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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, May 30, 2011

John Brown in the News--
Gods, Generals, and Civil War Military Historians

On May 21, 2011, the State of Virginia convened its "2011 Signature Conference" on the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission at Virginia Tech. To no surprise, the conference centered upon military strategy, which is he overwhelming theme in discussions of the Civil War throughout the U.S. The reason for this is not too hard to discern: many Civil War buffs, North and South, are not interested in the politics of the Civil War because the politics of the Civil War are bound up with the “hard stuff” of U.S. history. To engage in a truthful investigation of the Civil War means the historian has to engage issues of racism, justice, and the actual realities of a white supremacist culture (and subcultures) that directly or indirectly profited from the literal blood, sweat, and tears of four millions of human beings reduced to chattel by law.

Civil War: Game versus Reality

The realities of the Civil War are just too hard and often too embarrassing to engage--especially for Southern scholars, not a few of which continue to evade the truth of their forebears’ injustice by claiming the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery, but rather that the North had conducted a “war of aggression.” Of course, we know the North did not enter the war to “free the slaves,” and the North in large part had no more love for black people than did the South. But the reality is that the Union and the Confederacy were conflicted over slavery and how to manage it. Southerners wanted to manage slavery to their maximum economic advantage, including expansion into new territory and widening the "slave space" and its profits. Lincoln wanted to manage it by limiting it to its established domain and then hopefully phasing it out over a period of time while perhaps deporting black people altogether. These were the two contrasting political visions that entered the theater of civil war in 1861.  Black freedom was a concern only for black people and a small number of white allies, none of which had any direct impact on antebellum policies.

In contrast, most people today who claim an interest in the Civil War today are focused upon military strategy. The military narrative is always fascinating and has a worthy place in the labor of historians. Unfortunately, in the case of the Civil War, however, military history has become the means by which many can evade the political realities of the antebellum, war, and post-war chapters of U.S. history. To Status quo "Civil War military history" does not ask the hard questions about the political and moral questions behind the war, but tends to glorify and sensationalize “the blue and the gray.”

Civil War Military History often
focuses on the war as game, without
observing the principles at stake
"Surely, the Bitterness of Death is Passed"

Civil War military history enables the stylization and glorification of the Grants as well as the Lees, regardless of their political views.   As such, popular Civil War military history provides a sterile, amoral way of viewing the war.  It is sterile and amoral because it offends no one and allows everyone to sustain personal loyalties without actually revisiting the meaning of the war for the nation at the time.  By rehearsing army movements and battles and by romanticizing the troops and their leaders, Civil War history becomes a sacred football game where both sides were “the good guys.”  In this way, we can feel for both the Blue and the Gray because they were all just good soldiers fighting in the name of God and conscience for what they believed was right.  "Surely the bitterness of death is passed." In such a context, the morality of history is replaced by sentimentality: every general is a hero and every soldier is a martyr, no matter what they represented to four million enslaved Africans.  Of course, the "football" side of Civil War military history is most pronounced in the arena of Civil War re-enactors--men who delight in dressing up as soldiers and recreating the battles of the war in mock conflict on the field.  They are the most sincere and "practical" expression of what scholars and historians do in texts, roundtables, and conferences on Civil War military history year after year.  Yet when all is said and done, none of this has added light or understanding to our collective interest as a nation regarding the obscene violence and wickedness that possessed the soul of this nation under the name of chattel slavery.  No wonder so many scholars cannot understand John Brown.  They have no heart even to begin such a study.

Gods, Generals, and Park Historians

John Brown scholars who have visited Harper’s Ferry have good reason to believe that the pronounced view of the National Park staff is hostile toward the Old Man. In 2009, I spent a couple of hours (due to a glitch in my appointment schedule) waiting in the Harper’s Ferry guest center/book store, where the tour buses make regular stops to pick up and drop off tourists. While I sat, thumbing through some books and materials on display, I listened with interest to the leading voice among the Park staff as he provided orientation and information to inquiring visitors. Frankly, I was appalled at the unstudied prejudice and bias that came across that counter.  I have come to the conclusion that the Harper’s Ferry National Park people must have something of a love/hate feeling for Brown. They love him because he has given Harper’s Ferry its reason to exist. John Brown is their bread-and-butter.

Dennis E. Frye
In the case of the 2011 Signature Conference, perhaps the most likely person to be pressed into service for a talk on John Brown was Dennis E. Frye.  Mr. Frye is no small fry in the world of Civil War military history (pun intended). Most notably, Frye is the Chief Historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, and he has lent his view of Brown to a number of efforts involving Brown, and has led a national battlefield preservation organization that has since become the Civil War Trust. He has authored a number of books and many articles, and his most recent book is Antietam Revealed. As a specialist on the Civil War, Frye has served as a battlefield guide for National Geographic, the Smithsonian Institution, and has contributed to many academic and scholarly forums. He is has also been a “talking head” on television documentaries and series, most notably as the associate producer and historical consultant for the movie “Gods and Generals.”

The Southern Perspective Revisited

Artifacts versus Facts
Mr. Frye deserves every respect and salutation for his successful career and contributions, but I do take issue to some points of his presentation as reported in the May 30th edition of the Kingsport, Tennessee, Times News on line, Mr. Frye addressed the Virginia Tech conference along the lines of a Southern view of John Brown’s raid. This is a worthwhile theme, yet one wonders to what extent Mr. Frye has not only captured the sentiment of antebellum Virginians, but also manifested it in his attitude and analysis of Brown. Unfortunately, a transcript of his speech is not available, only a brief excerpt by the Times News. Citing the beginning of the war, he portrayed the Southern perception that the South “had been assaulted, the south had been invaded, the south had been raped,” and that “the worst of the worst that the United States had to offer, in the opinion of a southerner, actually came to Virginia manifested in human form. The abolitionist John Brown." After reading Brown’s famous last written words ("I John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood"), Frye declared that
For Virginians who had had their citizens murdered in the John Brown raid, who had had their property stolen in the John Brown raid, who had had their state invaded by abolitionist [sic], black and white, in the John Brown raid, armed men coming into Virginia, attacking a defenseless town in the night, on a Sunday, those words of John Brown had nothing to do with prophecy with regards to slavery. But had everything to do about rousing the blood of the south.
And again:
For a Southerner[,] the crimes were perpetrated by abolitionist[s]. For a southerner the crimes were the conspirators who supported John Brown and indeed if there was to be blood shed let it happen. “We will welcome you to our soil with bloody hands and hospitable graves,” is how James L. Kemper would report to the Virginia assembly in the aftermath of the John Brown raid. So indeed they prepared for blood, they did prepare for possible war. We today refer to it as Homeland Security. And in fact that's what southerners thought and expected. More John Brown's [sic], more abolitionist, more invaders.
I read these remarks as going beyond “objectivity” on the part of Mr. Frye, who portrays the feelings and sentiments of antebellum Southerners--especially Virginians, toward John Brown.  Evidently, he is also opining at to the meaning of John Brown.  By making an association between antebellum preparations for war and present day Homeland Security, Mr. Frye is making a problematic alignment of the pro-slavery argument (which demanded that Brown be equated with a murderous brigand) with “our way of life” (to use former President Bush’s terms).  And what was “our way of life” to antebellum Virginians?  Was it not frank white supremacy—“democracy” for white people, especially white property owners?  Was it not a "democracy" premised on the enslavement of African people—theft of their labor, possession of their bodies, and the right to do so for as long as the slave master desired?  Is this really a comparison that Mr. Frye wants to make without some kind of qualification or differentiation?   Doesn't Mr. Frye realize that to invoke terrorism and "Homeland Security" without acknowledging that slavery itself was premised on the threat of terrorism is itself an indictment of his perspective?

The Southern "War of Aggression" began in Kansas,
long before the fall of Fort Sumter
Genesis: Harper's Ferry or Kansas?

Another error of Mr. Frye’s presentation is the passing reference, “So indeed they prepared for blood, they did prepare for possible war.” The idea that Southern political leadership did not “prepare for possible war” until the John Brown raid is a fallacy. Brown himself knew what many Northerner leaders knew--namely, that the leaders of the South had been preparing for civil conflict for years prior to the Harper’s Ferry raid. Recall the early 1859 "interview" that journalist William Addison Phillips had with Brown in Kansas, as recounted in a trustworthy 1879 article in The Atlantic Monthly:

[John Brown] told me that a war was at that very moment contemplated in the cabinet of President Buchanan; that for years the army had been carefully arranged, as far as it could be, on a basis of Southern power; that arms and the best of the troops were being concentrated, so as to be under control of its interests if there was danger of having to surrender the government; that the secretary of the navy was then sending our vessels away on long cruises, so that they would not be available, and that the treasury would be beggared before it got into Northern hands. All this has a strangely prophetic look to me now; then it simply appeared incredible, or the dream and vagary of a man who had allowed one idea to carry him away. I told him he surely was mistaken, and had confounded everyday occurrences with treacherous designs.
"No," he said, and I remember this part distinctly, -- "no, the war is not over. It is a treacherous lull before the storm. We are on the eve of one of the greatest wars in history, and I fear slavery will triumph, and there will be an end of all aspirations for human freedom. For my part, I drew my sword in Kansas when they attacked us, and I will never sheathe it until this war is over. Our best people do not understand the danger. They are besotted. They have compromised so long that they think principles of right and wrong have no more any power on this earth."
The "Southern" view of
Brown has long been
the conventional view
among U.S. historians
As Brown observed, the bellicose posture of the South was already quite evident in the mid-1850s, when a great deal of Southern money and manpower was poured into the Kansas Territory. In fact, the notion that the Civil War “began” at Harper’s Ferry is the Southern perspective itself, and this is the view that Mr. Frye conveys since he is evidently a retooled antebellum Southerner in heart.

Quite to the contrary of the Southern thesis as exemplified by Mr. Frye’s interpretation, the Civil War actually began in the Kansas territory in 1855-56. Likewise, the initial aggressors were Southerners, not Northerners, nor the Union itself. Militant pro-slavery forces poured in from the depths of the South, across the Missouri state line and into the Territory. This is the genesis of the Civil War in terms of military history or any history. To suggest that John Brown was a de facto terrorist whose actions merited some kind of antebellum “Homeland Security” is patently wrong.

"Principles of Right and Wrong"

Historians are human and we all bring our presuppositions to bear upon the work before us. None of us can attain to complete objectivity and none of us can escape error, just as none can escape criticism. Yet there is a difference between history that is shaped by presupposition and human error and history that is shaped by prejudice.  This was precisely the point that Brown made to Phillips in 1859, that the crisis facing the nation was a question of "principles of right and wrong," though politicians and leaders had become "besotted" with questions of power and pride, national and regional. The same applies to how historians portray that terrible epoch of slavery and war.

This is a revised version of the article originally appearing under this title.  In the original, yours truly drew some unstudied and unfair conclusions, and in this version I have endeavored not only to correct  matters of error, but to make clear my regret for any undo offense created in the process.  Although I certainly differ with Mr. Frye, he was wrongly characterized in the original article.  The Old Man would be the first to rebuke me were I to fail to make this right.  Readers may note my follow up article dated 1 June.--LD

Friday, May 20, 2011

From the Field--

by H. Scott Wolfe*

I am perhaps the last surviving mortal to regularly utilize a road map. I was so engaged…while sitting beneath the bronze statue of the pre-assassinated President William McKinley which graces the old Massachusetts mill town of Adams. (The martyred President had visited that community twice, assuring his constituents of his support for the protective tariff and his disdain for those dastardly European imports.)  My wife sat contentedly beside me, having just conducted a successful raid upon a local antique shop…blissfully unaware that I was mulling a descent upon yet another benchmark in the life of John Brown. As my finger traced the sinuous Route 116 through the Berkshire highlands of Hampshire County, it fell upon the town of PLAINFIELD. And when the name of the Reverend Moses Hallock came to mind, the decision was made.

The story is familiar to all those who seek to know John Brown. It was the spring of 1816 when young Brown was admitted to membership of the Congregational Church in Hudson, Ohio…this after making a “formal profession of religion” and becoming a “convert to Christianity & ever after a firm believer in the divine authenticity of the Bible.”

Later that same year, Brown, in company with his brother Salmon and a Hudson friend named Orson M. Oviatt, traveled to Connecticut to seek counsel from the Reverend Jeremiah Hallock. Beset with a religious zeal, the young tanner was contemplating entering the ministry and yearned for advice upon what educational preparation would be required to do so. There was talk of entering Amherst College, but first, because of Brown’s spotty education in the Ohio Western Reserve, it was suggested that he enroll in a preparatory school…specifically, in the classical school at Plainfield, Massachusetts overseen by Jeremiah’s brother, the Reverend Moses Hallock.

Jeremiah Hallock
The brothers Jeremiah (1758-1826) and Moses (1760-1837) Hallock loom like granite pillars of the Congregational faith. The former, known as the “Godly Pastor,” labored at West Simsbury (now Canton), Connecticut for nearly forty years…and the latter, at Plainfield, Massachusetts for over forty-five years.  Both had served briefly in the American Revolution, but their principal service was as soldiers of the Lord. Both were “laborers in the great revival of the work of God,” and “the one object of both was the glory of God in plucking sinners as brands from the burning, and raising them to heaven.”

Jeremiah had once been the practical and spiritual mentor of Owen Brown, father of John Brown. Young Owen had lived with him “at different times,” receiving much in the way of “good instruction and good examples.” And when Owen married Ruth Mills, Hallock had performed the ceremony, feeling “all the anxiety of a parent that we should begin right.” Said the groom, “He gave us good counsel, and, I have no doubt, with a praying spirit.” Now, the very same Jeremiah Hallock had given good counsel to their son John.

"Hallock Memorial School," Plainfield, 
Mass. (Photo by H. Scott Wolfe)
The Reverend Moses Hallock had established his Plainfield Academy in 1793, both to supplement his meager pastoral salary and to provide educational opportunities for local young people. During his thirty-one years as “Headmaster,” 304 students matriculated at his school…30 of whom were young ladies. Hallock beamed with pride over the fact that 132 went on to enter college, 50 became ministers of the gospel, and 7 ventured forth as “missionaries to the heathen.” Among his more prominent students were the editor and romantic poet William Cullen Bryant…and Marcus Whitman, physician, missionary and pioneer of the Oregon Trail.

The curriculum was rigorous, consisting of the study of grammar, rhetoric, mathematics and the Latin and Greek languages. Many of the students, residing in the Master’s own household, received solid preparatory educations at an expense “little exceeding one dollar a week.”

During the late summer or early autumn of 1816, John Brown and his two companions enrolled at the Reverend Hallock’s Academy. Brown took to his studies with “diligence.” The Master’s youngest son, Heman Hallock, remembered him as “a tall, sedate, dignified young man,” who “had been a tanner, and relinquished a prosperous business for the purpose of intellectual improvement.”

It is fascinating to contemplate the young John Brown at a New England classical school…particularly after his rudimentary education in Ohio. By his own admission, he had been “sometimes sent to School,” where he found the activities of running, jumping and knocking off “old seedy Wool hats” as “the only compensation for the confinement & restraints” of the schoolhouse.

The term “culture shock” comes to mind as one pictures a youth whose practical experience embraced the tanner’s and currier’s trades…now struggling with the more cerebral tasks of absorbing the Greek alphabet or Latin declensions.  But the stay was brief, for within a few months the three students transferred to the Morris Academy in Litchfield, Connecticut…to study under the Messrs. Weeks and Vaill. This too was short lived, for an “inflammation of the eyes,” perhaps the result of overstudy, sent Brown back to the tannery in Hudson…and his potential career upon a wholly new course.

The drive through the hills of western Massachusetts is a beautiful one. Majestic hemlocks lined Route 116, and periodically one passed tranquil wetlands, the trees reflected in still waters. It was mid-April, and snow lingered on the shaded, north-facing slopes. And then one enters the small community of Plainfield, perched on a southern spur of the Green Mountains.

Congregational Church and Town Hall, Plainfield, Mass.
(Photo by H. Scott Wolfe)
The place seems the imagined prototype of a New England village. The residents have obviously been allowed to paint their public buildings any color they desire…as long as it is white. There is a stately Congregational Church (ca. 1840s), whose towering steeple is golden-tipped and weather-vaned…a Greek Revival Town Hall…and a sprawling frame structure shared by the “Shaw Memorial Library” and the “Hallock Memorial School,” a latter-day monument to the teacher of John Brown.

My wife, like most females, possesses that recessive gene which allows them to calmly ask strangers for directions. So we were soon within the town cemetery, just north of the highway. It was only a matter of moments before I found the final resting place of the Reverend Moses Hallock. This tall slab of marble no doubt provided a local stonecutter with a bad case of writer’s cramp, for the inscription is lengthy…but also of interest, and I provide a transcription:

Born Brookhaven, L.I., Feb. 16, 1760
Reared by Godly parents, Goshen, Ms
Graduated Yale College 1788
Ordained and installed first Pastor of the church in Plainfield, July 11, 1792
Ministered to a confiding and united People 45 years
Died July 17, 1837 aged 77

At 70 he requested a colleague, having Received to the church 358 members
Instructed 304 pupils 50 became ministers 7 Missionaries
A man of patriarchal simplicity, integrity, sincerity, kindness. Without an enemy.
He loved, studied, preached, exemplified the Bible and Gloried in the Cross.

The burial place of the Rev. Moses Hallock, Plainfield, Mass. 
(Photo by H Scott Wolfe)
At the funeral of Moses Hallock it was noted that “to the church at large he has been of eminent service, especially in the number of young men whose education he aided, and who are now employed in useful spheres in this and foreign lands.” Among those “young men” was John Brown. The recorded last words of the Reverend Hallock could very well have been uttered by his famous protégé: “From all I have done, and all my sins and short-comings, I wish to fly to Christ. I am nothing. Christ is all.”

* H. Scott Wolfe is the Historical Librarian of the Galena, Illinois, Public Library District. We are pleased to introduce him as a correspondent and contributor, noting his many years of grassroots research on John Brown, the Harper's Ferry raiders, and related themes.

Principal Sources:

1) Sanborn, Franklin B. “Life and Letters of John Brown,” Boston, Roberts Brothers, 1891
2) Yale, Rev. Cyrus, “The Godly Pastor: Life of the Rev. Jeremiah Hallock of Canton, Conn., to which is added A Sketch of the Life of the Rev. Moses Hallock of Plainfield, Mass.,” New York, American Tract Society, 1854.
3) My eyeballs.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Notable News--
The 5/9 –’59 Event: The First Annual John Brown Birthday Celebration in NYC

The 5/9-’59 event, which we hope will prove to be the first of an annual the celebration of John Brown’s Birthday, was held on the evening of May 9th at the Brecht Forum on West Street in Manhattan. The program was conceived and produced by Norman Marshall, an activist and actor who portrays Brown in the dramatic one-man play, John Brown: Trumpet of Freedom.
The program included music, poetry, and political-historical discussion, and an excellent performance by Mr. Marshall following the program. Music from the era of chattel slavery were performed: gospel vocalist Michele Sweeting sang John Brown’s favorite hymn, “Blow Ye the Trumpet”; Jeannine Otis, the Music Director of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, performed a work song. Poet Gwen Gunn presented a variety of poetry written about Brown, and Alice Kesey Mecoy—the great-great-great granddaughter of Brown—presented a fascinating discussion about the unfortunate reticence of many Brown descendants regarding their relation to the abolitionist. Mecoy herself did not know she was a direct descendant of Brown until she was a teenager, and was informed by a historian. A descendant through Brown’s daughter Anne Brown Adams, Mecoy’s family were not the only Brown descendants who hesitated to speak of the Old Man. One relative that she contacted for genealogical information was willing to help her provided Mecoy would promise never to contact her or raise the issue of John Brown again. Such was the impact of the negative psychological and political propaganda that prevailed in the later 19th and early 20th centuries that Brown descendants hide their ancestry in shame, although they have such good reason for pride and gratitude. The program was emceed by Bernard White, the Program Director Emeritus of WBAI radio, and featured a discussion by Ralph Poynter, an anti-racist activist and head of the Lynne Stewart Defense Committee. Also present for statements was our friend Larry Lawrence of the John Brown Society (NYC). 
Michele Sweeting sings
Brown biographer David Reynolds was on hand to discuss his latest book (see below) and reiterate his case for the posthumous pardon of Brown by the United States government. In response, it was my role to argue against the pardon. Of course, Dr. Reynolds and I are much closer in opinion than we are different when it comes to the positive role of Brown in U.S. history, and I salute his 2005 biographer has a singular force in breaking through the hard wall of academic snobbery and bias that has reigned from the middle of the 20th century. Dr. Reynolds raised the issue of a pardon at the time of the Harpers Ferry raid sesquicentennial in 2009 and I expressed my view at the time. So there was nothing new in our exchange at the Bretcht, and certainly it was no real debate. What follows is (most of ) the text of my statement, and then an excerpt from an email from Dr. Reynolds that fairly well states his view in response to my remarks.
* * * 
First, the reason and purpose for which Brown died was the struggle for black freedom and justice for the disenfranchised, oppressed slave. Those who would seek a pardon for John Brown are putting the cart before the horse, as the saying goes. John Brown would not want to be pardoned if the African people of the United States were still owed both an apology and/or some form of reparations from both the federal government as well as individual states that sustained slavery, and then the descendants of slave holders whose family estates were enriched by stolen black labor. 
It would be a mere and feeble gesture of sentimentalism to pardon John Brown when the United States government has never even issued an apology to the black people of this nation, whose ancestors were treated like animals and property by law of the land. As long as black people are fundamentally insulted by this nation, as long as the majority population pretends that slavery was an unfortunate parenthesis of ill-mannered behavior in an otherwise praiseworthy democracy, I doubt John Brown would want that government or its people to "pardon" him. Like Daniel the ancient Hebrew prophet and seer, Brown would say to the government, "Keep your pardon or give it to someone else." 
This nation owes black people, if nothing else, a flagrant, official, and definitive apology. Until the U.S. government acknowledges its terrible guilt and crime against humanity in terms of the so-called "peculiar institution" as well as the suppression and extermination of Native Americans and other territorial abuses largely based on the lust of slave holder expansionism, then I say John Brown can wait, and I don't think he'd object. 
Secondly, there is something inherently problematic about looking to the federal or state government of Virginia to pardon John Brown when both are historically complicit in crimes against humanity. Who are Uncle Sam and the Old Dominion to be dispensing pardons to freedom fighters like John Brown anyway? Given the fact that slavery was part of the U.S. constitution and that this government and its supreme court passed repressive, fascist laws pertaining to fugitive slaves and the Dred Scott Decision, asking federal and state governments to pardon Brown actually seems ludicrous. Indeed, the U.S. government and the State of Virginia should be petitioning to be pardoned by popular vote of African Americans. It would only be symbolic, but it would be more meaningful than if John Brown were pardoned. 
Lastly, to pardon John Brown would rob him of the moral-historical context of his self-sacrifice. To put it by way of illustration, I would no more want John Brown to be pardoned by Uncle Sam or the State of Virginia than I would have wanted Constantine to pardon St. Paul, who was beheaded by an imperial predecessor, that pig Nero. The force and integrity of St. Paul's martyrdom was his quintessential innocence over against the guilt and perversion of the emperor who ordered his execution. The same applies to John Brown and 19th century U.S. politics. To pardon him today would be like cutting him away from the moral-historical fabric in which his life and death had meaning. There is a sense in which John Brown is only John Brown as a man found guilty and condemned by what he called "this slave nation." 
John Brown was not bothered by the fact of dying at the hands of a guilty government. He did not care for the judgment of the nation or Virginia, only the judgment of God. As a believer in the atoning work of Jesus Christ and the evangelical and Reformed faith, John Brown had all the pardon he wanted at the Great Judgment Seat of Eternity. John Brown's legacy is bigger than the U.S. government's legacy, which is only political and self-serving to the rich and powerful of this land, something that Brown himself declared in his final statement to the court. Brown's legacy is likewise bigger than that of the Old Dominion, which is filled with the bones of slaves and the fools who would rather have had their sons die to keep slavery than set their slaves free. John Brown is an internationally loved and regarded revolutionary freedom figure. John Brown is loved today and has been loved down through the years, and he will be embraced by oppressed people and freedom fighters as long as this fallen world continues to produce oppressors and oppression. 
On Nov. 29, 1859, Brown wrote to Mary Stearns, the wife of one of his greatest supporters: 
I have asked to be spared from having any mock; or hypocritical prayers made over me, when I am publicly murdered: & that my only religious attendants be poor little, dirty, ragged, bare headed & barefooted, Slave Boys; & Girls; Led by some old greyheaded, Slave Mother. Farewell. Farewell.  
John Brown does not need a pardon. He is more than pardoned by the people who love freedom and hate oppression. What activist Yuri Kochiyama once wrote about Malcolm X can likewise be said of John Brown: he is both epic and epoch in person. His single life and sacrifice defies stone monuments and memorials; if he had a postage stamp or a great stone temple in Washington, D.C., it would likely mean he was little more than a political compromiser and creature of the wealthy (by the way, Malcolm X's postage stamp was not only poorly done, but it illustrates the very point I'm making here: Malcolm would hardly have cared if the U.S. Post Office put him on a stamp anyway, and in putting him on a stamp, he was "mainstreamed" and deprived of his revolutionary political identity. The fact that Brown's greatest memorial is a humble farmhouse nearly on the northern border of the U.S.A. (Lake Placid, N.Y.), overlooked and disregarded by most, marks him as an authentically epic figure in human history. The fact that he lived and died fighting slavery in the context of a nation that was flagrantly racist and unjust makes him the standard-bearer of slavery's antithesis in his era. 
Leave him to live and die in that era. Let him hang, despised and condemned, on that Virginia gallows. Pardon him and you will strip him of his victory. Take away his "guilt" by means of a governmental pardon and you will make him no better, no more valid, no more appreciated. The bigots, racists, and snobs who hate him will not suddenly embrace him. We who love him will not love him any more for a pardon from Uncle Sam or the Old Dominion. Do not pardon John Brown, nor seek to have him pardoned. Let him be, ever and always, a martyr--a witness for the oppressed! His Soul Goes Marching On! Happy Birthday, Old Man!
* * *

Excerpt of response by David S. Reynolds via email (10 May 2011):
For those who are already converted to John Brown’s cause, including most in the audience last night, Brown is far more meaningful if he remains unpardoned—that is, if he remains forever the brave foe of a wicked, slaveholding government. But, alas, there are very few Americans who view John Brown positively. In the history books, he is still relegated to a dismissive paragraph or two. Lou, I appreciate your saying that my book broke down walls, but I’m afraid that few professional historians take my view of Brown. We live in a democracy where majority rules, and the overwhelming majority of history books still depict John Brown as, at best, a well-intentioned fanatic and, at worst, a murderous madman. As a result, millions of schoolchildren are still learning to marginalize John Brown even as they continue to learn to idolize Lincoln. As I point out in my pro-pardon article in the Times, I think the nation should be aware of the true heroes of the past. I realize that pardoning John Brown is the very last item on Obama’s agenda—or rather, it’s not even on his radar screen--but I think it’s important to raise the pardon issue just to get pro-Brown sentiment in the air. If we don’t, Brown will forever remain sitting in his bad-boy corner, admired by a tiny handful like us but dismissed by everyone else.
I leave the readers to decide for themselves. Certainly there is merit on both sides of this “debate.”


Finally, I should point out that Dr. Reynolds’ latest book, Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America (Norton) is newly released and has received excellent reviews:

“A wonderful history of what may justly be considered America’s national epic.”--Joan Hedrick, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life

“A provocative overview of the life and afterlife of one of American literature’s most important texts…Reynolds successfully repositions the novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe as a major political work, crucial not just to the abolitionist movement, but as kindling for the Civil War and an important inspiration to the cultural discussions of race relations through most of the 20th century.”--Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“Deeply researched and compulsively readable, Mightier than the Sword is both the definitive account of the strange but true career of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and a sweeping two-hundred year history of race in America.”--Debby Applegate, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher

“In Reynolds’s gifted hands, Mightier than the Sword is nothing less than an intellectual feast.”
--Jay Winik, author of April 1865 and The Great Upheaval

“Reynolds is a virtuoso writer…A fitting tribute to the 200th anniversary of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s birth.”--Mike Harvkey, Publishers Weekly

For readers in the NYC metro area, Dr. Reynolds will be speaking about his latest book and other related themes at the Upper West Side Barnes & Noble, 2289 Broadway at 82nd Street on Wednesday, June 15th at 7 p.m. Come and support Dr. Reynolds and bring a friend.

Monday, May 09, 2011

From the News--
The man who led the battle at Harpers Ferry was a genuine brother of Africans and African-Americans everywhere

Today, May 9th, is the 211th birthday of Harpers Ferry hero John Brown. When he was five years old, his pro-Bible, anti-slavery family moved to an abolitionist community in northern Ohio where Brown remained until young adulthood. At around 25, after getting married, he moved with his wife and seven children to Pennsylvania. In fact, it was here in 1834 that he opened a school to educate black youngsters. Following the death of his first wife, he married again and had an astounding 13 more offspring. In addition, he and his second wife agreed to raise a black child as one of their very own.

After meeting with Brown in 1847 in Springfield, Massachusetts, Frederick Douglass described him as a white man who through direct action is basically “… a black man… (who is) deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery … ”

In 1849, Brown moved his large family to the free black community of North Elba, New York. Two years later, he helped establish the United States League of Gileadites, which was a kind of Black Panther Party for Self Defense consisting of free and fugitive blacks and organized specifically to protect blacks from slave catchers, who had become federally empowered by the recently enacted and brutally heartless Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.

He took five of his sons to Kansas in 1855 to assist in making the state a haven for anti-slavery settlers. The next year, after slavery-promoting thugs had savaged and burned the free community of Lawrence, Kansas, Brown retaliated by organizing a militia. He and four of his sons and six other men tracked down five pro-slavery reprobates along the Pottawatomie Creek and hacked them to death.

On October 16, 1859, Brown led 18 men—white and black—to the federal armory at Harpers Ferry (in what’s now West Virginia) with a plan to move through Virginia and southward freeing and recruiting blacks in order to deplete the slave states of their essential resource, i.e., enslaved human beings. His Plan B was to use the armory’s confiscated weapons to achieve abolition by force. Unfortunately, after a train came through the town and a baggage handler realized what was happening, a telegram exposing the plot was immediately wired to federal authorities who dispatched the U.S. Marines. They surrounded Brown and his group in a fire engine house and began blasting away, killing 10, including two of Brown’s sons. Brown and six others were captured, and five escaped, among them one of his sons.

Of his five black compatriots, two died in the battle; two others were captured and executed, and one escaped to Canada. Little has been written about these black heroes. Forty-four-year-old Dangerfield Newby was born enslaved but was freed by his white, Scottish father. A letter that his enslaved Virginia wife wrote was discovered in his pocket at Harpers Ferry: “Dear Husband: I want you to buy me as soon as possible, for if you do not get me, somebody else will … (and) master … may sell me and then all my bright hopes … are blasted, for there has been one bright hope to cheer me in all my troubles, that is to be with you.…” Tragically, Newby died at Harpers Ferry, and his wife was sold and transported farther south.

Lewis Sheridan Leary also died at Harpers Ferry and was survived by an infant and a wife from whom he had kept all information about his revolutionary exploits. Shields Green, of pure African ancestry, was reportedly only 23 years old when captured and executed. John Anthony Copeland, Jr., who was just 25, was born free in North Carolina and had attended Oberlin College in Ohio. Recruited into Brown’s army by his uncle Lewis Sheridan Leary he was so composed that even the trial prosecutor said, “From my … (contact) with him, I regard him as one of the most respectable persons … (who) behaved himself with … firmness … and … dignity.” His aplomb under such stressful conditions was so remarkable that upon entering the gallows, he said, “If I am dying for freedom, I could not die for a better cause … I had rather die than be a slave.” The last of the five blacks, Osborn Perry Anderson, escaped during the intense shootout and successfully found his way to Canada. But he later returned to the U.S. and joined the Union Army in 1864. He saw the end of slavery with the North’s victory and lived a free man until his death in 1872.

After Brown was wounded, captured, tried and found guilty of treason, murder and conspiracy, he declared, “If it is … necessary that I should forfeit my life for the … ends of justice and mingle my blood … with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments … so let it be done.” On December 2, 1859, he was executed—more precisely, he was politically and culturally crucified—by hanging. He was a selfless and courageous hero, an uncompromising fighter for justice, a real humanitarian, a conductor on the Underground Railroad, a financier of the seminal and profoundly radical “David Walker’s Appeal,” and a genuine brother of Africans and African Americans everywhere.
Michael Coard

He was a great man who did great things. And he deserves national acclaim. But the best I can do is simply to say, “Happy Birthday, brother! Happy Birthday!”

Source: Michael Coard, "Happy Birthday, John Brown." The Philly Post [Philadelphia Magazine online] (9 May 2011)

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Mother's Day
The Legendary "Baby Kiss": 
Mother and Child

Each of these mother and child segments are taken from a painting or sketch about John Brown, but only one of them is not based on the legendary theme of the Old Man kissing a baby on his way to the gallows.  It might be obvious, but can you guess which image it is and where it is from?

This entry rendered in honor of enslaved mothers in the United States, and their daughters and grand daughters who continued to struggle for freedom and justice  
in the "land of the grave, and the home of the tree."

Thursday, May 05, 2011

North Country News--
John Brown Day 2011 in Lake Placid, NY

Lake Placid, North Elba, N.Y. - Climate Justice will be the focus of this year’s annual John Brown Day on Saturday, May 7, 2011. A tradition dating back to the 1930s, John Brown Day is held each year at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site in Lake Placid, NY, to honor one of the nation’s most influential abolitionists on the anniversary of his birth in 1800.

Dedicating his life to eradicating slavery, Brown eventually risked all attacking the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in 1859. Captured by troops led by Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart, Brown’s trial and execution are considered by many historians as the spark that ignited the Civil War 150 years ago.

Climate Justice is a growing global movement that recognizes that poor and disenfranchised peoples around the world bear the least responsibility for climate change but face a disproportionate burden from its attendant effects, such as compromised health, economic hardship from rising energy costs, and displacement, destruction of property, and death due to extreme natural disasters. Here in the United States, the global campaign for Climate Justice is deeply linked to the Environmental Justice Movement, which is entering its third decade of militant opposition to environmental racism.

As people across the North Country recover from the record-breaking rains and flooding of the past week, John Brown Day keynote speaker and Environmental Justice leader Cecil Corbin-Mark will describe the evolution of the Climate Justice Movement and give voice to the rights and concerns of the people who are usually the first and often the hardest hit by the impacts of global warming.

Corbin-Mark is Deputy Director of the Harlem-based organization, WE-ACT for Environmental Justice. In addition to his work in New York, Corbin-Mark has been active in United Nations and alternative global climate conversations from Copenhagen to Cochabamba to Cancun.
“Like slavery in antebellum America, climate change is one of the most important moral issues of our time,” said Martha Swan, director of the freedom education project John Brown Lives! which organizes the yearly event.

“Brown surely would have recognized that it is the world’s poor who disproportionately bear the brunt of climate change, so it is fitting that Climate Justice will be the focus of John Brown Day 2011. In this Sesquicentennial Year marking the start of the Civil War, we are honored that Cecil will be with us at this critical time.”

Other speakers at the annual event include Alice Kesey Mecoy, great-great-great granddaughter of John and Mary Brown, and Brother Yusef Burges. A trustee of the Children & Nature Network and an outdoor educator, Burgess will speak about the power of nature to transform youth. A frequent paddler on Adirondack waterways and former outreach and diversity coordinator for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Burgess works to connect Albany-area youth with the natural beauty and environmental issues of the Adirondacks.

John Brown Day 2011 is possible with the cooperation of the John Brown Farm State Historic Site. The event is free and open to the public, and will be held outdoors under a tent.
For more information, contact Martha Swan, Director of John Brown Lives!, at 518-962-4758 or johnbrownlives@westelcom.com.

Source: "The Beat." I Love New York website (2 May 2011)

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

In Response
The "John Brown-Osama bin Laden" Parallel is Racist

The New American, a web magazine that "is published by American Opinion Publishing, a wholly owned subsidiary of The John Birch Society," currently features an op-ed by Jack Kenny entitled, "Why Are We Celebrating Osama bin Laden's Death?" The piece includes the following segment about the U.S. effort to kill Osama bin Laden "and the celebration of his death" by so many. "Has our objective all along," writes Kenny, "been to give greater motivation to the al-Qaeda terrorists and their allies to redouble their efforts to kill Americans?"
Or did we somehow believe that killing bin Laden would cause his bloodthirsty disciples to fold their tents, mount their camels, and ride off into the sunset, to live out their lives as the peace-loving Muslims President George W. Bush liked to praise in contrast with the terrorists who are not "with us"? Strange if anyone would have thought so. Did the hanging of John Brown, the terrorist at Harper's Ferry, abate abolitionist sentiment in pre-Civil War America? No doubt it was a lesson to John Brown, but the like-minded went on singing his praises. No doubt there is an Arabic version of "John Brown's Body" being sung in memory of Osama bin Laden today.
Whether or not Kenny has a point about the assumptions and behaviors related to the U.S. government's killing of Osama bin Laden, obviously my concern is the author's resort to the careless, hackneyed and--yes--racist comparison drawn between the former and John Brown, as well as the larger abolitionist movement that lionized him after his "public murder" by the state of Virginia in 1859.

My response to Kenny's op-ed is also posted:
Mr. Kenny's comparison of Osama bin Laden with the abolitionist John Brown is historically and morally incorrect and indeed is indicative of a warped sense of history. Saying Brown was a terrorist is saying that the antebellum political context was just and fair, even though human bondage, stolen labor, and rape were protected by law and black people had no rights that white people had to respect according to the Supreme Court. Without any democratic recourse left, Brown and others turned to armed effort to end slavery. In the big picture, the Founding Fathers had less justification to go to war than did enslaved blacks. To call Brown a terrorist is to identify with the slave system. Clearly, this is no parallel with what happened on 9/11, and it is interesting too that this mistaken and prejudiced comparison usually pops up from one segment of the population, typically white males with unstudied and presumptuous opinions about Brown. It's a shame that Brown's name has even been raised in the context of Osama bin Laden. Even in Brown's trial, his former captives testified to his ultra humane treatment of his prisoners. Brown was no terrorist. Including Kansas, he never had his hand in the death of peaceful, non-aggressive people. And as a biographer of the man, frankly, I find this "terrorist" label for Brown has turned the truth of history on its head. Mr. Kenny should find another comparison. It was slavery that reigned by use of sheer terror--torture, broken families, racist abuse, even murder. John Brown was an anti-terrorist. His soul goes marching on in the hearts of all freedom loving people. Mr. Kenny should learn that there are two kinds of "patriots"--studied and ignorant. At this point he appears to be of the latter case
One point needs further clarification, even magnification. Even though Kenny's piece appears in a publication of the John Birch Society, historically a "white" organization associated with a racist agenda, this false parallel drawn between bin Laden and Brown is not restricted to extremist right-wing circles. In fact, this insidious, erroneous, and problematic parallel has been drawn by a variety of people, from liberals to conservatives--and to put it discretely, always from people sans melanin.

I understand the use of this illicit historical parallel is basically racist. While it might not conform to the "racist" label in the most obvious sense, my conclusion is that the grounding premise of the bin Laden-Brown parallel is based upon a racist worldview, even if those using it are not flagrantly, deliberately, or consciously pursuing a racist agenda in their own thinking. Racist thinking in U.S. society in part depends upon a mistaken and self-serving misreading of U.S. history, which obviously includes the diminution of chattel slavery's evil and the moral revision of this nation's history toward the beautification and exaltation of what was frankly a white supremacist regime prior to the anti-slavery amendments to the Constitution. Even white liberals that may decry racism actually reflect the inability to analyze and criticize the impact that racist thinking has had upon "white" society--especially regarding what happened 150+ years ago in this nation.

The friends of freedom should never allow this illicit parallel to be drawn without response and rebuke.  It is abusive, erroneous, and deeply rooted in a racist reading of history.  It is not simply an insult to John Brown.  It is an affront to millions of crushed souls who suffered under white supremacy and slavery in this nation.  Those who entertain the bin Laden-Brown parallel may not be deliberate or malicious, but this does not negate the roots of their thinking: "By their fruits ye shall know them."  We know all too well the root of this "historical" parallel.  It is a serpentine deception fit only to be crushed under the heavy heel of truth.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Go Fish

"There is evidence that J[ohn] B[rown] distrusted men who hunted and fished; that he was reluctant to extend credit to anyone who came to his tannery with a gun on his shoulder. And I think about the only authentic fishing story that is known is the simulated fishing trip near Chambersburg when he met Frederick Douglass and discussed the Harper's Ferry plan. He bought a lot of fish, as letters still extant prove, but they were mackerel or cod in casks or even in a bag. And there is the story that when his wife visited him on the evening before the execution he wrote out directions for the return of his body, routing from point to point via Vergennes, Vermont. And after getting to that place he added, "And while at Vergennes buy a little fish." It's a true story--I got it from several newspapers, including two or three in Ohio."

Source: Boyd B. Stutler to Clarence S. Gee, 7 July 1952, p. 1, Stutler-Gee Correspondence, Hudson Library and Historical Society Collection, Hudson, Ohio.