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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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Relic of Sorrow--
Remembering the Black Lynching Victims of the South

I came upon this item in a file, no doubt recovered years ago during one of my happy research forays, but unfortunately forgotten.  It does not apply to the John Brown story, but its relevance speaks for itself.  This poem, written by Charles Fred White, is headed by "Afro-American," which seems only a reiteration of the publication's title, Afro-American, dated September 1900 (p. 245).  We should not forget that after the undoing of Reconstruction, with the cooperation of the Republican Party, white terrorism was fully unleashed upon black people in the South, and for decades thereafter the violent, murderous white lynch mob reigned.

Many of us are familiar with the poignant song, "Strange Fruit," made famous in 1939 by the legendary Billie Holiday.  (As a side note, my late father, after having heard her recording of "Strange Fruit," and having no knowledge of her otherwise, referred to her quite appropriately in Italian as "Madonna Dolorosa.")  "Strange Fruit" originated as a poem by Abel Meeropol and appeared first in a Leftist publication in that era.

Yet Meeropol's poem was hardly the first to address the outrageous racist violence that beset black people for so many years in between the end of Reconstruction and the developments pertaining to Civil Rights nearly a century later.  Charles Fred White's poem was written to be sung as well, but quite bitterly to replace the lyrics of the patriotic anthem, "My Country 'Tis of Thee."   It's a song worth singing, if only in remembrance of the many men and women who died as victims of terrorism in a nation--a nation whose literary and scholarly leadership, even in the 21st century, cannot stop talking about John Brown being an "American terrorist."  No wonder black people fundamentally distrust the "American" narrative so often celebrated by the "majority."

O, country, 'tis of thee,
Land of the Lynching Bee,*
Of thee I sing.
How long will this base wrong
Pollute thy freedom song?
Perpetrated by a thong
Of heartless fiends.

My native country, thee,
How I long to be free!
Thy name to love.
I long to see the time
When this most heinous crime
Will be changed to deeds divine,
Like those above.

Let wailings swell the breeze,
And ring from all the trees:
"God's will be done."
Let mortal souls awake--
Let all that breathe partake--
This spell of crime to break,
Ere the nation's gone.

O gracious God, to thee,
In thine all-wise mercy,
We now appeal!
May this land soon be brought
Out of this doom it's wrought;
For long, in vain, we've sought
Freedom to feel.

* One might expect this to have read, "Lynching Tree."  But there is no error of transcription here.  In fact, "bee" works very well, particularly in the traditional sense of a "bee" being any kind of social gathering, often including competition, and associated with an old English word associated with neighborly help among farmers.  Thus the "Lynching Bee" reflects how entire communities throughout the South were complicit, directly or indirectly, in mass murder, even genocide against black people.

And yet there is no end to this obsession among white writers and scholars about "John Brown and violence," "John Brown and terrorism," etc.  It seems to me that there are much bigger targets to hit when it comes to the themes of violence and terrorism in "America," especially since mistreatment of non-whites is so pervasive in U.S. history.  Yet it is Old John Brown who remains the favorite target of white writers, to be singled out as the defining paradigm.  I guess that's because the handful of largely contemptible white people who died as a result of his actions just matter more.

"You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye."

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Perennially Unfinished Business of Biography--
Two Responses to Midnight Rising (with comment)

Review by Jean Libby, independent researcher and scholar

Tony Horwitz, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of Confederates in the Attic (Pantheon, 1998).  He delivers the details of the event and the people in it by choice or by chance in a narrative that weaves the documentary base into reality.  Not since Stephen Benet’s epic John Brown’s Body (Doubleday, 1928) have the streets of Harpers Ferry on October 16 – 18, 1859, been so vividly portrayed.  Like Benet (who is effectively invoked in section breaks) the author Tony Horwitz has a strong background in the Civil War.                                                  

His work as a war correspondent serves him well, as the John Brown raid is a battle which was intended to be a larger movement (or invasion) gone wrong.  The raid became larger with John Brown’s unflinching insistence on freedom and citizenship for enslaved Americans.  Placing Brown’s plan in the context of world history of small, dedicated and well-equipped forces the raid makes sense.  Horwitz’s knowledge of the terrain—gained on the ground with the expertise of National Park Service ranger David Fox and NPS historian Dennis Frye—focuses his writing with extensive research notes and clarifies the story so often told in miserable confusion.

Horwitz leads us down the same road to Harpers Ferry that John Brown and his men took from the Kennedy Farm in Washington County, Maryland, on October 16, 1859.  The road begins in Sharpsburg, where three years later Confederate forces under the commands of officers who captured John Brown in Virginia would march in the uphill direction toward the creeks and fields that resonate in American Civil War memory—Antietam, the Dunker Church, and South Mountain.

I took that road in the midnight hours of October 16, 1978, which was one of the few occasions that the calendar date is on Sunday night, as it was in 1859.  There was no walking path across the bridge; our National Park Service AWOL guide had a key to unlock the entry gate to the trestles, and knew the train schedule because we would have been knocked into the Potomac had one greeted us in either direction.  On the same road the same Dennis Frye who guided Tony Horwitz and the conference attendees at the 150th raid anniversary in Harpers Ferry in 2009 walked along.  He was a history student at Shepherd University working part time at the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in 1978, where he is now the Chief Historian.  I learned the terrain from his father, John Frye, a ranger on the C & O Canal and longtime archivist at the Western Maryland Room at the Washington County Free Library in Hagerstown.

This reviewer, among others, is generously credited for research contribution in the acknowledgements.  I had the recent happy experience to be introduced by the author at a book-signing in Menlo Park, California , and make an announcement of local history programming about, and with descendants of John and Mary Brown.  “’Am I Not John Brown’s Daughter?’ Annie Brown in the Civil War” will be presented by Alice Keesey Mecoy at the Sunnyvale Public Library on March 7, 2012.

The mothers, wives, and sweethearts of all the raiders are expanded with the sources.  With the participation of Professor Phil Schwarz in Virginia, the story of Harriet Newby, whose love letters to Dangerfield reveal the immorality of slavery, moves forward in Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz.

General readers receive the respect of making their own judgements from Tony Horwitz.  As it should be, I do not agree with all his characterizations of John Brown.  The subject is balanced, and covered well with the documents.  One of the best sections is Brown’s trial and courtroom behavior. This is brought to life by the author’s journalism background and style.  It is the author’s originality in writing that makes this history move.  Whether read comparing the well-organized chapter notes to the text or straight through with Tony Horwitz’s journalistic structure and rhythm, it is a true to life meeting with John Brown on that rainy midnight of October 16, 1859.  Jean Libby

Jean's full review can be read by clicking on the following link:

*    *    *

Letter from Larry Lawrence, Chairman, John Brown Society

New York City
December 1, 1859

For full distribution in the John Brown world.

The position of The John Brown Society on the book on John Brown by Tony Horwitz, entitled, Midnight Rising.

Tony Horwitz is a talented writer, and has written a very readable book on John Brown.

The problem with his book is that he is wrong on Harpers Ferry and on Pottawatomie -- still the two most controversial aspects of the revolutionary career of John Brown.  He lags behind the judgment of scholars like David Reynolds and Lou DeCaro on both events.

His book could have been much better if he had consulted and learned from these two already published John Brown scholars and researchers.  He had ample opportunity to gain from their prior work, and he failed to take advantage of that opportunity.

I do not have the time, due to other more pressing personal and political concerns, to go into a detailed treatment of this book.  Lou DeCaro speaks for me on this matter, and I defer to his highly educated opinion in relation to the book by Mr. Horwitz, as I have deferred to his opinion in many other areas related to the life of my old hero.  Lou continues to do valuable and serious research on John Brown.

Happy Holidays to all in the John Brown community


Larry Lawrence

*    *    *

I appreciate the contributions of both my friends and associates, Jean Libby and Larry Lawrence, who have devoted their lives in different ways to advancing the historical remembrance of John Brown and promoting a sound understanding of his life and work in the cause of justice.  I posted their responses to Tony Horwitz's book together coincidentally, although I feel somewhat constrained to add remarks about both.  Jean is understandably impressed by the rich detail and writing of the book, particularly the manner in which Tony recreated the unfolding drama of the Harper's Ferry raid in 1859.  As a lifetime researcher on Brown, the raid, and Brown's black allies, she is appreciative of his work overall, preferring to relegate criticism of Tony's treatment of Brown to others.  Certainly, there is a great deal understated in her remark that she does not agree with all of his characterizations.  Without negating her objectivity and appreciation of the book's positive narrative qualities, I would suggest that what is primarily important is the question of John Brown and his actions, for this is ultimately why the book was written.  It is one thing to recreate the mayhem of Harper's Ferry during the raid, or the drama of the courtroom during John Brown's trial.  It is quite another thing to characterize John Brown for the ages--or at least, for the next generation or two.

I likewise appreciate the interest on the part of Larry Lawrence to respond.  Although Larry is not a biographer, he is perhaps the most well read student of John Brown, 19th century U.S. history, and the political history of the U.S. that I've ever encountered.   Larry knows the John Brown literature and its history, and he monitors and studies the academic and cultural developments relating to the Old Man's story with an eagle eye.  Unlike Jean, Larry is far more critical of Tony's book, particularly in his characterization of Brown in Kansas and Virginia.  Notwithstanding his deference to me and to David Reynolds, I wish that he might have addressed the book in some detail reflecting his knowledge.  Furthermore, I think we should not forget the important contribution of Robert E. McGlone, whose John Brown's War Against Slavery deserves far greater recognition and attention--especially since it seems that Tony likewise has flown in the face of McGlone's sophisticated historical assessment of John Brown in Kansas and Virginia.  On the other hand, I do not think that Tony's approach to Brown, like it or not, is due to any lack of consultation or research.  His is an informed and deliberate opinion, and Tony is quite aware of the contemporary scholarship on themes like the Pottawatomie killings and the Harper's Ferry raid.  To the contrary, like the rest of us, he has his own presuppositions and objectives, and they are quite manifest in Midnight Rising.  I believe a number of his contentions are highly problematic; certainly, his perception and understanding of the man who died at Charles Town, Virginia on December 2, 1859 is significantly different from mine.

Yet the writing of John Brown biography is perennially unfinished business--every generation produces writers of great stature like Tony, and writers of considerably lesser stature (like me).  However, the last word on Brown has never been published, and the debate continues.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Season's Greetings
He Would Have Loved It

This photograph appeared in the April 1898 edition of Peterson's Magazine, noting the following under the cutline, which reads: "Present Occupants of the John Brown Homestead, Torrington, Conn."
A negro family now occupies the house at Torrington, Conn., where John Brown was born, May 9, 1800.  It seems a strange coincidence that after a half century this historic house should be occupied by people of the negro race, for whom the old hero gave his life.  The view is from a photograph by H. D. Barker.
Certainly the Brown family would have been pleased that an African American family lived under their former roof.  Certainly it was not uncommon for black people to visit and stay under John Brown's roof during the days of his life--from little known, even forgotten, people to some of the most famous names in 19th century black history dined and rested in the home of John Brown.

The home in which John Brown was born was built in 1776 and purchased by Owen Brown in 1799.  Owen kept his family in this house until removing them to Connecticut's western reserve lands in Ohio in 1805, when John was obviously quite young.  The Torrington Brown homestead was made a landmark in 1901, but burned down in 1918.  I do not have sufficient information about the circumstances surrounding the fire and its origins, and whether it was occupied at the time.  One hopes that the fire was not the work of some or another hooded fraternity, the likes of which typically despise the memory of John Brown.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Side Note--
What Sumner Wrote About Stephen Douglas

Sen. Charles Sumner
In 1874, Elias Nason published a biography of Charles Sumner, an anti-slavery senator from Massachusetts.  Sumner is often remembered for the episode in which he was brutally attacked and beaten in the Senate chamber, in May 1856, by Preston Brooks, a South Carolinian.  Brooks was outraged at the inflammatory and insulting speech that Sumner had given in opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act--a speech which derided South Carolinian slave masters and Senator Andrew Butler of the same state.  Brooks, being Butler's nephew, sought revenge by nearly bludgeoning Sumner to death after pinning him down at his desk in the senate chamber.  John Brown considered Sumner a martyr, visited the recuperating senator in 1857, and reverently examined his blood-stained coat.  Contrary to hackneyed historical narratives, the Sumner beating had nothing to do with Brown's actions in the Pottawatomie killings of May 1856.

Stephen Douglas,
The Little Stinker
In preparation for his Sumner bio, Nason requested information from James Redpath who--among many other things--was Brown's authorized biographer and a leading antebellum journalist and author in the service of the antislavery cause.  Redpath wrote a letter to Nason on April 10, 1874, now in the Stutler Collection, which included a brief description of one of the slave masters' greatest political champions, Stephen A. Douglas.  Douglas, the so-called "Little Giant" is famously remembered as Abraham Lincoln's political nemesis.  But Douglas was more so the nemesis of enslaved black people, just as he was the author of legislation that both pacified and strengthened slave masters.  Most notably, Douglas was the mastermind behind the Compromise of 1850, which unleashed a ruthless revision of older slave "rendition" legislation--the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.  The Fugitive Slave Law reduced the entire nation to slave territory in effect by giving the Slave Power the right to pursue, arrest, and return fugitives, and by granting greater incentives to judges to rule in favor of slave masters.  Douglas also supported the racist Dred Scott Decision of the Supreme Court in 1857, which infamously declared that blacks had no rights that whites were bound to respect, and which negated any claim to freedom on the part of slaves relocated to free states with their masters.  Of course, these developments further galvanized the abolition movement, adding to its numbers, and leading people like John Brown to the realization that only political violence could end such a deeply entrenched and empowered "institution" like chattel slavery.

On the personal side, Sumner's brief description of Douglas (relayed by Redpath) is interesting, if not amusing:
Of Stephen A Douglass, (then a very great man in then popular estimation,) [Sumner] said: "Douglass, in private life is a brutal vulgar man without delicacy or scholarship; he is filthy in his person; he always looks as if he needed clean linen & sh[oul]d be put under a shower bath.
 So, not only did the politics of the "Little Giant" stink.  He stunk too.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Old News--

Thaddeus Stephens on John Brown in 1859
. . . .A good joke about Harper's Ferry is laid to the door of Thaddeus Stephens.  He was talking of the "invasion" at a Washington hotel, the other evening, with a Southern friend.  Southern waxed hot, and declared that John Brown, "d--n him,["] deserved a dozen hangings.  "Yes," said Thaddeus, in his solemn, drawling style, "you are right; he deserved hanging.  He only brought 17 men; if he had brought thirty he would have settled the Slavery question forever."
Original Source: "Miscellaneous News," Independent Republican [Montrose, Pa.], Dec. 15, 1859, p. 2

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Photo Contendere:
The Browns of eBay?

Thanks to the ever vigilant Scott Wolfe, our friend in the field and roving historical detective, we are made aware of a current eBay item on sale, purported by its owner/seller to be a set of daguerreotypes from the 1850s of our man Brown and his family.  According to the eBay description the “Image Shows fantaical [sic] anti slavery religious zealot John Brown with his wife Mary Ann, oldest son John Brown Jr and 5 more of their children.”

In fact, while the items for sale may be authentic mid-19th century daguerreotypes, they are clearly NOT images of John Brown the abolitionist and his family.  The owner/seller probably is aware that there is good reason to doubt their authenticity, but makes quite an effort to rationalize selling the dags as John Brown pics:

"Likeness of the elderly man to John Brown has been compared to known authentic photographs some of which are shown below. You might find a number of men in old daguerreotypes that bear a vague resemblance to john brows [sic]. However the chances are very slim that the wife would also look like John Brown's wife, and that the couple would also have a large family with all the children looking like the children of John Brown. Historical records state that John Brown took a second wife of substantially younger age, which is also shown in this picture. All total John Brown is said to have fathered 20 children. most known images of Brown show a beardless gaunt face. At the end of his life he has a long beard and a more healthy looking face. This rare image shows an intermediate beard growth." 

Hilarious.  Of course, the comparison may have been made between Brown family daguerreotypes and these items, but the question is whether the comparison proves or fails—and the answer is that they fail.  The pretense that these images conform to certain criteria—a younger wife, large family, and family resemblance—is clearly rationalization on the part of the owner/seller, who is trying to unload an anonymous set of daguerreotypes at quite a profit.  In fact, although we do not have many images of the family, it is clear that this eBay family are not Browns; the younger woman bears no resemblance to Mary Brown, and the children do not correspond to the Brown family for that time period in sex or age.

Most laughable is the owner/seller’s attempt at explaining the facial hair of the elderly man in his daguerreotype as John Brown with “intermediate beard growth”!  Not only does the man in this image not look like John Brown (nor does the hair resemble Brown’s hair at any time as far as we know), but this “intermediate beard growth” is all wrong.  It seems his beard was gray from the first time he grew it, which was around 1858, and it never appeared like the whiskers of the old man in this daguerreotype.  Some also know that at the time of the Harper’s Ferry raid, for instance, Brown was not wearing his legendary long, gray beard.  His whiskers were cropped short, but were never “intermediate” as shown in this image.  This just isn't John Brown, and shame on the owner/seller for trying to make of this an honest sale, when it is far from it.

Needless to say, if you are going to spend $5000 this Christmas for a John Brown stocking stuffer, this is not the item.  You may do better getting a deal on some loose John Brown whisker hairs or possibly a chunk of wood from his gallows.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Osawatomie Notebook:
Word and Act: Theodore Roosevelt, Barack Obama, and John Brown
Now, with this second period of our history the name of John Brown will forever be associated; and Kansas was the theatre upon which the first act of the second of our great national life dramas was played.
                                                Theodore Roosevelt, August 31, 1910, Osawatomie, Kansas

Pres. Obama waves at Osawatomiens
from the presidential limo
Pete Souza-White House
This past week (Dec. 4) I noted that President Obama was scheduled to speak at Osawatomie, Kansas, at the site of John Brown’s heroic conflict with pro-slavery terrorists, and the site where Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt was invited to speak at the dedication of the Osawatomie historic site on August 31, 1910.  Although the occasion became a kind of starting point for his bid for the 1912 Presidency under the banner of his own new third party, his original intention for speaking in Kansas was to promote the most progressive or liberal form of Republican politics at a time when the party was split between conservatives and “insurgent” progressive Republicans.  Roosevelt wanted to be the guiding spirit of the Republicans and promote his liberal Republican ideas; but the plan backfired when his speech drew criticism for identifying his campaign with Brown.  In fact, according to historian Robert LaForte, Roosevelt’s speech “evoked a wide variety of responses. It was labeled ‘Communistic,’ ‘Socialistic,’ and ‘Anarchistic’ in various quarters; while others hailed it ‘the greatest oration ever given on American soil.’"1 
Theodore Roosevelt in Osawatomie, 1910
Dike Dickerson photo-Kansas Historical Society

Roosevelt had originally come into office as a result of the death of President William McKinley, who was mortally wounded by an assassin in September 1901.  Roosevelt served out the McKinley term, was reelected in 1904, but failed to gain the nomination for the 1912 election due to a split in the Republican Party that left William Howard Taft the party’s victor.  In 1911, Roosevelt founded his own third party, the Progressive Party, and finally came in second place to Democrat Woodrow Wilson in the Presidential election, leaving Taft, his Republican rival and former friend, in third place.

Part I: Theodore Roosevelt Makes a Speech

The 1910 Osawatomie speech is known as “The New Nationalism” speech and is considered one of the great orations in the history of the politics of the United States.  Roosevelt began the oration by citing that the history of the nation was marked by two great crises, the first at its founding and the second in the Civil War.  Roosevelt’s references to Brown, Lincoln, and the Civil War made it a compelling treatment of the nation’s recent history; it had only been fifty years since John Brown was hanged in Virginia, and barely a half-century since the end of the war.  Yet it was not a history lecture, but a savvy politician’s address reflecting Roosevelt’s political agenda. “I do not speak of this struggle of the past merely from the historic standpoint,” Roosevelt declared. “Our interest is primarily in the application to-day of the lessons taught by the contest a half a century ago.”  The hopeful candidate declared that it was almost useless to “pay lip-loyalty to the mighty men of the past unless we sincerely endeavor to apply to the problems of the present precisely the qualities which in other crises enabled the men of that day to meet those crises.”  He considered it “half melancholy and half amusing” to consider how the nation “in company with John Brown, and under the lead of Abraham Lincoln,” fixed the problems of their own era, while the people of his own era were denouncing “those”—meaning himself—“who are trying to meet the problems of the twentieth century in the spirit which was accountable for the successful solution of the problems of Lincoln’s time.”2
Kansas HistoricalSociety

Roosevelt: Lincoln over Brown

It is no surprise that Roosevelt’s references to John Brown invoked strong criticism.  Many people hated Brown in 1910 as they do today.  By 1910, the age of the so-called “Black Republicans” was long gone and the nation had repented of its 19th century passion for black liberation and equality.  The Great White Nation had already resumed business-as-usual, Reconstruction lay in ruins, and the former slave and his children were now under the heel of segregation laws and violent racism.  It was the era of flagrant, non-stop lynching, and John Brown’s reputation was suffering the disparaging revisions of a society that increasingly had grown hostile toward black people and their claim for justice.  Furthermore, by this time, the memory of Lincoln had been canonized, and the martyred sixteenth President had become the messianic figure of the nation, while John Brown was increasingly being written off as an extremist fanatic. 

One thing that is interesting about Roosevelt’s speech is that despite the criticism it drew, his references to Brown were fairly consistent with the article that he afterward published in self-defense.  In that article, "The Progressives, Past and Present," published in The Outlook magazine (3 Sept. 1910), Roosevelt was extremely measured in praising John Brown in order to make it clear that he followed Lincoln, and held Lincoln as the real savior of the nation.  Yet Roosevelt had said as much in his Osawatomie speech the month before by citing the leadership of Lincoln and making Brown only a complement to the slain President at best.  To Roosevelt, John Brown’s Kansas was not an ideal, but useful:  “It was the result of the struggle in Kansas which determined that our country should be in deed as well as in name devoted to both union and freedom; . . . In name we had the Declaration of Independence in 1776; but we gave the lie by our acts to the words of the Declaration of Independence until 1865; and words count for nothing except in so far as they represent acts.”3 

The Long, Liberal Hand of Oswald Garrison Villard

If Roosevelt was consistent in elevating Lincoln far above Brown, he was also careful not to give Brown any praise.  In fact, LaForte reveals that one of the speechwriters, William Allen White, was determined to “limit” Roosevelt’s comments about Brown.  Why?   In order to placate the most famous John Brown biographer of that time, Oswald Garrison Villard.
Oswald Garrison Villard

We should recall that in 1910, Oswald Garrison Villard was the newly reigning John Brown scholar, and his acclaimed book, John Brown: A Biography Fifty Years After, was still a novelty on bookstore shelves.   Villard had already used his considerable influence to bury W.E.B. DuBois’s eloquent biography of Brown in bad reviews in 1909—making sure that the black scholar did not steal his thunder before his book was released the following year.  The grandson of pacifist William Lloyd Garrison, Villard was something of a limousine liberal (his Southern wife didn’t let black people enter through their front door) with a fanatical devotion to pacifism and a quiet contempt for John Brown.  The Garrisons were noble, but the great abolitionist’s heirs were a proud lot.   Oswald Garrison Villard inherited money, owned newspapers, and resented John Brown as the man who had inadvertently stolen his grandfather’s glory.  

Villard promoted his own biography of Brown as the most advanced modern work of scholarship, and in many respects it was exactly that.  Yet it was also heavily biased and carefully written to both praise and damn John Brown as a murderer.  In fact, it was Villard who brought the “truth” of the Pottawatomie killings to the 20th century reader in graphic condemnation of Brown as a kind of oxymoron—a principled murderer.  Having amassed an unprecedented body of research, nevertheless Villard manipulated the evidence to produce his work of “friendly fire” against Brown—and he did so with devastating effect.  Brown’s reputation, although already under fire from lesser writers since the later 19th century, now came increasingly into disfavor in “mainstream” (read: white) society.  His subjective abuse disguised as pristine scholarship provided ammunition for a whole array of anti-Brown writers well into the 20th century.4

In 1910, Villard was thus a notable activist and author, and certainly he flexed considerable muscle in all matters pertaining to John Brown.  According to LaForte, Villard “was afraid that Roosevelt in characteristic half-knowledge would describe the ‘old fanatic’ in terms so favorable that Villard's interpretation would be set back about 30 years.”  Just as he had stymied poor DuBois in 1909, the long, liberal hand of Villard now was manipulating Roosevelt, successfully persuading him to “confine his remarks about Brown.” As a result of this self-interested subterfuge, Roosevelt mentioned Brown only in two incidental references, which surprised the editor of the local newspaper, the Osawatomie Graphic, who expected “more than a mere cursory mention” of the Old Man of Osawatomie and Harper’s Ferry.  One attendee spoke of the speech stating that Roosevelt had dedicated a monument to John Brown without mentioning his name.5

Part II: Barack Obama Makes a Speech
As many of you know, I have roots here. I'm sure you're all familiar with the Obamas of Osawatomie. Actually, I like to say that I got my name from my father, but I got my accent – and my values – from my mother. She was born in Wichita. Her mother grew up in Augusta. Her father was from El Dorado. So my Kansas roots run deep.                                   President Barack Obama, December 6, 2011, Osawatomie, Kansas
Pres. Obama in Osawatomie: Never Mentioned JB
Julie Denesha/Getty
This past Tuesday, President Obama went to Osawatomie, Kansas to speak.  It was already evident that making this speech in Osawatomie was no coincidence, but certainly the President’s remarks made it clear that he was drawing a historical parallel in his contest with conservative Republicans.   In his speech, the President cited Theodore Roosevelt’s stand as a friend of the free market as “the greatest force for economic progress in human history,” but also one necessarily bound to “rules of the road that ensure competition is fair and open and honest.” The President pointed out that Roosevelt had come to Osawatomie in order to lay out “his vision for what he called a New Nationalism. “‘Our country,’ he said, ‘means nothing unless it means the triumph of a real democracy … of an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him.’"  Clearly, the President was establishing his current mission as a revision of Roosevelt’s Progressive Republican brand of politics, thus identifying the current opposition of the Republican Party as being the expression of abusive capitalism.   Likewise, President Obama was careful to point out that Roosevelt was called a “radical,” “socialist,” and “communist” by his detractors, although the platform he fought for has benefited our society in many respects.6  In other words, Roosevelt was right and so is Barack Obama.

Interestingly, one blogger for the New York Times observed the President’s witticism, “I have roots here. I'm sure you're all familiar with the Obamas of Osawatomie,” by which he overstated the fact that he does have Kansas roots on his mother’s side of the family.  “By emphasizing his family’s history on the United States mainland, which is less familiar to the public than his Kenyan ancestry and his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia,” the blogger concluded, “Mr. Obama tried to tie his background to that of the mainstream middle class.”7

Historical Indifference?

Whether or not one agrees with President Obama, it is obvious, then, that his inspiration for the Osawatomie platform was the parallel drawn between Roosevelt’s political challenge of one hundred years ago, and his own forthcoming run for reelection against a hard Republican opposition.  Taken at face value, it would seem the President has no interest in John Brown, and that his presence in Osawatomie was only due to the fact that Roosevelt had gone there in 1910. 

At first blush, it might seem that the President was indifferent, perhaps even unaware of the significance of Osawatomie and the John Brown epic.  For instance, one knowledgeable writer in the Hartford [Conn.] Courant noted yesterday that he found it peculiar that President Obama made no mention of John Brown in his Osawatomie speech last week.  “Being passionate about history and the American idea,” writes Bill Hosley, “I was astonished that the president, his staff and the mainstream media overlooked why Theodore Roosevelt, or anyone else, travels to visit Osawatomie.”  Hosley goes on to write that the President “could have delivered his speech anywhere,” such as the Theodore Roosevelt national historic site in Oyster Bay, N.Y.  But as clever as it was to link his message with Roosevelt’s 1910 address, “to go to Osawatomie and ignore the history that brought Roosevelt there in the first place is disrespectful. . . .”8

Strong words, but I confess that I found them somewhat persuasive at first. 
"Osawatomie" tribute in Osawatomie,
the 1970s publication of the Weather Underground

Then I noted an interesting article on a right-wing website, Big Government, in which the author does the typical song-and-dance about President Obama’s ties to “terrorists” Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, including a downloadable copy of a 1975 version of Osawatomie, a publication whose title was inspired by that group’s heroic perception of John Brown.   I have seen this kind of stuff before, including the supposed similarity between President Obama’s campaign logo and the old circular insignia of the Weather Underground, and references to the President’s early association with Ayers and Dohrn.  Of course it’s nonsense, and even if it were true, I think it’s a matter of conservatives straining out gnats and swallowing camels.  (By the way, I ate a slice of pizza while seated next to Bernadine Dohrn in Lake Placid, N.Y. in late 2009, during a John Brown sesquicentennial conference.  She seemed quite a lovely person, and if she likes “Old Osawatomie,” I certainly won’t hasten to condemn her.)

The Audacity of Hope-ful Republicans

Yet the conservative writer provided some unintentional assistance to me, at least by giving me pause to reconsider President Obama at Osawatomie.  Indeed, an excerpt from his article is worth quoting at length:

[T]he choice of Osawatomie may be more significant than the Roosevelt conceit or Obama’s maternal family roots.  Osawatomie was the site of a historic battle between abolitionist John Brown and pro-slavery forces (who were backed by the Democrats of the age). Though Brown’s men were defeated, his audacious tactics earned him the nickname “Osawatomie.” Obama may have chosen deliberately to cast his struggle against “the rich” in the same emotive terms. Obama alluded to Osawatomie in his autobiography, Dreams from My Father, in discussing his Kansas ancestors (p. 12): “. . . Kansas had entered the Union free only after a violent precursor to the Civil War, the battle in which John Brown’s sword tasted first blood.”  Obama also cited John Brown as one of his historical inspirations in his second autobiography, The Audacity of Hope. In a passage that almost anticipates the radical themes of this week’s speech, he writes (p. 97):
The best I can do in the face of our history is remind myself that it has not always been the pragmatist, the voice of reason, or the force of compromise, that has created the conditions for liberty… It was the wild-eyed prophecies of John Brown, his willingness to spill blood and not just words on behalf of his visions, that helped force the issue of a nation half slave and half free.
Obama conspicuously neglected to mention Osawatomie’s history in his speech on Tuesday, but the town is clearly important to Obama’s personal identity, as well as to the way he understands his political destiny. Given that Kansas is not a swing state, the choice of setting likely had more to do with the symbolism of Osawatomie Brown than electoral votes. In Obama’s revision of history, the Republicans are the slave-owners, the villains in “the defining issue of our time.”
 . . . . It’s highly unlikely that Obama was channeling Bill Ayers on Tuesday or sending a “dog whistle” to the extreme left. He is not shy about siding publicly with the radicals of the Occupy movement and evoking their rhetoric, and did so in the speech itself.  Yet the very choice of Osawatomie, a symbol beloved by the earlier generation of radicals that mentored Obama, is a reminder that his present radicalism has a deep–if largely ignored–history.  It also seems to confirm that Obama sees himself as the leader and instigator of an internal struggle among Americans. No matter how much Democrats complain about Republican charges of “class warfare,” Obama’s apparent decision to evoke the symbolism of Osawatomie in launching an attack on the wealthy is a reminder that he, in fact, relishes the fight and believes he will win even if his views are presently those of a radical minority. Like John Brown, he is prepared to sacrifice himself for the sake of his goals–even if, unlike Brown, Obama fights to restrict freedom instead of expanding it.9
Of course, the things that bother this conservative writer are of no concern to me, and I have no interest in getting my John Brown blog entangled in debates reflective of a political system that evokes neither charm nor conviction in my soul.  (I should mention, however, that there is a palpable contempt in the unceasing manner in which conservatives refer to the President simply as “Obama.”  Dead presidents may be so repeatedly referenced, but it seems to me that our sitting President of the United States deserves to be referred to as “President Obama” at least a few times in such an article.  The author’s consistent reference to “Obama” sounds like just another way of saying, “this n----r,” and I find it viscerally offensive.)

Roots and Radicalism

On the other hand, although the writer makes these observations in contempt, they are helpful in demonstrating that President Obama very likely cared much more about speaking in Osawatomie than we realized.  Unlike Theodore Roosevelt, President Obama may actually be a quiet admirer of John Brown, as two references in his books suggest, as well as his cultural ties to Kansas.  Particularly, I think the writer’s observation that “the very choice of Osawatomie, a symbol beloved by the earlier generation of radicals that mentored Obama” is probably true.  I also suspect that beneath the shining “American” armor of political necessity, President Obama may have a “radicalism” rooted in history—particularly a history of admiring leaders who instigated “an internal struggle among Americans.” 

Of course, I do not read this as a negative or diminishing evaluation.  It suggests that while President Obama probably avoided any mention of John Brown in order to save himself the headache of being attacked by right-wingers all over again, he may actually have had a greater enthusiasm for speaking in Osawatomie, Kansas, than even President Theodore Roosevelt had in 1910.  President Obama might have cited John Brown in his speech, after which he would have been obligated to placate angry white people across the nation, possibly even back-peddle to do damage control.  Instead, my sense is that he simply overlooked Brown.  Perhaps that’s cowardice, or just common sense.

To be sure, it is doubtful that he made the decision to omit mention of Brown on his own.  For a President or a presidential candidate, word and act are often matters of political expedience, not clarity.  President Obama was probably advised to do so—although I doubt it was the current reigning biographer of Brown who warned the President not to mention John Brown.  Yes, it’s possible that the White House is aware of Tony Horwitz’s new book and decided that it was best for the President not to get entangled with the controversial Subject of Midnight Rising—especially since Tony tends to extend the Villardian image of Brown as a well-intended murderer into the 21st century.  Still, it’s interesting that on the day that President Obama was speaking in Osawatomie, Tony Horwitz was giving an author’s John Brown speech in Kansas City.10  Too bad they couldn’t have gotten together for a post-speech book chat. 

© 2011 by L. DeCaro Jr.


            1 Robert S. La Forte, “Theodore Roosevelt's Osawatomie Speech,” Kansas Historical Quarterly 32:2 (Summer 1966): 187-200.  Retrieved from the Kansas Historical Society website (Topeka, Kan.) on 11 December 2011 from:
            2 Theodore Roosevelt, “New Nationalism Speech” ([31 August] 1910).  Retrieved from Teaching American History.org (Ashland University: Ashland, Oh.) on 11 December 2011 from:
            3 Ibid.
            4 See my essay, “Black People’s Ally, White People’s Bogeyman: A John Brown Story,” in The Afterlife of John Brown, edited by Andrew Taylor and Eldrid Herrington (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 11-26.
            5 LaForte, “Theodore Roosevelt’s Osawatomie Speech.”           
            6 “Full text of Barack Obama's Speech in Osawatomie, Kansas,” The Guardian [U.K.] (6 Dec. 2011).  Retrieved on 11 December 2011 from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/dec/07/full-text-barack-obama-speech.
            7 Ashley Southall, “In Kansas, Obama Relishes His ‘Deep’ Roots,” New York Times (6 Dec. 2011).  Retrieved on 11 December 2011 from: http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/06/in-kansas-obama-relishes-his-deep-roots/           
            8 William Hosley, “Obama Fails To Note John Brown's Battleground,” Hartford Courant (10 Dec. 2011).  Retrieved on 11 December 2011 from: http://www.courant.com/news/opinion/hc-op-hosley-obama-ignores-john-brown-1210-20111210,0,1775988.story.
            9 Joel B. Pollak, “Obama’s Osawatomie Speech Echoes Symbols of Occupy Wall Street, Abolitionism–and the Weather Underground,” Andrew Breitbart Presents Big Government (8 Dec. 2011).  Retrieved on 11 December 2011 from: http://biggovernment.com/jpollak/2011/12/08/obamas-osawatomie-speech-echoes-symbols-of-occupy-wall-street-abolitionism-and-the-weather-underground/
            10 Hosley, “Obama Fails To Note John Brown's Battleground.”

Friday, December 09, 2011

From Hell on Wheels to Midnight Rising:
The Pottawatomie Killings and Popular Culture

We all know that the image of John Brown in popular culture is negative, and that many people in the United States think of him mainly as the leader of the “Pottawatomie massacre” in the war-torn Kansas Territory prior to the Civil War.  From films like Santa Fe Trail (1940) to Skin Game (1971), Hollywood was fairly consistent in portraying the Old Man’s historical forte as sheer homicide.  Furthermore, it should be evident that this violent image of John Brown is not just based upon a lack of historical information.  Many people in this nation despise John Brown.  Yet if they hate him, they also love to hate him—that is, they love to tell his alleged story (which really is their story about him) in cinematic, journalistic, and even historical narratives.  For many people, there is even a certain romance in Brown the fanatical prairie killer, not unlike the romance of Jesse James in the “old west.”  Yet whereas James is rendered as a sympathetic figure, Brown is almost always portrayed as a merciless, fanatical killer, or as a sincere man with unusually flaws in his moral and psychological fiber. Nor has this contemptuous view of Brown receded after such important breakthrough books as David Reynolds’ John Brown Abolitionist (2005) or Evan Carton’s Patriotric Treason (2006).

“John Brown is a cold-blooded murderer!”

If you doubt my word, just check out this video excerpt from an episode of AMC’s current post-Civil War series, Hell on Wheels, about the adventures of a Southern anti-hero character, Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount).  Bohannon, a former slave master and rebel soldier, becomes involved with a westward railroad project while seeking revenge against some murderous Union soldiers.  Of course, it is not unusual for Hollywood to portray the Southerner as the central figure, whether hero or anti-hero.  Most movies related to the Civil War and “the old West” are sympathetic to the South, and often have portrayed the North as ruthless, invasive, and tyrannical.  Filmmaker Kevin Wilmott has rightly observed that most westerns really are “southerns” anyway, and this is no less true of Hell on Wheels

In the following excerpt, the somewhat drunken Bohannon is sought out by the soul-seeking camp preacher, Nathanial Cole (Tom Noonan).  In their exchange, Preacher Cole confesses that prior to the war, he had ridden alongside “Martyr John Brown” in “Bleeding Kansas.”   The scene is worth observing:

By all accounts, this is a good scene—well acted and quite authentic in detail, down to the murky camp and the eerie background noises.  It is also reasonably framed: in 1865, one would get a Southerner’s attention quickly by declaring association with the hated John Brown.  Many white Southerners still hate his guts. 

Yet having viewed this excerpt, one should know that it is flatly wrong in historical terms.  First, no such person as Nathaniel Cole was involved in the Pottawatomie killings, particularly no drunken killer as Preacher Cole claims to have been prior to his conversion. Second, the five Southerners killed at Pottawatomie by Brown’s men were not slave owners, nor were they killed simply because they were Southern and pro-slavery.  Brown peacefully interacted with proslavery Southerners in Missouri and Kansas territory in 1855-56, and never treated them with insult, let alone violence.  The five men killed at Pottawatomie were targeted because they were conspiring murder and terrorism in conjunction with invading proslavery “hordes” (as Brown liked to call them).  Third, broadswords were used to expedite the midnight killings without drawing too much notice, not as an expression of murderous contempt.  And the swords were well sharpened, finely honed instruments of death.  The kind of dull-edged hacking described by the fictional Preacher Cole is simply the flourish of Hell’s scriptwriters.  Brown intended the Pottawatomie strike to be done quickly and in stealth in order to remove the major figures of proslavery aggression in the vicinity, and to eradicate their imminent assault upon Osawatomie, especially as it targeted the militant egalitarian Brown family.  In this light, the Pottawatomie killings were quite successful.

The distinction between history and Hell on Wheels is clear.  This is not just the stuff of drama in a contemporary western.  To be sure, the evocation of “Bleeding Kansas” in the dialogue and the revelation that Preacher Cole is a reformed butcher makes for a good story.  But it is also an example of how popular culture sees John Brown, and how reverentially easy it is for film makers, novelists, and more serious writers to draw deeply from the bloody well of the John Brown myth in “American” popular culture.  It works for them, not just as a cinematic effect, but also in homage to an “American” cultural dogma. Thus, when the penitent Preacher Cole confesses to the impenitent rebel Bohannon about his past involvement in Kansas, the latter turns and responds—like any red-blooded American—in almost creedal confession: “John Brown was a cold-blooded murderer!”  This belief is deeply imbedded in the civil religion of white America, the underside of the beautification of Abraham Lincoln as the American messiah—slain on Friday, as Emil Ludwig once wrote, “like a prophet.”

Midnight Rising

“First Blood” is the title of chapter four of Tony Horwitz’s widely reviewed literary masterpiece, Midnight Rising.  It is the part of his book where he deals quite necessarily with the Pottawatomie incident before moving toward the climax of Brown’s raid and death in Virginia.  In fairness to Tony, “First Blood” promisingly sets up the circumstances of “Bleeding Kansas” in 1856, showing that free state Kansans had good cause to fear proslavery terrorism, especially considering that hundreds of pro-slavery militants had invaded the territory in May 1856.  Likewise, he acknowledges somewhat that Brown’s kin and community in Osawatomie were on the proslavery radar, although he fails to sufficiently explain the extent to which the Browns—as extreme abolitionists—were particularly despised and targeted by neighboring proslavery conspirators.  Furthermore, Tony tends to underplay the extent of the pro-slavery violence already in the territory, especially considering that the actual “first blood” of “Bleeding Kansas” had already been drawn by Southerners: five free state men were murdered before Brown’s men ever began sharpening their swords.

While Tony is honest about the proximity and threat of an army of pro-slavery thugs, he decidedly concludes that the only reason that Brown and his men struck five pro-slavery neighbors near the Pottawatomie Creek is because “Brown was enraged” over their successful assault upon Lawrence, Kansas, a free state town.   This, says Tony Horwitz, was the reason for the Pottawatomie killings—as he puts it: “. . .Brown needed no further spur to carry out his Gideon-like mission” (p. 49).  Then, after describing the gory killings, Tony opines:
The Browns and their allies cast the killings as an act of self-defense: a preemptive strike against proslavery zealots who had threatened their free-state neighbors and intended to harm them.  The Browns’ defenders also denied any intent on their part to mutilate the Kansans.  Broadswords had been used to avoid making noise and raising an alarm; the gruesome wounds resulted from the victims’ attempts to ward off sword blows.  But this version of events didn’t accord with evidence gathered after the killings. (p. 53)
Of course, anyone who has studied the Pottawatomie incident knows that at this point, Tony is acting neither as journalist nor as historian, but as an American storyteller promoting the same “American ‘gospel’ story” as the screenplay writers of Hell on Wheels.  Even though his historical framework is obviously far more factual, there is a great deal in “First Blood” that suggests an overlooking and/or manipulating of the facts.  At best, this chapter fails as history because it simply does not present a fair treatment of the evidence.  At worst, Tony has set up the story to invoke the bloody, violent image of Brown by insisting that this beloved American myth is history.

We know this is the case for many reasons.

First, Tony acknowledges that Brown’s allies have argued that the killings were based in self-defense, that is, that they were preemptive and justifiable given the extremely dangerous circumstances of the war-torn territory in May 1856.  Tony admits the presence of a large number of proslavery thugs near the free state center of Osawatomie, but the danger they present seems to vanish in the narrative.  Ultimately, it is only Brown’s alleged vendetta that matters.  Indeed, Tony does not weigh the fact that the threat upon Osawatomie was imminent and that there is evidence that the five men killed under Brown’s orders were collaborating with these invading proslavery forces. 

Second, Tony completely ignores the testimony of John Brown Junior and others who said that the Old Man made careful investigation into the involvement of these proslavery neighbors in a murderous conspiracy.   Knowing the sources, it appears to me that Tony is selective in his use of the historical evidence--ignoring the testimony of Brown’s son Salmon and son-in-law Henry Thompson, which at least would balance out our understanding of Pottawatomie.   Not only were Salmon and Henry confident that the attack was necessary, but even John Junior and Jason, who opposed it at the time, came to acknowledge the necessity of killing the Doyles, Wilkinson, and Sherman. 

Thirdly, Tony not only ignores the abundant evidence in favor of Brown, but he privileges the testimony and claims of the Southerners—what he calls “the evidence gathered after the killings.”  Not only does he fail to weigh their testimony, but he flies in the face of the best historical work on the subject, especially the discussion about Pottawatomie published in Robert McGlone’s carefully researched and deeply considered bio-study, John Brown’s War Against Slavery (2009).  Even if Tony wished to ignore my biographical approach to Pottawatomie, serious scholars cannot condone the extent to which he ignored Robert McGlone’s well-researched and seriously considered effort, John Brown’s War Against Slavery (2009). 

Yet even if “First Blood” is simply not a reliable chapter, it has been skillfully tailored to suit the beloved myth of the homicidal John Brown.  Tony thus infers things about the Pottawatomie killings that are untenable, but which serve the worst image of Brown in Kansas.  Most notably, he claims that Brown personally killed James Doyle, one of his inimical neighbors, by shooting him in the forehead.  To the contrary, the primary sources and logical analysis of the incident call for the conclusion that Brown shot Doyle’s corpse at the conclusion of the deathly raid.  From Oswald Villard to Robert McGlone, historians have never questioned the fact that Brown killed no one with his own hand despite giving the orders for the killings.  Yet Tony insists that the man was gunned down in cold blood by Brown at the onset of the attack, claiming that this is more “plausible,” even though he can offer no real evidence, and even though he is running against the conclusion of every serious biographer regardless of their view of Brown.   In fact, the only “evidence” he offers is a juxtaposed quotation from John Junior that has no direct bearing on the incident.

Fourthly, Tony infers that the five men killed at Pottawatomie were deliberately mutilated by Brown and his men.  Yet he overlooks the obvious fact that their severed arms and hands were defense wounds, and that the men were essentially executed, not deliberately maimed, mutilated, or otherwise tortured.  Despite the inference, then he refers to the killings as a “public execution.” But aren't public executions typically carried out before the public--typically in daylight and in the presence of witnesses? (think of the cruel manner in which the Nation of Islam publicly assassinated Malcolm X).  To the contrary, the Pottawatomie killings were not “public,” nor did they reflect terroristic priorities.  Rather, the killings were done at night, by surprise, and sufficiently removed from the sight of other associates and family members.  The fact that Brown and his men said nothing when seizing these men except that they were prisoners, further suggests that the reason for the attack was strategic.  These men were not primarily killed as examples (although they inevitably became examples after the fact), but as enemies taken by surprise—neutralized before they themselves could take violent action upon the Browns and other free state neighbors in the vicinity.  Interestingly, while Tony quotes John Brown Junior, it was Junior who later spoke of the Pottawatomie killings as a case of the Browns “getting a jump” on their enemies.   

Fifthly, as disturbing as the scene at Pottawatomie may be to us in retrospect, it is unwarranted for Tony to make it more than it was.  For instance, the swords were clearly used because an extended series of gunshots in the night would have drawn attention.   Yet Tony bucks this explanation even though it is the most logical.  Nor is it sufficient for him to say that some of the Southern testimony says that multiple shots were heard; this claim is neither tested nor trustworthy, and must be weighed against the full array of evidence, including the testimony of surviving participants like Salmon Brown.  Brown’s men, who were on site and involved, said there was one bullet fired—one shot into the head of a dead man.  While Tony is right in considering the peculiarity of shooting a dead man in the head, he simply has no sufficient basis to change the story to suit the bloody American myth. 

Along with the evidentiary and strategic conclusion that the shooting occurred at the end of the assault (when Doyle was already dead), Tony fails at least to consider possible reasons that Brown might have shot Doyle’s body.  For instance, he may have momentarily feared that the man was alive and suffering; or he may have done it because he wanted to make his mark on the very man who would have done far worse to him and his sons; or he may have regretted after the fact that he had not struck a lethal blow on his own, and so fired a shot into Doyle’s body; finally, it may have been a combination of any one of these reasons with the need to signal his men—which is what his son Salmon assumed.  I fear that in this case, Tony has seen only what he wants to see.

Finally, Tony blames the subsequent violence of “Bleeding Kansas” essentially on the Pottawatomie killings.  He writes: “If it was Brown’s intent to bring on a full-fledged conflict, he got his wish” (p. 55).  The problem with this rationale, which dates back to Oswald Villard in 1910, is that pro-slavery violence was already escalating before the Pottawatomie killings.  Considering the growing majority of free state voters in the territory and the corollary desperation of pro-slavery forces to seize Kansas for slavery, the escalation of pro-slavery terrorism was primarily due to the larger intention of the South.  While the Pottawatomie episode sent shock waves through Missouri and into the South, and while it thoroughly unsettled the hubris of proslavery bullies in Kansas, it was itself only one aspect of “Bleeding Kansas.”  Southern terrorism in the Kansas territory was the context of escalating violence in that territory in 1856; without escalating violence, the South knew there was no way of gaining control of Kansas in order to make it into a pro-slavery state.  It was Southern pro-slavery desperation and lawlessness that bears the blame for this escalation, not John Brown’s notably bloody act of counter-terrorism.

“First Blood” is a chapter rife with problems.  Even admitting that the Pottawatomie episode is both unpleasant and difficult to nail down in its entirety, it is irresponsible to ignore what the most progressive and painstaking studies have concluded: the attack was an expression of territorial civil war; it further marked the desperation of one faction which was vulnerable and living under threat of attack without recourse to local or federal assistance; and the Pottawatomie “victims” were singled out because of their involvement in a deadly conspiracy, not because they were pro-slavery people.  According to Salmon Brown, Doyle was upbraided by his own wife at the time he was seized by Brown’s men.  She scolded him essentially for bringing the attack upon himself by his “devilment,” which was an admission of his guilt.   Her subsequent testimony to her husband’s innocence is suspect, and it is problematic for Tony to make such uncritical and selective use of available sources.  Similarly, he fails to contextualize the sickening aftermath of the episode, in which Owen Brown was conscience-stricken about having killed some of these men with a sword.  Many a soldier has gotten sick after taking a life in battle; even men fighting in self-defense may afterward express remorse and regret for killing their enemies.  Owen was a gentle soul by all accounts.  Brown’s son-in-law Henry Thompson, another killer, was likewise a man of gentle character, both men of great moral conscience.   It would have been aberrant if they were not bothered by the experience.  Yet neither man ever discredited the killings nor repented for their participation.  Indeed, they defended the necessity of the action.

Hell on Wheels is pure fiction and Midnight Rising is a work of history.  Yet both presume a narrative of slaughter-and-blood in keeping with the American myth of John Brown.  The invocation of this figure is at once sentimental and frightening, even as it is both enthralling and vexing.   Both works highlight the mantra of John Brown the “cold blooded" killer.  And when his story is told, it is by invocation of dark midnight and bloody sword.  

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Osawatomie Notebook--
President Obama Follows Teddy Roosevelt's Footsteps to Osawatomie

According to Kansas Watchdog TV (which posted the video below on YouTube), Grady Atwater [a friend of this blog!], Site Administrator of the John Brown Museum in Osawatomie, Kansas gives some history behind President Barack Obama's planned visit to Osawatomie, Kansas on Dec. 6, 2011. Some speculate Obama's visit has historical connections to the "New Nationalism" speech given by Theodore Roosevelt in Aug. 1910 (about 18 months after he left office). Roosevelt was in Osawatomie to dedicate the John Brown Memorial Park, which was an event attended by about 30,000.

According to Aamer Madhani of USA Today, President Obama will follow the example of Teddy Roosevelt by traveling to Osawatomie, Kansas, to address the nation's economic situation.  He is scheduled to do so this Tuesday.  Madhani says that President Obama will "lay out the choice we face between a country in which too few do well while too many struggle to get by, and one where we're all in it together – where everyone engages in fair play, everyone does their fair share, and everyone gets a fair shot," the White House said in a statement announcing the Kansas address.  Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th President of the USA, famously traveled to Osawatomie in August 1910 to deliver an address that called for a "New Nationalism," where every American got "a square deal."  As Madhani says, this effort "comes as Obama battles with GOP lawmakers to extend and expand a payroll tax holiday that Congress enacted last year, which reduced the rate from 6.2% to 4.2%. . . . The trip to Kansas will give Obama an opportunity to bolster his push for a payroll tax extension and also another chance to push the White House narrative that the GOP is more concerned about the wealthy than the middle class."

Source: Aamer Madhani, "Obama Looks to Emulate Teddy Roosevelt." USA Today (3 Dec. 2011)

Digging Up Some Notes--
Teddy Roosevelt on John Brown

Teddy Roosevelt went to Kansas to speak at the dedication of the John Brown Park at Osawatomie, Kansas, on August 30, 1910.  As a result of his apparently positive remarks about Brown, Roosevelt was criticized for his speech quickly prepared an article in The Outlook magazine entitled, "The Progressives, Past and Present" (Sept. 3, 1910), essentially an apologetic for his remarks in Kansas.  

Referring to Kansas, Roosevelt wrote that the struggle there before the Civil War, though "heroic," and had a "dark and terrible side." Both sides of the war had men of "heroic valor" and "self devotion," he concluded.  Roosevelt then suggested that some of the same people who had honored John Brown and Lincoln either "shrink from or frantically denounce" those operating in the 20th century according to the same spirit as they did in their time (p. 19).  He wrote further that John Brown "stood for heroic valor, grim energy, fierce fidelity to high ideals," and was "one of the most striking figures" of the struggle against slavery:  "He did much in his life and more in his death; he embodied the inspiration of the men of his generation; his fate furnished the theme of the song which most stirred the hearts of the soldiers," he concluded (p. 20).

However, Roosevelt ultimately gave Lincoln the highest salutation, rendering him the hero of the nation: "the man to whom we owe most is, of course, Lincoln."  It was Lincoln, Roosevelt opined, who manifested "valor, energy, disinterestedness, idealism. . . and his also was that lofty and far-seeing wisdom which alone could make the valor, the disinterestedness, the energy, the idealism, of service to the Republic."  Roosevelt thus concluded that in modern concerns, we ought to "profit and welcome, and cooperate with the John Browns," yet remember that "the problems can really be solved only if we approach them in the spirit of Abraham Lincoln."  To further clarify his position to his critics, Roosevelt concluded that "John Brown prepared the way; but if the friends of freedom and union had surrendered themselves to his leadership, the cause of freedom and union would have been lost."  Indeed, Roosevelt went so far as to quote Lincoln's diminishing remarks about Brown from the 1860 Cooper Union speech Both Brown and Lincoln were examples to be studied, Roosevelt wrote, but ultimately Brown is a "warning" for the "extremists" among the progressive movement.  "The experience of John Brown illustrates the evil of the revolutionary short-cut to ultimate good ends" (p. 20).
Roosevelt then underscores his self-identification as a "progressive," warning that failing to follow progressive policies will negate democracy.  Yet he expressed "concern when progressives act with heedless violence, or go so far and so fast as to invite reaction" (p. 20).  In fact, he drew a parallel between supposedly insurrectionary agenda of Brown with the desire to "destroy private wealth": "John Brown's notion that the evils of slavery could be cured by a slave insurrection was a delusion analogous to the delusions of those who expect to cure the evils of plutocracy by arousing the baser passions of workingmen against the rich in an endeavor at violent industrial revolution." (pp. 20-21).

Roosevelt likewise acknowledged that "plutocratic" abuses incite negative reactions, just as did the "insolence of the ultra pro-slavery men" before the Civil War.  Quoting Lincoln after the election of 1864, Roosevelt points out that human nature will not change, and men should reunite "having a common interest" in a "common effort to save our common country."  Lincoln, he wrote, tried to avoid placing "obstacles" in anyone's way, nor had he "willingly planted a thorn in any man's bosom."  Finally, Roosevelt reiterated Lincoln's call to reconciliation toward "a more substantial measure of equality in moral and physical well-being" among those "freed from the curse of Negro slavery" and sustained as undivided citizens by the efforts of Lincoln's generation.  He ponders the challenge of balancing freedom and equality, concluding that given man's shortcomings, "unrestricted individual liberty" would undermine "approximate equality," while "a rigid and absolute equality would imply the destruction of every shred of liberty" (p. 21).

In his article, Roosevelt sent a clear message that his "progressive" adventure in Osawatomie ought not to be misread or mistaken by the status quo.   He was opposed to any extreme of racism, exemplified in his day by blatant racism and neo-Confederate terrorism.  Yet he also emphasized that he was at heart Lincolnian in his reading of history, including the conclusion that John Brown was a skewed leader.  Though admirable to a degree, Roosevelt writes, Brown's recourse to violence and "revolution" disqualified him from being seen as a hero and leader to the nation, while Lincoln was to be praised for his conciliatory posture toward Southern whites.  

Clearly, Roosevelt embraced and extended Lincoln's supposed "liberality" by advocating for freedom from slavery and "approximate equality" for blacks, but far more protecting white people's "liberty" by opposing "a rigid and absolute equality."  Roosevelt further misconstrued Brown's anti-slavery objective as insurrection, equating him with the most disdained extremists  of his own era.  In short, Roosevelt distinguished himself as a true heir to the Lincoln-Republican tradition of moderate, measured support of human rights and black freedom, and absolute devotion and protection of white supremacy and the capitalist prerogative in the United States.  His ham-handed treatment of Brown was not only an aspect of damage control to save his political career in the face of white society's disdain, but suggests the conflicted, double-minded manner that we have seen Brown handled recently, where he is at once a figure to be admired and an extremist to be disdained, a heroic opponent of injustice as well as a supposed terrorist, a failed leader, and self-made martyr!

It will be interesting to see if President Obama invokes John Brown in his Osawatomie address, and if so, what his remarks will entail--and if he likewise will afterward be forced to defend his remarks by reassuring the nation of his faithfulness to the "official" history of this nation.  Gary Wills had already pointed out Mr. Obama's willingness to cut loose his own pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, at the onset of his quest for the presidency.  That the President has chosen Osawatomie to respond in defense of his agenda is interesting, if not peculiar.  Is he insinuating his admiration of Brown, or just bringing his challenge to the front lines of a conservative and traditional arena, hoping to play it off with a little historical spice the way that Teddy Roosevelt did 101 years ago? 

Friday, December 02, 2011

152 Years Ago Today:
“A Man of a Different Mould”: John Brown, William Mumford,
and Southern Pharisaism

Barnaby Furnas, John Brown
On the second of December, 152 years ago today, John Brown ascended the gallows, patiently waiting upon his Viriginia captors until they were ready to kill him.  By all accounts, he seemed fearless, except for the peculiar care he was said to have taken in his movements once his head and eyes were covered--a natural reaction, as one observant journalist put it, as if he was afraid to fall.  When the rope was cut and the trap door swung out, the Old Man fell several inches when the rope grabbed him back from the force of gravity, leaving him to dangle in the breeze as he choked to death.  His body showed little movement, certainly no struggle except some movement in his pinioned arms—gestures that steadily diminished as barely sixty years of living drained away.  After some time, a doctor listened for the stillness of his breast and he was finally cut down, but not before “Porte Crayon,” the Virginia-born artist of Harper’s made a morbid sketch of the lifeless face under the hood.  When his remains were returned to the jail, some discussion took place about injecting his body with arsenic in order to make certain the work of death.  But such measures were unnecessary.  The Old Man was quite removed from this world.

The Rebel Gambler

"Poor Material
to Exalt"
A decade later, when the Civil War was over and the nation was slowly inching its way back to reordered form of white supremacy sans chattel slavery, Brown was still a significant figure of heroism to many in the North.  One such admirer, a journalist named Homer Sprague, prepared an article in the Connecticut-based publication, The Soldiers’ Record, which memorialized the reminiscences of Union soldiers and other points of history relating to the recent war of Southern rebellion.  Recounting the conquest of New Orleans by General Joseph Butler, Sprague mentioned some aspects of Butler’s notably harsh treatment of rebels (which ultimately led to his removal from New Orleans), including the hanging of William B. Mumford, a gambler with strong rebel sympathies.  After the Union had taken New Orleans and the U.S. flag was displayed over the city’s famous Mint, Mumford had taken it upon himself to tear it down and desecrate it as an act of pro-Confederate valor.  Perhaps he was at once the antithesis of the murdered Elmer Ellsworth, who was shot dead in Virginia in 1861 when he pulled down a Confederate flag.  But in Sprague’s mind, Mumford was also the antithesis of John Brown.

According to Sprague, “the gambler Mumford” was hostile toward Union forces, and following the surrender of New Orleans, he took it upon himself to tear down the U.S. flag, leading to his arrest and confinement in the Custom House.  Union General Butler found himself in a dilemma—to go easy on Mumford would undermine his authority and diminish the Union occupation.  Sprague wrote that it was his own regiment that guarded Mumford, and for this reason was privy to some knowledge of Mumford’s character and attitude prior to his hanging (June 7, 1862).  According to Sprague, the army Chaplain Salter repeatedly visited him, and with tears offered him the consolation of religion, and begged him to accept a Saviour's mercy.”  Mumford's “singular reply, which Sprague conveyed “in substance” was, "I have no fear of death, because I have lived a blameless life.  Having never done anything wrong, I am prepared for a future world, if there is any future world.  I only hate to leave my friends." 

Brown: "a man of a different mould"
To this, Sprague opined that the kind chaplain would rightly have been “perplexed and amazed” at Mumford’s “stoical indifference, without a prayer on his lips,” for the gambler-turned-rebel “Mumford met death as coolly as did old John Brown on the Virginia scaffold.”
But Brown was a man of different mould; of austere morals, trained to piety, accustomed to spend much of his time in reading his bible or on his knees in prayer.  Mumford was conceded to have no religious convictions, was dissolute, intemperate, and a noted gambler—poor material to exalt into a martyr, even in the cause of slavery, for which he died.1
As Sprague’s point reveals, facing death bravely does not prove one’s cause is noble and true.  History has shown that Brown’s hanging vindicated his vision for a just society and freedom for all humans.  Mumford’s death is largely forgotten; but even when it is recovered from the dusty pages of history, it seems more pitiful than anything else.  A fool in the conduct of his life, a fool in the cause for which he died, and a fool in his own stoic conceit facing the bar of eternity.  

Thomas Jackson and the Pharisaic Spirit of the South

It was a mark of the Pharisaic spirit of the South that its most noble leaders could not recognize the authenticity of John Brown’s Christian faith.  That Pharisaic spirit remains quite vivid in the antagonism that many white Christians still show toward John Brown—the endless harping on his actions in Kansas, his resort to “violence," and all the other self-righteous screeds that typically accompany resentful anti-Brown remarks coming from people I’m supposed to think of as my “Christian brethren.”  Of course, the pro-slavery side had its own saints and sinners, the latter group being represented by the hanged rebel gambler Mumford.  But even among its saints, its supposedly noble Christian leaders, this same blindness was a great affliction.  Consider the remarks of Thomas Jackson, soon to become the Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson, after witnessing Brown’s death on the gallows:
I was much impressed with the thought that before me stood a man in the full vigor of health, who must in a few moments enter eternity. I sent up the petition that he might be saved. Awful was the thought that he might in a few minutes receive the sentence, “Depart, ye wicked, into everlasting fire!” I hope that he was prepared to die, but I am doubtful. He refused to have a minister with him.2
"Grandiose Hubris": Gen. Thomas Jackson
sent money to a "colored" Sunday School while
fighting to keep blacks enslaved
The grandiose hubris of this personal remark is itself a commentary on the kind of religion that had come to typify the evangelical South, including the very pristine orthodoxy of Southern Reformed Presbyterians like Jackson.  The Union soldier-reporter Sprague could at least see the incongruity between the stoic bravery of Mumford and the incendiary and ignoble rebellion for which he was willing to die.  Quite in contrast and notwithstanding his die-hard Calvinist orthodoxy and upstanding piety, Jackson—like so many other agents and protectors of black bondage—could not recognize the death of a martyr, even when that martyr was swinging in the Southern breeze in his very presence.  However evangelically “kind” Jackson was to think he should pray for Brown’s salvation, it seems he missed the point of Brown’s martyrdom altogether.  Brown had not “refused to have a minister with him”; he had refused to have a pro-slavery minister’s words of consolation and companionship.  For Brown to have done otherwise would have fully contradicted all that he had lived and now was willing to die for.  Not only was John Brown as deeply devoted to the same evangelical and Reformed faith of Jackson, but also he was willingly dying for the sake of the oppressed and enslaved, whereas Jackson ultimately died for the cause of the slave master.  That Jackson could believe that Brown was not “prepared to die” was more a commentary on the deplorable nature of pro-slavery evangelicalism—yeah, of U.S. evangelicalism, besotted as it was with racist arrogance.

John Brown Vindicated, Mumford Forgotten

John Brown in jail:
"Martyr" is from the Greek
word for "Witness"
It may be a point of indifference to many (if not most) of my readers that John Brown fully leaned on the biblical doctrines of grace.  However, as a Christian and a pastor, it matters a great deal to me that we understand that Brown was no jailhouse preacher, no self-manufactured saint who grasped at religion as the last straw once his other plans had failed.   Rather, to labor over his letters, especially those letters written to his family, one cannot help but to be moved by the deeply-rooted, time-tested confidence that the Old Man had come to place in his God and Savior.  Furthermore, these points of personal evangelical piety and conviction were inseparable from his devotion to the oppressed, his depth of belief concerning the wickedness of slavery, and his own certainty that dying at the hands of people like Jackson and Mumford ultimately would be vindicated by both Providence and history.  And he was right.

As Sprague concluded, John Brown was “a man of a different mould”—the kind of man who rarely comes on the scene of history, but always leaves it heavily marked by his life and death.  Such men are remembered as if they still live.  Their presence in society remains, their appeal to successive generations is vibrant, and their ability to speak to us never wanes.  Meanwhile generals and gamblers like Jackson and Mumford become part of the political trivia of history.    Mumford is forgotten.  “Stonewall” Jackson, who presumed to judge John Brown’s soul, matters little except to a few Civil War enthusiasts and brooding neo-Confederates. 

But John Brown’s soul goes marching on.

            1 Homer B. Sprague, "Thirteenth Regiment, C.V.," The Soldiers' Record (Feb. 27, 1869), p. 270
            2 Letter from Thomas Jonathan Jackson to Mary Anna Jackson, Dec. 2, 1859, quoted in Life and Letters of General Thomas J. Jackson (New York, NY: Harper & Brothers, 1891), p. 1.