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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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Take Note--
Most of What You've Heard about John Brown is Wrong

The John Brown that many people imagine is frankly wrong because they've been misinformed by years of prejudiced, poorly researched, and willfully deceptive accounts--virtual gossip.  After years of studying Brown close up, I can sketch the following list challenging twelve mistaken notions that typify Brown's popularly misrepresented legacy.  Remember, this is just a sketch.  There's more in depth and material substance if you wanted to expand many of these biographical items.

1.  Brown was "mad," insane, or mentally ill.

There is no documentation, evidence, or reason to conclude that Brown had any mental illness.  Unfortunately, Tony Horwitz somewhat graces the notion of Brown suffering from a manic or bipolar condition in his recent publication, Midnight Rising.  Although he recognizes the unreliability of posthumous psycho-historical analyses, it didn't stop him from trying to keep this useless discussion alive.  He even fictionalizes a bit when he says that Brown's letters show bipolar like swings--a claim that he does not prove and cannot prove because it just isn't so.  I've been collecting and studying Brown's letters for years and nothing of that sort can be seen in his writings.  Tony makes much of a few poorly contextualized references to insanity and monomania, but none of these references hold up under normal scrutiny.  There just isn't sufficient evidence that Brown was mentally troubled: Yet it seems many people will continue to hold Brown to an unfair standard--He is mentally ill, "wild eyed," and "crazy" because people want him to be, nothing more.  The real question is why do they continue to insist on this issue despite the lack of evidence?

2.  John Brown was a terrible businessman.

John Brown had misfortune in most of his business attempts.  This doesn't entirely mean he was a bad businessman.  Typically popular narratives isolate him from among other businessmen and from the economic context of the antebellum era.  It is assumed that Brown had the same opportunities and circumstances that businessmen do in our era.  Most popular narratives make no mention that there was no national currency, and from state to state monies differed; there were no limited liability corporations, no safety nets, etc. that business people enjoy today.  Then the economy itself was fractured, and the effect of the 1837 economic downturn ricocheted westward, so they hit Brown's region a couple of years later, further weighing upon him and many others with devastating impact.   In the sheep and wool business, most people never consider that his partner Simon Perkins was actually responsible too, and in fact he was probably a worse businessman.  Perkins inherited lots of money and lost most of it--and not with John Brown.  His brothers had to bail him out.  He blamed Brown after the fact since it was convenient to do so, but Perkins was really the weaker link in the firm despite being the investor.  Brown brought the "sweat" equity and management, and while he might have done better, he wasn't incompetent.   Historians tend to tell anecdotes about episodes suggesting Brown's business failings but they never examine the business history itself.  They seem unaware of the challenge Brown had taken on in opposing powerful wool manufacturers, and how they were determined to undermine his operations on behalf of the wool growers.  I'd venture to say that, all things being even, John Brown was a fairly decent businessman and would have probably done alright were it not for always having to face challenges beyond his power.  Bottom line, few if any have seriously studied his business history but they keep repeating the hackneyed claim that "John Brown was a terrible businessman."

3.  Failure in business drove Brown into radical antislavery action.

Nonsense.  Failure in business may have convinced him that he was never going to be a wealthy antislavery tycoon like Gerrit Smith, but he had a lifetime goal of laboring to undermine slavery.  The trajectory of his approach became more militant over the years, but the basis of this change was not his business history.  It is the history of the growing power of slavery, especially the virtual closing of all doors to possible antislavery reform in government following the Fugitive Slave Law and Dred Scott Decision in the 1850s.  Brown became more militant because proslavery power was becoming more and more bold and demanding.  Meanwhile the possibility of legal resolution of the problem increasingly declined.  It was the political and moral trajectory that one must follow to understand his increasing militancy, not any notion of personal failure.

4.  Brown went to Kansas to settle.

Wrong.  He only went to Kansas because his sons asked for help.  Although he became somewhat involved in the developments of Kansas, the reality is he was never a major player in Kansas free state leadership and really acted as a catalyst for abolitionism among a largely passive, moderate free state population.  Brown essentially went to Kansas to support his sons and was drawn into defense of the free state cause from terroristic invasion.  He never intended to stay in Kansas and--much to the dismay of some free state Kansans--by 1858, he had pretty much abandoned them for his own plans back east.  Brown's role in Kansas is famous and memorable, but it was a detour in his own intentions.

5.  Brown's plan to invade Virginia was a later development, born in the 1850s.

Some scholars have diminished the claim that Brown had planned on invading Virginia in some way from the late 1830s.  There is certainly solid evidence that he had some plan in mind in the late 1840s--even Frederick Douglass verifies that.  But there is reasonably good evidence that he had some idea of tampering with slavery in the South going back to the late 1830s and early 1840s.

6.  The Pottawatomie Killings of 1856 were terroristic.

This is probably one of the biggest, most ill conceived notions relating to Brown, but has been highly popularized.  While it is true that the Kansas material is hard to work through and questions may fairly well remain, it is interesting that many people jump to hard and fast conclusions.   My understanding of the killing of five pro-slavery men by Brown's men in 1856 is that these "victims" were collaborating with invading terrorists and had specific intentions to lead an assault on the Browns and their allies.  This is not speculation; there is sufficient evidence to argue confidently that the Pottawatomie killings were a preemptive strike.  Certainly the men killed were not simply killed because they were pro-slavery.  Brown interacted a lot with proslavery people in Missouri and Kansas territory without incident.  These five men (Wilkinson, Sherman, and three Doyles) were known as activists, collaborators, and conspirators.  Frankly, the Pottawatomie killings were a wartime matter and more a matter of counter-terrorism since the Browns had no resort to protection from the law.

7.  The Pottawatomie killings led to "Bleeding Kansas."

Nonsense.  The problem of violence in Kansas was introduced and sustained by proslavery thuggery.  Proslavery people started it, instigated it, and benefited from it until free state people began to fight back.  The invasions of 1856 by southern thugs and terrorists were not brought upon free state people because of John Brown.  While their rage may have been heightened by antislavery resistance, they were going to attack regardless, as the assault on Lawrence in May 1856 shows.  The proslavery force was intent on forcing Kansas into the Union as a slave state and since they were defeated in democratic terms, they were determined to use violence.  Proslavery militancy started the civil war in Kansas, which was also the unofficial start of the Civil War.  Don't blame Brown.  Blame your slave-owning great-great-great grandfather.  The slave power was expansionist and aggressive--spare us all the crap about "the war of Northern aggression."  Proslavery power was running roughshod over the nation long before 1861, and Kansas proves it.

8.  The Harper's Ferry raid and John Brown's plan.

Brown added the HF invasion later in his life.  His overall plan, which was supported by a wide range of people including Frederick Douglass, was to invade the south, used small bands of armed men operating from the mountains, and to make forays to gather enslaved people and lead them away.  It was not insurrectionary in the proper sense of the term since it was not based upon the idea of killing slave masters necessarily.  Brown's plan was a kind of moral via media--he wanted to destroy slavery by throwing the economic structure of slavery into a panic; he was willing to use force as it was necessary, but he had no intention of widespread killing or insurrectionary murder of slave masters as was done by Nat Turner, for instance.  Brown was targeting the system.  It seems he was looking for a kind of domino effect across the South--the more runaways there were, the more slaves would be sold deeper into the South, and the system would end in chaos.  This is what Brown inferred in his last written statement when he said that he had hoped that his plan could be accomplished "without very much bloodshed."

9.  The Harper's Ferry invasion was quixotic.

Although the HF raid was risky, it was not a hopeless plan as many continue to presume.  Brown studied antebellum armories (there were only two) and knew how easily they'd be taken.  HF was easily taken.  He knew when to strike HF the town and how to hold it effectively for a brief period of time.  While it seems he intended for it as a kind of political declaration of his movement, he also saw it as a rallying spot.  He held HF effectively until the morning after he invaded it.  Regardless of the reason, he made tactical errors in remaining too long in the town and in letting a train go through.  Had he simply moved with expedience, his resort to the mountains would have made it highly difficult for local militia and the yet meager U.S. army to apprehend his movement as a whole.  His campaign would have potentially gone on for months and even years, launched with notoriety from HF.  But his failure there in no wise dismisses the validity of his plan.  Contrary to Frederick Douglass, who did not know HF like Brown, it need not have been a "steel trap."  As Brown told Gov. Wise of Virginia, even with the presence of militia, he managed to resist for two days.  Had he sustained a means of escape, the whole story would have been different.

10.  Blacks did not respond to Brown.

This is nonsense.  Even moderate opinions based upon careful reconsideration of the evidence suggest that scores of blacks were already involved with Brown or present in/around the town at the time of the raid.  Brown's raider, Osborn Anderson, who was on the ground and an eyewitness, says local blacks were enthused and supported Brown and would have come out in great numbers.  Other evidence suggests many blacks had indeed come to join Brown but backed off when he got bogged down in fighting in HF.  Let us be clear: the fiction of black fear, indifference, or unwillingness is based upon slave masters.  It was the slave master version that was fed into the northern press, and the North embraced this view.  Many historians did too and continue to do so.  Yet none can offer a justification for ignoring Osborn Anderson, the eyewitness.  Jean Libby has shown that even in the wake of Brown's defeat, many blacks fled the county.  Whether they fled out of fear of retaliation (which I doubt) or frustration that the plan had gone awry, blacks were highly responsive to Brown.  Some set fires and poisoned livestock of the jurors in Brown's trial.   One of Brown's surviving raiders (Tidd) even said frankly that Brown was both pleased and surprised at the response, which means it was probably better than even he had expected.

11.  Brown received a fair trial.

Only superficially.  Brown was rushed to judgment in a trial presided, conducted by, and decided by slaveowners.  Brown's life was spared on a technicality of time and law, but there is no doubt that the Virginians wanted to kill him.  As Brian McGinty has shown, although Brown paid respect to the trial, his actual experience as a man seeking legal justice while on trial, he was constantly deprived of reasonable appeals and options that should have been afforded him--that would have been afforded him, had he been tried by the federal government instead of Virginia.

12.  Brown didn't kiss a black baby.

On the day of his execution, he probably kissed a white baby, possibly in the arms of an enslaved woman.  But he probably did kiss a black baby during his incarceration at Charlestown.  Don't ask me about this now because it's part of what I'm writing about.  But there's some truth in the legend.  Revision: Six years ago when I made this blog entry, I was still doing research for my book on John Brown's last days, which was published in 2015.  Based on what I found in doing this book, I would now say that Brown definitely kissed a white baby--the infant daughter of jailer John Avis, who probably was in the arms of his wife, Mary.  There was no black enslaved woman in the household.  However, I am still convinced that there is more to the "black baby kiss" than what has been allowed, even though Brown certainly kissed no black baby on the day of his execution as the legend portrays.  I would refer the reader to my book, Freedom's Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia for my take on what likely happened.--LD  14 July 2018

Saturday, February 25, 2012

From the Field--
History for Sale: A Note from Scott Wolfe
Photo courtesy of H. Scott Wolfe

Interested in purchasing a Provisional Army shrine? Seeking to enjoy this snowless winter, I meandered over into an adjacent state today, to photograph the home and grave of Charles Wesley Moffett....Kansas freestate partisan...trainee at Springdale....delegate to the Chatham convention....and a Provisional Army member who ultimately chose love, not war.  Lo and behold, the place is for sale. You can have the farmhouse (built of lumber shipped by wagon from Iowa City) fashioned by Moffett's own hands....along with six acres of ground, for only a little over 75 grand. Not exactly New York prices, eh? I wish I were rich, and not merely good looking. It would be a grand base from which to study the boys.

From the field,

H. Scott Wolfe

* 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.

Photo courtesy of H. Scott Wolfe
History Notes on Charles W. Moffett

"There were a good many colored men from Canada in the convention, and a good many from the United States in the convention. Fred Douglas[s] was expected, but finally at the last moment Fred backed down and didn't come. If any man has any idea that it was planned to go into the South for robbery and murder, or for treason against the United States, I would ask him to study that provisional government and see how we intended to govern the men that went in there."  Charles W. Moffett, Montour, Iowa, interviewed in "John Brown: A Reunion of his Surviving Associates," Topeka Capital (24 Oct. 1882), trans. in BBS RP02-0196 

Charles Moffett was born in 1827 in New York, and went to Kansas in 1855.  He was among those drilled in Iowa in John Brown's group.  He was heavily criticized for not joining JB at Harper's Ferry, but was prevented by "obligations from which he could not be released."* Notes from a letter of Amanda M. Sturtevant [Moffett's sister], to James Redpath, April 17, 1860, in Moffett, Chas. W. file, Box 12, Oswald Garrison Villard - John Brown Papers, Columbia University Rare Books and Manuscript Collection.

* Scott Wolfe informs me that these obligations pertained to Moffett having fallen in love with one Emma Manfull, whom he had met at Springdale, Iowa, while training with Brown's men.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Little Leaven Leavens the Whole Leavenworth--
Kansas History Professor Remembers John Brown and Abe Lincoln

According to the Leavenworth [Kansas] Times online, Jonathan Earle, associate professor of history at the University of Kansas, spoke on the subject of Lincoln and John Brown yesterday (Feb. 20), addressing the University of Saint Mary's annual Lincoln program.

Earle recalled how candidate Lincoln visited Kansas in December 1859, at the very time that Brown was hanged in Virginia for his effort to liberate enslaved people.  Earle told how Lincoln spoke at Atchison on December 1, the day before Brown's hanging.  Earle reportedly declared: “I’ll come out and say it — if it weren’t for Kansas and a wild-eyed abolitionist named John Brown, Abraham Lincoln would never have been president."  There we go again with that "wild-eyed abolitionist" rhetoric.   I think I'm going to start prefacing every reference to Lincoln with, "that manic depressive."

According to Earle, Lincoln's political career had been doubtful until the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 brought him to the public eye as an outspoken critic of Illinois Sen. Stephen Douglas.  Recall that it was Douglas’ plan to apply the ballot in decided the future of Kansas and Nebraska entering the Union as either free or slave states.  Lincoln's voice arose in objecting to the continuance of slavery's expansion. According to the Leavenworth Times, Earle said that following Brown's attack of Harper's Ferry, "anti-slavery Republican Party faced a political upheaval, with pro-slavery Democrats drawing comparisons between Republicans and John Brown. . . .Though not thought to be a major contender, Lincoln ascended in part because of the turmoil within the party following Brown’s actions. Earle also argued that Lincoln's speech in the town of Leavenworth, Kansas, "were the most forceful, morally grounded and provocatively delivered since his debates with (Stephen) Douglas in 1858.” 

In an amazing stunt of academic acrobatics, Earle admitted that Lincoln's "views on race, by most modern standards, would not likely to be considered 'enlightened,'" but yet "he was well ahead of the vast majority of Americans in his racial thinking, and showed a capacity to grow."

This is pretty predictable stuff coming from obeisant American historians, particularly those enlisted to blow hot air into the grandiose Lincoln blimp that is constantly flown overhead in this nation.   Notwithstanding Dr. Earle's competence in addressing Kansas themes, including John Brown's role in the territorial days of that great state, his little Lincoln trick is quite unconvincing.

Dr. Earle cannot have it both ways.  Either Lincoln's views on race were inadequate or they were "well ahead," and the fact is they were at best benignly racist.  Lincoln might be a lot of things, but "well ahead of the vast majority of Americans in his racial thinking" is not one of them.  Lincoln was certainly no racist ogre, the kind of which would hang a black man from a lamp post in Manhattan.  But there were a lot of benign white racists like Lincoln in his day--white men who indulged in racist jokes, enjoyed black-face minstrel shows, and referred to elderly black women as "auntie."  Yes, Lincoln was a nice guy--even John Brown's black Springfield friend Thomas Thomas knew Lincoln at one point and spoke kindly of him.  Frederick Douglass did the same.  But just because he was a nice guy and didn't express his racism in mean-spirited ways does not make him "well ahead."  

There were few white men who were "well ahead" of their countrymen when it came to race in the mid-19th century, and Lincoln wasn't in that circle.   But John Brown was at the center of it.  

Incidentally, Dr. Earle is the author of a nice little book about Brown, John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry: A Brief History with Documents, which he did in conjunction with the Bedford Series in History and Culture (edited by, among others, David Blight, our kind host at Yale University in 2009).  Earle's book is more than adequate, including a fairly written essay with notes, primary documents culled from published sources, a brief timeline and a bibliography.  As to the latter, I found it interesting--and a little disappointing--that Dr. Earle completely omitted any of my works from his bibliography, which suggests either that he slighted my work or that he knows nothing of my work--and in either case, he would look somewhat poorly for an American historian presenting himself as something of a John Brown authority.  However, I've been slighted before, both by John Brown "scholars" and Malcolm X "scholars," respectively, despite the real dearth of substantial, in depth scholarship on either biographical shelf.   However, I will turn the other cheek and salute Dr. Earle for bringing us a quality scholarly aid that will be useful for students and scholars for years to come.  I am happy to own one and have not stuck it behind on the shelf, as I have done with a number of "John Brown books" that do little but take up shelf space.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Standing Lincoln, Kneeling Black--
A "Worship, Full and Supreme": Frederick Douglass Remembers Abraham Lincoln

A Statue of Limitations

On April 14, 1876, Frederick Douglass delivered the keynote address for the unveiling of Freedman's Memorial in Lincoln Park, Washington D.C.   It was the centennial year of U.S. independence and although emancipation and the end of the Civil War were only a little more than a decade before, the nation had turned heartily toward the celebration of independence with little thought of the end of slavery.  According to history blogger Josh Brown, the lavish, expansive Philadelphia Centennial Exposition had been "more about the future than the past, heralding the nation’s triumphant recovery and dynamic growth since its bloody civil war."   Yet the Philadelphia Exposition reflected the larger attitude of white America in that little mention was made of black emancipation and Reconstruction.1

The April 14 event that same year was obviously attuned to remembrance of Lincoln's assassination, which took place on the same date in 1865.  Perhaps the Freedman's Memorial statue is familiar to most people, with its legendary image of a standing Lincoln with a kneeling black man at his feet.  In the right hand of Lincoln is the Emancipation Proclamation, while his left hand is salvifically extended over--but not touching--the gratefully obeisant black man.   Douglass himself disliked the statue.  Although he said nothing about it in his address, he was overheard saying that “it showed the Negro on his knee when a more manly attitude would have been indicative of freedom.”2  What makes Douglass's remarks all the more profound is the fact that the Freedman's Memorial statue was the only image manifested in what had been a larger plan in tribute to black freedom.  Josh Brown informs us that the original plan--primarily funded and supported by blacks--was an ambitious exhibit that was to be executed by New England sculptor Harriet Hosmer.  This planned memorial had attracted the interest and support of black war veterans, but also white liberals who were excited to see a memorial commemorating "the African-American experience from slavery to freedom, culminating with the figure of a black soldier brandishing a rifle."  This was a radical concept, especially in the 19th century, and perhaps it's no wonder that it never came to fruition despite serious efforts to attract more support.   "Moving through a succession of plans and artists, the designs grew more fragmented and unfocused," writes Brown.  

The Ideals of Black Obeisance

Ultimately, all that came of this worthy plan was the standing Lincoln-kneeling black man, a statue executed by sculptor Thomas Ball.  The portrayal of the liberated black man was boastfully authentic, having been based upon the photographic image of a real person, a former slave named Archer Alexander.3  But as Douglass himself recognized, it was anything but the image that had been intended, showing the progress of blacks from slavery to militant self-emancipation.  The black man in the Freedman's Monument is not a strong soldier who has fought for black liberation as much as for the Union.  Instead, the preferred image is of black servile gratitude--the exchange of "Massa" for the Christlike mythology of the so-called Great Emancipator.   Historians may be quick to point out that toward the end of his life, Lincoln entered the fallen Confederate capitol of Richmond, Virginia, and was greeted by grateful former slaves, including one black man who knelt before him.  If I'm not mistaken, however, Lincoln had the good sense to be embarrassed by the man's posture and admonished him to stand.  Not so in the Freedman's Monument, which suggests Lincoln, like Jesus, receiving the worship of a true believer while bestowing his grace upon the kneeling black.  

Of course this is an image that warmed the hearts of white people then and probably still resonates with emotional affirmation for many whites today.  Generally speaking, white society has always assumed that blacks should be grateful for any kindness showed to them, while at the same time, white society long feared (and perhaps still does) the image of strong black men with guns, even when they were fighting on the same side.  In 1863, when Douglass had his first meeting with Lincoln, he was informed by the President (in Douglass's words) that "the wisdom of making colored men soldiers was still doubted," and that "their enlistment was a serious offense to popular prejudice."  Lincoln himself believed that since blacks had "larger motives" to enter the army, they should "be willing to enter the service upon any conditions," which apparently meant not being armed, not being paid the same as white soldiers, and not being afforded the same protections as whites when taken as prisoners of war.4  To be sure, there is a complex of friendly/useful black images embedded in the mind of white society, from black maids to mystical-therapeutic characters, all of which come to the aid of troubled white heroes and heroines.  But at the core of these images is the paradigm of the black man kneeling before the Jesus of "American" Civil Religion.  In post-Civil War terms, for blacks to have refused to bow before Lincoln would have been much like early Christians refusing to offer an oblation to the genius of Caesar.  Treason.

Lincoln and Messianic Mythology

In today's New York Times (11 Feb. 2012), a museum review by Edward Rothstein highlights a $60 million "transformation" of Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C., where Lincoln was assassinated in 1865.  There has been a museum there devoted to Lincoln for years, but now there will be a 10-story building called the Ford's Theater Center for Education and Leadership next to the Peterson House, across the street from Ford's Theater, where Lincoln died.  Whatever else the Center will offer, it will feature an "extensive exhibition" about Lincoln and his times, with a special focus upon the assassination--a exhibit consisting of "careful narrative, well-chosen images, and informative touch screens."  It also features a 34-foot tree-like sculpture comprised completely of books about Lincoln.5  While this is completely consistent with the larger scope of Lincoln's portrayal in U.S. history, as well as the fact that we have entered the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, it is also indicative of the reverential mythology of Lincoln the slain messiah of the nation and the "Great Emancipator" of black people.  Yet the question remains whether all of this Lincoln adoration is grounded in history.

The messianic Lincoln mythology is undoubtedly a phenomenon of nationalistic self-interest, although it also represents the cooperation and collaboration of 19th century white liberals as well as the black community following Lincoln's assassination.  Historian Leon Litwack writes:
Despite the disappointment over Lincoln's lenient amnesty program, his misplaced confidence in southern Unionists, and his "moderate" experiments in state reconstruction, the assassination of the President silenced his black critics and threw a stunned black community into deep mourning, as though it had lost its only white friend and protector.  The President's initial doubts about the wisdom of emancipation and the enlistment of blacks were not forgotten, his equivocations on civil rights ignored, his schemes of colonization, expatriation, and reconstruction forgiven.6
Litwack goes onto describe how black people fell into place, mourning for the dead Lincoln and declaring him a martyr.  One black newspaperman declared Lincoln "the only President who ever had the courage to acknowledge the true manhood of the negro," concluding that he was "the greatest earthly friend of the colored race."7  In a scene that anticipates naive blacks weeping over the assassinated John F. Kennedy ninety-eight years later, The Freedman (a white antislavery publication) noted one elderly black woman crying unabashedly as the President's funeral cortege passed through New York City.  Wringing her hands and weeping, the tearful woman kept lamenting aloud, "He died for me, he died for me!"  The story was entirely pleasing to the white Christian editors of The Freedman, who turned the incident into a black love fest for Lincoln:
How many thousands of her race have felt and said the same,--"He died for me!" and may truly have added, "How we loved him while he lived, and how precious is his memory now that he is dead!"  Yes; you loved him.  Why?  Because he so loved your people that he was willing to die for them.  If President Lincoln could have foreseen his death, do you not think he would cheerfully have given himself a sacrifice to the cause of liberty and justice?  I think he would. . . .I do not believe he would have hesitated or shrunk back in the least.   You have reason, yes, we all have reason, to honor and love the name of Abraham Lincoln.
As if this weren't enough, the editor goes all the way to the cross: "Do you not think of Jesus, the blessed Son of God, our Redeemer and Saviour?  He suffered for us.  He died for us.  Do our tears fall when we think of his great love?"8  Obviously there was a missionary agenda in the article since The Freedman was published by a Christian antislavery organization, The American Tract Society.  However, the redemptive language was clearly deliberate--at least as deliberate as Emerson's "gallows glorious" rhetoric had been drawn to connect John Brown to Christ after his hanging in 1859.  But Emerson was no evangelical and the cross represented moral example, not blood propitiation to him.  The evangelical ratification of Lincoln as the greater Christ figure of the Republic at best demoted John Brown to the role of John the Baptist, his biblical doppelganger.  With the martyred Lincoln freshly enshrined in the glories above, Old Brown was now reinterpreted as the one who had gone before Lincoln, making straight the path before the coming Lord. Brown's brief stint as Jesus was over.  He was now, at best, co-martyr with Lincoln; but all of the energies of antislavery society now began to move toward the apotheosis of Lincoln far above Brown.

This is evident in the same issue of The Freedman, its lead article picturing a woodcut engraving of the popular Matthew Brady photograph of the President and his youngest son, Tad, at his side.  The grief of the nation is quite evident in these words, but also the inclination to enshrine the dead Lincoln in a salvific aura, especially for black people:
And of all the people in this nation, none feel the blow more deeply than the freed men and women, who, by the firm, strong, just hand of Abraham Lincoln have just been recued from the iron grasp of the oppressor.  He was your EMANCIPATOR, your FRIEND.  God raised him up, and gave to him alone, of all the good and great men of our land, the privilege and honor of unbinding your fetters, and bidding you go free.  This one act will cover his name with distinction and glory, and make his memory sweet and precious to you forever.9

The Gospel According to Frederick Douglass

In light of the mythology of Lincoln the messianic emancipator, it is interesting how Frederick Douglass is often referenced in relation to Lincoln, and yet his actual criticism of the President is rarely discussed by historians and journalists.  To be sure, Douglass did appreciate the President, as it were, always making lemonade from the lemon that had been served up to black people in the person of Lincoln.  Despite his distaste for the Freedman's Monument and his in depth criticism of Lincoln as a benign racist and paternalist, Douglass did honor him as the man who ultimately became the instrument of breaking down the prison house of slavery through the might of the federal government.  "[F]or no man who knew Abraham Lincoln could hate him," Douglass had concluded, "but because of his fidelity to union and liberty, he is doubly dear to us, and his memory will be precious forever.”  Why was Lincoln "doubly dear"?  Douglass's rationale is clear: assuming white supremacy, he was still appreciative that despite Lincoln's white priorities, he ultimately addressed the issue of slavery by wedding it to the concept of saving the Union--something that he had not first upheld.  Notwithstanding his actual political record, Douglass maintained that "it was enough for us that Abraham Lincoln was at the head of a great movement" resulting in the end of slavery.  As the foremost leader of white people, he was thus able to use the power of white society in the North to crush the power of the slavocracy.  Furthermore, Lincoln, while hardly free of racial prejudice, was at least devoted to the end of slavery, Douglass concluded, and it was his constitutional disdain for human bondage that made Lincoln a redeemable figure in his eyes.10

But if historians and journalists merely concentrate on the best face that Douglass could put on the President, they do a great disservice to the truth.  For it was also the witness of generous Frederick Douglass that weighs heavily against Lincoln in the broader judgment of humanity and history.  Let Douglass's words from the same address ring out, loud and true, as to the real nature of Abraham Lincoln "the Great Emancipator":
. . .Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model.  In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man.  He was preeminently the white man's President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men.  He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country. . . . 
Speaking to white people in the audience, Douglass is even more pointed:
Knowing this, I concede to you, my white fellow citizens, a preeminence in this worship at once full and supreme.  First, midst, and last, you and yours were the objects of his deepest affection and his most earnest solicitude.  You are the children of Abraham Lincoln.  We are at best only his step-children; children by adoption, children by force of circumstances and necessity.11
It is a mark of the genius of Douglass (in my opinion, the most brilliant figure in 19th century U.S. history) that he could expose the truth of Lincoln so drastically without failing to appreciate how the President had inadvertently stumbled into history as a useful tool of freedom despite himself.  Douglass was kind, but there is no deception in his words.  He was likewise truthful in uplifting John Brown as the man who could die for the slave in contrast to himself, the man who could live for the slave.  The truth of Douglass's doctrine was substantial, although in the case of John Brown, it counterbalanced a drama of two men with very different ideas and plans.  Of course, Douglass was not looking for a white messiah, and his own ego as a leader should not be missed by the historian either.  Yet a comparison of Douglass's words regarding John Brown and Abraham Lincoln would lead us to conclude that it was the latter who fell short of the former with respect to black emancipation.

The worship of Lincoln, "full and supreme," continues as the staple of "American" history.  Although he died like an emperor seated in a theater box while watching a comedy, one would think that Lincoln had died on Calvary, and that from the wound in his head there had flowed blood and water--the redemption of the nation and the life giving stream of the emancipated slave.  This is a far cry from the way that John Brown is remembered.  While we hardly need to make a messiah of either man, it is interesting that between the two of them, it was Brown who set out to die if need be, from the onset of his liberation struggle.  Between the two of them also, it was Brown who died like a martyr--surrounded by his enemies, with all the powers of the state against him, and with prayer, not laughter, on his lips.  


      1 Josh Brown, “Another View of the ‘Statue of Emancipation.’” Picturing History (Jul. 10, 2010).  Retrieved from: http://picturinghistory.gc.cuny.edu/?p=1045
      2 Ibid.
      3 Ibid.  Josh Brown seems to have derived his information from the Kirk Savage's book, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998/99.
      4 The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Hartford: Park Publishing, 1881; rpt. Seacaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1983), pp. 352-53.
      5 Edward Rothstein, "Lincoln Museum, Acts II, the Morning After the Death," New York Times (11 Feb. 2012), C1, 5.
      6 Leon F. Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery (New York: Knopf, 1979), 527.
      7 Ibid.
      8 "He Died For Me," The Freedman [Boston: American Tract Society] (July 1865), p. 32.
      9 "Abraham Lincoln, Our Emancipator," The Freedman, p. 1.
     10 The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, pp. 494-95, 497-98.
     11 Ibid., 492-93.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Note This:
John Brown Gets an Honorable Mention in Lincoln Play, "Necessary Sacrifices": A Note from Greg Artzner of Magpie

Greg Artzner & Terry Leonino--Magpie!
Terry and I received complimentary tickets to see "Necessary Sacrifices", the two-hander about Lincoln & Douglass at Ford's Theater in DC last Saturday and we were pleased to hear that they included the exchange between Douglass and Lincoln regarding John Brown in which Lincoln, post Emancipation Proclamation, proposes that Douglass lead an expedition that was a dead-ringer for Brown's subterranean passway idea. As Lincoln spoke, I leaned over to Terry and whispered, "He sounds just like John Brown" (whom he had dismissed as a mad man in act 1). Well, lo and behold, the next words out of Douglass's mouth were "Do you know who you sound like?" "No. Who?" "John Brown."–Greg

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Local Legacy:
Pieces of History

While the 84-year-old Litchfield resident may not have led a raid at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., nor was he hanged for treason by the United States government, Neidt and his predecessors spent their lives preserving the memory of a famous Torrington abolitionist who did.

In 2004, Neidt passed that multigenerational legacy to elated officials of the Torrington Historical Society in the form of artifacts that were lovingly preserved by his grandfather Albert Neidt, and father William Neidt.

"My grandfather worked in a mill, but a group of men asked him if he would go work at the John Brown house," Edward Neidt explained. "They said ‘We’ll pay you that same amount you’re making here."

 And Albert Neidt did just that, effectively establishing the Neidt family’s dedication to the man many now call a martyr for the abolition of slavery.

John Brown was born in 1800 on a vast parcel of farmland along what Torrington has named John Brown Road. Following his death in 1859, the Brown homestead became an international attraction and evolved into one of Connecticut’s first museum houses.

Much to the disappointment of the world, the John Brown house was completely destroyed by fire in 1918 - but not before Albert and William Neidt retained a handful of artifacts that were presented Friday to historical society president David Bennett and executive director Mark McEachern.

"I’m 84. My daughters don’t want these things," Neidt said. "I can’t think of a better place for them to go."

Thanks to Neidt, an original guest book cataloging the names and dates of early 20th century visitors to the John Brown site, in addition to hand-forged metal nails and a piece of the homestead’s interior paneling, will forever be preserved in the historical society’s permanent collection.

But the most unique, and perhaps most valuable piece presented by Neidt were blueprints of the John Brown homestead - drafted from memory in 1938 by Neidt’s father, who lived in the house through his early teens.

"These are the only documents in existence that the show the floor plans of the John Brown house," McEachern said. "There are no photos - this is it."

According to McEachern and Bennett, the well-preserved blueprints and accompanying artifacts will remain on the premises of the historical society for use in future exhibits, courtesy of the "Neidt Collection."

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Quote Note
Author Richard Boyer on John Brown

". . .my admiration for the old man grows the more I see and learn of him.  I do not think him a fanatic nor do I see him as a religious nut.  I think of him as representative of the best of his age and time who did a job that needed to be done.  I do not feel in the least patronizing towards the Old Man.  On the contrary he seems to me one of the very greatest of Americans, in some aspects greater even than Washington or Lincoln.  He acted almost alone and a little in advance of the events he helped to forward.  Washington and Lincoln were not alone and advanced on the crest of great popular movements.  And neither acted with such immediacy as Brown and one can't help but admire a man who hits out and acts while everyone is talking."

Source: Richard O. Boyer, Twin Falls, Idaho, to Boyd B. Stutler, Charleston, West Va., August 8, 1955, RP01-0276E-F, Boyd B. Stutler Papers, West Virginia State Archives.