A Mad Waste of Time
Although I appreciate Robert McGlone’s important and extremely helpful biography, John Brown’s War Against Slavery (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009), it is a shame that he devoted so much scholarly effort to exploring the various aspects of mental health issues in his work. On one hand, I understand that McGlone did so in responding to academics and others who have presumed Brown’s mental illness and treated it as an established fact. On the other hand, I wonder whether entertaining it at such great length actually dignified this gossip—as if the question of John Brown’s sanity has ever been anything more than a vehicle of unstudied prejudice and political malice.
|John Brown likely suffered with Bell's Palsy,|
Not "Insanity" (Boston Atheneum)
First, we know that the moderate North, which abhorred Brown’s raid, tended to dismiss it as a “mad” effort. Second, we know that Brown’s friends—especially from Ohio’s Western Reserve—contrived a series of “insanity” affidavits with the intention of winning a commutation of an expected death sentence from Governor Wise of Virginia. Third, we know that Southerners included the charge of insanity in their arsenal of insults against Brown from the onset. Down through the years, Brown’s critics have drawn from these sources of propaganda to establish their own jaded interpretations of his life. Representations of him as an unstable, violent fanatic were cemented in popular (i.e., “white”) culture in the 20th century, both in cinema and in the broadly published but speculative assessments of Civil War scholars like Allan Nevins.
I have often said that for all of the Lincoln adoration that goes on in this nation, it is interesting that the same accusations of mental illness do not hound the legacy of the 16th President—especially because there is a greater chance that he suffered from some form of mental illness. For instance, we know that in his younger days, Lincoln had great apprehensions about going mad, and there are episodes of deep depression and possibly evidence of tremendous mood swings. I’m not saying Lincoln was mentally ill or bipolar specifically, but I am saying that the academy, and society at large, has been quite selective in sparing Abe Lincoln from the same kind of “psycho-historical” inquisition that has so steadily hounded the memory of John Brown.
Terrible Swift Diagnoses
Most scholars, journalists, and writers who invoke the theme of mental instability in Brown’s case are presumptuous “knowledge production specialists” with little or no biographical expertise. Sometimes they are fundamentally malicious (one or two essays of this kind can be found in Terrible Swift Sword: The Legacy of John Brown. But some people just think they’re stating the facts of history. Regardless, their renditions of John Brown appear here and there, in books and articles, blogs and novels, sustaining the myth of mental instability—always feeding off of and into the assumptions that have long been seeded in popular culture.
A good example of this seeding is an internet advertisement by a group called Help Us Heal (Helpusheal.org) regarding bipolar disorder. The ad discusses bipolar disorder as being “characterized by drastic changes in energy, behavior and mood.” The ad goes on to say that bipolar periods consist of highs and lows, often called "manic" and "depressive" episodes.
The apparently well-intentioned advertisement publishes a long list of prominent cultural and historical figures, from actors and artists to statesmen and from astronauts to political figures. The very last on the list is “John Brown, abolitionist.” I cannot speak authoritatively about the others so named, but I can say that it is completely wrong to include John Brown in a list of people allegedly suffering or having suffered from bipolar disorder. There is simply no basis for such an assumption.
The ad provides “signs” of “manic” and “depressive episodes” allegedly derived from the National Institute of Mental Health. In both categories, I find nothing reminiscent of John Brown’s recorded description. Furthermore, the “manic” “signs,” taken individually, would describe many people who are not considered bipolar, from needing little sleep to talking fast to spending sprees. In Brown’s case, none of this has resonance, except that Brown did not sleep much as a matter of course so that he could work more. Some people simply don't need as much sleep as other people, and taken by itself this adds no weight to the claim that he was bipolar. There is even less resonance regarding the “signs” of a “depressive episode.” As I said, Abe Lincoln would be a better candidate, but not John Brown.
Not Only Sane but Wise
Brown was no more or less “normal” than most of us. He had his peculiarities, but having an ultra-quiet laugh, a stoic temperament, a deeply religious belief, or a passionate desire for justice does not constitute bipolar issues. For most whites in his era, the only thing they found inordinate or extreme about John Brown was his “monomania”—a phrase that bespoke an extremist position—about slavery. In fact, a careful historian will observe that the “insanity” affidavits that were compiled by his friends in Ohio reveal quite the opposite: if Brown really had evident psychological issues, the affiants would have had plenty to discuss and we would have almost twenty different testimonies with ample witness to psychological issues. In fact, the most these affiants could say with a clear conscience was that Brown had some “insanity” among relatives (whatever that meant in 1859), and that he was “monomania” on the subject of slavery. Governor Wise of Virginia was on the wrong side of history and it was clearly his objective to see John Brown hanged. But he was not wrong for rejecting the insanity appeal: none of the affidavits—nothing in any testimony proved the notion of mental instability.
Speaking for myself as a biographer and student of the man, I have no intention of getting bogged down in extensive discussions in defense of Brown’s sanity. It seems to me that the impossible burden of proof is upon his detractors, not upon the students and biographers of the man. Brown once wrote to his wife, “Let our motto still be action, action—for we have but one life to live.” Likewise, those of us who seriously engage the story of Brown and his legacy have only a measured time to work before our files and papers are passed onto another generation. Let us not waste our time with foolish speculations, but rather concentrate our actions upon studying the life of John Brown, a man who was not only sane, but wise beyond many of his contemporaries.