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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, July 29, 2011

Historical Reflection--
R. L. Dabney, John Brown, and the Proslavery Apologetic

R. L. Dabney: On the Wrong
Side of Heaven and History
One of the most revered Southern theologians of the antebellum era was also one of the chief propagandists and apologists of the Confederacy and antebellum slavery.  Robert Lewis Dabney (1820-98) is known among theologians as conservative Reformed Presbyterian theologian, and is especially loved by contemporary Southern Presbyterians with a right-wing or neo-Confederate orientation.  While Dabney represents conservative theology, it is his role as passionate supporter of Confederate secession and chattel slavery that most unfortunately distinguishes him on the landscape of U.S. religious history.  In fact, Dabney's first significant contribution as a scholar and author was a biography of General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, a work published one year after the Civil War ended.1  It was in recounting Jackson's career that Dabney discussed the theme of John Brown and the Harper's Ferry raid.  Clearly, Dabney was not particularly interested in Brown except as a foil to the heroic image story he crafted in his authorized biography of Jackson.2 

"The First Angry Drops. . .of Blood"?

Dabney thus writes that “the first angry drops of the deluge of blood which was approaching, fell upon the soil of Virginia” in the raid on Harper’s Ferry (p. 143).  Interestingly, this notion is often reiterated in popular and scholarly narratives, although in many respects it is proslavery propaganda.  Quite to the contrary of Dabney's premise, the Harper’s Ferry raid was the last bloody antebellum episode leading up to the war.  In actuality, the “first angry drops” of blood were really shed at the hands of proslavery thugs in the Kansas territory, in five separate homicides, along with many other cases of brutality and violence, not to mention the caning of Senator Sumner in Washington, D.C. (May 1856).  

It was not “northern aggression,” but the radical, violent, and malicious pro-slavery power that cultivated war by bullying the North for years, by demanding the right to expand and increase its empire into the west and southwest, and using the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 to run roughshod over the entire nation.  How can anyone claim that Brown was one of the initiators of civil conflict when the North had been kowtowed by the South for years, and even the Republican Party had approached the South in a spirit of compromise in 1860?  How dare neo-Confederates today refer to the Civil War as "the war of Northern aggression," when it is clear that the powerful influence of slavery had made the South into the most militant and dangerous of bullies, and that the terrorism and violence that was unleashed in the Kansas territory clearly defined the South as the instigator and aggressor long before John Brown's raid in 1859.

As to Brown, Dabney recounts the incident by referring to him as “that Border assassin,” undoubtedly alluding to the Pottawatomie killings that took place in an attempt to thwart a murderous proslavery conspiracy.  Of course, Dabney knew nothing of the real circumstances of this case, nor that John Brown, his sons, and associates were targeted by the actual “border assassins” of Kansas,  invading "Border Ruffians" and their allies among the pro-slavery settlers in the territory. 

Dabney on Brown: "That
Border Assassin"

It is no surprise that Dabney would describe Brown’s efforts as endeavoring “to excite a servile insurrection and civil war.” Once more, insurrection being the intentional overthrow and killing of slave masters, Brown had no such intentions and Dabney is only repeating the official Southern version, which had almost immediately become the official state version. Dabney goes onto say that because of threats that Brown would be liberated, a large militia was stationed in Charlestown [Dabney incorrectly writes “Charleston”] where Jackson himself became “a spectator of the stoical death of Brown.”

Dabney then writes:
This mad attempt of a handful of vulgar cut-throats, and its condign punishment, would have been a very trivial affair to the Southern people, but for the manner in which it was regarded by the people of the North. Their presses, pulpits, public meetings and conversations, disclosed such a hatred to the South and its institutions, as to lead them to justify the crime, involving though it did the most aggravated robbery, treason, and murder. . . and to exalt the blood-thirsty fanatic who led the party, to a public apotheosis. The pretext for this astounding outrage upon public opinion was, that it was the right of masters to property in the labor of their slaves, which John Brown sought to assail through this career of rapine and blood. . . .”

Early Life

Dabney was born in 1820, and is descended from French Protestants. A brilliant student, he entered Hampden-Sidney College at sixteen years and was converted to Christianity during his later teenage years. He did graduate studies at the University of Virginia, then entered Virginia Union Seminary for his doctorate.  After which he served as a Presbyterian minister.

Fanatical Devotion

Dabney’s love of the South was so extreme that he rejected opportunities to pastor in New York City and teach at Princeton Theological Seminary.  When the South seceded from the Union, Dabney sold his own property for four thousand dollars and loaned it to the Confederacy--a loan that would come to about $300,000 by today's standards.  As a fanatical devotee to the cause of the South and slavery, he happily accepted this loss.

Rebel Chaplain, Soldier, and Propagandist

During the Civil War, Dabney became a military chaplain to Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and later became the general’s chief of staff.  Dabney was such an extremist that he believed that the South should have armed much earlier in preparing for war.  After falling sick, Dabney was constrained to resign his military role.  However, he used his time of recuperation to become a Confederate propagandist—an aspect of his work that continued beyond the war years.  With the defeat of the Confederacy in 1865, Dabney fled into hiding. He was an opponent of Reconstruction and blamed it for inciting “friction between the races."  Dabney not only defended the "right" of the former slave master to own the labor of his slaves, but also he was fixated on the “atrocities” allegedly perpetrated on the white South when blacks were protected by federal law and steel.

Post-War Theologian and Apologist for Chattel Slavery

In the post-war period, Dabney produced a memorable work of systematic theology (1871, revised 1878) that is still popular among Calvinist theologians of the South.  However, Dabney's work as an apologist for the South and slavery continued following the Jackson biography.  In 1867, his Confederate magnum opus was published,  A Defence [sic] of Virginia: (and through her, of the South), in recent and pending contests against the sectional party (New York: E. J. Hale & Son).

In his Defence of Virginia, Dabney made it clear that he was defending only “the obligations of the slave to labour for life, without his own consent, for the master.” In other words, slavery was only about one man owning another man’s “involuntary labor”—not his personality or his soul. “A certain right of control over the person of the slave is incidentally given to the master by his property in the bondsman’s labour,” Dabney wrote, “that is, so much control as is necessary to enable him to secure the labour which belongs to him.” He underscored that in defending slavery he was fundamentally defending slave labor as “the master’s property” (p. 58).

Dabney presumed that if he could find justification for slavery in the Mosaic Law and the New Testament, then chattel slavery in the South was biblically justified too.  Although it is possible to argue for slavery in the historical context of the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible, it was hardly sound to assume that chattel slavery in the U.S. was therefore justified.  Dabney completely overlooked the illicit racial and racist nature of chattel slavery, just as he fairly well denied the normative nature of chattel slavery's horrors and evils.

Dabney on slavery's abuses: "if they ever exist in fact"
For instance, he had the audacity to write: “We begin by asserting that these things [i.e., slavery's horrors], if they ever exist in fact, are not domestic slavery, but the abuses of it” (p. 60). For a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to question whether the myriad abuses and brutalities of chattel slavery “ever exist in fact” suggests either that Dabney was supremely ignorant of realities in the South in his own era, or that he was something of a liar. It may be that since he spent most of his days in academia, he really was naïve about the daily workings of slavery. But I doubt it.

The foundation of Dabney’s proslavery apologetic is that slavery as an institution is not evil, but in fact is sanctioned by God and the Scriptures.  Dabney did not use the problematic “curse of Ham” myth that was often used to defend slavery (see Gen. 9: 20-27).  Yet he seems to have believed it might be justifiable.  However, he argued that the abused "Ham" text provided the biblical "origin of domestic slavery," even if it “may be that we should find little difficulty in tracing the lineage of the present Africans to Ham.”

The Orthodox South?

Contemporary neo-Confederate Calvinists like to portray the Civil War as a struggle between the orthodox South and the heterodox and heretical liberal North.  This notion was devised by Dabney in his Defence, where he repeatedly characterizes abolitionism as if it were exclusively the product of ultra liberal theologies, like the New England Unitarians (for instance, see p. 82).  While a great deal of abolitionism was indeed reflective of liberal theology, there were many theologically conservative Protestant abolitionists. The epitome of this is John Brown himself, a very conservative evangelical Calvinist whose theology—apart from the slavery issue—was closer to Dabney’s understanding than it was to that of Theodore Parker. There were also other anti-slavery evangelicals whose views were not the product of liberalism, including the very conservative Covenanter Presbyterians who hated slavery with a passion.  So Dabney was generalizing to the point of misrepresentation.

Pro-Slavery Eccentricities

Dabney argues with great energy to defend the rights of slave holders over slaves and resented the use of Christ's "Golden Rule" to justify liberating the enslaved.  “Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you,” concluded Dabney, was but a “practical application of the Mosaic precept.” So, reasoned Dabney, “Christ’s giving the law of love cannot be inconsistent with his authorizing slaveholding; because Moses gave the same law of love, and yet indisputably authorized slaveholding.” (p. 123).  In fact, Dabney went so far as to argue that since the "Golden Rule" obligated both parties, then the slave should remain in bondage out of regard for his master.

Even more audacious was his argument that slaves actually were paid.   “Southern slaves received,” Dabney writes, “on the average, better and more certain compensation than any labouring people of their capacity in the world. It came to them in the form of that maintenance, which the master was bound by the laws, as well as his own interests, to bestow upon them.” Maintenance?  He argued further that the slave master paid all the expenses in rearing slaves, nursing them in sickness, caring for the slave’s family, caring for their orphans, and providing them “supplies and comforts” in their old age.

This is an incredibly fraudulent claim, although it was true that some enslaved people actually were cared for by their masters (perhaps certain domestic slaves), Dabney is carrying a lie too great for his puny frame to support. The sad fact is that most enslaved people were minimally supported at best in their prime and often dumped when and if they survived to old age. Slaves were not reasonably fed and clothed, nor were their children sufficiently cared for. Chattel slavery was not a welfare state; it was an extreme form of capitalism that made profit the bottom line and reduced human beings to property to be used and used up. “But this is just what our laws and customs gave to our slaves, as wages of their easy labour” (p. 175).

Lastly, Dabney also denied the charge that slavery itself created circumstances where sexual immorality and sexual abuse thrived.  He concluded that the enslavement of blacks lessened temptation since “the differences of colour, race, and personal attractions” discouraged sexual indiscretions. After all, Dabney wrote, “the very sentiment of superior caste would render the intercourse more repulsive and unnatural” (pp. 180-81).

Dabney may be correct that any place where a man exercises authority over workers could result in sexual abuses. But Dabney's argument, that white Southerners held the “sentiment of superior caste” and viewed sexual relations with enslaved black women as “repulsive and unnatural,” is racist nonsense.   Either Dabney was the most naïve, sheltered simpleton in the history of the South, or he was a liar.  Not all slave masters were rapists, but it is no exaggeration to say that an overwhelming number of slave masters sexually abused female slaves, or permitted members of their families or employees to do so. The idea that “race” served as an impediment to sexual abuse in slavery is a self-serving fantasy.

Even a cursory reading of Dabney’s Defence of Virginia is somewhat stunning. It is hard to believe that a brilliant man could be so stolid and obtuse, or that an exemplary Christian leader could be such a hypocrite and a liar. Far from justifying Virginia and Dabney, the Defence of Virginia heaps condemnation and disgrace upon them.

In Conclusion

It nearly goes without saying that R. L. Dabney drank too deeply from the cup of the Great Harlot to see matters clearly, even writing after the fact of slavery's abolition.  If he represents the highest standard of morality and theological genius offered by the South in the 19th century, then it is no surprise that succeeding generations of Southerners turned to lynching, legalized segregation, and terrorism in order to reassert political and economic control. If “godly” men like Dabney would cling to such lies and prejudice, then we should not be surprised that so many lesser men stooped to the depths of racism, violence, and inhumane behavior in their hard-hearted efforts to reverse the impact of Emancipation and Reconstruction.

The history of Southern secession entails no small number of otherwise excellent, admirable, and brilliant people, not the least of which was Robert Lewis Dabney. However, one cannot help but wonder whether men like Dabney will be adjudged with greater severity when standing before God's throne of judgment, especially since the degree of privilege, understanding, and sacred wisdom they claimed renders them far more accountable.

“Jesus said to [the Pharisees,] ‘If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, “We see,” your guilt remains’” (John 9:41).

     1 Robert Lewis Dabney, Life and Commands of Lieutenand- General Thomas J. Jackson (Richmond, Va., Philadelphia, Pa., National Publishing Co., 1866).

      2 The basic biographical information for this sketch was distilled from a romantic, admiring biographical article on a Southern history website. See "Biographies of Famous Southerners; Robert Lewis Dabney 1820-1898,” KnowSouthernHistory.net (no publication information provided); also see “Robert Lewis Dabney (1820-1898),” in Encylopedia Virginia (Charlottesville: Virginia Foundation for the Humanities). 

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Blind Leading the Blind--
Response to a Writer in Oklahoma

Most of my readers probably understand by now that much of the anti-Brown prejudice that prevails--particularly in the minds of so-called white people in the U.S.--is the product of generations of misinformation, negative portrayals, and unchecked carelessness in historical and journalistic writing.  It is much easier to get your facts wrong about John Brown and get away with it, than it would be for Abe Lincoln or Robert E. Lee.  The "majority" simply don't care about Brown at best, and certainly do not mind if his name and reputation are trashed.  But just try writing articles and op-ed pieces about Lincoln or Lee that are loaded with misinformation and unstudied, unfounded slurs: You'd see what happens to you.  Even a legitimate critic of Lincoln like Lerone Bennett Jr. is ignored by historians even though his book, Forced into Glory, is a profound and necessary study of Lincoln's personal racism and pseudo-emancipatory role.  (When I bought my copy at B&N, it wasn't even with the rest of the Lincoln books.  I had to get someone to "find" it for me.)  But when it comes to the Old Man, it is just plain easy for almost anyone to dash off misinformation get it published with little or no criticism.  Yes, we're changing the latter part.  The internet has given the John Brown community of scholars and advocates a voice in responding with immediacy and clarity.

Indeed, with the internet it is much easier to track this tendency among "white" writers, but even I do not address every foul or stupid thing written and posted on line about Brown.  It would just take too much time and it detracts from doing positive work.   However, from time to time it is good to point out a new article that serves to miseducate and further propagate the anti-Brown bias.

One such effort is found in a piece in the Alva Review-Courier / Newsgram (July 24) an online publication from Alva, Oklahoma.*  I'm sure the author, Roger Hardaway, is not a malicious man, although his view of Brown is jaded and misinformed.  In fact, Hardaway seems to be endeavoring to write a series on the Brown family, but evidently feels he must begin by pointing out that John Brown was not a "sympathetic" character.

Hardaway's thoughts are fairly compact and so they follow:
I’ve always thought that one of the least sympathetic people in American history is John Brown of “Bleeding Kansas” fame. Brown moved from Ohio to Kansas in the mid-1850s because he wanted to insure that Kansas would become a “free” state (that is, one without slavery). 
While that was a laudable thing for someone to do at that time, the manner in which he expressed his opposition to southern slaveholders was not.  He, some of his relatives, and other followers murdered five men on a night in May 1856. 
The only “crimes” of which these men were guilty was that they were southerners who had presumably moved to Kansas to help make it a slave state.  Killing people because of opposing positions on an admittedly volatile issue seems extreme, to say the least, in the greatest democracy the world has ever seen. In the United States, holding and expressing different views is a totally American thing to do. 
Brown orchestrated the murder of these men in the yards of their cabins while their wives and children watched in horror and screamed in anguish.  Yet, abolitionists made John Brown a hero. When he was executed in 1859, his supporters cried, held up his photo, and did other things to show that they considered him a martyr. 
His execution, by the way, was for trying to steal weapons from the U.S. government in order to start an armed slave revolt—not for his misdeeds in Kansas (for which he was never punished).  And while some of Brown’s relatives were a part of his murderous gang in May 1856, not all were. 
Several other Brown family members were in Kansas, and all were opposed to slavery.One of those who moved to Kansas but did not approve of John’s actions was a half-sister whose given name was Florella (or Flo). 
And if John Brown is not—in my opinion—a sympathetic figure, Florella Brown certainly is.
I have made a brief response on the Alva Review-Courier website, but would like to point out here how deeply flawed and misrepresented this statement by Mr. Hardaway actually is based on the facts:  

1.  John Brown did not "move" to Kansas.  He went out to Kansas to aid his sons and their families in light of the mounting proslavery terrorism that was taking place in the territory.  He had no intention of settling there and never officially "moved" there in any sense.  Brown's name is wedded to Kansas history, but in truth his role there was primarily motivated by personal concern for his family.  His sons were more directly involved with Kansas settlement and politics.  Without the presence of his vulnerable family, John Brown would not have gone to Kansas, nor gotten caught up in the struggle against proslavery terrorism.

2.  It is a gross error to portray the five Pottawatomie "victims" of Brown as mere proslavery settlers.  John Brown had no militant argument against proslavery settlers.  He actually abided by the demands of the Kansas-Nebraska act, which required the incoming state to make its position on slavery a matter of the ballot.  He may not have liked it, but he respected the law and it was very clear quite soon in the process that free state settlers were outnumbering the proslavery settlers.

Brown was in the territory for over half a year before the Pottawatomie killings.  During that time he never raised a hand against a proslavery person.  He traded in Missouri and interacted with proslavery people.  He freely expressed his antislavery and pro-black views, but he took no violent action and never would have attacked a proslavery man.  Mr. Hardaway is completely off base here.  This is a gross misrepresentation of the kind of Christian man that John Brown really was.

The men that were killed in May 1856 were not merely proslavery.  They were proslavery conspirators and incendiary agents not only promoting the proslavery movement, but collaborating with armed proslavery terrorists who had invaded Kansas to attack and kill free state people.  These five men were verified as conspirators with a murderous agenda that targeted the Browns and others.  Brown carefully confirmed that these men were guilty, and knowing Brown's character, would only have taken such drastic action under two conditions:

A.  There was no appeal to any form of law or governmental protection; and
B.  The men targeted were well documented and verified as terrorist collaborators.  

Both aspects were true of Kansas in May 1856, and the Browns and others expected a violent overthrow to come their way, courtesy of the Doyles, Wilkinson, and Sherman acting as guides.  This is why these men were "hit."  Today we would call it counter-terrorism and a preemptive strike.

3.  Let me remind Mr. Hardaway that the U.S. in 1855 was not the U.S. of today, let alone "the greatest democracy the world has ever seen."  In 1855, the U.S. was something of a fascist state, where blacks and indigenous people were either enslaved, harassed, forcibly relocated, or outrightly killed.  The highest court ruled that "white" people did not have to respect black people's rights.  Furthermore, the entire nation was forced to support slavery through the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.  In effect, the entire nation was functioning in support of slavery by law.  No, Mr. Hardaway, this was not a great nation, and its democracy was a sham.  People in this country need to wake up and face the reality of "American history": militant white supremacy is deplorable, and so is a good bit of our nation's history.  

4.  Mr. Hardaway, it is not true that the Pottawatomie five were killed in their yards, within sight of their screaming wives and children.  This is nonsense.  These miscreants were marched from their homes and were killed out of sight--something they probably would not have done to the Browns if they had acted first.  Their families were not eyewitnesses to the killings.   By the way, Mr. Hardaway, you should should know that Mahala Doyle, the wife/mother of three of the men killed, scolded her husband as he was marched out into the darkness.  She scolded him because, as she put it, she had warned him about his "devilment."  So even though she later denied her husband's guilt (when she was used to write proslavery propaganda), at the time her exclamation was quite revealing.  Even she knew that her husband and sons were terrorists.  I suppose Mrs. Doyle would not have minded if her husband and sons were the ones doing the killing.  

5.  It is a hackneyed notion of historians, journalists, and tour guides that John Brown attacked Harpers Ferry to "steal weapons."  In fact, there is no single bit of evidence that Brown and his men held that as an objective.  There is no primary evidence to the fact, and one would think that for as long as Brown held Harper's Ferry (too long), that his men would have opened the armory and loaded up the guns.  They did not.  Furthermore, Brown told at least one journalist on the ground afterward that he didn't want the HF guns, and that he had brought better weapons with him!  In fact, the Hall's rifles made at HF were inferior to the Sharps repeating rifles that Brown had with him.  Nor did he intend to put rifles into the hands of liberated black people.  For that he had contrived pikes, to be used in self-defense.   Keep in mind that Brown's plan was not to launch a military strike south-wide.  It was to launch a kind of armed, defensive movement that led away enslaved people en masse and then resort to the mountains in small cadres.  It was basically an elusive, in-and-out, effort that was intended to create economic trauma, not bloody insurrection and terrorism.

Mr. Hardaway, notwithstanding good intentions, wants to teach us about John Brown and his family. But this is another case of the blind leading the blind. 

* See Roger Hardaway, “The Browns of Kansas-Part 1,” Alva Review-Courier / Newsgram on line [Alva, Ok.] (24 Jul. 2011)

Monday, July 18, 2011

Brown Family Notes--
The Site of Owen Brown's Pasadena Funeral, 1889

[Pasadena, Calif.] In 1888, the Methodists needed a larger hall and built what was called The Tabernacle, facing Marengo Avenue just south of the large Methodist Episcopal church at Marengo and Colorado.

The Tabernacle is pictured above during the funeral for Owen Brown, son of John Brown, on January 10, 1889.

The Tabernacle served as a sort of civic auditorium in addition to being for church events. It was a large wooden hall, with balconies, seating perhaps 2000.  In those days there was no amplification so large voices and good acoustics were needed.

Excerpted from Sid Gally, “Pasadena History: Songs at the Tabernacle,” Pasadena Star-News [Pasadena, Calif.], 17 July 2011

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Another Soul Goes Marching On:
Remembering the "Old Man" of Libya, Umar Almukhtar

I don't often stray too far afield given the nature of this blog, but once in a while it is helpful to do so.  In this case, I would like to briefly remember a pious, principled man who fought against invaders and oppressors from Italy in his native land of Libya.  His name was Umar Almukhtar and he was born in 1860 and was captured and hanged by the occupying Italian invaders in 1931.  Italians may think of themselves as lovers, but under the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, they behaved with the most ruthless and violent racism in the conquest and oppression of north and northeast Africa.  The role of the Italians in colonial oppression may not be as extensive as that of the British, the French, the Belgians, and other Europeans, but the bloody chapter written in Libya in the early 20th century more than guarantees the Italian people their place in the colonizers' hall of shame.  

Interestingly, the story of Almukhtar's later years as a freedom fighter was made into a film (starring Anthony Quinn) in 1981.  Unfortunately, it also faced prejudice and opposition, something that we are familiar with as students of John Brown.  The movie, Lion of the Desert, was actually banned in Italy for a decade, perhaps because there were enough Italians alive from that era with guilty consciences.  In the U.S., the movie was roundly attacked by film critics because Libyan money was vital to its production.  After all, Almukhtar was and remains a Libyan national hero to this day.  However, Libya's fuel embargo of the 1970s, and the fact that the Reagan administration was feuding with the Qadhafi government in 1981 gave film critics in the U.S. an excuse to pan Lion of the Desert.  (Since Libya likewise opposed the one-sided pro-Israel bias of the U.S. government, perhaps film critics with Zionist sympathies also vented their hostility on Lion of the Desert.)  A movie that for once portrayed Arabs as human beings--and also promoted a bona fide Muslim hero--was snubbed.

The Italians with their captive: "To God we belong.
To Him we shall return."
As to the Umar Almukhtar of Libyan history,  he should be remembered for leading a tireless anti-Italian resistance movement for twenty years.  Almukhtar was not only a military genius, but also an honorable man of great religious faith and piety.  Reminiscent of the John Brown story too, some sources suggest that after his arrest, the elderly hero “had an impact on his Italian jailers, who later remarked upon his steadfastness.”  Before he was hanged by the fascists, Almukhtar declared:  “To God we belong. To Him we shall return.” 

Here is a literal translation of a poem he wrote reflecting his passion for his people's freedom:  
"My only illness is the broken hearts, the falling tears and all the herds with no protector of care-taker.

Umar Almukhtar, hanged by colonizers of Africa, 16 Sept. 1931
My only illness is being at al Agailla camp, the imprisonment of my tribe and the  long way from home…
My only illness is having to lose my dignity at my advanced age and the loss of our finest people, the ones we cannot do without…

My only illness is the loss of my beloved, good-looking strong people on top of camels and best-looking horses…
My only illness is the torturing of our young women, with their bodies exposed…
John Brown, hanged by enslavers of Africans,
2 Dec. 1859 
My only illness is the loss of sweet and good people and having to be ruled by grotesque people whose straight faces show nothing but misery…"

Friday, July 15, 2011

John Brown's Last Decade--
Slavery as a "Strange Change"

Charles Francis Adams:
"Steadily going back to the
doctrines of despotism"

Charles Francis Adams (1807-86) was the son of John Quincy Adams and served as a U.S. Representative from Massachusetts (1859-62), after having been the unsuccessful candidate of the Free-Soil Party for the Vice Presidency in 1848 (running with Martin Van Buren).  As a Whig party founder, Adams was hardly a radical abolitionist, although he was clear in his assessment of the predominance of pro-slavery power politics in the U.S., the nature of which ultimately led to the Civil War.  In defending himself in a letter to a Free-Soil editor in 1851, Adams thus wrote:

Really it would seem as if in America nothing is to be regarded as national but slavery ‑‑ and every obstacle to its perpetuation over the entire colored race is to be considered unconstitutional and treasonable. The most astonishing thing of all is to witness... the ingenuity with which every new step of the dictator is excused even when nobody dares justify it. Surely, stead of advancing in our notions of Liberty and Law since we became a people, we have been steadily going back to the doctrines of despotism... And all this, we are told, is to sustain a Union intended to secure the blessings of freedom!1
Adams, a contemporary of John Brown, thus made an observation concerning the digression of "our notions of Liberty and Law since we became a people."  Adams surveyed the history of the U.S. from independence and came to conclude that something terribly wrong had taken place, bringing the nation off course toward despotism.  In fact, his sentiments resonated in words later written by John Brown from his jail cell during his last days in Virginia.  Writing to a former business associate on November 17, 1859, Brown reflected on his imminent execution, writing: "I go joyfully in behalf of Millions that 'have no rights' that this 'great, & glorious'; 'this Christian Republic,' 'is bound to respect.'"  Then, quite interestingly, he added: "Strange change in morals political; as well as Christian; since 1776."2  

The Old Man's overuse of semicolons notwithstanding, the sharp, succinct phrasing (so typical of his speech and writing) nicely coincides with Adam's complaint.  Like Adams, Brown read the 19th century history of the U.S. as the moral descent of the nation into tyranny as a result of chattel slavery.  In light of the promising origins of the nation he loved, Brown thought the "change in morals political as well as Christian" had gone in "strange" directions--strange because he believed the predominance of chattel slavery was antithetical to the very concept of human freedom that was trumpeted by the founders of the nation.  And more than many in his generation, Brown also had the clarity to see that the "strange change" was not a matter of compromise; it was leading the nation to catastrophe.  Of course, we should be so wise.  In every generation, the overpowering and immoral appetites of a people may blind its population, likewise leading them down strange, desultory, and thorny paths of national despair. 

     1 Charles Francis Adams to E.A. Stansbury, 2 January 1851, in Gilder Lehrman Collection (GLC03863)

     2 John Brown to J. [Thomas ] B. Musgrave, 17 November 1859, in Gilder Lehrman Collection (GLC #7638.01)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Stop Klanning Around--
A Parable for the Prejudiced?

A friend pointed this one out to me.  I would never make light of human suffering, but this one was kinda hard to pass up.  If the guy on the stretcher made it, let's just hope it was a learning moment for him.  Regardless, it's a good parable for the prejudiced.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Taking Note--
Was John Brown a "Complex Man"?

As usual, our friend Grady Atwater, the superintendent of the John Brown site in Osawatomie, Kansas, has written a thoughtful and educational op-ed piece in the Osawatomie Graphic, the latest one being entitled, "The Fatherly Nature Of John Brown."  Primarily it is a reflection based upon a letter that John Brown wrote (Nov. 24, 1859) to Rebecca Buffum Spring, an abolitionist who resided in New Jersey at the time of the Harper's Ferry raid.   Bravely passionate for the antislavery cause, this Quaker woman took it upon herself to go to Virginia and minister to the needs of the Old Man in his Charlestown jail cell (Nov. 4, 1859), afterward becoming a close friend--even a mother figure--to Aaron Stevens and Albert Hazlett, two Harper's Ferry raiders who followed Brown to the gallows.

Gentle Jason Brown:
His Father Tried to help
him from his Virginia jail cell
Atwater notes the great concern that the imprisoned abolitionist showed for his son Jason, who had not followed him to Harper's Ferry and was then resident in Akron, Ohio. Referring to Jason as "very laborious, ingenious, temperate, honest, and truthful," but also one too modest and given to underrating himself.  Brown also admits that Jason is not like him in regard to the tendency to "assume and dictate."  But Brown the father was most concerned about getting help for Jason, evidently because he knew that his second son was impoverished, not yet having recovered from his losses in the Kansas territory.  Of course, Brown touted the unwavering devotion of Jason to the antislavery cause, too: "He will not deny his principles to save his life; and he ‘turned not back in the day of battle.’ At Osawatomie, he fought by my side.”  (The phrase, "turned not back in the day of battle," may be an allusion to Psalm 78:9, “The children of Ephraim, being armed, and carrying bows, turned back in the day of battle.")

Atwater aptly concludes:
John Brown is often portrayed as a cold father who was willing to sacrifice his sons in his abolitionist crusade with no feelings for their welfare. . . .  Jason Brown was a gentle man, more gentle than his father, and one might imagine that would create tension between the two men, and sometimes it did. However, John Brown was a loving father and loved and cared for his children. Despite personality and ideological differences, he and his children worked together to help end slavery.
My only point of reservation pertains to the author's statement: "John Brown was a complex man who had many facets. He was an implacable foe of proslavery advocates, but he was also a caring father."  While I understand the point, perhaps this is more a matter of people's perceptions than real human complexity on Brown's part.  In fact, there is really nothing complex about someone being "an implacable foe of proslavery advocates" as well as a "caring father."  It is hardly unusual for a brave soldier to also be a loving parent, and a bold freedom fighter at best will exhibit the highest sense of love and devotion to his or her family.  Furthermore, I would argue here as I have done before (see this blog, entry January 2, 2010) that it is incorrect to refer to John Brown as a "complex man."  Certainly, we all are multi-faceted and complex as humans go, but some people are clearly more complex, complicated, and even contradictorily complex, and I just don't think the Old Man fits any of those descriptions.  In fact, the more one studies him, the more one will find that he's fairly straightforward, consistent, and perhaps even predictable.  Attributing complexity to Brown has been done by his admirers and his enemies, obviously for different reasons.  But either way, I believe the "complex" label is ill-fitted to the man.  In fact, despite this line in Atwater's piece, I think he clearly and correctly argues for a lack of complexity by pointing out that John Brown was not a "cold father," but instead was a loving man who tenderly cared for his children.  

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

From the Field--
by H. Scott Wolfe *

SERENDIPITY: The faculty of making fortunate and unexpected discoveries by accident.

All researchers encounter them, those “fortunate and unexpected discoveries” which seem to reveal the fact that it was all meant to be. For example, I often reflect upon such an incident back in the early 1990s…

I took my wife on a western trip. Having graduated from the University of Montana…long ago, when giant reptiles still roamed the earth…I hoped to give her a tour of some of my old mountain haunts, and prove that this former botanist could recollect the Latin names of the flora of the Rocky Mountains.

We had spent a cold autumn night at West Yellowstone, encased in multiple layers of clothing. And in the morning we continued on through Madison County to Virginia City, Montana…an old gold mining camp where ghosts still seem to flit among its historic collection of rustic buildings. We sought breakfast, but first we had to devise a way to shed some of those extra garments. The sun had come out, and we had begun to broil a bit. Scanning the horizon, I spotted the Virginia City Cemetery, a “Boot Hill” kind of graveyard, atop a distant rise. It would be a private place to remove our exoskeletons, and would also provide the opportunity for one of my favorite pastimes…reading tombstone inscriptions. Randomly stopping among some low conifer trees, I set off to meet some of Virginia City’s past residents. The first stone I encountered was a sizable one, of gray granite, and beneath a tilted cross it read: WILLIAM F. KAMMERER, DIED JAN. 9, 1908, AGED 43 YEARS.


Hitting Close to Home. . .
the grave of William Kammerer
Willie Kammerer was born in Illinois in 1865, the son of a German stone mason. His upbringing was undistinguished, his occupation that of a laborer. But in 1886, seeking to better himself, he headed for Montana, where three of his brothers had preceded him. He went to Virginia City, and by the next year he was an employee and stockholder of the Alder Gulch Consolidated Mining Company. He married, and gained the reputation of being “liberall, honest and true.” The American Dream.

But it was to end tragically. Near Ruby, Montana, on that January day in 1908, Willie Kammerer was employed as the second shift “flume man” on a dredge boat. While unwinding a winch, he lost control of the handle…it struck him on the head…and Willie was killed instantly. He was buried in the Virginia City Cemetery, “a man whom acquaintances could not but admire and respect.”

Why this story of a random tombstone inscription? Serendipity. William F. Kammerer was born in Galena, Illinois…in a stone house built in 1852 by his father Xavier. William F. Kammerer was born in MY HOUSE.

Such strange occurrences have also transpired during my many years of chasing John Brown and his men…moments of serendipity illuminating what otherwise may seem rather mundane research. Last month, in a contribution entitled “Farmer Maxson’s Newel Post,” I told of a research trip to Iowa, where I sought information on the razed farmhouse in which John Brown’s men boarded during the winter of 1857-58. Not only did I unearth historical data, but I came home with an actual piece of that house’s walnut staircase. Serendipity, indeed.  So I thought I might take the liberty of sharing a couple other such stories of strange happenings on my “Road to Harper’s Ferry.”


It was during my rookie season as a John Brown aficionado. My travel options were then restricted by time and geography, but the State of Iowa…a mere twenty minutes away…tempted me as a rich field for researching the Old Man.

I had noted numerous references to Brown in a certain periodical, The Midland Monthly, published in Des Moines during that golden age of such periodicals, the 1890s. I was particularly tempted by an article entitled: “John Brown and His Iowa Friends,” which appeared in two numbers of that publication in the winter of 1897. Its fascinating subject was the, so called, LETTER OF WARNING.

Secretary of War John B. Floyd, 
recipient of the "Letter of Warning"
During the month of August, 1859, two letters were sent to the Virginian John B. Floyd, United States Secretary of War. These communications, postmarked in Cincinnati and Philadelphia, were received by the Secretary while he was “taking the waters” at a mountain resort…and probably forced the great man to promptly set down his tumbler.  The letters warned of a “secret organization having for its object the liberation of the slaves at the South.” And they openly stated that “Old John Brown, late of Kansas” was the leader of this cabal. The warning continued:
They have one of their leading men (a white man) in an armory in Maryland…As soon as everything is ready, those of their number who are in the Northern States and Canada are to come in small companies to their rendezvous, which is in the mountains of Virginia. They will pass down through Pennsylvania and Maryland, and enter Virginia at Harper’s Ferry…They have a large quantity of arms at their rendezvous, and are probably distributing them already….
The communication ended, cryptically: “I dare not sign my name to this, but trust that you will not disregard the warning on that account.”

But Secretary Floyd disregarded this warning. He later testified: “ I receive many anonymous letters, and pay no attention to them…I knew there was no armory in Maryland…” and “was satisfied in my own mind that a scheme of such wickedness and outrage could not be entertained by any of the citizens of the United States.”

Two months later the hammer fell at Harper’s Ferry…in a manner almost identical to the letter’s prophecy.

The authorship of this warning remained controversial for years, the suspects ranging from a Cincinnati editorial writer…to various Springdale, Iowa intimates of the Old Man, particularly a farmer named Moses Varney (“who had used all powers of persuasion and entreaty to induce John Brown to abandon a scheme so hopeless”)…and even to some of Brown’s recruits, men such as Richard Realf and Charles W. Moffett.

The article I sought in Midland Monthly, written by Iowan B. F. Gue, was said to reveal both the writer of this Letter of Warning (“There are but two persons now living who know the origin of this letter…They are the author of the letter and the writer of this sketch.”) and its purpose (“…to induce the Secretary to send a strong military guard to Harper’s Ferry, which would at once become known to the Old Emancipator, and avert the dreadful tragedy.”)

So I needed to find a copy of “John Brown and His Iowa Friends”… and was soon met by more serendipity.

I traveled to Madison, Wisconsin…to the State Historical Library…and buried myself in “the stacks.” I loved that place. It appealed to all of the senses…from the kaleidoscope of colored bindings to, literally, the SMELL of history. (What does a Kindle smell like?) It was so unlike other research facilities I had visited…where one sits in a sterile reading room and orders a book like an egg salad sandwich (Hold the mayo and appendices, please!)

I found the Midland Monthly in bound volumes, and took several to a small desk near a sunny window. I lacked a specific reference, so I turned to the table of contents and began to run my finger down the page. And then I saw it…the short story, that is.

"Scott Wolfe," a short story in the 
pages of Midland Monthly

It was written by a forgotten author named M.L. Fox…and had a forgettable plot based upon “Western North Carolina Character and Life.” Its protagonist was a callow young man who was always “mopin’ round like he’s in a dream.” His life becomes a series of misadventures…harassment in college, disappointment in love, uncertainly in his spiritual orthodoxy. He becomes a rootless wanderer to “remote and unheard-of-places.”And he finally commits suicide in the cemetery of his home town in the hills of Carolina. All Victorian claptrap.

Serendipity? Well, how about the TITLE of the story?…and the NAME of the principle character?…They were both a name quite familiar to me. It was my own. “SCOTT WOLFE.”


John Brown wrote the autobiographical letter at Red Rock, Iowa in July of 1857. First published in James Redpath’s Public Life of Capt. John Brown (1860), it became the standard primary account of the Old Man’s childhood. It was reprinted in the succeeding classic biographies of Sanborn (1885), Hinton (1894) and Villard (1910), a striking chronicle of both admirable optimism and personal loss.
During the winter of 1857, Brown had visited the wealthy Massachusetts industrialist and antislavery crusader George Luther Stearns. This producer of lead pipe and linseed oil would later become a member of Brown’s celebrated “Secret Six.” In Redpath, one learns the origin of Brown’s famous letter to Stearns’ young son, Henry:
When the old man was preparing to return to Kansas, Master Henry…asked his father’s permission to give all his pocket money to Captain Brown. The permission was readily given, and the old hero received the money. He promised, at the same time,- if he ever should find the leisure for it, - to write out for his young friend an account of his own early life.
The letter, though addressed to young Henry, was directed mainly to the youth’s prominent and well-heeled father, George.

Brown presents his case as “a most determined Abolitionist,” who had sworn “Eternal war with Slavery.” And he also stresses his reliability in the cause…despite the personal setbacks he may have already endured. He is a man who “habitually expected to succeed in his undertakings;” one who has had “success in accomplishing his objects,” and who “followed up with tenacity whatever he set about;” and who possessed the ambition “to excel in doing any thing he undertook to perform.” Reassuring words directed to a potential contributor.

George Luther Stearns, Brown supporter 
whose son Henry received 
the "Red Rock" letter
The other keynote of the Red Rock letter is the subject of loss. And we all know that John Brown experienced more than his allotted share of personal and financial loss. As he described it: “…the Heavenly Father sees it but to take all the little things out of (my) hands which he has ever placed in them.”

With the death of Ruth Mills Brown he is “left a Motherless boy,” a loss he calls “complete and permanent.” A treasured “Yellow Marble” is “lost beyond recovery.” His “little Ewe Lamb,” a gift from his father, suddenly sickens and dies. And then there is a pet squirrel named “Bob tail.” Brown tells the story of capturing “a young Squirrel,” while “tearing off his tail in doing it.” He “held on to the little bob tail Squirrel; & finally got him perfectly tamed so that he almost idolized his pet.” But “this too he lost; by its wandering away; or by getting killed: and for a year or two John was in mourning; and looking at all the Squirrels he could see to try & discover Bob tail, if possible.”

These were serious boyhood tragedies…even though some may seem trivial…that had, obviously, greatly affected the man. All brought “protracted seasons of mourning,” for “so strong & earnest were his attachments.”

One of the first “Civil War Round Tables” which I addressed upon the topic of John Brown was located in downstate Illinois…in Champaign/Urbana. I knew what I wanted to say, but I found it necessary to review various aspects of the Old Man’s life…just in case some wise guy fired a .58 caliber trivia question in my direction. As an old Boy Scout, I heeded the warning: “Be Prepared.”
It was a beautiful day, so with a handful of Brown biographies I crawled into a swinging hammock on the stone patio…ready to “study up.” Opening Oswald Garrison Villard’s John Brown 1800 – 1859: A Biography Fifty Years After, I was immediately presented with a transcription of Brown’s letter to young Henry Stearns.

I reread his account of the incidents of his youth…his avowals of how he “habitually expected to succeed”…and, of course, his litany of personal losses. As I read the story of his capture of “Bob tail,” that old acquaintance, serendipity, paid another visit.

I was suddenly startled by a violent scrabbling sound on the rock wall to my left. Looking up from my book, I gazed into the bulging eyes of a large gray squirrel. The squirrel had no tail.

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.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

New York Area Residents-- 
Attention Please:

David S. Reynolds, Mightier than the Sword: Walt Whitman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the Civil War – talk/Q & A (with discussion of John Brown, too)

WHEN: Wed. July 6, 2011, 7 p.m. - 8:30  p. m.

WHERE: Bryant Park Reading Room space (outdoors, along 42nd St. between back of NYPL and 6th Ave.); in case of rain, indoors at the General Society of Tradesmen and Mechanics on 44th St. (between 5th & 6th Ave.)


"The Civil War in Sheet Music." Ohio History (Columbus: Ohio Historical Society).

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Freedom Notes--
Slavery in the Modern Age
Anyone who thinks slavery ended with the 13th Amendment is not paying attention. According to the lat­est State Department statistics, as many as 100,000 people in the United States are in bondage and perhaps 27 million people worldwide. The numbers are staggering.

These victims of human trafficking are vulnerable men, women or children coerced into servitude for sex or labor. They might be transported from Russia to Europe, from the Philippines to Dubai, or held in their hometown.

The stories are heartbreaking. The Cambodian girl sold to a brothel who was stabbed in the eye by the brothel's owner when she fought back. The Middle Eastern woman hired as a domestic in London whose employers seized her passport and locked her away in the house. The teenager in Dallas forced into prostitution.

In 2000, the United States enacted an antitrafficking law and the United Nations adopted the Palermo Protocol.  Both call for countries to criminalize trafficking, punish of­fenders and provide shelter to victims.

In its 2011 trafficking report, the State Department concluded that last year only 32 of 184 countries fully com­plied with the standards set by the American law. The number on the list of the worst violators rose to 23 from 13. Two close United States allies, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, joined that list of shame.

There has been progress. In the last decade, 146 coun­tries signed the protocol and 128 of those passed laws ban­ning human trafficking. That reflects a growing and en­couraging acceptance of a problem once denied.

There is still much to do. All nations should sign the protocol, pass tough national laws and work vigorously to ensure their implementation. Abusers, including firms that hire trafficked employees, must be prosecuted and victims protected. No human being should be enslaved.  

Source: The New York Times editorial (July 2, 2011), p. A18

Friday, July 01, 2011

Deep in the Heartburn of Texas—

Will Texas Issue a Commemorative Confederate License Plate?

According to The Houston Chronicle (Jun. 24), a local division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) is on the brink of gaining state approval to issue a specialty license plate emblazoned with the SCV logo, which prominently features the flag of the Confederate States of America—the flag of the slave masters’ rebellion of 1861.  Journalist Renee Lee states that the Texas Department of Motor Vehicle license board voted on the group's request in April, reaching a tie vote. Since one of the nine board members was absent, it was decided to reconsider the request at a meeting on June 9—but the meeting did not take place because of the death of one of the board members.  Unfortunately, this vacancy could serve the interests of the SCV if Governor Rick Perry decides to appoint someone who supports the neo-Confederate agenda, a decision that may not be made until after the summer season.

According to Lee, the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles already posted a mock plate on its website, with overwhelmingly supportive comments (186 for/3 against). Furthermore, the SCV “has won approval of the license plates in nine other states, including Georgia, Maryland and Tennessee, the organization's headquarters.”  The SCV also “has filed and won lawsuits in states where its requests were denied,” and currently is seeking approval of similar plates in Florida, Kentucky and Mississippi.

The article notes that many people, especially African Americans, view the Confederate flag as a sign of racist oppression.  However, the SCV counters that the battle flag is a matter of heritage.  One SCV official declared: “We don't know how to answer when someone is offended. It's really frustrating. The flag has been tarred with a brush of racism. We're trying our best to honor Confederate soldiers. This knee-jerk reaction against all things Confederate is not right."

It is difficult to appreciate the SCV’s seemingly innocent rationale.  To argue that this flag is only representative of “heritage” seems not only shallow reasoning, but also deception and self-deception.  In fact, Edward H. Sebesta, a leading national researcher on the neo-Confederate movement, has written a letter to the Texas governor to inform him about the SCV so that he will make a decision grounded in historical and contemporary facts.  In his letter, Sebesta states:
Both now and in the past the SCV promotes racism, pro-slavery ideology, anti-Semitism, neo-Confederate ideology, and condemnations of the founder of the Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln, as being a communist. They advance such reprehensible and anti-democratic ideals chiefly through their periodicals Confederate Veteran, Southern Mercury, and their online store and merchandise catalogs.
Sebesta has a blog dedicated to a critical study of neo-Confederates today called "Anti-Neo-Confederate."  But he has also established a blog specifically surrounding his letter to Governor Perry entitled, "Texas Confederate License Plate."  The letter provides a scholarly analysis of the SCV, demonstrating that it supports and sells literature that represents a gross perversion of the facts of chattel slavery in favor of the slave master.  The SCV further misrepresents abolitionism, and advances the spurious notion that the Old South stood for biblical orthodoxy while it was profiting from the stolen labor, rape, and homicide that undergirded chattel slavery.