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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, June 14, 2011

Fantasie versus Fact: "Violent John
Brown" is the invention of prejudiced
historians and artists too
Distorted Vision:
LaFantasie’s “Violent” Fantasy about John Brown and “America”

If it were not already a paradigm, it surely would be a cliché by now—the “violent John Brown” thesis frequently put forth by Civil War historians. Over the years the “violent John Brown” has been reiterated in various forms.  Throughout most of the 20th century it was mostly John Brown insane-and-violent; in recent years it has been John Brown violent terrorist; and now, from the pen of another Civil War historian, it’s “John Brown and American Pie Violence.” These “violent” theses may seem different, but actually they are all of a kind because they emanate from the same place.

Professor LaFantasie

The latest “violent John Brown” theme comes from Glenn W. LaFantasie, the Richard Frockt Family Professor of Civil War History at Western Kentucky University. Professor LaFantasie is what we would call an expert on all things Civil War. He is the author of Gettysburg Requiem: The Life and Lost Causes of Confederate Colonel William C. Oates, Twilight at Little Round Top: July 2, 1863—The Tide Turns at Gettysburg, and Gettysburg Heroes: Perfect Soldiers, Hallowed Ground and is currently preparing a book about Abraham Lincoln and General Grant. Notwithstanding his achievements and the respect due him as an accomplished scholar, Professor LaFantasie has lost his way in pursuing John Brown in a recent essay published on Salon.com entitled, “The Thoroughly American Soul of John Brown.”

LaFantasie's Thesis

Prof. Glenn LaFantasie
LaFantasie’s point is that there is something essentially “American” about violence, and that John Brown is the obvious heir to this tradition of violence. He writes that “we”—meaning himself and other scholars like him—would prefer to think of Brown being mentally ill because “it is far too horrifying to acknowledge that Brown sprang from a long tradition of American violence and that he was, in so many respects, a product of the American soul.” LaFantasie says that people in the United States “find it very difficult to face up to the fact” we are a violent nation to the core—quite in contrast to our claims of being a peaceful people. For that reason, he concludes, “John Brown attracts us and repels us at the same time” since he is “quintessentially American.” No, LaFantasie opines, Brown is not the aberrant character portrayed by some writers. To the contrary, “[w]hat we truly cannot face is that John Brown is us.”

To be sure, LaFantasie does not indulge in cheap psycho-historical postmortems as other writers have done in recent years. Perhaps he recognizes that portrayals of Brown as mentally unstable have no historical foundation. This would be good news except that LaFantasie adheres to the notion of Brown being a violent figure—indeed, a significant link in the chain of our nation’s violent history. To LaFantasie, Brown “sprang from a long tradition of American violence" and "was, in so many respects, a product of the American soul.”

The Pretense

LaFantasie starts with the recent killing of Osama bin Laden by the U.S. government, and how many people in this nation responded with delight and expressions of relief. Although he raises the question of whether our nation had the moral authority to kill the Muslim terrorist, this is just the hook, the pretense--the "artifice" as Old Brown would say. In fact, LaFantasie immediately demurs from the question of our nation's moral authority in killing Osama bin Laden, and instead poses a different theme: “I can tell you as a historian [meaning, “I'm speaking as an expert here”] that the connections between violence and terrorism and our country's long history of responding to violence with violence always leads me to think about John Brown and his raid on Harpers Ferry, Va." [my emphasis].

The immediate question for Professor La Fantasie is, "Why does the connection of violence and terrorism" in U.S. history always lead you back to John Brown? Why doesn't the connection of violence and terrorism lead you back to the genocide of Native Americans, something that was taking place before Brown came on the scene? Why is it that when violence and terrorism are coupled in such essays, that writers like Professor LaFantasie don't start with the enslavement of Africans, an "institution" premised on the consistent use of violence and terror? What is the historical justification for starting with John Brown in discussing violence and terrorism in the United States?

In fact, Professor LaFantasie seems to be using the opportunity provided by bin Laden's killing to flush out some visceral contempt for John Brown and dress it up as a historical-philosophical reflection. This is nothing new; a large segment of white historians have repeatedly used contemporary violence to implicate Brown over the years. It is a habit of mind with them, just as they habitually overlook the prevalence of violence in everyday life in antebellum slavery. For instance, LaFantasie begins with comparing John Brown's violence with the bucolic peacefulness of scenic Harpers Ferry at the time of the raid. I wonder, though, how peaceful and bucolic it was for enslaved people?

Frederick Douglass better
understood Brown's "violence" as
antithetical to the pervasive
violence of slavery
The Grounding Truth of White Society?

To be sure, LaFantasie is better than most Civil War historians because he introduces the black perspective on Brown in contrast to the standard “American” perspective. He even references Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass, so he is aware that black people see Brown as a hero. Yet he treats this view superficially—blacks may see Brown as a hero, albeit a violent hero. Yet LaFantasie is not concerned to delve more critically into the virtually unanimous African American reading of Brown as a hero. Indeed, the implication of LaFantasie’s article is that apart from the “violent” aspect, the black perspective is subjective and biased, and has no bearing on the “real” reading of Brown. In contrast, LaFantasie proposes the real meaning of John Brown. After all, the grounding truth is what white society says is true, especially white Civil War historians.

LaFantasie's Violent Fantasy

Yet it is LaFantasie who is not only subjective, but highly prejudiced. His essay offers no real historical evidence, no scholarly discussion—only a personal “interpretation” of the famous Black and Batchelder 1859 daguerreotype made of Brown (the only image we have of him with a beard). LaFantasie writes that this image "suggests why we [again, by “we,” he means white society at large, especially the Civil War historians that he represents] feel so much uneasiness about him." He continues:
Take one look into his eyes. There's fire in them. . . . In that disquieting stare something much clearer than his mental state is immediately evident. You can see this is a man of deadly purpose. With the zeal of a true believer, for he was convinced that God ordered and condoned his actions, John Brown took up the sword and used it ruthlessly and bloodily -- and, it must be said, without giving much contemplation to what he was doing or to the malevolence he was spreading. His violence seemed almost instinctive and reflexive, like the violence that leads troubled souls to shoot random victims in a shopping mall or on a college campus. John Brown was convinced that his righteous cause justified his violent means, just as religious terrorists down through time and now, in our own uneasy age, have shed blood in the name of their gods and prophets.
This is incredible nonsense, at once scurrilous and meretricious--a work unfitted to a scholar holding a position of academic leadership.  Likewise it demonstrates how easily Civil War/Lincoln scholars get away with historical homicide where John Brown is concerned. In fact, these remarks are so baseless and unfair that they should embarrass the man who wrote them, since he is a professional historian.  In any sense, "reading" someone's eyes in a photo is little more than a parlor game, and certainly LaFantasie's reading of John Brown's eyes is pure prejudice.  Indeed, the professor is imputing his own sick fantasy of Brown upon this portrait, entirely indifferent to the historical record of the man who lived.
John Brown, 1859

Let it suffice to say that in 1859, John Brown was sick, weary, and worn.  Furthermore, this was before people learned to "smile for the camera," when photographic images were still an extension of older portraiture, where people "sat" for a painted portrait.  One could find "violent" eyes in almost any antebellum daguerreotype if one wished.   Indeed, without context, one could impute almost anything to a photographic image.  I could easily impute haughtiness, arrogance, and conceit to Professor LaFantasie's eyes in the photo above, but that would hardly be fair.  Rather, I would prefer to judge him by the train of his thought, and the nature of his writing. As Salmon Brown, son of the liberator, wrote about the malicious writings of Hill Peebles Wilson, “He must be a fool or a knave.  He writes well, not as a fool, so he must be a knave."

John Brown, For the Record

Let us be clear that John Brown lived a life of non-violence but hesitantly came to the conclusion that slavery’s evil had so corrupted the nation, and had become so entangled in the life of the nation that only a forceful strategy could remove it from the body politic. He was not alone in this “violent” conclusion—many abolitionists moved increasingly from religious abolitionism to political abolitionism in the horrible decade of the 1850s, when pro-slavery terrorism and violence had run roughshod over the nation, from Washington D.C. to Kansas Territory. Brown was never more than an advocate and practitioner of self-defense and armed resistance to slavery, and this goes for Pottawatomie too.   It was slavery, Brown said, that was war being carried out against unarmed and unprotected black people with the aid of the corrupt rule of law. It may be true that violence is as "American" as apple pie, but Brown's response was the antithesis.  My fellow biographer David Reynolds has responded to Professor LaFantasie along these lines with great clarity and merits quotation:

Reynolds: "Brown was
not naturally given to
using weapons"
As I make clear in my book John Brown, Abolitionist, John Brown's violence was not an innate American trait but rather was Brown's means of reacting to slavery and to the Southern culture of violence. Brown was not naturally given to using weapons. Early in his life he had refused to enter the military on ethical grounds. For two decades, he used peaceful means of advancing the antislavery cause: his preferred tactics were educating blacks, participating in the Underground Railroad, and helping blacks with their farming and surveying. Like most other abolitionists, including Garrison and Thoreau, he preferred nonviolent means. But the proslavery events of the 1850s made him see that violence was the only way that so deeply entrenched an evil as slavery was going to be uprooted. Slavery he regarded as a state of war against an entire race. In Kansas, proslavery settlers used violence, murder, and intimidation to take over elections and elect a fraudulent government. The South itself was a culture of rampant violence: a place of bowie knives, duels, deadly family feuds, and ceaseless violence against slaves and suspected abolitionists. In Kansas, John Brown, as one journalist noted, "brought Southern tactics to the Northern side." At Harpers Ferry, Brown had hoped, as he said, to accomplish his slave rescue there without firing a shot before fleeing to the mountains with a band of freed blacks; but the invasion went awry and turned into a gun battle. Former pacifists like Thoreau and Harriet Beecher Stowe loved John Brown (comparing him to Jesus and the Founding Fathers) because they saw that violence was needed to rid the nation of slavery. Also, they saw that John Brown was not wholly about violence. The jailed Brown's compassionate, generous words about America's enslaved blacks--words widely reprinted in the press--were, as Thoreau noted, Brown's most powerful weapons. Brown's unprecedented expressions of compassion for blacks and his moral protest against slavery are what inspired thousands of Union soldiers to sing as they tramped southward: "John Brown's body lies mouldering in the grave, but his soul is marching on."
Professor LaFantasie is quite wrong: Brown was never “quintessentially American” because the quintessential “American” always put white prerogatives and white priorities first, even as Professor LaFantasie himself has done in his essay.  In the end, LaFantasie has told us nothing about John Brown in this deplorable piece of speculation disguised as history.  But what he has revealed about himself is more than meets the eyes.

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