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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, 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)

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