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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

John Brown (May 9, 1800 - December 2, 1859)
I N   R E M E M B R A N C E

"Today is my last day upon Earth.  Tomorrow I shall see God.  I have no fear, I am not afraid to die.  And I can say the words of our blessed Saviour: 'Father, forgive them: they know not what they do. . . .'"

John Brown, letter fragment, December 1, 1859

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Abraham Lincoln, John Brown and Two Artists Named Hunt

I have been doing some basic research on two U.S. artists named Hunt, William Morris Hunt and Albert Hunt, and I’m looking for more information, especially on the latter.

William Morris Hunt
William Morris Hunt

I’ve done some preliminary reading on William Morris Hunt (1824-79), a Vermont-born artist who was heavily influenced by the Barbizon School of painting in France.  I understand that this was a pre-Impressionist style, and Hunt introduced it to New England after returning from France in 1855.  He lived in Newport, Rhode Island until 1862, when he moved to Boston, Massachusetts.   Hunt did a painting of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. For a good biographical sketch of Hunt, see Lonnie Pierson Dunbier's article at AskArt.com.
Hunt's Lincoln (1865)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Artists and art history folks will hopefully forgive me for not primarily focusing on this artist’s work.  My interest in him is based on a brief excerpt in an article “Records of W. M. Hunt” by Henry C. Angell, which was published in The Atlantic Monthly in May 1880.  It seems that Hunt had unfortunately committed suicide the previous year, and Angell published two articles about his life.  What got my attention was Angell’s recollection:
"Mr. Hunt had two long interviews with John Brown, and was greatly impressed by him.  He was a marvelous person; a great hero, like one of the old prophets, he said.  He made arrangements to paint his portrait, but meantime Brown went suddenly to his death in Virginia" (p. 663).
 This is not something that I’ve ever read about, but one could speculate that these “two long interviews” probably took place during Brown’s visits to New England in the last two years of his life.  We often hear of Brown having met with New England’s literati, and so it should not surprise us that other leading cultural figures at the time met and spoke to him.  Although Hunt could have met Brown in Boston, it is interesting that during Brown’s days as a public figure, Hunt was living in Rhode Island, where Brown had at least one good connection, the abolitionist entrepreneur, Edward Harris, who sent money to Brown’s family prior to the hanging in Virginia.  Whatever the case, it’s too bad that Angell did not write at greater length about this, although someone may want to look into Hunt’s papers to find out if more information exists about his “interviews” with Old Brown.  Hunt’s conclusion, that Brown was a “great hero” and a figure like the biblical prophets, was not unusual.  But it is fascinating to learn that Hunt wished to do Brown’s portrait.  Too bad that he never succeeded in doing so.  The last phrase about Brown going “suddenly to his death” probably means that the shocking Harper’s Ferry raid obviously ruined Hunt's plan to produce an artistic portrait of the Old Man.

Albert Hunt

The hunt for Albert Hunt (1826-98) has been considerably less successful, although he is just as interesting, if not more so.  All that I can find is that Albert Hunt was a Methodist clergyman and a skilled charcoal sketch artist, and he is remembered only for his famous sketch of President Abraham Lincoln, made in 1865.  Thus far, I have found a number of references to the Methodist minister named Albert Sanford Hunt, a New York clergyman, a bachelor, and an alumnus of Roberts Wesleyan College.  This is probably the same Albert Hunt who sketched President Lincoln in life, at City Point, Va., on March 27, 1865.  It seems that Hunt knew General Ulysses S. Grant and was present at Grant’s headquarters when Lincoln visited.  His sketch of Lincoln is said to be the best “in life” rendering of Old Abe, and you can purchase it on-line from the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop for $125,000.  Interestingly, the Rev. Albert S. Hunt’s sermon in memory of the assassinated president is included in an 1865 publication, Our Martyr President, Abraham Lincoln: Voices from the Pulpit of New York and Brooklyn.

Albert Hunt's "from life" sketch
of Lincoln, March 1865
Thus far, I have not found anything that precisely connects the Rev. Albert S. Hunt to the Rev. Albert Hunt, sketch artist of Lincoln in 1865, even though it seems obvious that the two are one and the same.  Still, I’d prefer to get conclusive proof.  Besides, with all due respect to Lincoln, I’ve got bigger fish to fry insofar as Hunt the sketch artist likewise is connected to a rendering of John Brown.  Indeed, whereas the painter William M. Hunt planned on executing a portrait of Brown but never did so, it seems the charcoal sketch artist Albert Hunt actually completed a sketch of the Old Man, specifically portraying him seated in his jail cell in Charlestown. 

Albert Hunt's sketch of Brown in jail
published only once in 1909
To my knowledge, Albert Hunt’s sketch of Brown has only been published once, 101 years ago in an article by Eleanor Atkinson for The American Magazine, including the cutline that reads, “A sketch from life by Albert Hunt.”  First, I would like to locate this sketch if is extant.  If Atkinson used it for her article in 1909, it hopefully was accessible to her through Hunt’s papers.  If it was in the hands of a private collector, it may be as good as lost.  Second, I would like to investigate the notion that Hunt made the sketch “from life” as he did in the case of Lincoln.  I am more than inclined to doubt that this is actually a "from life" sketch, and presume it was the assumption of the magazine editor.  To be sure, in both the Lincoln and Brown sketches by Hunt, the artist’s eye for detail is evident.  In the 1865 Lincoln sketch, Hunt captures a snapshot image, including the pages of  The Richmond Dispatch over Abe's long, crossed legs, along with his bag and shawl behind him.  In Hunt’s Brown sketch, there is similar detail: Brown is also seated, and behind his chair there appears to be a pitcher and washbowl, along with the barred window of the cell behind him.   In contrast to Lincoln’s newspaper, Brown holds a Bible on his lap, and his head is bandaged in keeping with the wounds he sustained when at least two marines assaulted him in the armory engine house at Harper's Ferry.

There are a number of reasons to doubt that Hunt’s Brown sketch was made “from life.”  First, although he had many guests in his jail cell, there is no reference that Hunt ever visited Brown or that such a portrait was made.  Furthermore, we know of the sculptor Edward A. Brackett’s somewhat dangerous visit to Charlestown during Brown’s incarceration, and that he was not permitted to enter the jail in order to expedite the prerequisites for the sculpture.  Indeed, Brackett had to connive even to get within adequate distance of Brown in the jail house, and had to rely on someone else to take the necessary measurements--the whole time being suspected as an “abolitionist spy.”  Had Hunt made such a venture, it would probably have yielded similar results and certainly would have been on record in some later newspaper interview or article.  

Finally, the details of his sketch, though basically realistic, are inexact and seem more in keeping with a work done from the artist’s studied imagination.  Brown’s beard is far too long, especially since it was cropped fairly short at the time of the raid—and since he is also wearing a bandage, which would date a sketch "from life" as having been done fairly early in November, when Brown's wounds were still fresh.  Furthermore, the bandage itself is wrapped around his head, rather than atop his head where he sustained a deep wound.  

As of yet, I have no date for Hunt’s Brown sketch, but obviously it was done after some details of Brown’s incarceration were made known in books and newspapers.  If possible, readers are solicited to contribute more information; I hope to update you on further developments, particularly relating to Albert Hunt's work on Brown.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A   M O M E N T   I N   T I M E

John Brown, a prisoner awaiting execution in Charlestown, [West] Virginia, wrote two letters from his jail cell. The first was written to Rebecca Buffum Spring, the kindly if not eccentric abolitionist who visited Brown in his jail cell, accompanied by her son, a few weeks before (Nov. 6). Spring was not the only abolitionist woman to express interest in helping the incarcerated Old Man. Lydia Maria Child wrote to Brown in jail on October 26, 1859, expressing her desire to come and “nurse” him and “speak to you sisterly words of sympathy and consolation,” but then so involved herself in extensive polemics with Virginia’s Governor Wise and his wife that she evidently decided not to actually come to Virginia to “nurse” Brown after all. Child did not know Brown but her husband had earlier corresponded with Brown while the latter was endeavoring to raise support for the free state cause in Kansas. Lydia Child was undoubtedly sincere in her original intention of coming to Brown’s aid, but like so many abolitionists (and like so many of us!), she tended to talk more than take action. It seems that appropriating Brown’s circumstances as an abolitionist platform from which to send forth dignified abolitionist missiles at Virginia’s first family was more important to Child than was actually risking her own safety to stand with Brown in his hour of crisis.

Artist: Jacob Lawrence, "The Legend
of John Brown" Series
Quite differently, Rebecca Buffum Spring, the scion of the beloved New England abolitionist Arnold Buffum (and sibling of Elizabeth Buffum Chace, a noteworthy abolitionist in her own right), had as much pluck as pen. When she heard of Brown’s failure at Harper’s Ferry, she determined to go to his aid, departing from her residence in New Jersey, along with her young son, Edward. Upon arriving (via Baltimore), she learned that Lydia Maria Child had not come to Virginia after all. Utilizing some connections she had through her Quaker background, Spring was eventually able to reach Charlestown and spent a day at Brown’s side. It was a brave and dangerous effort, considering the almost frenzied paranoia of whites in Jefferson County at the time, and the possibility that she could be mistaken for Child, whose correspondence was publicized enough to make her thoroughly hated in the South and lionized in the North among abolitionists. In the aftermath of Brown’s death on December 2, Spring sustained a warm correspondence with Aaron Stevens and Albert Hazlett (who was going by the name of Harrison in the hopes of saving his life by denying his association with the raiders—which is also why Brown did not bid him farewell before going to the gallows).

The following letter, written 151 years ago today by Brown to Rebecca Buffum Spring is accessible to us only through the transcription of Franklin Sanborn, who included it in his Life and Letters (pp. 599-601). Unfortunately, like all of Sanborn’s transcriptions, this transcription is purged of its “Brownesque” style: the inevitable use of the ampersand (&) in place of “and” (in the overwhelming number of Brown’s extant letters, “and” rarely appears), the typical peppering of misplaced, interruptive semi-colons, and the frequent use of underlining. James Redpath features only an excerpt from this letter on page 360 of his authorized biography, The Public Life of Captain John Brown (1860), and although he likewise edits Brown’s style somewhat, at least he retained some of Brown’s underlining, which he conveys in italics on page 360. (I should add that on November 24, Brown also wrote to his young attorney, George B. Hoyt, but time does not permit to describe this letter in more detail except to say that, to my knowledge, it survives only in transcription.) Thus, I have culled some of the original features of Brown’s letter from Redpath’s transcription, combining them with my (reasonably imagined) transcription of the full letter from Sanborn’s book, to wit:

Charlestown, Jefferson County, Va, 24 Nov. 1859.
My Dear Mrs Spring,
Your ever welcome letter of the 19th inst., together with the one now enclosed, were received by me last night too late for any reply. I am always grateful for anything you either do or write. I would most gladly express my gratitude to you & yours by something more than words; but it has come to that, I now have but little else to deal in, & sometimes they are not so kind as they should be. You have laid me & my family under many & great obligations. I hope they may not soon be forgotten. The same is also true of a vast many others, that I shall never be able even to thank. I feel disposed to leave the education of my dear children to their mother, & to those dear friends who bear the burden of it; only expressing my earnest hope that they may all be come strong, intelligent, expert, industrious, Christian housekeepers. I would wish that, together with other studies, they may thoroughly study Dr. Franklin's "Poor Richard." I want them to become matter of fact women. Perhaps I have said too much about this already; I would not allude to this subject now but for the fact that you had most kindly expressed your generous feelings with regard to it.
I sent the letter to my wife to your care, because the address she sent me from Philadelphia was not sufficiently plain, left me quite at a loss. I am still in the same predicament, & were I not ashamed to trouble you further, would ask you either to send this to her or a copy of it, in order that she may see something from me often.
I have had very many interesting visits from pro-slavery persons almost daily, & I endeavor to improve them faithfully, plainly, & kindly. I do not think that I ever enjoyed life better than since my confinement here. For this I am indebted to Infinite Grace, & the kind letters of friends from different quarters. I wish I could only know that all my poor family were as much composed & as happy as I. I think that nothing but the Christian religion can ever make any one so much composed.
"My willing soul would stay In such a frame as this."
There are objections to my writing many things while here that I might be disposed to write were I under different circumstances. I do not know that my wife yet understands that prison rules require that all I write or receive should first be examined by the sheriff or State's attorney, & that all company I see should be attended by the jailer or some of his assistants. Yet such is the case; & did she know this, it might influence her mind somewhat about the opportunity she would have on coming here. We cannot expect the jailer to devote very much time to us, as he has now a very hard task on his hands. I have just learned how to send letters to my wife near Philadelphia.
I have a son at Akron, Ohio, that I greatly desire to have located in such a neighborhood as yours; & you will pardon me for giving you some account of him, making all needful allowance for the source the account comes from. His name is Jason; he is about thirty-six years old; has a wife & one little boy. He is a very laborious, ingenious, temperate, honest, & truthful man. He is very expert as a gardener, vine-dresser, & manager of fruit-trees, but does not pride himself on account of his skill in any thing; always has underrated himself; is bashful & retiring in his habits; is not (like his father) too much inclined to assume & dictate; is too conscientious in his dealings & too tender of people's feelings to get from them his just deserts, & is very poor. He suffered almost everything on the way to & while in Kansas but death, & returned to Ohio not a spoiled but next to a ruined man. He never quarrels, & yet I know that he is both morally & physically brave. He will not deny his principles to save his life, & he "turned not back in the day of battle." At the battle of Osawatomie he fought by my side. He is a most tender, loving, & steadfast friend, & on the right side of things in general, a practical Samaritan (if not Christian); & could I know that he was located with a population who were disposed to encourage him, without expecting him to pay too dearly in the end for it, I should feel greatly relieved. His wife is a very neat, industrious, prudent woman, who has undergone a severe trial in " the school of affliction."
You make one request of me that I shall not be able to comply with. Am sorry that I cannot at least explain. Your own account of my plans is very well. The son I mentioned has now a small stock of choice vines & fruit-trees, & in them consists his worldly store mostly. I would give you some account of others, but I suppose my wife may have done so.
Your friend,
John Brown.

By way of content, this is a long letter with a lot of detail, but clearly there are three major themes: Brown’s expressions of gratitude for Spring’s intervention and assistance, a personal description of his jail house circumstances and some details of his interior life, and then a long section where he interestingly seeks assistance on behalf of his son, Jason, who was back in Ohio at this time.

As to the last segment concerning Jason, a great deal of commentary might be generated and frankly I cannot even skim the surface (because I’m supposed to be grading student papers and working on another project). Jason was always the “odd” Brown boy in his extremely passive, gentle, and benign manner. As his father rightly describes him, Jason tended toward self-deprecation, although on principle he was able to muster greater courage and fearlessness in the famous battle of Osawatomie, Kansas Territory, back in 1856. Notably, however, he had not mustered such courage in the case of the Pottawatomie killings and refused to support the Brown’s preemptive strike. Evidently, Jason lived to regret not having gone when he came to understand the full reasons for his father’s decision to expedite these killings. Although not having participated in the Pottawatomie killings probably saved his life at the hands of pro-slavery thugs, he and his wife sustained great losses in the whole Kansas episode. They not only lost their young son Austin en route to the territory in 1855, but their Kansas dwelling was burned by terrorists (and with it, no doubt, a good portion of Brown’s correspondence). At any rate, the Spring family evidently offered Jason aid and support following his father’s hanging in 1859, and he gratefully corresponded with Rebecca Spring at least twice that can be documented (see Villard Papers).

As to the portion regarding his daughters’ education, Brown was no sexist as much as he was practical. He writes above that he wants his “children” to become “strong, intelligent, expert, industrious, Christian housekeepers,” no doubt imbued as much with the spiritual wisdom of the Bible as with the practical wisdom of Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac, both of which had been staples of Brown family reading from his earliest Ohio days. His desire that his youngest daughters (Anne, Sarah, and young Ellen) would be “matter of fact women” was no less than what he had demanded of his sons, all of which were likewise trained to “music of the broom,” as he put it in his letter of November 16th to his wife, where he likewise extolled upon the theme of being “plain but practical.” Certainly there was no one more plain and practical than John Brown, and this is something that he wanted for all of his children—no doubt anticipating that his family would never be rich in the manner of this world, given their philosophy and values of service and sacrifice, and his refusal to pursue profit for profit’s sake. “When I say plain but practical,” Brown wrote to his wife, “I mean enough of the learning of the schools to enable them to transact the common business of life, comfortably and respectably. . . which prepares both men and women to be useful though poor, and to meet the stern Realities of life with a good Grace.”

A final note regards Brown’s evident Christian convictions. He not only emphasizes his hope that his children will become “Christian housekeepers,” but also opines: “nothing but the Christian religion can ever make any one so much composed.” An extended essay might be written on the flagrantly evangelical and evangelistic tenor of Brown’s final letters to his family and others. Contrary to the popular notion that he “reinvented himself” in the Charlestown jail, Brown’s saintly, “biblio-centric” epistles actually were quite consistent with his lifetime devotion to the classical Protestant evangelical faith. Yet his inability to take further action, along with his proximity to death, now brought his spiritual focus to the center, just as his personal concern for his children’s eternal state was only heightened in the shadow of the gallows.

The fact that most of his adult children had rejected evangelical faith from the early 1850s was a galling issue for Brown, and this seems to be the point of Browns’ reference to Jason as a “practical Samaritan (if not a Christian).” Like his brothers John Junior, Owen, and their younger half-brothers, Jason Brown was quite heterodox as far as his father was concerned. So expansive was the spiritual rebellion of the Brown children that Anne Brown, while her father was in jail awaiting execution, wrote to her father’s supporter, Thomas W. Higginson on November 29, 1859, expressing regret that she could not become a Christian in satisfaction of her father’s urgings (Higginson papers, Boston Public Library). In fact, to my knowledge, only two of Brown’s daughters followed their father in faith: Ruth Brown Thompson (Dianthe’s daughter) and Sarah Brown (Mary’s daughter). I don’t know about Ellen, for whom Brown inscribed a new Bible in April 1857.

Lastly, Brown includes a verse that Rebecca Spring would have probably recognized, as would most people in that largely Protestant-oriented time and culture: “"My willing soul would stay In such a frame as this." This is a portion of a verse from the hymn by Isaac Watts entitled, "Welcome Sweet Day of Rest" (1707). He evidently assumed that Spring could complete the stanza, which goes, “And sit and sing herself away to everlasting bliss.” This was quite in keeping with Brown’s peaceful interior life, which by all accounts was quite authentic, and certainly no pretense. “I do not think that I ever enjoyed life better than since my confinement here,” He wrote to Friend Rebecca. He had finally attained the goal of his life, despite the fact that it was not the outcome for which he had first planned. But now he was finally working to the detriment of slavery to good effect, and in his death he would seal the work for time and eternity. John Brown’s willing soul would stay in the frame of Charlestown jail, even as he walked the fine line between the temporal and the eternal, between the trials of this present age and the bliss of the age to come.

100 years ago today, 1910
Charleston, W.Va. -- The last of those who took part in the execution of John Brown died here at the age of 83. He was Louis P. Starry, the undertaker who made the coffin in which Brown's body was placed. Mr. Starry rode in the wagon with Brown from the jail to the scaffold and delivered the body afterward at Harper's Ferry to Mrs. Brown and Dr. McKim.

Source: "Out of Our Past." The Battle Creek Inquirer [Battle Creek, Mich.], 24 Nov. 2010   

Monday, November 22, 2010

Brown on trial, painting by David C Lithgow,
Essex County Historical Society,
Elizabethtown, N.Y.
Certainly John Brown was found guilty of treason by the State of Virginia. The legal rationale behind this charge was that even though Brown was not a Virginian, he could be guilty of treason because he had previously enjoyed the privileges and freedoms offered him by the state. So, as a U.S. citizen, he had an equal loyalty to the states of the union individually. Students are advised to read Brian McGinty's book, JOHN BROWN'S TRIAL. Of course, this argument is debatable and certainly was convenient to the pro-slavery side of the case. But there was some precedent in the U.S. constitution for this charge. A related issue is that John Brown invaded a federal facility on federal grounds in Virginia, and yet the President of the U.S. let Virginia prosecute Brown without involving federal jurisdiction. There were certainly politically pro-slavery reasons for this strategy. 

Not clear about the second part of the question, "was his reason valid?" If the question actually was supposed to mean, "was this reason valid?" then perhaps what has been discussed so far should suffice in basic terms. Once again, students should read the McGinty book, which is the first extended study about Brown's trial and will probably be the definitive work for a long time. 

But if the second part of the question pertains to John Brown's reasons for invading Virginia, then of course there is room for more discussion and debate. 

To start with, a purely legalistic and typically conservative reading would conclude that Brown was wrong. People arguing from this position would say that laws are laws, and we are a nation of laws, and that violating the rule of law destroys the essence of the nation--therefore Brown must be judged first and last a criminal. But this view tends to be amoral, it is indifferent to human reality as well as the centrality of moral convictions, especially in a society like the U.S. whose founders made appeals to philosophy, politics, and theology. 

Thus, if one puts laws above everything else, then any law that is passed remains sacrosanct, no matter how wrong or bad it is. This locks humans into a position of obeying laws put into place by unjust or immoral leaders, as has often happened in human history. 

We must remember that in 1859, the law of the U.S. was in favor of chattel slavery. Most people today would find such a rule of law unconscionable: black people were not viewed as full humans, their bodies, families, labor, and self-determination were controlled by slave masters, the market, and the federal government. Slavery presumed stolen labor, the use of terror and violence to sustain slavery, and essentially required the entire nation to cooperate, free states included. The Fugitive Slave Laws, especially the one passed in 1850, made free states responsible for slavery to continue. So we have to let go the romanticized, sentimental view of "American history" and realize that our nation was a kind of fascist state as far as black people were concerned. 

In light of the totality of slavery's corruption and violation of human rights (not to mention how it contradicted the very premise of the nation's founders--something that John Brown believed), simply arguing that "breaking the law makes John Brown wrong" is not so persuasive. 

John Brown was trying to do something--actually do something--when the issue of slavery was still a matter of political compromise, give-and-take between white politicians in the North and South. Even Lincoln was willing to tolerate a limited slavery as long as it didn't spread to new territories. 

John Brown did not want to kill slaveholders; he believed some measure of force would be necessary given the violence upon which slavery was founded. But his goal was to somewhat arm the underground railroad--it put the underground railroad idea more on the offensive and give it a measure of force. His goal was to panic and destroy the slave economy without broad scale bloodshed. 

Lastly, if people are going to hold Brown to the very narrow view that "breaking the law" makes him a bad man, then they at least had better be consistent in their historical view of everyone else. By this reasoning, anyone who breaks laws is wrong, no matter what the circumstances. Of course, no one would hold to such a ludicrous position, particularly when a particular law touches their concerns in a negative fashion. If nothing else, John Brown was being consistently "American" by appealing to the higher moral and ethical arguments for black freedom based upon the precedent set by the founders. He consciously argued along these lines (i.e., that the real intention of the founders had been co-opted by slave holders); nor was he trying to overthrow the political structure of the U.S., except as it pertained to slavery. 

Seen through the narrow, legalistic lens of the conservative, Brown is a lawbreaker and nothing more. But seen through a full scope that appreciates law but also closely examines political realities, moral arguments, and the real facts of John Brown's case, the weight of history's judgment will probably prove to be in Brown's favor. That he broke the laws of a nation committed to cruel, racist slavery actually is quite refreshing when we consider that most whites did nothing at all. Even Lincoln the lawyer defended the rights of slave holders, and as a new president, he was willing to compromise with slave masters in order to save the Union (which was always more important to Lincoln, even before he was the president). People who argue against Brown tend to overlook or even ignore the evil of slavery, and they seem to presume that life in the U.S. in 1859 was essentially fair and balanced. This is very problematic and it may also suggest a measure of hidden prejudice. In fact, the reason that Brown is probably as unpopular as he is among a segment of people in this nation is more a fact of longstanding prejudices and bigotry than about legality, "treason," or even political radicalism. [Submitted 22 Nov. 2010--LD]

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Classic John Brown Letter Remerges

National Public Radio (NPR) has made much ado about “the latest find” of a “love letter” from John Brown to Mary Brown dated January 30, 1858. . .

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

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Osawatomie Notebook
The Forgotten Influence of John Brown's Father

Owen Brown, John Brown’s father, inculcated his abolitionist beliefs in his son by word and deed.

Owen taught his children by example and in 1837 took the then-radical stand that former slaves should be educated and advocated the formation of the State Anti-Slavery Education Society. Owen Brown wrote: “Resolved: That education lies at the foundation of elevation in civil and religious liberty, and that it is expedient there should be a State Anti-Slavery Education Society formed, and that it is recommended to the county and town societies to form societies auxiliary to the State Anti-Slavery Society.”

He followed this opening statement by stating the reasons that he thought it was necessary to form the Ohio Anti-Slavery Education Society, writing:

“Reasons 1st: There is no provision made, by our statute, for the education of black and mulatto youth and children in our common schools; and, in this respect, they are but little better off in this state than in the slave states.”  Owen Brown presented a logical analysis, for although freed slaves were no longer chattel property in the North, the pervasive racism of the 19th century prevented African-Americans from obtaining the full rights of citizenship in Ohio in 1837. Brown noted that “public sentiment forbids their being schooled in common schools at the present, event when they are able to pay for their schooling.”

Racism was as strong in the North as it was in the South in 1837 — the difference being that slavery effectively had died out in one place and was still a strong institution in the other. Northern opposition to slavery at first generally was not due to concerns for the welfare of African-Americans, but rather to whites not wanting to have to compete with freed slaves in economic matters. In addition, there was a firm belief — both in the North and the South — in the alleged superiority of European-Americans over African-Americans. Therefore, many in Ohio and other Northern states at the time did not want freed blacks living in their states and passed laws restricting the civil rights of African-Americans who came there.

Owen Brown did not mince words in stating his belief in the corrosive effect that laws preventing African-Americans from a proper education had on their inclusion in American life: “For want of education, newspaper and periodical information is in a manner lost; correspondence with each other is cut off, and much kind advice and instruction are lost, such are necessary to regulate their conduct, make them good members of religious and civil society, make them useful and happy neighbors, lessen their crimes, and raise their prospects for time and eternity.”

Owen Brown was a peaceful abolitionist who stood up for the rights of African-Americans, for he believed in the equality of all people in the eyes of God and taught his son John to do the same. John Brown acted on his father’s beliefs in a militant manner and changed history as a result.

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


To Each Her Own: A Kansas Review by Margaret Hays

I was, of course, disappointed that John Brown was not selected as one of the "Eight Wonders of Kansas People." That omission in no way diminishes his role in the history of our state and of our nation.

My favorite biography of Brown — and I’ve read more than 40 by now — is Stephen Oates’ To Purge This Land With Blood. I may have found another, thanks to friend Web Hawkins. He loaned me his copy of Robert McGlone’s John Brown’s War Against Slavery. The author employs both new and neglected evidence concerning Brown’s reasons for his actions during the Pottawatomie Massacre. Right up my alley, he uses DSM4 — “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” — to refute any claim that Brown was insane. He does consider bipolar disorder, just as I have done in years past.

McGlone includes more than 100 pages of explanatory notes in this well-researched work, in which he determines that Brown’s delayed escape from Harpers Ferry suited his purpose in drawing attention to his efforts there. It was, the author claims, “more a blow against slavery than a military success.”

He argues that Brown did have a plan and that he brilliantly used his trial for treason as a pulpit, “claiming the moral high ground in the war against slavery and playing the emissary of the God of the oppressed.”

John, I think you were shortchanged; you were definitely a “wonder.”

Editor's Comment:

I entirely agree with Ms. Hays that the near miss of having Brown included in the "Eight Wonders of Kansas People" is something of a disappointment, but that given the influence of extra-state votes, it's probably no wonder.  Perhaps if the vote had been limited to Kansans, Brown would have been included.

Ms. Hays is certainly entitled to her well-educated opinion regarding John Brown biographies.  Undoubtedly, the Stephen Oates biography has been a standard for a generation and did "balance the books" to some degree, although it is, respectfully, more a "white" production (I do mean the author's skin color, but rather that it reflects a certain set of political and social presuppositions that are seriously open to question).  I agree with Ms. Hays, too, that Robert McGlone's work is notable, and I think from a historian's standpoint, probably more important than anything so far published.  (But that's all that I will say since I'm reviewing it for a publication so I won't address the McGlone book until some later date, God willing.)   On the other hand, I find it unfortunate that, after reading forty biographies of John Brown, Ms Hays still considers bipolar disorder a historically feasible conclusion.  It concerns me when people make these kind of assessments, because there is really no historical warrant for them, including the more recent advent of the bipolar pscyho-historical diagnosis.  A reasonable response to this claim is that the readers bring their own presuppositions to bear--that John Brown must have had something wrong with him for him to get so upset over slavery!  This is bias, not history, and I would suggest that while Ms. Hays is entitled to her opinion, the notion of bipolar disorder in the John Brown story is quite unfounded.  Perhaps she has read too many biographies of John Brown, including some of the very worst of them?

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Q: What Were John Brown's Beliefs?

The Abolitionist John Brown's "beliefs" is a broad category, but as a biographer and student of the man, I would offer the following: 

1. Religious beliefs. Brown's Christian faith was a central and defining theme of his life. He made a personal commitment to Christian faith at the age of 16 and was a devout believer throughout his 59 years of life (1800-59). John Brown was a Protestant, brought up in the Congregational church, which came out of the Puritan or Calvinist movement in England. He was reared in a Congregationalist/Presbyterian theological context and can properly be spoken of as being evangelical, Calvinist, and theologically conservative. He believed the Bible was the inspired, authoritative word of God and his religious beliefs were doctrinally conservative.

Religiously, he believed in divine predestination and divine providence. He believed that God had called him to give his life (which included the likelihood of dying) in the antislavery cause and for the black man's freedom. He did not have a wacko view of religion. Most people in that era believed in divine providence and "vocation," or calling. Brown believed God had called him to this work and he felt compelled to try to do something and after failing at Harpers Ferry, he happily resigned himself to dying for the cause. If this makes him appear fanatical today, it's probably because we are far more secular overall as a nation, and tend to judge religious people of the past from our psychological, agnostic oriented intellectualism. It is only in recent years that historians have begun to appreciate the extent to which this nation was saturated in evangelical culture and how that shaped people's thinking, from John Brown to Stonewall Jackson. The point is, if John Brown was a religious fanatic, so was most of the North and South.

2. Social beliefs. Despite being a theological conservative, John Brown was socially progressive, particularly when it came to matters of "race" and justice. Most conservative white Christians in his day were racialists or outright racist bigots, and many were pro-slavery. John Brown was not only anti-slavery, but believed that blacks and other non-whites were made in God's image and that all peoples were equals as humans. This is also a religious belief, but it had such a complete impact upon his social and political life that he was seen in his day as "fanatical" because he was among a relatively small segment of whites in the U.S. who actually treated blacks and Native Americans as peers and colleagues. Even Abraham Lincoln, who was anti-slavery, did not function at this level of comfort and commitment when it came to blacks. When John Brown was seen as a "fanatic" by his own generation, it was in this regard; but this says more about the widespread, flagrant racism of white society in the 19th century U.S.

3. Political beliefs. John Brown was in some respects a very fundamental patriot. He admired the American Revolution and felt the Declaration of Independence was second only to the Bible as a document. He was proud of his roots in the Mayflower and American Revolution and believed that the original intention of the nation's founders had been hijacked and distorted by the slave owning faction, which had grown very powerful throughout his life time. This is important to understand since from the time that John Brown was a boy until the time he went to Kansas to fight pro-slavery terrorists in 1855, slavery's power had grown monstrously and threatened to take over the nation. When Brown was young, slavery was thought to be fading out; but the cotton gin was developed and the slave states geared up instead of declining. The North phased out slavery did not phase out its economic interest in slave crops and profits from slavery as a business. By the 1850s, the slave holding interests in this nation was so powerful that legislation and supreme court rulings had virtually placed the entire nation under the sway of slave holding interests.

This leads to another aspect of Brown's beliefs. He gradually (over thirty years) came to the conviction that slavery would not be stopped without the use of some form of militant action. In other words, Brown was not a pacifist and did not believe that slavery could be defeated only by prayers and speeches. Although he was a man of prayer and faith, he did not believe (as taught in the New Testament book of James) that faith had value unless it was acted upon. This set him to pursue some kind of plan to oppose slavery that involved action. Early on, in the 1830s, he had hoped to use reformist measures (e.g., starting a school for black children, buying or somehow getting a slave master to free a slave that could then be adopted and reared). But by the 1850s, it was clear that any hope of working within the system to reverse and undermine slavery's evil progress was hopeless. Brown, along with other abolitionists, concluded that some form of political force had to be used against the slave system.

4. Brown's strategy. While scholars may debate precisely Brown's plans, we do have a certainty that he did not believe in starting a slave "insurrection" because simply arming enslaved people and launching a war would culminate with as vast amount of bloodshed and broadscale killing. He is often mistakenly referred to as an insurrectionist, but in fact he was trying to launch a movement that minimized violence, although he believed that some use of violence was inevitable.

Brown believed that slavery could be undermined without full scale war: his strategy, which was supported by Fred. Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and others, was to penetrate the South, lead enslaved people away, arming many of them and withdrawing to the vast depth of the Allegheny mountains. By breaking his movement into small cadres or groups and arming them with weapons and political rule of law (his Provisional Constitution), he hoped to lead off more enslaved people, fight only in self-defense, and spread his movement throughout the South. His hope was not to kill widely, but to traumatize the economic structure of slavery and start a southwide movement that would throw slavery into instability. He believed that he could avoid extensive militaristic bloodshed by destabilizing slavery and the South.

Brown believed that there was a national catastrophe on the horizon that would involve the demands of the slave states and the inevitable conflict of the South and North. Brown believed that anything less than a pro-slavery president being elected in 1860 would result in a divided nation. He believed the leaders of the South were not only anticipating secession but were preparing for it through extensive influence and power within the federal government. When he was hanged by Virginia on Dec. 2, 1859, Brown actually wrote his last statement to the effect that he had hoped that much bloodshed might be avoided. When he died on the gallows, he anticipated that the U.S. would face a terrible consequence. History has vindicated his belief that compromise could no longer work to assuage slave holders, and that the South would not rest until it either usurped the nation completely or abandoned the Union in order to pursue its agenda of slavery's expansion. His belief that slavery was premised on sheer violence, cruelty, greed, and racial prejudice has also been vindicated by history.

5. As to "terrorism." There is a lot of popular talk about Brown being an "American terrorist," even the "father of domestic terrorism." First, in the 19th century the modern concept of terrorism did not exist, so the term was never used, although Brown sought to create a measure of fear or "terror" by upsetting the South's stability. Still, he opposed any notion of deliberate, intentional violence targeting innocent people.  Second, Brown believed that the real terrorism of his era was slavery, the real victims of terror primarily were black people, first the enslaved, then the free black community which lived in constant fear and trauma in the North; then anti-slavery people who were also targeted by contempt and even hostility from pro-slavery people, which was the case in the Kansas territory.

Brown did not believe in political murder for the sake of making a political statement. His activities in Kansas, much misrepresented, involved both political action as well as actual counter-terrorism in the midst of a society torn by civil war and providing no rule of law or protection. The handful of people killed under Brown's supervision were not "innocents," but "American terrorists" plotting to violently assault anti-slavery people, particularly the Browns. Had there been a governmental authority in Kansas or another law agency to which he could appeal, Brown would not have killed anyone. Today we would say that he was merely fighting for survival in practical terms, and fighting for freedom in political terms. It is unfortunate that so many people have skewed Brown as the "terrorist," when the use of terrorism was against his religious, political, and ethical views.

Brown was not an orator or a politician, most certainly not a compromiser. He believed in Christianity and the vocation of the United States as the inheritance of the "city on a hill" vision of the early Puritans. He believed that a republic was fundamentally incompatible with chattel slavery and racial prejudice. He believed that black people, if given freedom and power, would function as well as whites because we all come, in the words of St. Paul, from "one blood." Notwithstanding his humanity, errors, and failures, Brown believed in freedom, equality, and human rights for all people when many of the "greatest" leaders in this nation either were outright racists or were conflicted, hypocritical, and inconsistent advocates of "liberty." While his beliefs have become more fashionable in our world, the degree of contempt and resentment directed at John Brown today may suggest that many people have yet to fully own the principles of freedom which they claim for their nation. If and when John Brown is ever recognized as one of this nation's greatest figures by an overwhelming majority, it may suggest that our nation has finally attained that level of greatness that Brown himself desired for his land and people. But only time will tell.

Louis A. DeCaro Jr., Ph.D., biographer of John Brown the Abolitionist