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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, 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?

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