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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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Friday, September 10, 2010

From Jeremiah Wright to Terry Jones: The Sport of John-Browning

Yet another writer, this time a Canadian, has dragged John Brown into a contemporary crisis where, frankly, he does not belong.  I call it the sport of “John-Browning,” a game that is played by authors and journalists looking to score a publishable goal.  Perhaps the most common instance of “John-Browning” is the almost endless invocation of the Old Man by writers and bloggers in comparison to domestic and foreign terrorists.   Forget the fact that Brown was actually a lover of freedom who used force in response to actual terrorism as well as state terrorism (i.e., chattel slavery).   Typically, he’s dragged out, propped up, and knocked down by any commentator wanting to make a point about the murder of of abortion “doctors,” "home-grown terrorists," or al-Qaeda and other violent opponents of western "democracy."  In fact, any crackpot who tries to harm the public is automatically compared to John Brown—the rules of the game being defined by subjective, unstudied, and often prejudiced assumptions.  In fact, the first rule of the John-Browning sport is that John Brown has no historical rights that a writer—especially a white writer—is bound to respect.

Garry Wills, A Skillful Player

An example of the John-Browning sport at its best is the creative and skillful play by the prestigious author Garry Wills, published in the May 1, 2008 edition of The New York Review of Books.  “Jeremiah Wright was Obama's John Brown,” Wills argued. 
"Lincoln had to dissociate himself from the fiery and divisive Brown. He did so, and called attempts to link him with Brown "malicious slander." But some thought that he did not go far enough in denouncing Brown. Lincoln did not call him a fanatic or insult those who sympathized with him. He said Brown's attempt was "absurd" because it could not work."
Wills' comparison of Brown to the controversial Reverend Wright was a clever move.  After all, the comparison entailed looking at two presidential hopefuls on the brink of candidacy and election, both of them entering the political stage at a time of controversy in a sharply divided nation.

. . . the first rule of the John-Browning sport is that John Brown has no historical rights that a writer—especially a white writer—is bound to respect.

Lincoln vs. Slavery: Opposition or Delimitation?

However, the problem with Wills’ comparison of Brown to Wright was more about the assumption behind it, namely that Lincoln was wisely and presciently navigating away from Brown in order to attain the greater good of the nation, including the end of slavery.  Wills thus writes: “Lincoln's political responsibility was not to inveigh against abolitionists, but to take the practical steps possible toward opposing slavery.”  Now this is the game at its best: Wills exploits the gratuitous Brown-Wright parallel for the purpose of bolstering the fundamental myth of Lincoln “the Great Emanciptor”—namely that Abe’s objective all along was to “oppose slavery.”  Of course this is propaganda; Lincoln was never compelled by anti-slavery priorities, particularly on the threshold of his first election.  Rather, his objective was to preserve the union even at the cost of sustaining slavery in the South.

Indeed, Lincoln’s platform as a candidate and then well into his presidency was to delimit slavery—to compromise with the South by permitting slavery to remain where it existed but disallow its further expansion.  If this is “opposing” slavery, it certainly is a funny kind of opposition.  Yet this is precisely what Wills is doing with his Brown-Wright parallel.

Lincoln and Brown ≠ Obama and Wright

Secondly, Wills was wrong in downplaying the extent to which Lincoln criticized John Brown while disassociating himself from the abolitionist.  To the contrary of Wills' presentation, it is quite clear that Barack Obama was far less antagonistic and alienated from the Reverend Wright, and that his ultimate decision to cut off his former pastor was an act of expediency rather than a deep political response.  Mr. Obama undoubtedly realized that Wright’s words had been excised and decontextualized, and that his larger arguments, both historically and theologically, have far more merit than the “main stream” media are willing to consider.  But in order to fly high, Mr. Obama knew that he had to disassociate himself from Wright’s heavy ideological baggage.  Indeed, I suspect that in their respective critique of white racism in the United States, President Obama is far more similar to Reverend Wright than Lincoln was to John Brown in matters relating to slavery and racial justice.  

Pres. Obama & Pastor Wright
Lincoln and Brown were men cut from entirely different cloth.  Lincoln was a renovated Henry Clay Whig, a benign white supremacist married to a border state Southern woman, a politician with connections to people who were hatefully opposed to abolitionism, and himself a political moderate and compromiser in comparison to other Republicans with outright anti-slavery agendas.   Everything about him smacked of "in-between."  According to historian Kenneth J. Winkle, author of The Young Eagle: The Rise of Abraham Lincoln, "The Lincolns' personal relations with free blacks were always respectful, yet they interacted with them only as the employers of servants. At least four African Americans provided domestic help for the Lincolns" (p. 266).  This may impress Lincoln's High Priests, but John Brown students know that the Browns did not merely employ blacks; they befriended them, worshipped with them, assisted them in running away from slavery, armed them, and fought alongside them.  It is no surprise, then, that when Lincoln disowned, denied, and condemned John Brown in 1859-60, he was expressing a real political and social belief about the place of blacks in society, slavery or not.

Lincoln on Brown

Alcorn Studio & Gallery
To no surprise, Abraham Lincoln actually condemned Brown in eight different speeches starting with December 1, 1859 (the day before the abolitionist was hanged in Virginia), and two other speeches made in the Kansas territory.   At Leavenworth, he fed a pro-slavery audience what they wanted to hear by publicly approving that Brown had been “dealt with” on the gallows.  Candidate Lincoln continued to dismiss Brown, not only in his famous Cooper Union address on February 27, 1860, but in several more speeches in Illinois, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. 

Thus Wills is wrong in playing down the extent to which Lincoln dismissed Brown.  He says, “Lincoln did not call [Brown] a fanatic or insult those who sympathized with him,” except with the intention of highlighting the alleged absurdity of his plans.  This is error.  Lincoln’s public position on Brown was that he was delusional—and thus mentally unstable.  Indeed, it may be Abraham Lincoln that we have to “thank” for the prevalence of the “insanity of John Brown” thesis that came to dominate the 20th century.  (Southerners knew better, believing that Brown was perfectly sane albeit villainous.)  Lincoln may not have precisely used the word, “fanatic,” but this was exactly as he portrayed Brown in his speeches—for what sort of man would pursue an allegedly “absurd” plan except a delusional fanatic?  Of course Lincoln was the consummate politician, so instead of “fanatic” he characterized Brown as a brooding “enthusiast” full of self-fancy.  Nor did Lincoln question the untenable Southern claim that blacks in Virginia had not responded to Brown; it was all too expedient to accept the propaganda that had been fed to the Northern press.  Did Lincoln really believe that black people had not responded to John Brown in Virginia?  If he did, then this too suggests a shallow perception of blacks in slavery. (To examine Lincoln various statements on Brown, I would refer my readers to the following source: Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1865.  Edited by Roy Basler [New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953], Vol. III, 496, 502-03, 538, 541, 553, and Vol. IV, 7, 12, 23-24, and 42.)
The Alcorn Studio & Gallery

The strategy of Wills’ John-Browning game places him in a category above the typical players.  Wills’ skillfully played on the embarrassment that Reverend Wright's comments (mutilated and mediated as they were by the main steam media) presented to candidate Obama, ultimately forcing his disassociation from the clergyman.  But Wills was not so much intent upon whacking John Brown like a historical piƱata as much as scaffolding the larger-than-life reputation of Abraham Lincoln as a demi-god figure whose wisdom prevailed for the good of the entire nation. 

The Basic Game Formula and the Canadian Entry: Orest Slepokura

As for the rest of the writers—novelists, journalists, bloggers and scholars, the more typical game formula basically looks like this:

White religious man  +  an extreme or “radical” position amidst any controversy  =  
John Brown comparison

We are not really surprised at the latest expression of this formula, insinuating that John Brown contemporary counterpart is Pastor Terry Jones of Gainesville, Florida, the clergyman who is currently enthralled in a well-publicized plan to burn the Qur’an.  

Writing in the Canada Free Press (9 Sept. 2010), Orest Slepokura, an educator and journalist, sees Brown as the paradigm of the sincere and bold religious figure acting thoughtlessly in regard to deadly implications of his actions.  Recalling the explosive reaction of the South to Brown’s raid, Slepokura thus imagines a parallel with a threatened global jihad coming forth in reaction to Jones’ threatened burning of the Qur’an, Islam’s sacred text.  (By the way, readers may assume that the Qur’an is simply the Muslim Bible, but even that parallel is inexact.  The Qur’an, which Muslims believe is literally God’s incarnate word, is really a theological parallel to the Christian conception of the divine incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.  So one can understand why burning a Qur’an, or even threatening to do so, would enrage Muslims worldwide.)

Slepokura’s approach is at least clever—thus far, I’m not aware that any writer in the U.S. has exploited this opportunity to do some John-Browning.  In his article, he sets the stage first by contrasting the mediocre, “wet noodle” personalities of the former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin and George H. W. Bush (as vice-President of the U.S. under Ronald Reagan) to men like Pastor Jones and John Brown.  Quite in contrast to them, Slepokura says, John Brown was the
. . . irresponsible fanatic who attempted to raise the slaves in the U.S. and arm them against their white masters. In 1859, he led a failed raid by scores of his followers on the armory at Harper’s Ferry in Virginia. Brown had intended to arm African-American slaves with a cache of weapons seized from the arsenal. All his men were either killed or captured or routed. Brown was arrested, tried, and in the end hanged for treason.
During his trial, however, he displayed remarkable fortitude. Such that he soon became a hero in Northern eyes, his cause taken up by New England luminaries like Thoreau and Emerson. Historians in the main agree that as an agitator for the abolition of slavery John Brown helped move the United States a step closer to civil war; a righteous crusader whose good intentions paved a road to mass fratricide.

Not So Fast, Buddy

Obviously, Slepokura is groping for historical validity, although his reach falls short for a number of reasons.

Orest Slepokura,
First, terms like “irresponsible” and “fanatic” are clearly loaded with presumption if not presupposition.  Certainly to refer to men like Brown as a “fanatic” is to suggest that holding a more relaxed and perhaps tolerant view of slavery is the healthful, normative, and justified position held by reasonable and balanced people.  Calling John Brown a “fanatic” regarding slavery is really sanctioning the status quo of slavery in the U.S. as it existed in his time.  I should like to think that Mr. Slepokura is guilty of being unthinking in his choice of words, rather than assuming that he is actually a racist or an accommodationist toward slavery in historical retrospect.   After all, in John Brown’s time, those who referred to him as an “enthusiast,” “monomaniac,” or “fanatic” were in some degree willing to live at peace with slavery until or unless it could be resolved “reasonably” to the satisfaction of white society.  Yesterday’s anti-slavery fanatic has become today’s norm, except in the sport of John-Browning.


But was John Brown “irresponsible”?  What does Slepokura mean by the term?  If he means that John Brown’s plan was a quixotic adventure, insane, irrational, and necessarily unsuccessful, he is not alone in holding this mistaken assumption.  I will not go into detail as to why Brown’s plan was actually reasonable and fairly successful in its initial execution; this is explained in some detail in John Brown—The Cost of Freedom.   Since most of what is popularly explained about the Harper’s Ferry raid is the result of hackneyed, unstudied assumption, it is understandable that one might conclude the entire effort was “irresponsible.”  But actually it was well planned and worked out as Brown intended, including a strong interest on the part of enslaved people in Jefferson County—all of this is borne out by the evidence, none of which has been considered by conventional scholars.  In fact, the only “irresponsible” aspect of the raid was Brown’s failure to move expeditiously out of Harper’s Ferry, instead getting himself bogged down in parleying and reasoning with his slave holding captives.  His delay in following his own plan was his great failure.

Pastor Terry Jones: A Burning Desire for Righteousness?
Alternatively, perhaps Slepokura thinks Brown was “irresponsible” because he actually tried to do something to liberate enslaved people.   Once more, the posture of “responsible” people in 1859 was to talk about slavery and do nothing.  So I wonder what Slepokura the educator would suggest should have been done that would be considered "responsible"?  He should know that in 1859, the power of slavery was so complete and determined that the entire U.S. was virtually under the thumb of the South’s demands—the most obvious proof being the outrageous obligations of the Fugitive Slave Law (1850) and the notorious Dred Scott Decision by the Supreme Court in 1857.  There was no forthcoming solution or plan to liberate slaves.  Even the Republican Party had no intention of forcing abolition on the South.  There was simply no hope for the black man in 1859, something that Frederick Douglass well recognized in his multiple tributes to John Brown after the fact.  I wonder if Douglass would agree with Slepokura that John Brown was "irresponsible."  Somehow I doubt it.  

Who Really “Paved the Road” to Civil War?

Once more, it is interesting that Slepokura sees John Brown as almost singly “paving the road” to the Civil War, when in fact the road to “mass fratricide” was primarily paved by the excessively lustful and unrelenting demands of the Slave Power.  For years prior to the Civil War, it was the South’s political driving force, not only to sustain black chattel slavery at all costs, but also to force the “Peculiar Institution” outward into new territory—to expand by any means necessary.  For years, pro-slavery politicians bullied the North, always hanging over the Union their threat of secession.   In 1855-56, we see that it was the South that “paved the road” to national fratricide by starting a veritable civil war in the Kansas Territory through terrorism and dirty politics.  Had free state settlers not eventually armed themselves and fought back, a pro-slavery constitution would have been literally forced upon Kansas, anti-slavery leaders would have been murdered or driven out with violence, and Kansas would have entered the Union as a slave state. Still, Slepokura would have us believe that one good man, acting outside of the pro-slavery law of the land, is to be blamed for the nation’s descent into bloody Civil War.

Pastor Jones Hanged & Burned in 
Effigy by Angry Muslims
So, who really paved the road to national “fratricide”?  Neo-Confederate revisionists and anti-government libertarians love to blame Lincoln for “invading” the South and violating Southern “freedom,” but this is playing on a technicality at best.  In reality, the South’s determination to expand chattel slavery was the moral and historical source of the Civil War.  Pro-slavery leaders, in complete patriotic madness, sent hundreds of thousands sons of the South to their graves in order to secure their irresponsible and delusional lust for the expansion of white supremacy.  

John Brown hanged
by Angry Christians
In short, the alleged parallel between the outcome of the Civil War and the threat of a violent reprisal by the Muslim world is neither instructive nor consistent with any correct historical analysis.  It is a caricature based upon an assumption without historical basis, as is the alleged parallel between John Brown and Pastor Jones.

As for Pastor Jones the would-be Qur'an burner, he's neither a good witness nor a wise man.  It is my understanding that he has been hanged and burned in effigy by angry Muslims in Pakistan and elsewhere.  Perhaps Pastor Jones will pause and consider the damage he has done.  If he follows through on his threat to burn the Qur'an, nothing good will come of it, because there is no spirit of love or justice in such an act.  

Quite in contrast, John Brown was hanged, but not in effigy, and his killers were Christians, not Muslims.  He was not hanged for trying to destroy a Qur'an, but for trying to destroy slavery.  Whatever happens to the Reverend Terry Jones as a result of his reckless venture, I doubt that he will be measured in history as one standing alongside such an "irresponsible" and "fanatical" man like John Brown.

P.S.  I Spoke Too Soon

Warner Crocker, John-Browner
Warner Crocker, writing in his blog, Life on the Wicked Stage, Act 2, has entered the John-Browning sporting arena with the self-assurance of someone claiming an expertise on John Brown:

Every time I see a picture of Mr. Jones, I'm reminded of John Brown, especially some of the images of him clean shaven. Of course that's probably because I spent so much time researching and writing about Brown years ago. I'm not comparing the causes here because they can't be compared, but I'm looking at the personalities and the drive. Both supposed "men of God" seem(ed) hell bent on proving their point regardless of the outcome. Both stories prove just how much extremism can carry us into dangerous corners once we loose the bonds of reason.

Thank you, Mr. Crocker, for that eagle eye for historical detail.  Yes, your intuitive reading of John Brown’s clean-shaven images (which are all but one extant) has nailed it.  Thanks to your insights, now we know that John Brown was just a hell-bent extremist, loosed from the “bonds of reason,” and determined to drag the nation into destruction.

This is classic John-Browning.

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