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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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Sunday, August 28, 2011

The "Ethics" of Picking Splinters out of the Other Guy's Eye 

James McClure, the editor of the York Daily Record [York, Pa.] on line, has an interesting article (26 Aug.) in remembrance of Harper’s Ferry raider, Osborne P. Anderson, who escaped capture by Virginia authorities and eventually returned to his home in Chatham, Ontario, Canada.  The article was prompted by a recent lecture at Shippensburg University by history professor, John Quist, who discussed the Harper’s Ferry raid in conjunction with a “Civil War Road Show” that took place last weekend at Penn Park.

Osborne P. Anderson
Anderson, one of Brown’s black raiders, worked in a newspaper office as a printer’s assistant, but was encouraged to join Brown’s effort by black expatriate leaders in Chatham.  Anderson not only survived the tragic failure of Brown’s raid, but also wrote the only first-hand narrative of the epic struggle, A Voice from Harpers Ferry (1861).

McClure points out that Anderson’s escape route included passing through Franklin County in Pennsylvania and stopping in the town of York, where he found temporary refuge in the home of William C. Goodridge, a former slave.  


According to McClure, the presentation by Professor Quist ended “with questions about whether Brown's violent actions to destroy slavery were justified.”  According to McClure, the “broader related question” was whether slavery needed to be ended by violence.  “These good questions have swirled around the public square since, well, 1859,” concludes McClure.

As if this weren’t enough, McClure persists along these lines, asking if Goodridge, a “good Samaritan,” was justified in harboring Anderson, “a fugitive who was part of a band that meted out death to innocent” civilians and milita men. “What was the justification to hide a John Brown raider, who[m] the federal government would have hanged for treason and conspiracy to incite insurrection?” McClure asks.

A Non-Parallel Parallel?

To underscore the point, McClure introduces an example that he readily admits is not a parallel, although he persists in forcing into discussion.  The non-parallel example is that of John Wilkes Booth, the actor who assassinated President Lincoln and then fled southward.  “If [Booth] had landed in York County, would a Southern sympathizer providing safe haven be exercising justifiable civil disobedience?”  McClure contends that this is not an unrealistic question though theoretical, since Booth attended school in York and knew people in that community.  And since both John Wilkes Booth and Osborne Perry Anderson “both were part of deadly conspiracies that took lives,” was it justifiable to give aid and support to the latter as he fled northward to Canada?

McClure finally concludes that the “Good Samaritan's action in harboring a John Brown conspirator has not been weighed in the local or national public square.”

An Exercise in Insinuation

My response to this “thoughtful” piece is that it is an exercise in insinuation on McClure’s part.  I do not know if the point is McClure’s alone, or if he is simply echoing what Professor Quist of Shippensburg stated in his lecture.  Regardless, it not only is NOT parallel as McClure states, but it is the kind of question that suggests a Pharisaic mind and reasoning.  By this I mean Pharisaic in the sense of someone posing as righteous in intent, but one who is actually, as the African American expression goes, “signifying.”

First, McClure himself admits that the illustration of Booth is not a historical parallel.  Then why use it?Forcing the comparison to Booth only beclouds the question that he really wants to raise, which is whether it was justifiable to assistant Osborne Anderson to escape.  I doubt he'd say supporting Booth in flight was justifiable, so it's clear that the real attack here pertains to Brown's raider Anderson.

Second, although McClure says the Booth-Anderson case is not a parallel, he is dishonest in presenting them as if they are parallel in an ethical sense, particularly by pointing out that Booth’s conspiratorial effort and Brown’s raid resulted in the deaths of people.  Why didn’t McClure use another case that had similar ethical circumstances although not entirely similar?  For instance, McClure (or Quist) might have used the 1851 Christiana  incident, when a Maryland slaveholder tracked his runaway slave to a home in southern Pennsylvania in making an attempt to re-enslave him (according to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850).  However, the black man fought back and killed the slave master, and then fled to Canada, thus eluding capture by authorities.  Like Anderson, the fugitive from slavery reached Canada with assistance from the underground railroad, just like Osborne Anderson.  The point is that using the Christiana incident makes for a better “discussion” without being a complete historical parallel because it is ethically similar nonetheless.  Unlike the use of the Booth case, it is not an ethical sleight-of-hand to discuss how assisting both black men in their flight toward Canada might be understood.  Both cases involved people seeking liberation, both cases ended in violent deaths, and both necessitated flight with assistance.

Finally, while he seems to be pursuing truth, McClure is not really interested in reflecting upon the ethics of helping Osborne Anderson escape.  In fact, the nature of his presentation shows that he is insinuating that it was unethical to do so.  The insinuation, superficially premised on the fact that “innocent” people died, is a merely a rhetorical facade.   "Innocent" people can die in almost any kind of action involving the use of physical force in struggle, whether conducted by heroic citizens, lawmen, or criminals.  What McClure seems to miss is that using the Booth example is illicit because Booth specifically designed to kill Lincoln and others; assassination was his only objective.  Quite in contrast, Brown’s intention was to liberate people from human bondage, using force if necessary, and only fighting in self-defense.  Although people died as a result of his attempt, these killings were not premeditated; some were blunders and others were done in self-defense.  Certainly, many more people would have died outright had Brown shown up at Harper’s Ferry with the kind of agenda that John Wilkes Booth had when he and his conspirators attacked in April 1865.

How can McClure pretend this is a reasonable discussion?

Evidently, neither McClure nor Prof. Quist get the point of liberating enslaved people.  The fact that he has to reiterate the question of the ethical sufficiency of helping Anderson escape, and whether the use of violence can be justified to end oppression, is not really a discussion for clear heads.   This is the discourse of bigotry.  Furthermore, I suspect that McClure or Quist would never ask such questions if their loved ones were enslaved, and then someone used violence to liberate them--or at least tried to liberate them. 

McClure and anyone else who raises this kind of “discussion” must necessarily seat himself alongside the Pharisees of history.  The Pharisee in the time of Christ was an expert at picking a "splinter" out of one man’s eye while being thoroughly blinded by the "log" in his own eye.  McClure has provided us a splinter of a discussion fit only for people similarly blinded by that old log of prejudice.  [revised 8/29--LD]

Monday, August 22, 2011

History for Sale--
Historic House of Brown's Execution Site for Sale

The field were John Brown was hanged in 1859 later became the site of a 7,000-square-foot, five-bedroom Queen Anne Victorian mansion.  Built in 1891, the mansion subsumed the actual site of Brown's gallows, the place now being the yard with a white obelisk and a plaque.  According to the Associated Press, the mansion and property have been placed on auction to be sold in early September, the opening price being $950,000.  The mansion, known as the Historic Perkins House, is on the National Register of Historic Places and is pretty much in the same state as it was in 1891, although some features have been added, like a swimming pool and a gourmet kitchen.   

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Bell & Howl IV--
Swint Responds to Brodeur (Updated Sept. 6)

Yesterday I featured an op-ed piece written by a citizen of Marlborough in criticism of Howard Swint's efforts to return the "John Brown Bell" in that fair city to the site of its origin.  In fairness to Mr. Swint, I post his follow-up comments as follows.  This presents the final entry on this topic, unless I find more persuasive reason for following up.(LD)

            Allegations of “legal blackmail” being employed in an attempt to have the John Brown Bell returned to its rightful owner are both intellectually dishonest and purposely misleading. After having been denied the opportunity to present my research findings, as well as those of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, to the City of Marlborough, First Church of Marlborough and the shell organization that claims ownership, legal recourse is what these organizations compel for remedy. It is a form of due process reserved for those seeking fair and equal justice under law when denied in the pursuit of good faith efforts to right a wrong and in this instance, denial of the opportunity to even speak formally and to present a compromise. As to "slander" Brodeur is also both intellectually dishonest and factually wrong as the anecdotal accounts by those who took the bell were false and misleading and they in effect impugned them themselves when they contrived their accounts during the Civil War and falsified provenance thirty years afterwards. Brodeur must know this or he would otherwise support a forum where the facts could be established based on historical record. And if silence is the language of complicity, then the aforementioned who deny the opportunity to be presented these findings share in the dishonor of allowing material possessions stand before that of their country. The John Brown Bell belongs to the United States government and if obstructionist policies necessitate legal action to quiet the title then it will be their decision to have these findings heard in the courtroom as I have been denied the requested forums.

            After having been denied the opportunity to present my research findings, as well as those of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, to the City of Marlborough, First Church of Marlborough and the shell organization that claims ownership, legal recourse is what these organizations compel for remedy. I seek and have been denied the opportunity to act in good faith the opportunity to even speak formally and to present a compromise. My point rests with the fact that those who took the bell manufactured accounts that were false and misleading. They contrived orders and authorization during the Civil War and falsified provenance thirty years afterwards. I'd much rather present in a forum where the facts could be established based on historical record. The John Brown Bell belongs to the United States government. Obstructionist policies in Marlborough will necessitate legal action to quiet the title. And it will be their decision to have these findings heard in the courtroom as I have been denied the requested forums.  Howard Swint

September 6, 2011

Brodeur Responds

In a recent article of his hometown Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail (Civil War dispute still rings in Charleston, Aug. 16, 2011), Mr. Howard Swint is quoted as saying, "As much as I regret threatening a legal path, this seems like the only way to get their attention." In his recent oped piece in the MetroWest Daily News, (Howard Swint: Who owns John Brown's Bell?, Aug. 3, 2011), Mr. Swint uses the word 'profiteer' three times when referring to soldiers who lost their lives or limbs in defense of the Union despite the fact that no one has ever proved (nor, before Mr. Swint, even suggested) that a single dime of 'profit' was made in connection with the Bell. From these sources, I maintain my position that Mr. Swint has used legal blackmail and slander and leave it to others to judge.

No one in Marlborough (or anywhere else) has denied Mr. Swint from presenting his research findings. Indeed, the MetroWest Daily News has given him ample opportunity to present his case and propose compromises, which he has done on more than one occasion. That his arguments fall on deaf ears is no new experience for Mr. Swint having been similarly rejected in his home state for proposing the removal of the statue of Civil War hero Stonewall Jackson from the West Virginia state capitol, (the Charleston Gazette, Howard Swint: W.Va. Capitol no place for Confederate memorial, May 28, 2011).
The issue of the Bell is a matter between the National Parks Service and the John A. Rawlins Bldg. Assoc. The people of Marlborough fully recognize this reality and wish that repeated controversialist Mr. Swint put his talent as a historian to more productive use.
PAUL BRODEUR, Marlborough

John Brown Pastimes?
Paper Dolls, Fake Beards, and "WWJBD?"

Recently, Rachel Smalter, an Adults Program Librarian at the Lawrence, Kansas, Public Library noted in her blog, Librarian in a Banana Suit (yes, a real banana suit), that Lawrence Magazine had a link for a download of a (clean shaven) John Brown paper doll by an artist named Jason Barr.  According to Rachel, Lawrence Magazine, Lawrence Public Library, and the artist subsequently joined forces to come up with a John Brown Paper Doll giveaway in conjunction with local Civil War events at the library.  Rachel says the John Brown paper doll program is part of "Civil War on the Western Frontier" (CWWF), a series of annual community events organized by the Lawrence Visitor’s Bureau.  Of course, the paper doll kit is purely amusement.  This is not about dressing the Old Man in a variety of authentic outfits of the day, but rather attiring him in a gorilla suit,  or a jean shorts and T-shirt that reads, "Honk 4 Hemp," or a clown mask, a long, black fake beard, and other amusing accouterments.

Moving from this flippant sort of pop cultural handling of the Old Man, another Lawrence-based publication recently was called to my attention.  It is entitled, "What Would John Brown Do?"--perhaps a spin-off of the "What Would Jesus Do?" Christian style fad, in which believers wear T-shirts, caps, and bracelets emblazoned with "WWJD?"  Whatever the case, there is an article by Amber Brejcha Fraley featuring ten questions with answers supplied by a number of notable Lawrence citizens: Kerry Altenbernd, a law librarian and John Brown impersonator; Katie Armitage, a historian of Lawrence; Napoleon Crews, an attorney and author; Karl Gridley, another Lawrence historian with a special interest in John Brown; Kevin Willmott, filmmaker and creator of the "mockumentary," CSA: Confederate States of America; and Cathy Hamilton, a humorist and director of Downtown Lawrence, Inc.  The article features amusing photographs and thoughtful responses to the questions which are too lengthy to reproduce here, but can be read at the link above (or here).

For what it's worth, I've reproduced the questions below and presumed to present my answers/opinions as well. . . .

1.  Would JB go into Free State and order a JB beer?  Is he the type of guy that you would like to have a beer with?

In his day, John Brown had the option of going into drinking establishments and consuming beer, and socializing with friends at places where people consume beer and other alcoholic delights.  So I'm sure the answer is a resounding “No.”  On the other hand, Brown was not a teetotaler.  No self-respecting Calvinist would be as far as I can tell.  Abstinence from alcohol was the religious expression of post-Reformed and fundamentalist religion, the kind that spread through the revivalists of his day, or that which was associated in religiously-oriented social reform movements in the 19th century.  In the early 1850s, JB made cherry wine for a short time as a business venture; but there is also evidence that he disdained drinking hard liquor.  So he probably didn't think drinking was a sin, but I doubt he drank alcohol beverages.  He wouldn't be caught dead in a bar or saloon, even if he were drinking tea.  He would not think it was the kind of place that a godly man would patronize.   If I'm not mistaken, his beverage of choice was tea.

2. Would JB buy into the "healthful body, healthful mind" approach?  Would he go to the gym?

JB was a lean, hard-working, long-walking man whose diet was likewise lean, so going to the gym wouldn’t have made sense to him.  On the other hand, JB was quite interested in any advancement of science that involved the human body and psyche, so he would probably be interested in the kinds of health information that the average TV viewer hears on shows like Dr. Oz.  But would he spend two hours at the gym to bulk up his physique?  I don’t think so. 

 3. Would JB be satisfied with the progress, or lack of, in racial equality over the past 150 years?  What would JB think of racial relations in the US in general?  Of recent racial tensions with the immigration debate?

On one hand, I think JB would be pleased that the U.S. is a de jure “racial equality” nation; he would also appreciate the fact that what he believed about racial equality in his day has become more broadly accepted.  But I doubt he’d agree with those who have proclaimed "the end of racism."  I should point out that this question is phrased in two different ways; in the larger print it says: "Would John Brown be satisfied with the status of the modern black community?"  That could also be taken as a different kind of question--that is,  what JB would think of the "State of Black America" today.  I wouldn't venture to say, except that his social evaluations of whites or blacks was rooted in his religious presuppositions as well as his belief in self-determination.

 With respect to immigrants, JB would take the side of the underdog every time; but he would also hold the underdog to the same standard as the rest.  How that would flesh out in the current immigration debate is hard to say.  People forget that despite his radical humanitarian views, JB was a very conservative man in many respects, so this dynamic is hard to transpose to our time.

4. Would he be involved in non-violent politics?  Would he run for office?  What issues would be of concern to him?

I know people will not believe me, but JB was basically non-violent.  That is to say, he only believed in using violence when there was no alternative left.  The  slavery by 1859 had exhausted every means of resolution according to purely democratic or non-violent terms.  For all intents and purposes JB practiced non-violent resistance up until the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, after which he prescribed fighting back.  But as far as non-violent politics--no I do not think he would join any party that absolutely tied the hands of good people in the name of non-violence.  I don’t think that JB would even have supported Martin Luther King Jr.’s strategy, although he would have admired him the way he admired Wm. Lloyd Garrison in the 19th century. 

As far as political office goes, we tend to run JB through the filter of his antipathy toward antebellum politicians in regard to slavery.  He certainly didn’t think politicians were going to resolve the slavery crisis and he was right.  Would he have run for office later in life like some famous generals have done?  For some reason, I can’t imagine him making that transition.  Yet, in a local sense, I can imagine him running for some office so that he could make sure local justice and civic order was upheld.  Issues of justice were of his foremost concern; but he harked to the Puritans and was a child of the three-fold societal model that they bequeathed to North America—school, church, and family.  

5. Would JB be proud of the modern American public education system?

Probably not.  JB was a strong advocate of the public school system in his day, but his concept of public education today would be considered a kind of Christian liberal arts viewpoint.  He’d would be offended by the social and philosophical ideas that are espoused in many public schools.  He would also be offended by the way that racism is manifested in public education, where public schools serving the poor lack the resources that are available in other public schools.

6.  Would JB Wave the Wheat?  Root for the Hawks?  Cheer for the hometeam?  How interested would he be in sports, or would he consider them a useless diversion?

I doubt JB would support any sports team, and I think he’d consider sports enthusiasm a useless diversion indeed.  In his day, he looked down on men who hunted and fished for sport, so I think he’d look at today’s vast arenas and team enthusiasm as evoking comparisons with ancient pagan arenas—bread and circus sort of stuff. 

7.  Would JB dig in the ground?  Would he be an organic farmer?  Would you see him at the farmers' market?  Would he be concerned about the issues of local agriculture?  Would he be an urban gardner?

JB did dig in the ground.  Although he was not a professional farmer, he farmed for food, even in the cold Adirondacks. JB was an organic farmer by definition, but in the modern context, he might prefer organic farming if there were scientific support for it from his standpoint.  I think he’d enjoy farmers’ markets and would very much be concerned about local agriculture.  These issues would strike not just close to home for him, but close to his sense of stewardship and responsibility.  His intercession on behalf of wool growers in the 1840s also shows that if justice issues were tied in with issues of local agriculture, he would be greatly concerned.  Urban gardening?  No, John Brown did not like city living, so I doubt he'd ever have any real occasion to become an urban gardener.

8.  Would JB file on April 15th?  Or would he be a tax resister?  If so, what would he be protesting in particular?

Yes, he would pay his taxes in obedience to the teachings of Christ.  He paid taxes throughout his life, although he had problems sometimes because of money shortages.  JB opposed the Mexican War as the southern slave masters’ attempt to expand slavery, and he didn’t want government money spent on that war.   He expressed this sentiment but he still paid his taxes.  So I suspect today he’d still be paying his taxes, although he might dislike doing so for any number of reasons pertaining to foreign and domestic policies.

9.  Would JB be a marijuana legalization advocate?  What would he think of the war on drugs or the culture of drugs in modern America?  Would he be a big agricultural-use hemp advocate?

JB would have nothing to do with the use of any kind of drug for “recreational purposes.”  This would be like abusing alcohol for the sake of getting drunk, and he wouldn't do that either.  Perhaps JB would support the war on drugs.  But he might even support a literal war that would include invading foreign countries if he believed all other avenues and possibilities were exhausted.  As to the culture of drugs, I suspect he would advocate capital punishment and zero tolerance because of the threat that drugs pose to the internal stability of the nation.

10.  Would he be an eco-conscious fuel-consumption advocate. . .Would he be an 'American made' car advocate?

I suspect JB would support the best solutions for the best outcomes as a matter of course.  He was not a man of extravagance or wastefulness.  I believe he would prefer buying “U.S.” goods, from wool socks to pistols.  Given his historical point of view—standing as he did between the American Revolution and the Civil War, he was very “American minded” and would support his nation as a priority.  Obviously it’s a different world today and I don’t know if he’d mind buying a “foreign car” that was manufactured in a U.S. plant by U.S. workers.

WWJBD?  Who really knows for sure?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Bell & Howl III--
Marlborough speaks of its own liberty bell 

Another interesting installment on the "John Brown Bell" controversy is found in an op-ed piece in today's (19 Aug.) MetroWest Daily News [Framingham, Mass.] by Paul Brodeur.  The author points out that the Union soldiers who stole the bell from the Harper's Ferry engine house were no mere thieves, but heroic figures in the Civil War.  Some of the original group who removed the bell did not survive the war, and others suffered great personal loss as a result of fighting for their country and emancipation.  Brodeur clearly resents Howard Swint's inclination to portray these soldiers as mere thieves and opportunists.  More interesting is this closing paragraph from Brodeur's piece:
Apart from their exemplary community spirit, some of these men were also involved in the resettlement in Marlborough of the slaves from the Harpers Ferry Wager Hotel. To them, abolition was not an empty phrase, but an idea that required commitment. The very presence of these freed slaves in Marlborough make a compelling case that the Bell, a neighbor to them in Harpers Ferry, belongs with them in Marlborough.
In a real sense, this important aspect weighs far more heavily on the side of Marlborough's side of the argument.  Not only as the Massachusetts town possessed the bell for over a century, but its soldiers were far more than souvenir hunters.  The same spirit that inspired the removal of the Harper's Ferry engine house bell also animated these men and their community to extend the work of John Brown by liberating quite literally the same people that Brown had intended to liberate.  In so doing, they deprived the slave holders of Harper's Ferry of their "property" and resettled them in their own community.  Could a more fitting defense of the Marlborough side be made?

What did these liberated black people and their descendants in Marlborough think whenever they looked upon the "John Brown Bell"?  We may never know.  But I suspect they were not particularly concerned about its return to Harper's Ferry.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

More Bell & Howl--
Will Swint Go to Court?

According to an article by Linda Wheeler in "A House Divided," the Civil War blog of The Washington Post (16 Aug.), since Howard Swint has had no response from the city government of Marlborough, Massachusetts, "he now plans to take legal action by filing a motion with the U.S. District court to bring the bell back to Harpers Ferry."  Swint has proven a one-man army in single-minded pursuit of the "John Brown Bell"--the Harper's Ferry armory bell that once rang atop the engine house where Brown made his last stand in October 1859.  The bell was removed by Union soldiers during the Civil War and kept by a loyal friend for thirty years before it was shipped up to Massachusetts, where it has remained a symbolic centerpiece of Marlborough since 1892.  Swint really would like to see the bell returned to the engine house, now part of the National Park Service in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia.  He has tried appealing, reasoning, and arguing to no avail.  More recently, he has proposed a program of shared possession between Marlborough and Harper's Ferry, although the mayor of the latter town has not made an issue of returning the bell.  No doubt, people in West Virginia would like to see the bell returned, just as people in Marlborough and other places in the northeast probably feel just as strongly about seeing the bell remain where it has been for 120 years.

The question of making this a federal case opens a whole new scenario.  On one level, it might make sense since the bell originally was the property of a federal facility, not a [West] Virginia town.  Were it returned today, it would also be returned to government property, the National Park Service at Harper's Ferry.  

Mr. Swint, backed by the 20th century research of Boyd Stutler, contends that the bell was removed from Harper's Ferry without approval of the army.  Both Stutler and Swint, respectively, made good faith searches for any written order permitting the removal of the bell, and found none.  The latter has further argued that this strengthens the claim of those who want the bell removed and restored to the engine house structure in West Virginia.  But the absence of documentation does not entirely prove the point.  There are two witness testimonies from the Union soldiers stating that they received permission, although they requested it after the fact of the bell's removal.  In a 1910 pamphlet telling the story of the bell, Lysander Parker wrote:
Realizing that our treasure was the property of Uncle Sam, we thought best to consult proper authority before proceeding further, and immediately through Major Gould, Provost Marshal of the 13th at Sandy Hook, we made direct application to the Government for it and in due season received permission from the War Department to appropriate the bell.  It was then boxed by Levi Taylor and Algernon S. Smith and placed on board the canal boat “Charles McCardell.”  This boat was used during the time we were there for the officers quarters and there it remained until we rejoined out regiment.1
Another "bell raider," James M. Gleason, gave his account of the incident in 1901, in a published speech available through the Marlborough Historical Society website.2  Gleason's account seems a bit more hazy, although he also states that orders (after the fact) were issued by Major [Jacob] Gould permitting the bell's removal.  Gleason's account varies with Parker in stating that the bell was at first "dumped in the canal," then retrieved and boxed after Gould's orders came through.

Obviously, if the bell becomes a court case, it will require far more intensive examination of the evidence and judgment would be made accordingly.  However, given the fact that the bell has been held by Marlborough for well over a century, this may also be a significant factor in the eyes of the law.  Of course the question remains whether, at this stage in our nation's economy, we want government time and money spent on this issue.  Mr. Swint may also do more harm than good if he presses this matter to the point of a federal lawsuit.  Not only will Marlborough dig in its heels, but the matter may grow from irritation to hard feelings.

To my mind (and I've given this matter little thought, and only recently), perhaps the only real route to take would have been for the National Park Service to ask for the bell on loan, to be displayed annually, perhaps through the month of October, where it could be placed atop the engine house in commemoration of the John Brown raid.  Unfortunately, at this point, I doubt the leaders of Marlborough will even go for that.  It's a bell of a dilemma.

1 Parker (1910) quoted in "Nine Weeks at Harper's Ferry; Part V The John Brown Bell," 13th Mass.org.  Retrieved from: http://13thmass.org/1861/harpersferry.html#john_brown_bell.

2 "The John Brown Bell: An Address Delivered by James M. Gleason. . .April 11, 1901, under "The John Brown Bell," Marlborough Historical Society website.  Document download address: http://www.scribd.com/doc/61504099/Retelling-50-years-later-of-the-events-that-led-to-the-taking-of-the-John-Brown-Bell

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Reading Between the Lines--
John Brown as Straw Man: The Case of Col. Patrick Lang

Fairly often, some blogger or journalist pulls out the John Brown straw man to make some point that typically has no relation to the historical fact.  Let some dubious fanatic blow up a government building or burn a Qur’an and some bloggers go wild with references to Brown.   It’s almost standard practice of the mainstream white male mentality in the U.S.  The latest case is Col. W. Patrick Lang, a retired senior officer of the U.S. Military Intelligence and the Special Forces.  Lang has an entry, "John Brown Comes Again" in his blog, Sic Semper Tyrannis (which is the motto of Virginia, the Old Dominion).

Primarily, I’m not interested in the point of Lang’s politics.  He raises the John Brown straw man in some ongoing discussion about “the darlings of the Republican Party” and the use of “American exceptionalism” as an excuse for funding modern empire.  He is evidently concerned about the impact of “Dominionism,” a kind of conservative, neo-Manifest Destiny with individualized and political implications (depending on whether it's being taught by a televangelist or a right-wing politician).  Col. Lang is particularly resentful of the “Dominionism” of the religious right, which portray themselves and the U.S. as “the last best hope.” Although in this case I think he has a point, I take issue with his historical application and think it is very revealing.

First, in reaction to right-wing Christian “Dominionism,” he writes: “My Puritan Massachusetts and Connecticut ancestors believed crap like that at first and then they did not.  My people moved on west to get away from the Dominionists.”  Well, sir, this is only partly true.  In all fairness, your Puritan ancestors deserve a bit more consideration.  They did not come to North America with a dominionist agenda per se--at least not the agenda that you're attributing to this ilk of the G.O.P.  Puritans came with the intention of establishing a thoroughly Protestant society free of Roman Catholic influences in church and state, and they came with the intention of making a positive example for England ("a city on a hill").  It is true that their legacy unfolded in ways expansionist and dominionist, but the Puritan legacy not only produced oppression, but also abolitionism and advocacy for human rights based on biblical principles.  So balance the books.

Although Lang appeals to the popular straw man Brown at Pottawatomie (the facts of which itself he seems to be clueless), it bears mentioning that Brown valued the aspects of his Puritan ancestry that pertained to human rights and the equality of all people under God.  He was hardly the archetype of the present day religious right-wingers who are spouting dominionist rhetoric.  In fact, he was opposed to people in his own day that expressed such a political agenda.  Brown was never a Republican, and certainly not a hyper-nationalist in any sense.  Using him in this way is historically illicit.

Furthermore, Col. Lang not only generalizes the beliefs of his Puritan ancestors as “crap,” but seems to believe that some of them “moved on west to get away from the Dominionists.”  Really, Col. Lang?  To the contrary, most of Lang's "people” actually went west to extend the social and political norms of the older section of the nation.  About the only people who “moved on west to get away from the Dominionists” were of the John Brown stripe.  Consider Kansas Territory and the fact that most “free state” settlers were also racists who didn’t want blacks to settle there.  These “anti-slavery” whites were struggling with pro-slavery whites who wanted to bring blacks into Kansas as slaves.  The only folks who went west in the 1850s “to escape Dominionism” were abolitionists like John Brown’s family!  Col. Lang should be more careful with history.   Using John Brown as a whipping boy is an inclination of of a certain mind set, including the well-decorated and prestigious tools of the federal government.  

Col. Lang reveals himself finally and fully in his closing remarks: “They hanged John Brown in Harper's Ferry?  I wish I had been there.” 

Here, Col. Lang. Eat Your Heart Out
Of course, had Lang been a soldier in 1859 instead of the 20th century, he would very likely have encircled Brown’s gallows and found a great measure of delight in his death.  But in a real sense, Lang was there.   To use the old King James Version phrase, he was present at the hanging of Brown “in the loins” of his forefathers.  His blog is entitled “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” not only the motto of Virginia but also the words exclaimed by John Wilkes Booth after he murdered Abraham Lincoln.  And just like Lang, the murderous Booth wished to be present at Brown’s hanging, and donned a militia uniform in order to get in the front row.  

Obviously, Col. Lang is closer to Brown’s killers than even he realizes.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

John Brown Pike in Upcoming Auction

For those of you with some money to spend on historical relics, you may be interested in knowing that a John Brown pike is coming up for auction by Historical Collectibles (Dallas, TX) on November 12.  (The pike pictured above is not the one on auction by HC.)  For your information, here is the catalogue listing from the HC website:

John Brown Pike Captured by Marine Major William Worthington Russell at Harper's Ferry October 18, 1859. (See Catalog Introduction) Classic form as produced by Charles Blair of Collinsville, Conn. on direct order from Brown for use in his imagined slave insurrection. This example is numbered 420 on the top of the cross guard, blade tang (which has become partially separated from the haft) and the iron ferrule. Overall with deep dark untouched patina, absolutely no rust or pitting and exactly as taken by Russell. The screws are missing from the iron ferrule, although the holes are visible. Retains 25" of the original wooden haft, broken off at the bottom, whether for easy storage and transport by Russell, or at the time it was captured, is unknown. Historic example of this iconic primitive weapon captured by the commander of the Marine contingent that assaulted the firehouse where Brown's raiders were ensconced on that fateful day. Purchased from Russell's direct lineal descendants and accompanied by a sword/notarized affidavit attesting to same.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Documentary Download!
Jean Libby's "Portraits of John Brown, the Abolitionist"

No one since the late Boyd B. Stutler has devoted so many years, miles, and dollars to John Brown documentary study and field research as has Jean Libby.  From the 1970s, she has made painstaking exploration of primary documents, both written and images, that have made it possible for scholars to better understand Brown's abolitionist networking and activities.  It was Libby who first took seriously Osborne Anderson's eyewitness testimony to the Harper's Ferry raid after decades of being slighted and ignored by biographers.  It was Libby who radically challenged the slave master propaganda of Brown's alleged failure to attract and involve enslaved blacks at Harper's Ferry--a stubborn error that still has currency today in the study.  In more recent years, she has collected, studied, and edited Brown's abolitionist documents, and has made meticulous and tireless study of the extant photographic images, providing the first photographic canon of Brown images in the history of our research.  Jean will tell you that she's no biographer, and although this is literally true, her in depth and extensive study of Brown and his family qualifies her as a biographical authority in her own right.  As the following note from Jean demonstrates, her research and exhibitions pertaining to Brown's images have enjoyed wide recognition, especially since the Harper's Ferry sesquicentennial two years ago.  Her book, John Brown Photo Chronology (Palo Alto, Calif.: Allies for Freedom Publishers, 2009) is the catalog of the exhibition at Harper's Ferry, and is indispensable for students, scholars, and researchers.  I have received this communication from Jean, in which is also a link for my readers to download her review essay, "Portraits of John Brown, the Abolitionist."  I would like to thank her for making this accessible to my readers.--LD  
The sesquicentennial of the John Brown raid in October 2009 inspired institutional online exhibitions from the Gilder Lehrman Institute and the Virginia History Society as well as my own authored John Brown Photo Chronology, which is on continued display at the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.  Other exhibitions which include John Brown but are not solely about him are reviewed for content.

The issue of language often used to describe John Brown is addressed in this review essay, which includes full academic references and illustrations which are properly permitted. 

Thank you to the staff of the Harpers Ferry NHP for conducting an informal survey of visitor response to the portraits of John Brown at the museum, and to Andrea Reidell, Education Program Coordinator for The National Archives at Philadelphia, who integrated the traveling copy of the John Brown Photo Chronology into a lesson plan for high school students

All are welcome to download and cite the copyrighted essay as desired.1

Jean Libby, editor
Allies for Freedom

Friday, August 12, 2011

Two Harper's Ferry Items in the News

It's Hammer Time

The Fredericksburg [Maryland] Free Lance-Star and the Washington [D.C.] Examiner websites have recently published a feature story by Clint Schemmer about the donation of a 28-pound sledgehammer to the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Virginia.  The sledgehammer was used by the marines during the final assault on John Brown and his men in the Harpers Ferry armory engine house on October 18, 1859.  After the raid, the sledgehammer was picked up by a local doctor, who gave it to someone else, who later sold it to someone else, where it was passed down through the family line for nearly one hundred years.  There were two other sledgehammers used, one is held by the National Park Service at Harper's Ferry, and the other is lost to history.

Of course, the sledgehammer method didn't work; Brown had secured the doors from the inside to flex sufficiently under these blows.  Most historians point out that the marines then picked up a nearby ladder with which they successfully were able to ram through the engine house doors.  Only Jean Libby, who has studied the raid quite closely, has explained that the ladder was used the day before by a group of railroad men who were repelled by Brown's heavy fire.   As methods go, the railroad men were probably more effective in attacking the engine house than the marines, who brought the wrong tools for the job.  One wonders how much longer it would have taken Lee and the Leathernecks to take the engine house if they had not happily stumbled over the ladder.  As Homer Simpson would put it, "Doah!"

At any rate, the sledgehammer will be installed in a gallery entitled, "Defending the New Republic."  Gretchen Winterer, a curator of the museum, pointed out that the raid by Brown was intended to "arm slaves and start a revolt throughout the South."  Of course, she is correct, although it is interesting to consider such a revolt from the eyes of Ms. Winterer, the Marine Corps, and the slave owning interests that the marines served in those "turbulent times."   It gives us pause to remember that what freedom-loving people today consider a heroic action by John Brown, the National Museum of the Marine Corps will label as a threat against "the New Republic."  Likewise, this should remind us that in 1859, the marines were a de facto arm of the slave power, and no pretense of nobility and patriotic virtue can change that fact.

Winterer makes an interesting observation, that the marines were sent into the engine house without loaded guns, only bayonets.  Certainly, John Brown and his men had no knowledge of this fact.  However, she says this was ordered "because they didn't want to harm any of the hostages."  Well, that's partially true.  But it was also because they didn't want to "harm" any of the hostages' dark-skinned property that might get in the way as the Leathernecks set about butchering Brown's raiders inside the engine house.  Even though Winterer portrays the marines as "seizing the raiders," the reality is that they butchered them and were under orders to do so, because that's what slave masters do to people trying to free their slaves.

To reiterate: the attack on John Brown and his men at Harper's Ferry was the putting down of a slave revolt, not the defense of a nation.  At that moment in U.S. history, the marines were the bad guys.  It's probably not the last time that the marines functioned as bad guys with respect to U.S. action, but here the marines were used by slave masters to seize black people and return them to slavery and to kill the U.S. citizens who were trying to set them free.

Hammer that.

Bell & Howl

I've actually been ignoring this controversy for weeks, but I would be remiss not to at least mention that there is a hot little debate going on over the so-called John Brown Bell, which hangs in a tower on Union Common, in the town of Marlborough, Massachusetts.  Why the controversy?   The bell originally hung over the Harper's Ferry armory engine house, the very site where Brown made his last stand against the powers of slavery and white supremacy.  The bell was taken by Union soldiers during the Civil War and hidden for thirty years, after which it was taken up and carried north to Marlborough in 1892.  Until the 1960s, it was suspended on the front of the Marlborough Grand Army of the Republic and American Legion building, after which it was moved to its present site.

Ken McGagh, MetroWest Daily
-2008 (Framingham, Mass.)
According to the late Boyd Stutler, in the time of the Harper's Ferry raid, the bell served both as a fire alarm as well as the armory "work whistle," signaling shift ends and starts.  Stutler speculated that the bell may have been used even before the erection of the fire engine house on the armory grounds.  He never found a picture of the engine house taken prior to the raid, nor did he find any orders or authorization from the Union army to have the bell removed.

That's the bell part.

The howl part is that recently, some well-meaning protest has arisen, particularly from a howling commercial real estate broker named Howard Swint, who is from Charleston, West Virginia.  Mr. Swint is a well-meaning gentleman who believes that the bell should be returned to the Harper's Ferry engine house.  The folks at Marlborough see it differently.  Mr. Swint is persistent; like Stutler, he has done research to discover if there was any federal order to have the bell removed and has found none.  No surprise, since Stutler was quite thorough in his work.  Frankly, the bell was stolen by some Massachusetts men in blue, carefully hidden, and then carried off many years after the War had ended. As Swint would point out, the lack of authority in removing the bell probably mitigates against Marlborough's interests, but then again, I'm not a lawyer and this is not just any stolen bell.

The late Boyd Stutler took an interest in this bell in the 1940s, and being both a journalist and a John Brown documentary scholar, he did research and interviews.  Swint would be happy to know that Stutler agreed that the bell should be returned to Harper's Ferry.  Of course, with all due respect, both  Swint and Stutler reflect the special interest of West Virginia, the 1863 invention of Lincoln's administration and the state that subsumed Harper's Ferry.

Despite the mockery and criticism that Swint has taken online from certain pro-Marlborough writers, he is trying to take the high road.  Lately he has proposed that Marlborough and Harper's Ferry develop a sister-city relationship that would allow joint custody of the bell.  So far, Marlborough's city fathers have not responded to the sister-city pitch and Swint is disappointed, according to the Framingham [Mass] Daily News (Aug. 12).  Somehow compromise between North and South just doesn't seem to work well.  Incidentally, Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. has expressed his willingness to sign on in support of Swint's proposed compromise.

Whether or not Swint realizes it, cracking the Liberty Bell is probably easier than cracking the case of the "John Brown Bell" of Harper's Ferry, er Marlborough, Massachusetts.  Even in the mid-20th century, when Boyd Stutler was on the ground at Marlborough to interview local citizens, he found they showed "considerable pride of possession" (Stutler to Barnes, 28 Sept. 1962, Stutler Collection).  In response to a piece about the bell that Stutler wrote in a West Virginia paper in 1962, a local named Orlo Strunk, Jr. (Stutler Collection) published a poem that reflects Mr. Swint's current appeal:
They came and sacked the fire house bell,
"The spoils of civil war," they said.
The Northern soldiers sent it home;
"Too bad," they said to Johnny Reb. 
The years have mellowed civil strife,
The men of Company One are dead,
The ghost of Mister Brown is gone,
And Harpers Ferry moves ahead. 
I pray the Marlborough children hear
The message of the pillaged bell;
And come to know the cost of hate--
To sense the claim of freedom's knell.
Stutler doubtless appreciated the sentiment of this contemporary poem, but he also held a poem written in 1917 from the Marlborough perspective, by Edith Folsom (Stutler Collection).  The poem is somewhat more lengthy and readers can use the link to read it in its entirety.  As the poem illustrates, Folsom perceived a strong link between the pro-Brown sentiment of Marlborough at the time of the Civil War and the meaning of the bell, which by then was already wed to the city's spirit as well as its landscape:
In the quaint bell-tower in Marlboro [sic] town,
Old men in blue still the swinging cord.
"His soul is marching on, O Lord!"
The air re-echoes, "John Brown - John Brown."
A good friend recently asked me for an opinion about the bell.  My response is bifurcated.  The reasonable part of me thinks that compromise is the best solution.  After all, the bell first belonged to federal property and at the very least, compromise would mean sharing it with a National Park Service facility, which is also federal property.  It's not like handing the bell back to Wise, Hunter, and the rest of John Brown's judicial murderers.  A compromise would even give Marlborough a little publicity, I suppose, and Boyd Stutler would probably smile in his grave.

On the other hand, the loss of the bell can also be perceived as symbolic of the price that was paid by slaveholders for their brutality, greed, and perfidy.  Jesus taught, "count the cost before you go to war."  Wise and the rest of the Old Dominion did not sufficiently count the cost, and a great deal was lost, especially in life--all for the sake of expanding slavery.  There was nothing noble in the Southern cause, and notwithstanding the stubborn, ahistorical pride that reigns in Dixie to this day, the Confederate soldiers died as fools, fighting for a cause that today overshadows their descendants.  The bell was taken in war by Union soldiers.  Yes, the bell was stolen--really stolen twice, once during the Civil War, and then again thirty years later, long after the war was over.  But a lot of things were lost in the war because Virginia and other states chose to secede.  Contrary to the Strunk poem, there is more to keeping the bell than hate.

First, the people of Marlborough paid in blood and tears for a war that they didn't start and didn't want.  The thieving men in blue who swiped the bell would not have been in Harper's Ferry were it not for the same people who hanged John Brown and afterward pushed their own state out of the Union into secession, rebellion, and war.  Like it or not, West Virginians may have to own up to the historical consequences of the war as symbolized by the loss of "their" bell.  Second, the "John Brown Bell" has been part of Marlborough's life and history for over a century now, perhaps longer than it was actually situated atop the engine house at Harper's Ferry.  Shouldn't the State of Virginia return John Brown's papers to Alice Keesey Mecoy and other Brown family descendants?  The point is lots of stuff gets stolen by superior force in times of conflict and a case can be made for this stuff to be returned.  But the city of Marlborough may wonder why they should be expected to do so, simply because some folks in West Virginia want "their" bell returned.

Finally, the leaders and citizens of Marlborough may very well see returning the bell as a concession to the spirit of the Confederacy, even if Mr. Swint is representing an entirely different approach.  After all, the white South pretty much recovered everything after the defeat of Reconstruction--land, power, and the right to revise the meaning of the Civil War, even in places like Harper's Ferry.  Given the strongly anti-Brown sentiment that pervades the National Park Service at Harper's Ferry today, and the consistent way in which Brown is misrepresented in NPS tourist narratives, frankly it gives me a little satisfaction in knowing that the engine house bell is out of their reach and may be for sometime.  Bells represent resounding clarity, something that is not typical of the NPS at Harper's Ferry.

The postscript to this is that, in the grand scheme of things, all this hoopla over a bell seems overdone, the kind of controversy that white folks have the privilege to indulge in.  It reminds me of an outraged property owner who was also a realtor in a real estate office in Florida where I was temping many years ago.  One day I happened to hear the realtor raging over the phone because someone had intentions of constructing a building that would ruin the front view from his plush condominium.  "It's unconscionable!" he declared.  "Unconscionable?" I said to myself.  "I can think of a lot of other things  that are unconscionable."  I feel the same way about the "John Brown Bell" affair.  After all, if Uncle Sam is not willing to officially apologize to black people and Native Americans, let alone pay reparations or return stolen land, why should it really matter if the "John Brown Bell" is returned to the National Park Service facility in West Virginia?  To borrow the words of Jesus, it seems to me we're "straining out gnats and swallowing camels," and it's white folks doing all the straining.

Postscript (16 Aug): Visit the Marlborough Historical Society's website for more information and downloadable materials about the John Brown Bell.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

From the Field—

by H. Scott Wolfe*
“…the product of generations of misinformation, negative portrayals, and unchecked carelessness in historical and journalistic writing.” Lou DeCaro Jr., in his post of 7/25/11
Were you able to view the recent episode of History Detectives on PBS?… The show highlighting the identification of the potential “John Brown pike?” An Ohio man had purchased such a weapon at a Chagrin Falls antique store, and wished to investigate whether it was, as he stated, “an important part of American history, or a broomstick with a bowie knife on top.”

The star “detective” on the case was Wes Cowan, a Cincinnati auctioneer. When he took time out from congratulating himself for selling an early daguerreotype of Brown for a hundred thousand bucks, Cowan attempted to determine the origins of the pike…the blade of which was stamped: “18 C. HART & SON 59.” The “research” was conducted through several interviews and some superficial history a la Google.

Not surprisingly, the script contained some of the customary asides…stale as last week’s loaf and as false as Aunt Tillie’s eyelashes…in regard to the Old Man’s motivations at Harper’s Ferry. Brown, of course, sought to “seize guns stored there, and ignite a slave revolt throughout the South.” Ho-hum.
But I must credit the show for publicizing an important fact…one commonly ignored even by John Brown aficionados. Most subscribe to the belief that Charles Blair, the Collinsville, Connecticut blacksmith, produced the thousand pikes ordered by the Old Man. In reality, because of time delays and lack of payment, Blair subcontracted the job to one Chauncey Hart of nearby Unionville. It was Hart’s name that appeared upon the pike featured in the television program.

Blair himself, when he testified before the “Mason Committee” investigating the “late invasion” of Harper’s Ferry, stated: “…I went out of town and got a man by the name of Hart to finish up this work for me. Mr. Hart was an acquaintance of mine, whom I had formerly known, and I knew him to be engaged in edge-tool manufacturing, a competent man to do it, and I submitted the whole thing to him.”

Truly an interesting bit of John Brown trivia. But wait!! If only the show had ended with this revelation!! No…it instead ended with a gratuitous postscript under the headings of “From the Archives” and “Follow-up.” And it did not deal with pikes. It dealt with Pottawatomie.
The brutal caning of Mass. Sen. Sumner on May 22,
1856 had no impact on the Pottawatomie incident

I had been watching this History Detectives episode with my wife. And as the narrator droned on about the events preliminary to the “Pottawatomie Massacre,” my mind was still fixated on Charles Blair, Chauncey Hart and edged weapons. But then I heard those fateful words:
“On May 21st, 1856, some 750 armed proslavery men, known as border ruffians, attacked the Free State town of Lawrence. Just a day later came news that antislavery Senator Charles Sumner had been attacked on the Senate floor by South Carolina Senator (?) Preston Brooks.  For John Brown, news of the beating was the last straw.”
“What’s your problem?” inquired the wife. (She had noted that my body had visibly stiffened, my head rolled uncontrollably, and I was unconsciously uttering unspeakable epithets absorbed in my youth from my Great-Uncle Elmer.)

“They said it again!” I blurted.

“Said what?”

“That the news of the Sumner caning reached Brown in Kansas and set off his fuse before Pottawatomie!” (I now nervously paced the floor, my hands clasped to my temples.)

“So? How do you know it didn’t?” responded the contrarian.

“Because it was physically impossible!” I shouted at the dear one who prepares my meals.

“Why, smartie pants? What about the telegraph…or trains…or a newspaper?” she persisted.

The sacking of Lawrence, Kansas, May 21, 1856
“Just look at the calendar!” (I moved in for the kill.) The ruffians sack Lawrence on the 21st, right? Sumner is caned in Washington, D.C. on the afternoon of the 22nd. How does Brown, on the plains of frontier Kansas, learn of it on the same day? Did the New York Tribune rent a Space Shuttle? The telegraph ended at St. Louis…and the tracks to St. Joseph would not be finished until the ‘60s. What did they do? Hire an Olympic swimmer at St. Charles and have him paddle up the Missouri with a message in his trunks?”

“It does seem kinda funny,” the victim of my inexorable logic whispered.

“Let’s go out for Mexican,” I compassionately responded.

Obviously, this had not been the first time I encountered such “pop” history programs…or even serious historical or biographical works…playing the John Brown/Charles Sumner card. It demonstrates the same “unchecked carelessness in historical and journalistic writing” I mentioned above. Sources…or even one’s common sense…are not consulted. And writers simply accept the statements in prior volumes and incorporate them as “facts.” The inevitable result is the perpetuation of false history.

I have encountered the same situation as I collect biographical material on the life of Civil War General John Aaron Rawlins…the Chief of Staff and Secretary of War of Ulysses S. Grant. To the devotees of Grant, Rawlins has always been the proverbial stone in their shoe…a threat to the reputation of their Hero. His role as advisor has been relentlessly minimized…and his role as temperance advocate and “conscience” to his Chief is avoided at all hazards. The Grant partisans required a foil to explain Rawlins’ anti-liquor passions, and settled upon his father…James Dawson Rawlins…who they portray as a shiftless, family-deserting alcoholic. Some Grant biographies solidly place the elder Rawlins prone in a gutter. The problem is that James Dawson Rawlins was a solid citizen, not a raging alcoholic. But as the recent spate of Grant biographies demonstrate, each author picks up the story from the last book to be published…neglects original research…and thereby perpetuates false history.

Salmon Brown "garnished" his account
of Pottawatomie later in life
The story in which Brown is informed of the Sumner caning…on the eve of Pottawatomie…appears to have begun with an interview of the Old Man’s son, Salmon conducted by Katherine Mayo, on October 11-13, 1908, fifty-two years after the fact.  Mayo was then serving as Oswald Garrison Villard’s assistant in preparing his classic, John Brown 1800-1859: A Biography Fifty Years After (1910). At that time Salmon…no doubt embellishing and blending events of long ago…stated:
By daylight next morning we had reached the top of the hill south of the Wakarusa—a high ridge—where we halted to rest. Here, while watching the smoke rising over the town of Lawrence, a messenger named Gardner met us with the evil news that Lawrence had already fallen, telling us also of the brutal assault upon Senator Sumner by Bully Brooks. He carried the message hidden in his boot. At that blow the men went wild. It seemed to be the finishing, decisive touch. Father decided then—on the news of Sumner’s assault, which showed that violence had reached even to the halls of Congress—to do what was done at Pottawatomie. . . .
On page 154 of his biography, Villard writes essentially the same account: “As we turned back with the evil news (the fate of Lawrence) and had just got to the top of the hill south of the Wakarusa-the high ridge,” says Salmon Brown, “a man named Gardner came to us with the news of the assault upon Senator Sumner of Bully Brooks—carrying the message hidden in his boot. At that blow the men went crazy—crazy. It seemed to be the finishing, decisive touch.”

As they say, this was “the rabbit, that dislodged the pebble, that loosed the avalanche.” Some succeeding Brown biographers picked up the story…thereby perpetuating the myth. Others…happily…ignored it.

We should recognize one who debunked it…that being Jules Abels, in his 1971 biography, Man on Fire: John Brown and the Cause of Liberty. On pp. 62-63, Abels writes:
In 1913, Salmon Brown, then seventy-seven years old, and again in 1917, gave what purported to be a full story. Salmon’s account seems untrustworthy in many ways. He told of the men viewing Lawrence afire from the top of a hill south of the Wakarusa on the morning of May 23. This is contradicted by others, who stated they were miles away. Then he told how a messenger that morning brought news of the brutal caning in the United States Senate in Washington, D.C. the day before, of Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts by Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina…THIS MUST HAVE BEEN SALMON’S IMAGINATION, SINCE THE TELEGRAPH DID NOT EXTEND FURTHER WEST THAN ST. LOUIS AT THE TIME AND THE NEWS COULD NOT HAVE COME UNTIL SEVERAL DAYS LATER. (emphasis my own)
But we are not out of the woods yet…as recent books and popular history programs have proven. We are all too familiar with “John Brown’s Holy War,” the PBS “American Experience” presentation that scrambles history more than a farm-fresh egg. The narrator tells of the ruffians sacking Lawrence (“and not one abolitionist dared to fire a gun”), and then continues:
Within hours, Brown received another disturbing report, this time from Washington. Abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner was working on the Senate floor when a Southern Congressman suddenly began smashing Sumner’s head with a cane. Sumner was beaten to an inch of his life. This news reached Brown and his men that May afternoon in Kansas…At that…the men went crazy. It seemed to be the finishing, decisive touch. . . .
The script then states that Brown retreated to the woods “to converse with God,” only to emerge with “a revolver in his belt,” and then lead his men “toward the cabins by Pottawatomie Creek.”

But don’t give the recent Brown biographies a free pass either.

David Reynolds, in his John Brown: Abolitionist (2005), states that the events that “added fuel to John Brown’s desire for retaliatory vengeance” included “continued assaults on Free State people; the sack of Lawrence by border ruffians; and news of the vicious caning of Senator Sumner by Preston Brooks in the U.S. Senate. . . .” Evan Carton, in Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America (2006), relates this story:
On May 23, other men had begun to gather in the Brown’s camp at Ottawa Creek. Most were from Osawatomie, but a few had come from Lawrence. One of the latter had been in the ravaged town the previous evening, when a telegram had arrived bearing the news that Sumner had been caned by Preston Brooks and lay near death. ‘It seemed to be the finishing, decisive touch,’ Salmon Brown recalled years later.
So now there was a telegraph office in Lawrence? On May 22nd? Apparently it had escaped the plunder of the dastardly ruffians.

So at the risk of didacticism, allow me to provide “the finishing, decisive touch” to this essay…by simply stating the old axiom of “don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers”—or in John Brown biographies.

Check your sources. Rely on common sense. Concentrate on primary research…and not on the last work that happens to have been published. It is only in this way that false history…particularly in regard to controversial figures such as John Brown…will NOT be ceaselessly repeated.

* H. Scott Wolfe is the Historical Librarian of the Galena, Illinois, Public Library District and now a regular correspondent and contributor to this blog. He has devoted many years of grassroots research on John Brown, the Harper's Ferry raiders, and related themes.

POSTSCRIPT: Toward Revisiting the Kansas Narrative

This week, I've been able to share two significant insights on this blog that have overturned "conventional" assumptions about John Brown's activities in the Kansas Territory in 1856.  The first, by our friend in Osawatomie, Grady Atwater, points out that the attack on Osawatomie in August 1856 by proslavery thugs was not the direct result of John Brown's role at Pottawatomie that previous May, and that Brown, in fact, tried to discourage young "hotheads" among the free state radicals in their plan to attack New Georgia, a neighboring proslavery village.  Rather than seeing Brown as the trouble-making, incendiary figure who can be blamed for "Bleeding Kansas," Atwater shows that Brown showed strategic reservation about this attack and counseled against it.  This only strengthens our contention that the common yackety-yack of historians in summing up Brown in Kansas is flawed and must be revisited with greater research and serious correction.   Certainly, Villard's biographical conclusions about Brown in Kansas (and Harper's Ferry) cannot go unquestioned because, as I've argued repeatedly over the years, his biases distorted the record (notwithstanding Katherine Mayo's important field research on his behalf).  Brown must be seen in Kansas as responding to proslavery terrorism, not initiating terrorism. 

On the heels of Atwater's insightful piece, H. Scott Wolfe, a grassroots researcher on Brown, recently corresponded with me, as reported in the article above, raising the question of the Sumner-Brooks episode's impact on Brown in regard to the Pottawatomie incident.  Our brief exchange not only prompted me to revisit this episode, but also happily became the occasion for Scott to further explore the "Caning by Sumner" incident.  His careful reflection and research has yielded important results that should be noted by every serious Brown scholar and any other writer presuming to narrate the Pottawatomie incident.  The much repeated notion that Brown and company were driven "insane" by the report of the Sumner caning has informed too many narratives about Pottawatomie despite its unreliability.  As Wolfe shows, Jules Abels questioned it back in 1971, while both Reynolds and Carton have accepted the claim at face value.  I have overlooked the Sumner incident in my treatments of Pottawatomie, but only because I have argued that the killings were exclusively a result of local developments in the territory and Brown's desperate actions were driven by real circumstances framed by a personal nadir of sorrow brought about by the death of his father back in Ohio.  I must admit, however, that I never seriously considered the reliability of the Sumner caning notion until Scott Wolfe raised it in correspondence.

As a result of Scott's prompting, I went to my files and noted that the claim that Sumner's caning impacted Brown and his men's actions at Pottawatomie was traced back to a single source, as noted by Scott Wolfe, in Mayo's interview with Salmon Brown in October 1908.  However, Salmon prepared a narrative of the same incidents in a 1901 letter (also in Villard's collection) written to to "Friend Holmes," whom I assume was James H. Holmes.  Salmon's concise summary here is authentic, with no Sumner garnish, and makes more sense:

We traveled all night and in the gray of the morning were on the top of the Walkerusa [sic] hills and could see the smoke of the Free State hotel, which was already nearly in ashes and Col. Buford just south of the Pottawatomie with four [hundred] armed men from the extreme South to enforce the Border-Ruffian laws[;] why should we not make a scattering of the Border-Ruffian officials on the Potawatomie [sic] who had told us to our teeth that they would get rid of us first of all.

It is reasonable to expect that were the Sumner caning incident of such importance, Salmon would have mentioned it to Holmes; furthermore, his version of the events leading up to the Pottawatomie attack strikes to the heart of what happened.  The people killed by Brown’s men were “officials” of the proslavery terrorists—that is, they were collaborators with conspiratorial intent.

Interestingly, Robert McGlone dismisses the Sumner caning story in his 2009 biography (compare p. 74 and note, p. 350).  McGlone is a careful scholar and he follows Abels in putting aside the account as unreliable.  What surprises me about McGlone, however, is that he does not bother to trace it to Salmon Brown, nor to raise his “memory” thesis, in which he points out the distortions and revisions that sometimes take place in later accounts provided by eyewitnesses.  Unfortunately, while McGlone has tended to abuse perfectly reliable memories and eyewitness accounts, he completely missed the opportunity to show how an aging Salmon Brown’s memory of the incidents of May 1856 were distorted in his 1908 interview.

These recent discussions point out a number of things: First, that historical scholarship is really dependent on grassroots research.  Second, John Brown scholarship is not a closed book at all—quite to the contrary, there is still a lot of work to be done.   Finally, besides further research, the John Brown literature of the 20th century needs to be critically reassessed in a number of ways, including the Pottawatomie incident.  From Brown’s personal business career to Kansas, and then to Harper’s Ferry, the conventional narrative is just not trustworthy.  Nor is the “mainstream” narrative that is spun in popular articles and television documentaries to be taken seriously, as exemplified in the recent travesty about Brown portrayed in “The Story of Us” on the History Channel.--LD

Thursday, August 04, 2011

John Brown Notes—

Atwater Corrects the Record About Osawatomie, August 1856

The typical rant about John Brown in Kansas is that because of the so-called “Pottawatomie massacre” in May 1856, tensions between proslavery and free state people were exacerbated to an explosive point, resulting in the retaliatory assault on the free state community of Osawatomie in the summer of 1856.  But like so many other assumptions presented as historical fact, the cause of the proslavery attack on Osawatomie was not primarily due to John Brown’s role in defending his family by the preemptive strike at Pottawatomie.

Grady Atwater, the administrator of the John Brown State Historic Site in Osawatomie, Kansas, currently has an informative piece in the Osawatomie Graphic in which he reveals that the primary cause of the proslavery assault of August 30, 1856 was a free state raid upon a new proslavery settlement called New Georgia, on August 8, 1856.  Equally interesting is the fact that, according to a letter from Brown’s brother-in-law Samuel L. Adair dated August 14, Brown had specifically advised the free state raiders from attacking the proslavery settlement.

Atwater concludes:
The Osawatomie Free State Guerilla’s raid on New Georgia was an offensive military action that John Brown advised against because he and other cooler heads knew that it would motivate an attack on Osawatomie. However, a group of young hotheaded Free State guerilla fighters disregarded Brown and other’s counsel and attacked the proslavery town anyway, which enraged proslavery forces and set the stage for the Battle of Osawatomie on August 30, 1856.
Source: Grady Atwater, “New Georgia Raid Fueled Free State Feud,” Osawatomie Graphic (no date).  Retrieved from: http://www.kccommunitynews.com/osawatomie-graphic-news/28751131/detail.html
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The Quindaro Statue of John Brown Still Stands As Witness to History

Radio station KCUR of Kansas City, Missouri, currently has a feature on its website about the 1911 marble statue of John Brown that stands in an old section of Kansas City, Kansas.  The website features an article and audio from the broadcast feature by journalist Elana Gordon, who interviewed Jesse Hope III, a direct descendant of enslaved blacks who found their freedom by running away from Missouri and settling in Quindaro, a “pro-abolition, Native American community” that “existed before Kansas even joined the union.”  Quindaro bravely co-existed with towns nearby, like Wyandotte City, that were proslavery.

"We celebrate the fact that he gave his life for the cause of freedom to the black man, and to erect a statue in his remembrance here is a great privilege to us," says Hope, who is the curator of a nearby museum.  Looking at the statue, Hope describes its worn and damaged stated: "It's missing its nose, and its scroll, and the coat's broke.  But it's still - I know who it is, it's John Brown."  According to Hope, Quindaro means “bundle of sticks,” an allusion to the principle, “in union there is strength.”

The statue of John Brown is the only vestige of Western University, the first black university west of the Mississippi, a school born from an earlier abolitionist school that served fugitives from slavery after the Civil War.  In the early 20th century, Quindaro was thriving and migrants from all over the country came to settle there.  According to Hope, it was at this time that people from a broad range of Quindaro’s society began to raise money for the statue of Brown, until the $2000 needed was raised.  The statue is carved from Italian marble and is situated on a granite base with an engraving that reads: "Erected to the memory of John Brown by a grateful people." It was first presented at the college commencement of 1911.

“Quindaro,” says Hope, “was founded and confirmed on the idea of freedom."  It was a fitting site for a statue of John Brown.


Ridiculous: A John Brown “Ghost” Sighting

A posting on A& E Community, a website of the cable station of the same name, with an interesting photo that someone claimed to have taken late in the evening this past April 23, at “The Haunted Cottage,” in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia.   Apparently, this establishment gives “ghost tours” and the photographer had been given a tour as a gift from his wife.  To no surprise, this metaphysical tourist apparently saw “John Brown” staring at him through a window of this establishment and snapped a picture.  The tourist writes that he recognized the apparition as “some guy,” but only afterward did he realize it was “John Brown the abolitionist” while doing some research “on the slave movement.”  What clinched it for the tourist, as he puts it, was “that big burly mustache.”  (Oh yes, whenever I think of Brown, I think of his “big burly mustache” too.)  He also recognized the apparition’s “right eye, because John Brown had those piercing fire and brimstone eyes that would put the fear of God in anybody he looked at.”  The tourist then allegedly confirms this by providing an artistic image that actually is a derivation from the famous 1859 Black & Batchelder daguerreotype (see Jean Libby’s book).  For comparison purposes, the tourist pasted the artistic rendering in the pane above the image of the alleged apparition of the Old Man.

What neither the tourist nor “The Haunted Cottage” proprietor can explain is why Old John Brown is hanging around Harper’s Ferry and peering into windows at night.