History, Research, and Current Themes

"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Monday, October 24, 2011

And A Child Shall Lead Them--
The Youngest John Brown Lecturer in the World?

Young Philip makes for a striking "Osawatomie" Brown

A very proud mother from the State of Nevada was kind enough to write to me, sharing about her son, Philip, who last year--at the age of nine--became probably the youngest researcher, lecturer, and educational impersonator of John Brown in the world.  The young man, who is now ten-years-old, was doubtlessly inspired by John Hendrix's wonderful illustrated book for young people, John Brown: His Fight for Freedom.  I'm also happy to say that Philip also found some inspiration and assistance from this blog.  His work on Brown was part of his participation in a program called "Young Chautauqua," in which children studied a historical personality and then wrote and performed in their own one-person show about their chosen subject.  Using Hendrix and other sources, he not only prepared his presentation, but also memorized John Brown's address to the court when he was sentenced to death.  According to Philip's mom, he performed his John Brown program in a number of places, including all the classes in his school from kindergarten through 8th grade.  "For the rest of the year," she writes, "kids would come up to him and talk to him about what they had just learned about John Brown."

That's excellent, Philip.  By all accounts, you make an excellent John Brown.  Keep up the research, too.  Another generation of John Brown scholars rising!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

An Elephant Story:
John Brown, a Complicated Man?

Writing for the entertainment section of The Washington Post today (10/23), journalist Ron Charles has a happy notice of a book party this past weekend in Northwest Washington held in honor of Tony Horwitz's Midnight Rising.  According to Charles, the party was hosted by Tony's brother, Josh Horwitz, President at Living Planet Books, and was attended by friends and family in celebration of Tony's latest accomplishment.  If I'm not mistaken, Tony's parents were also in attendance, which sounds very sweet.
Tony Horwitz
Ron Charles, The Washington Post
Congratulations, Tony.  On the other hand, Charles also reports the following:
"When pressed to characterize Brown as an American hero or an American terrorist, Horwitz refused. 'He was neither,' he said. 'Or both. He was a complicated man.'”
Of course, I take issue with the notion of Brown being "complicated" or "complex," whether it comes from the mouth of Brown's admirers or critics.  To be blunt, I don't find Brown a complicated man at all.  In fact, studying the course of his life, he seems to have been a very consistent if not predictable person.  Nor was there anything complicated about the choices he made or the values and beliefs that drove him.  I don't buy it, as I said, whether as a description offered in his defense or as a way of fence straddling.

I'm afraid the real complication here is somewhat more of a postmodern dilemma: it's a reader-response thing.   It's not John Brown who is complicated, but Tony's reading of him that gets complicated.  Brown is a hero, but he's a terrorist--oh wait, he's not a textbook terrorist, but he's no hero either.  Hero or terrorist?   Neither?   Both?   Neither or both?

This reminds me of the story about the five blind men who were asked to describe an elephant based upon the particular part of the elephant that they had grabbed--trunk, tusk, ear, leg, and tail.  As the story shows, it's impossible to describe an elephant when the process is so complicated.  Yet it would be a big mistake if we then considered the elephant to be a "complicated" beast.

Biographies are not videos or time machines, allowing readers to see the subject as he was and lived.  Biographies are interpretative narratives that reflect the perspective of the author.  Obviously, none of us can recreate John Brown in text.  Mark Twain was right when he concluded that “biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man. The biography of the man himself cannot be written.” While honest biographical portraits based upon sound research should share a basic resemblance with one another, a lot of room is left for interpretation, and this is where the subject can be rendered "complicated," especially if the author's presuppositions require it.

I respectfully differ with Tony on this point.  If John Brown seems "complicated" to him, I'd suggest the problem is in the historical grid he's using--the presuppositions he holds and the manner in which those presuppositions have shaped his handling of the story.  Of course, we all labor with presuppositions, and absolute objectivity is always beyond us.  But I do not believe therefore, as do radical postmoderns, that all interpretations are equally valid.  Some efforts at objectivity are better than others; some biographies are truer to the subject than others, and the best efforts to explain someone biographically do not tend toward complicating the subject.    

There was an abolitionist named John Brown who was born in Torrington, Connecticut on May 9, 1800, and was hanged in Charlestown, Virginia, on December 2, 1859.  In between those dates, his life was full of detail, drama, color, and texture.  His record is both mundane and fascinating, depending on the subject.  Yet there is a reasonably sound, evidentiary basis for saying that we can know a good deal about him, and can draw some historically valid conclusions about the kind of man that John Brown was.  

The question of whether he was a hero or a terrorist is only as complicated as we want it to be.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

David Reynolds on Midnight Rising

Notwithstanding the immense value of Robert McGlone's 2009 biography of Brown, no author and biographer has done more for John Brown's cultural and historical reputation in the broader public than David S. Reynolds, whose 2005 biography, John Brown Abolitionist broke through the wall of 20th century anti-Brown ignorance and bigotry, effectively restoring a great deal of light and reason to the popular understanding of Brown in the 21st century.  Reynolds' book signaled a real change for good, despite the snobbish protestation of writers like Sean Wilentz and others who prefer the conventional view of antebellum U.S. history (where white supremacy and chattel slavery are acceptable landscapes for the more meaningful story of white people and their political history).

Since the publication of Reynolds' book, some scholars have raised questions about Brown while suggesting their general appreciation for his noble stance in history.  In one case, it has been suggested that too much has been made of Brown's exceptional stance toward black people, and that his attitude and efforts for black freedom were far more typical among his white abolitionist contemporaries.  This attempt to "right size" Brown is unconvincing, especially in light of the Reynolds thesis, as well as my own previous profile of Brown in "Fire from the Midst of You."   To be sure, there were some notable white egalitarians among the abolitionists, and in some respects these heroic figures formed notable alliances with black abolitionists, a point illustrated in John Stauffer's seriously flawed but appreciable Black Hearts of Men.   However, as Reynolds shows, the sum of Brown's contributions was greater than the parts of the most notable anti-slavery figures in the antebellum era.  Hopefully I will revisit this more extensively at some point, but this is neither the time nor the place for addressing the problematic notion that Brown was hardly singular as a moral steward of abolitionism.

Yet the more positive and holistic view of Brown has been even more pointedly challenged, notably by Tony Horwitz in his new book, Midnight Rising.  Tony writes on the side of history where Brown's contributions and heroism may be appreciated, but not without considerable challenge and revision.  Clearly, Tony is not comfortable with the John Brown portrayed by Reynolds, Carton, me and others being accepted as the emerging 21st century image of the Old Man.  According to his own words, Tony argues for a more "nuanced" view of Brown in his new book.
Midnight Rising: Tony Horwitz
is not comfortable with the emerging
21st century portrait of John Brown

It is interesting, then, that David Reynolds has published a response to Midnight Rising in today's Wall Street Journal (Oct. 22), excerpts of which I publish below.  (The title, "An Angry Prophet," is undoubtedly the work of an editor, obviously intending to grab readers' attention.)  Due to copyright concerns, I have provided a substantial excerpt for the reader, who can use the provided link to read the review in its entirety on the WSJ website.
In his prologue to Midnight Rising, Tony Horwitz laments that, in his son's ninth-grade textbook, John Brown—the militant abolitionist whose attack on Harpers Ferry, Va., in 1859 helped to trigger the Civil War—is only a "speed bump for students racing ahead to Fort Sumter and the Gettysburg Address." When I was in high school, in the mid-1960s, my senior-year history book devoted only a dismissive paragraph to Brown. Back then, he wasn't so much a speed bump as road kill—a stinking skunk on history's highway. Brown was widely viewed as a homicidal maniac with a delusional plan for ending slavery.
In recent decades, Brown's reputation has improved, as historians have learned to value his dedication to eradicating slavery, his progressive attitudes on race and his perception that violence alone could uproot the South's peculiar institution. Mr. Horwitz says that, with Midnight Rising, he wants to enhance Brown's role in history by providing fresh information about him and his followers. He does indeed add some details to the record, but along the way he revives a few old, negative images of Brown that have been challenged in recent books, including Evan Carton's Patriotic Treason and Lou DeCaro's "Fire From the Midst of You." . . .
Brown thus plotted an invasion of the South that involved freeing some slaves and then retreating to the mountains, then moving southward and freeing more slaves and retreating again, and so on. He hoped thereby to destabilize the slave system and create panic among slaveholders. . . . 
. . .When it came to his plan to invade the South, Brown mustered support in the North and then stayed for months on a Maryland farm, training recruits. On the rainy evening of Oct. 16, 1859, he and 21 followers began their foray on the federal armory in Harpers Ferry. Brown seized the arsenal, liberated slaves in the region and took hostage a number of slaveholders, but he stalled too long in the town. After a bloody battle, he and several followers were captured by federal troops. Brown was tried before a Virginia court and hanged on Dec. 2, 1859. Six of his men followed him to the scaffold. 
Why did Brown linger in Harpers Ferry instead of fleeing to the mountains? Mr. Horwitz suggests that he had come to see himself as a new Samson, ready to sacrifice himself as long as the temple of slavery collapsed around him. 
Brown's immediate posthumous reputation was inevitably divided. In the South, he was seen as a satanic agitator who represented the North's aggressive designs. In the North, his insurrection plan seemed quixotic and futile, at first. But prominent Northerners like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau called Brown a peerless martyr who had died in a noble effort to free the slaves. Emerson predicted that Brown would make the gallows "as glorious as the Cross." The North's veneration of Brown swelled until he became a legend among Union troops, who famously sang as they marched: "John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave, / But his soul goes marching on." 
The idea of Brown as an inspiring freedom fighter has never died out. But during the long period of legalized segregation known as Jim Crow, his reputation plummeted. Biographers depicted him as murderous, fanatical, insane. This image was conveyed by revisionist historians and by movies like "Santa Fe Trail" (1940), in which Raymond Massey plays Brown as a wild-eyed zealot. 
It was left to modern historians to rescue Brown from ignominy. The civil-rights movement fostered a growing appreciation of Brown's forward-thinking views on race. A more positive view informed Stephen Oates's 1970 biography, To Purge This Land With Blood, which showed signs of sympathy while still questioning Brown's methods and sanity. 
Mr. Horwitz worries that, "through the lens of 9/11," we may now see John Brown as a "long-bearded fundamentalist" and Harpers Ferry as an "al-Qaeda prequel." He is right to worry about such reductionism, though 9/11, ironically, does help us to see that Brown's invasion plan was not utterly absurd. The past decade has shown what can happen when a determined splinter group wages war from hideouts—how disruptive it can be to the status quo. Had Brown made it to the mountains before he was captured at Harpers Ferry, he too might have had a powerful effect on events—a positive one (unlike al Qaeda), since he aimed to free four million slaves. 
Reynolds: "Emerson and 
Thoreau were 
closer to the truth."
Mr. Horwitz urges us to view Brown from within his own era. Here, too, there are reasons to see his plan as more plausible than crazy. In places like Jamaica and Haiti, black populations had driven out European colonizers by striking from mountain redoubts. Brown's plan changed over time, which leads Mr. Horwitz to see both vacillation and ineptitude. But Brown's tactical idea remained steady: He wanted to disrupt slavery from the mountains, whose topography he knew well from his days as a surveyor. 
To emphasize what he calls the "manifest implausibility" of Brown's scheme, Mr. Horwitz presents him as a maladroit leader with a fragmented following. Brown had "poor judgment of personnel," Horwitz tell us—as though there was ample opportunity in the 1850s to sort through a field of candidates ready to join a dangerous mission in the South. Mr. Horwitz notes that Brown's Northern supporters and his own soldiers often quarreled with him about battle plans—as though anyone in that decade could envisage a sure military strategy against the South. (Lincoln, for one, said in 1858 that war was not even an option against slavery.) 
In Midnight Rising, Mr. Horwitz corrects a fact here and there, adds some human anecdotes and local history, and records such details as the degree to which the various hanged bodies quivered after the noose had done its work. But much of his book is a gloss of what is already known. 
As for the figure at the center of the story, Mr. Horwitz sees him too often as the grim Old Man of long-ago histories: bold, arrogant, sly, fanatical, murderous, muddle-headed and possibly insane. One has to think that, with their more admiring view, Emerson and Thoreau were closer to the truth.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Isn't that special--
Bad Hair Day Rising?

Bloomberg Businessweek is featuring excerpts from Tony Horwitz's new book, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War, and today's excerpt begins:
"In 1859, John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, propelled a divided nation toward Civil War. Brown’s wild hair and desperate scheme to free and arm slaves helped foster his enduring image as a crazed fanatic, a zealot on the far fringe of American society.  
But for most of his 59 years, the abolitionist was a clean--shaven entrepreneur--a mercantilist everyman in the rapidly expanding economy of the 19th century."
"Wild Hair" Evokes This Notion of JB, as
seen in this easily googled image
Overall, the excerpt is pretty good.  From what I've seen, for the most part I don't take issue with what Tony has written about Brown's early life.  But this introductory line is the stuff of magazine articles.  It is pure bait, and it shows how skillful word professionals like Tony Horwitz can craft a line that grabs readers' attention.

As far as Brown's mane goes, his hair definitely had body, and both his hair and beard grew quickly.  But unless Tony knows otherwise, I don't think there is any contemporary description of Brown having "wild hair"--unless, of course, one considers his blood-matted hair following the failure of the raid as "wild."  Recall that at least two marines (not one, as the conventional account goes) tried to kill Brown in the Harper's Ferry engine house, an assault that included being bludgeoned on the head with the hilt of a costume sword.  Journalist accounts following the raid note the white-washed brick inside the engine house smeared with blood and strands of the Old Man's hair.  Perhaps too, his hair got a little "wild" during his incarceration in Virginia.  The degree to which he was allowed to look after his own personal hygiene in jail is not clear; Brown was meticulous in his self-grooming by all accounts.  So if he had "wild hair," it was no fault of his own.

But I don't think this is what Tony had in mind.  What he is referring to is an image, a notion, really, that exists largely in the minds of "white America"--"wild hair" being a metaphor for someone who was frenzied, irresponsible, and possibly crazy.  "Wild hair" is Tony's way of pressing the button, hitting the buzzer, of popular culture.  It signals something that he knows they'll understand.  It's a word that functions like the bell that makes Pavlov's dog begin to drool.

Just googling and once again it's "Wild Hair" 
Of course, Tony proceeds to point out that for most of his life, he was anything but a crazy man.  Yet he seems to be signaling that at some point, John Brown went off the road of the rational and became a "wild-haired" kind of guy--the kind of guy who concocts "desperate schemes."

I don't want to make so much of this that the reader won't appreciate whatever is good in Tony's offering.  But I do want to point out the power of signal words and phrases in the way the Old Man is described--how by plugging into longstanding popular images and notions that were themselves manufactured by longstanding prejudice, a skillful writer can pre-justify questionable conclusions that may be drawn later, regardless of their historical viability.  Whatever else Midnight Rising says about John Brown, remember that it begins with John Brown as the man with "wild hair" and "desperate schemes."

Will it be another bad hair day for the Old Man?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

In Remembrance--
That Sunday Night, 152 Years Ago

One hundred and fifty-two years ago this evening, John Brown and his men were readying themselves for their fateful march to Harpers Ferry.  Like today, October 16th fell on a Sunday in the year 1859, and so this evening there is that much more resonance in historical memory as we consider the "John Brown raid."  Based on a trusty perpetual calendar, October 16 has fallen on a Sunday sixteen different years since 1859--1870, 1881, 1887, 1898, 1910, 1921, 1927, 1938, 1949, 1955, 1966, 1977, 1983, 1994, 2005, and of course 2011.  The next time the Harper's Ferry raid anniversary will fall on a Sunday will be the year 2022.

Although the presentation of Brown in the U.S. has shifted considerably from the 20th century's predominant tone of malicious prejudice, a good deal of misinformation and stupidity still abounds in the popular mind about Brown and his efforts in Kansas and Virginia.  It is likely that this will continue to some degree because of recalcitrant racism and pro-Southern sentimentality that taints national life to this day.  However, Brown has always had his critics among pacifists and idealists who somehow think that they know better than did those living in 1859 about the possibility of resolving slavery's injustice without the use of "violence."   For our part, we see the Harper's Ferry raid as the great moment of our nation's history--when an "army" of young, devoted, and justice-minded men, white and black, endeavored to launch a freedom movement.  Contrary to what is now being published abroad, the failure of the raid in no wise disqualifies the plan or the motivation behind it in historical terms.  It was a glorious effort, a reasonable strategy, and a sane and noble effort to overthrow slavery throughout the South without instigating widespread insurrection.  That Sunday night, 152 years ago was the mark of a special presence in our nation's history, but one that has been overlooked, disdained, and misinterpreted by a society that is largely mis-  or uneducated about the realities of racist chattel slavery in this country.
Harpers Ferry Two Years After the Raid
(Harpers Weekly, 4 May 1861)

I have not had the opportunity to read the published version of Tony Horwitz's new book, although I have previously offered a response to the pre-publication manuscript.  In that penultimate version, I took issue with a number of things, especially Tony's tendency to disdain Brown's efforts and rationale, concluding that he essentially threw the raid in order to attain his goal of becoming a martyr.  I think this is highly problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which it is unfair to the fullest extent of the record, and essentially means that John Brown himself was either lying or deluded in his retrospective remarks about the raid.  And frankly, I believe Brown more than I do Horwitz.  While I doubt that the final version of his book will differ considerably from the pre-publication draft, I should not comment further until I've given the published book a fair reading--and right now, if my readers haven't already noticed it, since my teaching responsibilities resumed, it's been hard enough for me to keep up with this blog let alone catch up with the pile of "to read" material on my desk.  I have seen one review of Tony's book that was pleasantly neutral, if not favorable, toward Brown despite my serious reservations about Tony's conclusions.   Nevertheless, Tony's book doubtless will add some vigor and rigor to forthcoming discussions and debates, although I suspect it will find its biggest impact in the wider reading market that has not heretofore paid attention to the John Brown theme, but will do so because of their interest in Tony's noteworthy efforts in popularizing forgotten history.  His book will prove considerably less weighty in John Brown circles, although it should not be dismissed either, since he has worked hard in his research and written an interesting book in many respects.  Still, it is already manifest that Tony's portrayal of Brown is not going to satisfy many of us, particularly those of us who comprise what Larry Lawrence calls "the John Brown community."

But this is the stuff of what we do.  Indeed, it is all that we can do, 152 years later--reflecting, analyzing, speculating, writing, debating, talking, and dreaming of one of the most moving, exciting, and powerful stories in the history of the United States and the larger story of the struggle for justice.
So, dear readers, "get on your arms; we will proceed to the Ferry"--if only in memory and imagination.

Keep marching on, Old Man.  Like that Sunday in 1859, today may have been the Lord's Day, but tonight is yours once more.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Blogfully Speaking--
The Delusion that Plunged Them into War: A North Carolinian's Remarks After John Brown's Hanging

Blogger Lew Powell had an interesting post on his blog, North Carolina Miscellany: Exploring the History,Literature, and Culture of the Tar Heel State (Oct. 8) noting an editorial in a North Carolina newspaper published on the day after John Brown’s execution in 1859.  Under the title, “John Brown without tears (to say the least),” Powell provides excerpts from the editorial:
 “Fanaticism in the North is rampant. . . . On yesterday, the godly city of Boston, built up and sustained by the products of negro slave labor, went into mourning, fasting and prayer over the condign punishment of a negro stealer, murderer and traitor. . . .
 “In all the Noo England towns and villages, we may expect to hear that mock funerals have been celebrated, and all kinds of nonsensically lugubrious displays made. (It is a pity that they haven’t a witch or two to drown or burn, by way of variety.). . .
 “The Yankees have no objection to mingling money making with their grief, and they will, unless Brown’s gallows is known to have been burned, set to work and make [from it] all kinds of jimcracks and notions… and sell them. Let the rope which choked him, too, be burned or we shall see vast quantities of breast pips, lockets and bracelets… for sale. Barnum is already in the market for Old Brown’s clothes. . . (Raleigh Register, Dec. 3, 1859).
Of course, I could not resist making the following comments which Mr. Powell has graciously posted:
Fascinating reminder of the mindset that once defended chattel slavery and dominated the antebellum era with tirades and threat of secession. In fact, there was no market in John Brown “jimcracks and notions,” although in New York City–where Brown’s body was prepared by a mortician–some relics were kept by admirers (screws from his Virginia coffin, segments of the hanging rope mostly). Whether or not Barnum tried to purchase Brown’s clothes is not clear. The Brooklyn mortician who kept them, being a fervent antislavery man, kept them for many years. It was indicative of the hardness of southern hearts that they could see in Brown’s death only the end of a murderer and criminal, and the outpouring of affection and admiration in the North as nonsensical. This malign hubris is what plunged the Confederacy into war at the cost of so many southern lives–all for the purpose of defending a way of life premised upon the degradation and abuse of other human beings. In the retrospect of history, the people of the South look like the greatest of fools. It is a lesson for all of us and for every generation. John Brown was right after all, and only now we are beginning to recognize it as a nation, even though there are still many people trying to suppress that realization.--LD

Thursday, October 06, 2011

From the Field:

By H. Scott Wolfe *

     Autumn is coming to the Upper Mississippi valley. The maples clinging to the river bluffs are beginning to show their flashy colors…the Virginia creepers entwine their trunks like red snakes…and there is the continuous plop of black walnut and hickory nuts on the leaf-strewn forest floors. The wild turkeys are packing their crops with acorns, and every squirrel seems to be carting provisions to stock their winter larders. 
      The air, particularly at night, is becoming quite bracing…while the tinge of smoke is beginning to burn the nostrils. The He-Men of the town are gathering to talk of hunting and to oil their shotguns…while the pumpkins, squash, Osage oranges and stalks of bittersweet are beginning to stock the farmer’s markets. 
     And the tourists…ah, the tourists…are beginning to flock to my historic town. All seek that last respite before the snow begins to swirl. They come, unfortunately for us of a historic turn of mind, not to view our nineteenth-century architecture, visit the home of General/President Ulysses S. Grant, or observe the ghosts of steamboats-past on our river. They come, rather, to visit the local wineries, marinate in hot tubs, populate the day spas, and gorge themselves on Italian food. (Which seems quite foreign to a town which never possessed an Italian immigrant. As they say, “The customer is always right.”)
      But to this humble John Brown researcher, autumn means it’s time to bring out the “John Brown Quilt.” Yes, I said the “John Brown Quilt.” This eccentric pursuer of the Old Man and his men must have his toys…and in my study can be found John Brown statuettes, John Brown dolls (one actually given to me dangling from a rope), a John Brown sculpture (replete with a sign asking, “What can Brown do for you?”), and a number of Brown-emblazoned t-shirts and baseball caps from businesses ranging from Harper’s Ferry eateries to Lawrence, Kansas breweries. I once ate pancakes at “John Brown’s Family Restaurant” in Nebraska City, Nebraska. They peddled shirts showing the wild-eyed Curry image of the Old Man…but instead of clutching a Sharps rifle and Bible, he toted a tray of breakfast entrees. Such are the joys of capitalism!
     But the cool of autumn means quilts. And the “John Brown Quilt” is a monument to the sewing skills of my long suffering spouse. It’s not easy to be married to a historical researcher. It means numerous vacation stops at obscure cemeteries, battlefields, museums, and record repositories. It means paper-littered kitchen tables, book-covered chairs and a faraway look in one’s eyes when it’s time to take out the garbage.

But my wife has been a loyal trooper. She has soldiered through many of the Brown-related sites stretching from Maine to Kansas. She can recite, with sufficient prodding, most of the names of the members of the Old Man’s Provisional Army. She can recognize and properly identify images of both the Maxson farmhouse in Iowa and the Kennedy farmhouse in Maryland. What a girl!!  My wife is also a historian in her own right…being quite expert in the field of vintage ladies’ clothing and accessories. And being of an old fashioned turn of mind, those newfangled electric sewing machines are verboten in this household. 

So a while back, while she pondered a new sewing project, I suggested she attempt a quilt honoring John Brown and his men. Her agile fingers began to fly with scissors, needle and thread…the classic 30s and 40s movies began to glow on the TV screen (my wife cannot create unless viewing a vintage film)…and Voila!! It was finished.
She had created an appliqué quilt consisting of twenty-five squares, each containing her own representation of the armory fire engine house at Harper’s Ferry. Each square also included the name of one of the men who “marched to the Ferry” with Brown on that fateful October night in 1859. In addition, one square shows “Harpers Ferry 1859,” and another, “Provisional Army…United States.” The accompanying images give several views of this, our family monument to historical eccentricity.
So some people can read John Brown…some write John Brown…some talk John Brown…and some travel and visit John Brown. But how many can SLEEP John Brown? All praise to the John Brown spouses…male and female!! Thanks to all of you…and stay warm and cozy this winter! I myself have visions of some woolen John Brown pajamas. H-m-m, where is she??

* 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. 

Saturday, October 01, 2011

John Brown and “Violence”: Two Recent Views of Note

I.  O Say Can You See?

This summer the National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian Institute featured a John Brown program as part of their continuing series called, “Time Trial,” a program of their theatrical education program, History Alive!  According to the Museum blog, O Say Can You See? the program invited visitors “to serve as jurors in a short hearing for a historical person. In the "Time Trial of John Brown," audience members deliberate on John Brown’s contested legacy and decide how he should be remembered in American history.”  Brown is the second biographical dramatization presented in this program about “controversial” figures in our nation’s history.

The first was Benedict Arnold.

“A controversial character in American history,” the Museum blog continues, “John Brown was a radical abolitionist in the mid-19th century. Brown advocated violence to combat slavery and led armed insurrections that would lead to his execution.”  To further reinforce the “violent” framework of the discussion about Brown, the blog then provides a link to a pike in the Smithsonian collection, the only link to anything on the web about him.

The blog article also features a short video describing the program, which begins by suggesting that the program was reaching toward some kind of fairness in presenting Brown’s case.  Perhaps it did so.  But based upon the video, the program fell short.  This is apparent in the statement by Susan Evans, the Daily Programs and Theater Coordinator, when she almost desperately seems to point out that by presenting Brown they are not calling people to violence.  “We don’t want to make out John Brown to be a hero at all,” she says.

“We don’t want to make out John Brown to be a hero at all,” she says. . . . 

Of course they don’t.  That’s why they featured Brown in a program about “controversial” people and made him second only to Benedict Arnold.  In fact, this all but puts Brown in a dim light, no matter how his rationale is portrayed by the actor-facilitator, Terry Aviril.  The point of this program is not to put a light upon the monstrous violence of white racism and chattel slavery, but to excise Brown the traitor from the context of white American normalcy.  Even the one black person in the video comes off like his reasoning was run through a good old fashioned cycle of Tide ‘n Clorox.  Not only does he point out that his mother used to use “John Brown” as a curse word, but he concludes that being opposed to Brown “in some strange way” might mean one has a problem with “what our founding fathers did.”  Really, Brother?   I thought the point of John Brown being controversial to white society was that they had a problem with what John Brown did.   At least, this seems to be the judgment of black historians  As it turned out, even the Founding Fathers didn’t consider chattel slavery an immediate problem to what they "did" in 1776.

You will obviously draw your own conclusions from the video, but you don’t have to be Malcolm X to read the cultural schematics here, folks.   Like the staff at the National Park Service at Harper’s Ferry, evidently the staff at the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum/Theater have an opinion about Brown.   The title of their blog article is, “How should John Brown be remembered?”  I think the answer is obvious.

II.  Who Are You Calling a Terrorist?

Along very different lines, Paul Finkelman, the President William McKinley Distinguished Professor of Law and Public Policy at Albany Law School, published a very thoughtful piece about Brown in Prologue Magazine (Spring 2011, Vol. 43, No. 1), the publication of the National Archives.  Of course, Dr. Finkelman, a brilliant legal scholar, is widely known as the editor, author, and commentator of the John Brown theme.  Although I have differed with him on some biographical points, this article is highly recommended precisely because Finkelman does not frame Brown in the terrorist or violence mode.  Rather, first he discusses terrorism and then lifts up Brown for clear examination, applying his practical and penetrating insight to the error of referring to Brown as a terrorist.  Readers may use the link provided to read the article in its entirety on the National Archives website.  Someone has also posted a scan of the print version on Scribd.

Paul Finkelman
I respectfully differ with Finkelman on a number of points.  Overall, he seems to have a thoughtful and insightful reading of Brown’s actions in political context.  His reading of Brown’s early life and activities, though positive, can seem pedestrian at times, overlooking some of the aspects of his life that we have come to know.  For instance, he seems inclined to see Brown as an impoverished and talentless businessman, whereas I think Brown was probably a better businessman than he looks, and his economic status in the later 1850s, while hardly prosperous, was not as bad as many assume.  The late Ed Cotter pointed out to me years ago that Mary Brown had a house, property, some livestock, and other humble assets that left her better off than many, though hardly rich.  After visiting Brown’s family in November 1859, Thomas Wentworth Higginson made the interesting observation: “. . . they greatly need money; though not so totally destitute as many seem to think” (Higginson to unidentified, Nov. 22, 1859, in Letters and Journals of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, p. 88).  Nor is it clear that he properly evaluates Brown’s plans at Harper’s Ferry, although admittedly this is a subject that bears ongoing and in depth study.  In short, I'm not so certain where Finkelman comes down on the subject of John Brown the man; I doubt he is an admirer, and in at least one context has opined that Brown "reinvented" himself as a prisoner in Virginia, a thesis that I reject, considering his actions, writings, and personal conduct in jail as being entirely consistent with his entire life and behavior previous to being defeated and jailed.  Notwithstanding these points, we are happy to have Dr. Finkelman's arguments regarding the political context of Brown's actions in 1856-59.

Thus, as to the topic of Brown and terrorism, he points out:
There are no complete or certain definitions of terrorism. Terrorists seek to "terrify" people and strike fear in the minds of those at whom their terror is directed. This, however, is not a complete definition. After all, few would consider soldiers in warfare terrorists, yet surely they try to make their enemy "fearful" of them. . . .  So, what beyond scaring or frightening people constitutes terrorism? How do we define the "terrorist?" (p. 18)
Finkelman notes that the goal of terrorism is the “terror” itself, not as a means to an end, but to do harm to those that they opposed.  “This makes terrorism different from other kinds of illegal activity or violence.” (pp. 18-19)  Finkelman says another important characteristic of terrorism is that terrorists kill indiscriminately and without concern (with some exception) because terrorists are not concerned about “collateral damage.” They “avoid direct contact and confrontation with those who are armed, especially the military,” and hope to maximize their violent attacks in mortal terms.   Finkelman says that the “classic American terrorist is the sheeted Klansman, with his face covered, killing, beating, mutilating, burning, and raping, to terrorize those who supported racial equality and black suffrage.” Finally, he points out that terrorism overrides the “political context” and opts to use violence, whereas an act of political revolution take place when all other political avenues are closed. (p. 19)

Having made careful analysis of terrorism, Finkelman places Brown on the examination table of history, paying particular attention to the Pottawatomie killings of 1856 and the Harpers Ferry raid of 1859.  Do these episodes reveal Brown as a terrorist?  He concludes quite reasonably that Brown’s actions differ greatly from terrorist action.  I agree likewise.  Even at its worst, Brown’s actions either avoid or intend to discriminate in favor of innocent, unarmed, and vulnerable people.  At Pottawatomie, only specific men were cut down while family members, associates, and guests were spared.  At Harpers Ferry, great pains were taken to care for prisoners, fight only in self-defense, and sustain an honorable presence.  Although a number of people were killed by Brown’s men, these killings either went against Brown’s directives or were unfortunate incidents.  In both Kansas and Virginia, Brown never conducted himself as a terrorist, and had he done so, a great deal collateral bloodshed would have taken place.