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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, August 28, 2010

John Brown: What is Your Point of View?

"It all depends on your point of view.  If you're smug, conservative, satisfied with things as they are, John Brown was a blood-stained madman.  If human liberty means more to you than anything else, if oppression and slavery make you want to go out and do something about it, then John Brown was a glorious figure who did the right thing in the wrong way, but who nevertheless did something."

Emanuel Garrett, "Out of the Past: John Brown," The Socialist Appeal [New York], 9 May 1939.

"A good critic has justly said, 'Throughout the whole life of John Brown, there is not so much of invective and bitterness as is found in a single page of Mr. Garrison.'  The habitual mildness of John Brown's language, even under very strong provocation, was as wonderful as was the might of his acts.  His most terrible deeds were as devoid of personal vindictiveness as the sheriff's solemn execution of a sentence. . . .  [I]t was the due and necessary execution of law, when one of the noblest men in the world's history went from his prison to the death of a criminal, having the confidence of a certain faith and the comfort of a reasonable, religious and holy hope, in favor with God, and in perfect charity with all the world.  But that verdict will stand which was rendered at the time by John A. Andrew, afterward 'the war governor' of Massachusetts: 'Whatever may be thought of John Brown's acts, John Brown himself was right.'"

Leonard W. Bacon, "John Brown," The Advance (22 April 1886).

Thursday, August 26, 2010

by Edwin N. Cotter, Jr.

Edwin N. Cotter Jr. was the director of the John Brown Farm Historic Site from the 1960s until the onset of the 21st century.  “Mr. Cotter,” as I always referred to him, was a devoted John Brown enthusiast and the leading authority on John Brown’s Adirondack story and the black settlements in Essex and Franklin Counties.  Although he was not a scholar, Mr. Cotter was a tireless researcher and a kind supporter of others doing work on the John Brown theme, including this blogger.  In his home, Mr. Cotter kept a room exclusively for his John Brown collection which he fondly called “John’s Room.”  He died in 2001 and his collection is now archived in the library of the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. He wrote the following article in the early 1980s.--LD

Edwin N. Cotter Jr.  (Photo by
L. DeCaro Jr., 2000)
On July 30, 1981, the John Brown Memorial Association held their annual pilgrimage to the John Brown Farm in North Elba (Lake Placid), N.Y., culminating fifty-nine years of honoring the abolitionist, John Brown, who in 1859 gave his life so others might be free.

The John Brown Memorial Association's roots go back to 1922 and to Dr. Jesse Max Barber,  Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Barber was one of the founders of the Niagara Movement and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  In 1922, Barber and Dr. Thomas Spotuas Burwell were sent by the NAACP, in representation of all African Americans, to the John Brown Farm in Lake Placid to lay a wreath on John Brown's grave on May 9, his birthday.

These two pilgrims were welcomed at the train by a committee of the Lake Placid Chamber of Commerce and were informed that the local school had been cancelled so that the children could be at the ceremonies. The local newspapers carried the story of the first of many years of pilgrimages to the John Brown Farm.

Barber quickly saw the significance in the ceremony, and the following year he formed a pilgrimage committee, and thus was born the nucleus of the John Brown Memorial Association with Barber serving as first president.  The first chapter of the association was appropriately from Philadelphia and named for Shields Green, the black warrior and escaped slave who was executed for his part in John Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry, Virginia in 1859.  Shortly others, especially the Frederick Douglass chapter of New York City, and the George Washington Carver chapter of Brooklyn, N.Y, joined this group.

In the early years, the pilgrims travelled to Lake Placid by automobile—the Philadelphia group joining the others in Saratoga, New York. In these years, the automobile trip from Philadelphia took two full days.

One of the first objectives of the association was to collect funds for a suitable monument to John Brown, and by the late 1920s, that dream was well on its way to realization. The Great Depression slowed, but did not stop, the momentum of the association and their dedication towards their goal.

In the early years of the pilgrimages, schools in Lake Placid closed on May 9; school children would march out to the John Brown farm, the school band would play, services were held, and a wreath laid on the gravesites of Brown and his men.  In the evening there would be speeches in the Community Church and musical recitals in the town hall.  During these years too, many nationally known figures spoke at these meetings, among these being Clarence Darrow and Oswald Garrison Villard.

During the hardest years of the Depression, the association never lost sight of their dream to erect a monument to John Brown, and $5000 was collected in culmination of their dream in 1934. The noted sculptor, Joseph P. Pollia, of New York City, ultimately was commissioned to design a bronze memorial in memory of the abolitionist.  Pollia's model, showing John Brown with his arm around a black youth, was immediately accepted and plans were started for a suitable location at the farm.  Permission to erect the statue was given by New York State and the Civilian Conservation Corps started work on the location.

On May 9, 1935, John Brown's 135th birthday, the Association's dream was realized when the 8-foot-high bronze statue was unveiled by Lyman Eppes, an aged African American who not only knew John Brown in his youth, but was the lone survivor of the free black community that had formed in Essex County in the 1840s.  This was a poignant moment since Eppes’ father and mother were close friends with the Brown family; the Eppes family also sang at his funeral on December 8, 1859. Over 2000 people attended the dedication ceremony in 1935.  The Lake Placid school band provided the music and the Lincoln University Quartet also performed.  Following Barber’s dedication address, Alexander C. Flick, a New York State historian, gave the main address.

The Association continued to collect funds for projects at the farm. In 1941, they placed a bronze and glass enclosure over the gravestone of John Brown. This protected it from the elements and the ever-present souvenir hunter, who in previous years had chipped pieces from it.  Plans were started for a plaque honoring the women of the John Brown family, but the shortage of bronze during World War II curtailed this project.

Even during the war years, when travel was restricted, pilgrimages to the John Brown farm slowed but never stopped; members came by train from Philadelphia and New York City to meet at the farm with the Lake Placid group.  On July 4, 1946, the plaque honoring the Brown women was finally unveiled at the gravesite culminating a quarter-century of effort dedicated to the memory of John Brown, his family, and his followers.  Shortly after this achievement, Barber resigned as president of the association, marking the end of an era.  

The work of the Association continued with a new president and members, and during this period the name of the Lake Placid chapter was renamed after Harry Wade Hicks, a local white resident who had given himself unselfishly to advance the Association's goals over the decades. Throughout the later years of the Association its emphasis was increasingly focused upon educating young people.  A scholarship fund was set up to help deserving students, white and black, and scores of young people were assisted in this manner.

By the early 1980s there were over 500 members in four chapters: the founding Shields Green chapter of Philadelphia, the Frederick Douglass chapter of New York City, the George Washington Carver chapter of Brooklyn, N.Y., and the Harry Wade Hicks chapter of Lake Placid, N.Y.

On July 30, 1981, the Association gathered once again at the grave of John Brown, and led by their national president, Frances B. Bryant, the Adirondack Mountains echoed as their voices sang, "God Bless America" and "John Brown's Body." Although more than a half-century had passed since J. Max Barber and T. Spotuas Burwell had placed a wreath on the grave of the abolitionist, the Association's enthusiasm had not diminished, nor had their dedication to John Brown declined.

Edwin N. Cotter, Jr., ca. 1981
The John Brown Memorial Association has since disbanded, bringing an end to its annual pilgrimages and programs at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site in Lake Placid.  With recent budget cuts by the state, even the general accessibility of this precious site has been threatened. 

Perhaps it is time to revive the John Brown Memorial Association!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A “White” Man’s Debate: Lincoln Lovers vs. Libertarians

A Black Author Ignored

A little more than a decade ago, Lerone Bennett Jr., the long time editor of Ebony magazine and notable historian of African American history, published his searing critique of Abraham Lincoln, Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream (Johnson Publishing Co., 1999).

What Bennett does to great success is to completely debunk the mythical “Lincoln the Great Emancipator” notion by showing that he was in essence a racist and politically a laggard when it came to black liberation, ultimately being forced by the flow of history into taking an “anti-slavery” position.  As Bennett demonstrates, Lincoln was a white-first kind of guy—a fan of racist minstrel shows, an opponent to social equality, and a politician who would have preferred to deport blacks as the best solution to the problem of slavery and racial injustice.   As the President of the United States, Lincoln was “credited” by his enemies for being something he never was, namely an abolitionist.  This was certainly the case with assassin John Wilkes Booth, who poured out his contempt for Lincoln, along with ample references to John Brown, in a letter written prior to shooting the President in 1865.   Although he took a bullet in the head under this misapplied charge of abolitionism, the reality is that “Father Abraham”—as Frederick Douglass made clear many years before Bennett ever picked up a pen—was the white man’s president first and foremost.

To no surprise, Forced into Glory has largely been overlooked and slighted by the vast body of professional and amateur Lincoln defenders, probably because most of them are afraid to take on a leonine scholar like Bennett.  Bennett, who is also the author of the classic black history text, Before the Mayflower, is a formidable historian and a no-nonsense, straight-shooting black writer (the kind that John Brown would have admired), unconcerned about protecting the self-serving mythology of this nation.  Not long ago I was in the company of a professional Lincoln advocate, and when I mentioned Bennett’s book, this estimable person’s response was bluntly dismissive.   The media have likewise dismissed Forced into Glory, but a great deal of attention has been paid to the pro-Lincoln authors and spokesmen, who continue to uplift and defend the “Great Emancipator” myth, as well as the general tendency to promote Lincoln as the paradigm of political greatness. "Lincoln is theology, not historiology,” writes Bennett. “He is a faith, he is a church, he is a religion, and he has his own priests and acolytes, most of whom have a vested interest in [him] and who are passionately opposed to anybody telling the truth about him” (p. 114).

Enter Di Lorenzo the Libertarian

This high note of criticism is exactly where scholar Thomas J. Di Lorenzo picks up the anti-Lincoln tune and sings it for all its worth.  Subsequent to the publication Bennett’s of book, Di Lorenzo, a professor of economics at Loyola College, has written two anti-Lincoln efforts: The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War (Three Rivers Press, 2003), and Lincoln Unmasked: What You're Not Supposed to Know About Dishonest Abe (Three Rivers Press, 2007).  He has also co-authored Abraham Lincoln: Friend or Foe of Freedom? with Joseph A. Morris (The Heartland Institute, 2008), along with other works of scholarship pertaining to U.S. history.

I have not read Di Lorenzo’s books but I have some idea of his arguments as well as the angry counter-arguments made by Lincoln’s adoring defenders against him.  In 2008, Di Lorenzo published a salutary and admiring review of Lerone Bennett’s book on a libertarian website, LewRockwell.com.  It is a good review of Forced into Glory, the author concluding:

Bennett doesn’t buy into the Lincoln Cult’s tall tale that he "evolved" during the war and embraced equality. He quotes the man Lincoln had put in charge of "Negro emigration" as saying that Lincoln "remained a colonizationist and racist until his death."  The real heroes, in Bennett’s view, are the genuine abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips. Lincoln was never an abolitionist per se and, in fact distanced himself and ridiculed them whenever possible.

But Dr. Di Lorenzo is not merely extending Bennett’s thesis, which is rooted in the historic evaluation of black scholars, not to mention the kind but frank opinion of Frederick Douglass who knew Lincoln personally. Quite in contrast, Di Lorenzo has his own agenda, and it is not centered on black liberation, notwithstanding his appreciable criticism of Lincoln’s racialist mentality.

In fact, Di Lorenzo is a libertarian, and if you are not sure what that means, consider the masthead of the website that publishes Di Lorenzo’s essays: “Anti-State, Anti-War, Pro-Market.” Not being a political scientist, I do not want to misrepresent libertarianism, but I am sure that like any other political perspective, libertarianism is no monolith and doubtless has a range of opinions.  Thus, I more than suspect that some libertarians are well-meaning humanitarians and others are greedy racists.  On paper, libertarianism sounds ideal: humans should be free to maximize their existence as long as they do not impose themselves on anyone else’s freedom; private property and free markets are upheld as the standard of a quality society, and one’s own body is the beginning of what is entailed by private property.  But it is here where tension arises, particularly with respect to the libertarian view of the Civil War.  This is also where serious questions arise regarding Di Lorenzo’s use of Lerone Bennett’s critique.

Slavery and the Civil War: The Libertarian Impasse

Di Lorenzo obviously acknowledges the perspective that Bennett brings to bear upon the Lincoln myth and this speaks well of his candor and objectivity as a scholar.  But beyond Bennett’s expose, Di Lorenzo posits an argument that I seriously doubt would be acceptable to Lerone Bennett, Frederick Douglass, or anyone committed to black liberation.  On one hand, because libertarians believe that one’s own body is private property, one would naturally expect that they would be against slavery.   No libertarian could consistently support slavery because slavery is the ultimate abuse of private property—it is invasive, abusive, degrading, and exploitative, entirely antithetical to any conception of personal liberty.

On the other hand, Di Lorenzo's primary opposition to Lincoln is not on the basis of racism, but on the basis of his representing the ultimate expression of Big Government and the tyranny of the federal government over state governments.  To Di Lorenzo and his libertarian allies, the Civil War was an “unnecessary” conflict that ultimately undermined the rights of the states and allowed the behemoth of big government to arise on the landscape of U.S. history.

This is where we are suddenly jolted back to reality.  Di Lorenzo may hate Lincoln the racist, but he hates Lincoln the President far more.  Likewise, he may hate chattel slavery, but he is willing to subordinate the struggle of black people to what he thinks is the greater struggle of the Civil War—the rights of the Southern states over the intrusive, abusive power of the federal government.  

This is a big problem, the libertarian impasse.  In fact, Di Lorenzo seems a strange sort of “bedfellow,” who naps beside black Lerone Bennett in the afternoon, but tucks himself in with neo-Confederates and other advocates of “State’s Rights” at the end of the day.  It is either a mark of delusion or political immorality that Di Lorenzo thinks he can make love to Bennett's book like some black paramour, while being married to States’ Rights and upholding the slave masters of John Brown’s era as the victims of Lincoln’s tyranny.

Luxurious Debate

Beyond the conflicted perspective of Di Lorenzo and his libertarian zeal is the larger debate between anti-Lincoln libertarians and pro-Lincoln scholars.  Di Lorenzo has gone back and forth with Lincoln’s defenders (e.g., writers for the Claremont Institute, a veritable Lincoln cathedral) and frankly it’s pretty comical.  Standing on the firm platform of Lincoln’s racism, Di Lorenzo has managed to strike hard, rocking the temple of Lincoln adoration enough to scare the faithful worshippers inside.  In return, Di Lorenzo has been harangued as both a poor scholar and another John Wilkes Booth.  Since we are moving into the Civil War sesquicentennial, the comedy may heat up to a drama, as each side seeks to make its point in the ultimate Lincoln bout of the century.

But let us be clear: this is a battle for "white" people to fight—and I do not mean people with “white” skin, but people who think according to the conventions of white social and political priority. The battle between libertarians like Di Lorenzo and Lincoln’s carpet knights is a contest premised on the luxury of white privilege and white priority.  If either side of this contest could see beyond their own assumptions, they would have to admit that their interpretations of history do not work for the betterment of black people and therefore do not work at all.

We know that Lincoln entered the Civil War to preserve the Union and that he considered the dilemma of black liberation a secondary matter until he could no longer afford to treat it as such.  We know that Lincoln had no passion in his bones for black people’s freedom, and that he hesitated to put guns in their hands even to win his war, and that he had to be dragged by circumstances toward emancipation.  We also know that almost entirely through the Civil War, Lincoln would have compromised with the slave states in order to preserve the Union.  Not only was Lincoln opposed to social equality between whites and blacks, but also that he saw the United States as a nation primarily for white people.  Those who pretend he is more than this are engaging in wishful thinking--but being able to do so is one of the luxuries of "white" intellectuals.

On the other hand, only a “white” man can presume to argue against the necessity of the Civil War as does Di Lorenzo, who ends up arguing for the right of the Confederacy to secede from the Union allegedly on legal and constitutional principle.  Since the relationship of states to the federal union is supposed to be voluntary, Di Lorenzo argues, the pro-slavery states had every right to secede.   This means that Di Lorenzo would rather have let the Confederacy secede and form a new nation entirely premised on black chattel slavery and its expansion into new territories.  If Di Lorenzo had his way, or so it appears, slave masters would have their inalienable rights preserved while blacks would remain without liberty.  Is this really the right historical answer?

To Di Lorenzo, since Lincoln brought the full force of the federal government down upon the Confederacy, he was not only acting as a tyrant toward constitutional freedom, but laying the groundwork for a new kind of federal government—a powerful, centralized government that is ever inclined to swallow up more and more individual freedom and impose itself upon the individual states and their citizens. 

I realize that the argument over the role of the government is a big argument and it does impact everyone.  But I am not satisfied that this argument takes precedence over the argument of black people against the United States regarding their fundamental freedom and human rights.  John Brown went to war against slavery precisely because he believed that the only way the United States could authenticate its own claims was to secure the complete freedom and human rights of blacks.  He would be quite appalled by the libertarian notion that the “rights” of slave states and slave masters had to be protected in keeping with the Declaration of Independence.

And What Would Bennett Say?

As much as Di Lorenzo uses Forced into Glory to reinforce his own contempt for President Lincoln, I doubt that the libertarian sleight-of-hand would fool Bennett.  After all, Bennett does not condemn Lincoln for waging war against the South, only for having to be forced into taking black freedom seriously, then afterward being portrayed as a great liberator.  Nor would Bennett allow for Di Lorenzo’s tendency to put the Confederate states in the position of being the real heroes of the Constitution.  Uplifting Virginia and South Carolina as being on the vanguard of freedom is sort of like upholding Larry Flynt as the hero of the First Amendment.  When you find yourself uplifting immoral, exploitative people in the name of "rights," you had better re-think your cause.

Personally, I do not care at all whether Lincoln usurped too much power in bringing the South to its knees.  I have no concern that Lincoln raised the mightiest army in 19th century history to crush the “States’ Rights” rebellion.  While it may be argued that the President trampled upon certain constitutional rights, let us remember these were the rights of a privileged “race” of people who were content to violate the human rights of four millions of black people in their “peculiar institution.”  Whose rights should matter more?  

Let's just say your family members were held captive--enslaved, raped, and exploited by a very powerful neighbor next door.  Would you really care if the local sheriff broke into the neighbor’s house and set your family free, although he violated the neighbor’s rights while doing so?  And if a spectator looking on were to lament loudly about the neighbor's "rights," what would you think of him?  Why are Lincoln’s “violations” of Southern “rights” so important to libertarians, when the weightier matter was clearly the oppressiveness of slavery?  How can Di Lorenzo justly weigh this federal "tyranny" against the bondage and oppression of black people and then have the audacity to say that the Civil War was “unnecessary”?  Only a “white” man prioritizing “white” prerogatives would ever take this position.  It is otherwise completely nonsensical.

The Civil War Was Necessary

Quite to the contrary, the Civil War was absolutely necessary as a moral response to chattel slavery in the United States.  Although the Union did not enter the conflict to “free the slaves,” a segment of men in blue consciously volunteered precisely to break the yoke of Southern oppression.  When Lincoln got around to recruiting black soldiers this was even more true; indeed, the same force of history that pulled Lincoln toward an anti-slavery stance was also pulling the North.  Notwithstanding the perseverance of white supremacist thinking, the Civil War forced the “white” people of the North to take a militant position that benefited the black population for the first time since the founding of the nation.  Indeed, the same force that drove the North toward destroying slavery was the force that also drove through to Reconstruction.

Libertarianism sounds sweet, but given the selfishness of humanity, I doubt that it works well except for the most privileged classes, which in this country pertains to both money and skin color. I have yet to hear a libertarian argument pertaining to Lincoln and the Civil War that satisfies my own sense of history, or adequately addresses the black struggle from the standpoint of blacks themselves.  Interestingly, there is at least one black libertarian spokesman of notoriety. Walter E. Williams, a scholar at George Mason University, who argues for lasses-faire capitalism and against the claim that racism is still an expansive problem today.  Given the ongoing realities of life in the United States, his views on racism are particularly suspect to most African Americans and their allies.  Nor does Williams seem to suggest a solution to the problem of slavery in historical terms while defending the rights of Southern secession.  With all due respect, I wonder if he would have argued the libertarian position in favor of secession while wearing a set of leg irons and with a whip at his back. 

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Virginia and Slavery: What John Brown Intended

Allen Gathman, who keeps a blog on the U.S. Civil War sesquicentennial entitled “Seven Score and Ten,” has done us a favor of great interest by resurrecting a New York Times editorial from August 20, 1860,1 written about ten months after the Harper’s Ferry raid.  In this historic piece, the Times editor opines about the unforeseen economic consequences of John Brown’s raid, and how they would have a definitive impact in undermining slavery in Virginia and promoting the triumph of free labor of chattel slavery in the Old Dominion and beyond.  It is a backhanded salute to the Old Man, suggesting that despite the alleged madness of his effort, the impact of the raid had unanticipated consequences that would hasten the decline of slavery in Virginia.  He was wrong to a great extent, but his observations are useful.

[The complete entry is available only in the forthcoming book, John Brown: Emancipator]

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Osawatomie Notebook
Brown Recounted Battle Of Osawatomie

The Battle of Osawatomie — fought at the site of present-day John Brown Memorial Park on Aug. 30, 1856 — was the largest battle during the Bleeding Kansas time period.

John Brown wrote to his wife, Mary Day Brown, and his family in North Elba, N.Y., on Sept. 7, 1856, recording his description of the Battle of Osawatomie [Reference: F. B. Sanborn, Life & Letters of John Brown, pp. 317-18]. However, he also had to tell Mary that her son Frederick had been killed during the battle. 

“On the morning of the 30th Aug., an attack was made by the ruffians on Osawatomie numbering some 400 by whose scouts our dear Frederick was shot dead without warning, he supposing them to be free state men as near as we can learn,” Brown wrote.

After telling Mary about her son’s death, John continued to describe the Battle of Osawatomie. He was camped where Osawatomie State Hospital now stands and reported to Mary that soon after killing Frederick, pro-slavery forces killed the Rev. Samuel Adair’s cousin, David Garrison. “One other man, a cousin of Mr. Adair, was murdered by them about the same time,” Brown wrote.

Brown had been recruiting guerillas and soon had a chance to fight for the free-state cause.

“I was about 3 miles off where I had some 14 or 15 overnight I had just enlisted to serve under me as regulars,” Brown wrote. “There I collected as well as I could with some 12 or 15 more & in about ¾ of an hour attacked them from a wood with thick undergrowth. With this force, we threw them into confusion for about 15 or 20 minutes, during which time we killed and wounded from 70 to 80 of the enemy as they say and then we escaped as well as we could with one killed while escaping, two or three wounded and as many more missing. Four or five free-state men were butchered during the day in all.”

Brown’s son, Jason, eschewed his pacifism and fought beside his father in the Battle of Osawatomie, and John Brown stated with fatherly pride that he “fought bravely by my side during the fight and escaped with me he being unhurt.” John Brown reported that he was wounded during the battle: “I was struck by a partly spent grape canister or rifle shot, which bruised me some but did not injure me seriously.”

Brown devoted the last part of his letter to assuring his wife and family that everything was going to be fine, drawing on his interpretation of the Christian faith.

“Hither to the Lord hath helped me, notwithstanding my afflictions,” he wrote. “Things seem rather quiet just now; but what another hour will bring I cannot say.”

John Brown wrote this in an effort to calm his wife’s and family’s fears. The letter is but one view of a battle that was seen by many in different ways.

— Grady Atwater is administrator of John Brown State Historic Site.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

No Black Neighbors for Lincoln

With John Brown the negro was a man, with the same inherent rights which belong to other men.  Mr. Lincoln would not have the negro a slave, but he does not what him for a neighbor or a citizen, and does not believe the two races can dwell harmoniously and prosperously together.

Source:  Aaron M. Powell, Aug. 19, 1864, in the Anti-Slavery Standard, quoted in the Philadelphia Daily Evening Bulletin (Sept. 5, 1864), 3.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

John Brown's Daughter Annie on the Harper's Ferry Raiders and Her Father's Detractors

"The men hoped that they would come out alive.  Some were more earnest in the work than others.  They were all men.  Heroes are made out of men.  People who never did a heroic deed themselves are very particular as to how heroes behave."

Source:  Annie Brown Adams, Petrolia, Calif., interviewed by Katherine Mayo, Oct. 2, 1908.  Transcription fragment in "The Raider's Foreknowledge of the Act" folder, Box 1, John Brown - Oswald Garrison Villard Papers, Columbia University Library.

“Moral suasion and non-resistance are excellent doctrines to preach in times of peace. But often in troublous times, some one has to fight for peaceand fight hard too. And then endure the remarks that are made by the carpet knights and quill-drivers who were not in the fray but stayed peacefully at home enjoying the after benefits derived from other's exertions. I am not trying to apologize for my father or his friends (followers is a better word) but to show you what, from their point of view, led on to Pottawatomie.

Source: Annie Brown Adams, Petrolia, Calif., to Oswald G. Villard, Mar. 25, 1908, in Annie Brown Adams folder, Box 1, John Brown – Oswald Garrison Villard Papers, Columbia University.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

John Brown Documented His Own Story

I have been pondering the way in which John Brown's practices reflected his own sense of historical purpose and how this is apparent in his manner of documentation.  Despite his famous tight-lipped manner when it came to discussing his plans, Brown took pains to document his correspondence and movements.  For instance, his memorandum books of 1858-1859 consist of daily notations of his correspondence and details.  Pictured is a page from his memorandum book of 1858.*  A good deal of biographical information is available in this page: his departure from Springdale, Iowa, on January 15, to go east; a "shopping list" detail, to buy "camp matches" (which I assume to be the newly invented phosphorous red-tipped safety matches); the box number of John Jones--apparently, John T. Jones, a First Nation free state man living in the Kansas territory; a series of letters to family and friend Frederick Douglass, showing the beginning of his nom de guerre, Nelson Hawkins (a name he humorously borrowed from a friend of the family in Akron, Ohio); the note that he was in Douglass' home office and paid him money on January 28, and another letter, under the name of Nelson Hawkins, to his son Owen about sending clothing.      

Of course Brown kept records for himself, particularly contact information and the ability to keep track of his correspondence was important to him. Brown's memorandum book from the late 1830s is also extant, and it is to a degree similar.  We should also remember that in the text-based culture of the 19th century, people read far more, wrote far more, and documented things far more than we do on a daily basis.

On the other hand, I believe there is also a sense of the chronicler of his own story here, the intention of leaving behind evidence of his activities, details of his efforts, a kind of documentation of his liberation story.

Although his plans ultimately failed, we should remember that Brown believed himself to be working for a great purpose and that the force of history, if not divine providence, was both leading him forward and pressing him onward.  The road to Harper's Ferry was an extremely hopeful road, not just because Brown himself was famously optimistic by nature, but because the endeavor in opposing slavery on a grand scale seemed a profound historical breakthrough in his mind and in the minds of his followers.  They knew that whether they succeeded or failed, they would go down in history as having struggled against slavery.  Brown himself was pregnant with the belief that the doom of slavery in the United States was immanent, and he was even more resolved in his conviction after failing at Harper's Ferry.   But in 1858-59, he obviously did not know what we know--that he was going to fail.  Brown and his men considered it very possible that they would succeed or else they would not have made the venture.

The idea of John Brown being his own documentarian seems particularly clear in the following segment of a letter from his son, John Jr., to John H. Kagi, Brown's stalwart lieutenant, dated August 11, 1859.*

This portion is from the second page and is in the fine handwriting of John Brown Jr.  Writing in the busy summer months prior to the raid, Junior is writing to Kagi, who has been stationed in Chambersburg, Pa., by Brown, where he could not only receive incoming shipments of weapons from the west, but correspondence, and recruits.  In the letter, Junior refers to an assistant to Gerrit Smith (Morton), Sanborn (Mr. S-n), Frederick Douglass ("our Rochester friend"), and Harriet Tubman ("the woman").  Note that John Jr. signs as "John Smith."  The entire family's correspondence shifted to the Smith pseudonym as surname for the purpose of the raid, John Brown having become "Isaac Smith" (a name which I have shown to have been borrowed from an umbrella manufacturer in New York and Boston).

More interesting, however, are Brown's subsequent notations on the left column of the letter.  Next to Junior's reference to "Mr S_n," Brown writes: "F B S Letter."  This is an identifying note, being the initials of Franklin Benjamin Sanborn.  Yet the notation is not so clear that just anyone at the time could figure it out.   My suggestion is that Brown was making that notation for posterity, believing that someday historians and writers would have sufficient information to figure out the identity of "F B S." Just below this is the number "31," which is not clear.  Is it a reference to the date of Sanborn's letter, or is it the proposed date of Harriet Tubman's planned meeting with Sanborn in Boston (i.e., August 31)?  On this letter are two subsequent references to documents in Sanborn's Life and Letters, obviously being scholarly notations of no consequence to this discussion.  But the final notation is quite meaningful.  On the left column, Brown writes vertically in clear script: "John Smiths Letter to J Henrie."  While it was not unusual for the addressee to make a note on a letter, listing the writer (perhaps to verify having received it), once again Brown is doing more than mere household notation.  He is making certain that future readers would be clear as to the author and addressee, so he writes out both names in full.  In other words, he does not see this as a simple letter, nor even as an important letter for his purposes.  He sees it as a historical document. 

The fact that Brown saved his correspondence suggests he was "archiving" his materials, hopefully to chronicle the successful overthrow of slavery and the re-birth of the United States as a nation committed to freedom.  Had he moved with expedience and determination from Harper's Ferry in 1859, perhaps Brown's papers would have far greater value to our nation than they do today.  Yet even in his failure and the scattering and loss of some of his papers, what remains of his "revolutionary archive" is the record of a man and his devoted young followers, not motivated by terroristic and destructive impulses, but by a desire to bring an end to slavery and oppression.  

John Brown knew that he would be remembered.  In the gathering and notation of his papers, he has endeavored to help that remembrance.

[*Note: the John Brown memorandum books are in the possession of the Boston Public Library Collection, Boston, Mass., and the letter of John Brown Jr. to John Henry Kagi, 11 August 1859, is in the Dreer Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pa.]

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Slavemasters’ Butcher: Answering Leatherneck Magazine and Israel Green

Leatherneck, the online “Magazine of the Marines” features an article by a writer named Hash Mark, originally published in 1925 under the heading, “How the Marines Captured John Brown.”1  Mark recollects how he came to learn that John Brown had been apprehended at Harper’s Ferry by U.S. marines. “I also learned,” wrote Mark, “that Brown's life was spared on that occasion largely through the efforts of Lieut. Israel Green, of the Marines, when the said Israel Greene walloped John Brown in the engine-house between the Shenandoah and the Potomac.”  This is an incredibly erroneous assertion, since Green did his level best to kill John Brown.  Green did not “spare” Brown—he simply failed to kill him despite being younger, stronger, and having sufficient opportunity to bludgeon him to death. 

[The complete entry is available only in the forthcoming book, John Brown: Emancipator]

Thursday, August 05, 2010

W. E. B. DuBois Speaks
"Make Clear the Facts"

The North went to war without the slightest idea of freeing the slave.  The great majority of Northerners from Lincoln down pledged themselves to protect slavery, and they hated and harried Abolitionists.  But on the other hand, the thesis that . . . the whole North during and after the war was chiefly interested in making money, is only half true; it was abolition and belief in democracy that gained for a time the upper hand after the war and led the North in Reconstruction. . . .  In growing ascendancy for a calculable time was a great moral movement which turned the North from its economic defense of slavery and led it to Emancipation.  Abolitionists attacked slavery because it was wrong and their moral battle cannot be truthfully minimized or forgotten.  Nor does this fact deny that the majority of Northerners before the war were not abolitionists, that they attacked slavery only in order to win the war and enfranchised the Negro to secure this result.

In the first place, somebody in each era must make clear the facts with utter disregard to his own wish and desire and belief.  What we have got to know, so far as possible, are the things that actually happened in the world.  Then with that much clear and open to every reader, the philosopher and prophet has a chance to interpret these facts; but the historian has no right, posing as a scientist, to conceal or distort facts; and until we distinguish between these two functions of the chronicler of human action, we are going to render it easy for a muddled world out of sheer ignorance to make the same mistaken ten times over.

Source: W. E. B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880 (1935; rptd. New York: Atheneum, 1983), pp. 716 & 722.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Mary Brown's First Home in California

Dottie Smith, a writer for the Redding Record Searchlight [Redding, Calif.] has a brief article in her Redding.com blog about the first residence of John Brown’s widow, Mary Ann Brown, and family, after they relocated to Red Bluff, California in 1864.   According to Smith, California Governor Frederick F. Low “headed a statewide committee to raise funds” sufficient “to build a small house in downtown Red Bluff at 135 Main Street.”  Smith says that the Brown family lived there for two years peacefully when things turned sour: one Amanda Hoag, a relocated Southern racist, openly criticized the Browns and endeavored to use the law to prevent Mary Brown from becoming the legal owner of the property.  Although Hoag’s efforts failed, Smith writes, Mary Brown decided to move her devoted family to a more peaceful setting at Rohnersville in Humboldt County, near the coast.  Smith says that tomorrow (Fri., Aug. 5) will feature the whole story of Mary Brown in Red Bluff, so check out The Record Searchlight.

I should add that I am not confident that Ms. Smith’s details are entirely reliable; she mistakenly refers to Salmon Brown as Mary Brown’s stepson. But he was her son, not stepson.  Salmon was born on October 2, 1836 in Hudson, Ohio, not long after the John and Mary relocated from northwestern Pennsylvania to John's old tramping grounds in the Western Reserve.  The best article on this chapter in Brown family history is Jean Libby’s “John Brown’s Family in California,” published in The Californians, an excellent publication from Allies for Freedom.  Click on the picture below to order from Amazon.com.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Regarding Fiction

A Non-fiction Reader Recommends Fire on the Mountain

Like the late Boyd Stutler, the godfather of John Brown scholars, I am not a big fan of fiction, and would not generally read fiction unless it provided some background to my historical research.  Probably, a good part of my apathy toward fiction is that I spent so many years in graduate and post-graduate studies and there always seemed to me to be more to be read in the literature of my chosen disciplines.  I realize man doesn't live by history alone, but with some exceptions, I've managed to live without fiction for some time now.

As far as John Brown is concerned, a good number of fiction works have been written, most notable being Elbert Hubbard’s Time and Chance; A Romance and a History: Being the Life of a Man (1899), Stephen Vincent Benet’s epic poem, John Brown’s Body (1928), Leonard Ehrlich’s God's Angry Man (1932), Truman Nelson’s The Surveyor (1961), and George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman and the Angel of the Lord (1994). Although my impression is that these works are all admirable to a degree, I have thus far avoided reading any of them.  Once more, I have never felt the time required to do so could be justified when there is so much research and reading to be done as to John Brown the man who lived. 

Probably the worst work of historical fiction about Brown is Bruce Olds’ Raising Holy Hell: A Novel (1995)—worst, not from a literary standpoint (I’m hardly in a position to make that judgment); but speaking as a biographer of Brown, Raising Holy Hell is an abomination.  Olds evidently believes that the postmodern writer of historical fiction has neither debt nor responsibility to the subject who lived, and thus he abuses the person of Brown in the most negative and cynical portrayal of the abolitionist to date.  (Of course, I did not read it, although I examined it the way one might examine a virus under a microscope.)   Although I was a bit more optimistic about the appearance of Russell Banks’ Cloudsplitter: A Novel (1998), it took me several years to even attempt to read it.  Initially, I found it interesting, particularly Banks’ use of Katherine Mayo, who in real life was the professional assistant employed by biographer Oswald Garrison Villard.  Since I actually worked through the Villard papers at Columbia University, including the vast collection of Mayo’s field research, I thought my experience with Cloudsplitter would prove more interesting.  Ultimately, though, I did not find myself captivated by the story despite Banks’ obvious talents as a writer and story-teller.   Although I understand that historical fiction is primarily fiction, some of the features of Cloudsplitter made no sense to me as a biographer, and as a reader quite familiar to the John Brown story, I lost interest--frankly--because the real story is far more interesting to me, and the author’s artistic license as exercised only served to make me question the wisdom of writing historical fiction in the first place.  I have never finished reading it and probably will never endeavor to do so.  Indeed, for a beautifully written work on the life of John Brown, one need not consult fiction, but find an old copy of Barrie Stavis’ beautiful and moving biography, John Brown: The Sword and the Word (1970).  Stavis was a playwright with a keen sense as a researcher, and this little book may be the best thing written on Brown in the 20th century from both a literary and historical standpoint. 

I don’t know when (perhaps it was at the 1996 Penn State Mont Alto conference on John Brown), I remember someone talking about an interesting novel in which the author engaged the John Brown theme in a work of counterfactual fiction, a “what if” about the Harper’s Ferry raid.  However I soon forgot the discussion and never made inquiry about the book until this past May, when I happened upon an article written by the notable Sci-Fi author, Terry Bisson.  The piece, which Terry subsequently gave me permission to reproduce in this blog, is entitled, “John Brown—150 Years After Harpers Ferry,” and appeared in The Monthly Review online in October 2009.  

Beyond this excellent article, I soon learned that Terry Bisson was the author of that “what if” novel about the Harper’s Ferry raid that I had heard about years ago.  The book, Fire on the Mountain was originally published in 1988, but was republished last year for the John Brown/Harper’s Ferry Raid sesquicentennial with a new introduction by Mumia Abu Jamal.
To the point of this entry:  Despite distractions and competition from other readings, after I committed to reading Fire on the Mountain, I could not put it down until I had read it through.  It is not a long book, but it is conceptually as substantial a work as it is beautiful to read.  Nor is it another attempt at recasting the life of John Brown in the name of fiction, but rather Bisson engages the thoughtful question, “What if John Brown had won at Harper’s Ferry?”

I have no idea if this is the first counterfactual about the Harper’s Ferry raid, but for me the reading of Fire on the Mountain was a thoughtful and reflective experience.  This is partially so because I believe what actually happened at Harper’s Ferry in 1859 is not properly understood based on conventional sources.  Specifically, despite the tendency on the part of U.S. historians, journalists, and novelists to portray Brown’s raid as quixotic, it is my opinion that the effort had far more promise than most people realize.

First, Brown attacked Harper’s Ferry only after having made a thorough study of the town and the armory operation, and he knew that Harper’s Ferry was vulnerable and that the armory works had only a few armed guards.  Even though it was a government site, there was not even a military presence at the armory.  (Brown had lived in Springfield, Mass., the location of the only other government armory, and he knew far more about the operation of the facility than do most historians writing about Brown and Harper’s Ferry.)

Second, Brown struck on Sunday night and had he followed his original plan, he and his men would easily have exited Harper’s Ferry before the next morning.  Had they done so, they would likewise have eluded capture by local militia or the military from their positions in the mountains.  The U.S. military in 1859 was unimpressive and could not have easily apprehended small bands of Brown’s men, moving through the mountain system that stretched down into the South.  Even if the army mounted an attack, Brown's men were armed with superior Sharps rifles.  (Nor did Brown intend to take weapons from Harper's Ferry; his guns were superior to what was produced by the armory, and he told one reporter as much.) 

Third, contrary to the claims of white Virginians (who informed the Northern press), enslaved people responded enthusiastically to John Brown’s men.  Not only do we know that the view of the raid inherited by the North is highly questionable, we know that blacks responded to Brown’s presence with determination.  Although Brown ruined himself by delaying in Harper’s Ferry to the point of being surrounded and cut off from escape, there is ample evidence that locally enslaved blacks were waiting on the periphery of the town for him to withdraw.  When fighting broke out in town, these people withdrew. 

I would argue that any treatment of the raid that does not seriously consider these aspects will only perpetuate the same, tired old notion of the raid as an adventure in fanaticism.  Counterfactually speaking, John Brown narrowly missed an opportunity that might very well have resulted in an entirely different manner—certain escape and movement into the mountains, where he and his men would form elusive cadres of freedom fighters plunging deeper and deeper into the South over days, weeks, and months—all the time attracting increasing numbers of enslaved people to join them until the slave states were thrown into economic disarray, panic, and fear.   This is not to say that Brown’s fullest goals would necessarily have been met, or that he would have become the second George Washington, although even that is possible.  But we can be certain that a reasonable withdrawal from Harper’s Ferry would have put John Brown on the map in a way that we would still be talking about 150 years after the fact. 

In Fire on the Mountain, Terry Bisson takes this counterfactual perspective, but he starts one hundred years after Brown’s successful campaign began in Virginia.  As Bisson imagines it, Brown’s efforts ultimately resulted in a black state in the South, a state entirely separate from the older United States in the North.  Nor is the story primarily about Brown, but about a black woman descended from an ex-slave who followed the victorious Brown into the mountains, a story told through old correspondence.  Indeed, the story is presented on different levels—in the experience of the woman, Yasmin, who must travel to Harper’s Ferry in 1959 to present the narrative of her ancestor, Dr. Abraham (the young slave who was later trained in medicine), who had followed John Brown in 1859.  The story moves between past and present, ancestor and descendant, and further adds the correspondence of a young Virginia doctor who is converted to abolitionism and becomes a supporter of Brown.  The story thus moves easily and interestingly through these narratives, until we learn that Brown and his men had escaped Harper’s Ferry and made their way up into the mountains where they proved elusive and ferocious warriors.  This John Brown is not fraught with psychological or moral contradictions; he is simply a liberator, a freedom fighter who dies in the early 1860s after being wounded in battle.  In the long run, the successful efforts by Brown and his men result in the defeat of slavery and the founding of the black state of Nova Africa.  It is a different world indeed—a world where an independent black state has developed progressively to the point of space launches.  Brown is thus part of the founding history of a new nation, not the marginalized, misunderstood “terrorist” of other works of historical fiction.

One of the most interesting and enthralling moments of the story is when the main character comes upon a counterfactual version of the book, John Brown’s Body.  In Bisson’s version of history, John Brown’s Body is the same story as it is in reality, except in this counterfactual story it is anti-Brown political fiction written by a white racist.  In a world where John Brown is triumphant, it becomes a “what if” written from the untenable standpoint of Brown losing at Harper’s Ferry and being hanged for it.  Thus, instead of John Brown’s successful war of liberation, the nation is plunged into a counterfactual civil conflict primarily concerned with white nationhood.  Thus, by reading our nation’s history through the reverse counterfactual lens of Nova Africa in 1959, Bisson helps us to understand that what actually happened after the real John Brown’s death in 1859.  “White right prevails; the slave owners keep the land, even get more,” it is explained to Yasmin the main character.  “The slave system is modified” so that blacks “end up as serfs,” or “a sort of landless nation packed into the slums of Chicago and New York for occasional servile labor” (p. 76).

I agree with Mumia that Terry Bisson “uses fiction to answer the “What ifs” of human nature with brilliance and insight.”  Fire on the Mountain is enthralling and easily transports the reader to the “counterfactual historical” realm, which despite being fiction is both thoughtful and useful.   This is historical fiction done well and done right; instead of exploiting Brown’s weaknesses as precedents for distracting literary flourish, Bisson takes the precedent of a tenable raid on Harper’s Ferry and extrapolates a different outcome—one that helps us understand and appreciate history anew.—LD

Another Blogger's Review of Fire on the Mountain

Fire on the Mountain is an alternate American civil war history, in the classic mode: one battle goes differently, for the want of a battle the war is lost, and the nation becomes an altogether different place. But Bisson's approach is more than a bit of militaristic speculation: it is a revolutionary polemic clothed in an exciting and moving adventure story. In Bisson's world, Harriet Tubman joins John Brown at Harper's Ferry and the two of them kindle a nationwide abolitionist uprising that sparks a global series of socialist revolutions, in Canada, Haiti, Mexico, France, England, Ireland, and across the American continent among indigenous people.

The story takes place in two timelines: the history of the revolution is told in the form of a memoir of a slave-boy who grew up to be a revolutionary leader, and in correspondence from a white Virginian doctor who turned his back on privilege and fought alongside the rebels in John Brown's army.

Then there's a "contemporary" story, set in 1959, when socialist Africa is just about to land its first astronauts on Mars. Yasmin is the great-great granddaughter of the ex-slave whose memoir recounts the history of the revolution, and she is the widow of an African astronaut who died in space on an earlier, failed Mars mission. She is delivering her ancestor's papers to a revolutionary museum, travelling cross-country with her teenaged daughter, Harriet, the bother of them absorbed with bitter emotion at all the space travel in the news.

Weaving between these three stories, Bisson paints a picture of a world where progress is based on peace, not war, cooperation, not competition. And he tells the gripping tale of the war that was fought and the blood that was shed to get to that world, and of the ambivalence that the fighting and the not-fighting engender among all concerned.

It's a slender novel, a mere 150 pages, but it does the science fiction trick of making you step back from your own world and see it more clearly, and it does so while wrenching your heart and setting your pulse pounding. All in all, one of the best alternate histories I've read -- and a side of Bisson (a southerner who fought in the John Brown Anti-KKK League) I'm glad to have discovered.