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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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Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Lithgow and Covey: Scenes in the Life of John Brown

David C. Lithgow, "John Brown's Trial" (1923)Essex County Historical Society, Elizabethtown, N.Y.

Arthur Covey, "Episodes in the Life of John Brown" (1937)Torrington, Conn. Post Office (above and below)

The first work is mostly self-explanatory, Lithgow's obviously providing a stylized rendering of John Brown's trial in Charles Town, Virginia [now West Virginia] (October-November 1859).  When Brown's body was returned for burial, his remains were kept overnight at the Essex Country Court House in Elizabethtown before finally being interred at the John Brown farm in North Elba, Essex County.

In contrast, Covey's themes may be complemented with some biographical commentary.  

The moving scene of Brown, resting a rifle on his shoulder and walking in advance of a group of blacks with an ox and wagon, will be recognizable to Brown's students as the real episode of the Missouri liberation raid and freedom flight that took place December 20, 1858 through March 12, 1859, led by Brown.  In that liberation effort, Brown was not only acting strategically to liberate eleven enslaved people (including a pregnant woman), but sending a message back east to his supporters that he was ready to bring "the war into Africa," that is, do fairly much the same thing on a grand scale in the South.  Brown and his men were prepared to arm these people, including the women.  Covey portrays the trek in scenic beauty, although it was a drawn out and difficult process carried out in the dead of winter that involved going from Missouri into Kansas, then into Nebraska,  through Iowa by wagon.  In Iowa, the rescued party were put on a train for Chicago, Illinois, whence they departed by rail for Detroit, Michigan.  From Detroit they were successfully ferried away from the reach of the racist government of the United States into the care of Canadian liberty.

On the lower right is a photo of Covey's portrayal of a young John Brown in Torrington, Connecticut, a theme rarely taken on by artists.  In the childhood theme, Covey nicely portrayed the Brown homestead, which had unfortunately burned down a little more than two decades before this painting was done.  John is pictured at about the age of five years (he was born in 1800 and his family left Connecticut in 1805), with his mother, who died three years later, after the family had relocated to Hudson, Ohio.  Both the mother and the son gesture toward the livestock, which likely references John Brown's famous 1857 autobiographical sketch written for Henry Stearns, the son of his supporter, George L. Stearns.  In that sketch, Brown recounts the impact of losing his mother at a young age, and his great love of livestock from youth.  Like the liberation trek painting, this portrayal is extremely sentimental.

Perhaps most interesting is the painting on the lower left, picturing Brown, with hand upraised as if making a vow.  This painting is based upon another actual incident, but not the more famous episode when John Brown vowed to give his life to the fight against slavery--a scene that took place in Hudson, Ohio, in 1837.  Rather, this painting is another Torrington episode, when businessman John Brown was moving about New England in pursuit of financial stability, probably in late 1838 or early 1839.1  According to William Beebee Carrington (1824-1912), who was a schoolboy at this time in Torrington, one day his classroom was visited by John Brown, who proceeded to give an impromptu lecture on Africa and Africans, and the travesty of the slave trade.  Then Brown solicited the sincere promise of the boys present that they would do everything in their power to support the enslaved and oppressed African.  As Carrington recalled, Brown concluded his presentation saying,

Now may my Father in heaven, who is your Father, and who is the Father of the African; and Christ, who is my Master and Savior, and your Master and Savior, and the Master and Savior of the African; and the Holy Spirit, which gives me strength and comfort when I need it, and will give you strength and comfort when you need it, and that gives strength and comfort to the African, enable you to keep this resolution which you have now taken.2

Covey thus effectively captures this scene from local Torrington history, picturing a younger John Brown soliciting the promises of his young listeners to oppose slavery as a solemn work of Christian faith.  If this is how Brown taught a classroom of children in passing, one should not be surprised that he was able to enlist all of his sons in one way or another in his anti-slavery cause.   This scene also serves as a great rebuke to white Christians from that time until this very day, most of whom have trained their children on a version of "Christianity" that slights the realities of racism and fails to connect the theological sensibility of humanity the image of God with black people and their struggle against racism.  Quite in contrast to his racist detractors (then and now) as well as his heterodox allies in abolition, John Brown struck a harmonious and exemplary balance of orthodox Protestant faith and radical abolitionism.   

1 Villard dates this incident as probably in 1838, over against the estimation of Carrington, who apparently told Villard it was in 1836 (Villard, p. 47).  Based on the chronology of Brown's letters, however, Brown was in Connecticut a lot early in 1839 as well.  Due to oversight on my part, as a new biographer of Brown I made the reprehensible error of dating this incident much later, confusing this appearance with Brown's later touring of New England in the 1850s, when it seemed more likely (at the time) that he would be asked to speak to a classroom of children.  Happily, David Reynolds recounts this episode (p. 71) in keeping with Villard's record.  

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