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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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Monday, October 11, 2010

Mary Brown: “God Bless Abraham Lincoln”

Among the primary documents in the collection of Boyd B. Stutler, the great documentarian of John Brown (West Virginia Department of Culture and History), there is a letter written on January 7, 1863 by Mary Brown, the widow of John Brown.  It is addressed to Mary Stearns of Medford, Massachusetts, the wife of George L. Stearns, one of Brown’s most faithful and generous supporters—one of the so-called Secret Six.  Apparently, Mary Stearns was quite a force in her own right, and Brown himself had written to her on November 29, 1859, only two days before he was hanged in Virginia (two copies of the letter are held in the Stutler Collection; the original letter is in the Gilder Lehrman Collection at the New York Historical Society).

Both Mary Brown and Mary Stearns strongly supported their husbands and both were independently devoted to abolitionism.  Given her great means, however, the latter Mary continued to support the anti-slavery cause, and for the rest of her life proved a great supporter of African American concerns.  For instance, there is a kind remembrance and salutation of Mary Stearns by Booker T. Washington, which he wrote in the Boston Transcript after her death in 1901.  Washington spoke of her as “one of the truest and wisest of friends” of the black community, and revealed that she had supported his Tuskegee Institute as well as other black schools in the South.

In the January 7th letter, Mary acknowledged having received some sort of photographs that Stearns had made for her, one of which included Watson Brown, one of the two sons that she and John Brown lost in the Harper’s Ferry raid.  “I have one equally good of dear Oliver,” she added in reference to the other son she had lost.  “They were very dear children to me. Oh I would praise God that they ever lived and were counted worthy to suffer and die is so Just a cause and that he has left others for me to love and do for.”  This statement speaks for itself as to the depth of conviction that Mary Brown felt for the anti-slavery cause and the supreme price she had paid, along with her husband, in losing two sons at Harper’s Ferry.  (Brown’s elder son, Frederick, who was murdered in Kansas by a pro-slavery preacher, was her stepson from John Brown’s first marriage to Dianthe Lusk.)  Mary Brown went on to mention the progress that her daughters Anne and Sarah were making in their schooling at Fort Edward—apparently Fort Edward, New York, in the area of Glens Falls.  One internet source says that Fort Edward Collegiate Institute had opened in 1854, a college preparatory school, and this may have been the place where Anne and Sarah had been sent to study, undoubtedly with the support of abolitionist friends like the Stearns family.

There is also a curious reference to Mary Brown having met with James Redpath in Boston, Redpath being the first biographer of John Brown.  When she and her daughter Ellen met him, Redpath set about riding around the city in his carriage “to find the contraband”—perhaps a black man who had some affiliation to the Browns.  Perhaps the “contraband” may have been considering accompanying Mary and Ellen back to North Elba, in the Adirondacks.  Of course this is speculation.  However, Mary wrote that Redpath subsequently located the “contraband,” who had changed his mind about leaving Boston after having “had so much said to him.”  Perhaps the man heard too many discouraging things about life in the Adirondacks from local blacks that he decided not to leave Boston.  Mary Brown also mentions that before she left Boston, she and Ellen spent the afternoon at the home of abolitionist guru, William Lloyd Garrison.  She concluded that when she got back to North Elba she found that her daughter-in-law Isabella (“Bell”) Thompson Brown was sick and had moved back to her parents’ home in North Elba.  Bell was the widow of Watson Brown, the two young people having been married just over three years at the time of the Harper’s Ferry raid.   Bell was part of the large Thompson family that was joined with the Browns in marriage and death—her two brothers, William and Dauphin, having been killed at Harper’s Ferry, and her elder brother Henry being the husband of Ruth Brown, the eldest daughter of John Brown.

While the details of this letter may be interesting only to Brown students, there is a fascinating postscript: “God bless Abraham Lincoln and give God the glory for the day of Jubilee has come. M[ary] A[nn] B[rown].”  This statement undoubtedly reflected the issuance of the second phase of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, which freed enslaved people in the rebellious Confederate states of South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, and North Carolina.  

This postscript provides a fascinating insight.  First, it reflects the optimism and excitement that many anti-slavery people—including many African Americans in the North—felt about the Emancipation Proclamation at first.  In his autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist recalled the meetings held at Boston’s Tremont Temple and the Twelfth Baptist Church in response to the January 1st proclamation, remembering that it “was not logic, but the trump of jubilee, which everybody wanted to hear.”  Douglass wrote further that when news of the Emancipation was officially declared from the telegraph, the impact of the announcement “was startling beyond description, and the scene was wild and grand.”  Nor, admitted Douglass, was there “disposition on the part of this meeting to criticize the proclamation” at first, caught up as they were in the “anti-slavery side” of Lincoln’s executive pronouncement.  Only later did anti-slavery people like Douglass subject the Emancipation Proclamation to “further and more critical examination” with the conclusion that it was “extremely defective” as an anti-slavery measure  (p. 359).  After the novelty of Lincoln’s “change” had worn off, the anti-slavery community had to come to terms with the President’s half-loaf measure of justice—the substance of which led Douglass in later years to declare that Lincoln was first and foremost the white man’s president (Life and Times, pp. 492-93). Mary’s words in praise of Lincoln and his proclamation must certainly be weighed in the context of this early, uncritical response of anti-slavery people throughout the North.

But Mary’s affirmative response to the Emancipation Proclamation should also be understood in the simplicity and sincerity of the spouse of John Brown, a man who always saw the better side of any situation.  Despite the popular portrayal of Brown as an angry, vengeful, and violent man, the real John Brown was famously optimistic—as Boyd Stutler called him, “ever a pensioner of hope.”  Actually, it was characteristic of Brown to emphasize the part with which he could agree rather than the part with which he differed, and it is no surprise that his widow would take the same position in the case of the Emancipation Proclamation.  Had John Brown been alive in 1863, he would undoubtedly have shared the same optimism over the proclamation as well as the frustrating realization that it did not apply to all enslaved people and thus did not effectively deal with the problem.   Yet even if Brown were to recognize Lincoln’s bent toward compromise, devotion to white priorities, and the political ploy undergirding the Emancipation Proclamation, he would likely have greeted it kindly.

As a biographer of the man, I have seen how John Brown took a surprisingly uncritical look at a number of circumstances that might have evoked a strong reaction in other abolitionists.  For instance, when anti-slavery people criticized the hypocrisy of pro-slavery whites in the United States for enthusiastically greeting the republican Hungarian liberator Louis Kossuth in the 1840s, Brown—in contrast to the opinion of black leaders—saluted the popular response in favor of Kossuth, instead arguing that it could serve for the best on behalf of the slave (see DeCaro, “Fire from the Midst of You”: A Religious Life of John Brown, 198-99).  Similarly, he took a surprisingly “half-right” attitude toward anti-slavery racist settlers he had encountered in the Kansas territory in the 1850s.  Instead of berating them for their overt rejection of black people, Brown saw them as half-right.  “We have in the Territory a great many Southern men who are as yet but half right in regard to Slavery; &; go for Negro & mulatto exclusion," Brown wrote to his father back in Ohio.  "Some of them are very earnest Free State men.  We are glad to have them begin to get right” (Letter to Owen Brown, Jan. 19, 1856, Villard Papers, Columbia University, my emphasis).   This is the quintessential “half full glass” perspective. John Brown was not given to breaking bruised reeds (Isa. 42:3), to borrow a biblical phrase quite familiar to his thinking; if he could find partial good in most things he would rather do so.  Of course, there was nothing good about slavery.
Lincoln: No Abolitionist's Hero

Whether or not Mary Stearns shared Mary Brown’s initial enthusiasm about the Emancipation Proclamation is not known, although she probably shared her husband’s critical view of Lincoln—a view that was probably quite common among abolitionists, particularly since the knew that their president was not a committed anti-slavery man as much as he was a committed compromiser.  For instance, in late 1861, George L. Stearns wrote to John Brown Jr., referring to President Lincoln as an “imbecile” who had set the nation to “drifting” (See George L. Stearns to John Brown Jr., December 28, 1861, in the John Brown Jr. Papers, Charles E. Frohman Collection, in the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library, Fremont, Ohio).  This does not fit well with the stylized, even mythologized, view of Lincoln that most of us have been fed since childhood.  But among the enemies of slavery, Abraham Lincoln was never considered an ally.  It was only after his martyrdom that he was groomed for historical success as “The Great Emancipator.”  Notwithstanding the fact that he got shot in the head by a Southern racist, perhaps God really did bless Abraham Lincoln in the long run.

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