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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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Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Southern Whites and John Brown

We have no delusions about the history of northern whites, many of whom have been taught the mythology of the free North versus the slave South.  Malcolm X observed that "anything below the Canadian border is the South" with historical and cultural clarity.  After all, slavery was a national "institution" before it was defined as a the "Peculiar Institution" of the South.  Northern whites typically exemplified racist prejudice equal to that of the southern white man, but having jettisoned slavery a bit sooner gave the northern white racist a claim to moral superiority that does not hold up under close scrutiny.  More than once, southern black friends have told me that they would rather deal with a Southern white man, because he does not hide his feelings, good or bad, whereas the Northern white man will "smile" but segregate in practice.  

Just as Northern white people are no monolith, neither are Southern whites.  So when I write about "Southern Whites and John Brown," I'm addressing a segment of people--an overwhelmingly large segment perhaps, but not the entirety of the population.  To this majority of white Southerners, however, to speak of John Brown in favorable terms is to pour hot coals over their heads.  White Southerners hate John Brown.

White Southerners hate John Brown for a number of reasons, most of which are historically intertwined:

+ White Southerns hate John Brown because they were taught to hate him by their parents and grandparents.  To them, he is the complete antithesis to the Southern hero--the Northern brute killer.  Hating John Brown is essentially part of the Southern identity and asking them to consider the possibility that he was a good man is like asking a Christian to reconsider Nero.

+ White Southerners hate John Brown because his legacy was associated with the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and the "War of Northern Aggression," particularly since Brown was a kind of patron saint to many Union soldiers, especially African American soldiers.

+ White Southerners hate John Brown because he vehemently opposed slavery, conducted private invasions into two Southern states (Missouri and Virginia), and militantly fought against Southerners in those states and in the Kansas territory.  This is to say, they have something of a historical memory of him being a real opponent of their ancestors.

+ White Southerners hate John Brown because his opposition to slavery represents an ethical, moral, and historical indictment against their own families and communities, including their churches and their understanding of what the Southern "heritage" entails.  If Brown was even half-right, that means the South was at least half-wrong.

+ White Southerners hate John Brown because they lost the Civil War and lost badly.  Despite courageous efforts and brilliant fighting, the South could not keep up with the federal government and ultimately lost everything in a devastating defeat, and even 150 years after the fact, to salute John Brown would be like pouring salt on that historical wound.

+ White Southerners hate John Brown because, in varying degrees, they hold prejudices against him.  In this sense, Brown is simply hated, perhaps even irrationally.  More than once I've heard of Southern whites who used his name as a curse word.  This is a visceral phenomenon that is probably as spiritual as it is sociological.  Just as racial prejudice is passed down, so is hatred of individual people, and certainly there is an almost sinful hatred of Brown that blinds many Southerners from even attaining a measure of objectivity in evaluating him.  This is not just true of various and sundry idiots making random remarks on websites but otherwise notable theologians, historians, and scholars who should know better.  

The funny thing about all of this is that John Brown himself was probably less hostile, personally speaking, to Southerners than were many radical abolitionists who carried his name like a banner into the war and well into the Reconstruction era.  Brown had a critique of Southern power in the antebellum era, but it was aimed at the power brokers of the South, what was called the "Slave Power." It has been observed by those who knew him that the pacifist William Lloyd Garrison was far more hostile to Southerners than was John Brown.  For Southern whites he had no special resentment; his ire was reserved exclusively for slavery itself.  Indeed, if slavery had been legal in Massachusetts, he would have just as readily attacked the armory in Springfield and fired on the soldiers of New England.

The Pottawatomie killings will doubtlessly be cited in contradiction.  But it should be pointed out that (1) Brown lived in the territory for five months without showing any aggression toward any Southern man, and did nothing of a violent nature until he and other free state people were assured of being targeted for attack, amidst a larger context of pro-slavery invasion and terrorism; (2) Brown traded with and interacted with pro-slavery and anti-slavery Southerners in Missouri and the territory and never expressed even a hint of violence unless he was threatened; (3) the five Southern men who died under Brown's midnight attack in May 1856 were not "typical" Southern men; they were clearly collaborators with invading terrorists, some were professional slave hunters, and one or two were criminal types.  Two of their wives inadvertently acknowledged their husbands' guilt at the time they were taken.   Brown did not abuse or otherwise do harm to any Southern men, even pro-slavery men, just because of their origins or their views.  

When Brown led his raid on Harper's Ferry, he ultimately distinguished himself to his enemies as a peculiar sort of abolitionist.  Just as Northerners may have engaged in stereotyping slave masters, it is true that Southerners stereotyped abolitionists as bloodthirsty killers.  Yet all of the testimonies of Brown's former hostages at Harper's Ferry showed he was humane, genuinely concerned for their welfare, and very clear on his intentions of limiting his efforts to liberating blacks unless fired upon.  In fact, Brown's raider, Osborne Anderson kindly but firmly criticized the Old Man in retrospect for being distracted by sympathy for his captives to the detriment of his own plans.  It's kind of funny that Southern whites, most of whom--then and since then--never knew Brown personally, are far more hostile and dismissive of him then were the Southerners who got to know him.  There is good evidence that even as a prisoner in Charlestown, Virginia, the jailer, sheriff, and others inside the jail were far more fond of him than would be acceptable to Southern prejudice. 

My point in writing this is not to prove anything to the white Southerner who sustains a hatred of John Brown.  My sense is that no small portion of people are unwilling to reconsider their positions when they perceive it as a disadvantage to their pride, regardless of facts.  Nor would one want to make John Brown everyman's hero, whether North or South.  The kind of people who find in him a worthy study and a fallible but superior human being generally do not conform to either Northern or Southern norms.  The reason that I opposed trying to get an official posthumous pardon for John Brown last fall is the same reason here in essence: Brown's historical integrity assumes opposition from prejudiced, racist, and mean-spirited people.  To seek to make him a popular figure would be to bleach away his dissent, and sanitize him sufficiently to the point of being inoffensive, like a gold-plaited crucifix.  No, if Southern people hate John Brown, if any people hate him, so be it.  Like the Master he loved, Brown invites men either to be for him or against him.  If you are against him, the likelihood is that you are also an enemy of what I believe to be good--and I would wish no alliance with you.

Nevertheless, Southern people, if they are persons of reflection and a measure of integrity, may someday consider revising their view of Brown.  Perhaps, rather than looking to a future ideal, they may simply read history.  One such place to start would be the testimony of the so-called "Undefeated Rebel," General Joseph (Jo) Shelby.  According to an 1884 article from the Kansas City Times (Villard Papers) entitled, "Gen. Jo Shelby and John Brown," 

Gen. Jo Shelby, the famous ex-Confederate, referred to the recent publications reflecting upon the character of John Brown of Osawatomie.  "I knew John Brown well," he said.  "I freighted with him in Kansas, and I fought with him in Kansas.   I knew him thoroughly, and I tell you a braver or more gallant man never breathed.  It's all a mistake to say John Brown was a coward."
"Do you think he murdered people, as is charged?"
"Why, of course he did; but it was simply a measure of retaliation.  He didn't have any the best of us.  We killed and John Brown killed.  There was no difference on that score.  It was an unfortunate thing for the south when John Brown was hung.  But I suppose the irresistible conflict, as Sumner said, would have gone on until the negro was freed.  The abolition of slavery was to be, I suppose, and after all I am really glad the negroes were set free."

While I do not agree with Shelby about Brown's alleged use of murder as a measure of retaliation, I would commend him for looking beyond Southern prejudice to the man who lived, rather than merely repeating the ancient propaganda of the slave masters.  Perhaps Brown will yet win some Southern friends.

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