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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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Friday, March 18, 2011

Biographically Speaking:
Redpath's John Brown Books

James Redpath
(Wikimedia Commons)
James Redpath (1833-95) was the Scottish born reformer, abolitionist, and journalist who became a confidant of John Brown and the author of his first and authorized biography in 1860.  Redpath is referred to by his biographer John McKivigan as "the forgotten firebrand" of the 19th century.  Undoubtedly, Redpath is a fascinating figure whose contributions and influence upon the U.S. have largely gone overlooked.  According to McKivigan's bio description, Redpath
befriended John Brown, Samuel Clemens, and Henry George and, toward the end of his life, was a ghostwriter for Jefferson Davis. He advocated for abolition, civil rights, Irish nationalism, women's suffrage, and labor unions. . . . Redpath's newspaper writing is credited with popularizing the stenographic interview in the American press, and he can be studied as a prototype for later generations of newspaper writers who blended reportage with participation in reform movements. His influential biography of John Brown justified the use of violent actions in the service of abolitionism. Redpath was an important figure in the emerging professional entertainment industry in this country. Along with his friend P. T. Barnum, Redpath popularized the figure of the "impresario" in American culture. Redpath's unique combination of interests and talents—for politics, for journalism, for public relations—brought an entrepreneurial spirit to reform that blurred traditional lines between business and social activism and helped forge modern concepts of celebrity. 
Young Redpath in Kansas
(Random  Thoughts on History)
Redpath met Brown during his Kansas foray and actually dedicated his 1859 publication, The Roving Editor; or Talks with Slaves in the Southern States to the Old Man (It begins, "To you, Old Hero, I dedicate this record of my Talks with the Slaves in the Southern States. . . .")  This is especially interesting because he is referring to the John Brown he has encountered in Kansas prior to the Harper's Ferry raid.  This suggests that some historians have been too extreme in concluding that Brown would not have been remembered had he died during the Harper's Ferry raid instead of becoming a martyr on a Virginia gallows.  Clearly, Brown had a tremendous political and cultural impact upon the anti-slavery set at the time, and if he had died in the battle of Harper's Ferry, it is very likely we would still be talking about him to a significant degree. (By the way, see my friend Tim Talbott's excellent blog, Random Thoughts on History, in which he features this very dedication in his March 2 entry, including a transcript of the entire text.)

The following year, after the Harper's Ferry raid and Brown's execution, Redpath emerged as the official biographer with his highly influential work, The Public Life of Capt. John Brown (1860), which featured Brown's own 1857 autobiographical sketch for the first time, and provided sufficient royalties to Brown's widow for her to make additions and finishing touches to their North Elba farmhouse.  The same year, Redpath also published the important complement to his biography, Echoes of Harper's Ferry, in which he published a good many edited letters written to John Brown with the practical intention of raising money for the black raiders who had "recently went to Heaven via Harper's Ferry, or who were murdered, with legal forms, at Charlestown, Virginia."

The following year, 1861, Redpath published A Guide to Hayti, reflecting his work and close ties between blacks in the U.S. and the Haitian government, particularly in supporting black emigration to the black island state ("She offers you a home, a nationality, a future," Redpath thus wrote to U.S. blacks on behalf of Haiti).  Incidentally, Haiti paid great tribute to John Brown after his death, and John Brown Junior was a colleague of Redpath's in his Haitian endeavors.  Interestingly, at the publication of this Haitian volume, Redpath published an extensive pamphlet under the imprimatur of his Boston-based Haytian Bureau of Emigration that also featured his previous two John Brown books.  The pamphlet provides a solid ten pages of material pertaining to his bio of Brown and one page description of Echoes of Harper's Ferry.  As to the former, Redpath publishes a letter from John Brown Junior, followed by a Brown family letter (including the Old Man's younger brother Frederick as a signatory), authorizing and affirming Redpath as the official biographer of their late father.  Then there is an extensive listing of book reviews which makes for fascinating reading, especially since Redpath had the good humor to include negative reviews.  Here are two of my favorites: "Full of the fanaticism that led its subject to the scaffold," N.Y. Express; and "The well-known James Redpath is an Abolitionist of the darkest hue, and upholds every action of Brown. The book can do no harm," Montgomery Democrat.  Or so he thought.

All you JB fiends will love this.  I have provided the pages pertaining to his John Brown books and you can download them via dropbox.com by clicking here.

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