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.