeply involved and emotionally invested in the anti-slavery movement.

But just as important, and perhaps more so, John Brown lived within the black community. He attended their church, hired fellow parishioners for his wool business, and notably developed a close friendship with Thomas Thomas even gifting his rocking chair to Thomas’ mother as a measure of respect when he left Springfield in 1849.

In this and many other ways, John Brown displayed a special affection for his African-American friends in Springfield.

His close association with the community more importantly provided John Brown with a living example of what a free black community could be. In church and at meetings, and in his philosophical and political conversations with black friends such as Thomas Thomas, John Brown personally experienced the impressive intellectual capabilities, and leadership qualities within the community. Through the passion of their rhetoric, sincerity of their prayer, and logic of their reasoning, he was inspired to re-double his efforts against the pernicious institution of slavery.

When the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass came to Springfield, he met John Brown and was impressed by this remarkable man.

Douglass remarked, “Though a white gentleman, he is in sympathy with the black man and as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery.”

While in Springfield, Douglass spent an entire evening with John Brown. An evening which arguably transformed Douglass’ perspective and views on the future direction of the national debate on slavery.

He wrote of his conversations with Brown, “From this night spent with John Brown in Springfield, Mass. 1847 while I continued to write and speak against slavery, I became all the same less hopeful for its peaceful abolition. My utterances became more and more tinged by the color of this man’s strong impressions.”

In 1849, Brown moved his family to North Elba, New York to live within its local black community. He was sensing progress in the fight against slavery although he also saw a long hard road ahead until abolition. But he was truly encouraged by the growth and development of these African-American enclaves where free blacks could live their lives away the shadows of slavery.

Imagine how distraught Brown must have felt when the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850. For all the opinions offered on the national stage about the eventual demise of slavery through gradual means, here was proof positive that the Slave Power was not going away. In fact, with the Fugitive Slave Act, it had actually tightened its grip allowing slaveowners to have the force of federal law behind them.

The real and imminent threat of “slave-catchers” reaching out into the former “safe havens” like Springfield in order to drag African-Americans back into slavery became a catalyst for action.

In his first significant action after the Act was passed, John Brown returned to Springfield and immediately sought out his friends from Sanford Street Church, and in particular Thomas Thomas. They met to determined what to do to ensure that communities like Springfield remained “safe havens” and to establish a extra-legal counterforce to the actions of slavecatchers.

Author Joseph Carvalho III at Museum of Springfield History exhibit on John Brown he co-curated. The exhibit is on display at the museum at Chestnut and Edwards streets.

From the pulpit of the Sanford Street Church, Rev. John Mars enjoined his congregation that the time had come to “beat plowshares into swords” to defend their families and their freedom.

It was at this moment that John Brown drafted the founding document of the League of Gileadites with the help and influence of his Springfield friends in the black community.  Significantly, the League of Gileadites was established as an anti-slavery militia with its goal of self-defense against slavecatchers. In the eyes of the federal government and federal law as constituted with the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act, this organization clearly promoted illegal civil, and most remarkably, armed resistance.

After establishing the League of Gileadites, John Brown left Springfield, but he left it in good hands. Not one person was ever taken back into slavery from Springfield from that point on.

In fact, William Wells Brown the famous black orator who traveled throughout the north recounting his own harrowing experience escaping from slavery commented how Springfield was remarkable for its open defiance of the Fugitive Slave laws.  He noted that on his visit to Springfield, that it was a common sight to see and meet local African Americans at the train station armed and ready to resist any slave catcher who attempted to conduct their “business” in their community.

For John Brown, “Bleeding Kansas” and the famous raid on Harper’s Ferry were to follow, two flash points that lead to the Civil War, and Emancipation. It is important to reflect upon Springfield’s place in his life and how the relationships formed during his stay here influenced the dramatic actions he took in the 1850s.

Thursday, April 01, 2010


by Grady Atwater

John Brown is a nationally known and important historical figure, and there are a network of John Brown related historic sites across the nation. One of the major John Brown historic sites is the John Brown Farm State Historic Site in New York, which is special because it’s holds John Brown’s gravesite. New York Governor David Paterson has placed the John Brown Farm State Historic Site on a list of New York State Parks to be closed due to New York’s budget crisis. Closing the historic site has justifiably created a shockwave of protest across the nation.

The loss of the John Brown Farm State Historic Site in North Elba, New York may seem like a distant problem that really doesn’t have a negative impact on sites in other states, but experience at the John Brown Museum State Historic Site in Osawatomie proves otherwise. Many visitors to the John Brown Museum State Historic Site in Osawatomie are from across the nation, and state that they have become interested in learning about John Brown because they have visited other John Brown related historic sites. The closing of the John Brown Farm State Historic Site will create a gap in the effort to educate the public about the vital role that John Brown and abolitionists played in abolishing slavery and starting the modern civil rights movement.

Individual John Brown historical sites tell different parts of John Brown’s story. The John Brown Farm State Historic Site is not only the gravesite of John Brown, but also demonstrates John Brown’s commitment to helping African American’s achieve freedom and equality. John Brown’s farm was located on 148,000 acres of land that Gerrit Smith set aside to provide new homes for former slaves in 1846. Brown volunteered to help the former slaves to establish farms and become independent, and purchased the farm from Smith in 1848. Brown went to court and stood up with former slaves in legal matters, and worked to help them adjust to freedom. 

Brown’s actions in New York were peaceful, and the John Brown Farm State Historic Site educates the public about the peaceful aspects of Brown’s abolitionist crusade. It is vital to educate the public about all aspects of Brown’s life, and closing the site will close one that works to educate the public about this important part of Brown’s abolitionist crusade.

John Brown is a controversial but important character in American history. His abolitionist crusade sparked the Civil War, and he is a national and international philosophical symbol for ideologically motivated action in the present. Closing the John Brown Farm State Historic Site in New York will impede efforts to educate the public about the vital role that John Brown played in American and world history. The loss of the John Brown Farm State Historic Site will not only hurt New York, it will harm Osaatomie and the entire nation.

Grady Atwater is the director of John Brown Museum State Historic Site in Osawatomie, Kansas.